Remembering George Floyd: The Death that Spurred a Movement

To say these have been a rough couple of weeks would be drastically understating matters.

Once again here in America (and also the world) we witnessed the killing of another Black person at the hands of the police. This time, his name was George Floyd and he was handcuffed faced down on the pavement with a knee on his neck, as he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and screamed for his mother. His last moments were captured on video by a bystander via their cellphone and within a day, that video spread around the world. George Floyd sadly joins a list that includes Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, of Black people killed by police or pseudo law enforcement, in just the last few months. However, their deaths have ignited a movement not seen in the United States in more than 50 years.

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Breonna Taylor

Many Americans have come away shocked at what they witnessed when George Floyd was killed. The sad truth is, for Black folks, being killed by police is not a new phenomenon, but rather that these killings are now being captured on cell phone video just adds a new element to the equation. Sadly, we’ve been down this road before just within the last few years.

In 2014 in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner uttered the now infamous phrase “I can’t breathe” while being placed in a choke-hold by an NYPD officer. The officer in that case was acquitted of all wrong doing and was not let go from the police force until 2019.

In 2015 there was the case of Walter Scott in South Carolina whose death might still be the most horrifying act I’ve ever seen on video. Scott can be seen running away from a police officer when the officer squares up and shoots Scott in the back multiple times, killing him. The officer then drops a weapon near Scott’s body to make it look like he acted in self defense. The man who captured the video gave it to Scott’s family and the family waited three days to see if the officer would be charged. When he wasn’t, Scott’s family then handed the tape over to a local newspaper and it was only then upon the video being released, that the officer involved was charged in Walter Scott’s killing.

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Protest in Englewood, NJ on May 30th

While the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and also Sandra Bland, ignited media and protests, we didn’t see nearly the widespread movement we’re seeing today after the George Floyd video. I think what makes this situation unique is due to a confluence of events at play.

For starters, people have seen too many of these videos already and it’s only getting worse as these protests highlight more acts of wrongdoing by the police. In Brooklyn, we saw an NYPD officer violently push a woman to the curb which resulted in her slamming her head against the concrete and needing to briefly be hospitalized. In Minnesota, audiences of CNN literally witnessed one of their reporters being arrested during a live broadcast by the police, and later the police Twitter account lied about the reporter not showing their press credentials. And finally, there was the case in Buffalo, New York, just last week where two officers pushed a 75-year-old man to the ground which resulted in him cracking his skull open on the pavement.

You add those events with a president and administration that seems all to willing to label protesters terrorists, but yet turns a blind eye to the white supremacists and neo-nazis within their own ranks, and people see the hypocrisy right in front of their eyes.

Lastly, this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people in this country, left 40 million unemployed, and had a crushing blow on not just the economy, but the basic livelihood of millions of Americans. Due to stay-at-home orders, most Americans have been stuck in their homes for the last three months and are now itching to get out and protest. And the protests have been as frequent as they’ve been robust.

What’s surprised me this time around is not so much the frequency of the protests, but how widespread and diverse they’ve been. From places like Birmingham, Alabama to Boise, Idaho. From Philadelphia to Phoenix. Oakland, New York, Orlando, and even places in South Dakota and Montana have taken part in the protests. Much credit to the teenagers and young people who have really spearheaded a number of these movements in their cities.

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The overarching question will be where does this all this ultimately lead? Well, we’re already beginning to see the effects the protests are having as Minneapolis pledged to defund the police. Confederate statues are being toppled across the country and even the notoriously buttoned up NFL released a statement last week pledging to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Speaking of large corporations, I’ve also been surprised by the number of brands that have spoken out as well.

This moment truly does feel different. However, the question remains, will this just be another momentary footnote in history on racial justice? Or are people and companies ready to put their collective foot down and do the work for what is sure to be a protracted fight for justice here in America?

When the Curtains Closed for Good: Movie Theaters on the Brink in the Age of Covid-19

A few years ago I went to see a matinee movie for my birthday and was looking at the previews that run before the showing of the film. I was struck by one message in particular. In it, an actor is sitting in a chair starring directly at the camera and says something along the lines of “Thanks for coming out to the theater today to see a film as it’s meant to be seen.” It was clear that this was more than just a subtle shot at the streaming networks, but also an emphasis that nothing could quite match the experience of seeing a film on the big screen. So far in 2020, the streaming platforms are flourishing and the theater industry is on its knees experiencing perhaps its greatest threat in recent memory.

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Teaneck Cinemas in Teaneck, NJ. Winter 2017.

First, a bit of perspective. As rough as a period this has been for movie theaters, it’s been equally hard for the travel/hospitality industry, event shows, and the media industry in general. However, it’s important to remember the human cost in all of this. As of this writing, more than 92,000 people have lost their lives due to the Coronavirus here in the United States and more than a million have been infected. My heart goes out to all those who have been personally affected whether through a loved one or a friend, and not to mention the countless healthcare providers and those essential workers who we too often forget about until we need them.

The Coronavirus didn’t become real for most Americans until mid-March. There’s a line of demarcation after the second week of March when we were all travelling around freely, to within a matter of days, witnessing society shut down in ways none of us had ever been accustomed to. With restaurants and events being canceled left and right, suddenly going to the movies was no longer an option. Films that were going to be released in the ensuing weeks and months like the latest James Bond film, were either pushed back to later in the year, or in the case of the Fast and the Furious, dropped from a 2020 release all together.

Films that decided not to push back their release dates, opted for a new strategy: direct to consumer via the streaming platforms. The film “Trolls World Tour” did this, sparking a direct backlash for the movie theater industry. It’s easy to see the potential snowball effect: studios bypass the traditional theaters in lieu of the streaming platforms, or just have consumers pay for the film upfront, in which they render the theaters obsolete. It’s worth noting however, that for a film to be considered for the Academy Awards, it must be shown in a theater setting, though that rule has been waived this year due to the Coronavirus.

As a filmmaker and someone who enjoys going to movies, these are uncertain times to say the least. The theater model is clearly feeling threatened in ways it hasn’t been before. However, I still believe that there’s no better way to see a film than at the theater. Between the huge screen, surround sound, and darkened environment, it’s very hard for most people to replicate that specific environment in their homes. Also, the communal feel of watching a scary movie together or a comedy, and everyone laughing at the same joke, is an experience unique to theaters. Who knows when we’ll be able to have those experiences again.

The Warriors Still Resonate 40 Years Later

Released in 1979, the film “The Warriors” was an instant cult classic. Centered around a group of teens who makeup a gang by the same name who have to find their way back to Coney Island from the Bronx in the span of one night. Impeding their path are numerous gangs and their followers who believe the Warriors are the culprits in the death of the man who was trying to unite all the New York gangs.

What makes the film “The Warriors” unique was not just the youth of its cast, but the fact that it was based on real events. New York in the 1970s was crumbling and gang culture was seen as an increasing problem. There was a real meeting between various gangs in the early 70s to kind of quell their issues and form a bond. For a more in depth picture of the gangs and their influence in the 1970s, I strongly recommend checking out the documentary film “Rubble Kings” which talks to the real life former members of these groups.

As for the film itself, it was shot on location in New York and it’s quite interesting seeing how the subways looked 40 years ago (they were still decrepit). The film holds up as well though there is one huge flaw in the portrayal of the Warriors gang: they were integrated. This is significant because this was not the case of the real life gangs in New York at this time due in large part to housing segregation. However the studio apparently pushed for this even though it wasn’t a realistic depiction to have black and white teens as members of the same gang within a particular neighborhood. Nevertheless, this is still a quality film.

Still ‘Fresh’ 25 Years Later

 

What’s striking about fresh is that although it centers around a child and features children in many of its scenes, this is very much an adult themed film.

The story is told from the perspective from 12-year-old Fresh who when we meet him is doing the dirty work for two notorious drug lords while also attending school and living in foster care. He tries to look out for his older sister Nichole as best he can, while trying to satisfy the wishes of  his multiple overlords. In the midst of all this, is the strained relationship he has with his father Sam, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Fresh’s father teaches him about chess — and life — and Fresh would later need those lessons in ways he could have never imagined.

I first saw ‘Fresh’ back in 2003 and it was a powerful film to me then and still remains so now years later. Released in 1994, the film really harbors back to a New York City that I vaguely remember as a child and one that has changed quite rapidly in the years since the film’s release. Seeing the old buses, buildings and Manhattan skyline, really helps set the tone for the film.

At first glance, ‘Fresh’ might labeled at a typical ‘hood’ film. While there are definitely inner-city elements and themes at play, the characters and story are nevertheless strong throughout. The viewer is able to see love, loss, capitalism, fear, lust, and justice as critical themes in the film. The fact that these themes play out through the eyes of mostly children makes it even more powerful I would say.

This film is definitely worth the watch.

 

Trippin’

Greg has everything he could ever want in life. A beautiful girlfriend, an aspiring rap career and millions of dollars to boot. Only problem is this life resides firmly in his dreams and his reality couldn’t be further from the truth. He is all the way Trippin’.

Trippin’ stars Deon Richmond as Greg Reed who is a high school senior who can’t seem to get his act together. His two best friends June (Donald Faison) and Fish (Guy Torre) aren’t much better, and the three of them are kind of seen the prototypical high school slackers.

Through the course of the film we see Greg and his friends try and figure out what they’re doing with their lives after graduation, get caught up on the bad side of local drug dealer, and deal with pressures of preparing for their senior proms.

In the midst of all this Greg can’t help but thinking about Cinny Hawkins — the girl of his dreams. Cinny is everything Greg isn’t: motivated, talented, studious, and off to college. Greg can’t seem to quite get his act together to even have a whiff of a chance of taking Cinny to the prom.

Throughout the course of the movie we see Greg has to overcome really his own demons of laziness and daydreaming to not only get his life on track, but get his love life started. Trippin’ has its comedic moments and some genuine ones as well. I wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘good’ movie necessarily, but it’s one I can enjoy and laugh at. It’s also interesting to see some of the actors in this film just really beginning to get their feet wet knowing that bigger things are coming down the road.

Maia Campbell and Deon Richmond

Fighting for Your Work

I saw this snippet earlier today from the Netflix account of the TV show Dear White People where show-runner Yvette Lee Bowser was speaking on how in the film and television industry you really have to hold firm to your beliefs. Or, in this particular case, the characters that you fight for.

Yvette speaks on how when she worked on the hit 90’s television show Living Single, the studio did not want her to include the character Maxine Shaw (who was played brilliantly by Erika Alexander) in the cast. According to the clip, the studio viewed the Maxine character as a little too “unapologetically black.” Yvette viewed this period as a defining moment in her career, but she was determined to keep Maxine Shaw in the show and the studio eventually approved it. The rest is history as they say. Without Maxine, Living Single is a very different show in retrospect.

Though some might view this and say, “well why all the fuss over one character?” The thing is, these aren’t just characters for a lot of people, they’re representations of who we are or who we simply aspire to be. The platform may be scripted, however the inspirational effect television and film can have on the psyche of people who rarely see themselves represented in such mediums, is often quite real. Much respect to Yvette Lee Bowser for pushing through and introducing the world to Maxine Shaw: Attorney at Law.

Remembering John Singleton

Life really comes at you fast sometimes. That’s how I felt when hearing about the passing of John Singleton a few weeks ago. John left behind a legacy that extended far beyond the movie screens where his films resonated.

John Singleton was part of a new wave of black creators in the late 80’s and early 90’s that were really changing how black people were depicted in cinema. This is a man who was nominated for an academy award for best director at just 24-years-old — barely a year removed from film school. This is someone who through various projects worked with such luminaries in entertainment from Tupac, to Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Maya Angelou, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ving Rhames. His films really resonated with a number of black people who up until that point, rarely saw themselves or their stories depicted on the big screen.IMG_20190429_193226.jpg

I first became aware of John Singleton’s work through the 1997 movie Rosewood. Based on a true story, the film depicts the terror that white residents inflicted against their black neighbors in 1920’s Florida when a white woman falsely accused a black man of raping her. Had it not been for this film, I probably would have never even heard of this story. Sadly, what happened in Rosewood, Florida, was not an isolated incident.

As I got a little older I gained a greater appreciation for Singleton’s work. Boyz N’ the Hood was his landmark film that put him on the map. Having grown up in Compton, California, Singleton told a story that was familiar to him. That film had a lot of nuggets in it, including a very prescient speech on the nature of gentrification.

 

Some of Singleton’s other work also left an indelible mark on me. Poetic Justice, Shaft, and Higher Learning (which in light of recent events, is definitely worth another look). Even some of Singleton’s later work that may not have been as well received, such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, nevertheless proved to be vitally important years later. It was that film that introduced audiences to Tyrese and a young and up and coming rapper named Ludacris. Both of these characters would become solid cogs in the series in later iterations throughout the ensuing years.

More recently, Singleton was involved in a series on FX that I rally enjoyed called Snowfall. Snowfall centered on the rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s. It’s one of those shows where the viewer knows more than the characters in terms of how things play out, but it’s still interesting to see how things come together. Sadly, Snowfall would turn out to be John Singleton’s last project. R.I.P. to John Singleton.

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Some of the projects John Singleton directed/produced

 

TV & Theater Strike Back

This past weekend was somewhat of a return to glory for media formats that had seen better days. Between Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame, both projects represented “must see TV/movies” if you wanted to keep with the general chatter of the day. Must-see-anything is becoming rarer and rarer these days specifically as it relates to seeing a show or film right when it first comes out. Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame have proven that singular shows or films can still dominate pop culture in ways that most projects can’t penetrate in our increasingly streaming and fragmented society.

I’ve seen all of 30 minutes of the very first episode of Game of Thrones and subsequently have no idea of what the hell is going on. I do know that this is the last season of the heavily acclaimed HBO series and every Sunday night, my twitter timeline is filled with GOT references. I understand none of these references, but supposedly some woman name Arya is about that action boss.

What’s interesting about Game of Thrones is how it absolutely dominates the topic of conversation on Sunday nights, leading into Monday. It seems like everybody and their mother is watching this show. Brands have picked up on the popularity of it as well and there are even podcasts recapping each episode. Even the current occupant of the White House made reference to the show in the midst of his own litany of problems.

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HBO was non too pleased with this depiction.

Game of Thrones shows that the HBO brand is not only strong, but that HBO can still deliver what some might call ‘appointment TV.’ Essentially, you have to catch it right then and there or you’ll miss out on the broader conversation that everyone else is having. That’s an advantage that HBO still maintains over a competitor like Netflix. Netflix may have more content, but because it doesn’t function in the traditional episodic format, you’ll never have everyone watching a show at the same time. The best you can hope for is that everyone is talking about your show for a week, as was the case earlier this year with the film Bird Box.

With Avengers: Endgame, we knew this would be an event and it did not disappoint earning an opening weekend record of $1.2 billion dollars. Marvel, the company behind the film, has had quite the run beginning with the original Iron Man film in May of 2008.

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The company has built a superhero brand that brings out geeks, die-hards, kids, their parents, and just about everyone in between to these films. This has benefited not only Marvel, but movie theaters as well that find themselves competing not only with streaming services, but anything else that may be vying for consumer’s attention these days. At a time when people are increasingly watching films at home or on their phones,  going to the movie theater involves a certain social and cultural experience that really can’t be replicated in someone’s living room.

Make no mistake, despite Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame, the move to more fragmented media outlets and thus topics of conversation, is only continuing. What these projects do show however, is that you have to be really damn good in 2019 to capture the topic of conversation for days on end. Even then, you’ll maybe get a week at most, before everyone moves on to something else.

 

Wade’s Last Dance Goes Far Beyond the Hardwood

Future NBA hall-of-famer Dwyane Wade retired earlier this month after an illustrious 16 year career. Wade — who will go down as one of the game’s greatest shooting guards ever — left an impact on teammates, opponents, fans and the league as a whole that will be hard to replicate. His legacy however extended far beyond the arena and will be felt long after the last buzzer has sounded.

In an ad released by Budweiser, Wade does a ‘jersey swap’ not with his fellow NBA players, but everyday people whose lives he’s impacted beyond measure. One person in particular offers a glimpse into Wade’s upbringing and what he went through that few would have known beforehand.

This is one of the most moving ads I’ve seen in sometime and shows the power and impact that brands can create when they tell a story from a unique perspective.

Continuing the Journey

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When I graduated college in 2009, I left knowing that my days in the classroom were probably over. I really didn’t intend to go back. Well, 10+ years later, I am indeed headed back to the classroom — this time for film school.

It’s funny, going to film school was something I was rather unsure about until just a few years ago. I had been doing a number of independent projects, but wasn’t gaining the traction I needed to advance my career. Working odd jobs and buffering my skills along the way, had left me wanting more. I longed to be back in an environment of learning. I wanted to build relationships centered on cinema with like-minded peers. I look forward to doing that and more this fall at the Feirstein School of Cinema in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This month also marks 17 years since my mother upgraded from basic cable to digital cable. That led me to see images and films about people who looked like me, that I otherwise would not have been exposed to. That feeling that I experienced all those years ago of wonder and inspiration, never left me. It is only fitting then that I would get my acceptance to film school in March. The journey continues, 17 years strong.