Looking Back at Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter

Boxer and activist Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter passed away last month, and thanks to a memorable film, his story will continue to live on.

Carter spent his formative years being raised in Paterson, New Jersey, and getting into his fair share of trouble. He was an up and coming boxer whose life took a turn for the worst when he along with his friend John Artis, were charged with three murders both denied they committed. Both were found guilty. Carter would serve 19 years in prison before being freed in 1985.

14 years later, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s story gained new-found recognition with the release of the film “The Hurricane.” Carter was portrayed brilliantly by Denzel Washington. Here’s the trailer below.

Denzel Washington on Influence

The real story, the universal story, is that we all stand on a pair of shoulders. We are, all of us, the sum of our influences. We’ve all been taken by the hand and led to a better, more purposeful place.

                                                                         – Denzel Washington, A Hand To Guide Me, 2006

He’s Gotta Have It: Spike Lee, Kickstarter and An Emerging New Trend

It seems Kickstarter is quickly becoming the SOS of many a filmmaker in 2013.

A few weeks ago Spike Lee was the latest filmmaker to enter the fray as he announced he was raising money to fund his current project, a vampire themed flick that he so far has been hesitant to go into much detail about. Spike isn’t the first well known member of the film community to make his pitch for funds on Kickstarter, but the latest in what is an interesting trend.

Earlier this year it came out that Kristen Bell had made a pitch on Kickstarter for a Veronica Mars movie. She ended up raising $5 million. What was most interesting to me at least is that the Veronica Mars movie is being backed by Warner Brothers, who are one of the major players in Hollywood. Ultimately this begs the question of why go to a site like Kickstarter for funding if a major studio is going to be backing the project anyway? Zach Braff (from NBC “Scrubs” fame) also took to Kickstarter and raised more than $3 million for his own project.

I’m assuming Spike Lee heard about the success of these two projects and decided that it was time to throw his hat in the ring. Spike Lee is a very decorated director and his work has often made me think about cinema, specifically as it relates to people of color. “Do The Right Thing” is a classic in my book. “School Daze” was informative and “Malcolm X” was not only educational, but illuminating. “He Got Game” and “25th Hour” with Ed Norton, are also among my favorites.

With each passing project, Spike Lee gained more fame, and with it, a larger access to studio funds. That’s not to suggest that the studios are all the sudden welcoming him with open arms, but he’s no longer the outsider he once was when he filmed “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1985. For example, the 2006 thriller “Inside Man,” with Denzel Washington, was backed by Universal Pictures.

So this all brings us back to Spike’s latest film. He has yet to give it a name and when asked what it’s about, he states it involves blood, vampires and lots of naked people. Sounds like either a summertime horror film or a weekend in Vegas gone terribly wrong. What’s troubling though is that not only does he not go into much detail about the film, but he expects people to donate based on his previous work. While I did mention a number of Spike’s films I’m a fan of, I won’t exactly be waving a towel for “She Hate Me” or “Girl 6.”

Yes, Spike is still hustling to get his movies made, but he also has access to far more capital than many of the filmmakers who hitch their financial wagons to Kickstarter do. This is a man with an estimated wealth of nearly $40 million. It also should be noted that Spike has been teaching at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, one of the most prestigious film programs in the country (along with one of the most expensive) since 2002. So I must ask why exactly does a man with his previous film credits, along with teaching at one of the country’s most renown film schools, need my money to finance one of his projects?

I have much respect for Spike Lee. I just think in this instance, he’s reachin’ to ask people to donate to a project they barely know anything about. Yes, he’s agreed to take a person out to sit courtside with him at a Knicks game if they donate $10,000 (which is an interesting case when you realize your donating to a man who can afford to pay for his own courtside seats) and that he has other goodies in store for people who give, depending upon the amount. That’s all well and good, but what happens if this movie is a smashing success? Will any of these people see any of the profits? What about if they have a project and need help with funding? Will Spike lend his name on Kickstarter to help their projects? Granted, this isn’t to attack Spike, but you have to wonder if the studios will begin to ask for producers/directors to raise a certain % of a movie’s budget through crowd-funding before they put their weight behind it. Things to think about…

Nelson George Looks at the Development and Prominent Role Black Characters Play at this Year’s Oscars

In a in-depth and well written article, author and filmmaker Nelson George looks at the significance of black male characters in some of 2012’s most heralded films. George gives a hard look at “Lincoln,” “Flight,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,”and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django,” and the role the men in these movies play and their importance in overarching themes. I definitely suggest sitting down, having a cup of coffee, and taking a look at this NY Times piece.

You can read it here.

                                    Image courtesy of the New York Times

48 Years After His Death, Malcolm’s Legacy Lives On in Media

When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, there are a few names that stand above the rest. Dr. Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks. Jesse Jackson. All very important and influential people. However, it could be said that the legacy of Malcolm X — perhaps not as clean cut as those other Civil Rights icons — is no less important and should not be treated as such. Fortunately for Malcolm, on this day 48 years after his assassination, his legacy is more than just a man known as a fire-and-brimstone orator, but as a man whose rise and conversion later in life was nothing short of remarkable.

In 1992, the biographical film “Malcolm X” was released starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X and directed by Spike Lee. The film portrayed a man far deeper than just the angry dude pointing his finger in most textbooks. In the film we see a young Malcolm terrified as the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross on his lawn at his home in Nebraska. We see Malcolm’s maturation from a young hustler, to an educated prisoner, and eventually into one of the key leaders for the nation of Islam. Along the way we watch Malcolm become transformed with a pilgrimage to Mecca. Finally, there’s the dramatic scene of Malcolm’s death.

Personally, I thought the film was well done. Denzel was of course excellent, and I felt Spike did a good job of showing the audience the different moods and complexities of Malcolm X. Too often it becomes easy to label people –especially historical figures– through the narrow prism of good, bad, or insignificant. “Malcolm X” doesn’t allow for such easy assertions.

It’s worth noting that while filming “Malcolm X” Spike Lee went over the initial budget set by the studio and hence was fighting to secure more money to get the film released. Warner Brothers refused to pony up more cash and that’s when some well known African Americans stepped up and contributed to the project. Micheal Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, and Prince, were just some of the people who contributed to making this movie a reality.

“Malcolm X” was critically acclaimed upon release and opened many people’s eyes (including mine) to who he was and the legacy he left behind. 48 years later after his death, people continue to be educated.

The Use of Media in the Recognition of World AIDS Day

Yesterday, December 1st, was World AIDS Day. Since 1988 World AIDS Day has been recognized as a day to not only remember those who have passed from the disease, but also to acknowledge the more than 30 million people worldwide still fighting with it every day.

The awareness of AIDS by individual people, communities, cities, nations and the global community, has come a long way since AIDS was first diagnosed in 1981. Looking back on media and newspaper articles from the late 80s and early 90s shows just how far we’ve come as a society in accepting people with the disease. That’s not to suggest that everyone thinks like this or that there is no longer a stigma associated with AIDS, but it is no longer as publicly denounced as it once was.

Speaking of the public, it seems more and more organizations and entities are getting involved with recognizing World AIDS day every year. The red ribbons have seemingly become ubiquitous. Starbucks, Apple and even the National Basketball Association, have taken part in recent years in bringing awareness to the day. So too has the film and television industry with commercials and ads promoting the importance of getting tested.

In 1993 two Hollywood films were among the first of their kind to not only delve into this still relatively unknown disease at the time, but also explore the evolving social impacts it was having as well.

“And the Band Played On,” was a made for TV movie that dealt with the early years of AIDS and how doctors and scientists struggled initially to figure out where this disease that was suddenly killing people out of nowhere was coming from. The movie also depicted the battle of who would ultimately claim credit for “discovering” the disease.

Another movie that year was “Philadelphia,” starring two of perhaps the greatest actors of their generation: Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.

Hanks portrays Andrew Beckett, a gay man who was working in a law firm and was on the rise until he contracted AIDS. Beckett was assigned the firm’s most important case, but was removed and subsequently fired once the lesions associated with AIDS began to appear on his face. Beckett hires Joe Miller (Washington) a man who is battling with his own discriminatory attitudes towards homosexuality, but agrees to take on the case anyway. One of the most memorable scenes in “Philadelphia” involves Beckett removing his shirt to show the lesions that led to his firing.

Scenes such as these are not only touching, but moving. It also helps humanize Hanks’ character beyond just a man who lost his job due to AIDS, to a man who must now cope with having to deal with the cold shoulder of people he once considered his friends and co-workers.

Recognition and awareness about HIV/AIDS is only the first step. We have to continue to make sure that the millions who are still suffering from this disease are not forgotten about and are able to get the necessary help and attention that they need. That’s why I applaud AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent for the work that she continues to do in bringing awareness to AIDS and making sure that it remains a part of the national conversation. Stay safe everybody.

A Salute to Black Military Film Roles on This Memorial Day

Today we remember all of those who risked their lives and who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Film has often done an excellent job of telling these various war stories and allowing us to get more of an intimate look at the men and women behind the uniforms.

For black veterans the medium of film has also served as a way of illuminating their stories to the mainstream public at large. Whether it was due to racism or simply just being forgotten about, film has allowed the stories of more (certainly not enough though) veterans of color the opportunity to not only have their stories told, but get the proper due for their heroism.

Here are some films featuring African Americans and their roles in the armed forces and protecting our freedom:

Louis Gosset Jr. “An Officer and A Gentleman” (1982)

Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman “Glory” (1989)

Samuel L. Jackson  “Assualt at West Point” (1994)

“The Tuskegee Airmen” (1995)

Cuba Gooding Jr. “Men of Honor” (2000)

With the exception of “An Officer and A Gentlemen,” all these films are based on true events. Truth be told, I would have known a lot less about these people and their stories if not for their onscreen depictions. In fact, these movies did more than educate. One of them even cleared a name.

The film “Assualt at West Point,” which featured Samuel L. Jackson, was based off the true story of Johnson Chestnut Whittaker, who was the first black man to be accepted into West Point. Whittaker was assaulted by his peers and accused of faking the incident. Whittaker was found guilty and subsequently expelled in 1881. By the time “Assualt at West Point” had aired in 1994, a movement to clear Whittaker’s name was in full effect, and in 1995 then President Clinton presented a posthumous commission to Whittaker’s family.

It is important that we not forget the sacrifices of those who have served in the armed forces have made for us on this day. Not everyone has a movie made about their lives or achievements, but every person who has ever fought for this country certainly deserves the respect and gratitude of all Americans on this Memorial Day.

Is an Oscar Win the Kiss of Death for Black Actors?

I rooted for both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis during last Sunday’s Academy Awards. I’m not one who usually cares for award shows, but this year’s Oscars had the weight of history on its broad shoulders.

See, not only were two black women nominated for Oscars, they were favored to win. Both Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis had received critical acclaim for their portrayals as Minny Jackson and Aibileen Clark in Dreamworks’ “The Help.” The idea of black women playing maids and being awarded for it, is in itself nothing new. You can go as far back as 1940 with the case of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal as (you guessed it) a maid. 72 years later, it seems Hollywood has not come as far as one would expect in acknowledging black women (or women of color for that matter) for roles beyond that of domestics.

An even more troubling development is that an Oscar win hasn’t exactly been a golden ticket to unlocking better roles or more consistent work within Hollywood. This has especially been true for black actors and actresses. Octavia Spencer is just the latest actress of color whom people are wondering what her next step will be. If the past is any precedent, Spencer’s future might be murky at best.

Since winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for her role in “Precious,” Monique has had a canceled late night TV show on BET and nary a film role to speak of. Halle Berry, who won the Best Actress Award for her role in “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, hasn’t sniffed another Oscar since. Her most memorable film since “Monster’s Ball” might be her work as Storm in the X-Men series. The lack of consistent work isn’t just limited to the ladies however. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career basically fell off the edge of the earth after winning for Best Supporting Actor in “Jerry McGuire.” He too has not come close to winning another Oscar.

It hasn’t all been negative though. Since winning an Oscar for Best Actor in 2002 for “Training Day,” Denzel Washington has only garnered more acclaim and recognition for his work. Finding work has not been trouble for Mr. Washington. The problem is Denzel is the exception and not the rule when it comes to black actors in Hollywood. Maybe things will be different this time for Octavia Spencer. Or maybe, after 72 years, we still have to wait yet a little bit longer to the day when an Oscar win by a person of color is no longer a noteworthy thing.