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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spike Lee

SPIKE LEE: Chinese questions and American answers


1.  Is the racial problem in America still as tense as depicted in the films by Spike Lee?

  Yes.  In fact, we have to speak not of a single problem but of a range of problems.  The most intense problem, of course, is the division and distrust occasioned by the killing of unarmed non-white males and females by police officers and individual citizens. We should anticipate that racial problems will flourish under the leadership of Donald Trump.

2. Which part of America sees the tensest relation between black and white?

 Small and large American cities, areas that have histories of obvious as well as hidden (or underreported) discord between and among ethnic groups.  Discussion of relations between whites and blacks is too simple-minded; it prevents a truly critical understanding of how problematic America's experiment with democracy is in the 21st century.

3.  In the film Do the Right Thing, what do you think is the most significant cause of the tragedy? The hot weather, dirty words, or the racial discrimination?

 The primary cause is a combination of climate, language, and instances of racist behaviors.  Trying to identify a "most significant cause" is a reductive gesture, which fails to deal with the complexity of cause and effect.

4. In the film School Daze, do you think Jane should be responsible for her own tragedy?

  Yes.  Jane is a victim of male aggression and exploitation to be sure, but she is not bereft of the ability to make choices;  she makes a poor choice that leads to disgrace and tragic outcomes.

5. Do you believe America will be able to solve the racial problem in the near future?

 No.  The racial problem is complicated by the always changing demographics of the United States.

6. What exactly is the main purpose of Spike Lee's making so many films about race? 

I suspect the main purpose to expose the multiple facets of the concept of "race" as a national problem.  There are many subtle ways in which American films depict racial issues.  In the films of Spike Lee, we see the depiction and exposure more plainly than in films, especially some science fiction films, that seem not to deal with race as a central topic.

7.  Do you advocate Martin Luther King's belief that violence is not a way to solve discrimination, or Malcolm X's that violence is intelligence when used in self-defense?

 While I believe King's advocating non-violent resistance in the face of social injustice was admirable,  I believe that Malcolm X's championing of self-defense is the better course of action.  We must make choices between non-violence and violence on the basis of individual situations.

8.  What can we do to stop being racist and being discriminated upon when we come to the United States?   

This Chinese question has two unequal, dissimilar parts.  First, I will not presume that Chinese people are racist (until you provide proof that they are) and in need of eradicating their racist behaviors. Second, it is not possible to avoid being discriminated against in some form, whether one is a citizen or a foreign visitor.  The social dynamics of the United States may minimize discrimination against visitors, but our day-to-day politics cannot guarantee the absence of discrimination.

9. In seeing the movie about Malcolm X, I have a question about the authenticity of the Malcolm in the movie and whether it is the "real" representation of the real person Malcolm, especially his conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam. 

There are a few elements of authenticity in the film, but as a totality the film deals much more Malcolm X as an American icon, as a projection of what Spike Lee thought was the way to make a film about an iconic, very controversial person.  Thus, we do not have an absolutely "real" representation.  We have an adjusted representation ( the film) of an adjusted representation (Alex Haley's decisions about how to configure  the life of Malcolm Little/ El Hajj Malik el Shabazz;  Haley's epilogue for the autobiography is crucial.  We need to examine how Malcolm's conflict with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed was first "represented"  in The Autobiography of Malcolm X  (and account for Alex Haley's agency in adjusting Malcolm's autobiographical narrative);  when we view the portrayal of the conflict in Lee's film, we have to recall that distortion is an element of film as a medium and that even minimally edited documentaries will provide us with distortions.  Lee's film is a biopic not a documentary. That fact may frustrate the expectations of some spectators.

10.  And I was confused in seeing the movie Do the Right Thing.  I'm just wondering what is the right thing to do?

 The right thing to do is to continue to ask the question "What is the right thing to do?". This is the most straightforward response I can make to the question, because all decisions about right actions are most often determined by the specifics of a given situation.


School Daze ----Spike Lee exaggerates the internal culture of the HBCU---preoccupation with ritual, preoccupation with "color" distinctions derived from the history of American slavery, sexual negotiations  in order to delineate why HBCUs are special institutions within the dynamic space of American higher education.

Do the Right Thing ---In the Internet ranking constructed by Vulture.Com, this film is judged to be "a triumph of craftsmanship and vision, with both Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson delivering a powerfully atmospheric snapshot of life in late-eighties Bed-Stuy [Brooklyn] at a time of escalating racial tension in the city.  But the film's precise, funny characters and vivid, sweltering look would meant nothing without Lee's wise and ultimately sad vision of multicultural America as a place where good intentions and casual mistrust are as commonplace as the local pizzeria."  Moreover, the film is a decidedly New York vision of what is sad about multicultural America; Lee's films about New Orleans and Chicago give us slightly better visions of how American citizens co-exist.  Indeed, the portrayal  of Chicago in Chi-Raq (2015) illuminates Lee's uncanny ability to represent frustration, but it also reveals Lee's inability to provide social critiques without large doses of comedy.

Malcolm X  ---Vulture. Com ranks this film as Lee's second best. "Over its three-and-a-half-hour running time, Malcolm X tells a great American story of a great American character, and is that rare biopic that allows us not only to get to know and understand our hero, but to watch him change. Challenging, moving, and uncompromising, it also never forgets to be gloriously entertaining…."  When the actor Ossie Davis explained why he eulogized Malcolm X, he proudly asserted "that Malcolm  --- whatever else he was or was not ---- Malcolm was a man!"  I argue that biopics are less good than sustained examinations of a man's words as paths to understanding his place in world history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 15, 2017

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Demons in America

As was the case in 2016, a considerable amount of our  critical reflection  will be influenced by the legacy of Leo Strauss (1899-1973),  by the ideas he proposed regarding political philosophy, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies.  We shall ponder how those ideas were transformed  into domestic and foreign polices during the two terms President Obama served in office and how they may be further twisted, with Machiavellian zeal, as the Trump administration struggles with odd phenomena : dread,  fear, terrorism, and the fallacy of greatness;  the ecology of the ego;  the denial of climate change, the increase of mental health  and drug addiction problems,  the irreversible widening of the gap between wealth and poverty in our nation. We shall weigh the pragmatic  desire to toss faith, hope and charity into a black hole , to use the  white nose to smell out false news, and to cultivate abject disregard for the sanctity of human life.  All that matters in 2017 is one's ability to persuade others that fake lies are true facts.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Note to my cousin in Brazil


I detect meaningful and painful excavation in your reflections.  That is good.  At some point, writers benefit from stepping outside of themselves to discover who they are as a result of where they have been.  Prior to undertaking this exercise in THE KATRINA PAPERS, I had sketched it out in the first stanza of  my poem "The Impossible All These Years"---

Sometime before you hit forty,

You must step outside your bones,

Audit the maze your flesh has made.

And be amazed how much consequence

Morality has planted on your feet,

How much ambivalence is the harvest

Of your legs, how much lost potential

Is barned in your gut, how much

Opportunity has leaked from your pores.

Discovering what baggage you carry is important.  So too is knowing how space and time have shaped your attitudes, your values.  It seems right that you now have a special regard for land, for the rural, for the possession of land, because being attached to the soil is an aspect of our family's history.  Your grandfather's grandparents --Jeff and Bertha--were country people (St. James Parish) before they transformed themselves into urban dwellers (New Orleans).  However remote we are from our ancestors, we still have a bit of cultural memory, and that memory, however imprecise, influences our moral compass and how we write.

There are spiritual advantages in being intimate, as you put it, with land and people.  As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the necessity of having city skills troubles any nostalgia we might have for the rural intimacy we know but have not experienced directly.  We have to be honest about the twilight zone character of our living.  Even in Brazil, I suspect indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon would find the worldview of people who live in Rio to be unnatural and twisted.  Likewise, your living in Brazil gives you a certain luxury to be critical of modern carelessness and excess among African-descended peoples in the USA. Your making peace with that condition of consciousness is an existential responsibility.  It is a long journey. And to  answer your question about the Age of Trump  ----yes, some awakening will occur between now and 2020, but many of us will hasten to sleep again.  Keep excavating.
Your cousin,

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Despite his being a lame duck, President Barack H. Obama did not quack in delivering his farewell address on January 10, 2017.  He is too intelligent to reify a metaphor.  Obama lectured on the centrality of the rule of law in democratic experiments, using nuanced dignity to distinguish the rule absolute from the rule nisi as those concepts are defined in Black's Law Dictionary.

Obama's address wasn't as stellar and memorable as a few delivered by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.  It was competent and sweeping in scope, a vocal correlative of his habitual audacity of hope.  It resonated his faith in his fellow American citizens, the  excessive optimism that is an unfortunate albeit noble flaw in Machiavellian political theory.  The quality of his address should remind us that Obama is a Kenyan American, that his existential identity is rather unlike the identities of African Americans whose history he shares mainly by accident of citizenship and European Americans whose history he shares truly by accident of birth.  Such awareness positions us to use irony in future assessments of his two term service as President of the United States of America and Commander in Chief of our nation's military forces.  Should we fail to factor the ironies of the contemporary world order and its deceptive classifications of everything into our anatomy of his achievements (the good, the bad, and the ugly), we minimize the power of truth-telling. We descend into romantic mythologizing and fail to be precise in describing Obama's old-fashioned  penchant for filling our minds with uncontested terms.

It is fair to say that during the ninety-six months Obama served as our first Kenyan American president, he succeeded in navigating the combat zones of imperial politics with a modicum of grace and honor.  It was indeed gracious of him to quote his mother's saying "Reality has a way of catching up with you." His exit oration provides evidence that reality has caught up with him and his fellow American citizens.  Recognition of reality is a philosophical proposition that involves no metaphysical certainties bids us to be cautious and skeptical in speaking about what our Kenyan American president did and what he failed to do.  It is possible we shall need eight more years of analysis and interpretation to take Obama's measure. We need not rush to reify and valorize  the metaphors we live by. Our minds must not quack.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            January 11, 2017

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Janury 20, 2017

January 20, 2017: Surreal Meditation

January 20, 2017 will be (____________________).  Complete the sentence.  Let the assertion be an example of sound signifying (just)(ice).

Reporters and journalists are working overtime, seeking non-objective words to characterize a maculate birth.  They lack the grace and moral certitude Frederick Douglass had in 1852 when he unpacked the Fourth of July.  Deconstructing the Twentieth of January is a more intense and frantic obligation.  In 1852, the technologies of radio,  television, videotapes, smart phones and Internet-streaming did not exist to distort and broadcast Douglass' oration.  In those days, print was the only means of widely circulating messages of hope or despair, of making ethical documentation from unreliable myth.  We are blessed with progress and other fruits of advanced civilization. And those of us who elect to disregard right-wing civility have multiple options for cussing and cursing.

It is likely that January 20, 2017, following in the wake of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, will be a day of profound reckoning.  The day will forecast the terrorism at the gate.  Some American citizens will  emote, applaud,  and shout jubilees .  Others will howl execrations. Still others will exercise their right to remain silent.  However Americans choose to express themselves, they will inadvertently participate in neo-fascist rituals that are legitimate in a neo-fascist democracy. Noisy or silent, they shall honor the logic of the existential.  A handful of culturally literate journalists and reporters may remind all the signifying monkeys that Douglass' classical oration can be supplemented by the uncanny Britexit  relevance of  Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach."  More than a random, sordid tweet will inscribe January 20, 2017 in the discourses of history.

On this special day of reckoning, we shall witness what issues forth when Fate and Destiny fornicate. The finest witnessing shall take the form of objective analysis of the vexed histories in the Americas since the fifthteenth century B.C.  We ought not depend on mass media to do for us  what we must do for ourselves  in locating and naming the roots and branches of neo-fascist democracy.  It will suffice that we look into our mirrors as soon as we awaken on January 20, 2017 and assess the evidence of our faces.  We are blessed to have faces that symbolize blame with extreme accuracy.  The secular reflection will confirm that we have indeed been "true to our native land."

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 10, 2017

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Tony Kushner


The difficulty of helping a Ph.D. candidate to write a dissertation on Tony Kushner is rooted the endless recycling of drama as metaphor in the cycle of ethnic living.  For how do you explain to a student with any degree of clarity that criticizing Kushner's merits as a Jewish American playwright can't be segregated from ethical criticism of Kushner's wavering status as a political artist?  Eventually, the student might grasp the point about compatible contradictions, but you can't be sure gets the point about what is and what is not implacable.  In the case of Kushner, there is a Jewish ghost problem.  Like the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the ghost of Lillian Hellman escapes from artistic representation in Angels in America ---as the nasty character Roy (Roy M. Cohn 1927-1986) spits out "…Like even a Jew should worry mit a punim like that" (Perestroika, Act 3, Scene 2)---to endlessly make a mad-driving noise: "Adieu, adieu, adieu! remember me" (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5).

Kushner is no Shakespeare, nor does he wish to be.  Indeed, as far as twentieth century American theater is concerned, he fails to be a worthy rival of Hellman, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, or Adrienne Kennedy.  Kushner has good intentions that beg for criticism.  As he said in conversation at Northwestern University, April 12, 1995: "The kind of theater that I do, which is very much in the tradition of psychological narrative realism, may not actually be about moving people to action, or at least it would be an odd ambition for an artist in that tradition to have.  I really believe that this kind of theater works in the way that dreams work….You're going to be left alone, and you can be in this kind of semitrance state with a bunch of other people who will be sharing a vision that you're watching" ("The Theater and the Barricades." Tony Kushner in Conversation. Ed. Robert Vorlicky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. 207).  Give me a break already with the conflation of dream and the psychoanalytic representation of dream vision.

In the current Age of Trump, all of us are actors/characters in the vulgarity of dream and dreaming. And if the language of ethical criticism can't show us an exit because there is no exit (shades of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist drama), many of us might  grow comfortable with desperate moves and grow to love the implacable theatricality of fascism.  Methinks Tony Kushner protests too much about the kind of theater  he does. Angels in America is a relic of the America that has abandoned us or that we have abandoned. And I might help the Ph.D. candidate more in 2017 by urging that he write a dissertation on John O'Neal's Junebug Jabbo Jones cycle of plays (see Don't Start Me to Talking/Plays of Struggle and Liberation/The Selected Plays of John O'Neal. Ed. Theresa Ripley Holden. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2016).  Thus, implacable theatricality can be broken.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            January 7, 2017

Friday, January 6, 2017

Haiku, FRACTAL SONG, and Other Matters


China Haiku

Snow: winter sugar

making fortune delightful

for Beijing mornings.

FRACTAL SONG (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2016)

Hope lives.

This morning during a conversation with 3rd graders at Grandville T. Woods Elementary School in Kenner, LA, I asked the students to name their favorite books.  One student said "FRACTAL SONG."   After a nanosecond of surprise, I asked him to read the poem "He Has Wonderful Eyes" (pp.73-74) for his classmates.  He did. And he read brilliantly. This young genius forced me to believe that hope for a future still exists in the Age of Trump.

Tragic ignorance prevails.

Watching the news this evening, I was jolted by commentary on a crime of abject hatred that two young males and two young females recently committed in Chicago.  Their victim, a target of tragic ignorance just as a few dozen African Americans have been targets since the death of Trayvon Martin, did not deserve to be tortured in Chi-raq.

Art is not sociology nor an inspired description of social pathologies in the United States of America.  Nevertheless, much of the art of Spike Lee draws attention to extreme flaws in the human condition. It is fair to guess that the four young criminals have never watched Lee's Bamboozled.  And if they did, they very  apparently learned nothing.  It is blatantly stupid to video and broadcast one's criminal activities.  To do so is to embrace with alacrity and celebrate the stupid end of a false revolutionary suicide. it is also fair to guess the young criminals did not watch Lee's more recent satire about the city in which they live.

I feel a moral obligation to update remarks I made in 2015 about Lee's  Chi-Raq, because the grains of truth in that film are given daily affirmation in Chicago and other major American cities.  The moral boomerang of the film bludgeons us each day.  it is cowardly to plead that we are innocent and a matter of twisted indulgence to plead that we are guilty.  There is no exit from the twilight zone of the existential.

CHI-RAQ (update 2017)

If Spike Lee were truly as full of  hubris as he might wish American consumers of film to believe he is, he would have asked two Chicago ministers, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to pray to their God  for the success of Chi-Raq the film and for the end of urban violence in the city of Chicago, code name ShyRack.  He did not hesitate to ask Reverend Jackson to pray for the success of  School Daze.  See the caption and ocular proof  in The Films of Spike Lee: Five for Five (New York:  Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1991). 58.. And the film would have been endowed with the blessings  of  liberation theology and spiritual credibility had he also persuaded Reverend Wright to portray Father Corridan in the film. Wright and Jackson would have given historicized Chicago authenticity to his enterprise, but their involvement also would have prevented Lee from creating Chi-Raq as stereotype-reifying, slapstick pornography. The ministers would have forced him and his actors to burn in flames of tragic rather than comic "truth." Spike Lee is infused with chutzpah. And it is telling that neither Jackson nor Wright have grabbed media opportunities, as far as I can determine,  to condemn the prevalence of crime in Chicago/Chi-Raq.

 Lee has been in the cinema game too long to waste his juice or to send Hollywood an ISIS message.  He is not a fool.  Despite his obvious possession of some political consciousness, he is not a radical or an heir of Malcolm X.  Like Aristophanes, he is a trickster of the first water. And like the ancient Greek playwright from whose Lysistrata he borrows theme and surface features, Spike Lee has good entrepreneurial skills.  Satirizing the  amoral/immoral cesspools of society and pious belief in the sanctity of human life (# All Lives Matter) has commercial value in the world of cinema.  Money talks.  It sponsors the confusion of shared values in the United States of  America.  Money  reinforces the documented reluctance of many citizens who inhabit ShyRackish territory to enforce communal values, to break silence.  To be sure, those citizens are not silent about the debilitating effects of entrenched systemic racism, the mental illness which thugs and police people cultivate,  and the production of genocide in the heart of whiteness. They are quite vocal.  On the other hand, those who are most vocal about social injustice are most frequently silenced and disappeared by money, mass media, and such films as Chi-Raq.

 A comedy or comic  film in the United States  that smells of morality or  serious  interrogation of political and social issues is damned from the start.  It is destined to turn no profit, because (1) the conventions of comedy demand exaggeration and (2) Americans are gluttons for trivia, the trinkets  of nonsense.   Abnormality has to be normalized. The comic valorizes  a certain degree of vulgarity.  Comic satire, as Bamboozled  demonstrated, must embody dread, the quality of  conjoined repulsiveness and attraction that can provoke laughter. Should abnormality and dread be the actual norm (the unfortunate case in sectors of American society where ShyRackish   communities exist), satire tends to succeed as entertainment.  It does not move significant numbers of people to adopt progressive, life-valuing behaviors.  Thus, Lee's attempt to transform Greek satiric comedy into American comic satire  delivers  a gender-laden, niggardly  mess of sexist, death-oriented, racist affirmation.

As a filmmaker, Lee is at the top of his game in terms of understanding his audiences as well as the ideological  apparatus of the music, entertainment,  and film industries. He is not, let me hasten to say, obliged to carry all the weight for what film in America has wrought since the advent of Birth of a Nation (1915).    Some of the criminality of  films involves the effort to serve competing desires.  Artists who possess more than the intelligence of a prenatal fetus generally desire to do the right thing.  The industries , on the other hand, desire to maintain power and what Charles W. Mills aptly named the American racial contract.  The ethical dilemma can be addressed, but it can't be resolved.  It is a Forty Acres and Zora Neale Hurston mule no-brainer  to be outraged by the sexism of Chi-Raq, its selling the slogan "No peace. No pussy," its moral treason. This no-brainer is paralleled by the possibility that treason lives with immunity in the Trump Tower.

 Some viewers of the film might be able to cut through all the audiovisual, hip hop anointed shit and hear Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) utter the name Leymah Gbowee and advise Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) to discover why, at least once in African and world history, sisterhood, prayer, and sex did matter and did make a difference.  Out of the chaos of murdering cultural memory in Chicago, of minimizing Iraq's erectile dysfunction,  and of selling the  booty call crack of America's puritanical  Founding Mothers, Spike Lee and company drop on viewers the challenge represented by Leymah Gbowee, Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Tawakkul Karman, the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace. Chi-Raq is not about peace.

 It is not about pussy and guns  and what D. H. Lawrence wrote or did not write about Lady Chatterley's cunt.   It is not about globally abused females and pathetic , demonic males, and innocent dead children and the manifest destiny of ethnic self-hatred to perpetuate genocide. It is not about child soldiers in the darkest hearts of the African continent.  Chi-Raq is about the world's orchestrated  failure to learn what needs to be done from Aristophanes' Lysistrata , from the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, or from Gbowee's book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War (2011).  It would surprise no one should it ever be revealed that Pope Francis prayed for Chi-Raq on December 8,  2015 when he opened the doors of St. Peter's Basilica to mark the advent of a Year of Mercy during which the world can celebrate a Supreme Being's love for those who thrive in sin and are need of  unconditional mercy. It would surprise everyone should Pope Francis put his imprimatur on Giorgio Agamben's The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days (to be published May 2017 by Stanford University Press) and thus use his papal infallibility to back Agamben's argument "that Benedict's [resignation], far from being solely a matter of internal ecclesiastical politics, is exemplary in an age when the question of legitimacy has been virtually left aside in favor of a narrow focus on legality"  (Stanford University Press promotion).

The air we breathe is tragic and ignorant, and there's no reason to doubt we shall continue to prevail in it. We are legal.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            January 6, 2017