Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Elegantly adapted by writer-director John Sayles from his short story “Keeping Time,” Honeydripper is classic Sayles cinema: an insightful sketch of assorted common folk whose criss-crossing dreams and agendas unfold against larger, more powerful (and sometimes crushing) sociopolitical and cultural forces. Though steeped in race and class consciousness, the film is never dry or preachy; it makes many of its most salient points with the gentlest touch. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is a retired blues musician in the late ’50s American South, struggling to keep his live-music jook-joint afloat in the face of a new spot directly across the road that features a jukebox playing newfangled rock & roll. His wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who works as a maid for a wealthy white family, is in the midst of a crisis of faith that stokes household tensions over how Tyrone earns his living. Meanwhile, a racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) and a landlord who’s trying to sell the Honeydripper Lounge out from under Tyrone seem to strip him of options. Then a young musician with a jerry-rigged electric guitar shows up at Tyrone’s door. Tucked into the plot twists and pushed forward through dialogue that perfectly captures accents and era — some of it lifted from old blues songs — are a host of still-relevant issues: the quotidian racism that buffets the creation, reception and selling of race music; the tensions that arise when new Negro creativity threatens to wipe out past Negro history and culture; the ingenuity big business shows in coming up with new ways to replace slave labor; the economic strife at the root of so much domestic turmoil in poor black families. Sayles unfolds these concerns with grace and lots of humor — it helps that his cast is uniformly good, often excellent — and he doesn’t play things easy with regard to race. A scene between Delilah and her boozy boss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen), in which the white woman tries to bond, inadvertently spilling forth the misery of her life and her obliviousness to Delilah’s, treads familiar territory but peels back clich├ęs to find truths across barriers. Time and again in Honeydripper, situational tension is fractured by Sayles’ universal compassion.

Link here

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sweeney Todd

I loathe show tunes. With a passion. But Tim Burton's unbridled imagination, in giving an expectedly stylish framework to this classic if atypical B'way musical completely, won me over. For the first time in a long time you feel Burton's glee as a filmmaker and stylist. His imagination races through the possibilities of CGI, a hugely talented cast and his own fertile mind (some of the set pieces are just stunning). The performances by Johnny Depp (charismatic and assured), Helena Bonham Carter (droll and very moving) and Sacha Baron Cohen (fucking hilarious) made this an unexpectedly satisfying film-going experience for me. And to my surprise, I found that I recognized quite a few of Stephen Sondheim's songs. For the record, while theater purists will undoubtedly wail and moan at the lack of "proper" singing voices by the leads, I really enjoyed their interpretations, especially Depp's indie-rock approach to the songs. I couldn't see myself ever going back and listening to the soundtrack but for the course of the movie, it worked. Much better than Dreamgirls or Hairspray.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Flashback weekend

These three YouTube clips are audio only. They're songs of my youth that exemplify my favorite kind of dance music: funky, playful, sexy. Effortlessly cool. First up is Howard Johnson's "So Fine," which dominated Detroit radio and basement parties the year it was released (1982). "Throw ya head back (back, back, back) / lean it to the side / hey, fellas, ain't she fine..."

Next is the Alton McClain & Destiny hit "It Must Be Love," an Emotions knock-off filled with its own sparkling charm. As a boy, I hated this when I first heard it. Back then, "biting" was frowned upon. At least by music geeks like myself. Eventually, though, I was won over. This one triggers lots of great memories of the south, my family, dancing in the living room and turning the volume up way too loud for my mother's taste...

Last is "All Night Thang," which I think speaks for itself.


NWA: Straight Outta Compton

When N.W.A dropped Straight Outta Compton 20 years ago, their hood reportage functioned as art from the Negro underbelly always has: pulling back the curtains on the realities, dreams and unyielding nightmares of a subset of this country’s African-derived have-nots. With droll black (as in folks) humor, it made deft (should that be def?) performance of hood truths and ghetto fantasies. That combo struck complicated chords because truth and fantasy were trickily overlapped, blurred. It was vent and vindication for many, but jolting news flash to multitudes who weren’t already in the thick of it: the black middle and upper classes, many of whom lived — and still live — half a paycheck away from brutal niggerdom; white folks and non-Negro minorities clueless as to the realities of modern-day native sons. Its greatest and most unfortunate legacy may be that it folded neatly into a lot of folks’ (including Negroes’) long-standing fetish for dysfunctional niggers. It opened some doors of social dialogue and set the template for countless rap careers, but it also helped pave over other avenues of black expression, stoking a global market for shrunken, restricting notions of “real” or “valid” blackness.

Rest of review is here

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Reporting From Harlem

An early New Year's Eve resolution: I will update my blog more frequently in 2008 than I did in 2007. In the meantime...

The Princeton gig went amazingly well. I met some heroes and heroines; was immersed in some heady Negro intellectual convos (man, Ms. Kara Walker is a sho nuff conversation grenade) and had a great time. The reading at Columbia was sparsely attended but ended up being a lot of fun. I will blog about both in the next day or two. I've been battling a serious cold for the last two days (a major wrench in my plans for New York) and am just now coming out of a lovely Nyquil haze. One thing that is bugging the hell outta me, though, before I sign off, is how almost nobody in major media is connecting the dots in New Orleans' manufactured housing crisis while they all line up to fellate Brad Pitt. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Pitt, coming up off 5 million dollars of his own money, rolling up his sleeves and literally helping build 150 homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. But the fact is, Pitt's news story is also a smokescreen for the reality that HUD is bulldozing four large housing projects that were basically untouched by the hurricane and that housed 4,700 families; the land beneath those housing projects has already been doled out. (Home Depot has a lease for some of it.) And is it mere coincidence that New Orleans finally has an all-white city council? As I and countless folk have said before, this is a shameless land grab that has the great additional perks of wiping out a major fount of black American history and culture, of AMERICAN history and culture, for the creation of yet another tourist resort/playground for the rich, white and entitled as this country spirals ever deeper into its racialized class schism. The race and class metaphors and realities for Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath are layers and layers deep, and will unfold for decades to come.