Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Boardwalk Empire, Season Four, Episode 3, "Acres of Diamonds"

In “Acres of Diamonds,” the connection between the fictional Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and the real-life Marcus Garvey became even more explicit as “Boardwalk Empire” depicts the emergence of the “New Negro” of the 1920s.  Expressing a philosophy similar to Garvey, Narcisse is clearly a member of his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose membership peaked during the first half of the decade.
Before World War I, African Americans remained divided between two approaches to the problem of racism in the United States.  In 1895, facing the rising tide of segregation and disenfranchisement in the post-Reconstruction South, Booker T. Washington spoke of accommodation to these new conditions in a speech at the Atlanta Exposition.  Espousing what became known as the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington accepted the loss of African American political rights and suggested that blacks focus on economic development through vocational training.  After this speech, Booker T. became the leading the figure in black America until his death in 1915, as money from Northern philanthropists flowed through his schools and institutions.
Not everyone shared Washington’s views.  Led by W.E. B. Du Bois, some African Americans believed that you could not achieve economic progress without political rights and that they should not abandon the quest for legal equality.  Du Bois advocated for blacks to attain higher education and to fight Jim Crow through the courts.  Along with an interracial group of blacks and whites, he formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
As American involvement World War I began in 1917, some questioned whether African Americans should fight in President Woodrow Wilson’s war  “to make the world safe for democracy” when they did not have equal rights at home.  Du Bois urged blacks to serve, saying that participation would give blacks a greater claim on rights once the U.S. defeated the Central Powers.  Indeed, thousands of blacks served in segregated units during the year-and-a-half the U.S. fought in the conflict.
Upon returning to the United States following the November 1918 armistice, blacks faced a new wave of attacks.  Fearful that black veterans would seek equality after their service abroad, white Southerners engaged in a violent campaign to maintain the status quo as 76 blacks were lynched in 1919.  That same year, a major race riot broke out in Chicago after a black boy drowned because angry whites had pelted him with bricks when he drifted to the white section of the beach.
Feeling that the promises of the war had been broken, a more militant black community emerged in its aftermath.  Dr. Narcisse’s mentions the “New Negro” as he talks to a group in Harlem early in the episode, a term which reflected more activist mood of African Americans during the 1920s.  Emerging in Northern cities whose black population had been augmented by the African American migration during the war and throughout the following decade, the “New Negro” philosophy merged Washington’s and Du Bois’s views. 
Prominently featured on Narcisse’s wall is a poster for Garvey’s UNIA, which represented the most dramatic manifestation of the “New Negro.”  While the fictional Narcisse arrived from Trinidad, Garvey came to Harlem from Jamaica and began to espouse a form of black nationalism and black separatism that appealed to many working-class blacks in the North.  He preached black self-help, started a shipping company called the Black Star Line, and urged African Americans to return to Africa.
Garvey, however, faced serious difficulties.  His authoritarian leadership of UNIA alienated allies, as did his meeting the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.  Having caught the attention of the young J. Edgar Hoover, the federal government aggressively pursued Garvey for mail fraud.  After his conviction, he served two years in prison and was then pardoned by President Coolidge in 1927 and deported.  Does Narcisse face a similar fate?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Homeland," Season Two

Season two of “Homeland” continues the program’s arc after the show’s excellent opening set of episodes.  In season two, the CIA recalls the seemingly discredited Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) back to service to deal with potential retaliatory strikes on the U.S. after an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Many have described “Homeland” as the “anti-24” and the contrast can be seen in the interrogation scenes in the two shows.  In season one, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), eventually draws information out of a suspect after earning her confidence during a cross-country car trip, rather than torturing her a la Jack Bauer.  Similarly, in season two, Carrie finally gets American marine turned terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) to confess by identifying with his post-traumatic stress.  Many criticized “24” during its run for oversimplifying the interrogation process and “Homeland” is much more in line with techniques that intelligence professionals say usually work, as torture often produces unreliable information.  This evolution is another manifestation of how the nation has moved away from the tactics of the early years of the Bush war on terror.
Though the Islamic terrorist threat is the primary focus, “Homeland” also clearly shows the influence of 1970s thrillers that portray the government and its intelligent agencies as a danger as well.  After Brody moves to assist the CIA to hunt down the Bin Laden-like Abu Nazir, the Company makes plans to eliminate him after his work is done.   This subplot consumes a good portion of the final episodes, along with the terrorist threat
Of course, the show does take some entertaining—but absurd—“24” like twists.  In season one, it is clear that the neoconservative Vice President Walden is a stand-in for Dick Cheney and the connection becomes even clearer this season when it turns out he has a pacemaker for his heart problem.  In a bizarre series of evens, Nazir programs the pacemaker to give Walden a heart attack and kill him in revenge for the drone strike that killed his son (Walden ordered the attack as CIA director).
“Homeland” also portrays the war on terror’s impact on the home front.  Brody’s PTSD has left him unable to deal with his wife and family and he goes to the length of giving his best friend, Mike, permission to resume the relationship he had with his wife while Brody was presumed dead in Iraq.  Brody believes the war and his captivity has permanently changed him, just as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have altered many real-life vets.
As season two concludes, it takes a dramatic twist when the late Nazir’s network attacks the CIA and make it look like it was the work of the now reformed Brody.  Having started a romantic relationship, Carrie helps Brody escape the country.  Away from Langley at the time of the attack, it appears Saul will become CIA director and Carrie will serve at his side with Brody’s role in exonerating himself unclear.  With the Abu Nazir plotline concluded, “Homeland,” like other serialized shows, has revamped key parts of its premise and it will be interesting to see where the program goes from here.  I might have to get Showtime because I don’t think I can wait a full year to find out.

Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 2, "Resignation"

More elements of the Roaring Twenties emerged in “Resignation,” episode two of Boardwalk Empire’s fourth season, First, Van Alden/Mueller’s wife buys a new couch and other household goods for their home, but the puritanical Van Alden/Mueller bemoans that they can’t afford it on his salary.  She notes that they can pay for it over several months rather than all at once.  Indeed, the 1920s witnessed a dramatic rise in installment purchases, as more and more Americans could afford the consumer products of the “New Era” by using credit.  By 1926, customers made 15 percent of all purchases through installment.
In the season premiere, a black ally of Chalky White is trapped into a bizarre “they like to watch” scheme with a white husband and wife.  Angered, he murders the husband and in “Resignation,” the woman claims she was raped and seeks the help of her late husband’s employer, Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a West Indian immigrant who is a major player in New York.  Such rape allegations often led to the lynching of black men in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the peak period of racial violence in American history.  Narcisse notes that her charge will have credibility, given that a woman of the “Nordic tribe” made the allegation, reflecting the scientific racial categories of the 1920s.  After using the allegation to extract a share of Chalky’s profits, Narcisse has her killed, clearly angered by the woman’s desire for vengeance for a clearly false allegation.  Chalky refers to Narcisse as a “Jamaican,” and though Narcisse says he is from Trinidad, it should be noted that Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant himself, and his black nationalist group, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were at their peak during this period.  Narcisse tells Chalky about their common roots going back to Africa, a seeming reference to Garvey’s focus on pride in African culture.
Toward the end of the episode, J. Edgar Hoover appears in the early stages of his role of head of the FBI (then Bureau of Investigation).  At this time, he was just beginning what would be a central role in the next half-century of American history.  In “Resignation,” he exposes a corrupt Treasury department official, who responds that Hoover is out of his jurisdiction and that “I’m not some Bolshevik under the bed,” likely referring to J. Edgar’s role in the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids against the American Communist Party during the First Red Scare.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 1, "New York Sour"

“Boardwalk Empire” returned this week as the Roaring Twenties and the concomitant battle over Prohibition continued.  The first episode of season four explores a few of the important issues of that decade as the program moves into 1924.
Eli Thompson’s wife is worried that her college-attending son is smoking while at school.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, smoking was concentrated among working-class people and the poor and was seen as uncouth among middle and upper middle class people.  As the Victorian values of that era lost their power during the 1920s, the stigma on smoking faded and it slowly became a respectable behavior.
Meanwhile, a new character played by Ron Livingstone, has arrived to bring the Piggly Wiggly chain to Atlantic City.  At the time, chain stores were expanding across the country and putting economic pressure on local mom and pop stores.  Such problems existed long before the arrival of Wal-Mart.
At the conclusion of the episode, Nucky Thompson is examining real estate papers about property in Manatee County on the Florida Gulf Coast.  The 1920s witnessed a dramatic rise in interest in real estate in the Sunshine State as a bubble in land prices eventually burst at the end of the decade.  Could Nucky be headed for some poor financial investments?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Lee Daniels' "The Butler"

I modestly recommend “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” which offers the most thorough feature film depiction of the civil rights movement to date.  Though it often oversimplifies the period, it exposes the audience to an important set of events that many Americans are unaware of as we continue to honor the 50th anniversary of the era, with the celebration of the March on Washington coming at the end of the month.
The film revolves around the life of Cecil Gaines, played by Forrest Whitaker, who eventually works as a butler in the White House for three decades.  His story begins in Georgia in 1926, where he and his family live on a cotton plantation.  At the opening of the film, a planter rapes his mother and his father is killed after offering minor protest.  Of course, blacks had no recourse to such violence at that time in the Jim Crow South. After several years working inside the house at the plantation, Cecil joins millions of other black Americans in the Great Migration to the North and gets a job a working at a luxury hotel in Washington D.C.
Hired by the White House in 1957, Cecil watches President Eisenhower agonize over the crisis in Little Rock, AK, where Governor Orval Faubus is preventing the court-ordered integration of Central High School.  The film accurately shows Ike’s desire for the South to have more time to implement the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, but also how he is forced to send federal troops to enforce the order when Faubus allows a climate of anarchy of prevail in the city.  The film is sympathetic to Eisenhower and does not show his refusal to urge citizens to obey the Brown decision, which many historians believe offered sustenance to the South’s campaign of “massive resistance.”
The movie’s central theme is the generational tension between Cecil and his son Lewis.  Like many of his era, Cecil is reluctant to openly challenge the system because of the memory of the racial violence he saw in the South (in addition to his father’s death, he witnessed a lynching as a teenager).  Having escaped the worst of the Jim Crow South, he is content with his life as the movement picks up speed after the Brown decision. Representing the more militant post-World War II generation, Lewis wants to challenge the status quo.
Lewis attends Fisk University in Tennessee, one of the leading historically black colleges that educated blacks during the era of segregation.  While in school, he goes to James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence and becomes part of the student sit-in campaign in Nashville in 1960, which eventually resulted in the desegregation of public facilities in the city.  He becomes part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the fictional character becomes the Forrest Gump of the movement, appearing at all of the key events of the time, including the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Birmingham campaign of 1963, and the Selma campaign of 1965.
At the same time, Cecil watches JFK and LBJ deal with the movement from Washington. “The Butler” shows—albeit in Hollywood fashion—how the activists moved Kennedy to propose the most far-reaching civil rights bill in history after the Birmingham police unleashed fire hoses and dogs on protesters in the city.  Following the assassination, LBJ pushes the final bill through Congress and then proposes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after Alabama state troopers violently beat activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.  Through his lens, the movie portrays the movement as a grass-roots phenomenon that involved more than the incredibly important efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout all of this, Cecil disapproves of Lewis’ behavior because he breaks the law though his civil disobedience and because he fears for his son’s life.  Indeed, many black Americans, even leaders of the NAACP, did not support the street protest tactics of the students because they felt were too dangerous and that change should come through the courts and legislation.
Like some SNCC activists such as Stokley Carmichael, Lewis and his girlfriend become disenchanted with the non-violent strategy of Dr. King during the mid-to-late 1960s, moving closer to Malcolm X’s advocacy of self-defense.  They join the Black Panthers, although Lewis becomes disenchanted with the group and leaves.  At the same time, Cecil hears President Nixon and his advisers plot the group’s destruction, with references to J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO campaign that undermined the Panthers.
Lewis and Cecil continue to be estranged throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even as Lewis enters politics and is elected to Congress.  Cecil continues to work into the Reagan years where he sees the president veto sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa (Congress overrode the veto).  Shortly thereafter, father and son reconcile and are arrested together at a protest outside the South African embassy.  Such efforts were common in the 1980s as many movement veterans saw the anti-apartheid struggle as an extension of their fight during the 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, the film concludes with Gaines living to see the election of Barack Obama, though his wife, played by Oprah Winfrey, passes away beforehand.  The move concludes with Cecil going to a meeting with Obama in the White House (though we do not see him)
The film oversimplifies aspects of the movement, though in fairness it is a feature film and not a documentary.  Moreover, it bizarrely casts very famous actors as presidents: Robin Williams as Ike, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan.  It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought of the actor least likely to play the role and cast them!  Still, they were following the path laid by the television miniseries “Roots” 35 years ago; if you have a black-themed project, use prominent white actors in supporting roles.
Indeed, the most important thing about “The Butler” is that it is a film about African-American issues with black characters in the lead.  Most films about such issues, whether unbelievably inaccurate (“Mississippi Burning”) or relatively accurate (“Lincoln”) usually feature whites as protagonists.  In “The Butler,” the white characters are clearly in background. For this reason and for its depiction of the seminal events of the civil rights era, it is a worthwhile movie.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Breaking Bad"

I watched every episode of “Breaking Bad” this summer (I know I’m behind the curve) and have a few reflections about the show as the second half of the final season begins on Sunday night.  First, I see a strong undercurrent of class tensions, perhaps reflecting the growing income inequality in the US in recent years as well as the impact of the Great Recession.  Moreover, even though the show focuses on the “war on drugs,” the impact of the post-9/11 conflicts is clearly visible on the characters.

As a highly educated man with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Walter White represents an idiosyncratic symbol for the economic struggles of many working and middle class Americans in recent years.  His education should make him a highly paid professional, but his personal disputes with his grad school colleagues left him out of an enormously successful business, Gray and White.  As a high school teacher, Walt struggles to support his family and once he is diagnosed with lung cancer, his HMO won’t pay for the best health care.  Wearing his sense of resentment on his sleeve, Walt refuses the financial assistance of his rich friends and even blows up the car of an arrogant wealthy man in season one.

The Iraq war’s influence could be seen when White’s DEA brother-in-law Hank is nearly killed by an IED while working near the Mexican border.  Such devices were the weapons of choice for the insurgents in their fight against American troops.  The combination of that trauma as well as Hank’s shooting of a drug dealer in self-defense leaves him with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, like many who have served abroad in America’s wars over the last decade.

As we head into the final episodes, it will be interesting to see how executive producer Vince Gilligan concludes the show.  I predict a very unambiguous ending—i.e., the antithesis of “The Sopranos” or “Lost.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"Man of Steel"

I recommend “Man of Steel,” which offers a darker take on the Superman story than audiences have seen in the past.  Combining traditional elements of the mythology with the more serious tone of post-9/11 comic book films, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan have banished the memory of Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” (2006), reinvigorating the franchise.

Like the original “Superman” (1978), the film begins with the depiction of Kal-El’s leaving Krypton as an infant.  With the planet crumbling, Jor-El, played well by Russell Crowe, puts his only son on a ship to Earth.  After Kal’s departure, the evil General Zod (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Michael Shannon) kills Jor-El and declares that he will find his son.

Jor-El’s act of sending his son away to save him echoes the story of Moses from the Old Testament and Kal-El means “vessel of G-D” in Hebrew (Tye, 65-66). As I noted in my previous post on Superman, two Jewish American teenagers from Cleveland created the character during the 1930s and the influence of their religion and immigrant experience pervades the tale.  The destruction of Krypton can be seen as a metaphor for the Russian pogroms that forced Jews to leave Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or for Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Once on Earth, the Middle American Kent family adopts and raises Kal-El as Clark Kent and he tries to assimilate into humanity, but is not truly one of them, an experience shared by many immigrants who came to the United States.  Indeed, Kal El’s biological mother fears humans will see him as an “outcast” and a “freak.”  For more about Superman’s history, see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/supermans-history.html

Like “Batman Begins” (2005) and “Amazing Spider Man” (2012), “Man of Steel" is a much more cynical examination of its protagonist than previous incarnations.  Gone is the whimsy and humor of the Christopher Reeve films of the 1970s and 1980s, replaced by humanity’s fear of the alien other.  In the beginning of the movie, Clark Kent is working a series of odd jobs, quietly helping people on the way and then quickly moving on, much like David Banner in the “Incredible Hulk” TV show.  In a series of flashbacks, we see his adolescent struggles with his powers, which are far more traumatic than those experienced by Tom Welling’s Clark on TV’s “Smallville” (2001-2011).

As I’ve noted before, most film franchises have become more serious since 9/11 and one of the problems with “Superman Returns” was that is so consciously echoed the sensibility of the original films.  Not so with “Man of Steel.”  Indeed, the climactic action scenes eerily echo 9/11 as we see people fleeing dust and falling buildings. The contrast between Henry Cavill’s Superman and Christopher Reeve’s from the late 70s/early 80s is almost as stark as the difference between Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Roger Moore’s from the late 70s/early 80s.  For more, see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/post-911-popular-culture.html>

Overall, I very much enjoyed the film, though Snyder could have cut one major action sequence to make the story tighter.  At the end, Clark begins his traditional job at the Daily Planet, providing a nice conclusion to the movie and giving us hope that newspapers will still exist when the sequel debuts.

Larry Tye, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, (New York, 2012)