Classic Movie Review: Within Our Gates (1920)


Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company
Summary/Review:

Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.

The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.

While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.

The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.

As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car.  I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery.  Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver.  Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.

Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe.  He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house.  But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.

Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery.  The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered.  The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.

Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read.  But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleSula
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2002 (originally published in 1973)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Morrison’s second novel is another one that I read on my own outside of college classes, and the one I remember the least.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio in the Black neighborhood jokingly known as The Bottom despite being on the hilltops adjacent to the white part of town in the valley.

The main plot of the novel focuses on the friendship of two girls, Nel and Sula, growing up in the 1920s.  Nel is from a stable family with rigid rules while Sula’s mother and grandmother are considered unconventional and loose.  Their close friendship turns on the accidental death of a child they were playing with, something they chose to keep secret.

As they grow up, they go in different directions with Nel settling into a conventional marriage while Sula goes away to college and is rumored to have many sexual affairs.  When Sula returns after a ten year absence, she is decried as the personification of evil, and unites against her, especially when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband.  Nel and Sula do reconcile by the end of the novel.  A framing device set in the present day notes that The Bottom has ceased to exist and the hills have been gentrified for white peoples’ home.

In Sula, Morrison tells a story of a friendship between two Black women, something unusual in fiction up to that point. She creates two fully-developed, nuanced characters in Nel and Sula.  One chooses a conventional life and the other follows her own initiative but neither is judged as being the “good” or “bad” one, at least by the author.  The novel also shows the deleterious effects on a community living in segregation, and the internecine squabbles among Black people between “respectability” and embracing one’s own identity

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 19


Dolly Parton’s America :: Sad Ass Songs

This is a new podcast about possibly America’s most beloved living person, Dolly Parton. The debut podcast focuses on issues ranging from murder ballads to feminism.

99% Invisible :: Unsure Footing

The story of how soccer changed the backpass rule leading immediately to an embarrassing period for goalkeepers, but ultimately to a more exciting game.

Hub History :: Race Over Party

The history of African American politics in Boston in the late 19th century.

This American Life :: We Come From Small Places

The immigrant experience explored through stories from the Labor Day Carnival and the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Kindred
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman.  This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation.  There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner.  Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.

This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape.  But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus.  Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.

Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future.  Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana.  Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.

This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old.  Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Unforgivable Blackness (2005) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “U” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “U” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Unrest.

Title: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Release Date: January 17, 2005
Director: Ken Burns
Production Company: WETA | Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

This is the longest documentary I watched for this year’s A to Z series.  Generally, I would find it difficult to interest myself in nearly 4 hours about boxing, but Jack Johnson’s life is a fascinating story that could fill an entire mini-series. Johnson, a heavyweight boxer in the early 20th century, broke the color barrier as the first black heavyweight boxing champion.  He became America’s first black sports star, and one of the nation’s earliest black celebrities.  His affinity towards finely tailored suits, fast cars, drinking, gambling, and enjoying the company of multiple women (especially white women) also made him a controversial figure at a time when black men were expected to be subservient.

Johnson worked his way up the ranks in heavyweight boxing, defeating black and white opponents until it was clear he was one of the best boxers in the world by the early 1900s.  The heavyweight boxing champions had traditionally set a color line refusing to fight black challengers, and the current champion James Jeffries continued that practice.  Instead, Jeffries simply retired as champion in 1905.  Finally, in 1908, an Australian promoter was able to provide a big enough payday to the new champion Tommy Burns to convince him to fight Johnson.  The fight was a mismatch, and Johnson easily took the title.

Over the next few years, the white boxing community put up several “White Hopes” to challenge Johnson, but Johnson was able to retain the title.  Finally, Jeffries was convinced to come out of retirement to challenge Johnson in 1910 for the “Fight of the Century” in Reno, Nevada.  Johnson once again dominated, and in the wake of the fight race riots broke out in cities across the country.

All of the above is detailed in Part 1 of the movie called “Rise,” while the aftermath of the 1910 title defense begins the “Fall” part of Johnson’s life story, although that’s a somewhat simplistic division.  Like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson would be in the future, Jack Johnson was much more than his fists, but a man with complex interests and interior life.  He played the bass and enjoyed automobile racing.  Born after the abolition of slavery, he never felt the need to behave himself any other way than the way he was, thus displaying his outsized personality.  And – most scandalous for the time – he dated and married white women, at times traveling with a coterie of several women.  When asked why white women were attracted to black men, Johnson mysteriously and poetically responded “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”

In 1912, Johnson’s wife Etta Terry Duryea, her depression accelerated by loneliness and Johnson’s infidelity, committed suicide.  Later the same year, the government used Johnson’s relationships with prostitutes to charge him under the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, a law never intended to target individuals in consensual relationships.  After an all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913, he decided to flee the country while waiting on the appeal and spent several years in exile. Johnson continued to defend his title while abroad, until a 1915 bout against Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba.  Ten years older than his opponent and tired by the intense heat of the outdoor bout, Johnson was knocked out.

Johnson returned to the US in 1920 and surrendered to the authorities, serving a one year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary.  He continued fighting up into the 1940s, although generally in exhibition matches, in order to make money.  Johnson offered his assistance to Joe Louis when the latter was contending for the heavyweight champion in the 1930s, but was disappointed when Louis and his manager rebuffed him.  Johnson’s flashy lifestyle made him persona non grata as Louis was trying to portray himself as a “respectable” black athlete. Jack Johnson, a man who lived a fast life, tragically died in a car crash in 1946.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This movie is an entry into race relations in early 20th century United States history. It’s amazing that someone like Jack Johnson could’ve existed at that time considering the virulent racism, strict segregation, and risk of lynching.  Johnson certainly suffered a lot from a racist system, but it is amazing that he suceeded as much as he did, and did it with a smile.  That he was hated by white Americans was not a surprise, but the fact that black Americans also condemned him for his personal life as much as they did was unexpected.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Another one of my favorite documentaries is also about boxing.  When We Were Kings is the story of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s championship bout in Zaire in 1974 and uses boxing as an entry into bigger issues of race, colonialism, and celebrity.  Last year, I watched No-No: A Dockumnetary about Major League Baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, a pioneering black athlete similar to Jack Johnson in that he did not hide his personality and was criticized and condemned for it.

Source: Amazon Prime

Rating: ****


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Q” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Q” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleQuest: A Portrait of an American Family
Release Date: 2017
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Production Company: First Run Features
Summary/Review:

Quest is an intimate, vertite-style documentary focusing on several years in the life of the Rainey family of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The movie covers the years 2008 to 2016, although most of the film’s action is from 2012 to 2016.

Christopher Rainey, aka Quest, is a music producer and engineer, who supplements his income with side jobs like delivering newspaper circulars. Quest’s flair at tossing newspapers onto stoops in the early morning darkness is one of the great cinematic images of the film.  Christine’a Rainey, aka Ma Quest, works long hours in a shelter for domestic violence survivors and is generally regarded as a mother figure in her community, whether she wants to be or not. Christine’a’s interviews provide some of the film’s greatest moments of introspection.  Their daughter Patricia, or PJ, is a teenager with a talent for basketball who is seen seeking out her identity.  Christine’a’s oldest son Will, is 21-years-old and simultaneously being treated for a brain tumor and becoming a father for the first time.  We see the absolutely adorable Isaiah grow from baby to toddler, and generally steal the scene when his father or grandmother are trying to give an interview.  One other figure figure in the film is Price, a talented rapper who Quest records, but also has substance abuse problems that test Quest’s patience.

The film shows many everyday moments in the family’s lives such as Quest walking PJ to the bus stop or repairing a leaky roof.  It’s clear that the Raineys are an important family in their community. Quest holds open freestyle sessions in his basement studio every Friday night where neighborhood rappers gather.  They also organize neighborhood events ranging from street parties to anti-violence demonstrations. Remarkably, the Raineys are open to even have the most traumatic event in their family life documented (HUGE SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH).  On a greater scale, the film represents a slice of life for African Americans during the Obama presidency, as the movie is bookended by the 2008 and 2016 elections.

Obama is heard speaking in part of the film as he talks about the Newtown Massacre and the greater scourge of gun violence in the United States. “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods. These children are our children,” he says.  This is immediately followed by the shocking incident of PJ being hit in the head by a stray bullet from a gun fight in the neighborhood. Blessedly, PJ recovers from the bullet wound although she permanently loses an eye.  The scenes of PJ attempting to put in her prosthetic eye and coming to terms with feeling safe in her own neighborhood.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Quest captures the beauty and love of family and community in North Philly, tempered with the constant threat of violence. The police officer who responded to PJ’s gunshot is warmly thanked, but nonetheless the police are also seen holding Quest for questioning since he meets the description of a black man who commited a crime.  Quest laughs at the meaningless of the description of a black man in a white t-shirt and jeans since it can describe just about every man in the neighborhood.  Late in the film Quest and Christine’a watch Donald Trump describe African-Americans as living in hell, and Christine’a angrily responding “You have no idea how we live!” It’s easy to recognize Trump as being willfully ignorant of the lives of African-Americans, but I believe a lot of well-meaning white Americans also have no idea how they live.  Quest is an entry point to beginning to learn.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Earlier in this A-to-Z, I watched High School, which was set in Philadelphia 50 years before Quest and is in interesting comparison of the same city at a different time.

Source: Kanopy

Rating: *****


019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
:
Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2