“Chi-Raq” is, without a doubt, the film I discussed the most outside of class. From deep conversations with classmates to rants with anyone who would listen, I spent so much time
complaining talking about this movie. However, I never got around to blogging about it because I honestly didn’t think it was worth my time. This review accurately sums up almost all of my initial thoughts. However, with a few weeks of reflection, I’ve decided to attempt to formulate my rant in a productive way that seeks to explore and understand the real work of “Chi-Raq”.
Scrolling through Spike Lee’s IMDb page in our last class reminded me of a thought I had at the beginning of the semester, one that we never had the opportunity to discuss. Lee has an incredible 65 credits as a director, but also an impressive 18 as an actor. The majority of these appearances come within Lee’s own films. Serving this dual role started off as merely an interesting observation and something I struggled to make a solid claim about. However, after our discussion regarding representation, I started to piece together the foundations of an argument regarding Lee’s presence in his own films.
The burden of representation is heightened with Lee’s role as both director and actor. Not only must he create a story that will accurately portray his message, but he also must enact this message through his character. Lee’s opportunity to transmit his message is increased, but he also risks skewing it through his presence within the film. It’s interesting to track which films Lee appears in. Out of the films we’ve watched this semester, he typically appears in films that fall within his comfort zone – like films based in New York or semi-autobiographical films. The avoidance of acting in films outside of his neighborhood like Chi-Raq or subject matters he might not have as much experience in is striking. It could boil down to question of his business model, which we explored in class, but it also might relate to representation. Lee already faces problems of representation by virtue of being viewed as a “black film maker”, but including himself on screen within these films also poses other questions. Venturing out of comfort zone might cause him to be accused of invading places he doesn’t belong, but there’s also a heightened sense of responsibility inherent in acting out his own story.
In thinking about these ideas I attempted to find some scholarship discussing Lee’s presence as an actor, but struggled to find anything substantial. One piece briefly discussed Lee’s acting, but focused on Lee’s role as a director. The language of the piece presents these two elements almost as if he was two different people. His role as an actor solely serves to further his message as director. This is of course the nature of an actor-director relationship, but thinking about one single person serving themselves is a particularly interesting dynamic. I’m still piecing together my thoughts regarding Lee’s presence in his own films, so please feel free to share any work you find regarding this, and of course your own thoughts!
It’s fitting that we discussed Soledad O’Brien’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina in class on World Press Freedom Day (Tuesday, May 3, 2016). O’Brien’s coverage of the horrific events during and following Katrina proved to be one of the most refreshing aspects of the documentary. Her commitment to holding officials accountable and gaining justice for victims of the hurricane was incredibly remarkable, and for me, someone heavily involved in and interested in journalism, made her one of my favorite people in the documentary.
That’s why it was troubling to hear today about the halt her coverage put on her career. As the article above shows, rights of journalists are becoming increasingly restricted. While Soledad’s work was done over 10 years ago, the downward trend of rights for journalists has sadly continued. The article shows how surveillance of journalists and control of media has reached terrifying extremes, with many countries seeing declines in press freedom. The article also delves deeper into other issues journalists face, such as increased exposure to sexual violence.
Thinking particularly about O’Brien’s work, it’s upsetting that a responsible, upstanding journalist would be punished for the work she carried out. Speaking out against injustice and giving voices to true victims jeopardized her career trajectory. O’Brien still stands by her work today, being interviewed last year and speaking about how important her coverage of Katrina was to her.
“Personally it made me realize what the actual roots of what reporting was. I felt like we were really providing a service for the people of New Orleans, for the people in the rest of the country, for CNN globally. I felt like this is exactly what reporters are supposed to be. You’re supposed to be grilling people, pushing them, holding people accountable, connecting families that are lost,” O’Brien said. “It helped me realize that reporting can be all of those things. Did I help humanity, if even for a moment.”
O’Brien’s notions of journalism are something we should expect of all of our media correspondents. “When the Levees Broke” highlighted the role the media played in relaying the story, whether it be the noble work of demanding information from authorities or by spreading unconfirmed rumors. Media plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative surrounding events such as this and ultimately shaping the historical memory of them. Committed journalists like O’Brien are so critical to the national narrative and restricting their ability to do this important work is incredibly dangerous.
Last week, Frost library was home to the Sing Our Rivers Red earring exhibit and accompanying events that aimed to shed light on the typically silenced narrative of murdered and missing indigenous women across North America. Additionally, the spoken word event intended to make space for voices of people of color, LGBT+ people and allies. The event ended up being particularly well timed, as news of eleven women from Attawapiskat attempting suicide broke early last week. The Sing Our Rivers Red and Rise Up! events were so successful because they disrupted traditionally colonized spaces on our campus.
The placement and timing of these events were crucial to their effectiveness. The healing fire (which allowed victims and allies to come together and make offerings in the form of letters or notes) took place right on the freshman quad, a central point on campus. The earring exhibit found a home on the first floor of Frost Library, allowing all passerby to bear witness to the emotionally challenging exhibit. The spoken word event also directly gave voice to those who are traditionally silenced. The passionate poems and songs performed rang throughout Frost Library. Echoes of the words being shared could be heard from floors up and down from where the actual event took place. I found the event to be so successful because it disrupted and challenged the traditionally white,structured space of Frost and transformed it into a space for these voices to be uplifted. It’s clear that this concept hearkens back to the work of Amherst Uprising: breaking down a structure to make space for those who are typically pushed out of it.
Also of note was the great community effort that this event became. Not only did various organizations at the college come together to help the event come to fruition, but community members from the surrounding area also joined in to show their support and aid in the efforts. The event was intended to be for the community, and one of active participation, making collaboration a crucial element. It was great to see this interactive nature and the way the community responded. The events reinforced how imperative it is to keep these conversations going and to continue to create spaces for voices that are traditionally suppressed.
As I mentioned in class last Tuesday, I think Chimamanda Adichie’s TEDtalk “The Danger of a Single Story” is crucial to consider in the context of our discussion regarding the benefits and setbacks of portraying sole figures as the faces of larger movements. I could be biased because of my intense love for Adichie, but I think her talk amazingly poses some of the potential problems related to allowing a single narrative to stand in for the narrative of many.
I find Adichie’s comments regarding stereotypes particularly pertinent to our questions about Lee’s “Malcolm X”. She notes that stereotypes might have some validity to them, but by letting these stereotypes stand in as the single story we are doing incredible injustice to the people being portrayed. Adichie’s talk explores various stereotypes she’s encountered throughout her life and how the nature of the single story merely reinforces these stereotypes.
In the context of “Malcolm X”, though, I think the film works to combat the nature of a single story that becomes so prevalent with figures such as Malcolm. As we noted, most of us are exposed to a very one sided story that portrays him as a militant radical. We are indoctrinated with the standard Malcolm X vs. MLK narrative and forced to view the former as violent and the latter as a crusader for peace and non-violent protest. Lee’s film (in addition to the biographies/autobiographies we discussed) helps to break this single sided image of Malcolm. Viewers are exposed to other elements of his life as they are portrayed on the screen and gain the access and insight that Adichie stresses. Lee combats the single story of Malcolm X with the film and shows us the different events that led up to a multifaceted Malcolm.
So, in the context of the need for a leader to be the face of a moment, I think it’s crucial to maintain a spectrum of voices as means to ensure that the movement is accurately represented. By allowing all voices to be heard, a movement gains momentum and truly becomes revolutionary.
Professor Parham’s elucidation of the differences between melancholia and mourning during class on Tuesday brought me back to a Crooklyn character I was still struggling to understand. We’ve briefly touched on the role of the messy downstairs neighbor, Tony, throughout the film, but his overlooked return in the final scene points to his importance.
Tony’s appearances are sporadic throughout the film, but he reappears in the crucial ending sequence when Troy is seen leaving the house to attend her mother’s funeral. The neighbor’s subtle presence in this shot does point to the notion that his character might have been used to foreshadow the film’s ending. His earlier dialogue referencing his deceased mother creates an unfortunate eeriness surrounding his presence in the shot, but also serves as a way to tie up the loose ends of his role.
(Sorry for the blurry screenshot!)
However, I don’t think his presence can be merely reduced to an opportunity for foreshadowing. In considering melancholia versus mourning, it becomes apparent that the neighbor represents melancholia while Troy’s grief (along with rest of the family’s) can be characterized as mourning. I found this short blog post that neatly sums up Freud’s points about mourning vs. melancholia. Tony is trapped in a cycle due to his loss. His house stays messy and he fails to interact and engage with the rest of the neighborhood. The loss consumes him.
Troy, however, copes with the loss in a healthy way. We see the family and the neighborhood thrive with her at the heart of both. Freud’s mourning is marked by a “free and uninhibited” ego, and the closing scenes signify this transition for Troy. She has recognized the absence of her mother, but isn’t trapped by this loss. It’s undoubtedly sad that a tragic loss forces her to “grow up” so quickly, but after recognizing it she reaches the state of mourning Freud describes.
Would love to hear what you all have to say about this. Am I simplifying it too much? Any other interpretations of Tony’s role?
As Professor Drabinski mentioned in class on Thursday, Crooklyn seems to be one of the favorite films we’ve watched so far. Despite the tears it caused by the end, this sentiment holds true for me, too. As I watched, I tried to figure out what was causing this response. The interactions between the kids were definitely a large component. The soundtrack was also an enjoyable element. But, our discussion on Tuesday and Thursday paired with some reflection revealed the true deciding factor: Carolyn.
Carolyn quickly became my favorite character in the film. Troy is definitely one my favorites too, but I felt such deep sympathy for Carolyn accompanied by immense respect for her strength. One moment in particular inspired an awareness of the difficulty of her situation and respect for how she handles and carries herself. There’s a scene at the dinner table where Woody offers the kids cake, but Carolyn has to provide the caveat: They can only have it after they finish their vegetables. This small moment serves as a representation of their distinct relationships with the kids throughout the film. Carolyn is always the disciplinarian, reminding the kids of their responsibilities while Woody provides the source of fun and freedom that the kids enjoy. Carolyn never wavers, though, as she always keeps in mind and only wants what’s ultimately best for the children.
While Carolyn is consistently the enforcer of the house, it’s important to note her constant affection for the kids. She’s sure to discipline them, but is also quick to defend them from outside attacks (as seen in the interaction with the messy neighbor). Even when the kids are at fault, she’ll battle the outsiders that are attempting to disturb her family. Carolyn moves effortlessly through her many roles and it’s sad that her few moments of validation come in moments of deep sadness, such as after the argument with Woody and tragically with her death. The legacy she leaves through Troy serves as a testament to her largely unsung impact and her truly remarkable achievements.
As this NYT review of Crooklyn from its release in 1994 notes, Carolyn’s character is so effective because it “feels real”. What are your thoughts?