Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘African-American literature’ Category


After long grueling hours of separate interrogation, the boys are put together & meet for the first time

Friends and readers,

Ava DuVernay has made another movie you must not miss — her others are Selma and 13th. Many people will know about the case of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili (called “the Central Park Jogger”) where four African-American and one Latino boy were accused (“the Central Park 5” was the designation), but not necessarily that the accusation was not just wrong but utterly unfounded (not a shred of evidence linking any of these boys to this woman except that all were in some place in Central Park that night), nor that the confessions which were used as the evidence were coerced (by hounding, harassment, hours of isolated interrogation, threats, lies about what “cooperation” meant or would bring). We see how the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, and DA, Linda Fairfax saw that there is no evidence and Lederer at least is bothered, but goes ahead to do all she can to convict the boys, Michael Sheenan, the head of the operation to wrench confessions, and they acquire a Judge Galligan, known for harsh sentences at Riker’s Island.

The five spent from 6 to 14 years in prison, Corey Wiser, a bit older, was tried as an adult, and put into tough adult prisons. It also seems not well known that in 2002 they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real criminal came forward (a man with convicted of rape, with an assault record very like that of the man who raped Meili) and said he did it alone, and the DNA found on her body was discovered to match Reyes’.


Coercion

That’s the outline of the familiar story. The way it’s told in four parts is a display or demonstration of how egregiously unfair is the operation of all the parts of the “justice” system: the first part shows us quickly how early in the evening all five young men were spending their time, how they all somewhat differently came into Central park that night, the jogger coming from her building into the park, and then clips from news shows about the assault and rape; the next 3/4s of an hour make us undergo the same grilling the five young men do: see the members of their families also coerced and threatened, or uselessly angry (not knowing what to do), the confessions imposed on them, and the ultimate result, their incarceration as the plans for the trial are formed.

We see they are innocent; they had no idea there was such a girl in the park; the stumbling nature of what they confessed (they are urged to agree to the story the detectives tell them to through hints), and the final scene in the room brought together where they decide confessions or no, they are going to insist on the truth: they are innocent. It is emotionally wrenching to sit through this — the young male actors cry and are hurt, puzzled, beat up. So too their parents & siblings indignant without knowing what to do to protect themselves.

The second part is the trial, we see how it’s conducted; the hysterical social campaign in the newspapers which play the part of a lynch mob, which results in the social death of these young men. Not their very closest but further off relatives begin to believe they did it; we see the furor in the streets, and Donald Trump’s famous ad demanding the state murder them, saying how he hates them and wants no psychoanalysis, no attempt to explain. We get a glimpse of his repeat he believes them guilty in 2016 and his sneers at the court case which finally was allowed to go forward (Bloomberg blocked it) where NYC paid them 41 million dollars in damages.

They cannot and do not get a fair trial. The felt atmosphere makes whatever the attorneys say or do feel so useless as when one attorney points out there is no evidence linking the boys to the jogger at all. The prosecuter does not come across that strongly, but the tapes have an effect on the jury. The guilty verdict, the boys and parents’ hysteria. And then scenes of the earliest experience of juvenile prison in four of the boys, where we are told that they hear Corey is “in solitary” but know no more of him. It is a grilling episode.

A secondary story told in both parts is that of the family life of each of the boys — we see different relationships, with some parents (two fathers) in desperate straits for money, one has a criminal record the police start to threaten him with. In part one some of the parents do tell the boys “to cooperate;” others demand the child be left alone; a great moment is when one mother says to Fairfax “Shame on You!” Corey’s mother seems not willing, unable for some reason to come visit her son. The latino boy, Raymond, seems to have only his father.


There is no place for Raymond and his girlfriend to find privacy once he is let out of jail

The third part fast forwards to the time (different) when the four boys treated as juveniles are released. A different set of actors are now playing the central boys. We see how the cards are utterly stacked against them. They have to tell anyone who hired them they are felons accused of sex crime; they have to be in their house every night by 7; they have to report to a police station every 90 days for the rest of their lives. One has a chain on his ankle. Worse they come back to groups of people not ready to have them or downright unwelcoming. Raymond’s father has remarried and the new wife is deeply antagonistic to him; he is given no room of his own. She calls Raymond a rapist. They cannot be hired for gov’t jobs, for various professional jobs. Their is strain as they try to make friends, have a girlfriend. Raymond taking an apartment of his own with his girlfriend, is fired, and ends up drug-dealing to support himself. He is caught.

The point is no help is given them to build their lives and hard obstacles put in the way.


Corey disobeying rules to hold his mother’s hands; there is no one for him to tell of the abuse and bodily harm inflicted on him

The fourth part is the most painful. I can hardly bear to tell it. We see Corey Wise put in Riker’s Island. Immediately he is surrounded by scary thugs, which include the guards. One guard asks Corey, if Corey has something for him, and when Corey seems not to understand, has five prisoners beat Corey up. Corey tries to appeal to a nurse who is afraid to help him as a guard is watching. He begs for solitary confinement as a place he can be safe in. I had not realized this might be one reason for the increase in solitary confinement in prisons: to escape the mob violence. We see terrifying scenes of humiliation. We see and hear the noise, the lack of decent food, something to do. Little vignettes: we hear parents saying “for a 10 minute phone call $23.” No medical help worth the name. She does omit probable sex abuse — we are left to remember and to imagine.

Each time Corey meets with his parole board he gets nowhere as the thing demanded of him first is to confess to his crime and say he is remorseful. He is moved to Attica, and now his mother says she cannot come there as it is too. Corey is pulled out of solitary confinement one day to be told his brother is dead. He is told that he is told this for his sake. Clearly that’s not so. No one offers a word of consolation. In a flashback from his mind it emerges the girl I thought one of his girlfriends was his brother, a transvestite who dressed as a girl; Corey remembers his mother loathing her, throwing her out. He becomes hysterical: no one cares for him. Robert grabs hold of him and hugs him hard to help him exert self-control. This is probably the first hug he’s had in years.

One gleam of light: Robert, the guard in charge of his cell now begins to be kind, offers him magazines, and better food (the guard says he has a son back home), gets him a job cleaning floors. So he can leave solitary confinement (where he appears suffer badly from the heat as no air conditioning comes through his vent until this guard somehow gets it “fixed”). But Corey wants to be transferred in the hope he will be near his mother. So he loses the guard-friend and ends up in a worse place. He is immediately picked on because he is known as the Central Park Rapist: it’s an excuse. Beaten very badly by other inmates.  Laughed at by another guard. And so it goes on and on. A couple of vignettes at the end show his conditions are improving as he learns how to cope and simply keeps surviving and ages so is seen as less of a susceptible victim to bullies.

So DuVernay has put it all before us – this is the system, it’s still in operation, see what it has done. QED. I have not described her powerful use of film techniques because it would produce too long a blog.

The last ten minutes cover quickly the confession of Reyes, the refusal at first of Fairfax and Sheenan to believe it — he is trying for attention; okay there was a sixth. But a new lawyer and Morganthau (who had appeared briefly as protesting the trial because of a lack of evidence) and people we don’t see manage to bring the evidence out and in the last five minutes we see the five men told they are exonerated. For each it’s a different experience as has the whole thing been.

Raymond now in prison is seen looking so joyful with his things walking to the door, and his father comes for him and they hug. Corey as usual treated with no deference or consideration; he is living in a better place again, and no longer in solitary (learnt to hold his own), the guard Robert has somehow helped him again, and he brought out of the prison yard and to an office and given a phone and hears his mother’s voice telling him he is going to be freed. Fast forward to the other three told on their jobs or at home, and then all five standing together on a stage, holding hands.


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

The coda is moving. An inter-title tells us about the court cases and litigation and their monetary compensation. And then we hear where each of them is in life now. At first we see the younger actor, then the older, and then (very moving this) the real man. All but one has left New York City and all are thriving to some extent, married, with children, one in business, another writing and teaching, one opened a business to help people wrongly accused of crime. Seeing the real men, their real faces brought tears to my eyes.

You should watch it because to do so will be part of Netflix’s rating system and perhaps more movies like this can be made. Any Goodman has devoted a full hour to this movie: she shows clips and interviews DuVernay. I went to find reviews; Roger Ebert’s site has a review which does justice to the film and gives fuller details than I do. It speaks of flaws: I see none. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian is better, she speaks of heart-wrenching (dare I suggest that there is racism in the Ebert site and not here); Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic: three of the men now live in Georgia.

It is important to know that Linda Fairfax has shown no remorse, and in fact continues to maintain these young men did the crime! and has publicly protested the film, saying it is inaccurate. It is not; the public records are available. She should be tried and put in prison for what she did to these young men.


Felicty Huffman plays the part


Linda Fairstein — she makes money writing crime books; I read the publisher has pulled them off shelves; that some honorary degree she got is now lamented over


Vera Farmiga as Elizabeth Lederer who also maintains she did the right thing but has enough decency to not call attention to herself

For my part being frank here I’ll say at the time I didn’t understand Trisha Meili, the young woman, had run out into the park after dark. I thought that there was understood to be curfew not to go into the park after dark. Of course you can’t fence in the park. But this series does show that late at night groups of people did go in. I may be criticized for this but one of my gut reactions is I don’t understand why Meili went out at that time of night to run by herself. Did she think she was immune to dangers? did not her expensive building have a gym? Was her sense of privilege so strong? She did not understand how we are all at risk and some situations very risky? she should have thought of other people and understood she should find some other mode of exercise.

I am simply puzzled that a young woman like this would go out running late at night in the park. Why did she not realize how dangerous this would be. I cannot see myself courting danger this way, taking this kind of chance. When I was young, there are a couple of instances where I took a crazy chance, but (without telling these) these were not risky to my body. The park is enormous and has many dark people-less spots. I’d like to say a curfew was understood except the movie showed that lots of people went to or were in the park late at night. It might be that I thought there was a curfew because I think there ought to be one: when there are events in the park (like a concert, or Shakespeare play) one must walk back but my sense was of being in a crowd walking on lit lanes and cops around.

Meili has since made money on her book, permitted herself to become something a celebrity (“I am the Central Park Jogger”); there is something wrong with a book about this incident given the sentimental gush subtitle “A story of hope and possibility”


Middle class costume, jewelry, make-up — has she learnt anything?

Trisha Meili is not to blame — the blame falls squarely on the man who did the crime and the cops and the DA and prosecutor. They simply picked out five black young men and proceeded to nail them for the crime. They did not try genuinely to look for the insane woman-hater who did this. They did not follow the clues they had: the semen nor the evidence she had been dragged on the ground by one person. The same police officer and judge were judging Reyes during the same period. Meili was unlucky and so have thousands of other young women been throughout history. They did nothing to protect any girl from another such assault.

We today still refuse to protect girls — think of how the Republicans on the Senate believed Christina Ford and yet put Kavanaugh on the supreme court, an exposed hypocritical thug who for years enjoyed himself and his masculinity by leading fraternity boys to humiliate and rape girls at parties. The concern was to punish these black young men “as a warning,” not to discover who raped and nearly murdered Meili.

To sum up: the movie shows that the lynching mentality of the first half of the century was operative in NYC in 1989 – that the privileged girl was white is central. Indeed Trump is still sneering at DiBlasio for allowing the litigation for compensation to come to court. To me that the center of the push to make these young boys/men confess is a woman just brings home how women can be as reactionary and racist as any man — and reminds us that the person who signed that Alabama bill criminalizing pregnancy was a woman.

The prosecutor who framed them is part of and respected in US society today — and she is objecting mightily to the portrayal of what she did with the help of all her colleagues in the system. Her way of objecting shows she is guilty of having framed these young man and her justification is to assert all she did was legal and they were guilty. She seems to think it was her job to frame them. This was and still is legal — so too plea-bargaining which the boys refused once they were put together.

I repeat she calls what DuVeray presents as lies at the same time as she justifies (she justifies) how those boys (now men) were treated and just about says (despite how the movie shows a complete lack of evidence) they are guilty – were it not for those DNA tests, they’d be in prison still. She implies the DNA tests she leapt on when she found the sock and semen are inconclusive. Doubtless she would not believe in climate change were it in her interest not to believe. Fairfax now has show-off photos taken of herself smiling in a red suit in front of the supreme court put on her site. Indeed, shame on her!


Ava DuVernay

In DuVernay’s interview with Goodman, DuVernay says as she is speaking someone in the US some African-American person is being wrongly treated in an early phase of the criminal justice system; that the whole of the way and where and how people are incarcerated is profoundly wrong, and that she herself believes it will take a long time to fix, against many objections (not least the private companies running prisons) and may not be righted in her lifetime any more.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen

Read Full Post »