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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

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Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Mildred and Richard Loving (2016, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) — he enjoys watching cars race

Friends,

As many know, this is the story of the interracial marriage which led to a judgement by the supreme court which included the assertion that the marriage is a fundamental human right. Before this decision, states could and did outlaw marriage between people of different races. Over the course of the two hour movie I found myself deeply respectful of Mildred and Richard Loving: we see how they love one another, how they marry in DC, are arrested in the dead of night in Virginia, thrown in jail, treated with bullying disrespect and anathema by a succession of disdainful white male authorities. The story moves slowly and symbolically, rather like an outline where after an initial attempt to return home while Mildred has her baby, and re-arrest, with a dire threat of many years in prison, they live in DC (or risk imprisonment) for several years. Mildred finds the city demoralizing and streets dangerous for their children so they brave going back to a hidden place in Virginia. Terrified, hounded, she writes to Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, and he suggests to an ACLU lawyer and civil rights expert that they take on their case. We follow them over several years and risky behaviors until the case reaches the supreme court where they win.

What I liked best about the film was its quietness. I feared I would be subjected to another ratcheted up melodrama, complete with thriller moments, high crisis scene and speechifying denouement. We are spared this. I did recognize that this was still another of these so-called art-films, which, as if in order to appeal broadly, be commercial, is produced with a super-solemn stance or tone, pompous and somehow (even with the poverty presented) over-produced (glorious colors, very close closeups). So I agree with Richard Brody’s New Yorker review which finds a much earlier TV movie, Mr and Mrs Loving, much more realistically human, comic at moments, entertaining, bringing out the very messy issues and petty and important bad harassment this couple experienced for years much than Jeff Nichols’ still super-dignified treatment. Yet this film is apparently more accurate and based on an intermediary documentary, The Loving Story, by Nancy Buiriski for HBO (2012).

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The actual Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving

Maybe real people aren’t comic. We hear from both sides of their families (black and white) individuals who lash out against the couple for marrying as a betrayal, a selfish indulgence (!), even a crime. There is a lovely rhythm to the presentation of years, birth of children, everyday life going on. Richard spends his existence building buildings as well as caring for his wife and family. A photographer comes to give the couple more presence in the media and he takes a photo of the couple enjoying themselves in front of the TV. (The credits include a real photo of the real couple at just such a moment.) We worry Mildred and Richard’s children are at risk from authorities, and are told that at the supreme court the argument was made that “mixed race” children are unacceptable, but I felt we could have been given more information about the issues the case rested on. Nonetheless I was much moved, especially by Ruth Negga’s performance, and here and there actors playing individuals in the family: Richard’s black brother-in-law, Virgil (Will Dalton) who is a genuine considerate friend to the couple is one that comes to mind.

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Films do not occur in a vacuum. So in this wretched moment of US politics where a white supremacist racist has been appointed by an overtly racist president as his chief strategist, where a man noted for his cruelty and draconian tactics running a police force in NYC (Giuliani) is said to be under consideration for Attorney General, where what is promised includes registration of people based on ethnic origin, rounding up and deportation in huge numbers of others, and outright mockery of #blacklivesmatter (not to omit disabled people), and doubling down on harsh prison sentences, such a presentation is not out of place. The film shows it matters who is attorney general. It showed how dependent an average person is on the supreme court to enunciate as law genuinely principled enlightened assumptions. As triumph of good came into view, I felt heartsick. You can go in the same spirit as you go on a march, sign a petition, phone your congressman. Here is the case as outlined in wikipedia: look at who were the judges. Do you think the same favorable decision would be the result today?

It’s also an absorbing quietly suspenseful (anxious) two hours. Anne Thompson in Indiefilms covering different aspects than I have calls it Oscar Worthy. The movie itself is also is a gentle depiction of a kind of marriage: the wife so careful of her working class and inarticulate husband’s feelings, his attempt to do all he can within his nature and character. Thompson says the film dramatizes how love is an inalienable right — for all the characters, children to grandparents.
Ellen

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What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun? from Harlem, Langston Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched a YouTube of all of American Theater production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Danny Glover and Estelle Rolle. It is long (2 hours and 50 minutes) and to do it I stayed up to 1:45 am, but it was well worth it, yes. I recommend to all who come to my blog to watch it sometime in the next couple of days (or soon) too and then read on:

Elaine Pigeon, a listserv friend, who I’ve also met at a JASNA conference, who alerted us on WomenWriters at Yahoo to the production, wrote concisely:

While it’s main premise is an African American’s family’s desire to realize the American Dream and own their own house, Hansberry’s play touches on many issues that resonate today: racism, gender conflict, the fragility of masculinity, money, class issues, slavery, Africa and colonialism and more.

For some excellent essays and exegeses and commentary (one by Hansberry herself), see commments. I was deeply moved. I have read it before (just once) and seen it once but no longer remember that production. Now done rightly it seemed to me the equivalent in strength of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. At mid-century in the US there were a number of plays exploding the realities of American culture, the “American experience” as PBS glibly calls one of its (good) series. Williams’ plays shows us what sex is like, its premises; Miller shows how class and money work, and here Hansberry, race. What was omitted (and still is) are the imperialist militarist facist politics of the gov’t; at mid-century the gov’t was merely oligarchical, it’s gone well beyond that now. It may be that this level of life is hard to dramatize in a play where we are most affected by intimate human stories; at any rate, the only medium it’s been is film as in Gavras-Costos’s Z (so one can have a nation- and city-wide landscape as what the action is embedded in). I suspect too that the strong Jewish component of American arts (especially the theater for funding) prevented this even then, as Israel already existed (its gov’t has done all it can to stop any treaty with Iran these last few weeks). Why don’t we have plays like this any more beyond the patriot act declaring presentations of the realities of continual-war global politics treason?

I’m not discounting earlier plays, e.g., Lilian Hellman’s plays on lesbianism and the politics of war (Watch on the Rhine, The Children’s Hour), Sam Shephard’s True West exposing the results of the macho male hegemony, but in the 1970s the impetus turned to the new independent film industry and for a while there were remarkable films. Arthur Miller talked and wrote about the turn to psychological -fantasy angles as a strong retreat and I believe he’s right. He also said that films were killing live theater and there’s a truth to that.

I was most impressed by how many things in that play are still so. Yes black people can now some of them get decent jobs, but many have none at all. Ta Nehisi-Coats’s essay on how for over a century the way local economics are structured and allowed to be practiced prevents black people from having accumulation of money is relevant. $10,000 from the father’s insurance policy and irreplaceable. The bombing and desctruction of a black person’s home who dared to move into a white neighborhood.

The most disquieting aspect of the continual police murders of black people at the rare of a couple of week is that they continue. The police were taken aback when the first videos of what they do began to surface. There were riots as genuine knowledge this is happening daily spread and we’ve seen a couple of inditement –a couple! just a couple and do not know what has happened since. But yesterday it surfaced a black man’s face was destroy while he was murdered. The police are now shameless and determined to continue. Sandra Bland is not a turning point, just a low that happens. Two years ago a woman terrified of the police’s response to her running her car into one of these cement barriers in DC was gunned down and murdered and the police congratulated. (Disabled people are nearly equally at risk; homeless people.) The massacre of 9 black people while in church followed by a demonstration of the Klu Klux Klan re-asserting its right to murder black people (with its swastikas, flags, in sheets, with red crosses) is a paradigm of the behavior: murder of blacks (immigrants), riots when an individual encounter manages to be publicized, and then the power reasserts itself.

There would today be guns in play as there are not in this 1959 play. I’ll tell all that in the south east Bronx preferred weapons were bats, razors and knives. But it is harder to kill with these weapons. I bring up where I grew up (from age 4 or so to age 10 1/2) to say as I watched I bonded utterly and entered into the anguished feeling of these thwarted people. The self-inflicted berating, the loss of self-esteem, the turning on one another (especially that), the wild mistakes (because you don’t know the middle class rules nor how to protect yourself or at least try) was what I saw in my home growing up, and that of relatives and people living round us.

The qualified happy ending of the play to have its full bite shows why sometimes it’s not just irrelevant but necessary to know the autobiography. Hansberry’s family moved into a white neighborhood, and the white home owners association went to court to have them thrown out on the grounds the white man in the play cited: people have a “right” to form what communities they want. WIkipedia article writes: The restrictive covenant was ruled contestable, though not inherently invalid.” Today we have gated communities everywhere and the leaders of these associations set the grounds for who”s allowed in.

I end on the reality too that Hansberry as she became more active was surveyed, harassed, probably hounded by US agencies — as today BlackLivesMatter is. This has not been reported in mainstream media. Never is. She died at 35 (!) of pancreatic cancer. I agree with James Baldwin that this hounding and the strain of being alive in the US at the time helped bring on that cancer and her very early death.

Elaine also included a worthwhile YouTube telling of Hansberry’s life: remember as you listen to the words (the play tells people “we are just as complicated” as they — meaning white people) that the popular TV show about black people in the US was Amos ‘n Andy:

Ellen

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.selmacrowd

Dear friends and readers,

(Downton Abbey will have to wait.) This is to recommend going to see Selma and why.

Selma is a powerful re-enactment of some central costs of protest against what the powerful in a society and their brutal henchman and the parts of their constituencies filled with deep resentment, hatred, mindless meannes will inflict –bodily. The sequences that are telling are the marches and the attempts to integrate public places in the south. Pain is important — as a weapon. Death, its shadow, the fog it places around your mind and acts (these are from lines spoken by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King). We are made to see and feel close up what it is to be beaten and relentlessly hunted down and murdered. We see a white priest who came from Boston to join the protest beaten to death and we hear the blows. We see a young black man shot up close in a bar: the police chase him down, beat and then murder him in front of very one in the bar. We see older women, all sorts of people flee and hurt. Remember Voltaire: “pour encourager les autres?”

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TV footage from the 1960s

It’s not all violence. We watch Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper fill out a voting registration form, go up to the courthouse, how hard to walk through that door, stand in front of a sneering man who says her boss will like to hear about this, listen to his questions, she can answer each hard one until he wants to know the names of the 67 men who were county executives in the last number of years. I find it to be a woman’s film by this emphasis, by the choice of intimately felt scenes throughout.

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Here she is in the first fall out from the scene just above

See Miss Izzy on the film as by a black woman director: “But perhaps the refusal to be nicer to the big famous white guy in the story illustrates why this film is important … ”

Although Fergusson occurred after the filming or late in during it, this incident and so many others across the US, is what this film is about. Historical films are ways of taking a usable past and speaking to audiences about that past in terms of the present. Not just Fergusson, and all the countless other racial protest marches and mass assemblies and demonstrations around the Us, and not just what happened to the Occupy movement now almost 3 years ago – but by metaphor when these public demonstrations and the beatings and state terror tactics that destroy them occur across the earth in all the places the US and its allies occupying forces beat down (not to omit Israel on the Palestinians, now ISIS, Boko Haram and the boss of that state who lets them do what they want). I say possibly because these other places and forces are there by analogy and the protests against them are quite different from the racial ones in the US which Selma is about (analogy works only so far).

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In the talk between the Kings we do hear references to the affairs he was accused of using vile language — and how these were communicated to his wife through phone, anonymous letters …

It is a kind of odd thrill (to me) to see re-enacted John Lewis (by Stephan James) when young, how he came to join King too. These are my heroes too. Other people are enacted (Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Reuben Santiago-Young as Bayard Rustin and almost not recognizable small parts well done: Alessandro Nivola as Johnson’s political operative trying to persuade King to cool it and protect himself, Tim Roth in the thankless role of the snake-sleaze Wallace) but the plaudits have to go to David Oyelowo who I’ve seen a number of times before: most notably in memory, Small Island. He made the daring intelligent choice not to do a virtuoso imitation but act the part from within himself; he is in physical type like King, round face, stocky body, and he did when delivering some of King’s speeches allow himself (so to speak) suddenly to begin to imitate King’s speech patterns, tones, body language — well it was terrifically successful and then I felt a strong wave of wishing King had lived and wishing he had been permitted to do something far more than he was able.

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Those who were alive at the time (1960s) may remember King began to emerge as someone moving beyond racial issues. He began to argue eloquently against the vicious policies of the US abroad; and he began to become more widely popular, even with whites. That wouldn’t do and those who had the abilities and power to do so with impunity had him murdered.

It’s also good to go as a kind of political statement. At my local art house there was a considerable row of black people in the audience. It’s a movie house deep in Fairfax, hardly ever any black people. The audience was not full but they applauded afterwards as I’ve seen people do at political films and also when they want to express their approval intensely.

It has its problems. Overproduced, over melodramatic, glossy surface, too quick scenes. It’s getting so it’s hard to find a movie which doesn’t do these things and they ruin the experience, do not permit nuances. It’s not a very nuanced film — it reminded me of Lincoln, a pious parable. The worst thing is that the relationship between King and Johnson is apparently wrong. King did not have to force Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the legislation which made it for about 50 years very hard — impossible — to stop black people voting. (No more. The present reactionary Supreme Court has eviscerated it. It must be re-enacted now in a contemporary form and soon.) They worked together.

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Tom Wilkinson who played Lord Mansfield in the film, Belle, seems to be this year’s idea of the benevolent well-meaning (but somewhat misguided) white patriarch (patriarchy not questioned in this film, or Belle, for that matter)

It would have been less dramatic to tell the truth. Still a historical film like this ought to have some conscience — and the real truth of how they worked together is probably of real interest instead of this heads-on melodrama. It would tell far more about human nature and how politics works, how such legislation came to be passed. There was no emphasis on the reporters except that they were there. None on lobbyists, there needed to be more intermediary people. Read Elizabeth Drew in the NYRB.

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You see the film showed those marches in an entirely different spirit from the way they were framed in the early 1960s. The film tried to suggest that in the 1960s the marches were fairly shown on TV.

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The Selma bridge that was filmed (CGI) to look like the original bridge

Not so. The depictions on TV were appalled but often very hostile. I was like many people moved by the outpouring of (in effect) protest and standing together on behalf of liberty and against barbarity (though we saw the French police practice murderering too, full-scale shoot-outs of the type that happen frequently in the US). The film does have a reference to Fergusson near its end, in the themed underscore music, but in the US we don’t frame marches that way — in the US after the horrors of Fergusson we did have marches, people did come out to protest, to defy, to stand for all people (blacks included especially) mattering, but what it televised that way? Was it framed that way? not at all. The same holds true for our Occupy Movement three years ago now. (The French don’t murder each other daily the way US people do. It’s no use talking about the NRA — how did they get to be so powerful; they must have backers among the US population wide enough). So it was more than the marches which passed the legislation. Again the film didn’t want to go there — that’s why it remained unfortunately a child-like parable.

Sometimes I wonder why I study films. Well, because it is the medium in which our world communicates to one another. I liked that rap song that rightly won the Golden Globes last night: Stop and listen.

The director used a combination of means. There were realistic scenes, iconic emblematic large scenes, scenes where the actors spoke to one another in effect allegorically, all against a backdrop of recreated sixties-looking cities and towns and landscapes. The scenes were punctuated — across them appeared suddenly typed letters in white — the recordings of the FBI and other watchdogs onto machines keeping track of where the people under surveillance were and what they were doing. This too has resonance in 2014 — the methods were much cruder then; the people monitoring those acting could not capture their very conversations through digital technology.

Towards the end of the film you get footage and when the last huge march to the Alabama courthouse happened and the marchers had many whites among them and star black people — you will see a young Harry Belafonte marching, Sammy Davis Junior over to the side apparently not wanting to call attention to himself, but there.

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Note the little girl

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Vote for it. Go.

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Martin Luther King day is soon — he gave up his life

Ellen

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Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

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John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

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A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote ‘Ireland’]. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

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A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.

Ellen

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Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo set upon by dogs during demonstration (2013 The Butler)

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Carson likes being a butler (Downton Abbey); in the poignant Merchant-Ivory movie, The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins is a tragic butler; Hudson (Gordon Jackson) of Upstairs Downstairs fame, loved it; so why shouldn’t Cecil thrive too, except that Cecil isn’t in charge but subject to a white staff manager and, as a black man, makes much less money than white people do in analogous staff roles. I write just in case you’re like me and have not yet gone to The Butler (the hit in our area of the summer) to say don’t miss Danny Strong’s historical bio-pic, The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels.

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Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr), his peer — kitchen talk

Yes it has flaws. It’s yet another of these pious semi-historical biopics (Lincoln, The Queen, even Hyde Park on the Hudson), where the concluding scene tells us if all is not yet well with respect to the particular injustice the movie is on about, it soon may be, due to the heroism, courage of an elect group and the underlying rightness of our social order no matter how skewed now and again by a few rotten individuals, or, as in this movie, a rotten group of thugs and bigots, half-crazy. (The sort of quiet truth Ang Lee told of the civil war in his genuinely interesting non-cliched, non-stereotyped melancholy Ride with the Devil is rare; what’s more the studios trashed the movie so it never got anywhere.) The Butler also features the usual virtuoso performances of an actor exquisitely impersonating some world historical figure, especially ironic is Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and on point, Alan Rickman as Reagan. They seemed to be getting a kick out of their roles:

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Five presidents, several wives, some famous staff people, well-known (I had almost said stars) politicians and outsiders at the turns of history.

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Iconic Kennedys

I might as well tell the worst. The Black Panthers are misrepresented: they were not murderous but genuinely bent on defending blacks from being killed so armed themselves; they were ferociously targeted, smeared, and killed by the FBI; too much slack or leeway is given Reagan: while we are shown how adamantly he worked against civil rights for blacks, he is made very kindly, an easy employer (maybe he was), comically afraid of Nancy. And if for black people the election of Barack Obama signifies limitless possibility for individual blacks lucky enough to find themselves in places where they can try for advancement, in 2 terms the average black person has lost a lot of ground (more impoverished, just an under and unemployed, or harassed, more at risk, draconian prison sentences, abrogation of voting rights, subject to be killed on the streets for being black). I admit I never was an “in” person in any social group during the 60s or 70s so if this or that portrait of someone is awry I might not notice this unless I read about the person and recognize the impersonation.

This is also another upstairs/downstairs movie, and we are with the lowest paid and esteemed of the downstairs. The point is made how much staff there is in the white house.

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An over-voice narrator (Cecil) is used: here he tells us look behind those smiles:

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But within these paradigms supposed the way one gets a popular success, and what in the films is adhered to for propaganda by its money-producers and distributors, it’s an effective, centrally accurate (okay the story of Eugene Allen is fictionalized to make it more dramatic) film whose strong purpose seems to be to remind and teach audiences about the terrifying savagery of the whites and their complicit agents and armed forces of the 1960s towards black people seeking a much better life, liberation, not to be humiliated, to a good education, voting rights. The opening sequence about what life was like for black people in the US before WW2 — you had to accept whatever vicious murderous whites imposed on you, for if you didn’t, you found yourself lynched, simply shot (to death), raped (if a woman on a plantation), if you tried to free yourself of plantation life, you found no niches, no connections, no place awaiting you and police everywhere seeking to put you away or out of it. People watching TV today about the sit-ins, freedom rides on buses, marches, demonstrations, see a clip or two of vicious whites beating up, hosing blacks, and then we switch to the big man who brings an end to this. This movie shows that these few minutes of film are thin as melting icefloes; it shows us the long incidents of townspeople acting out cruelty, brutality, killing day in and day out. Black people watching this today will not be fooled that they have full permanent voting rights; this movie tells us at what cost what progress has been made was done. Until near the end the occasional intertwining of real footage (from TV) and voices and photographs (Carter, Jesse Jackson) worked very well.

And until near the end, the tone is (paradoxically) light; most of the time the characters are in domestic situations or quiet social events.

The plot-structure once Cecil gets his job at the white house, follows the drama of the conflicts between Cecil (marvelous delicate performance by Forest Whitaker), his wife, Gloria, a just perfect performance by Oprah Winfrey: I was taken by every facet of it, from her outfits (she does remove her wig at one point), to her anger, to her devotion,

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Sending a son to a traditional black college in Tennessee (Cecil would have preferred Howard University)

to her sense of humor, drinking, smoking, having an affair at one point.

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I’m now awaiting a star role for her in another movie and the obligatory Oscar. Then their oldest son, Louis: once again David Oyelowo delivers a deeply felt convincing in-depth presence (I’ve now seen him in Small Island, Five Full Days, Lincoln). Central to the film is Louis’s idealistic rebellion which his father cannot understand as he sees Louis’s behavior as risky and useless:

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The father and older son

A younger son, Charlies (Isaac White) identifies as American and volunteers to go to Vietnam and dies.

I felt passionately for Louis, exhilarated by Oprah-Gloria and really identified with Cecil during his endurance of invisibility, stigma, low pay (and insults saying to go away if you don’t like it or want decent pay), no promotion and whatever you do (until near the end of the movie) you can trust no one to respect you for your years of work, as a nobody nothing you do counts. What is this but the adjunct’s life I endured for decades. This is not the first time I’ve identified as a black person. Whitaker as Cecil is continually snubbed. He is told early on by Vanessa Redgrave (as the mother of the crazed man who rapes Cecil’s mother and murders his father) as “house nigger” behave as if the space you are in is empty. Every once in a while he breaks code: he attempts to say something consoling to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of Kennedy: she cries on and then gets up and goes out as if Cecil were not there.

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Long hours

If you saw Lincoln, make this film its companion in your memory.

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Worthwhile reviews: David Denby in the New Yorker; A. O. Scott of the New York Times (yes it’s exuberant; marvelous dancing sequences in black American style); Ben Sachs on it as anti-Gump; Steve Boon for Roger Ebert.

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At a family celebration which ends in passionate quarreling

No women critics reviewed this film. So: I cried all the way home because I identified with Oprah as the butler’s wife and so envied her her kind protective hard-working long-lived (!) butler husband who she thanks near the end for taking care of her all these years. Oprah I can see appeals to a certain segment of black women and yet can make a direct appeal to lower middle whites too.

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The point of view on home life, its emergence as central to the story is a woman’s point of view. Not for nothing was Oprah one of the film’s producers.

Ellen

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From recent movie attempt to improve the Robinson Crusoe perspective: Crusoe (Aiden Quinn) and the Warrior (Ade Sapara) in Caleb Deschanel’s Crusoe Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the boys are shown.

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog which is partly intended for my students. I was asked to provide a more sophisticated understanding of texts for my students, which would (inevitably?) lead them not only to want to publish, but to go about such projects in ways that ensure publication (what is the topic of converse this year, the actual self-interested goals of participants).

I didn’t quite do that because I know that most students don’t have a discipline, much less know what is the state of place in that discipline. Instead I assigned a couple of books which analyzed the cultural values behind our children’s language; the lack of choice; and devised projects so we could hear one another’s hard-worked upon papers, projects, hopes and dreams.

The first book was Bobbie Ann Mason’s Girl Sleuth: In search of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames. I’ve written a blog summarizing, critiquing Mason’s book and setting it in the context of a short history of children’s literature.

Now I turn to Bob Dixon’s invaluable revelations — in the context of no talk at all about such things, his readings are revelations. Mason and Dixon function as two witnesses, two genuine cultural analyses of the values we find endorsed in classic and popularly distributed childrens’ books in schools and bookstores, and stories in magazines.

As Dixon says often what librarians and teachers present as their books and the reasons for choosing these are just lists or they simply describe a book through its blurb in praise or a rousing good tale …. As to popular series book, Mason says many of these books do not even turn up in schools and are not given prizes: they are just rewritten and distributed.

It needs also to be said first that many “classics” that young adults think they read — say Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are a silently rewritten, dumbed-down, abridged and often sanitized or re-normed version of the original book.

And second, that everyone agrees much more common is to assign books with males as heroes; women writers will use their first initials to try to hide that the author is a woman. The book sells better. J. K. Rowling conforms precisely to both habits. Young male at school; she is J. K.

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Bob Dixon (1931-2008), grapefruit juice in hand

Who was Bob Dixon? He is highly unusual in reaching us because he was anti-capitalism as presently practiced. I’d call him a progressive, a strong progressive. Born in country Durham in the UK, brought up by grandparents, ill from TB when young so did not go to public school, but got into university and became a writer, teacher, poet, peace activist. He did not try to take on the establishment when teaching the way J. L. Carr did.

Bob wrote much poetry but his best known books are Catching Them Young and Playing Them False in which he showed how the same elitist, sexist and racist attitudes and political ideas were being instilled through toys, games and puzzles, and he exposed the role of the commercial interests in priming the compliance of future consumers and the mass media.

His autobiography is called The Wrong Bob Dixon shows clearly how his childhood in a family broken by narrow attitudes towards his unmarried mother, his illness and the war had affected him, and how his life post war had been blighted by those same narrow attitudes and the political system that confines the ambition and natural talent and creativity of young people in the education system.

A tribute was paid to his memory in 2008 during a demonstration against war. He is not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography nor the Literature Resource Center. The establishment erases him.

Those chapters I chose from Catching Them Young deal with issues of real concern today, sore ones: class; the imperialist-colonialist thinking and feeling which leads to devastating wars abroad; how religious allegory is used to squash an understanding of today’s world’s organizations and structures and bewilder any attempt to ameliorate the lot of most people on the earth.

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From John Boorman’s Excalibur, an Athurian epic-romance:
Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the stories from the point of view of a boy show us centrally

Snakes and Ladders

Dixon opens with Plato because with Plato begins the idea you can type people and also have ideal types everyone should aspire to. Dixon then asks the question why everyone we go we see a form of social apartheid and the visibilia of rank. Until the 19th century not only in the US but the UK the way the classes were explained were it’s God’s doings. Only by charity should or can you act to change this and that means only the “deserving poor.”

This is followed by a section on language and how language is used to differentiate and stigmatize people. Stigmatizing goes on all the time in all sorts of ways.

What we have is a literature that mirrors what is expected of a middle class child and norms. This is true of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We see this reflection in Bobbsey Twins, for example, on TV it’s been shown that the way people dress, the jobs we see that are given respect are middle and upper middle. Dixon suggests that working class norms are different, less demanding probably because less is expected. IQs and in the UK 11 plus exams where used to send some children to college and the rest to vocational schools and stop education early.

Dixon goes over fables and stories of people winning money and what they do with it: the moral here is to be happy with your lot. Know your place. It’s where you belong. We might say in the US this is not so (pp. 47-51).

Another important line of thought offered; this is the mantra of US public arenas. It’s asserted that anyone can have anything you want, you need only will it. Will it read hard, not for doctors’ wives just again.

Therefore if you don’t have everything you want, it’s your fault. It’s not the schools, lack of opportunities, connections, not knowing the right manners that stop you.

At every turn in most stories there are implications about social class, status and politics. It’s unavoidable because it’s implicit in our lives. What he is pointing out is the particular single perspective that is repeatedly imposed on children.

Dixon teaches us how to read: he makes points rarely made, e.g. “the germ of virtually every work of literature is conflict. The key is to look at the way the reader or view’s sympathies are aligned. I’ll give an example from a decent recent police procedural: Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. It is very unusual for someone to sympathize with illegal immigrants in hiding. The story concerns the murder of two young woman who clean hotels for a living. The murderer is a male Bosnian who has raped one of them and wants to cover this up; they also know about a massacre that occurred that was covered up and he killed the other lest she tell once her sister was dead.

It’s not childlike for they are not presented as saints — no Uncle Toms — but real people interacting with real motives, of fear, desire for revenge, for jobs in hideous circumstances of wars brought about by ethnic rivalries is the way this show presents it.

Authors chosen not evil; they are middle class and this is their world, Nesbitt’s animal fables (p 58). I asked about the short answers the test about The History of Sandford and Merton so maybe I had better skip these two pages. But I”ll read them anyway (pp. 60-61). But little Tommy reminds me of little Trixie: how terrible to be rich they say; it’s our duty to accept and be glad our condition is no worse they say.

Forgotten is the idea that society is a contract and all of us are in it together and need one another and use one another.

Another problem is one we find in Dickens: the poor or working class are seen entirely from outside. Why do condescending, demeaning, implausible fictions continue to be shown? Downton Abbey showed two servants utterly abject before the master lord of the house; he is just generosity itself as he is not going to fire the aging woman but pay for her cataract operation. Won’t up her salary nor conditions of employment (pp. 67-69)

It’s an intensely class conscious world: He exposes a whole array of such books and only in the 1930 did they begin to circulate widely. takes these books and shows how the same paradigms are working out in classics movies for children are still made from: Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Secret Garden

Chapter ends on Tarzan of the Apes: Tarzan an aristocrat in leopard skins, heredity all.

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Lagaan, a re-reading of British imperialism

Empire: Fiction follows Flag

This is an important chapter because it is so rare for people to go beyond showing racism in the US towards African-Americans and bring out the colonialist ideology that supports these terrible wars we partly fund by funding the gov’ts that pursue them.

A three page piece on Robinson Crusoe which I assigned. It’s a more peaceful book than some (p. 75) The ultimate arbiter and justification of all these is that Christianity is a better religion, the western way of life superior. At one time this was tooted unashamedly, now these ideas come in through the back door in the form of programs – in Iraq a number of laws passed to turn the essentially tribal structure of the society into a capitalist friendly one, and they passed laws against unions. They do not help women.

Killing an important part of this tradition (p. 77) as well as justification by Christianity, imperialist. Except later on as sex objects by and large women don’t turn up in these action-adventure tales and we will see very few in Ox-Bow Incidents which has some of the features of cowboy stories (p 78).

Many close imitations and (pp. 78-98) give us many variations on these foreign glamor stories, and ends on Kipling — who I think got a Nobel Prize – as to style he can write (1907). India is still a major realm in western literature; witness Jhumpa Lahiri.

The books mentioned here include authors that Mr Ellerbee’s son, Edgar in A Month in the Country, wants to win as a prize for church-going. Coral Island is the book Edgar longs for (p. 85). The aim of colonialism was to relieve unemployment at home — you could snatch land. Read the tones (p. 82). There has been change here: the Black Hole of Calcutta is now presented as part of the war of independence for India in films (p. 83) — but the presentation of the ungrateful (unnatural?) people who don’t appreciate our arms, and companies is found in the way Afghanistan is discussed today, Iraq and Iran (p 83). They don’t want us; we make things worse. The story of the Indian girl who fawns on the hero, saves him, wants to be Anglicized. That’s our Pocahontas myth (p 84). She’s really part English the way peasant girls turn out to be princesses. Part of fairy tale.

As a bye-blow these stores enforce kidnapping, child abuse and kidnapping, but I carry on. G. A. Henty, another author writing in this vein. Henty wrote hundreds of these action-adventure, sometimes science fiction, sometimes boys’ adventure-stories.

Later 19th century religion in retreat, more children are educated in schools, schools are placed where children may be indoctrinated in patriotism: the belief it’s in your interest to go to these wars and kill or be killed (p 89)

Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) a heady mix of sexism, imperialist wars, native Tarzan stuff. Kipling’s Jungle books: boy scouts come out of this era, Baden Powell drew heavily on the jungle books. 3. These show much cruelty to animals, don’t appear to take seriously they have feelings and an existence of their own.

These formulas remain unchanged, are only tweaked some so I didn’t assign anything on the later books except Heinlein as that allows us to see him in the context or generic background out of which his work comes and to which it belong (p. 114): Starship Troopers, a very popular glorification of war;

It ought to be a strange idea that “fighting and killing people” makes one a man only it isn’t. Ultimately all this destruction, death, maiming do come forward at the Met. I’ll come back to times where small tribes fought small tribes but the conditions have so changed that this evolved point of view functions very differently today.

I did omit Roald Dahl (pp. 111-113); his are colonialist in thrust. I find Dahl’s books so nasty where horrible things happen apart from the hero, they startle me. I have read they are liked because they fuel children’s intense resentment, give children a chance to act out revenge. Alone among popular books they are sometimes analysed and critiqued adversely. I think it’s because they do encourage hostile emotions to adults. He makes adults uncomfortable. I have read by one student a real defense of Dahl’s relatively unknown Matilda which I admit to no longer remembering but thinking the student had understood what the manipulation was.

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Fangorn Forest, just outside Fairfax county

Supernatural: Religion, Magic and Mystification

The basic paradigms or story lines and suppositions are found in early religious didactic literature where after all a belief in the supernatural is central. Religion depends on a belief in a supernatural realm and beings.

Dixon begins with Winstanley because many religious groups have been rebels against the social order; most of them ruthlessly squashed – by the present establishment and its religious leaders. Doctrines are important in order to control ways of thought. Do not want people believing in too wild ideas; you want to control the fantasy.

I read Pilgrim’s Progress when a girl. Its sales were once close to the Bible; it’s written in very simple English with simple allegories a child can follow. Copies that are sold today are often rewritten in modern English (pp. 121-22 for Robinson’s mindset).

We are taught hard lessons in such schools. Where we learn what social quietism, obedience is how children experience patience; you must learn to suffer, nothing against social order ever.

He points out such books teach children self-contempt: the way the girl sleuth presents an impossible ideal is what the girl cannot not coming up to and so gives her a false body image (“I am fat”), and illegitimate norms she must and yet cannot follow, so “feelings of personal worthlessness” and self-abasement are part of children’s religious literature. Awe is one favorite mood.

Books made cheap and they are used to reinforce from another stand point what we see in action adventure. We are to despise the poor, the losers they are called in US society. I believe Romney said he had no interest in the poor. Some huge percentage of the US population nowadays.

We have the usual suspects, books proselytized for and no explanation of their values given — J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin (who I know from being on a listserv with her — as a poet), Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Adams and C. S. Lewis. He does cite some that are good and changing the mode: I’ll cite The Golden Compass by Philip Pulman (heroine). We get action adventure female-heroes in these. As we do in modern detective novels. and police procedural there are a few. Alas, often sexed up sex objects.

Basically Dixon objects to teaching them to die as a matter of course, and teaching them they can be prostitute, Five hours as beautiful. I’s how they mystify life and make you accept whatever is by making all a mystery; they also allow us to defy laws of nature: gravity, death; great escapist quests, sometimes with animals that we can identify with. The works slide into science fiction and allegories. Allegory where acts and people easily stand for concepts part of the terrain.

Evil is this disembodied force or someone is simply shown as maliciously evil (usually the result of envy — you are not to envy others what they have; if you are outcast, it’s your fault

Evil not located in the poor; anyway this often takes place where poverty is irrelevant; rather it’s class and place antagonisms that are manipulated. Great love of ceremony and ritual (p 149).

I agree with Dixon that the asserted idea children like a black and white world has yet to be proved; but if it’s a childish way of seeing the world, why do adults promote it? (p. 150)


2008 cover for Wrinkle in Time

Dixon’s comments on Madeleine L’Engle are eye-opening: enforced conformity seems to stand for communism so it’s really a political struggle that she disguises with mysticism. Her idea is matter is getting unbalanced. Her books makes no sense of the world to children.

Watership Down: a kind of smug complacency, highly authoritarian military warren. The rabbits set up a police state. In another book Adams makes no distinction between the kind of suffering that is endemic in human nature in a society (so religion becomes a kind of comfort, a hoped-for protection) and the kind that can be changed by changing human social circumstances (p 154.)

To me the sickest book I’ve read for children is G. H. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Dixon says the self-absorption it encourages makes all that happens outside the self unimportant. I remember it justifying death; a kind of medieval attitude towards miracles as what we wait around for. Devils everywhere who must be smashed. Lewis makes it explicit that the Narnia books have a Christian allegory at the center. Among other things he’s a fervent monarchist, ridicules progressive schools. He married for the first time late in life and part of his outlook is naive.

Ends on a book that shows some change. TwoPence a Tub by Susan Price. It sets up an actual debate. Death is God’s way of punishing these strikers. Does God want these people to suffer. The strike doesn’t achieve much: the men go back to longer hours and cut wages.

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To conclude:

Political correctness is a phrase hurled at people who are perfectly sincere in wanting to improve the world. They don’t talk or act the way they do to obey some strange convention or impress others; they really want to see a better life for all.

What we see on TV, in the movies, read in books has a profound influence on what we do and act effectively towards gaining a good adult life for ourselves and others.

Ellen

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Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo), Small Island


Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) greets Hortense (Naomie Harris), Small Island

Dear friends and readers,

A blog on this marvelous, sweeping and intimately moving novel, and its effective film adaptation. The hype is deserved even if both book & film have flaws. The central thrust of this paradoxically finally optimistic book: coming to terms with a false imposed identity and creating a new one out of the shards of what you can’t escape (it’s part of you and the people around you will not let you escape) and turning back to old memories, reworking the pain of these to be brought forward as part of your recreated self:

A few days ago I got my schedule for teaching this coming spring and got back to working on Chapter 5 of my book project, now called “A Place of Refuge: The Sense and Sensibility movies.” My need to watch a mini-series or film adaptation of a novel by John Alexander (as the director of the 2008 S&S) had led me to read Andrea Levy’s rightly award-winning (Whitbread & Orange Prizes!), Small Island, as prologue to watching the movie (directed by Alexander, written by Paula Milne and produced by Joanna Anderson/Vicky Licorish). Well it seemed perfect for my 302 Humanities class and I plunged in. By the time I reached the close of both (book and movie) I had been absorbed, moved, and experienced something new and yet as old to me as experiences I had when I was five and in first grade and felt real admiration for the art of both.

The story is not told in chronological order but rather weaves back and forth between 1948 when (in the movie especially) events come to a crashing dramatic crisis and “time before” from the childhood of Hortense and Michael Roberts in Jamaica (the Carribean), to that of Queenie on a pig farm in rural UK (1930s) to their experiences of growing up, in the case of Hortense and Michael and a third Jamaican protagonist, Gilbert Joseph, emigrating to the UK, and in the case of Queenie and Bernard Bligh, working to lower middle class, marrying, enduring and experiencing WW2 and surviving on afterward. We experience Bernard’s war in India, and move back in time to experience how his father, Arthur, was traumatized permanently by his experience of WW1 in Europe; we get glimpses of Gilbert’s experience of war as a soldier-driver in the UK and Michael as an black officer of the RAF. I’ve ironed things out to group them, but in the book we move back and forth to juxtapose events thematically and for irony. A full plot-design and story summary brings into play the history and cultural worlds in these two islands (Jamaica and England are both small islands) especially as experienced along class, race, and gender fault-lines.

The movie moves forward more or less from the time Hortense is young and decides she wants to act on her dreams of working in a high position “as a teacher” in “the Mother Country,” England, with occasional flashbacks taking us back into the past and into the minds of the characters remembering specific crucial incidents in their lives.

At first I had trouble getting into the book. It has this deliberately “difficult” (complicated, complex organization (the author has prizes like the Booker in mind where such organizations retelling the pasts of different subjectivities are common): we are given individual character’s soliloquies which are thrust at us, and we are asked to pick up everything about each as we go. As I know little about Jamaica or the experience of black people in London in the 1940s (the two places events occur at thus far), it was a struggle.

It felt weak at first. I could see it belonged to the category of written, successfully marketed, and be-prized books that (for example) in A Critical Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, James English calls Tropicalizing-Colonialist-UK where (as James English says) the miseries and wretched conditions of the marginalized world (“The empire”) are presented using the modes and outlooks of the hegemonic one (in English, the Anglo). Such stories seems to critique the powerful and high ranked, and yet feed off it to make money and flatter the person reading them. English asks if such books are not exploitable globally marketable (high prestige) airport literature where the relatively well-placed, some rich, some well educated (booksellers, film people) and exploit the periphery using fashionable post-colonialist attitudes.

As I carried on though the book gripped me completely and won over my doubts for the most part. It picked up and became strong when in Jamaica our heroine, Hortense (illegitimate and living with an uncle and aunt) has to watch her male cousin, Michael, go to school and she doesn’t.


Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris)


Michael Roberts (Ashley Walters).

This is a vividly, intensely experienced injustice in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, which I read with a sophomore level literature class three terms ago. Dangarembga opens with how her heroines hated her brother and is glad he has died, for now she may have a chance to go to school as her mother and father have no son. Levy’s is a less startling variant on this; it’s softened by the two being cousins, not brother and sister, and Hortense falling in love with Michael, and getting to go to a teacher’s school without his having to die for her to get a place. She then hopes to rise with him as his wife. All the black characters are seen to have advancement as a continual conscious motivation from a very young age.

A second turn came and deeper engagement when Gilbert Joseph, the young black Jamaican man who seems our secondary hero, but begins to seem our primary one finds himself for the first time in England. World War Twp has begun, and he has volunteered to “fight” for the “Mother country,” whose history, norms, ideals have informed his education from his youngest years so that he learned in school far more about English (not British, but specifically) English ways than he did about the history of the country he was brought up in, much less the western hemisphere than a tiny part of an island in a northern Archipelago. Gilbert hopes to learn a trade, a craft as an airman in the RAF.


Gilbert in the UK (David Oyelowo)

He discovers he will not be considered for any position higher than a driver. Just as bad, his dream of this beautiful idyllic fine society is shattered because the place is shabby, poor, cold, a “squalid shambles” with of cold, lousy tasting food (everything boiled), no heat,, with himself treated as utterly inferior, an outsider. I was deeply moved by the scene where he first approaches this island because I experienced this myself when coming to England by boat at age 21 and seeing the white cliffs of Dover (to be followed by working class Leeds in October). Out of my own reading, I made myself an identity that was Anglophilic, and while the first time I came I felt this intense uplift and loved all I saw (London, 1968) and was treated at least as well as anyone else, it was within a week or so a profoundly disillusioning experience. I saw as white from the get-go the rigid class system which made a huge majority of people ill-educated; class in the UK replaced race in the US. As I did in this novel Gilbert Joseph moves from dream, to realization of the actual (to him especially) cruel system, to dislike (very intense at first), and then gradually resignation because analogously it is just like the country one comes from, and then to acceptance (seeing social justice far more accommodating and far more flexible for people who don’t fit a “norm”), to even — for me in Leeds and Yorkshire, love and for Gilbert and Hortense Joseph at the close of the novel in Finsley Park hope and identification of a new sort.

The book has six principals: three blacks, Hortense and Michael Roberts and three whites, Queenie and Bernard Bligh, and Arthur, Bernard’s shell-shocked father who lives with Bernard, Robert.

With respect to the blacks, the book is also (as I wrote) about being a girl in a traditional society, and each of the paradigms that Hortense goes through in school have their parallel in Nervous Conditions, with this difference. Levy is less personally angry than Dangarembga (that’s a problem in the book) but more aware of theoretical issues and shapes her fiction to have wider application — to white women (especially working and lower middle class) say, and to all traditional women. It does give a certain “making book” quality to her book, a factitious quality, but I could see (not meaning to put this utterly cynically but rather pragmatically) how this book would be perfect to assign in a classroom. Like many of the Booker Prize books it lends itself to analysis which includes the typical middle class person and is not hard to analyse but has the kinds of structures that make for papers.

For example, again and again Hortense in Jamaica and then Gilbert in the UK go through job and application interviews. Gilbert once he returns to the UK after the war is over and he discovers he can get just nowhere in Jamaica, would have ended a poor subsidence marginal semi-working hanger-on, an attempt to get a better position. He can only rise in a developed country, but there he’s a man whose credentials and abilities are utterly ignored. What happens is what matters is, who was your father? Were you legitimate? Hortense is thus rejected for better positions as a teacher in Jamaica repeatedly and her dream of getting into the white school as a teacher utterly crushed. What is your race? your ethnic identity? are you one of us? So Gilbert dreams of being educated to be a pilot and learning about aerospace. Is he kidding? he ends up a driver. (This happened to me in my life several times: the first in in my junior year in high school. I wrote a composition which I saw several teachers knew was excellent but it was rejected along the lines because I was not in the AP class, not in the honors English, not going at that point to college, and clearly working class without the manners and ability to present myself the other girls had. What a lesson that taught me. I’ve never forgotten it. You don’t have to be black to learn it, just working or lower middle class.)

A particularly moving moment comes early in the book with the death of Michael Roberts — or so we think. A telegram written in euphemistic language arrives. The euphemisms used to describe his death are at not at first understood by the naive parents. The authorities don’t know for sure and don’t want the parents to know how he died and that he was in fact thrown away.

The book obviously does not neglect white people either, the real colonist types Trollope likes to present, fringe people in the UK who come over to the colonies try to rise about those who are exploited as beneath them. We have Mr and Mrs Ryder, the pair who run a Jane Eyre like school. He’s adulterous with many women: we are shown how women get along everywhere by selling sex. She’s adulterous with Michael Roberts.

We meet Queenie, a girl in a laborer’s family, brought up a farm girl and given an opportunity to educate herself minimally for office work when her Aunt Dorothy invites her to come to London to learn manner, how to speak (dialect is class-inflected), how to dress, type, and meet young men. Before Queenie can find a place for herself, her aunt dies, and she is threatened by her mother (in effect) with returning to the farm. She has met but not loved a shy, un-aggressive bank clerk, Bernard Bligh; he has tried to ask her to marry him, and she was not eager. But under pressure she makes the pragmatic choice.


In the film Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) steps forward to say that Queenie (Ruth Wilson) has accepted him when her mother (Mary Jo Randle) says she has no way of supporting herself in London

Bernard is driven to enlist out of shame and a sense that Queenie does not admire or love or even need him. The marriage is not simply a desperate choice (like Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) one as the male here is while shown with all his flaws (racist through and through, narrow, dull) is also sympathized with. When he goes off on his bus, Queenie shuts the door and does not watch Bernard to the last moment.

The scene has a parallel in film and book when much later after the war and Bernard has not come home, Michael Roberts turns up for a second time (no he was not killed), becomes Queenie’s lover for a weekend but as he has no love for her beyond that walks out of her life off to Canada, without turning round. She would have gone with him but is afraid to ask if she can lest he give her an answer which reveals his indifference to her.


Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Michael (Ashley Walters) during the weekend

So the book reaches out and joins the unprivileged in both small islands.

Two powerful scenes may stand for how the black and white stories are woven together. Gilbert Joseph comes to live in Queenie’s house as one of three servicemen looking for a place to stay (this while Bernard has gone off to war). Gilbert takes Queenie to a teashop where some American white soldiers; they see him and immediately want to destroy him. In terror, he has to get out of there and yet not show the fear. He and Queenie go out in the street and meet up with Bernard’s father, Arthur (a barrier to these men) and then decide to go into a moviehouse (partly Gilbert seeking safety).


Gilbert and Queenie with Arthur (Karl Johnson) in the film

Gilbert is about to sit downstairs with Queenie (and perhaps Arthur) when an usher comes over to tell him he must sit upstairs. The mayhem that follows is intensely persuasive: as many whites are for him sitting there (British people) as there are American whites incensed at him. We see how the usher and manager just don’t want trouble, how the vast majority of those sitting just wish all would sit and watch the movie. A riot ensues in which Queenie’s father-in-law is killed because a American military white type suddenly produces a gun.


The film offers a shorter version of the scene, one which occurs wholly in the street: Gilbert (David Oyelowo) is trying to reach and to help Arthur who he has become fond of (Arthur is a good card-player, in fact cheats)

We see the intense racism of Americans against the unthinking not institutionalized “color” bar of the UK.

Both white and black women make pragmatic marriages. When Gilbert comes homes to Jamaica, he just has no chance for anything; not considered for any role, cannot make even a subsidence living. Hortense has learned how limited her chances are too, so she offers to pay for his return (she has worked for years in a low-paying job putting away some of her pay each week), of he will marry her first and then send for her afterward. She says she wants to marry him as it does not do for a “young lady” to travel and live with a man without being married to him. She is utterly conventional in her aping of respectable ways.


The deal is about to be struck (Celia [Nikki Amuka-Bird] Hortense’s friend who does not get to go as she is not allowed by Gilbert to desert her dependent mother

He cannot find a decent place to stay at first, and when he finally does find a job as a postman, he remembers Queenie’s address, seeks her out and as she is a rare non-prejudiced person who needs lodgers very badly, she rejoices to see him


Greeting one another

The book does not neglect showing how Queenie experiences the war: as bombing. How she works as a government aid whose business it is to supposedly help traumatized, homeless, maimed and bombed out people. She is ever giving them super-complicated forms and send them off to officials we are to realize will not exactly greet them with the open arms Queenie displays to Gilbert

What often bothers me about some post-colonial or third-world novels is a kind of prejudice is set up against the whites — and it might seem so in this book by my above paragraphs. (And this is true of Jumpha Lahiri’s first volume of stories, Interpreters of Maladies and her Namesake where the working class whites are stigmatized, for example, by their drinking habits and the upper class whites caricatures of New Yorker imagined readers.) Not so with Levy: we get an inside-the-white-skin moving account of Queenie Bligh’s growing up working class, her marriage to Bernard (lower middle) , her experience of the war, of being deserted by him afterward, which persuades me if Levy didn’t grow up in the UK she has a strong empathetic imagination.

Another aspect of this book which makes it at once more acceptable for a woman’s novel (and thus be-prized) and seems one by a man — and a wee bit of a problem to set as a text for students — is its vast sweep. Why? It makes the book longer. Atwood’s Lady Oracle is under 300 pages, and Lahiri’s Namesake and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto) not much more. J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country is well under 125. Anyone who teaches will tell you how increasingly hard it is to get students to get a book of 400 plus pages. (All these gentle reader are books I can and will assign beyond Small Island if I got through with this to my 302 in Humanities students.)

It does make the novel more impressive; there is a long moving section of a white working to lower middle class hero, Bernard’s, time fighting in India. What is striking here is how Levy uses the subjective soliloquy style narrative which moves back and forth in time (common in Booker Prize books) for varied purposes. She captures the early history of Bernard’s father (who is suddenly killed in the race riot outside the movie house I described yesterday) so that we learn to love this man, a broken person from WW1 (and thus get some of this). She also gives us an incident where our conventional hero who has thus far refused to mutiny, refused to strike, refused to do anything rebellious suddenly finds himself pressured and bullied to lie about the death of one of his close friends, to claim the man died as one of a series of strikers in order to fulfill the agenda of the officer (promotion). When he refuses, he is thrown in jail himself, court martialed. I had not thought of this: how officers and powerful people would pressure lower people not just to lie about their mistakes, but lie about others to use them — just as much in death as anywhere else. Yes this is an anti-war, anti-colonialist novel.


Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch) coming home at last

He feels how Queenie is shattered and also that she does not want him. She does not go to bed with him. She rightly is indignant that he questions her decisions to take in blacks when he has not been home for 2 years, was thought to have deserted her. He thinks her spirit now weakened considerably by the terrible bombing and loss of her father-in-law — his father. What he does not know is she is now pregnant by Michael Roberts.

The novel does cheat. It has a magical providential patterning using Michael Roberts. What is an accepted providential nature of novels allows Queenie to meet up with Hortense’s cousin, Michael Roberts, the young black man who was sent to school when Hortense wasn’t, and then declared missing believed killed in the white man’s war in the RAF; Queenie naturally has a one night affair with him. There is a Lawrentian undercurrent here: Michael is the sexy man of the novel.

It’s on Michael’s second weekend-long tryst with Queenie after the war is over (and Bernard has not returned) that she became pregnant. He then (as I wrote) went walking off to Canada.

Without giving the whole ending away (not quite predictable), I have to say the white women and white couple (Queenie Bligh and Bernard Bligh) are the big losers in this novel. The young black couple (Gilbert Joseph and Hortense Roberts) are giving the providentially happy use of an inheritance which a black friend of Gilbert’s is willing to share with him (which of course calls upon their work ethic). The young black couple are going to go live in a much nicer house in Finsley Park whose income they will share in; Queenie may yet get a certificate to teach English in the UK. They are going to do all right. The white male comes back blasted and nervous and our white heroine, a strong presence throughout the book ends up with him and gives up what means a tremendous amount to her — her baby to the black couple, not because she doesn’t love it but because she loves it very much and knows she will not be permitted to bring it up without terrific prejudice thrown at it such that it will grow up twisted and angry. She also give Bernard a place that he can feel comfortable in by simply staying with him.

There’s a sort of hidden revenge going on here. I said I often did see an animus against working class whites in books by Afro- people, sometimes spiteful and through caricature (Jhumpa Lahiri); this was not at all the way in this novel until the very last scene, which I suspect could also be attacked at (not meaning to but) reinforcing racial separation (against say adoption of black childen by whites or any ethnic/racial child of one haplogroup by parents of another haplogroup).

I did cry as I felt intensely for Queenie — our white working class heroine.

*********************
I watched the mini-series immediately after reading the book and thus the inevitable comparative temptation was to find the film wanting in comparison with the novel. As I went on I recognized the film had its own themes, or (to put it another way) elaborated the themes of the book with a different emphasis. The idyllic dream of England found in the book and slowly torn down to a minimal expectation of a more comfortable modern life, one in the book analogous to and made also to stand for the dream of being promoted, advanced, having a career of dignity and fulfillment is emphasized and shapes the choices, plot-design and especially the close. Most of the characters are thwarted at almost every turn until near the end Gilbert and Hortense get the opportunity to move into the house of Hortense’s dreams: it may be run down, but we can see it has potential. I say especially the close, for the most moving characters in the film (perhaps paradoxically) is Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and she is left crying on her stoop, her weak husband’s arms around her as Gilbert and Hortense drive with baby Michael (her name for her baby) away.

One of the reviews I read, this one by Laura Albritten, Harvard Review, Nov 29, 2005, pp 237-39, argued that Queenie is the most admirable character but for Gilbert Joseph, and as hardest and permanently hit, the most memorable.

All four protagonists, the black young man and woman and the white young man and women are thrown away by their society at some point, the blacks more ruthlessly than the whites, but just as surely. They are given little opportunity to use their talents, education, gifts. The only one who might fulfill hers is Hortense at the close but it’s chancy. In the logic of popular (naive) art, it’s somehow fitting that Hortense, the most insistent on her self-image and pride is the person who may indeed fulfill her dream:


Hortense putting her nose up at Queenie’s unnecessary but well-meant explanations of what is sold in a given shop

I felt some of the scenes in my bones as someone who got a Ph.d. and had no chance to become a tenured type, as someone who came to the UK with this dream of the place and saw the reality. Actually I was struck by how in the end the black characters stay in the UK and accept and even like it; I would have stayed too had my parents not offered Jim and I a real step-up of money and I gain a position in university in NYC and Jim get so much better a job. This is the distance between the US in the 1970s (a place where jobs and advancement were possible for lower middle in the 1970s) and Jamaica (a place where this was not possible in the 1940s).

My feeling is this theme of being shut out, a class based fault-line for whites, resonated with the viewers of this film too. The scenes of someone with a good education (Hortense) laughed at, of someone who aspires to one (Gilbert Joseph) scorned and humiliated, who gradually learns to live with his or her place were among the strengths of this (optimistic finally be it said) film:


Hortense and Gilbert on a park bench contemplating Buckingham Palace.

A small side show was the two older characters who are nervous wrecks and supported by their families. Bernard’s father is an emotional cripple from WW1 and he is kept and his death in a race riot (considerably toned down) as devastating as in the book. The film adds a woman who is equally in need of support, Celia’s mother whose father deserted her years before and who I described above. Celia does not get to leave the Carribbean because Gilbert Joseph will not hear of her leaving her mother to go with him; Queenie is faithful to the end to her father-in-law.

The flaws are (to someone who did no more than read the book and watch the film for entertainment) departures from an already compromised text: The opening gets rid of the brother-sister (Michael versus Hortense Roberts) rivalry which is so powerful at first in the book and collapses it immediately into a romance between the two cousins (actually they are cousins) which the novel (to be fair) eventually does too. They make the white teacher in the Carribean, Mrs Ryder, simply a lover of Michael Roberts, who since he becomes Queenie’s lover too, begins to be a portrait of a philandering cold male by the end. This gets rid of the reality of promiscuity we see in Mr Ryder (who is not having an affair with anyone in the film) and Mrs Ryder and turns the thing into lurid romance. Hortense’s dislike then becomes “the young girl who has a lot to learn” (and her lesson is the Lawrentian I’ve been noticing from Turn of the Screw and Atonement that the girl must accept male sexuality in full power because healthy passionate (&c) women do, like Mrs Ryder and Queenie (later in the book) and in the Atonement, Cecilia.

Albeit straight from the book, Michael Robert’s multi-function in all three women’s lives is improbable — it does connect to the male who is presented as glamorous and sexy because he’s aloof. He does walk off into the sunset so to speak — to Canada, never to be seen by any of the characters again we are to suppose. So he can stand for the male who deserts.


Michael as false comforter

A young minor black woman in the film, Celia, is not able to escape Jamaica because her mother’s mind has become unhinged and she needs her daughter since her husband deserted her. Bernard, Queenie’s husband, in effect deserts her (for 2 years after the war from depression, fear, anxiety, an idea he has syphilis), but ironically when he comes back, she is not elated to see him, he only makes trouble for her as she’s become independent and managed on her own after all. The sad ending is partly the result of Bernard being there; Queenie would maybe not have made the decision she did had she not had a racist white male husband to live with.

On the other hand, as in so many films recently, we again have – and there is not one iota of warrant for this in the text — these older women continually counseling the young girl to compromise, the accept the male fate has offered her (Hortense’s aunt, supervisor, Queenie’s aunt and mother). The tone is not as bitter or vile as in Lost in Austen, but the reiteration is striking — especially when there’s nothing like this in the book.

We have a narrator but he is male — this is a book by a woman. I did say Levy had been clever enough to combine a male type novel with a female but substituting a male voice erases the mark of this as a novel by a woman. Yet in the interests of time and expense, the war sections are cut severely so the novel is about here and now and domestic romance primarily. This is loss even if it was to save money and time.

The film-makers also considerably soften the racism — they were afraid to show the full extent of suffering of blacks lest they lose their white BBC audience I suppose. They make Queenie’s husband much less racist than he is in the book. In the book his behavior is both real and painful to watch. Our black hero, Gilbert Joseph, has far worse experiences in the book when he comes to the UK both during the way (the death of Arthur is far more ravaging and poignant) and is bitterer in the book.

But as I’ve shown, much is left that is of individual and unusual value.


Hortense arriving (the opening of the film)

They did keep the book’s and allusion to Gone with the Wind, and it worked so fittingly: when Queenie comes to have her baby with Hortense in the room, Queenie says we are Scarlett and Prissy (you see the type) all over again, Hortense denies this stoutly (getting the allusion) and we can see this archetypal scene has undergone a sea change: Queenie is not a queen, she’s having an illegitimate baby through adultery and Hortense is an educated young woman, not a slave.

An irony about the depiction of racism in recent BBC films: I notice the same small group of black actors recur in many of these films. Three of the principles here; David Oyelowo (Gilbert Joseph), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Celia), Ashley Walters (Michael Roberts) I’ve seen repeatedly in star roles in films where blacks are wanted (Five Days for example) so not that many blacks are being promoted and advanced in quality British TV. I did love Ruth Wilson (Queenie), recently in Jane Eyre: bringing Jane Eyre together with Queenie Bligh shows the folk typology at the heart of this film. Naomi Harris (Hortense) I’ve not seen before, the new ingenue princess, we are to see her as prissy, and that is a good thing as her self-esteem and demand for respect does help her — as it might not in life. Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Bernard was the rapist in Atonement and has gone on to be a modernized Sherlock Holmes so his typology is complicated, here extends his range:

Need I say all are brilliant actors in the modern British quality TV tradition, Karl Johnson as Arthur.

And I saw many film techniques of John Alexander which he uses in his, Andrew Davies and Anne Pivcevic’s 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility (use of romantic surging music, of nostalgic kinds of blurs, of landscapes); nothing as original as shaped by Davies’s montage poetry-drenched text, but the films definitely have the same director. There are memory montages for Queenie remembering Michael (this is typical modern technique, found in 1996 Meridian Emma to 2009 Lost in Austen. The real love affair in the book is that of Queenie and Michael, and he deserts her, and she gives up his child. This is a film which shows us the risks and limits of romance in our world in so many areas of life on so many levels.

Yes finally it’s a woman’s book and a woman’s movie.

E.M.

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