I’d originally wanted all the films I created in 2014 to explore the theme of death. After doing two heavy films, I was ready for some comedy. However, Athanasia is one of the ones I did before shifting gears. So, it’s serious, but also infused with moments of playfulness and hope.
I’m afraid of death. I’ve been very acutely aware of the fact of my own mortality since a random moment of clarity in the spring of 1994. I was sitting at the front windows of the Cole Valley flat I shared with three friends, watching passersby on the street below, and I was hit with an intense moment of insight—someday, I’m going to die. To not exist. To no longer experience the reality and presence of loved ones. Ever since then, I occasionally have this same blast of hyper-awareness. It’s frightening and troublesome.
So, one character in Athanasia hates death. Conversely, her partner thinks fear of death is silly and takes a back seat to love of life. “It has to happen, right? So why worry about it?” Somewhere in between, there’s room for great and necessary tenderness.
We filmed in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Mateo. The film stars J Aguilar and Caro Morales, and Beth Welch Snellings performs the beautiful Bach musical score.
We’re about to celebrate 239 years of American independence from Great Britain. Fireworks are about to go off, parades will be marched, George Foreman grills are at the ready. Some current events make it seem like there’s not a whole lot to feel particularly free about. Still, you have to admit, other happenings give us a reason to make this the most boisterous July 4th ever.
In the spirit of the latter — gay marriage being recognized nationwide, Obamacare being here to stay, the Three Strikes foolishness finally striking out — I’m celebrating this year.
And, in the spirit of true freedom, I’m going to share an independent film for free. A truly independent film, devoid of late-night multi-million-dollar deals, or Lincoln Town Cars, or tanning salons.
In fact, I’m going to do this with all of my movies, working backward from 2015 to 2000, the year of my first film. I’ll return to the Cinemulatto bi-weekly rotation and present one movie every other week. Sure, the quality of the films may be a bit questionable the further we go back, but hell, there’s no such thing as a bad movie, right? Somewhere, somehow, there’s someone who loves a movie that someone else considers awful. Plus, there’s something to be said about shameless (and sometimes shameful) self-financing, stale Twizzlers, and crippling debt (which, thankfully, I’ve paid off and isn’t so crippling anymore).
So, let’s not judge, dammit. Be thankful it’s free.
Before a single black person ever set foot on American soil, there was police brutality. Seized from their loved ones, rounded up and herded, and forced to endure the unspeakable cruelties of the Middle Passage, before and from day one, black lives were brutalized, dehumanized, and “kept in their place.”
Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Civil Rights Movement, and a black president, some of the same structures are still in place, ones that served to oppress an entire people. In all of the online and media discussions of racism, riots, and police brutality, it’s important to remember, recognize, and raise those voices that continually remind us that our nation continues to exist on a continuum.
The first police forces in black communities were slave drivers and overseers. White “slave patrols” were employed solely for the purpose of policing slaves and capturing runaways. The first “riots” were slave rebellions; leaders like Nat Turner, or slaves armed with hand tools in the 1811 German Coast Uprising, were killed and suppressed by white militias and/or the U.S. armed forces. Drapetomania, long since debunked, was defined as a mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity.
This long history of blaming the black victim, dishing out sentences not commensurate to the crime, and holding black lives to a different standard than white ones (where you can lose your life for selling cigarettes illegally, or walking in the middle of the street, or sitting in a car), must come to bear in any discussion of what’s happening in Baltimore, and what happened in Harlem in 1935 (or 1943, or 1964), or 1967 in Newark, or Baltimore in 1968, or any other place in America where African Americans dared to rebel against police brutality, poverty, and being fed up.
In his autobiographical novel, Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown writes of blacks moving from the post-slavery South to the “promised land” of the North, only to find “one of the most important aspects of the promised land: it was a slum ghetto.” Yes, African Americans have made great strides. Yes, there are more African American men in college than in jail. Yes, we have more African Americans in positions of power, on boards and in boardrooms, and signing multi-million-dollar contracts than ever before. Still, the seemingly intractable problem of American racism is one that, until we solve it, will mean that we’re far, far away from a post-racial society.
So, the next time anyone tells you that slavery is over, that those participating in protest—whether it’s violent or peaceful—are “thugs,” remind them of the continuum. This is our history, the ugly blemish on our culture that we seem unable to make go away. Until those in power—both politically and culturally—recognize it for what it is and take steps to help solve the many related issues from the ground up (poverty, lack of opportunity, institutionalized racism…the list goes on), there’s gonna be a whole lotta burnin’ goin’ on.
During the 1989-1990 school year at Stanford University, I took Adrienne Kennedy’s playwriting class. We’ve been in touch ever since. Now, her grandson Canaan has written a book on his family, and I’m not only helping with the Kickstarter campaign, but I asked him a few questions about the project.
What’s the name of your book, and what is it about?
The title of my book is Struggles to Victory – Over Racism in America. This book is about my family’s experiences with being black in America and dealing with the racism that came with it. Ever since I was little, my family would tell me stories of the difficulties they faced in life because of the color of their skin. This book contains interviews from my father, my grandmother, and my grandfather. My father’s story explains his incident with the Arlington Police Department, when he was unlawfully beaten outside of his home in Arlington, Virginia. The interview explains this traumatic event and how he overcame this to write the play Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which went on to win the 1996 Obie Award for Best New American Play.
My grandmother’s interview tells her stories of attending Ohio State and traveling the world as she began her journey of becoming a playwright.
My grandfather’s interview explains his life and his co-founding of Africare, a non-profit organization committed to aiding people of Africa.
At 17 years old I wanted to record their lives into the form of a book so that people could gain insight into being black in America. What makes these stories so great is the fact that they were able to overcome racism and achieve their dreams. I’ve always been interested in how people overcome difficult obstacles and situations in life because ultimately overcoming obstacles, turning struggles into victories is what life is about. Understanding how people overcome adversity to achieve greatness is what I want to be able to mimic.
What was your process for creating it?
Well, I had this epiphany one day that made me want to sit down and write a book about my family. It was during the summer, it was a hot day, and this idea to write a book just came to me. I can remember writing about the process actually and on one occasion I wrote, “Well I’m writing a book and I have about seven pages.” It was a long process. I spent hours reading, researching, and conducting interviews and then transcribing them. Many hours were spent editing the transcriptions because they didn’t come out that well. I really immersed myself in the book because I really enjoyed doing it, and creating something of my own about something I care about was really wonderful. I can’t wait until it’s finished because then I can start to work on my next project.
Who’s the audience?
The audience is young adults who are trying to navigate life. The stories can teach me lessons about how to overcome difficult times.
What do you hope people take away from it?
With everything going on from Michael Brown to Eric Garner, I hope that people can get a better understanding of being black in America. I just want people to know about my family and what they had to go through. I was always proud of my family stories and found them very interesting, and I hope that people will be intrigued and fascinated too.
Who are some of your influences?
In my room I have posters of Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Caesar, Ramses, and Alexander the Great. My father taught me about these people who strived for greatness, who wanted to change the world. These are my icons because I too want to be great. These were all great men and their ability to command and lead people is why I respect them. All of these people understood that greatness is not built in a day, it is about the amount of everlasting effort you put into it.
Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy. As Spock, you brought us all over the galaxy, dealing with tribbles, recovering from the hazards of the planet Neural, jamming on your Vulcan harp. Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s also knew you from In Search Of…, where you introduced us to the legends of Bigfoot and the incorrigibly coy Loch Ness Monster.
Perhaps this was all sociocultural groundwork for the Mars 100.
In honor of your stature in the intergalactic In Crowd and your never-ending ability to terrify, provoke, and mystify, Cinemulatto is doing a bit of its own celestial discovery. Assuming that someone, somewhere, will eventually make it to Mars—several someones, most likely—we’re examining the question: why the hell do you wanna go there? What if, like Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope? Is this the next major evolutionary step for humans? What weighty objectives will our intrepid trailblazers of Martian Manifest Destiny tackle in the name of humanity, morality, and scientific advancement? This is your chance, humans—don’t screw it up. Also, I have a few more questions.
Questions for People Going to Mars
Will you propagate the species?
Will there finally be equality?
Will you not screw up the environment? Is that even possible on Mars?
Does this mean an end to poverty?
Will you establish more than a two-party system? Or have none?
You’ll have to share resources; will your society be socialist, communist, or other?
With lower gravity on Mars, will you evolve into an average height of 10 feet?
Will there be an LGBTQIA community?
Will the incarceration rate for black men disappear?
Does this mean an end to warfare?
Will you have the arts? Science? The search for truth?
Will you have schools, museums, and libraries?
Will there be guns?
What are you looking for, exactly?
Despite the questions raised by the possibility of the next phase of human evolution, our Martian counterparts are definitely escaping some of the more egregious things we have here on Earth. Just to provide a different, more positive perspective, here are a few things they’ll no longer have to think about.
Things Humanoid-Martians Won’t Have to Think About
Locally raised food
Westboro Baptist Church
Finding a parking space
Flash flood warnings
Dense fog advisories
Being mauled by a mountain lion
Whatever one thinks of the Mars One mission, space exploration is here to stay. I know I’m with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fare thee well, sweet species, fare thee well.
Cinemulatto’s mind has been all over the place—still tracing my family history (yes, someday I may even participate in an Acadian reenactment), reading a lot, breathing a bit after some big work deadlines. I’ve faced a few film festival rejections, leading me to wonder why I bother submitting to film festivals (and spending way too much money on submission fees, travel and housing costs in the event of an actual acceptance, and moving-target distribution opportunities).
I’ve had many moments where there’s been “just a little question in my mind,” to quote Arthur Lee. Here are the resulting thoughts.
Obama. A friend and I once had a debate about Jungle Fever and the gist was this: he felt Spike Lee could do no wrong since he’s the most radical African American filmmaker who’s ever hit the mainstream. Although I wouldn’t consider Obama radical, in many ways his presidency is a deviation, one mixed with inspired moments of governance—becoming “the LGBT president,” giving us Obamacare, pushing for immigration reform, reaching out to Cuba. I recognize there’s still work to be done and that he’s not perfect. Still, Obama has had an active and relatively progressive tenure, and this is why I find myself forgiving some of his political transgressions. After all, just about all of the “bad” things about his time in office predated him; things like wiretapping, drones, and detainees at military prisons were started by others. Obama hasn’t stopped them, for sure, but he also inherited them and likely stepped into an already well-established culture that predated him by several decades. So, I’ve been thinking about this. I’ll keep defending him.
Progress. The universe is almost 14 billion years old. Astronomer estimates say there are over 100 billion galaxies. What’s the nature of progress?
Democracy. In writing about Jane Austen’s female leads, Azar Nafisi states in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose.” Does this mean that the second episode of Black Mirror has a happy ending?
Films of the imagination. Have things like reality TV and the John Cassavetes Award inured us to creativity? Does make-believe only exist in the realm of science fiction? Can’t I pull a story and fictitious world out of my ass and have it be believable on its own terms?
Athanasia. My short film got accepted into this year’s Queer Women of Color Film Festival! The story is completely fabricated. It looks at how death affects an aunt who loses her nephew and her relationship with her partner. Everyone has their own way of dealing with death. More details to come once I have them. (By the way, there are no submission fees for this festival, it’s local, and all films are free.)
Happy 2015. It’s been awhile. I haven’t posted to this blog since November 26th, but I took a much-needed, end-of-year break to recuperate from multiple film productions and the ongoing physical and emotional demands of parenting.
However—I’ve been thinking about history, my own past, and my place in the genetic cosmos. In the process, I’ve also been continuing to contemplate the nature of forgiveness. When I studied abroad at Stanford in Oxford in the spring of 1990, I dated a young man whom we’ll call Peter (since that was his name). Whenever I stayed over at his place, he’d be up bright and early, and would leave way before I woke up. I finally asked him about this and he said his early morning trips were to the library, to “look for answers.”
I thought he was weird.
Now, so many years later, I’m in the middle of my own search for “answers.” It seems this has been accompanied by a mid-life crisis that’s been going on for about the last 20 years—or maybe not so much a crisis as an awakening. Or maybe I’m mistaking it for my Peruvian ayahuasca experience.
Whatever the cause, I find myself living life not necessarily as if each day is my last, but definitely with an awareness that each moment is filled with its own poetry. It’s a hyperawareness, a need to stay calm most of the time so that I don’t overwhelm anybody. I asked my psychotherapist wife recently if there’s such a thing as low-level bipolar disorder. She said yes.
I’ve posted here before about both my mother and my father, and about how I’ve largely forgiven my father for cruelties to my mother—hitting her, throwing water into her face, subjecting her to daily invective. Since then, I keep having flashbacks to moments of my father’s kindness I didn’t recognize as such at the time:
I used to collect aluminum cans in a bag, and every so often, my father would gather them, roll a cement block over to them, and crush the cans flat. We’d travel together to the local recycling center, where he’d give me the cash from my saved cans.
A staple for kids growing up in the 1970s was the Scholastic Book Club and their paper order forms jam-packed with a wide variety of children’s books. Whenever I brought the flyer home, my father would let me order whatever books I wanted (there must’ve been a limit). On book delivery day, he’d be there in the classroom, cash in hand, with a wide grin.
The first memory I have of my mother’s schizophrenia probably dates back to 1971 or 1972. I didn’t understand why she was standing on the other side of the room, acting so strangely. I know my younger brother wasn’t born yet. My older brother and I sat on our couch, our dad in the middle with an arm around each of us. I felt scared and protected at the same time.
The media would have us see things as clearly black or white—this or that, good or bad, either with us or against us. We’ve largely become a society of very little gray area, uncertainty, or “it depends”. We’d rather argue in absolutes.
I used to have absolute hatred for my father before maturing to the point of absolutely understanding he was a human being.
There have been far greater acts of mercy than what I’m going through with him. Eva Kor and The Forgiveness Project come to mind. If someone can forgive the men who, during the Holocaust, used human beings as lab rats, then I have no excuse for not making peace with my father. The memories that keep rolling in make it much easier.
Like Eva Cor, I haven’t forgotten, but I’ve forgiven.
Like so many others this week, I feel angered, saddened, and almost defeated by the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for his murder of Michael Brown. People are taking to the streets, to social media, to workplace and public debate.
At the same time, Bill Cosby shares race-fueled headlines. Party People—a play about the legacy of the Black Panthers and current questions of solidarity, the sociopolitical climate, and “armchair activism”—continues at Berkeley Rep to sold-out, mostly white audiences. I saw it with my wife last Friday night. I’m also in the middle of reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s 1936 poetic exploration of the lives of three poor, white Alabama sharecropper families that he conducted with FSA photographer Walker Evans. They never told their subjects their intentions or that they were media men; they didn’t provide them with a copy of the completed book, much less payment or royalties.
In sum, I’m a big mess. But if we’ve learned anything from suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Movement, and any movement geared toward leveling the playing field for the disenfranchised, it’s that we can never give up. If we do, “they” win.
As a parent of two who’s admittedly afraid of getting hurt and otherwise a big old large-crowd wuss, I’m not protesting in the streets. There is a vital need for loud, large-scale protest, even if I don’t and can’t participate. Activism comes in varied forms.
I can at times be that armchair activist, who, after spirited polemics on social media and carefully considered arguments with friends and co-workers, signs petitions and calls elected representatives. These efforts seem in vain after another brown life has been lost. What else, I ask myself, can I do?
Martin Luther King said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” So, I commit to working from the ground up, to greater action in the ways I best know how. Here’s my plan for trying to affect change in small ways, with the understanding that progress is often the sum of its parts.
Create a documentary that examines the lives of three contemporary families living on the margins, but pay the participants, self-distribute, and have all proceeds go to the families. Hire people from the communities in which the three families live.
Periodically go through my possessions and give them away instead of taking them to places like Goodwill or Salvation Army.
Volunteer to read books to underserved kids.
Hire an intern from an underserved community to work on my films, and pay them.
Donate to causes that provide food, educational opportunity, cultural engagement, and avenues of dignity to underserved youth.
Subsidize a youth’s trip to go see a socially relevant play, movie, or art exhibit.
Take a family in need out to a meal.
Take another family in need clothes shopping.
Stretch goal: Raise funds to sponsor someone’s health insurance premiums for a year, preferably a family.
Other stretch goal: Go through the list again and again. Add to it, refine, and grow it into something that’s part of who I am and how I exist in the world.
I’ll quote Johnny Rotten: “Anger is an energy.” The powers that be may have riot gear, but we have the incessant and unwavering energy—and ability—to be in many, many places at once, whether it’s online, in the streets, or behind a camera. There aren’t enough tanks for that, are there?
It’s been quiet. After major deadlines at my day job that meant a bunch of late nights and even more early mornings, several colds, and non-stop short film production, I’m now going to bed earlier. And sleeping more. And spending time not doing much as I prep for post-production on Socorro, the last short film of this year. It’s about a traveling musician in a semi-futuristic world in search of love and companionship (and his quest to take out a bad guy). Another of the 2014 shorts, Funcle, had its premiere on November 8th at the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival and I’m sending it out to meet a few more submission deadlines. It’s about the two genderqueer buddies pictured above.
Although there are still a couple of months left in the year, it seems as good a time as any to check in—how did I do with this year’s resolutions?
I made four shorts instead of six. This is fine by me. (Or, using active voice: I’m fine with this.) The four are Winter’s Eve, Athanasia, Funcle, and Socorro, and I had a private screening of the first three to a small group of good friends and my family. These were a blast to make and share. If nothing else happens with them I’m content. The main reason: throughout it all, along with the pressures of work, I battled a bout of mild depression and seem to have won. Note to creative types who get bogged down easily by life at moments: read, rest, eat well, take walks, drink tea, and get some sunshine.
I’ve got two feature scripts in decent shape. Not perfect, but not bad. My major goal for next year is to pick one (not six) and run with it.
I’ve been mentoring. As I mentioned in an April post, mentoring is so much more valuable than being a mentee. I’ve confirmed this as true. I’ve been guiding three actors on their quest to hone their skills, and although it’s a long process, I feel I’ve been able to provide the right amount of encouragement and guidance, as desired and requested by my mentees. A good start was casting them in my short films.
I’ve lost track of my movie retreats. Being the mother of a two-year-old at age 45 is damn hard. What I’ve learned in this process: patience grows thinner as you get older, or perhaps during middle age. As I’ve said before: read, rest, eat well, take walks, drink tea, and get some sunshine. Do this with your two-year-old and it makes things a lot easier.
I got out more! I’m happy to have made several new friends in 2014 (I hope you know who you are!). Life is good.
The gist of the above: despite Republicans now controlling Congress, bees dying, drone attacks, and bad things generally persisting, life and creativity go on for the artistically minded. Find time to relax. Then start all over again (at a slower pace, as needed).
“I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”–James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
It’s been over a century since the publication of James Weldon Johnson’s novel in which a bi-racial man passes for white in post-Reconstruction America. He shares first his experience of living as a black youth, then as a young man who passes for white in order to become successful and avoid persecution. He goes from a continual sense of doom and danger to a life of safety and security.
James Weldon Johnson lived during a time when it was perhaps understandable why someone would want to shed one’s skin, so to speak, and be done with social ostracism or culturally sanctioned murder.
Just when it seems as though things and times have changed—along comes Trayvon Martin. And Michael Brown. And John Crawford. And a list way too long, with statistics way too skewed against black males in America’s prison industrial complex.
The novel’s lead character, Ex-Colored Man, passes as white. One wonders why anyone wouldn’t still want to do the same thing, if possible, to secure a fat slice of the American, upper-crust pie. Well, no self-respecting bi-racial person, or at least not a socially conscious one, would do that today. (Right?) Still, perhaps she’s found herself in situations where she’s assumed to be a certain race and has to act accordingly.
What has this looked like for me? What does it mean for a mixed-race black and white person to experience blackness, whiteness, and something outside of either?
My father was told not to marry my mother because she was Jamaican. (We know how that turned out.) Once he went ahead with it, he was told to not have kids. (Ditto.) As a young girl, I experienced racism within my own extended family. I was never expected to do well, never encouraged to even speak at social gatherings, and always assumed to be, in the words of one of my aunts, “dumb.” As I got older, I learned what it’s like to be invisible in groups of mostly white people (especially in upstate New York). I’ve gotten side eye, up and down eye, glare eye, and annoyed face. In college, I started understanding and returning “the nod” when walking by a black person, as if I was part of a secret club.
I was also the first in my family (and I believe hometown) to go to a prestigious college. I’ve always—knock on wood—had good job karma, usually landing positions after one or two interviews, if I’ve even had to interview. I grew up being ridiculed for loving The Beatles. I’ve been told, “Oh, I thought you were white.” I’ve heard the N-word uttered, with no black people in sight, when no one thought I would care. I was often told as a child that I had “good hair.” I’ve gone to clubs with black friends who were turned away at the door after I was told I could go in (followed by me yelling at door guy, my own “annoyed face”, and leaving in a huff).
I’ve experienced both racism and privilege. Is this what it feels to be black and/or white? Is this the mixed-race experience?
Mixed-race, as it turns out, is a whole different beast, an alternate reality that takes elements of both white and black, and everything between, outside, and around. The puzzled looks of people trying to figure out what I am. The conversations with other mixed-race people that can only happen after such incidents as a recent trip to the grocery store. An older white man came very close to my mixed-race toddler, exclaimed, “The hair!”, and tried to give her a high five. She cowered and I interrupted with, “Hello, strange man, I don’t think she likes that.”
The mixed-race woman in the next aisle saw the whole thing. Thus came the post-game commentary: eye rolling accompanied by a discussion of how annoying it is when that happens. She told me that it wasn’t until she was 25 until she realized she had “good hair.” On the one hand I thought, great, maybe all the comments my daughter gets about her hair or indeterminate race won’t affect her all that much and she won’t even think about them until she’s older. On the other hand, I thought, wait, this woman spent two decades of her life thinking she had awful hair? Is this what it means to be mixed race—existing in a no man’s land created by society’s need to peg someone definitively as something, until such time that the someone finds her own sense of pride, identity, and self-respect? And what forms of suffering happen until then?
Ours is not a tragic mulatto!
Like any identity, mixed-race is a culmination of life experience, some good, some bad, and some uncertain. It’s refusing James Weldon Johnson’s “mess of pottage.” It’s taking the best of two worlds, processing the rest, and offering a unique perspective that can only come from seeing the larger world in different ways.
On a train in Italy back in the late 1980s, three Canadian guys mistook me for German, talking about me openly behind my back and not realizing we spoke the same language. My Italian friend said something to me and blew my cover. Being racially ambiguous has its more entertaining moments.