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Journal, Day Four
I walked out into a delicate pink and gray sunset after sitting for the second time in Cinema Three at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in less than one week. What took me to this particular theater on two separate occasions: two great movies, the first is 30 years old; the second premiered tonight. Cinema, film, the movies are profound works of art to me. You have to understand I was raised in a Pentecostal home so movie going was a sin. In fact, the only movie I was allowed to see when I was growing up was Imitation of Life because Mahalia Jackson sang in the funeral scene. And what a scene! The Black Mother (spurned by her biracial daughter, mind you) is given full serious honors—horse drawn carriage, marching band, the lot. I had a funny conversation with David Trinidad, who remembered this as a Lana Turner/John Gavin vehicle, while I thought of it as a Sandra Dee as the nice white girl to Susan Kohner, who dared to play a Black woman (passing) when playing outside your race was the equivalent of playing outside your sexuality like all those straight men playing gay, ya dig. Susan did not get an Oscar nod, but then she overacted like crazy. Oh those days of miscegenation and its bad consequences.
Well back to Mahalia. She was dressed in luxurious robes, her abundant hair beautifully done and she sang. It was a three-four-five hankie movie where even the poor colored people were well-dressed and just a little less obsequious to the good and not so good white folks. Lana and John were all right, but I was there for Mahalia and the few Black folk who were allowed to look good and have their own crises of the heart. But I got to say the original Imitation of Life with Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers in full Aunt Jemina drag and Fredi Washington, a very light-skinned Black American is 10 times better.
So I love great movies. And there are so few. But one is Antonioni’s The Passenger starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider and a variety of African and European landscapes, interiors and resorts. That’s the simple version. The Passenger is a series of visual, philosophical, and emotional vignettes that builds a complexity that stays on your mind and in your heart years after seeing it. From the opening scenes in what looks to be Mali or some place North African in which a curious, depressed, fascinated, tired, hungry, and thirsty Nicholson follows one false lead after another to the final scenes framed by a window that looks at a world growing smaller and smaller, this is a film that takes its time and shifts the sense of who and where and what is seen even as it plays out conventional “suspense” traits and glories in alienation.
Nicholson is gorgeous in The Passenger. He’s tan, trim, his voice like a deep, whiskey-soaked bell. You can smell his musk. And he is funny. His “hookup” with Maria Schneider is perfect. Barcelona is beautiful and sad. The Gaudi apartments are memorable. The picture perfect lighting is downright terrifying. And what’s more, Antonioni understands the use of the obscene. Horrible, brutal things happen to any number of characters, particularly the African ones, in the film, but you see some, but not all of it. Which makes their suffering so much more acute.
Like any great romance, the movie’s eroticism simply amplifies a meditation of life and death. When I first saw this movie I identified with Maria Schneider’s character, a student, a tourist, seeking something, joining the “bad” guy for the thrill of it all. But now I see that serves as a kind of Beatrice demanding the pilgrim get his act together, meet his appointment, deal with the fate he’s taken. If you steal a dead man’s life, you will not live long.
Tonight I also had the privilege of seeing The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela by Thomas Allen Harris. He is an accomplished African American filmmaker and artist and the brother of Lyle Ashton Harris, whose photographs and other media-based art deal with questions of race, sexuality, and Black culture. These two young men were raised in the Bronx in a home of African American intellectuals, their mother a highly regarded teacher, a home that became a meeting place for South African exiles because their step father Benjamin Pule (Lee) Leinaeng was a member of the first group of exiles who carried the ANC’s message to a larger world. Mr. Leinang’s funeral in his home town in South Africa is the catalyst for a movie that is part portrait, part meditation on fathers and sons; part history lesson, part exploration of the influence of Pan Africanism on the Black community, part pursuit of a new African identity. A pursuit anticipated in Lorraine Hansberry’s work.
The Twelve Disciples honors the 12 men, some of whom did not live to 30, who left the police state that was South Africa in their early 20s, with a passion for freedom for their nation and a hatred of apartheid. I have to say “No Afrikaners were harmed in the making of this movie.” But a part of me wishes that the farmer who refused to pay his worker could have been found, named, and made to pay with interest. When the murderer of the three civil rights workers was finally convicted in Mississippi, I know that many young people thought, Why bother? But why not? Justice must be done. Even if the person never sits in jail. His deed has been called. His name is in the record books. The coward and brute that was this person is now part of history.
We live in an era where as Americans we run from pain as if it is the major problem to be dealt with. We got drugs to cauterize just about anything, even shyness. But numbness, indifference is so much worse. How are we to create fuller, more complex and morally rich stories if we cannot recognize suffering? If our stories remain untold, then a part of human history is left out, cut away and stereotypes, lies and distortions move into the breach. When I came to the New York in the 1970s there were exiles from all over: Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, all over. I knew they were here because “home” meant torture, privation, death. What Harris’film gave me was a fuller idea of exile and a richer portrait of these men who were away from “home” for 30 years. They accomplished much, but they were truly hurting. Mr. Leinaeng literally created the public relations arm of the ANC and carried it out during the Reagan Administration, which was aligned with the powers in Pretoria. When the film presents the ANC rally at Yankee Stadium after Mandela’s release, I could feel the power of that day in audience full of ANC representatives and their friends. A Free South Africa exists with all the problems that free people deal with. Harris lets us understand the enormous sacrifice that people make as warriors, revolutionaries, idealists, and friends. They did this during our lifetime, and in his serious, emotional, complicated view of a man who he never called father, but who called him son, there is the usefulness of that greatest of poetic forms, the epic. How else to elevate justice and dignity—warriors are named, their deeds recalled, their deaths mourned.
For me these two very different films (a fictional movie; a post-modern documentary) show a connection between African liberation and the West. How Africans dealt with a shift of power from the colonials to the colonels is still being played out with awful effects in the Sudan and elsewhere. But the continent is not only known for corruption and carnage, it is also a place of hope. The President of Liberia is a woman. The artist projects that make up the AIDS awareness campaigns in Uganda are models for the world. Malians are not only exporting a brilliant and varied musical culture but also Bogulan, a design aesthetic. And there has been an extraordinary commitment from regular people in the West, philanthropists, religious activists, scientist, community organizers, just plain folks to providing resources to combat AIDS, to demanding a better accounting from our political leaders about what is happening in Darfur, Nigeria, Liberia, the Sudan. We live on one globe.
These films made by radically different filmmakers have given me the gift to know that romance can be a life and death proposition and that sometimes sons honor their fathers by making works of art that share that most intimate of truths—we may see someone each and every day, but we never truly know them until we throw dirt on their coffins.