This week, Roots, the classic tale of slavery and survival, was revived and reimagined by the History Channel, and a new generation was empowered. Twitter erupted in animated commentary through the hashtags #RootsSyllabus, #KuntasKin, #Kizzy, #ChickenGeorge and #KuntaKinte. This year marks 40 years since the world was introduced to the original adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling novel, and many of the themes throughout this slave narrative continue to reflect some of the issues and values today in our community, including spirituality, tradition, values, and wisdom of a family of survivors. The four-part series showed us that regardless of our situation, it is absolutely imperative that we continue to persevere in mind, body, soul, and family. Below are several lessons that we, as a people, are able to take from this Alex Haley classic:
‘Your name is your spirit.’
The story of Kunta Kinte begins with his father, a Mandinka warrior, lifting him to the heavens to ask for his name, which was to be his purpose. This tradition was carried out generationally as a way to surrender the child to God (called Allah in the film) to allow them to become a vessel of purpose, which is similar to what we do today during a child’s baptism or dedication ceremony. Purpose gives life to another purpose and that purpose becomes legacy. This tradition is a foundation of spiritual fortitude that is to guide us through our lives and can be seen in Christianity and other faiths. However, the question for us all is “Are we named for our purpose and are we living it?”
We praise a God of all people.
What was interesting to see was the correlation between how the Black community is divided in spiritual beliefs back then and how it still rings true today. Some believe that Christianity was taught to Black people as a tool of control. Today, some look at Christianity in a degenerate way that made Black people meek, submissive, and unwilling to fight. Kizzy was most vocal about the faith with the statement ‘Jesus ain’t done nothing for Black people’. As time passed she and George’s wife Matilda, a Christian, were able to come to a mutual understanding of the spirit that recognized God.
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
We are warriors.
Kunta Kinte was raised to be a warrior and every generation after became one almost by default of their spiritual connection. Kizzy was empowered by her father to be a warrior of the mind, body, and spirit. Although she fought for her freedom, she was ultimately still enslaved, but not in her mind. As our youth continue to be bullied by peers or police we have to continue to raise them to be warriors within the mind and spirit. This is a value well carried in the Black community, that has allowed us to overcome many things post slavery. But we must ask ourselves how can we help others who have lost their ‘warrior way’?
She’s hard-headed and I like her.
With the empowerment and simultaneous attack on Black women’s beauty, intelligence, fortitude, and accomplishments, there was such a wonderful representation of how we’ve always had success in our blood. Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte, embodied all of these qualities and took pride in it, which is what made her attractive. Even after giving birth to George as a result of being raped, she had the strength to love her son and raise him with the values she learned from her parents. The key element in all of this was the mutual respect between men and women for their strengths. When George wanted to marry Matilda, it is revealed that he was attracted to her stubbornness and strength, qualities similar to his mother Kizzy. That alone is a statement. This is a message to all Black women. It is your birthright to be amazing!
Photo Courtesy of Twitter/RootsSeries
‘We will not survive as enemies.’
Today, the Black community faces a crisis of crippling acts that is tearing us apart, including crime-induced, petty arguments, pride, greed. When Kunta is taken on to the slave ship there was a moment where many warriors from different tribes complained and argued until someone said ‘We will not survive as enemies.’ In the community today, we have people like Fiddler (Henry), who are able to ‘play by the rules’ and try to guide others out of their chained mindset. And there are other figures, like the tribe that sold the Mandinga warriors to the Europeans, who are driven by the aforementioned, crippling acts, without realizing that we are all on the same ship. When the slaves unified, regardless of their titles in their homeland, the ship’s power began to crumble. How have we not realized the value in being unified in the spirit?
Family is the root of wholeness.
Family is the nucleus of survival and spiritual connection throughout the entire series. There were many family dynamics that dictated how the various characters operated. Kunta and Belle were in love and had Kizzy which is comparable to a conventional family unit. On the other hand, George is the illegitimate child of the slave master Tom Lee, with whom he has a ‘weekend Dad’ relationship, which is strained when Lee treats him like a slave instead of a son. Eventually, when George and Tom repair their strained relationship, it can be compared to a situation when a father is absent for an extended period of time and eventually attempts to rebuild that relationship. What was seen in each of these situations was an unbreakable bond that allowed the evolution of the spirit and tradition. Despite any circumstance, the dedication to family is the root of wholeness back then and even more so now.
So what is Roots really about? It is about living in our spiritual purpose as we, as a community, walk through generational circumstances and evolve as a whole to honor our spiritual lineage.
Jamie Foxx as Django and Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz. (Photo credit: Columbia Pictures/Newscom)
Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.
The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.
Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.
This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.
As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.
White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.
The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence. Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.
A DIFFERENT PATH: Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of the Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and finding solace in her Muslim faith pulled her off the streets. (Photo: Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)
Youth violence in Chicago has reached epidemic levels, with gunfire plaguing neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. It is a disease that is responsible for claiming the lives of dozens of young people, many of whom were engaged in activities as innocent as walking to school or playing in their yards when their lives were cut short.
Each day innocent bystanders are being killed due to the incessant gunfire. In an effort to counteract the violence, a number of community activists have come together in a collaborative effort with hopes of “interrupting” the bloodshed in the city’s streets. Their stories are told in the award-winning documentary The Interrupters. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and produced by bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), The Interrupters chronicles the lives of three Chicagoans who were once participants in the destruction but who turned their lives around to become “violence interrupters.” Now they are working to restore peace to their community.
Last month, a collection of community organization, including the South Side Help Center, CeaseFire, and the University of Chicago Medicine, partnered with the filmmakers of The Interrupters to host a movie screening and panel discussion on addressing the youth violence problem. UrbanFaith attended the event and chatted with the students, community leaders, and anti-violence experts who participated in the forum.
HE STILL GOT GAME?: Spike Lee’s new film, ‘Red Hook Summer,’ which explores religion and urban life in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is his first movie to be released during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Photo: David Lee/Newscom)
Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.
Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”
Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.
Lord, Help Our Blind Sides
The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.
In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.
We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”
Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
Where Art Thou, Spike?
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.
This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.