The Walking Conundrum

I love AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  At the moment it’s my favorite show on television.  I love the effects, the cinematography—virtually every aspect of the show.

But there’s one thing that gives me pause …

The black characters.

“The Walking Dead” isn’t the first show to have problematic black characters, but the light of disappointment shines so brightly here because I love the show so much.

It hurts. It hurts like having a child who is a math whiz, but smokes crack sometimes.

Back in season one when filmmaker Frank Darabont was still affiliated with the show, there was a moment where a father and son, both of whom are black, took in the character Rick Grimes, a sheriff before the zombie apocalypse began.

We learn that the father lost his wife to the apocalypse and that he is determined to keep his son safe as he is all that is left of the family. As a zombie horde approaches the father’s home, amongst the undead is his wife.  She comes to his house as we watch her through the scope of his rifle – trained on her head.

He wrestles with pulling the trigger.  He wrestles with the acceptance that his wife is now a zombie. But he cannot pull trigger, for to do so would not just kill the wife, but the hope that life can return to what it once was.

I love that scene.  I love that character.  Yes, he was black, but he was human even more so.  He was a father, a husband.  He was scared, vulnerable, uncertain and yet heroic.  He was something so rare in TV and film, a black person with real character development and a storyline.

But then, after that one, solitary episode, he and his son were never heard from again.

Since Darabont left the show, most of the black characters introduced in season one (and all the Hispanic characters – no matter how interesting) have remained incidental, non-existent or presumed dead. The only shining example of a well-rounded non-white character is the Asian American Glenn – who is also my favorite.

Now, I can already hear the rumblings of the producers of the show who may not be of color saying, “What is it going to take to make you happy? We have more black characters then virtually any show on TV that’s not on BET, TV One, or a network owned by Ted Turner!”

Good question.

I don’t want “black” characters.

I want “characters” who happen to be black.

So what’s my issue now since I loved that scene in season one?

Exhibit #1: T-Dogg or (T-Dawg)

I hated T-Dogg.  Much of it had to do with the fact that his name was “T-Dogg.”  Not Andre or Nathan, not even Lester, but T-Dogg.

T-Dogg always fell, he dropped the keys that lead to Merle cutting off his hand, he cut himself, was unusually adversarial, and he couldn’t fight.

Now, I’m aware that it’s a stereotype that all black men can fight. But in popular fiction, if your name has “Ice,” “MC,” “Lil,” or “Dogg” you must be able to fight.  It’s a television/film physics principle like gravity.

But T-Dogg couldn’t fight.  I never felt him lament the pre-zombie world.  No nightmares of a lost family, no longing for love, sex or power.  Just an incredible ability to fall at the most inopportune time.

But he did man up finally.  He gave a nice soliloquy … and then he died.

(I actually love that about the show.  Any time they dance, have a cookout or an incredibly nice moment, you can bet death by a zombie is a camera step away.)

But back to my issue.

T-Dogg’s gone.  But now we have Michonne!  And she’s a “bad ass.” It’s a term I loathe, as it harkens back to the O.G. days of “Shaft” or “Superfly.” She has an incredible understanding of zombie culture.  She can walk amongst them, keep them as pets and oh … how she can kill! As she stalks, skulks and sulks around to the point you half expect a narrator to shout: “She’s a bad Mofo!”  “She got a sword!”  “Say what?”  “Yo, mama! Gimme five!” “Get down wit yo bad self!” as she takes to the walkers like Bill the Butcher.

She doesn’t smile and ducks her head slightly like a pit bull ready to attack.

I’m cool with all of this.  Here’s my question.

When she and Andrea were captured by “The Governor,” Andrea quickly became the sexy vixen the Governor worked his Jim Jones Cult sexiness on. But Michonne? Nobody tried to hit it.  There was never even the threat of rape, as was the case later when Maggie was captured.

It’s almost as if Michonne wasn’t a “woman” in the classical sense of the word.  And in the world of “The Walking Dead,” she’s not a woman.

She’s a Bad Ass.

Bad Asses don’t have sex.  They don’t cry.  They don’t feel.  You know why?

They aren’t real.

They aren’t human.

They are cartoon characters.

They are colorful no doubt. They make great t-shirts, but they don’t advance the idea of what great characters of color can be.  Are they better than nothing?  Yes, perhaps, but I’m saying yes through grit teeth.

I still love the show, but it doesn’t escape me that curiously, they are in Atlanta, Ga., aka “Chocolate City,” but the zombie demographic isn’t very Negro. Maybe all of the black people are hiding out, fashionably dressed, building up a funk- hip-hop fusion band that knows karate and kills zombies while pop locking as they speak in rhyme.

Maybe they’ll show up one day and stake their claim in the zombie apocalypse.

That would be “Bad Ass.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild- A Must See

It’s rare to find cinematic dreams realized. It’s an elusive thing – finding that moment where you forget you’re even reading the book, watching the TV, watching the movie and you take it in on face value, like a dream, like the picture unfolded from your own mind seamlessly. It’s a minor miracle – a good film is. It makes your forget. It makes you live a life that’s not your own. It consumes you, then wakes you up to the tune of end credits. And that’s the kind of film director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is.

It’s reality, but it’s the fantasy version of reality. It’s child-like wonder. It’s dream-state. It’s where you get lost and when you find yourself at the end all you want is to be lost again.

Zeitlin’s Beasts, along with co-writer Lucy Alibar, create a film that redefines the fantasy genre. By construing the mental obstacles we face in life, along with the creation of a beyond exemplary live action fantasy based world, Zeitlin and Alibar have delivered the most effective fantasy film since Del Toro’s El Orphanato.

Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of six-year-old Hush Puppy, played by tenderfoot Quvenzhané Wallis, a suborn but strong willed girl, burdened with caring for her sick and short tempered father Wink, Dwight Henry, during a time of crisis.

Living in a fictitious, below sea level region called “The Bathtub,” Hushpuppy is foretold of gargantuan beasts that will soon be free to roam the world, and that upon their release from their polar ice cap prison, the oceans would flood her home. Now faced with losing her home and father, Hushpuppy has to quickly decide whether or not stand strong as an individual part of the universe, or be swallowed by the rest of it.

It’s not uncommon that the spark of a fantasy story be derived from a tragic event, forcing a young antagonist to fall back into an intimate world of fantasy. The film adaptations of the Narnia books depict the fantastic adventures of four young children after fleeing from a war-plagued country. Pan’s Labyrinth follows the journey of a little girl who seeks guidance in a fantasy world after losing her mother during the birth of her brother. A common factor in these stories and most other fantasy films is that they rely heavily on their fictitious creatures. The viewer is forced to learn from the words of a talking lion, or follow directions from a faun. This isn’t the case in Southern Wild.

As fitting as the idea sounds, Zeitlin is one of the rare filmmakers to express concepts via the interactions between father and daughter. The film contains several scenes in which Hushpuppy would appear to be lost without a cause until her short tempered father and his unconventional form of teaching is enacted to show his child the way. For example, there’s a scene in which Hushpuppy and Wink are forced to endure a storm of extreme magnitude. Both seeming to understand that they might not survive, Hushpuppy shows signs of fear. Upon seeing this, Wink grabs a shotgun and literally tries to take on the storm. In watching her father barge outdoors and shoot buckshot at raindrops, the lesson for Hushpuppy and subsequently the viewer was that one never has to lie down when the universe presents itself a threat; the option to fight is never out of our reach. This concept, along with others, is not only restated in several similar scenes throughout the film, but is supported via the continuous voiceovers of none other than Hushpuppy herself, confirming that she had retained and made the information her own. With each new obstacle that presents itself, the stakes are raised and Hushpuppy is forced to progress from student, to executer, and ultimately making her was to leader.

Quvenzhané and Henry are impeccable in their portrayals of Hushpuppy and Wink. It hasn’t been since the Pursuit of Happiness that a child has carried their role with the refined talent of an adult as displayed by Quvenzhané. Henry deserves applause for being able channel and maintains Wink’s southern spirit in every scene.

However, just as the Narnia children could sip tea with beavers, Hushpuppy was able to spend time beasting crabs with good ol’ Levy, a high-spirited, and seemingly “off” character, well played by Jean Battiste. The story contains several characters that resemble those commonly played by animals in fantasy films. Each character serves his or her function in supporting Hushpuppy and the decisions she makes throughout the course of journey. The film comes to a point where the adults have come up with a plan to solve their recent misfortunes. They plan to destroy a levy, which would in turn drain poisonous water form their community, giving them a fighting chance for survival. The catch is that acting out the plan requires one to question what’s right and wrong, to commit an act that would be considered criminal in a worldview, but necessary to Hushpuppy and those close to her. When the switch lands in Hushpuppy’s hands, she’s forced to act quickly and make a serious decision under pressure; something that those of us in the real world understand to be a difficult task.

Beasts takes an unusual task as a film, in that it not only chooses to teach the viewer but also expresses the results of that applied knowledge in a visceral manner. Zeitlin does this on several occasions while still mastering the other elements of film.

Zeitlin’s craft in constructing a world unique to his vision has created a film that viewers will forever recall as original and one of a kind. Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a world seemingly familiar to the reader but becomes completely foreign with the addition of a few simple elements. Adding to the wonder, Zeitlin’s talent with visual effects is displayed in how he creates motorboats built out of truck beds, mobile homes float 15 feet above ground, and a functional town exists in the center of a swamp that appears to have no connection to the outside world.

Beyond the first line of characters, Beasts of the Southern Wild contains several figures that are necessary in completing a successful story of fantasy. One of the most fantastic aspects of this film is that there are no color lines. Each character is respectively efficient in his or her role. While the viewer is lead by two black characters that are plagued by a series of misfortunate situations, there is never a hint that a “them versus us” situation refers to people of color versus those of Caucasian decent. The only division between people was that between those that can’t enjoy life in its purest form versus those that are happy to be alive. Were one to critique this film’s depiction of black and white interactions based upon those that take place in reality, he or she would be in a state of disbelief that a white doctor would be passionate about a sick and beyond poor black man’s well being. Or that a seemingly stable captain would find nothing odd and take aboard liter of filth encompassed children.

There were no angry black rants about how the white man doesn’t care about blacks, nor were there elite voices that forced people of color to remain in a poverty-stricken area. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a relish able film, composed of the perfect mixture of writing, acting, and directing.

Go see the movie and be consumed. See movies for what they were made to be – the augmentation of our dreams.

Red Hook Summer- Spike Lee’s Resurgence

No one takes a risk like Spike Lee. And for years, those risks worked.

From She’s Gotta Have It to Miracle at St Anna, even his misses were still dripped in the ambition that made his hits hit. He’s historically been fearless in his subject matter, even if it left you scratching your head more than blowing your mind.

Lee’s latest “joint,” a story dedicated to religion, revival and Brooklyn, “Red Hook Summer” has the bent of what once was with the reality of what constitutes Lee’s work now.

It’s not so much that the fire is gone, it’s ever present, but perhaps Lee, forever the agigtator is languishing in lack of challenge. Say what you will of his 90s resume – from Mo’ Betta Blues to Malcolm X – he was about reaching for the sun, even if he landed somewhere near Mars.

It was still farther than most filmmakers ever go.

Red Hook Summer doesn’t pack the refinery of the “original” Spike Lee joints. The plot follows the summer vacation of Flick (Jules Brown), an arrogant adolescent boy sent by his mother to spend time with his grandfather, the good Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. Grumbling through his job at the local church, Flick constantly expresses his dislike of life in Red Hook, all the while fighting his grandfather’s attempts to draw him to the Good Book. Time goes on, and just when Flick seems to be adjusting to his summer, the revelation of a family secret throws a curveball in his stay.

A Spike Lee joint usually tackles major social issues that have a large effect on the mindset of African Americans. Do the Right Thing discussed the issue of racism, Jungle Fever, drug addiction and interracial relationships. The issues addressed in Red Hook Summer cover a wide range of topics including the lack of African American involvement in the stock market, to the integrity of church representatives. While the topics addressed in the film were in every way worthy of being placed in the film, the unfolding of the plot didn’t seem to fit well with the film.

The plot in itself is very linear, there is no B story to alternate to which in turn forces the audience to solely think of what’s directly in front of them. The audience is therefore forced to sympathize with Flick and engage each social issue as they are seen by him. The problem is that Flick wasn’t much involved when it came to tackling any of the issues. For example, one of the film’s smaller themes touched on the subject gentrification. From fresh concrete to white residents, the audience could see the change from the Do the Right Thing version of Brooklyn. However, the closest our hero comes to engaging in this topic is pouting through a service in which his grandfather gives a line or two about the issue.

Another topic that seemed to be softly touched was the obsession African American youth has with the criminal side of the Hip-Hop lifestyle. If any character in the film were to claim the role of antagonist it would be Box (Nate Parker), the neighborhood thug and drug dealer. This character is supposed to represent the hazardous, menacing and destructive lifestyle that comes off appealing to our youth. However, no one seems to really care about Box. He doesn’t go around looking for trouble, nor does he seem to be destroying the community with his product. It actually seems like he’s made Red Hook a fairly happy place seeing as to how his customers don’t use in public. Any altercation between Box and Flick wasn’t necessarily a result of Box being part of a misguided generation; it was usually the result of Flick illogically approaching a group of thugs with an iPad 2.

The issue would’ve been clearer if Box had forced Flick to run an errand for him, or somehow try to lead him down a dark path. Yet as was the case with many of the films issues, the antagonist was not very concerned with any of what was going on around him.

The fact that Lee has been able to deliver greatness on a consistent basis might force some to think that Red Hook is a bad movie. This is far from the case, and for the record, I’d like to state that Lee’s still got it. Shot in 18 days, Lee managed to create a satisfactory film that embodied his signature use of different color lenses and wide angles.

The film is effective in its telling of Flick’s eye-opening stay in Red Hook. While the boy doesn’t seem to have an eye for what’s going on in society, he does learn to sympathize with people of whom he was once biased. Upon arriving in BK, Flick seemed to set on hating everything and everyone, including his grandfather. No matter how much sense his grandfather made, Flick was set resisting him. The audience does get to witness the transformation of Flick’s character into a boy that learns to accept others for who they are.

The characters are unique appropriately serve their functions. There doesn’t seem to be a more fitting actor than Peters to tackle the role of Bishop Enoch. Genuine in his word, and kind hearted in his actions, the film relied heavily on the fact that the audience needed to place their complete trusts in his character, and Peters achieved this. Comical yet wise in his drunkenness, Deacon Zee, played by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, draws laughter out of the audience while simultaneously making the audience think. Box wasn’t as vulgar a character as those of the generation he represents, but he does serve his characters function in the twist at the end of the film. And Flick? Yeah I have to say Brown got down in his role. The kid nailed the characters attitude so well that several members of the audience took of their belts and attacked the screen. Lee demonstrates that one of the most important aspects of filmmaking involves casting the perfect actors, and he does just that.

Don’t expect He Got Game, but go ahead and see the movie.

The Screenwriters’ Survival Guide 101: How Do You Make It When You Don’t Have A Steady Gig?

When you enter a field as amorphous and unpredictable as writing, having a “flexible hustle” is near mandatory. And by “flexible hustle” I mean never marrying yourself to one job, path or idea that is supposed to carry you into success.

It doesn’t matter what horse you ride there on. You just need to have one. Or in this case – several – at your disposal. Horses, like jobs, paths and ideas, can come up short, come up lame, get shot and end up dead.

I’ve never bet my whole career on there only being one way to make it work. It’s Hollywood – not The Highlander.

Even before I started my writing career, I often had more than one job. Most were physical, as I was almost seven-feet-tall and ventured towards gigs that took advantage of my size. I was a bouncer, security guard and lumberyard manager. Having a lot of checks (even when they were small) made me feel I had options. If one job ended, it didn’t break me, and I liked having lots of places where I could make money.

The same pretty much fits for the writing world.

When I arrived in Hollywood in my mid-20s, I was a lost soul. I knew virtually no one and was ignorant to the lay of the land, but what I did have was a work ethic, rooted in knowing my survival depended on that confluence between flexibility and hustle. I was sometimes a production assistant on as many as three movies at a time. From there I built relationships and learned the trade – all while paying my rent and taking care of my son as I searched for that infamous “big break.”

But a “Big Break” is no promise. It’s not an invitation to kick back. I’d known and heard stories of many writers who’d had great jobs on shows and never, ever worked in the industry again.

And I knew I didn’t want to be one of them.

These writers who struggled to find work were often talented and good people. But for whatever reason they had an incredibly short run in the business.  Possibly because they didn’t get that they were working in a “business.” Writing is a creative and often emotional process.  It can be hard to understand how something that comes from a place so personal can be dispensed, dismissed and reproduced in an often heartless and commercial matter.

In our effort to develop our creative talents and get at the hearts’ of our creations, we can lose sight of the more mechanical parts of film and TV production. There’s a budget and a bottom line – and very little time for the personal.

Writers are often independent contractors.  We get jobs, but they are temporary in nature.  Think of how many television shows last more than three seasons, and how most last even less than that.  With this in mind, I’ve always operated from the assumption that sooner rather than later I will be unemployed. When that break writing for television came for me, I continued to utilize the same principles I’d always had. Even though I was a writer on “My Wife and Kids” I kept networking, planting seeds for future work.

I’ve been fortunate to have a quality team of agents, a manager and a lawyer who share my perspective on the business and are diligent in getting contracts and studios to work within my philosophy.  But even I have to navigate those times when a TV show might not be enough.

This is why I’ve never called myself a “TV writer.”

Sure, I write television shows, but I also write movies, commercials, music videos, books, documentaries, reality shows, magazine articles, web blogs, graphic novels, motion comics, web series … whatever.  Give me a subject line and a title and I’ll get you something out of it. I’m a writer.

It makes little sense to limit myself to one aspect of the business. To place all my bets on that one “TV writer” horse when she could get cancelled at any time, for any reason.

I also don’t label myself as purely a “black writer.” That may be controversial to some and the industry may attempt to define me as such, but what does race have to do with the ability to tell a story? I write material rooted in human behavior – not “black” behavior. While I love and care about my culture, I’m equally attached to the fact that I am a human being. Creative writing is about moving beyond limitations. Why bound yourself to a label when we’re all so much more than that?

It’s up to each of us to define how we want to shape our careers, but when we’re staring out, we also shouldn’t be too overly committed to one kind of shape. We have to find a balance. We have to be open to what opportunities are afforded to us. One break may get you in the door, but it’s your malleability and business-sense that keeps you there.

Think Like A Man: A Look At Black Relationships Minus Sex, Drugs & Insanity

Surprise, surprise.

With a large cast of journeymen (and women) black actors and all the familiar beats of a standard rom-com, the film adaptation of comedian-turned-relationship guru Steve Harvey’s book Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man has defied what has befallen many a black film before – it’s not a stereotype.

But more on that later.

When I first heard film and TV producer Tim Story was making a film adaptation of Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man, I was prepared to send Harvey a strawberry death letter. Defying the much mythologized “man code,” Harvey’s book was all about telling women the strategies men use to get into their pants … err … I mean, hearts. And in lesser hands, it would be easy to turn the instructional book into a tired, racialized screed on gender politics.

The film profiles black relationships, which typically get a heavy-handed treatment by Hollywood no matter who’s making the film. Complex relations are devolved into a crazy, violent blur, and I was prepared to watch Havery’s book turn into two hours of domestic violence and past due electricity bills.

But that didn’t happen.

Story, and his cohorts Keith Merryman and David Newman, have done the unthinkable – they managed to produce a film about African American couples that actually makes sense.

Usually when a black romantic comedy wields a star-studded cast as powerful as the one in Think Like A Man it’s only to distract the audience from realizing they’re sitting through another film that approaches the black relationship from a stereotypical point of view, ultimately leaving the viewer with a smile and nothing else to take away from the film.

These films deal in rote stereotypes about black love. Black women painted as problematic and undesirable characters, only seeking helpmates to raise their child with someone else. Painted as unapproachable because if you ask her out she could roll her eyes, cuss you out, or kick you in the nuts. Or, if you’re really lucky, do all three.

Black men are the ironic opposite of black women as film’s intangible sex symbol, regardless of how thuggish or feminine he is. The problem is all he has to do is be sexy with no intelligence or moral values. He simply has to take his shirt off, glisten, and wait for the end credits.

No matter what the conflict is, sexy black characters rely solely on their physical appearance or attitude to gain sanction as a “hero” in the audience’s eyes. Since this tactic has been proven to work, in the sense that the film makes money, most filmmakers won’t take the risk of creating complex black characters.

Think Like A Man actually tries to subvert these tropes. In a scene with Romany Malco, the buff actor seeks the help of his friends after a few failed seduction attempts on his newest girl. While the friends are fully clothed, Romany isn’t, but being the good friends they are, they sincerely want to hear him out. Which would be a simple enough task if he would just put a shirt on.

In this moment, comedic actor Kevin Hart’s character Cedric reminds Malco’s character that there are no women present and his six-pack won’t help him get out of this problem. Thus, bringing home the point that a hard body won’t do the hard work of building a successful relationship.

While Harvey’s book was written for women, the film revolves mostly around the male characters, each struggling with a personal dilemma that keeps them from managing a successful relationship. There’s the sexy fool incapable of viewing women as people with emotions; the looker wondering if his approach to women is appropriate or moral; the “Mama’s Boy” portrayed as a young man raised by a single mother who demands affection from her son; the Peter Pan guy, afraid to grow up; and your classic “broke” brother.

That last role goes to Michael Ealy’s character, who unlike some of the depth the other male characters have, reminds us that the film is just that, a film. He plays a fictional character that’s basically good because he’s poor.

Jumping through some improbably hoops, Ealy’s character was often fanciful in a patently absurd way. I refuse to believe that a brother who drives a multi-colored Honda civic which is composed of more duck tape than car would quit his job to pursue a woman he’s never spoken to.

At one point in the film Ealy’s character lands a job in a high-class restaurant where he probably received a decent paycheck for his kind of work. Then in a scene where he notices Henson’s character from the kitchen, yes the kitchen that’s in the back of the restaurant that doesn’t have a good view of the dining area, he decides to go after her. His boss arrives just in time to tell him to help valet cars, where he decides to steal a customer’s hundred-thousand dollar car and pursue the woman.

It doesn’t matter that he’s poor and probably has no experience talking to woman who’ve have several times more success than him, all he has to is pull up next to her, yes the traffic lights were on his side, and ask her out.

While I understand what the film’s producer’s were trying to do with Ealy’s character, he’s not credible enough for me to believe that a viewer could take something away from his relationship with Henson’s character, which is solely based on chance. The character’s only personal conflict in the film is that he habitually jumps from career-to-career, which ultimately paints him to be an unreliable character that can’t make up his mind as to what he wants to be when he grows up. But we lucked out as viewers because we catch him at the exact moment he decides upon the career that he is destined to have, (but hey, he could be a bus driver in the sequel).

In the real world a poor black man would never be able to pull a high caliber women such as the one played by Taraji P. Henson, which brings us to the most miraculous aspect of the film.

The black women in Think Like A Man are represented as powerful, successful people. After decades of being portrayed as violent, insane, “unstable creatures,” the black woman is now appropriately represented from all sides. We find the highly successful character played by Henson to be strong, yet plagued with a small amount of “bourgieness” as a result of her success. Meagan Good’s character represents the kind-hearted woman who’s had to suppress her emotions because she’s been used by one to many R&B singers. I was glad to see that Regina Hall’s character didn’t indulge in much shouting and was literate enough to read Harvey’s book. She was faced with the difficult task of finding a good man that wouldn’t be hung up on the fact that she has a child. Gabrielle Union’s character didn’t kick her man in the nuts for not having a job. Instead she stood by him helped him make an adult decision as to how he wants to live his live.

Tim Story and company do a thorough job of duly representing the modern African American woman, and, in turn, thoughtfully represent black love. With the guidance of Harvey, and the comical yet enlightening narration of Kevin Hart, the subject of the relationships black people share is no longer an inexplicable slew of sex, drugs, and insanity. Think Like A Man acknowledges the difficulties our younger generation has when managing a relationship and sheds light on what used to be dark subject.

Go see the movie; it’s worth the twenty bucks.