Report From Sundance: “Pariah,” “The Green Wave,” “Sing Your Song” and “Black Power Mixtape“

“Pariah” Makes Friends

Hearty applause, cheers, and a standing ovation met the team of “Pariah” following this morning’s 8:30 a.m. showing at the Sundance Film Festival. A product of the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting and directorial labs, with production and guidance from Spike Lee, the movie about a 17-year-old African-American butch lesbian’s emergence is in competition for the U.S. Dramatic prize.

The dynamic between shy, but sly Alike (Aderpero Oduye), who is also a talented poet, and her friend and mentor, the irrepressible Laura (Pernell Walker) forms the most compelling and, at times, quite humorous core of the movie. The biggest laughs come when Aleke “straps up” for the first time, with Laura’s help. Shifting awkwardly in the stiff dildo, Aleke frets about the device.

Laura offers encouragement: “You’re not supposed to wear it over your pants,”

“Couldn’t you get a brown one?” Aleke, who prefers to go by her nickname, Lee, complains. “Take it back.”

“I’m not going back; it was embarrassing enough,” Laura replies. “You gonna walk around with a dick in your hand? Just put it on.”

Soon after, Lee tosses the pale unused dildo in the trashcan outside her parents’ house. Like the fake phallus, the film never achieves its climactic potential. Much of the rest seems fairly predictable: quarreling parents; Bible-clutching, gay-fearing mother; snickering students; and a menacing guy on the block.

But, the freshness and clarity of the language, derived from writer/director Dee Rees’ life experience, gives the movie its heft. The film’s title, Rees says, refers to Aleke’s inability to fit into either the gay or the straight world. After her own first visit to a lesbian club, the director thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to hell” and worried that she would “have to start wearing Timberlakes.”

Suitably, the movie opens in just such a club, with butch lesbians tossing money and hooting at femme pole dancers. That’s as erotic as it gets. Aleke’s sole doomed love scene is handled in solemn silence and a fast cutaway. Joy of loving is left to her bawdy friend, Laura, who gets to play poker with a babe on her knee, smoke pot, and still pass her GEDs.

Unlike the director, Aleke and Laura both seem secure in their identity. Indeed, were it not for their coldly rejecting mothers and that fresh-mouthed, evil-eyed man on the block, they face little adversity. In Aleke’s case, fear of her mother’s disapproval forces her to hide her gayness at home. Inexplicably, she has no qualms about transforming into butch Lee at school. Meanwhile, her mother persists in buying her a hot pink ruffled blouse, while badgering her philandering husband to “talk to” Aleke. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she declares.

Father and daughter enjoy an easy bond forged by basketball and driving lessons, making it quite believable when Aleke confronts him, with “You know,” when she finally comes out. Stuck with some of the movie’s corniest lines (“Your mother always lifted you up”), he still manages to give his role poignancy. “I wanted to play a dad because I didn’t know my dad,” Charles Parnell tells the Sundance audience, adding that the role gave him a chance to break a couple of stereotypes by being not just a black father, but a sympathetic one.

By the end, when Aleke boards the bus from Brooklyn to early enrollment at Berkeley, I stood and cheered with everyone else. Lee is, above all, an artist, who finds voice through her poetry, just as Rees is liberated by the language of film. It’s exciting to see a young talent emerge with such bravura. As Lee tells her father shortly before departing, “Tell mom she was right: God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“The Green Wave” and “Sing Your Song”

Cheers and standing ovations did not follow two important movies that I saw back-to-back later today. “Sing Your Song” considers the impact that Harry Belafonte had on the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and struggles for freedom and survival of the disenfranchised and forgotten around the world. Taking his bravery, commitment, and capacity to inspire in contrast to the way the world ignored Iran’s glorious, painfully short-lived Green Wave makes me wonder. I wonder if we have simply lost the capacity to respond to injustice with grace and courage. Have we gotten to the point where we are too benumbed and cynical for words, songs, individuals, or even the fervent cries of millions to make a difference?

“The Green Wave” is an extraordinary, powerful film, drawing upon animation, interviews, sampling from blogs and newscasts, and iPhone footage to portray the rise and suppression of the 2009 Iranian reform movement. Iranian exiles speak from hotel rooms and temporary abodes in undisclosed European cities, recounting the horrors they experienced. “On the weekend, I see the young Germans, our counterparts, out on the streets, happy and enjoying such liberty,” says one young man. “And I wonder if they have ever heard of Iran.”

In a response reminiscent of that toward Tainanmen Square, the “free” world turned its back on the wretched suppression of thousands of non-violent protesters and activists by the Iranian militia and police. In the words of filmmaker Ali Samadi Ahadi, he sought to portray what happened over a “few short weeks in a country searching for its voice.” Sundance encourages filmmaker/audience interaction following the film, where the questions are often shockingly technical in light of the subject matter. Why, for example, did he rely on so much animation? He replies that footage showing the brutality was largely unavailable and “anyone going into Iran who even uses his cell phone to make images will be arrested and possibly disappear.”

The film opens with a conversation among Iranians who had ceased to vote, becoming apathetic and jaded in the face of President Ahmadinejad’s corrupt and oppressive regime, with its devastating impact on the economy and individual human rights. But, word was spreading of the movement around reformist leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. What was expected to be a modest gathering to hear him speak on May 23rd, 2009, suddenly drew thousands of people. Men and women of all ages, showed up, wearing green, carrying green banners, or holding green balloons. They swayed and danced with tears in their eyes.

“I had regained my faith in the people,” recalls the narrator, who joined those, working for weeks on end with little sleep to organize the electorate on behalf of Mousavi. A widely watched, televised debate between Ahmadenejad and Mousavi boomeranged for the dictator, when he leveled what turned out to be false accusations about Mousavi’s wife. Mousavi called him a “liar”, emboldening the populace to hope that the regime was vulnerable after all.

By June, millions of Iranians were on the march. The election turnout was huge, and victory for Mousavi seemed inevitable. But, that day, strange changes occurred. “The television only showed wildlife documentaries,” recalls one activist blogger. Polling places around the country failed to open or mysteriously ran out of ballots. The Internet and phone services were cut, and foreign reporters were ordered to leave.

Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands continued to hold silent marches, carrying signs that read simply, “Where is my vote?” The police and dreaded militia began a nationwide campaign of unwarranted arrests, deadly beatings, sodomy with broken bottles and rods, and other equally vicious tortures. The dead and wounded were taken from hospitals before they could be identified and never found again. Thousands were corralled and tormented into submission. These practices were condoned by the religious leadership, who labeled the protesters “infidels” and reconfirmed their sponsorship of Ahmadinejad.

The filmmaker and the other ex-pates bemoan the fact that the west’s concerns with Iran center on “nuclear proliferation” and “the flow of oil”, with little interest in how Iran treats its people. There are no Harry Belafontes, Sidney Poitiers, or widely known leaders, like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, speaking out on behalf of the people of Iran. Mousavi is under strict house arrest and surveillance.

Returning to Harry’s lifetime of engagement, from the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties on to the widespread incarceration of people of color today, we see the impact one man can make. Born to a mother who was a household domestic, and himself inaugurating his working life as a janitor’s assistant, Harry used his popularity and immense talent in service to his mother’s admonition to “work every day to undermine injustice.”

Amazed to find himself at 80 still fighting for issues he “thought we resolved 50 years ago,” the now raspy-voiced singer repeatedly asks, “What do we do now?” If the Greens remain quietly determined to continue their battle for freedom and democracy, convinced that “the day will come when [their oppressors] will have to answer”, if Harry, after decades of relentless struggle, hasn’t given up, then really, how dare we? Then too, if we don’t stand up for Iran’s Greens, who, down the road, will stand behind us? Because, you know, it could just as easily happen here.

‘Black Power Mixtape’ Gets it Right

At last, a respectful, thoughtful, and vivid portrayal of the black power movement. “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” premiered at Sundance’s competition for the World Cinema Documentary prize. Drawing upon a nine-year archive of footage shown on Swedish television, the film offers a rich and nuanced perspective on that vibrant era. It starts with Stokely Carmichael’s outspoken impatience with the slow pace of change resulting from Martin Luther King’s campaign of non-violence – “Their unwillingness to deal with Dr. King just means they have to deal with somebody from this generation.”

Embodying his philosophy and that of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers issue a potent call to arm in self-defense, combined with community-based initiatives, including free clinics, free clothes, legal defense, and free breakfast for children, which J. Edgar Hoover labeled the “most subversive program in America”. African-Americans were no longer asking for a hand-out from The Man; they were doing for themselves. As the film depicts, the Black Panthers’ successful steps toward self-reliance and determination met harassment, jailing, and exile of the Party’s leadership, all within a period of roughly five years.

The balance of the film looks at the aftermath, with repression epitomized by the San Quentin murder of writer George Jackson and later, Attica, where defenseless, striking prisoners were beaten and shot. Angela Davis, with the world’s biggest afro (she was accused of smuggling a pistol to Jackson inside of it), talks from her prison cell, where she was being held on trumped-up charges. Asked whether she espouses violence, Davis describes her childhood in Bull Connor’s Alabama. Among her neighbors were the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Her father joined men in their community and formed armed patrols to make sure “that did not happen again”.

By the mid-seventies, hard drugs — heroin and then crack — flooded black communities. The film suggests, as the late journalist Gary Webb documented in his series in the San Jose Mercury News and his book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion), that these drugs may have been deliberately promoted by the FBI to fog people’s logic and, thereby, pacify, kill, or jail much of the population. Louis Farrakhan emerges as a type of antidote, albeit a mixed one, with his anti-drug programs, strong discipline, and black nationalism. Alternately, writer/director Goran Hugo Olsson praises hip-hop as a vehicle of liberation, drawing upon comments from Questlove, Eryka Badu, and Talib Keli and others in contemporary voiceovers.

The result is a masterful, thought-provoking, and artistically rigorous portrayal of the roots, the positive results, and the ultimate suppression of the black power movement in America.

As a young activist in the sixties, I was inspired by the movements’ vision and leadership. Today, their voices are as relevant as ever. They stand as a strong call to action. As poet Sonia Sanchez, puts it, “You say you’re tired. Well, take a vacation and then get back to work. This is a lifelong endeavor.”

Power to the people! Right on!

Betsy Ross it the pen name of a journalist and businesswoman who lives in the Philadelphia area, who contributes occasionally to ThisCantBeHappening!

TCBH Editor’s Note: While the repressive violence of the Tehran government thugs against Iranian democracy activists was disgusting and inexcusable, it is not at all clear that the 2009 election being protested was actually stolen. Credible studies of the pre-election polls and of the actual voting results show that while the opposition candidates were popular in their home cities and in major urban centers, the support for Ahmadinejad and his party in the rural areas and in many parts of Iran was overwhelming. So while there clearly were voting irregularities and local cases of outright fraud, these may well have not been decisive factors. The Green movement, while clearly indigenous and a genuine reflection of public anger, is largely among the educated class, which is not the majority in Iran. Furthermore, the role of the US in generating popular unrest cannot be left out of the equation. In the latter years of the Bush/Cheney administration, the CIA was handed over $400 million to subvert Iran. It’s a safe bet that a good portion of this has gone into supporting opposition movements, just as it has with similar so-called “pro-democracy” CIA activities in Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras and Haiti in recent years. Other money in Iran has gone to fund actual terrorist groups who have been blowing up military posts, trains and buses across Iran. These activities end up tarnishing the actual democratic activists in Iran, and muddying the water when it comes to trying to understand what is really happening in countries like Iran, Venezuela, Equador, etc., raising serious questions about whether the US really even wants real democratic reform in any of these countries, Iran included, where America’s historical record would suggest the answer is no.