“The Great Wall” (2017)

Warning: this whole thing is one big whatever the “Asian equivalent of a Sambo Alert” might be.  Here there be dragons.

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Just saw “The Great Wall.” It was 100% what I thought it was: white hero saves China.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that: if Chinese made a movie set in America with a Chinese star, he would save the day. Why? Because Chinese, predictably, will prefer to see a Chinese star. That’s human nature. Asians will have a special preference for Asians, blacks for blacks, whites for whites. We will expand that to include certain members of “the other” but in general, whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the way to bet. The problem isn’t the movie (which was fun, although I wondered why the hell the Chinese didn’t use that damned McGuffin  gunpowder more, instead of dangling women like hors d’oeuvre yo-yos) but lets have some truth here.

 

  1. The issue was always getting a white hero in there, to appeal to white Americans. In all our cinematic history, there may have been a couple of “honorary white” actors like Morgan Freeman or Will Smith, who might have stepped into the role of “window into the exotic”   Damon supplied (he plays a Westerner in Asian to steal gunpowder…and why didn’t they use it against the monsters more, from the damned beginning, concentrating all fire on the queen for about two hours until she and all her guards were cinders?  Oh well), but in general, of COURSE that’s what they were doing. Nothing wrong with it, except the perceived need to lie, or the obliviousness.
  2. OF COURSE Matt Damon was Tarzan, the traditional “one of us who becomes one of them and is better at it.”   Again, I’d bet there are stories like this in all cultures. Everyone wants to believe they are the best, sexiest, strongest. People who claim this isn’t true of GREAT WALL obviously fell asleep during the critical plot turns of capturing the monster, and the climax of the film.  Little major points like that.   In the former scene, there are thousands of Chinese soldiers watching as two white guys sally out and catch the beast. And at the end, out of a billion Chinese,  Matt Damon’s brawn and brain are 50% of the team that solves the problem.   Again, nothing wrong with that, except the lying or obliviousness.
  3. There would be nothing overall wrong with the movie, except it is part of a pattern.  What’s the pattern?  Let me ask you one question: what was the last major studio film starring an Asian American?  I mean Chinese, Japanese, Korean, you know. “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson is half Samoan, which is kinda sorta Asian…which is a lot like pointing to Vin Diesel as “proof” that blacks can be sexual in boxoffice giants.   You are missing the point, and I think, deliberately.  Where is Donnie Yen? Or an Asian American without godlike martial skills?  I’ll tell you where–in the background, or not in your Multiplex at all.  Why?  Because people like to see themselves. Let’s be honest, shall we?  When you say “they wanted an American star” or “A Western Star” you mean “they wanted a white star, because white people control Hollywood and drive the box office, and like other human beings they want to see themselves.”    If you’re white, should you feel guilty about this?  Nope, because everyone else feels the same way.  I’m just saying “tell the truth, dammit.  Or wake up, because you’re driving while asleep.”
  4. Poor little Matt Damon.   I heard people defending him.  Why blame the actor? He just wanted to work with a beloved director and have a free Chinese vacation and make a few more million dollars.  He did those things. Huzzah.  But what he DOESN’T have the right to do is to do them, and not be criticized for doing them.  Is it his fault that this situation exists?  That there aren’t any American films with Asian-American leads?  No, it isn’t.  But neither was it specifically the fault of any of the actors, producers, or directors who made the countless films that  excluded Asian Americans and/or cast white people  in makeup in their roles and/or changed the backstories so that white people could play them.  In no case that I can think of did anyone ever say “we didn’t want to cast/see an Asian in that role.”  NO ONE EVER SAYS IT.  Someone, therefore, is lying.     There is always an excuse (sorry, I mean a reason).  And it is predictable that 90% of the people who lost the role will complain, and 90% of the members of the racial group advantaged by the change will look the other way and say “who, us?”
  5. Damon is probably a nice guy, but he is as blind or dishonest as anyone else.  On “Project Greenlight” he got into it with my friend, producer Effie Brown, on the question of diversity.  So far as he was concerned, diversity is only important IN FRONT OF the camera.  Not BEHIND the camera.  You know what happens when you don’t have representation BEHIND the camera? You end up explaining this shit again and again and again, to people who are profited by remaining oblivious.  When you have representation BEHIND the camera, magically and mysteriously, the right decisions begin to be made, and statistical parity is approached.   Odd how that happens.  You also get more human characters who are treated better. Prime example: WALKING DEAD.   No black creative talent?  The black male characters are treated like dirt, emasculated with less force or Yang energy than white women and children.   Are killed protecting white people, and so fragile that a single zombie child ends them. Put a couple of Asian-American writers on the staff? Glenn gets laid, is forceful and resourceful, and can be BURIED in zombies and get away without a scratch.   Oh, please…if you want to do this crap, be my guest. But don’t think you can keep lying about what you’re doing, or shame me for pointing it out.  Bring a lunch.

 

So there ya go.  In a better world, “GREAT WALL” is just a “B” monster movie with “A” production values.  A popcorn movie.  But in our world, where I cannot even remember the last Asian American who top-lined a major American film, it is another example of a very specific trend.  Did it get unjustly maligned?   Only if you don’t care about the pattern, IMO.  Was Damon unjustly blamed?  Same answer: he can do what he wants. And we have the right to comment on it, just as some of you will criticize my criticism.   If you have the right to criticize ME, I sure as hell have the right to criticized THEM.

Am I “telling China what to make?”  Hell no, I’m commenting on it. Do you really not understand the difference?   My concern isn’t Chinese, who are surrounded by films and culture that reflect them, and for whom Matt Damon is appealingly exotic, as well as a way to siphon up white dollars.

My concern is for Asian Americans, my brothers and sisters in a fight to make America live up to its promise, or tell the truth that it has no intention to do so.  You can’t have it both ways.

You know, until black people started complaining, minstrel shows merrily lampooned us in blackface, and we were told complaining was absurd: it was a sign of respect and affection!  And if we weren’t in movies, why make your own! And when we appeared only in secondary roles, well, you’re not “the majority”…it’s nothing personal. Nothing racial at all.  And if we died more often, or never got laid, well, that was just the script, and maybe those black actors just didn’t WANT to do love scenes…

EVERY SINGLE STEP we were told we were wrong.  Everything I’ve ever spoken of in this regard, gaslighting was attempted in return: I was told I was wrong, racist, exaggerating, pushing too hard and too fast, and should wait a little while longer…

Screw that.   We pushed, and we’re still pushing. Want our money?  Tell our damned stories, and hire our people.  PERIOD.

And I am so damned happy the Asian American community is finally making its voice heard.  Some innocents will be caught in the crossfire.

Innocents have been getting caught in that crossfire from the beginning. The only difference is that now, not all the blood is ours.

That’s war, but we didn’t start it.

 

Namaste,

Steve

“Get Out” (2017)

Comedian Jordan Peele made his directorial debut this year, and it is as assured a first movie as I’ve ever seen.   Technically it is very nice, even beautifully done, but it is in dealing with the internal logic of the film that he shines.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers, and so will stick with what we know or can conservatively infer from the trailers, even in the “spoiler” section.

Oh, and man, this entire review needs what I call a “Sambo Alert” because it deals with race as honestly as any movie I’ve ever seen in my life. But note something: there are two core philosophical questions in life: “what is true?” which deals with objective reality, and “who am I?” or “who are we?” which deals with the inner realm, opens the door to discussion of our subjective experience.

“Get Out” has what I would consider some logical lapses on the “What is true?” level. But on the level of “Who Are We?” especially the “how do we see each other?  What do we FEAR is true?”   Man oh man…this is a movie that couldn’t possibly have been made by a major studio just twenty or even ten years ago.  It is a movie that deserves dissection, debate, criticism and praise.  It will trigger laughter and outrage and deserve both.

It is not “could this happen?” or “is this logical?” but “do whites and blacks really have these feelings about each other?”

My experience says: our history would be very very different if they did not.  Our history is what it is.  The feelings and fears are real, even if our head says “this makes no sense!”

I love it.

Chris Washington (an amazing Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (a terrific Allison Williams), are an interracial couple taking their relationship to the next level: home to meet her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford also stellar).   Chris’s ABC (“really good friend.”  Ask a black friend if you don’t know) comic relief Lilrel Howrey warns him not to go off to White People Land for this meeting. Once Chris arrives in the secluded little town, he almost immediately senses something is off.  The parents are enormously open and welcoming…but make a few too many positive references to race.  The dad would have voted for Obama a THIRD term, don’t you know.  The black groundskeeper and housekeeper are just like family, don’t you know.

Let’s just say that your guess is correct: Chris and Rose will face challenges. Yes indeed they will.

“Get Out” is beautifully directed, tightly structured. I’d call it a satire of racial stereotypes masquerading as a horror movie…except that these stereotypes have been the cause of such pain and fear and death and  guilt and denial for centuries that if there is a greater horror in American history,  save for the Native American genocide, I don’t know what it is.   Continues to poison us to this day.  And Chris, and the audience, will have to ask themselves over and over: is there really anything wrong here?  Or is it just the over-defensiveness that most black people feel, the questioning of what is behind white smiles.   What do we really think of each other?  And can love really conquer all?

Oh, boy.

Saying anything else would spoil the fun. Again, I can find flaws, but if you go with it, plunge into the “dream world” through the doorway opened in the first act, the rest of it flows beautifully.   On the level of that fear and hope, it makes more sense, speaks more directly to certain issues than any film I can think of that didn’t have IMPORTANT OSCAR BAIT appended to the title.

It is fun, it is scary, it is entertaining, it is made with skill and passion…and ultimately it is important. Not Oscar Bait, thank God.  But its very pulpiness is a kind of genius.

See it with an audience!  Preferably an integrated one.  Then go for coffee and discuss.

 

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Warning: Spoiler AND Sambo Alert territory.

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The ultimate reveal strikes me more as an expression of Jordan Peele’s personal angst about the cost of assimilation that black people pay, every day.  More about his own biracial identity than anything strictly logical and reasonable.

The racial aspect, in other words, isn’t totally connected to the theme: logically, it could have worked as well with class.  But in the minds of black people AND white people…in the view of America, especially those who buy the Southern Apologia concerning genetics and history, class and race are inexplicably intertwined.  I’ve had too many conversations with people of a certain political orientation, politely afraid that blacks will be permanently locked in the underclass.  Not because whites are especially evil, of course, but because black people, well…just don’t have enough little gray cells.

That’s the balancing poison, don’t you know?  Blacks are stupid, whites are evil.  Don’t act surprised: that’s the privately held assumption by racists on either side.

That lie, that one group is less worthy or valuable or capable than another, is the secret fear behind so many polite conversations. The thing rarely said.  And it corrupts the narrative.   An example: let’s say you suggest an Italian restaurant for dinner. Your girlfriend says no: she doesn’t like pizza. You mention a wide menu.  She says she doesn’t like the decor. You say they’ve redecorated.  She says she doesn’t like that neighborhood at night.  You say let’s go for lunch instead.

For an hour, she gives objections, you give answers.  Things get tense. And you start realizing: THERE IS A REASON SHE DOESN’T WANT TO GO THAT SHE ISN’T SAYING.  And finally, after an hour of wasted time, she confesses: she doesn’t want to go because her ex-boyfriend owns the place, and she doesn’t want to see him.

Ever had an argument like that?  Where what is REALLY thought isn’t said, and once its said all the odd conversation makes sense?

Race in America is like that.  Between people who have the same attitudes about Nature and Nurture, everything, all our history makes sense.  But if one person thinks “Nature” and won’t speak that unpopular opinion, and hides it behind polite obfuscation and political slight-of-mouth?   You’ll argue for hours and never, ever come to a conclusion.

Blacks aren’t as smart, whites aren’t as sane.   Innately.  Genetically

That’s the hidden belief behind the PC argumentation. And people are “PC” to both the Right and the Left.  Anyone who says different is pimping an agenda.

“Get Out”  is indeed “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives.”   There’s another, pulpier B-movie I could throw into the equation, but that would be telling.

Let’s just say that I’m sure I’ll have a lot of conversations about this.   I’ve heard complaints about how the movie has too many evil white people. I haven’t noticed those people complaining about   the endless films (“The Green Mile”, “The Mist”, all the Dirty Harry Movies, etc) where all black characters are evil, or frickin’  die.  I personally have enjoyed some of those movies, and grasped that that’s just the way the world is: people play those games and expect you to smile and take it.  Well, here what was done t’was done consciously and with serious intent.  If you complained about “Captain Phillips” you have the right to complain here.

Otherwise, IMO, you can shut the hell up.

Oh, this one is gonna make a ton of money.  Like most great genre filmmaking it takes a very real emotional powderkeg, dresses it up in distracting clothing and blows it up in your face.  And when it explodes, it will open the door to other filmmakers to create successes and  cultural conversations that have never taken place in our history, just as “Django Unchained” and “Creed” did.  In many ways I am enormously happy with the 21st Century, really.

Problems?

Sure.  But if you think they’re the worst problems we’ve faced, you rather obviously haven’t been listening to what black people have been screaming for 400 years.

To reference a particularly nasty joke, everybody takes their turn in the barrel, lads and lasses.

Welcome to the struggle.

Namaste,

Steve

(Afrofuturism indeed!  Can’t wait to discuss THIS one in our class.  If you want to be a part of that discussion, be sure to join us at http://www.afrofuturismwebinar.com!)

Healing starts with the heart

There was a discussion of how we can heal the rift in our nation. I believe it is in finding tribes, rather than fighting those we disagree with.
 
The trick is that EVERYONE is tribe with you if you find the correct perspective. There’s not a person our there you cannot create connection with, if you know how, and have the quiet time to connect. (The fact that we cannot always get that quiet time is the reason violence is a necessary tool to master. Sometimes you just have to deal with aggression physically.)
 
The Internet is not the best place for this: I’ve had people who are perfectly pleasant and sweet in person become raging ego-beasts online. We lack the cues of vocal tonalities, facial expressions, real-time reciprocal mammalian pacing leading and following, and body language. So I disagree that the answer is to first decide on “what is true.” That is starting with the head, and most of the conflict I see in the world is a clash of reality maps.
Rather, start with the heart: love is the core reality. (Heart). Go from there to the reality that we are all creatures seeking a cessation of pain (Body). Once connected, THEN we can discuss our maps (Head) and how we hope they will help us experience pleasure.
My page is open to all who are polite and courteous.   Those who are willing to communicate politely ARE MY TRIBE.  
The rude have no greater wisdom I need to hear. They are just rude, not uniquely smart. I can handle anything anyone throws at me verbally (those who think I cannot are welcome to engage with me personally, one on one, face to face.   I’m around)   but people already traumatized have difficulty with aggression. This is MY party, and my guests must know they are safe. So polite crazies are tolerated, but rude crazies are not. That’s the rule. If you don’t like it, there are people who welcome crazies and the rude, and you will find tribe there. Good luck.

Talking Afrofuturism with Elon Musk

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At Elon Musk’s house last night.  Couple of weeks ago, I asked people what question they would ask one of the 100 richest and most influential men in the world.  Lots of interesting possibilities, but I was attracted to one comment: that all of his business ventures were vertically integrated around the goal of reaching Mars.  I had some private thoughts about that, but considered that a good line of inquiry.

 

Seeing that he was probably ( in a very specific sense) the most successful human being I’ve had the chance to dine with,  I thought I’d test some ideas I have about how PEOPLE become “vertically integrated”, their basic aspects aligned so that they don’t fight themselves.  We’ve all known people with intelligence, talent, energy, and opportunity who never accomplish anything.   The idea is that they are not “aligned” like human lasers.

 

Elon, no matter how smart he is, would HAVE to be aligned, or he simply couldn’t achieve what he had.

I was struck by how relaxed he was.  Lots of questions, no interest in dominating or controlling the conversation at all. From time to time he would snap his attention onto a subject (especially when it concerned Mars, or rockets) and then that depth and clarity one would expect flashed out.  Excellent.

I have other thoughts I’ll keep to myself.

The conversation ranged from A.I. ethics to global warming (Dr. Gregory Benford, who did some of the original research which was later lied about by a certain bestselling novelist, was at the table) to Mars (of course), to missile shields, comparative Soviet and American technology, intellectual property protect as a spur to innovation,  to the need for humanity to be aligned (vertical integration again!) to move into our future…

Wow. Smart talk.

The subject of the NASA Hieroglyph project, science fiction writers discussing Near-Earth space exploration in story form, and my own story MOZART ON THE KALAHARI came up.  Elon believes we are spending “enough” money in this arena (and an absurd excess on defense) but not spending it as effectively as we could.   Vertical integration again?

 

MOZART ON THE KALAHARI was specifically designed to address a question often asked by people concerned with earthly social issues: why should we spend money on space when there are so many problems right here on Earth to deal with?

 

My answer: because as important as answers are, we also need dreams.  We need a vision of possibility, of life beyond any current pain or problem.   Dreams keep us alive. They sustain us.  Remind us WHY we struggle and strive.  Survival is for insects. Human beings need to believe they can THRIVE and GROW.

 

Science fiction is this.

And Afrofuturism is the science fiction and fantasy boiling out of the African Diaspora. “Human beings have always projected their dreams and nightmares into story” I said.  “It helps us wrap our minds around them, gives perspective and mastery, engages our problem-solving apparatus.”

Amazing evening, really. And strengthened my belief that properly aligned (vertically?) a relatively small number of people can change the world.   So my goal…of 1 million awake, aware, adult human beings, is stronger than ever. As is my commitment to supporting one thousand awake, aware, adult storytellers.

 

Whether you want to be one of them, support one of them, or just learn to appreciate them at a deeper level, you’ll love the AFROFUTURISM: DREAMS TO BANISH NIGHTMARES class Tananarive and I are teaching. Ten weeks starting on March 25th, and we have a special “Early Bird” price for another five days.  Don’t miss this amazing experience!  WWW.AFROFUTURISMWEBINAR.COM

 

 

Write with Passion!

Steve

Thoughts on “Get Out” (2017)

Good Lord.

GEt out.jpgJordan Peele’s “Get Out” is at 100% on RT. All the time T and I were shopping “My Soul To Keep” or “The Good House” we were told again and again there was no really successful black horror. “Can we change the race of the leads?” was the most common question. “Can we remove the social subtext?” was woven into every conversation, every development process.

I gritted my teeth.

When I was 30, I knew that the world wasn’t quite ready for me. That I might have to wait another thirty years or more before America moved far enough beyond past social realities (the legacy of slavery and segregation) and demographics such that I could speak my truth to a large enough audience to make a case to Hollywood that a major film would succeed–and trust me, the only language Corporations speak is money.

 

Well, if “Get Out” succeeds, it is another amazing step. Like “Black Panther” and “Django Unchained” it literally fills in image systems that have been gaps in the cinematic/cultural lexicon, pointing out a path of success.

The conversation will change: “oh! It’s like `Get Out’, only with X.” Yeah, that’s it. I knew that if I could keep my heart alive, treated this as a marathon rather than a sprint, I could outlast the fear and the monsters sufficiently to find a Tribe willing to hear my songs. The only question was: would I be too tired, too beaten down to see the opportunities?  Scar tissue is inflexible.  Emotional scar tissue is perceptual tunnel vision.

Would I be able to see the opportunities,  be so wounded by failures, defeats, betrayals and accidental slights that I wouldn’t be able to see allies, mentors, and potentials all around me?   Bitterness is a poison to the soul.

 

So I decided to love life.   To be strong enough to be soft.  Embraced yoga, martial arts, meditation, and the company of people of all races and political persuasions, if they were wiling to see my humanity.  Took my three years in Georgia as a chance to see that yes, the South is both wounded and anchored to its history, and eager to move beyond it, almost desperate to be forgiven and accepted as human…and to see that that “Southern Hospitality” really is a beautiful and genuine thing.

 

To forgive my country for not living up to its promises. To love human beings for being imperfect, and therefore be able to forgive myself for being afraid. To give myself permission to fail. To find the faith to get up again, and again, and yet again…

 

Knowing that this day would come.   People think it absurd to be so excited about watching a black guy in a cat suit sprint through traffic.  They have never stood in my shoes, never understood what it was to watch “When Worlds Collide” and see only white people saved from extinction, and know the filmmakers didn’t give a damn what it felt like to be a black kid watching that.   To be able to predict that Paul Winfield would be eaten by cockroaches in “Damnation Alley” because the audience wouldn’t want to see him compete for the last woman in the world.

 

Countless times I’ve been told to shut up, stop talking about these things.  People have tried to gaslight me. Tell me to be ashamed of being a Social Justice Warrior or even have the temerity to try to define the term to denigrate it.

Screw them.

I will define myself.   I know who I am, better than you possibly could.  And if you try to define me, I know I know myself better than you know YOURSELF.   Had you any real self-knowledge, you’d lack the stupendous ego to think you can define others.  Or the fear to need to.

I am not my scars.  Not my disappointments, not my pain, not my fear, not my anger.  As a forest is the space between the trees, I am the space in which these emotions and events have occurred.  So long as I keep my ego small, I don’t crash into the obstacles, can navigate in the clear space.

 

I am love, not fear.  Love for my own soul, my dreams, my family and friends, my community, my country, my world.  THIS is why a gentle boy spent forty years learning how to kill people.  To be able to offer peace to anyone who would extend a hand to me.

 

“Get Out” is “The Stepford Negroes”, a meditation on the fear of assimilation, fear that hatred lurks behind the smiles.  Built on real concerns, it would seem (I’ve yet to see it) to do what great horror, fantasy and science fiction does: externalize our dreams and nightmares so that we can wrap our minds around them.  To water the poison until it makes you dizzy rather than sick.

 

Jordan Peele survived, and has questions about how and why and what next.   I am so proud of him.  And of myself.

I survived too, dammit.  I’m still here.  And seeing a world that some part of me doubted I’d ever see.  I managed to tamp those voices down, but they were always there. Oh yes, they were.

I survived.

Namaste,

Steve

http://www.afrofuturismwebinar.com

The Hope and the Dream of the Slave

In many ways, the best and strongest man I’ve ever known is Steve Muhammad, my beloved karate instructor.  Not only a man of devastating physical skills, an innovative genius, fierce competitor, inspiring teacher and devoted family man, but a creature of deep spirit and vast compassion.   With more street experience than any four other people I know, he is also gentle and humble, a combination that still boggles my mind.

 

From the first moment I saw him at a Martial Arts Expo in about 1974, performing a mass attack skit where four students came at him and he responded with an explosion of speed, power and precision that blew my mind, I knew I wanted to sit at his feet and learn.  What I didn’t realize was that THE DEMO WAS UNREHEARSED.    Years later I got to participate in one, and he simply said: “come at me” to all of us.  And he took us out with absolute control, his punches, kicks, palm strikes and elbows coming within a breath of our skin, kissing our uniforms in machine-gun rhythm…without hurting us.

I’d wondered for decades: HOW COULD HE BE SO STRONG?   And one day, about seven years ago, I found out.

As a child, Steve had been raised in Mississippi by his grandparents, who had been slaves.  Suddenly, it hit me. Dear God. THAT experience had burned away all that was false.  All the lies. All the “First World Problems.” There are two reactions to such stress, really.  It breaks you, husks you, cripples you for generations…or the heat and pressure transforms you into a diamond. The majority are broken. But some few…

 

Suddenly, I grasped that under stress, the few who manage to stand up, to shine, to maintain their humanity, have a knowledge of self, a clarity of their values, that can be shaken by no lesser power.   The 99% will be crushed, diminished, driven to lower their eyes and dull their dreams, crippled by fear and hatred…

 

But those who maintain their humanity are amazing, with near-divine gifts to offer those who will listen: how did I survive? What is true? Who am I?  How can you protect your soul in the midst of chaos?

Oppressed populations reliably under-perform. But they also produce some of the finest music, art, athletics, and spirituality on the planet.   THEY DO WHAT THEY CAN. THEY THRIVE WHERE THEY CAN.  They love each other desperately,  nurture their children and grandchildren, believing in “milk and honey on the other side,” encoding their wrath in fables, channeling their suicidal/homicidal urges into their dance and prayer, finding small joys to warm their hearts as they somehow survive from generation to generation…slaves becoming sharecroppers, who become servants, who become merchants and teachers…who become doctors and lawyers…who become scientists, politicians…and storytellers.

 

They take the fantasies and mythologies, blend them with a burgeoning understanding of the universe around them, and the technology that explores it, and add their own rhythms, creating what the outer world called Science Fiction and Fantasy…and they themselves began to call AFROFUTURISM.

 

And just as Science Fiction has always both expressed human dreams and driven our inquiry, the version of this phenomenon that grew from the depths of black pain, keeping alive the spark until the laws and cultures changed and allowed us to speak our truth more openly, contains lessons that could not be spoken openly until after the fall of Jim Crow, the end of Segregation, the passing of the Voting Rights act, the birth of a generation unafraid of lynchings and oppression.

 

When I was ten years old, my mother, who had grown up in the segregated south, whose childhood had been darkened by the shadows of dangling black men, told me: “Steven, if you show white people how smart you are, they will kill you.”

 

The terror of that statement haunted me. Drove me into the martial arts, where I found a man strong enough to lend that strength to me, so that I could have the courage to create my own dreams, and lend them to a younger generation so that they could stand on my shoulders, see further and imagine a world where children could play together and work together and build together, judging one another not by the color of their skin, or even the content of their character, but on their capacity to create a bridge to a future brighter than any of them had ever known.

 

The wisdom passed to me is beyond my understanding, but a part of my bones.  How to deal with fear, and pain. How to stop hatred and resentment from poisoning you.  HOW TO LIVE WITH LOVE, AND HOPE, NO MATTER WHAT CHAOS AND DANGER SURROUNDS YOU.

 

Lessons for our time.  Available to all with eyes to see and ears to hear.

 

The AFROFUTURISM: DREAMS TO BANISH NIGHTMARES class is a distillation of everything my dear, brave, brilliant wife  and I have learned about art, creativity, extrapolation, fantasy, and personal evolution. It will twine art and science together into a braid that cannot be broken.  You may have a story to write.  A screenplay to finish.  Want to understand what drove an Octavia Butler or Chip Delany or God help me…a Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due.  We will watch movies, study art and poetry, spend ten weeks walking in the footsteps of masters and ask YOU to find the dreams that sustain you, ask you to refine them, teach you to express them, share them with the world at a time we need them most.

 

I’ve been working toward this for twenty years, and its here.  Join us.  Be a part of a movement to be an awake, aware, adult human being by grounding your feet in reality while simultaneously reaching for the stars.

The future is ours, yours, our childrens…if you can keep your dreams alive, understand that we all aspire to the same things…and never stop fighting to create magic in your life

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We have a special discount price for just the remainder of Black History Month.  If you are in total financial emergency, reach out to us and tell us what you can afford and we’ll do all we can to help you.  If you can afford to donate a scholarship for a needy student, please do so.

You can make a difference.  WE can make a difference.  Every one of you, black and white and yellow and brown…if you are a brother or sister in this struggle…YOU are the hope and the dream of the slave.

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

 

Where is God?

(from 2005)

 

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Where is spirituality in your equation? Fitness, relationship, career… doesn’t seem to be much room for God there, now is there?”

I’d laugh, if this weren’t such a serious issue. And if I have to explain this a thousand times, it could never be too often. Look again at the chakras. Spirit is the tip of the tree, the top of the chakra ladder. As such, it is dangerous to attempt to approach it directly. “You can awaken the kundalini from the base up, or from the heart out, but never from the top down.” I have known many, many people who considered themselves spiritual, but were completely blown out in the more basic arenas, and spent their lives wandering from church to church, guru to guru, seeking inner peace. They craved relationships or material success, and hadn’t the slightest idea how to find it. They wanted healthy bodies, but would rapidly lose the first five or ten pounds… and then be stymied. And not understand why. After all, they are spiritual. God (in all His/Her worldwide aspects) promises health and happiness to those on the true path. The ability to manifest miracles. Why, then, are these simple arenas of fulfillment denied?

All right, I’m going to come out of the closet on this one, and speak plainly. Because these people are deluded. They think they have spiritual connection, and what they have is a desperate grip on a mirage. Yes, I’ve known people I considered deeply spiritual who were “overweight”, or “broke” or “celibate.” But that is not the same as a person who fails at diet and exercise, struggles with their finances through failed business after business, or is stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage. Sorry. You can’t take your failures and hold them up as badges of honor. The ascetic “small boat” is not for most of us, and I’d say that better than 99% of the people who claim to have a direct connection to God while their families splinter into dysfunction are simply conning themselves. It is so sad.

The reverse, on the other hand, is much more direct. It is my belief that in 99% of the cases, a person who is healthy in body, who provides goods and services valued by his community, and has the self-love and self-respect to demand what he is worth, and has a healthy, sexy relationship with his spouse and a loving intimacy with his children… that person lives in the light of God. It is very difficult to imagine otherwise, although I’m sure there are cases out there. It is the “big boat”, the path to spiritual development that is available to all who are willing to take responsibility for their past results, and commit to a balanced, healthy future.

Connie Rae Andreas of NLP Comprehensive in Colorado has a process she calls “Core Transformation.” It is unbelievably beautiful, and a major breakthrough in my conceptualization of these things. What I believe she proved is that all human behaviors, no matter how brutal and destructive, are attempts to access the divine. That’s right–including rape, murder, arson, and robbery. We are trying to satisfy those basic Maslovian needs for power and security in such a way that we can feel secure and rise to the next level. And if those needs are fulfilled, the natural and indeed inevitable result is that evolutionary surge. It is natural, as natural as all water eventually making its way to the sea.

God is like the wind. Invisible. You can’t see the wind, but you CAN see the effects of the wind–the grass blowing. Our eyes and minds cannot directly address the divine. But by choosing our “grass” carefully, we can see which way the wind blows. I’ve chosen body, career, relationship. Some of those on this board have made other choices, and I honor and love them. I can’t pretend to read minds, to know if those choices are genuinely satisfying, or if they are deluding themselves (as, indeed, I may be deluding myself. There are no absolute answers this side of the grave. That’s why they call it Faith). However, I’ve never seen a single person hurt themselves if they DO take responsibility for these three arenas as I’ve described them. And, as long as they understand progress is slow and gradual, and will involve many Dark Nights of the Soul along the way, they grow and change and blossom. That is what I wish for all of you.

So where is spirituality? It is in the center of the triangle described by body, career, and relationship. It is the place behind your eyes, the thing you cannot see. It is the human soul itself, hidden in the last place you would ever look.

Within you.

-Steve Barnes

Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares

(Steve here!  I was going to be talking to you about this new class, but T’s essay on the subject just knocked me out.  So I thought I’d let her speak!)Afrofutures .png

I often introduce myself by saying “I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA” but some of you are wondering: what does that mean?  Afrofuturism, or black speculative arts, bends reality—either in time or space, magic, or technology, often blending the past, present and future to present ANOTHER WAY OF BEING. Whether it’s the books of Octavia E. Butler or the music of George Clinton or Janelle Monae or films like Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” or Black Panther—Afrofuturism shows us a portal to another world, a different reality—one that is often empowering, or sometimes frightening.

            Afrofuturism isn’t just escape—although reading, music and film are a great way to escape our new political realities, to RENEW and REFRESH and find INSPIRATION. But more than that, Afrofuturism and black speculative arts help us map our way through challenges that are both new and as old as time.

            In the short story “The Space Traders” by the late Derrick Bell (there’s a film adaptation by the Hudlin Brothers currently up on YouTube “Cosmic Slop: The Space Traders”), aliens come to Earth and offer the United States riches and technology IF…they will agree to trade away all black Americans. As a lawyer and one of the pioneers of critical race theory, Derrick Bell could use precedents from the past to create a credible story in which American voters using a 900 line would actually vote to send black citizens away.

            I was teaching that story at UCLA during the election—and as Steve and I were just discussing with Reggie Hudlin, the fall election reminded me a lot of “The Space Traders”—populations traded away in exchange for hopes of prosperity.

            The late, great Octavia Butler’s name is on our lips more as we remember the lessons she tried to teach us in her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. (I’ve blogged about the lessons from Octavia that can be applied to protest movements.)

            I often tweet out the books, films and music we’re studying in my UCLA class, and people say: “Can I have your syllabus?” and I’ve really been shy about that—it always feels like a work in progress, and there are so many artists who COULD be included but aren’t.

            But now I’m ready to team up with my husband, black science fiction pioneer Steven Barnes, to present a 10-week webinar course: “Afrofuturism: Dreams to Banish Nightmares.”

            This won’t just be a course where we watch movies and read literature and listen to music, though we will do all of those things—it’s mostly about the LIVING relationship between world-building in Afrofuturism and world-building in real life. In other words, how do we best dream a better world? What makes these great works so powerful? How can I create powerfully as an artist in my own right? And if I’m not an artist, but I’m more of an activist, what lessons can I learn from artists like Octavia Butler to help fuel Movement?

            The course will include excerpts from an interview Steve and I did with Octavia where she talked about what she wanted to accomplish in her work, and how theme can help create a social justice message. We’re also lining up a FANTASTIC group of artists: Cheo Hodari Coker, the showrunner and creator of Netflix’s LUKE CAGE series that BROKE THE INTERNET as so many people flocked to see a bulletproof black man in a hoodie. And Oscar winning producer Reggie Hudlin, who wrote The Black Panther animated series on BET and co-produced Django Unchained. Jamie Broadnax of Black Girls Nerds, who’s helping to teach Hollywood the importance of black geeks and nerds, helping us flex our buying power. AND SO MANY MORE great artists, many of whom are our friends, to really unpack the WORLD-CHANGING POWER OF AFROFUTURISM RIGHT NOW, in the present.

            I’ve never taught this course outside of UCLA, but it’s time. The class will have its own syllabus with suggested reading, films, music and art—but FAR MORE GUESTS.

Our live webinars will be IDEA-BASED and interactive as Steve as I, as both artists and teachers, join forces with you to DREAM A BETTER WORLD and CREATE A COMMUNITY IN THIS ONE.

And it couldn’t be easier to take part: the webinars will be live on Saturdays starting March 25th, but if you can’t make the live sessions, you get the full video of every lecture to watch on your own time. If you miss a lecture, no problem—catch up when you can.

As we’ve done in past webinars, we have an INTRODUCTORY PRICE for just a few days: So there’s a special price until March 1, then it goes up to the full price.

Check out our website at www.afrofuturismwebinar.com – I couldn’t believe that was still free, but it was. www.afrofuturismwebinar.com Check it out today.

You’ll find more information and your link to HOLD YOUR SPOT at the early-bird price. 

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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I watched “The Towering Inferno” a couple of weeks back, which is a hot mess (pun intentional) but also serious fun, probably my very favorite of the era’s “disaster movies”.  It has everything, including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen upstaging each other every chance they got.

 

Over the weekend I decided to watch my second favorite, “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), and enjoyed it just as much as I ever did, right up to the moment, spoken of by my new friend David Gerrold at the time, when they ran out of money at the end, and couldn’t do the “pull back” to show the full capsized ship as the final shot of the movie.  Its kind of amusing to realize that movies DO run out of money, and can’t add planned SFX shots, (like when Scaramanga shoots Bond’s airplane in “The Man With The Golden Gun” and no laser beam comes out of his Solex Agitator-powered death ray, because Saltzman and Broccoli had run out of money and couldn’t afford to pay the SFX studio. So he aims, and oops!  No ray…but the plane blows up anyway!   But I digress).

 

I enjoyed “Poseidon”, cheesy music and dialogue and overacting and all.  I loved Ernest Borgnine’s adoration of his ex-hooker wife Stella Stevens, and Red Button’s loneliness and desperate attraction to Maureen McGovern (who made a mini-career out of singing doomed love songs in disaster movies: “There’s Got to Be A Morning After” in Poseidon, and “We May Never Love Like This Again” in “Inferno.”  Someone, somewhere, needs to get the memo that hiring this lady for your party isn’t the world’s best idea.)

 

Anyway, the relationships were strong enough to connect the dots on the effects and the stunts, so that you FEEL them.  Ouch!   And it works, probably better than it should.  I just love watching crowds of people scrambling for survival, and individuals rising to courage and leadership under stress.  Great stuff if you love cheese.

 

###

 

WARNING!  SAMBO ALERT!

 

Not about “The Poseidon Adventure.”  There ARE no black people, and that’s fine.  Statistics allow that completely, especially at the time, so I didn’t and don’t care.  Beside, I knew that if there HAD been black people….they’d probably die.  First.

 

Like in 2006’s remake “Poseidon.”   Where Andre Braugher played the ship captain, and was gone in the first wave of death.   I can’t tell you how irritating it is to be able to predict stuff like that, and sit there looking at the only person on the screen of your ethnicity, and know that the people who made the movie (who are NOT your ethnicity) valued him so little that they will kill him rapidly, and that they know the audience who also fails to share his ethnicity will not care.

 

There is an interesting psychological dissociation that takes place when the only person who looks like you in this sense dies.   It is uncomfortable as hell (on an unconscious level everyone understands this, which is why it NEVER happens, and has NEVER happened, in an American film to white people.  There is no such thing as an American film where all the white characters [meaning anyone with a speaking role] dies while non-white characters survive.  Not one.  Not even black exploitation movies, which is bizarre, and suggests some very very deep unconscious conditioning.  But I digress.  And yeah, some of you will try to tell me that this or that movie disproves my thesis.  You are wrong.)

 

In the movie “Psycho” Hitchcock (and perhaps Robert Bloch before him) used an interesting technique to manipulate the audience.    Janet Leigh would seem to be the star of the movie. She is a pretty blond who apparently drives the story with her sexuality and moral errors, who drives to the Bates Motel and during a conversation with the odd Momma’s Boy Norman Bates regrets her poor judgement and decides to redeem herself.  All well and good.  It is a “damsel in distress” set up.    But then…she is killed, brutally.

The only human being you have identified with for the first twenty minutes of the movie DIES.   The camera lingers on it, and it is SAVAGE.   It is hard to overestimate the emotional impact of that death.  Not sure American audiences had ever seen anything quite like it.

 

And…those audiences, who had identified with her, were suddenly bereft of emotional anchor.  We drift around, wondering who the hell to identify with. And finally, with no other choice, settle on Norman Bates.  He’s weird, and a peeping Tom, but was kind to her, and loves his Mommy.  He becomes the center of good in the film, and we breathe a sigh of relief: we have to identify with SOMEONE, or we’re lost.  We all know how THAT turned out.

 

Note: In respect to the following observations, I’m not suggesting that anyone is deliberately manipulating image systems in movies like “Poseidon.”  I don’t think people are that smart.  But an interestingly similar situation on a cultural level exists, and it is negative as hell for black people.

 

When I was a kid, and went to see a monster movie or action movie with a black actor somewhere in the cast, my black friends would ask me: “how did they kill the brother this time?”   In other words, by the age of twelve, we already understood how the culture valued us. Let’s be blunter: what white people thought of us.  Hey, if you’re not comfortable reading that, think about how it felt to LIVE it.  I’m not saying blacks wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing if the situation was reversed and we were able to think ourselves the center of the universe.  That option was removed from the descendants of slaves.

Africans might be healthy enough, though.

 

Anyway,  consider this: once you see the pattern, and go to a movie like 2006’s Poseidon remake, and KNOW that the black person is more likely to die, it diminishes your likelihood to identify with him.  But you need to identify with SOMEONE.  So what do you do?  You identify with a white character. That’s right.

 

Get this straight: you are watching movies made by white people, for white people, in which the value system is laid out clearly based on who is most likely to survive (a white female of breeding age) and who dies first or most reliably (anyone non-white) but in order to enjoy the movie, you have to identify with the people who discount you, rather than the people of your own group.   Learning self-hatred much?

 

But I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve started having a different reaction.  Not healthy, exactly, but healthier than identifying with the people who seem to want me dead (cinematically speaking, of course.  Ahem.  Would it be too much to suggest that those who failed to empathize with Trayvon Martin might reasonably be predicted to be among those least likely to care that Andre Braugher died?  Nah. That’s crazy).  Now note: some of you are going to say: “it’s not racism, its just economics” which makes me laugh.  It is economics because racism/tribalism diminishes identification, so that the white majority wants to see “themselves” as the center of the universe: sexier, stronger, smarter, like all healthy human groups think of themselves.  So the economics are just an indicator of the underlying issue, and it is a distraction and avoidance to say “its just economics”.  It’s like say, “Hey, that’s not water.  It’s ice.”

 

This is like a ship sinking (back to the Poseidon imagery) and there are two lifeboats filled with white people.  A black passenger swims up to the first one.  On it is a Klansman who says: “get out of here, nigger!” so he swims to the second, where there is a very polite British officer who says: “sorry, old chap. But this boat is reserved for white people.”

 

And the guy drowns.  Functionally, was there a speck of difference? No there wasn’t. But that second guy sure was polite. And it wasn’t that he hated black people….he just reserved the seats for “his own.”

 

And somehow, people find that far more acceptable, even if the result is identical.

 

Well, you know what I do when I see a movie with a single black character who dies? Or worse, SEVERAL black characters who ALL die?  Especially knowing that, on an unconscious level, the assumed result is that I will identify with the white characters thereby damaging my psyche?

 

I do something rather ugly. But fun. I start enjoying watching the white characters die. Yes, I do.   In “Poseidon” I sat munching popcorn as every fatality occurred.  Nice effects!  Ooh, I bet THAT shit hurt!

 

Yes, I do.

 

And in The Mist, when poor Andre Braugher and a black soldier died, leaving no one on screen with a speck of melanin, I enjoyed watching the white characters get munched, and actually LAUGHED at the “tragic” end of the movie that had the rest of the theater crying and devastated.  Funniest thing I’d seen in months.

 

Yes, I did.

 

Watched it again recently, and realized that there was, indeed, one black guy in the crowd with one line of dialogue.  Technically a character. And we didn’t see him die, so technically it wasn’t a total wipe-out. And felt just a LITTLE bit bad about my prior response.   Just that much humanity allowed me to extend my humanity to the white characters, and suddenly the ending DID feel a little more tragic…

 

And when Tananarive suggested that we turn the movie off before the end, I didn’t protest. I knew I wouldn’t laugh this time.  I “got” the father’s anguish, and the existential terror and pain and guilt…

 

Ugh.  And hated the entire pattern of films I’d seen my entire life that had triggered that response in me, made me less than the totally empathetic human being I aspire to be.  But…I’m only human. And that response is STILL healthier than identifying with people who devalue you. That kills your soul.  Well, they both kill your soul.  Pick your poison.

 

Sigh.   We’re all of us only human.  And it is good to see things changing.   Maybe I’ll be able to drop my guard a little more.

 

As soon as there is an American film, any film, in which all the white characters die, while some POC survive. There has to be one. I’d bet it is almost unknown, unseen, a failure, because white audiences just didn’t like it.  And maybe even white technicians, film editors, and distributors didn’t bring their A-game to the project.    Didn’t have anything to do with THAT aspect, of course.

 

Of course.   That would be pretty sick, right?

Almost as sick as laughing at the end of “The Mist”

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

“What if I write novels?”

“Hi Steve, I just watched your video on getting that first sale. It was a good video, except your advice on writing 100 stories and sending them out and you will get your first sale – well, I’m not sure it would apply in my case, because I write novels, not short stories. It will take me a lifetime to write 100 novels, to be honest. I have written 4 novels, self published three of them.”

I have heard countless variations on this theme, and my answer is always the same: if you haven’t published AND BEEN PAID FOR ten short stories, you are missing a critical developmental step, one that can cripple your career.   It is like saying: “I want to be able run a marathon. I’ve never run. How can I run 23 miles?”

Ummm…by first running around the track.  Tomorrow, run twice.  Add one lap every day that you can, and get back to me when you are at five miles.

It is one of the most basic errors new writers make. Self-publication has made it possible to skip this step, and some people do this with success. They need a different coach. I’ve seen too many fail this way, and in too many cases they took this path because of fear of rejection, or wanting to take a short cut.

My path is slow, and steady, and works.   So far as I know, every time.   If you want to write novels, great!   Novels are where you get paid. Short stories are where you learn your craft.  EVERYTHING you need to know how to write a novel is in the seed form of short stories, including all the tactical and strategic elements of marketing.  If necessary, write stories set in the universe of your novel, with characters from the novel.  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN IDEA WITH AN INTRINSIC LENGTH.  ONLY THE TREATMENT OR EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA HAS AN INTRINSIC LENGTH.

I have never heard a single solid reason not to start with stories, but know a dozen solid reasons not to.  And I’ve heard hundreds of excuses.   I will never accept even one of them.

What if you write screenplays?  WRITE SHORT FILMS. The advantage?  You can actually MAKE a short film by writing a one-act play set in a single indoor location, and getting actors from the local community college to perform for you.  Film it on a damned Iphone, or a video camera rented for a single day for $35 bucks.

You will learn HUGELY more by writing 100k of short stories than you ever would by writing a 100k novel.   Seriously–I’ve watched this for over forty years.   I suspect I’ll continue to have this opinion until the day I die.

Write with passion!

Steve

(fear really is a career killer.  If you want a copy of the lecture T and I recorded on fear and writing, drop me a line at stevebarnescoach.gmail.com with “No Fear” in the subject line!)