Bigotry

In Defense of In The Heights

A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:

“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”  

“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”

“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”

“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”

“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”

“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”

You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.

Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”

Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.

During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.

In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.

edwinroman.com

Why Disco Doesn’t Suck

I grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Back then the neighborhood had a clear physical division: east of Broadway was primarily populated by Dominicans and other people of color, while the west of Broadway was primarily populated by whites. The neighborhood residents seemed to coexist and share public spaces such as Inwood Park without any strife I was cognizant of. I attended a Catholic grade school where I had friends of varied ethnic backgrounds. I was fortunate in that my first encounter with bigotry was not until I was 12 years old (though as I got older, I certainly experienced it).

In the summer of 1979, I entered Inwood Park and saw this boldly spray-painted on a wall: “Disco Suxs!” For some reason, it rattled me. What was so bad about disco? I was a fan. It had ENERGY and you could dance to it. It made me happy. Back then, and to this day, I never understood people who severely went out of their way to slam something that was not of their taste. If you don’t like something, ignore it and move on—why deface a wall? Why troll online?

I asked my parents about it and that became our first talk about bigotry. Because they knew I loved music so much, they used the history of Motown Records as a way to explain it to me. They noted how Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. After that talk, I never looked at or heard those records in the same way again.

Years later, on a VH1 Behind the Music episode on disco, virtuoso musician and producer, Niles Rodgers conveyed that the hate stemmed from the fact that it was the music of minorities that included people of color and the LGBTQ community. Music critic Robert Christgau noted that homophobia, and most likely racism, were the driving forces behind the anti-disco movement[1] that resulted in a preposterous disco demolition night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The way the 1960s counterculture ended at Altamont, disco ended at this event (by the way, those in attendance trashed the stadium[2]). The haters were also likely intimated by the liberating physicality of disco dancing and hastily labeled the music as vacuous.

Concurrently forceful and sensual, disco was the resurgence of Dionysian pagan culture in the 20th century. Disco is not vacuous and is indeed complex.

First and foremost, disco took significant effort to produce than say the four-piece bands found in other genres. Disco often contained an ample band, with chordal instruments, drums, percussions, horns, a string orchestra, and various classical solo instruments like the flute. The recording of complex arrangements with a large number of instruments required a team that included a conductor and mixing engineers. Disco also had extraordinary vocalists that included powerhouses such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand as well as Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Chic, France Joli, Michael Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester, A Taste of Honey, and Barry White.

After the ridiculousness of disco demolition night, disco found a second life in early rap, notably “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang which sampled Chic’s brilliant song, “Good Times.” Disco still lives on under the sapped title of dance music. Dance music is not as beautifully produced as disco but has had many remarkable moments over the last forty years.

If you hated disco in the 1970s, let me encourage you to put aside your prejudices and put on a pair of headphones and embrace the genius. Let the music take you away.

www.edwinroman.com


[1] http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/pnj/pj78.php

[2] http://www.fuzzymemories.tv/index.php?c=4548

The Music Video as Art: Dark Ballet by Madonna

Since the video became a ubiquitous part of popular music nearly forty years ago, it has sometimes struggled as an art form. The marriage has not always been harmonious: sometimes you have great songs with mediocre videos and vice versa. What I have always appreciated about it, when it does approach art, is that a story or message can be conveyed without the constraint of a script, spoken word, or even the lyrics of the song.

Madonna, who rose to prominence during the early years of the music video, has produced a stunning body of work in both video and song. However, in the last decade, this has not been case; she seemed more occupied with collaborating/cannibalizing younger recording artists and touring than producing thoughtful work. Thankfully, she has returned to form with “Dark Ballet.”

The song and video are essentially a pop version of the opera by Tchaikovsky, The Maid of Orleans, which tells the story of Joan of Arc. Interestingly, this is not Madonna’s first time exploring Joan of Arc in her work: in her last album, Rebel Heart, she had a song titled “Joan of Arc.” In my review, I noted it as the most irritating song because she was essentially complaining about being famous and I questioned what that had to do with Joan of Arc.

“Dark Ballet” is told from Joan of Arc’s point of view. In the brilliant bridge of the song, set to a pulsating electronic arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes” from The Nutcracker, Madonna speaks:

“I will not denounce the things that I have said
I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord
He has chosen me to fight against the English
And I’m not afraid at all to die ’cause I believe him
God is on my side and I’ll be his bride
I am not afraid ’cause I have faith in him
You can cut my hair and throw me in a jail cell
Say that I’m a witch and burn me at the stake
It’s all a big mistake
Don’t you know to doubt him is a sin?
I won’t give in”

The video is book ended by quotes, with one by Joan of Arc and another by queer poet and activist Mykki Blanco, who was cast as Joan of Arc in the video. Madonna is surprisingly absent except for a very brief cameo. Blanco gives us some incredible acting here. I also can’t heap enough praise on the cinematography, production, and direction by Emmanuel Adjei (he is one to watch).

And while the song and video is about Joan of Arc, it feels as if Madonna and Adjei are also addressing the toxic mix of bigotry and religion that pervades the world: too many people use religion to justify their prejudices and fears.  

Madonna’s pop version of the opera The Maid of Orleans is “Dark Ballet.”

www.edwinroman.com

A Nazi Christmas? Sorry Bigots, You’ve Got Your Wires Crossed

Bigotry is a consequence of ignorance. The less you know, the more you fear. Benjamin Franklin once said: “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”

On October 31, 2018, The Washington Post ran a story on Nazi and KKK memorabilia being sold at a Kentucky gun show. Joe Gerth, a columnist with the Louisville Courier-Journal, was at the show to do research for a piece he was working on, interviewing gun dealers to inquire if they feared that the guns they sold could end up being used by the wrong people. Earlier that week, a gunman had gone to a Kroger store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and fatally shot two Black customers. Later that week, the Tree of Life synagogue was the scene of yet another mass shooting. Both shootings that week were racially motivated and executed by White domestic terrorists.

While at the gun show, Gerth tweeted the following:

A spontaneous face palm hit me when I saw the above picture. Why? Because the Nazi party actually worked to repress and oppress the Christian Church in Germany. In fact, many historians believed that the Nazis intended to completely eliminate Christianity in Germany after winning the war. 1

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, “by defending myself against the Jews, I am fighting the Lord’s Work.” But Hitler’s early views towards Christianity were born purely out of political necessity, he knew that he needed the early Nazi Party to attract a majority of Christian voters. However, Nazi ideology could not come to terms with an independent establishment whose legitimacy was not founded and fostered by the Nazi government.2 From 1933 to 1945, more than 6,000 clergymen were charged with treasonable activities and were imprisoned or executed. 3

Interestingly, Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful individual in the third Reich, became interested in Germanic myths, which reinforced the idea of the superiority of the German race as well as other occult ideas. He wanted Germany to be restored to its mythological roots, free of Christianity.4

I know that people like to cherry pick passages from the bible in order to find justification for their bigotry, but to combine your faith with a secular belief that are actually incongruent is ignorance at its worst.

 

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller

 

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/13/weekinreview/word-for-word-case-against-nazis-hitler-s-forces-planned-destroy-german.html

2 Theodore S. Hamerow; On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair – German Resistance to Hitler; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1997

3 Overy, Richard (2004). The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 281.

4 Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, trans. Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 77.

 

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