A Black Yitzhak, Hansel’s Luther, And Thoughts On The Naked Negro in Hedwig And The Angry Inch

Pictured: John Cameron Mitchell as ‘Hedwig.’ © Joan Marcus

On April 4th I will see Hedwig and The Angry Inch at Broadway’s Belasco Theater for the final bow of the magnificent Lena Hall as Yitzak. It’s my fifth time seeing the Broadway production, third time with John Cameron Mitchell. I was at the first Westbeth Theater performance of Hedwig in 1997 when “Midnight Radio” hadn’t yet been written so the final song was “You Light Up My Life” in German.

I saw the original Hedwig run at the Jane Street Theater on opening and closing night plus dozens more in between. I’ve been to Hedwigs overseas and U.S. regionals. If you include occasions I’ve watched the film version, I bet I’ve seen Hedwig over 200times and happily so. It is the greatest piece of theater of the last 20 years. However, I’ve never seen a production that cast a black actor as Hedwig or Yitzak. 

Rebecca-Naomi-Jones-HeadshotRebecca Naomi Jones

So it’s  noteworthy on April 14th African-American Broadway alum Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange, American Idiot) takes the role of Yitzak. Huzzah! A black Yitzak! We will surely one day get a fierce black Hedwig, which will be fabulous overall, yet also shine intriguing light on the one character in the Hedwig-Universe who is most significant but the least discussed or reckoned with – I speak of Luther Robinson, the black American soldier who becomes Hedwig’s first love, and is (seemingly!) the author of Hedwig’s greatest folly.

Luther proposes marriage to Hedwig – whom at the time was a fella named Hansel – then insists Hansel must cut off his penis so his anatomy will match the fake female passport required to get him out of Communist East Berlin. The unhappy result of Hansel’s adventure with Luther is genital mutilation, the literal “angry inch” of the title, and the visible source for all the grief and suffering that carries the story through.

In an amazing show filled with incredible plot twists and complex figures, what an astonishing character Luther is! In the history of African-American supporting roles of the 1990’s in white male directed projects, Hedwig’s “Luther” towers over the lot, equaled in surprise and gravitas only – perhaps – by Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.  

The 1990’s, let us recall, was a pitilessly segregated era in both mainstream and indie media. Whether TV, films or theater, black characters rarely appeared prominently in white directed ventures outside the Morgan Freeman buddy movies (Shawshank, Se7en) or certain projects that featured sprawling ensemble casts (Rent, Boogie Nights). Back then if you saw a film or play with white actors in the lead, then white people were gonna have ALL the good parts. Black folks had our shows, white people had theirs and only in the occasional Todd Haynes or Spike Lee joint – did the races find a mix of significance within a story.

Hedwig and The Angry Inch did not follow that line, as John Cameron Mitchell, star of the show, creator of the character, writer of the book and director of the film, doesn’t roll with the regular. On-stage, Luther’s importance looms over the play, his blackness fully known – yet unseen – as Luther’s ‘voice’ is always delivered by the white actor who plays Hedwig, in the smoothest, velvety Denzel tone. This is no small matter. The reason Hedwig is a tougher part than Mama Rose is cuz the actor must sing his face off, own it like a rock star, sell the jokes, deliver the pathos, dance in high heels, with a German accent AND… have a convincing “Luther” too. (Try THAT, Patti LuPone!)

 Plus “Luther” can’t be a goofy caricature. You have to BELIEVE in this guy. Luther’s first ‘appearance’ in Hedwig and The Angry Inch always gets a laugh, cuz its funny to watch a bedazzled, bewigged white male actor suddenly sound like Miles Davis. But Luther’s intent is powerful and bent on seduction, so in his next moment when he gives Hedwig the gummy bears, Luther gains audience respect, “Ah bet you lak can-dee… Why not take the whole baaaag?” 

Luther’s final words are, of course, betrayal, as he insists the Marry-me-to-get-out-of-East-Berlin scheme will only work if Hansel passes a required “full physical examination” at immigration to prove true femaleness. Hansel must leave something behind – his dick – to win freedom.

This is an astounding course of action for a lone black man in 1980’s Germany to take with a poor-but-very-milky-white family. Luther is hardcore! He has no fear of reprisal! Sure, Hansel’s frosty mom goes along – she even knows just the doctor to do it (Did Luther pay her off beforehand or are they Sweeney-Todd-ish ghouls?) but let’s remember, Luther is a black man in the world. What could he possibly be thinking here? The Reagan ‘80’s was a dark time for Civil Rights. Is Luther on a lunatic turn-the-brutalities-of-slavery-onto-random-foreign-white-boys kick?

Does he earnestly believe (or know!) the only way to help his new love move forward in life is to sway him to sacrifice? Or is Hansel, this not-a-trans-person-but-soon-to-be-lady somehow ACTIVE in a personal self-destructive goal to manifest physical damage as part of some attention-seeking, ambivalent-to-life coping mechanism spiked on an endless loop of inward self-hate? Is Hansel the kind of hot but damaged kid who wants to make his outside as ‘ugly’ as he feels within? 

Did Luther sincerely love Hansel?

Who the hell is this Luther Robinson?

In the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) Luther is brought to life with splendid silver-tongued blackness by veteran Canadian actor Maurice Dean Wint (best known in the VHS era as the nasty Negro madman of the sci-fi cult fave Cube (1997), but beyond showing Luther as an actual black person, the film gives no further clue to his motives or what he may feel in the privacy of his doubt.

After the Hedwig/Luther wedding, it’s flash forward to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas, on the marriage’s first anniversary November 9th, 1989. Luther is leaving Hedwig for good on the same day the Berlin Wall comes down. Hedwig is now alone in a strange land, genitally altered, knowing if she had just been more patient, and perhaps took time to see Luther for who he was instead of who she wanted him to be (more on that below!) then “Hedwig” would still be “Hansel” and able to freely leave Communist East Berlin with his head high, manhood intact.  

Dang!

Hedwig-Luther
Maurice Dean Wint as Luther

So one may ask, what happened during that long hot year Luther and Hedwig lived in Kansas? What was their marriage like? Did Luther viciously dominate Hedwig, as present day Hedwig holds sway over Yitzak? Or was he always off to the local bar, leaving Hedwig alone to possibly discover an old crate filled with Luther’s childhood 45’s of Stax soul music’s greatest hits?

Is that how Hedwig renewed her musical education and got turned onto LaVerne Baker, who’s so lovingly name-checked in the show’s next song “Wig In The Box?” Were Luther and Hedwig affectionate? How often did they make love? 

The Hedwig we meet in the show is not particularly concerned with sex. She wants to be held and comforted but if she can’t get that she will take total worship. Is this cuz she got all the sex she needed from Luther so she’s over it? Is that why she now only cares about love? Did Hedwig sincerely love Luther?

In her core, Hedwig is a romantic. And the text indicates in the early days of their marriage she was at times so giddy to please her man she might even ignore the ache of her inch but Hedwig’s ultimate emotions on Luther are not fully revealed in the show or film. In both she appears more upset about the Wall coming down. The pain of Luther abandoning her seems like an afterthought. The sob in her voice as she begins the “Wig In The Box” song is full of tremulous pain but not from realization one has given themselves over to a demented psycho who likes to go overseas, scoop up pretty boys, cut off their dicks (or some equally deforming action), keep em around a year or so, break their hearts then split.

Screen shot 2015-04-03 at 11.24.09 AM

Regardless, Luther tips his hat and vanishes from Hedwig’s narrative as swift and mysterious as he entered, never heard from again. With as much tortured reflection and vengeful energy Hedwig directs towards Tommy Gnosis, it’s surprising she has so little to say on Luther. She weeps for her gender, yes. She’s distraught about the Berlin Wall, sure. What does she feel for her husband?

Is Hedwig demonstrating an extraordinary act of forgiveness? Or does she realize Luther was just a pawn in a game she’s playing on herself? 

Yes, marrying Luther could get Hansel economic uplift and U.S. citizenship. But any American dude could do that. Luther, above all things, was a black man, and in order for Hansel/Hedwig to achieve ALL their dreams, s/he needed more than a way out. S/he needed to complete her rock music education by acquiring “soul.” Hansel’s been listening to those “crypto-homo-rockers” like Lou Reed and David Bowie, so he knows those dudes learned their best from black men like Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters.

Hansel knows the lyric “And the colored girls go doo, doo, doo-doo” is not because there were no white chicks available to take a Walk on the Wild Side. For Hansel to truly elevate herself beyond what Germany made her AND become a real rocker, he had to attain “black.” Not metaphoric black, but actual Negro-ness that every blue-eyed-soulster from Mick to Madonna and beyond, has accessed. 

And Hedwig can remember… back when she was Hansel… Hansel was a slut.

I don’t mean ‘slut’ in the sex-shame way, or that Hansel even had sexual experience. But the show’s narrative strongly implies Luther was the first person to come upon and proposition young naked Hansel sunning himself (brazenly!) on a broken piece of church and I refuse to believe it. Hedwig is lying by omission. Nobody STARTS with a man like Luther and no way it was Hansel’s first afternoon at the local East Berlin queer cruising ground.

I’m sure a boy as cute as Hansel had hung there many a’time and required a full aerosol can of “Creep-Be-Gone” to beat off the stream of sweaty male admirers his comely hips and vanilla crotch, smelling like raw soap and sovereignty, would attract. On the fateful day Luther meets Hansel, he doesn’t find a total naïf, Luther found a professional.

Don’t believe me? Watch that scene in the movie again. John Cameron Mitchell as “Hansel,” in full dewy-twink mode, staring up at Luther while chewing those gummy baerchen over his “Mole-Aarrs,” with that amplified, honeyed “Who me?” look on his pastel face. That’s not a moment of new discovery. That’s the practiced, confident stare of a seasoned coquette. Yes, Hansel is lonely and deprived, but he knows what happens when he turns “it” on. Luther’s probably not even the first dude who approached Hansel THAT DAY but Luther is The Best and has everything Hansel needs, plus, the boundlessness of black.

Hansel knows there are thousands of lads in East Berlin that Luther can choose from if he wants. A Luther can get anybody, but for a Hansel to get a Luther… that is rare. To have a Luther CHOOSE you – O scarce bliss! That’s the source of pride and thrill and “I knew I was special” glow on John-Cameron-Mitchell-as-Hansel’s face. The 19-year-old Lauren Bacall was a virgin when she met Humphrey Bogart on the set of “To Have Or Have Not.” That’s why her “You know how to whistle” bit is still so sexy. Nobody can flirt like a virgin can.

Then we get the song “Sugar Daddy,” a winking, rib-tickle number designed to show the triumph Hedwig feels at what she perceives is her Big Carnal Conquest. “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly rolls, Hey sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.” In both the show and film, Hedwig performs this song direct to audience. Smiling, sashaying like a seasoned vaudevillian giving proles a good run for the money, Hedwig sells “Sugar Daddy” like its yours all yours, baby.

But to paraphrase Carly Simon, this song is not about you. It’s about sex with Luther. It’s about fledgling little white boys having hot, homo, amalgamated, MONGREL interracial sex with enormous old black men. ‘Sugar’ is a word that brings the color white to mind but “Sugar Daddy” is ultimately, as Terry Southern might put it, “An ode to giant dark dork” and all the glorious sensations it can bring to a (implied, but unconfirmed) vestal ingénue blonde boy like Hansel. 

“Oh, it’s the thrillllllll of control,” Hedwig gleefully croons, as might any happy power-bottom (or top!) but “Sugar Daddy” has a sad undertone. While Hedwig larks to dance “in Milan and Rome,” she stays vague as to what lovemaking with Luther was actually like or what happened to them next. How long did they kick it before arriving at Hansel’s kitchen for that meeting with The Mother? A month? A week? One night? Although the song cheekily espouses on “black strap molasses” and “black designer underwear,” it says nothing on Hedwig’s feelings for her first love being black love or any related consequence.

We know Hedwig adores black music. Does she have interest in black current affairs? Perhaps the biggest slayer of relationships between black and white people is when the subject of Exactly-How-We-Feel-About-Race is dealt with insensitively, or not at all. Did Luther ever share with Hansel his experience of life with racial oppression? Were ethnic identities essential to their intimacy?

Hedwig has no clear-cut comment here so its up to the individual to make an interpretation, but “Sugar Daddy’s” final stanza is a (ironic?) couplet of Hedwig’s joy to finally feel her Aryan superiority-complex flower, “Its our tradition to control, like Erich Honecker and Helmet Kohl, from the Ukraine to the Rhone, Sweet home uber alles, Lord I’m coming home, yeah! Come on sugar daddy bring me home!”

Kids do stupid stuff all the time. They get drunk and crash the car, start smoking cigarettes, say ‘Yes’ to a sure-to-be-botched sex change they may not totally want. I can recall my biracial African-American teenage-self following negative feelings inside, making mistakes I still wonder if I actually got out of. But each awful situation was of my doing. Free will. Nobody pushed me. I put myself into peril, imagined myself destructively, fantasized about danger and brooded ways my damaged self worth could manifest in flesh. I hung my own noose and slipped myself out. 

Like any boss, Hedwig surely understands herself and her ‘selves’ more than she tells us. She can know even if Luther did bring Hansel to the quack doctor’s table, it was Hansel’s choice to lie on it. In the film and on-stage Hedwig narrates Hansel’s botched operation as a near-passive, hapless innocent, balefully trusting authority figures to do right by him. Children of abusive families can command great clarity to murky topics, but here is the only occasion in the show where I feel Hedwig’s recall is (even for her) far too self-serving to be completely accurate. Truly, Hedwig can remember Hansel had the power to say no. But he said yes. 

Perhaps Hansel’s negative self-image and lack of inner worth propelled him, in some conscious-unconscious way, to WANT mutilation. Maybe the asphyxiating ethnic sameness of his East Berlin home mixed with love of rock and roll made Hansel wish for a man – not any man but a black man – his opposite, to come and enable that self-harm. Hedwig’s life philosophy in “The Origin of Love,” is about finding “Your Other Half,” whom she believes, or wants to believe is Tommy Gnosis.

On-stage Tommy, like Luther, is voiced by the Hedwig actor but in the film he is portrayed by Michael Pitt, as a blonde and unsophisticated moist eyed dude of 19 like Hansel once was. Hedwig declares Tommy is her Other Half but Tommy is clueless to this notion, then brutally rejects it. If Tommy is the true piece to Hedwig’s cosmic puzzle, he sure ain’t ownin’ up. But that doesn’t stop Hedwig to continue naming Tommy as hers. We’ve all been there. Projecting a foolish dream of “love” onto someone who doesn’t deserve it, but is such a knockout in the looks department and so adorably lost, ya just can’t help yourself.

When we do this, we must also know we could miss the real person we should be with, and they may slip away. This brings us to the decisive question: did Hedwig refuse to seriously consider African-American Luther as her true “Other Half,” relegating him to mere “Other” so she could be free to get herself a cute white boy? Is the reason Hedwig displays such resigned acceptance to Luther’s departure on Berlin Wall Day because Luther isn’t actually leaving her – Hedwig pushed him out?

Take my hand and let’s imagine a moment during that yearlong trailer park honeymoon of Luther and Hedwig. Don’t worry, it brings no harm to a canonical story to visualize one night. Remember, its just art it wont hurt you.

It’s hot in Junction City. The sun is mercifully going down. Hedwig sips sweet tea laced with corn-liquor she got from the snaggle-toothed dude from the trailer down the way (don’t ask!) and fans the flies impatiently as that rusty Cadillac finally pulls in. Hedwig watches Luther get out of the car. They know each well now and no longer need polite inquiries to recognize what’s on the other’s mind. Luther gives Hedwig that “Yeah, I’m late” frown followed by the “You look good” squint. Hedwig inhales, swats the flies and plops into her ‘color-not-found-in-nature’ lawn chair with a patented “What did you bring me?” pout. Luther smiles, reaches into his bag.

Hedwig leaps up with joy, “Etta James’ 1982 concert album ‘Red Hot & Live!’ Oh meine Güte, Luther how did you know I wanted that? This has “Dust Your Broom” and “Rock Me, Baby!” And that incredible extended cut of “I Rather Go Blind!“ 

Then Hedwig moans and eases her shoulders, like she always does when her husband suddenly pounces on her lips, strong hands massaging the small of her back upwards so she can nestle his brawny chest. Her favorite spot on Luther’s muscular neck is the space right below his ear lobe. She licks. Luther sighs, gently, gently and stares into her gemstone blue eyes with his smoky browns, “Because baby… you got everything I need. While I have you I want to give you everything too.”

Hedwig slowly looks up and smiles, “Oh angel Lu, you know you’re always gonna have me.” Luther nods, holds her close and quietly chuckles.

Then, Hedwig shudders. Its been a long day and the sting in her crotch hurts more than usual, but giggles girlishly when Luther brings out his Panasonic long-player, puts the album to side one, track two, and they start to sway. As Hedwig hears Etta explain, once again, how you should rather go blind than see your man walk away, Hedwig knows, they BOTH know that Etta never lied and in this instant, everything’s gonna be all right. Forget they only got hot-dog buns for supper, forget that overdue rent, forget the Ten O’clock News talkin’ bout growing unrest in the Eastern Bloc due to steady loss of power in pro-Soviet governments and the near-future implications it has for Germany.

Now… It’s just you and me, kid. Hedwig and Luther, Lu and Hedy – two crazy dreamers waltzing together under the last bit of orange sun and the soft buttery light of the mosquito zapper. The large and lusty black army officer joined with his ‘Better Half’, the petite and wistful white girl-boy-girl barely standing before him… round and round they go. They would rather go blind. Round… and round.

3 Must-See Movies at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Indie Black Cinema Series This Weekend

With a program called Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986, a slew of independently made black films are being shown at Lincoln Center this weekend that I have never seen. Some are so rare they’re only spoken about as legends, some I never even heard of. Its a terrific opportunity to see the beginnings of the artistic cauldron that brought us to our modern moment of Empire as a worldwide hit—films written and directed by African Americans in a time when almost no one was listening. Any of these would be worth a watch, but here are the three I’m most excited about.

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SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE, William Greaves

This one goes back to 1968 and is considered to be the first major work of modern independent cinema–not just for the black. I’m so geeked to see it cuz it sounds like my life “A docufiction, a narrative experiment, a film about making a film, a crew without a director, a time capsule of New York, a barometer of the culture: process, form, and personality collide in Greaves’s classic, about which no superlatives can be overused and whose influence cannot be overstated.” Hells yeah.

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GANJA AND HESS, Bill Gunn

This is a black vampire movie that Spike Lee says was his main inspiration for his latest film. I thiiiiiiiink I saw this as a kid on a bootleg VHS. I think it blew my mind. I can’t wait to see it again.

A film that was ahead of its time in 1973, and quite frankly, is still very much so today… maybe the rest of world will eventually catch up.—Tambay A. Obenson.

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LOSING GROUND, Kathleen Collins

I have a pal in Chicago who saw this film about romance and woman’s sexuality in 1982 and eventually she married the woman who took her to it. That’s a helluva recommendation! Plus it has Duane Jones, the Black Guy in the original Night Of The Living Dead so he’s awesome. Its written and directed by a black woman, Kathleen Collins.

Hey Drag Appropriators, Why the Diva Madness Obsession When There’s So Much ‘Black Woman Joy’?

Very cool for me to watch all the young and wonderful Ru-Paul schooled white drag queens of today each perform their own unique individual personas – always with a touch of Blackccent (as in accent), though usually it’s Blackccent in heaping hunty dollops. And that specific style of black woman most flavored by young white lady drag queens is, or course, Black Lady Diva Sass.

And it’s all lovely. I love it. My question: why forever with the nonstop raging Black Lady Diva Madness? The library can’t always be open for Reading Filth and throwing Shade o’er shoulder. Drama is easy. Comedy – the challenge. I’m a black gay dude with a lot of black lady pals. We strive to laugh a lot and socialize co-operatively with only nominal air used for incessant fierceness. So let’s diversify. There are so many other African-American woman-power elements for admirers of black diva culture to appropriate – I mean emulate. Do sample: Black Woman Joy.

O, how pleasing and superb is cultural expression of a Black woman’s Joy! And just like smut, once you start to look, there’s plenty to find. She’s still fierce boots honay but she need not Sah-Shay ALL the dang time…

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SISTER KIM WESTON, The Black National Anthem

Black woman joy = Righteous JOY! Let the choicest young white drag queens across the land serve EVERYTHING in this song and let the Drag-a-Nation UNITE rejoicing rise, high as list’ning skies, resound loud as the rolling sea, girl. THE SEA!

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MOMS MABLEY AND PEARL BAILEY, Bailey, Saturday Night Fish Fry

Pearl Bailey was a star of stage, screen and Everything – actual 1950’s gossip rag headline: “Dusky Diva Takes Lily White Drummer Lover.” Moms Mabley was the first ever female standup comedian and a happy lavender lesbian lady – dig Moms “fish” joke at the end of the song that makes Pearl howl. Yassss.

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LABELLE, Open Up Your Heart

Stevie Wonder wrote “Open Up Your Heart”; Carmine Rojas is on bass; singing the funk is Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Patti Labelle right before their “Lady Marmalade” era. This track was featured in the “Empire” episode “Outspoken King” when Lucious comes for Cookie in the Leviticus (!!!) nightclub. Werk that vocal Backhandspring about 2 minutes in. Goosebump realness.

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ABBEY LINCOLN, Spread the Word

5 years after this deliriously dated Frank Tashlin/Jayne Mansfield film, Abbey Lincoln became the first prominent African American female celebrity to publically rock the Afrocentric life and everybody GAGGED. But first, Abbey sang in a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes;” her Drag Phase. Young White Queens, please run with the concept of a black woman’s joy evolution.

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Dr. BUZZARD’S ORIGINAL SAVANNAH BAND, Sour and Sweet/Lemon In The Honey

The sweetest biracial singin’ lady of ‘76 was Cory Daye. The cheeriest big band neo retro disco was August Darnell and Andy “Coati Mundi” Hernandez. Slay your world one multiethnic honey lemon Happy-You’re-Alive-In-This-Rotten-World Dr. Buzzard song at a time.

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MELBA MOORE, I Got Love

Child prodigy Melba Moore’s art of Black Lady Joy-Love-Elation made its Young White Drag Queen debut at Metropolitan Bar’s “Dragnet” by my trusty ward: NYU film-student-by-day, drag-hooker-at-night Blake Deadly. (S)he slayed.

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THE ROTARY CONNECTION, Tales Of Brave Ulysses

Respectfully submit to Drag Queens of all creed and color the jubilant oeuvre of Minnie Riperton and her multi-culti Rotary Connection with all due souljazzvibraphone realness as Drag-National imperative.

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MILLIE JACKSON, We’re Gonna Make It

Renown for sexually explicit my man done me wrong songs, bluesy ghetto goddess Millie Jackson also Served salacious ecstatic upbeat anthems of black lady solidarity – simultaneous! Can you take how fabulously relevant that “If a job is hard to find and we have to stand in the welfare line” lyric?

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JEANNE LEE AND RAN BLAKE, Something’s Coming

Jeanne Lee –1963, just out of Bard College with creative cohort Ran Blake. All you young, steadfast, stout-hearted Drag Queens… Come for Jeanne Lee. Be mesmerizing.

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JANET JACKSON, Love Will Never Do (Without You)

Why have I never seen a young white drag queen or young black drag queen in any village or any hamlet do this needs-no-explanation song?! Does it always happen when I’m not there? If so, please invite me. You can even use my AOL address. I wanna see new planets where the Queens look like Janet, Joy.

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PHYLLIS HYMAN, Old Friend

The first drag show I ever saw was at the legendary Clubhouse in Chicago, late 1980’s. A large, great and well-built black wo(man) stood center stage in a fantastic Bob Mackie red beaded gown mouthing passion with a beautiful, gratifying smile, and accepted endless dollars in tips.

Filmmaker Stephen Winter’s Cultural To-Do List for MLK Day

WE INSIST! MAX RICH’S FREEDOM NOW SUITE WITH COLEMAN HAWKINS AND ABBEY LINCOLN (1960) – The Ultimate Jazz Protest Album 

Four years before Nina Simone took off her pageboy wigs and launched her mega-protest anthem “Mississippi Goddamn,” there was Abbey Lincoln, then a lovely, dishy supper club singer, who was first to wipe off her chanteuse cosmetics, slash her hair to sleek Afro, and howl black fury, dissent and hope to the mountains and back with her husband Max Roach, the genius jazz drummer, and lyricist Oscar Brown forWe Insist! (Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) on Candid Records. With blunt precision, this album tells the story of black people in America from slavery to freedom day, then a return to Africa, concluding with a fearsome, humbling answer to the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. Controversial in its day and now-legendary, this album changed music.

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THE LANDLORD by Hal Ashby (1970) – The Ultimate Gentrification Comedy

 

Beau Bridges is a clueless white boy rich kid (is there any other kind?) who rebels against his snooty parents by purchasing a brownstone deep in the “The Wire” –esque war-zone that was 1970 Park Slope, Brooklyn. The twist – he wants to befriend the black folks who already live in the building while also evicting them. Surreal, sly and fierce of political heart, director Hal Ashby – of Harold and Maude– hilariously sympathizes with Bridges’ protracted adolescent while never forgiving him. The black tenants are depicted with equal dramedy fervor, including militant Lou Gossett Jr., sexy Diana Sands, and the commanding Pearl Bailey, whose uproarious afternoon drunk scene with Lee Grant, as Bridges’ loony mother, is among the best Ashby created.
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SAY AMEN SOMEBODY (1982) – the Ultimate Gospel documentary 

Giants walked this earth, and occasionally a camera captured their splendor. Say Amen Somebody is one of the most ecstatic documentaries ever made – heck, its the most jubilant FILM ever made! It depicts the pioneers of 20th Century black gospel music who sang the songs that, among other things, propelled the Civil Rights Movement; the music that SANG the people through. There’s the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey, who wrote “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” in one sitting after learning his children and wife were suddenly dead, and his extraordinary peer, Mother Willie May Ford Smith, whose gospel voice and teachings helped define the art form, and pass down lessons for generations of church singers. These are the spiritual Godparents of every soul diva you ever heard from Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey to Kelly Clarkson and beyond. Look into their eyes as the masters tell their tales and see the history of this country stare back.
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SONNY’S BLUES (1957) by James Baldwin – The Ultimate Short Story 

BALDWIN
It’s certainly the greatest short story I’ve ever read. Set in New York City, Sonny’s Blues is about an unnamed black man, a schoolteacher, who is worried about his brother, Sonny, a jazz musician and user of heroin (with allusions to Charlie Parker). Sonny’s brother wants to swallow his pain, Sonny wants to fill his art with it. Will the world swallow them whole?
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For more  thought-provoking MLK Day culture,
check out:
STORY OF A THREE DAY PASS by Melvin Van Peebles (1967) – The Ultimate Badass Van Peebles Film 

A wonderful, high-spirited comedy about a black army man stationed in France who meets a gorgeous, enthusiastic white chick while on his 3 day pass and they try to fall in love without the hell of the war – or racial difference – get in the way. Its the only film of the era directed in the French “New Wave style” by a black director, Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote the script based on his novel, which was also written in French. The film asks you to consider your authenticity to oneself, with the specter “Uncle Tom” hanging over you. Its message of love is wonderful and timely.

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Genius Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates Shares A Playlist to Get You in the MLK Day Frame of Mind

Star of ‘Selma’ Caremen Ejogo’s 5 Films Everyone Should Watch Today for MLK Day

Social Justice Writer and Activist Rebecca Carroll’s Cultural To-Do List for MLK Day

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Stephen Winter is a film director, writer and producer. His films include Chocolate Babies (1996) and Jason and Shirley (2015). He’s worked with Lee Daniels Precious (2008), Paperboy (2010), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2012), Jonathan Caouette Tarnation (2004), John Cameron Mitchell Shortbus (2006), Xan Cassavetes Kiss of The Damned (2010), John Krokidas Kill Your Darlings (2013) and David France How To Survive A Plague (2012).

The Top 3 Best Films of 2014 with Egregious Racializations

Note: Exodus is not on this list because, well, it just wasn’t that good. 

And without further ado…

NUMBER 3!

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman – great film except the story’s entire emotional crux seems to be (unless I missed something) completely hinged upon one white man’s sense of his own privilege, and the world’s actualized effort, on behalf of his white privilege. The story CAN be boiled down to this, it would appear. Unless I missed something… Virtuoso filmmaking, but enough of you Birdman.

NUMBER 2!

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash– Amazing performances, incredible visuals, superlative edit, sound and story – so flippin good, I would have forgiven the whole “A Jazz Movie With No Black Men” thing as American melting pot fair game if it wasn’t for that ONE DANG shot in the beginning of the film when evil jazz professor Fletcher bursts into the groovy non-pressure jazz class to poach the young student Andrew, and we see the African-American groovy non-pressure jazz professor Kramer (Damon Gupton) allow Fletcher’s professional disrespect to take over his class but the film CUTS AWAY from Kramer’s facial expression so we cannot see his FACE and have ANY IDEA how this character Kramer actually FEELS about Fletcher’s disrespect or portent of his overall evil-ness.

I watched the film twice and the shot literally cuts to the black jazz professor Kramer with his back is turned as soon as Fletcher enters. Egregious. Even more so when it turns out Fletcher is the ONLY black male character in this film WHIPLASH – the fun dinner-scene flow about Charlie Parker doesn’t count. WHIPLASH is great filmmaking. I saw it twice. But funk off to THAT for its blithe whitewash of jazz. Black people have given America (and the world) 3 completely new genres of music: Hip-hop, which took about 30-35 years for the total white co-option it enjoys today. Rock, which only took a brief 4 years (the stretch between Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and Elvis Presley’s). And Jazz.

Jazz, a music (probably) 150 years old (jazz being the most elusive of beasts) and jazz will not, now nor ever, be co-opted. Shared? Yes. Of course. In thunder. But jazz will never see a white man will crowned “King.” Half the reason is there is no money in Jazz haha, but the true-true is becuz the greatest have already came and went, along with the america that created them. Bird, Miles and Coltrane. Ellington, Armstrong and Ella. To name 6 is to ignore thousands – of all colors. But who in Jazz is greater than Ella or Bird? No one.

In this way, The True Unsaid Spiritual Tension of Whiplash is not the much ballyhooed homo-social-sexual quality of Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship, but their character’s intrinsic knowledge of regardless how much they practice their craft, misbehave in class or draw blood getting into “only-a-white-boy-could-crash-a-rented-car-run-from-the-scene-and-get-away-with-it” situations, they will never be The Greatest of Jazz cuz they were born too late and, they are white. So even if Fletcher and Andrew were witness to the birth of be-bop, hard-bop or the cool – they could aspire to be like Jerry Mulligan, Bix Biederbecke, Chet Baker… Great. But that STILL ain’t Miles!

If Whiplash had allowed inside its tight hermetically sealed frame that note of sorrow, regret, and true lovin’ awe that only a white jazz cat could feel for a black jazz cat, it woulda been an important film, coulda been a masterpiece. ..

And now… the NUMBER 1! Best Film of 2014 with Egregious Racialization…

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar!

Hathaway and McConaghey get to have fun riding roughshod over Crazy Ocean Tidal Wave planet, to execute a mission it turns out their trusty robot could have pulled off without trouble – meanwhile on the home ship, TWENTY THREE FRIGGIN YEARS GO BY where homeboy soul brother African doctor Romilly (David Gyasi) has been all alone – ALL alone – but when this scientific yet human fact – the Tragedy of Romilly, is dropped on Hathaway and McConaghey almost NOTHING is made of it. And to TOP it off, Romilly is totally chill, handing off some useful exposition and generally serving a reasonable show of sanity, vision and purpose despite his incredible hardship. Here is an incredible display of human fortitude, at least on the level of the love Hugh Jackman felt for Piper Perabo in Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE. Not a DRIP of interest from the film of this magnificent gentleman-who-happens-to-be-African and his intense existential strength – I can’t take it. Paging Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi)…

You can park your chewing gum on my instep anytime.