Saturday, February 07, 2009

We Are Not a Monolith: HBO's The Black List

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

Last year, at Black History Mumf, I gave out homework assignments every day. Some of them were humorous statements, others were actual requests. Today, I’m dishing out homework because it’s the middle of winter and outside my door it’s 56 degrees. I plan on enjoying it! Yes, your friendly neighborhood Odienator is being trifling today.

I heard something today that excited me. HBO is running the second installment of its documentary, The Black List, on February 26th. The first edition aired last year, and it’s a must-watch. The concept has Elvis Mitchell and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders point their cameras on several Blacks in the arts, sports and politics to allow them to speak on race and how it shaped and affected what they do. I’ve seen the first edition three times already, and I’m never less than fascinated by what these people have to say. I don’t always agree with what they have to say, but the fact that it is so varied contributes to my enjoyment in ways I cannot describe. We are not a monolith, as the 3 Black Chicks who review movies were prone to saying. And we aren’t.

Some of the faces on the first edition include music producers Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Russell Simmons, Pulitzer prize winners Toni Morrison and Suzan-Lori Parks, comedians/writer/directors Keenen Ivory Wayans and Chris Rock, Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, sports figures Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Serena Williams, actor Lou Gossett Jr., and Tony winner Bill T. Jones. Most surprisingly, there’s an appearance by former Guns ‘N Roses’ member Slash, whose heritage I always wondered about (I kept telling my friends—that dude’s got Black in him somewhere).

Each has something intriguing to say. Listening to Colin Powell today as I watched a rebroadcast, I recalled how, in 2008, the Republican party branded him a traitor, and how some of their mouthpieces outright accused him of endorsing Obama solely on the basis of his skin color. (See why I roll my eyes at the concept of “post racial America?”) Powell tells a funny story about being stopped by the cops between Birmingham, Alabama and his base in Georgia, pointing out, as Suzan-Lori Parks does, that wearing your military uniform helped you avoid getting shot while driving in the Deep South. The state trooper’s words to Powell, “you better get out of here as quick as you can,” is the best punchline in a show that also features Chris Rock.

Reverend Al Sharpton, with whom I’ve had more than one issue with over time, won me over with his take on how Black music used to elevate, to sing about a place where we wanted to be, which is a sharp contrast to a lot of what blasts into my ears nowadays. “We used to sing about Go Down, Moses and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” he notes. “We weren’t singing about niggas in the field picking cotton.” It’s a great analogy, which I should have expected from a preacher.

The former chairman of Time Warner, Richard Parsons, is also profiled. He begins his section by saying “I burned my house down when I was a kid.” Immediately I thought of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, though if I recall correctly, Wright burned his grandmother’s house down. I also thought of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, so from now on, I’m going to call Parsons “Richard Left Eye Parsons.”

The second volume will feature Melvin van Peebles and Bishop T.D. Jakes among others, and I can’t wait to see it.

There are very few items nowadays that bring us a collection of experiences and viewpoints from a Black perspective. We always seem to be some kind of Chocolate Borg. So your homework assignment is to hunt down two excellent representations of this type, The Black List and Spike Lee’s Get on The Bus. The latter, as all Spike Lee joints do, omits any important female viewpoint, but it’s still well worth considering.


NorthsideRasta said...

Remember the story Colin Powell recalled when told he would have 2 pickup his order at a side window &
the cashier siad I'm from NJ these whites are so racist in GA as she apologised for this barbaric practice or segregation.

odienator said...

Yeah, I do. I'm glad HBO did three episodes of this series, and I wish they'd do more. They're in the grand oral tradition of passiong along Black history.