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Filtering by Category: Race Culture & Media

Two Score & Ten

Fifty years ago I was a fifteen year old recovering from a congenital injury that would ruin my hopes of one day being a professional baseball, basketball, or football player. I had a dream to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr,'s speech that I listened to with rapt attention. I was watching on TV with a group of my homeboys marveling at all the people to which King spoke. I don't recall ever seeing that many folks, particularly back folks, in any one place before.

I knew that this event, The March on Washington, was something special. And King was speaking truth. We had been witness to bombings, beatings, burnings and all manner of mayhem perpetrated by white authority against black bodies. King was saying to all who would listen that white America, the powers that be, had tried for countless generations to break "the Negro's" body, but could not and would not break his spirit. He was saying this in the shadow of The Great Emancipator, Washington, DC, the Nation's Capital that less we forget was below the Mason Dixon Line. DC is a southern city.

And while state sanctioned American Apartheid was overt below that line in the States of the Old Confederacy, racism was very much alive and well in the East, North, Mid-West, Southwest, from "sea to shining sea."  And although "do not enter" color coded signs of separation are gone in 2013, racial profiling, voter ID, redistricting, school choice, "don't tread on me" Tea Parties, "birtherism" are all manifestations of that "white privilege" mind-set which has under-girded this Republic since before its founding. 

So King's Dream still has resonance and currency. Just look at the immigration debate, the wage gap between workers and corporate owners, climate change deniers, environmental injustice, marriage inequality the list goes on. King's Dream while specific  to Civil Rights at that time he was speaking also of larger cultural and human rights issues and divides that remain extant today.

Now, unlike then there seems to be "no fierce urgency of now." Now like then "marches" just won't cut it. As my mother was very fond of saying, "There's no rest for the wicked...and the righteous don't need it." 

42 vs 44

In the Blog Shadow & Act in a post by Sergio the question was posed in the title: Why & How 'The Long Ships' w/ Sidney Poitier Should Be Remade. What Old Films Would You Remake?

Readers were asked to comment about what films they might remake if given the opportunity. Among the four films that I mentioned right off the top of my head was "Putney Swope," a 1969 film written & directed by Robert Downey, Sr, starring Arnold Johnson as Putney. 

According to IMDB, the film is, "Dark satire in which the token black man on the executive board of an advertising firm is accidentally put in charge. Renaming the business "Truth and Soul, Inc.", he replaces the tight regime of monied white ad men with his militant brothers. Soon afterwards, however, the power that comes with its position takes its toll on Putney."

I once wrote that I hoped that in his second term as president, BHO would become more Putney than puddy.  And at this point in time there is no indication that is likely to happen. So if I were to remake Putney Swope I'd move it from Madison Ave. to Pennsylvania Ave. And explore what America might be like under the first "black" Presidency. For although we have America's first African American in The White House, I think we are still waiting for a "revolutionary," black or otherwise in that job.

While many might compare Obama's breaking of the color line that ws the American Presidency up until his election in 2008, that event didn't do the same thing for Politics as with America's other favorite past time, Baseball. When Jackie Robinson broke in with The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 the "white" game of baseball was changed forever. Not because of his color, but because of the way Jackie played the game. The Negro Leagues played a whole different type of ball, faster, more aggressive, more dynamic, more "athletic," less "cerebral." And everyone knew it, particularly Jackie's "white" competitors. They knew from thence forth once the floodgates were opened, the dam busted, they would have to elevate their game to keep their jobs. 

Obama on the other hand to this point in his Presidency is playing "the game" the same as any of the forty-three other men that have come before. Indeed he's Pan-man-like, nibbled a bit around the edges, but for the most part it's been "politics-as-usual." He's been more Nat King Cole, than Nat Turner. We all knew that he couldn't appear to be a bomb thrower, because he would never have gotten elected. That was a given. But many, I think, secretly hoped that if he were fortunate enough to be elected to a second term that like Jackie, he would stop walking on eggshells, and unleash some of that righteous Chicago fire. Kick a little ass, and take names.  Interestingly we are being assailed at this very moment with a story not of a black revolutionary figure in The White House, but a Butler.

As Putney says in his speech to the board after his election, "I didn't come here to rock the boat, I came here to sink it." It would be great if POTUS did at the very least some "boat rocking." Maybe Obama might channel The Hues Corporation in his second term as opposed to Stevie Wonder and we can finally have America's first Black Presidency.

Black Film?

Trying to define what makes a "black" film, television program, play, book, any form of art has to be analysed from the standpoint of its motivation, purpose  and not just whether the participates happen to have a certain hue of skin tone and cultural background.

I'm always struck sometimes as to just how "white" so-called black films, black media really are. In some ways to be very super critical most "black" media (not being a student of media created by black folks throughout the Diaspora, I'm referring to media created by black folks in America) is in many ways an "aping" of white media forms and conventions. Because in many ways that is what we all have been conditioned to expect.  Every mode of expression contains two essential elements, form and content. Both should be taken into account when defining what makes a film or any other mode of expression "black."

Most "black" storytelling in the commercial space copies the same "western (white) narrative" form and conventions when it comes to film, television, theater, etc. Anything which strays "outside the lines" is considered "experimental" or avant-garde. Black film/media has essentially been boiled down to stories that have black characters as their protagonists and told by a "black" artist.  

The problem I've always had with this definition is that it is shortsighted and does not take into account POV, (point-of-view), or motivation, which are the two key elements that truly set a story apart as being "black." I think for example you could have a "black" film that wasn't primarily about black people, but about "white privilege," and its destructive nature. 

Black when it comes to African Americans is never just a color, but must always have a cultural component and perspective. Black has to capture the universal as well as the specific. It has to seek to free our minds -to enlighten, inform, entertain, and most importantly, inspire. It must always not just deal with what is, or was, but what can be, possibilities. It must seek to change how we think about ourselves as humans be-ing, not just as "black folk." 

I am reminded of the so-called Black Arts Movement that came alive in the 1960s and 1970s, where poets, writers, playwrights, visual artists, were experimenting with new forms of expression that sought to break the bonds of white convention. Today we have settled in to a place, artistically speaking, that seems less about braking barriers or inventing something new or being creative and more with being popular.

Black media can be both "black" and popular. We only have to look at the history of "black music" as an example. There are no black filmmakers working today (commercially) who can claim the same kind of creative innovation that a Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, had in the musical arena. These "innovators" created a whole new musical genre with that same "raw material" that was available to every musician.

When will "black" film artisans do the same for the motion picture, or television program that these black musical artisans did for records?  


Black Odyssey

The Odyssey (Greek: Ὀδύσσεια, Odýsseia) is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second oldest extant work of Western literature, the Iliad being the oldest. It is believed to have been composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.[1] -From Wikipedia

The Hero's Journey in Western (nee White) Culture that is the "classic" Hollywood movie plot is clearly defined in Homer's Odyssey. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy has trials and tribulations to conquer before he can win back girl in the end. The base that under-girds all Western Drama - Man Against Man, Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself - drives the action of the story -conflict.

With movies like Lee Daniels' The Butler (which I have not seen at this writing) the hero, the driver of he action is a Butler. And there-in lies the problem.  We know that "blacks" in America have had to do some of everything to survive. And have had to overcome all manner of obstacles, challenges that white folks haven't had to do. So their is real "heroism" in every "black" story regardless of a person's "station," because of racism and "white privilege." The black servant is an archetype in movies since their inception and many a black Hollywood star has had to "tom" or "coon" or "mammy" or "buck," in Donald Bogle's terminology.

But my question in 2013, where are the depictions of "the black Odysseus?" Why are there no Epic stories where the hero must set sail from distant shores in one's imagination, conquer the forces of evil then return home triumphant to find his true love waiting for him with open arms and baited breath; all this from a "black" perspective. While using the male form (Hero), the same applies to stories of "black" females (Heroines). History is replete with these stories. But when will they find their way to the Big Screen? There is more to African American existence, real and imagined, than gritty urban dramas, or cross-dressing romantic comedies.  

When I was a kid (I'm 65), I could spend hours at the movies, seeing double or triple features and imagine myself as the larger than life characters depicted in those images I saw on the wide screen in Technicolor. Isn't it high time there were big screen images that kids and young adults can want to be, "blacks," particularly? 

It's not enough that we have a "black" President we still need those larger than life "black" images, characters "that can leap tall buildings with a single bound."

Walter Harris Gavin is the author of the Epic story of identity -The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar.