Archive for category: Commentary

Shooting Michael B. Jordan

03 Dec
December 3, 2013

What follows is from this month’s GQ Magazine, which named actor Michael B. Jordan — who we first victimized in “The Wire” — for the breakout performance of 2013.  His fine work in “Fruitvale Station” is wholly deserving and the film is an important one.  I was honored when the magazine asked me to write something for the year-end issue, and it’s reposted here with the magazine’s kind permission.  Congratulations, Michael.  We knew you when.

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Perversely, we are at the edge of creating a hard-and-fast rule of film narrative in which the one assured means by which we can get America to care about young men of color is to shoot Michael B. Jordan.

Not Michael, to be fair. But any character portrayed by Michael.

The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something, it pays to aim a handgun at Michael B. Jordan’s delicate and nuanced humanity and pull the trigger. Suddenly the risks of being young and black on an American street are apparent.

A decade ago on The Wire, we put Michael in the path of a bullet, knowing we were breaking hearts. Not merely because the kid was a fine, careful actor playing a grandly sacrificial role. But that smile—the open, adolescent warmth that filled Michael’s face in ordinary moments—God, the smile alone was going to wreck anyone watching as Wallace’s story played out.

We started him sweet and foolish and playing with action figures, and we finished him in a vacant public-housing unit, with a high-caliber bullet in his chest. On that last day of work, even the Baltimore crew—veterans of all manner of cop-show savagery and betrayal—were sullenly setting up the shot.

“I can’t believe you’re killing Michael,” said the makeup lady.

No, we’re killing Wallace.

“It’s just wrong. It’s evil.”

When J.D. fired the prop gun and the squibs spurted and Michael dropped onto the stunt mat, the script coordinator started crying.

So now, a decade later, comes Fruitvale Station, a quotidian, last-day-in-the-life account of Oscar Grant, another young black man—this one shot to death by a transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

Now, again, a few earnest souls in our film industry are taking steps from the beaten path to present the human-scale cost of our racial pathology. And the right actor is again required to take a bullet in such a way that we will feel the loss in all of its intricate detail.

No surprise who gets the call. Now Michael B. Jordan, an actor honed by a decade of meaningful work, turns in a performance that surrounds the doomed Oscar Grant, making him seem idiosyncratic yet average, ordinary yet precious. That’s the power of Fruitvale.

It’s easy to say as much, but to feel it? And it’s harder when we are obliged to consider those who wear hoodies, who smoke a little weed, who text the wrong thing to a girl, who ever make a single mistake in their short lives. Harder still if the dead man can’t win us with his smile.

And there’s the lesson.

If we shoot Michael dead a few more times, there’s a small chance we might actually learn it.

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At GQ, online:

http://www.gq.com/moty/2013/michael-b-jordan-men-of-the-year-breakout#ixzz2mS7Nq3X3

 

A rugged individualist punches into the Disney compound.

10 Nov
November 10, 2013

Three year old daughter acting up in a restaurant this afternoon.  Child extricated before meal arrives.  Time out on the sidewalk bench in front of the bistro.  Three year old pouting, arms crossed.

“You know, you can’t be a princess if you don’t use your manners.”

“Why I can’t?”

“Because princesses are nice to everyone.  Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella…they always use their best manners.”

“Well, Daddy, I am a mean, mean princess.”

“Princesses are good. How can you be a princess if you are mean?  There’s no such thing.”

Three year old thinking hard for a long beat.  Then, softly, wearily, as if sad for me:

“Silly, Daddy.  You just don’t know princess things.”

Oy.

In for a bumpy ride with this one.

 

Lost in a symptom: The Nation on marijuana reform

01 Nov
November 1, 2013

The surest way to ensure the continued abuse of people of color under the auspices of the drug war is to reduce or eliminate any corresponding threat to white Americans.  This seems to me to be such a fundamental of realpolitik in the United States that I’m still a little bit astonished that The Nation, in a recent assessment of marijuana reform efforts and racial bias, can’t see any forest from the trees.

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The Koch brothers and The Baltimore Sun

25 Jul
July 25, 2013

Some nice folk hoping to help craft a better future for my alma mater, The Baltimore Sun, stopped by the office a few weeks ago and asked me some questions about what I thought about the Koch brothers, those politically passioned gentlemen, purchasing the half-empty husks of what remains of the Chicago Tribune newspapers.

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Doubling down

17 Jul
July 17, 2013

Among many, many others of similar passion:

  1. pat stevens ?@stevepatg39m 
  2. david simon, I hope a black guy punches you right in the fucking face just for being white..
  3. Michael Bailey ?@mikelbtko1h

    David Simon A Jewish man… “One less Jew to answer, One less Jew (cont) http://tl.gd/n_1rldj72

  4. Willy Scanlon ?@shanlone1h
  5. @7sMRD313 Then David Simon should leave for Israel with the rest of the Fucking Jews who think that they own this country.

     
  6. Robert Aguilar Jr. ?@robertaguilarjr3h
  7. David Simon can take the first Asiana flight the fuck out of here too!!

    My actual words: “Tonight, anyone who truly understands what justice is and what it requires of a society is ashamed to call himself an American.”

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    Some random moments in my lifetime when I have been intensely proud of my country:

    1.  “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

    2.   The arrival of U.S. carriers off the shores of Indonesia after a devastating tsunami.

    3.   Standing on a lawn in College Park, Md. when President Reagan arrived to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a black family that had endured a cross burning there.

    4.   The realization that if the state of Iowa — Iowa! —  could accept gay marriage, then a great wall of intolerance was certain to collapse in our own time.

    5.  The rebuilding of New Orleans with the celebration of American culture as its essential fuel.

    6.  MLK’s 1963 address from the Lincoln Memorial.

    7.  Walking among the graves at Coleville-sur-Mer in Normandy and walking the ground at Gettysburg, Antietam and Cold Harbor.

    8.  The first time I actually heard the Library of Congress recording of Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

    9.  The night we answered precisely an act of mass murder by the necessary capture or death of Osama bin Laden.

    10.  The Gourds’ cover of “Gin & Juice.”  I’m not kidding, but no, I can’t quite explain.

     

    Random moments from my life in which I have been ashamed to be an American.

    1.  The shooting down of a civilian airliner by the U.S. Navy and the deaths of hundreds of ordinary people for which a president said he would never apologize.

    2.  The assassination of Dr. King.

    3.  Our drug war and the realization of what it has done to our underclass, to the northern Mexican states and to our own civil liberties.

    4.  Extra-legal rendition and torture.

    5.  The imagery of young Americans chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” gleefully in the wake of the necessary but sobering death of Osama bin Laden.

    6. Listening to Irving Berlin’s sanctification of a nation-state at every seventh-inning stretch.

    7.  The federal sentencing guidelines and the evisceration of the federal judiciary.

    8.  The killing of doctors, bombings of abortion clinics and the harassment and stigmatization of patients in the name of a political cause which then claims the mantle of pro-life.

    9.  The systemic response to the death of an unarmed 17-year-old boy, profiled and shot to death.

    10.  The callow  insecurity that accompanies any cry of “America, right or wrong” or “America, love it or leave it.”

     

    As with 300 million other souls, I am fully vested in the American experiment.  I try my best to be attentive to what America achieves for its citizens and by its citizens, and what it offers the world.  When we are honorable and generous and in concert with our stated ideals, pride naturally follows.  When we act otherwise, shame is, for me, the resulting emotion.

    To those who can’t conceive of anyone ever being ashamed, or expressing shame at those moments when this country abandons or even betrays its core values, I’m actually willing to go even further than my initial comment:  You may, in fact, be the one who doesn’t understand what it means to be a proud American.  Not truly and not deeply; not without some measure of shame as well.

    Why not?  Because just as good cannot be truly understood to the marrow without a corresponding sense of evil, pride in one’s country — if it is substantive pride, and not merely the rote, pledge-allegiance mouthings of patriotic cliche — requires the sober knowledge that American greatness is neither assured, nor heaven-sent.  It comes to us from our national premise and ideals — and our willingness to maintain those things at all hazards.  And if you’ve never felt ashamed for us for having strayed from our core values in even the most appalling ways — say, the wartime detention of Japanese-Americans, or a My Lai  or Kent State , or Bull Conner, or COINTELPRO, or life sentences for juvenile defendants, or prisons-for-profit — then maybe you’ve never really acknowledged what the actual stakes are for a republic, or how much work, rather than platitude, is required to assure an honorable, democratic future.  Yes, you claim an all-encompassing pride and you wallow in it, brooking not even a mention of anything shameful that happens on our watch as citizens.  But in fact, real pride is earned and internalized only with a grown-up understanding that even a good or great nation, while deserving of our allegiance and civic commitment, can indeed shame itself. Saying so when it happens is a fundamental of self-governance, as all dissent is a fundamental of self-governance.

    I’m not going anywhere.  And I’m doubling down.  Our national response to the death of an unarmed 17-year-old, and the new legal construct that prevents any judicial redress of his death is shameful and as an American, I am ashamed.

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