Thursday, November 21, 2019

Stale Wonder Bread

For the past few days, I have been thinking of an analogy to help me describe my frustration with mediocrity offered up as imperial, moral, physical, and intellectual superiority. And suddenly, I had a random recollection of the local Wonder Bread factory and how as a child, my parents refused to let us eat it.

Most of you know that my parents were righteous hippies, so along with our African names and inner city sensibilities, it should not surprise you to learn that even their food choices were radical. We ate yogurt and granola and wheat germ and carob and my Dad had a vegetable garden at some point. My Mom had a philosophical opposition to processed foods, so we never had Spaghetti-ohs, American cheese, margarine, Spam, baloney, cakes or brownies made from a box, or sugary cereal. Most importantly, my parents were big on wheat bread, which meant no one EVER wanted to trade sandwiches with me at lunch. And when you are already considered to be the weird kid...

Of course I thought I was missing out until I actually tried Wonder Bread. It was terrible. It was mushy and bland. Anything that was spread on it soaked through and altered its texture and color. You could literally roll it into a ball and it would keep that form. But I thought I liked it because everyone else did. Yet, whenever I was given the choice, I never opted for white bread.

Wonder Bread is the edible embodiment of mediocrity. It is basic and boring. Because sliced bread was once thought of as innovative and extraordinary, on the spectrum of bread offerings, Wonder Bread is merely more convenient and cheap.

Sean Spicer is Wonder Bread. I have never been a fan of Dancing with the Stars, primarily because it is the 21st Century equivalent of Circus of the Stars, but the twist is that this show resorts to bland stunt-casting to maintain interest. Why else would anyone care if former Rep. Tom DeLay, Bristol Palin, Tucker Carlson, Geraldo Rivera, or Rick Perry can dance when we know better? First of all, and I mean this in all caps: THEY ARE NOT STARS. Second, because no one expects any of them to be truly competitive, the network just wants people to tune in to see how long they can keep the gag going. And third, ridiculing their lack of talent feeds the narrative of liberal elitism, even though plenty of non-political hacks have appeared on the show and have been just as terrible.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is Wonder Bread. And that's why he is suddenly surging in the polls in Iowa despite the fact that he is the least dynamic person running for President, ever (and that includes John Delaney). You can tout all of his accomplishments and proclaim that he is perfectly qualified to be the nominee, but that is only because he reminds a lot of these folks of when their eldest son ran for student government president. For what it's worth, Sen. Amy Klobuchar should also be gaining traction since they are cut from the same bland loaf, but apparently she's Sunbeam Bread...

Kate Middleton and Prince William are Wonder Bread. Yeah, I said it.

There are a bunch of Wonder Bread celebrities who garner lots of attention in the tabloids for doing mundane shit like venturing out sans makeup to walk their dogs, and then bravely buying pumpkin spice lattes in public just like us, and I just don't get it.

FOX News is Wonder Bread. Every person nominated or appointed to serve in this Regime is Wonder Bread. The Federalist Society and the NRA are Wonder Bread. Hosting weddings on plantations is Wonder Bread. The NFL owners are Wonder Bread. Until Lil Nas X, country music was Wonder Bread. Chick-fil-A is Wonder Bread. Nostalgia for the 50s (and certain aspects of the 80s) is Wonder Bread. Gentrification is Wonder Bread topped with avocado.

In a world full of almost unlimited bread options, it makes no sense to designate Wonder Bread as the default loaf of choice. There's sourdough, pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, multigrain, potato, pita, challa, corn bread, buttermilk biscuits, croissants, baguettes, bagels, focaccia, naan, roti, pretzel, tortilla and so many more options that are too numerous to name. Of course, there is nothing wrong with sticking with what is most familiar, but it kinda defeats part of the reason of why y'all went around colonizing the world in the first place.

It defies logic to presume the superiority of Wonder Bread simply because it once occupied more shelf space in the supermarket. Wonder Bread wasn't better than any of the aforementioned varieties of bread--it just had a bigger marketing budget. It could exaggerate its nutritional value, hire high-profile spokes-puppets to promote it, and make bogus comparisons of its benefits. And because some people have convinced themselves that their nostalgia for the good old days of their youth trumps the reality more marginalized people endured, Wonder Bread has simply re-packaged the same bland, tasteless, squishy fluff.

In case you missed my point, we do not have to settle for more of the same intolerable stuff that we outgrew so long ago. Our palates, preferences, and politics have evolved. There is a bread basket full of options--you don't have to like them all, but it won't kill you to taste and see.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Retro Black Sitcoms

An ongoing theme for the blog this year has been nostalgia and as we approach the last few weeks of the year, I figured I would keep that going with a piece that I first hinted at writing this summer. You may recall that I uncovered a clip from Charlie & Co., which was a short-lived family sitcom that starred R&B Diva Gladys Knight. Finding that clip got me to thinking about a few other shows that I vaguely remembered, which of course led me down quite a fascinating Memory Lane...

Clearly, I watched a LOT of television which explains why I am a repository of random pop culture trivia. Whenever we think of classic Black sitcoms, we revisit the same handful of shows that happen to stay in regular syndicated rotation, such as Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons (which all happen to have been produced by Norman Lear). However, there are many more shows that made it onto the small screen, even if for a brief moment. As you look through these clips, you might be surprised to see several familiar faces before they achieved mainstream success. And if we're lucky, maybe one year TVOne, Aspire, or some other retro TV network will acquire the rights to air a marathon of one or more of these shows so that we can have a more diverse pool of reruns upon which to binge.

That's My Mama (1974)
The Hub did not believe this was a real show--he thought it was a joke based on the reference made to it in at the Black Awareness rally scene in Coming to America. So imagine his amazement when it aired for a brief time back in the early days of TV One (and FWIW, there was no 'Joe the cop' or a 'What's Going Down' episode). Growing up, this was the other Black Mama show (What's Happening is better known) and my random trivia is that both Theresa Merritt and Mabel King appeared in The Wiz.

Baby I'm Back (1977)
I did not remember the premise of this show, which was probably a good thing considering...this was definitely not the kind of show that would get a hard pass in today's contentious social media climate. Even in the late 70s, this seems like the type of show that would have garnered protests for promoting negative images of Black fatherhood. On the bright side, there are several familiar faces that reappear in subsequent sitcoms, including a very young and clearly gifted Kim Fields. Demond Wilson would star in a remake of the Odd Couple that also lasted for about 13 episodes, Helen Martin would return to sit in the window at 227,  and Denise Nichols would also continue to appear in various projects through the years.

Getting to Know Me (1980)
I am SO glad to have finally found a clip of this show on YouTube! This aired one summer on PBS, and I remember watching it with my Mom. Seeing this entire episode after all of these years made me emotional for so many reasons. Let's start with how that theme song has been in my head for nearly 40 years, and then how I just assumed that this show was lost forever somewhere in a dusty library archive. In hindsight, it makes sense that it only lasted one season and that it aired on PBS given the times, but this needs to be restored and made available at the Blacksonian or for a February programming binge. Priceless!

He's the Mayor (1986)
What I remember about this show at the time was how it seemed like such a ground-breaking concept despite the fact that there were Black mayors in several major US cities in the mid-80s. Even Chicago had elected Harold Washington as its first Black mayor, although it would take few years for New York City. Perhaps it was Kevin Hooks' youth and maybe the fact that while plenty of Black people were used to the idea of a Black mayor, this would have been a definite cultural shock outside of a Chocolate City. Even though it only lasted half a season, this show clearly provided some inspiration for The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) and Head of State (2003).

Charlie & Co. (1985)
This show attempted to clone the success of The Cosby Show, which was on a rival network. It didn't work for a variety of reasons. They seemed to be a nice enough family, so maybe on another network in a Friday night lineup of other bland shows it might have worked better. Which is what happened for Jaleel White, who went on to become Steve Urkel (imagine how different his career would have been). And of course it was one of many acting credits for Kristoff St. John, whom we lost earlier this year.

What's Happening Now (1985)
This was one of those syndicated shows that attempted to pick up several years in the future after the end of the first show. And it was terrible, which should provide some context for why nearly every sitcom reboot is a bad idea. However, it did introduce us to a young Martin Lawrence and Regina King's younger sister, Reina (just the type of random factoid that would win on Black Jeopardy).

Frank's Place (1987)
In the list of great Black sitcoms, this show is always mentioned in high regard. Unfortunately, I did not watch it regularly enough to know that on my own (which might explain why I was so ill-prepared for my transition from Atlanta to New Orleans). Nevertheless, there is a good reason why this show is remembered so fondly and I think that audiences need a better reason to remember Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid than as corny Ray Campbell (Sister, Sister) and as the second Aunt Viv (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

Out All Night (1992)
When I was putting together the R&B Divas playlist, I knew Patti LaBelle had been in a sitcom that I watched, but that it only lasted for about a season. Beyond having up-and-coming talent that included Morris Chestnut, Duane Martin, and Vivica A. Fox, it was generic and forgettable. The younger actors would go on to become big screen stars throughout the decade, and of course Miss Patti would continue to be her larger than life self.

Thea (1993)
If you recognize a young Brandy Norwood before she dropped her last name, released an album, and got her own sitcom, as well as a young Jason Weaver, one of the hardest working teen actors in the 90s, then you might be wondering how you forgot about this show. Well, because sometimes the stars are the kids, and not the eponymous name in the title. My question: what happened to Thea Vidale?

Me and the Boys (1994)
Before all of the kid-friendly sitcoms shifted to Disney and Nickelodeon, there were a few that managed to make it onto the major network schedules, and that would include this show with Steve Harvey. It was cute and might have lasted longer if not for the unfortunate illness and death of co-star Madge Sinclair. Harvey reportedly did not want to continue the show without her, so he got a different show for which he is better remembered.

At some point in the 90s, maybe right in the middle of the decade when new networks were launching, certain programming became more expendable and the landscape of situation comedies also changed. As I mentioned above, most of the shows that were designated as family-friendly migrated from the networks to cable, and Black sitcoms were relegated to the fledgling networks UPN and WB. Then my TV viewing habits changed, so it is quite possible that I missed something notable from early 2000s. I know that streaming services made some shows not mentioned here available to current audiences, such as Smart Guy. And it is possible that some of these shows might air on one of those platforms.

But for those of us who haven't cut the cord and who are not sure what to think about Good Times live (at least it isn't a reboot), a couple of these shows deserve to pinch hit one of these holiday weekends.

Friday, November 8, 2019

BBW Tea Party: Harriet

This piece will contain a few spoilers, so if you have not seen the film, I strongly encourage you to do so unless you have been convinced that it is a waste of time, in which case, I urge you to read this and then reconsider. Please and Thank You.

In the weeks leading up to the release of Harriet, I saw a lot of chatter on Twitter and I am sad to say that I read far too much of it prior to seeing the movie; however, I ignored most of it. It was a good movie, I recommend it, and if you are weighing whether to see it, I implore you to do so as soon as possible!

I sat in a theater that was partially full of senior citizens for a matinee showing, which is not surprising for the middle of the week, but a little disappointing when I think back to not yet two years ago when I first tried to see Black Panther a few days after its release. It was a midweek morning and I specifically chose an out of the way theater, but showings were sold out for the entire week. I lucked up and saw the movie a week later at a multiplex in New York where there were shows every half hour and the theater was still packed with people, many of whom were seeing it for the second or third time. I mention this at the outset not to shame anyone who saw Black Panther multiple times (because that was a great movie), but to point out that this movie should have done better than fourth place this weekend.

I also felt that it was important to reference Black Panther in response to the concerns about Cynthia Erivo being British. Chadwick Boseman is American, and yet I don't recall any misgivings about him taking on the role of an African King. And there weren't any complaints about Boseman's co-stars Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown, or Michael B. Jordan, also American actors. Nor a lot grumbling that the Black Panther had been written by an old white guy (the late great Stan Lee). Yeah I know Wakanda is a fictional place, but it was purported to exist on a real continent as an independent and thriving utopia that had been unspoiled by colonialism...which goes beyond the realm of fantasy into delusional. Not a word or a whiff of outrage.

I read a few of Cynthia Erivo's past tweets and yeah, a whole lot of y'all say problematic shit on Twitter. That doesn't excuse her statements, and she deserves the appropriate dragging. And maybe there was another American actress who could have filled that role, but it isn't as if British and American actors don't ever cross the pond and switch places. Meryl Streep was Margaret Thatcher. Sir Anthony Hopkins was Hannibal Lector. Idris Elba was Stringer Bell. Renee Zellweger was Bridget Jones. Naomie Harris is currently an American cop in Black and Blue. And do you know why we rarely notice? Because they are actors and that is their job.

But since we are apparently keeping score, Black Brits have been getting a lot of American roles lately so be sure to boycott the next film or favorite project that stars Lupita Nyong'o (Us), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle In Time), John Boyega (Star Wars), Chiwetel Ojiofor (The Lion King), Thandie Newton (Westworld), David Oyelowo (Don't Let Go), and Carmen Ejogo (True Detective). Remember, those are roles that could have gone to Americans, so let's stay righteously mad Every Single Time. And why stop with Black Brits when there are Black actors throughout the diaspora who are infringing on the rights of American-born actors: Winston Duke and Lorraine Toussaint (Trinidad and Tobago), Letitia Wright (Guyana), Sidney Poitier (Bahamas), Grace Jones and Sheryl Lee Ralph (Jamaica), Danai Gurira (via Zimbabwe), Uzo Aduba (via Nigeria), Tatyana Ali (via Panama and Trinidad and Tobago), Laz Alonso (via Cuba), and Harry Belafonte (via Jamaica).

America First! Send them back! Build the Wall! That's how you sound.

As for Erivo's performance, she was excellent! Leslie Odom, Janelle Monae, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Daphne Maxwell Reid, and my line sister (I saw you girl :) also gave noteworthy performances. I am unfamiliar with the other white actors, and their presence on screen was one of the weaknesses of the movie. White actors in these historic pieces can either come off as cartoons or ciphers if not used adequately, and unfortunately the performances of Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles fell short of the brilliance we experienced with Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson in Twelve Years A Slave. But, I also recognize the desire to elevate this narrative above the condition of enslavement, so it was an interesting creative choice to marginalize the white characters.

Which is why the rumors of a white savior was such a reach. Mind you, there are benevolent white people in this movie, because there were white abolitionists, who sheltered runaways, provided them with food, clothing, and safe passage. Not to be confused with the slaveowners, overseers, and bounty yes, there are depictions of good white people because that's how the Underground Railroad worked. Additionally, there is no need for all of this ruckus over the existence of a Black bounty hunter. Don't be that naive and willfully ignorant. Some enslaved people did not leave the plantations; others found the means to survive the best way they could. In a biopic, creative license is what makes the narrative interesting and engaging. If you prefer the straight-forward factual story, then watch a documentary or go to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park. Otherwise, I need more of you to learn your history from reading books, not an #ADOS twitter/instagram rant.

Or you can revisit one of the previous movies made about Tubman's life. I was recently reminded of this gem that I saw back when I was in elementary school. Thanks to inclement weather, indoor recess, and what passed for being 'woke' in the late 70s and 80s, I had the memory of these stellar performances by Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson. The current movie dramatizes Tubman's life, which is what a biopic does.

Thus, I really appreciated the treatment of John Tubman's story because it offered a perspective on the complexities and tensions on marriages between free and enslaved people. Instead of the commonly accepted story that her husband was a scared man who did not support his wife's desire for freedom, we get a sympathetic portrayal of a man who sought it for her. His choice to move on was presented as practical, not out of spite or from a lack of love for a woman he never thought he would see again. I also appreciated the nod to the earlier films where Harriet's parents would not look at her in order to truthfully say that they had not seen her. It highlighted another emotionally challenging component of relationships among enslaved people--the illusive structure of enslaved families and the extraordinary effort she undertook to reunite hers.

There were a few scenes that I thought were gratuitous and unnecessary, but nothing egregious. The greatest flaw was an omission, so I agree with the criticism that Tubman's later work as a Union Army spy got the footnote treatment. That is the one aspect of her life story that most people know the least about. The Combahee River Raid, which is referenced in Glory (one of my favorite movies), would not have been successful without Tubman's leadership. Yet, it isn't included in Ken Burns' Civil War series either, so that might also reflect a lack of serious historical scholarship on the vital role of women and enslaved people in the war.

I have had some time to reflect on the sexist nature of the backlash, fueled at least in part by the ashier elements on Black Twitter. These are the same dudes who never pass up an opportunity to bash Black women whether it is Oprah, Kamala Harris, victims of sexual assault, and now a film about a real-life American shero directed by a Black woman. I expect conservative movie reviewers to dismiss the film as ideologically driven because they regard any critical examination of slavery as revisionism. But when there are Black people denouncing as trash a movie that they haven't seen (or when they have an obvious agenda in disparaging it), then that is the exact opposite of wokeness.

We're boycotting because Comcast is the distributor and look at their role in the Byron Allen case. The same Byron Allen who calls himself a protege of Rupert Murdoch and works in partnership with Sinclair Broadcast Group. Did he call for the boycott of this movie because he plans to produce an alternative on the Weather Channel?

We're boycotting this film because we're tired of seeing slave movies. In the same year that we commemorate 400 years of the African introduction to this continent in bondage, we are ashamed of the condition that was imposed on our ancestors? Y'all better stop listening to Kanye West...

You ain't woke if you would rather see another stale installment of The Terminator franchise, but at the very least that would be honest. I am not saying that Harriet is the best film or that it doesn't have shortcomings. But we have flocked to the theaters to see all kinds of movies, even Kevin Hart movies, so surely this is better than Night School. At the very least, see it and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Double Down

I had not paid close enough attention to the scandal that engulfed the promising career of former California Congresswoman Katie Hill until I saw this political ad for one of the local State Senate races in Virginia. The ad exploits the circumstances of the sexual assault allegations that have dogged embattled current Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. As I was doing the research to find that link, I learned that similar content is being used against another candidate in another part of the state.

For what it is worth, I have already shared my concerns about the allegations brought against Fairfax, but that was eight months ago. Since then, another accuser came forward and for that along with various other reasons, my feelings about his political future are no longer as wishy-washy. He needs to go. He comes from a well-connected family, has a good private-sector job, and in the best interest of everyone involved, stepping away from the limelight spares us the agony of watching him transformed into a modern-day Willie Horton. It makes me sad, BUT not sad enough to acquiesce to the suggestion that the good he could have done in public office could not be accomplished by someone else.

In that same vein, it's outrageous that the accounts of his two accusers have become part of a cynical political narrative intended to disillusion voters. One candidate even bolstered the impact of the ads with mailers that allude to the allegations, but that feature someone else's image, which I find both disturbing and deeply offensive. Mind you, Justin Fairfax isn't even on the ballot and I am pretty sure that these women did not consent to use of their image in this way. And I am also 1000% sure that neither of the campaigns that produced these ads give one whiff about what these women endured by coming forward. Just ask Christine Blasey Ford.

Someone famously quipped that politics ain't beanbag; for women it can be dodgeball with live grenades. From what I have observed throughout my life, but definitely in the last three years, women are the collateral damage in most political scandals.

Consider the scrutiny that accompanies the wives of political office seekers. The traditional role of a political spouse was that of a smiling, well-coifed homemaker. Then along came modern women with their own opinions such as Hillary Clinton and Teresa Heinz, who when pitted against the likes of Cindy McCain and Laura Bush, were regarded as liabilities. It is a perverted Mrs. America Pageant, especially for FLOTUS, where every aspect of a contestant's life is dissected and mounted for public display. Not even the useless Melania Antoinette evaded being slut-shamed for having taken nude pictures in her past (yet, somehow that worked in her husband's favor).

Women who pursue candidacies of their own face a Ms. Congeniality competition that pits appearance against intellect and ideology. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a popular conservative target, not because she is a ballsy millennial upstart, but because she is young, attractive, and smart. Her detractors get a lot more mileage from mocking her alleged intellectual deficiencies than they would by going up against fellow freshman Congresswoman Katie Porter (even in this Batgirl costume). Liberals had our fun back when Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann were trending, so the ridicule cuts both ways. And if we aren't directly disparaging a woman's looks, then the next line of attack is her age which is also a sideways insult on her appearance, so there's that.

And if we aren't attacking or maligning or deriding the women who are married to power or who are seeking it for themselves, then our issues are political fodder. Abortion might be the most explosive and polarizing, but pay equity, family leave, public benefits, minimum wage, and healthcare fall under that umbrella of kitchen table issues used to describe and then dismiss domestic policy that disproportionately impact women. Every policy change debated in that space turns on the financial impact to employers or taxpayers, which is just another way of saying that we give lip service to equality and fairness but we don't want to pay for it.

All of this makes the rapid rise and fall of Katie Hill so perfect for the Lifetime movie treatment. She hadn't even finished a full year of her term before she self-destructed. Her hasty departure could have been the stuff of another Helen Fielding sequel--Bridget Jones Goes to Parliament or perhaps we should go back and watch The Contender.

The problem I have with her resignation isn't that it happened, but that she won't get any credit for sparing us the tawdry details of her private life. While I agree that she was subjected to a double standard (because men have been accused of much worse and managed to hold on), she went down for more dubious reasons. Instead of being the purpose-driven, dutiful wife caught up in a love triangle with a philandering husband in a long-distance commuter marriage, she was the sexy siren who was seducing her staff to join in their threesomes. By proclaiming her bisexuality as part of her political biography, she left her blinds wide open.

Of course her untimely resignation seems unfair. Of course the very idea of a sex scandal that takes down a female elected official is so on brand for the bizarro world in which we live (because it requires a lot more hubris to take out a male politician). Of course the revenge porn allegation has merit, because the outlets that published her nude photos were partisan. Of course her once promising political career is done even though one would have thought the same thing about the dude who sent dick pics to underage girls. Of course she was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency because Mama Pelosi doesn't have the bandwidth to protect a reckless freshman who can't keep her slip from hanging.

Whether we are the reluctant protagonists of a negative ad campaign; the wives who are paraded as props for political advantage (Madonna and whore); the candidates who smile past the insults and belittling by pundits; advocates for issues that are deferred as expendable; or the rising star that suddenly goes supernova, life ain't been fair for women since Adam blamed his downfall on Eve.

Our only recourse is to press on in spite of the double standards. And to close the blinds.

PS: Those ads didn't appear to have worked in Virginia this time.