Saturday, December 17, 2022

When Big Mama Dies

A few months back, the movie Soul Food (1997) was in the queue on one of the premium cable movie channels, which meant that for a few weeks, it aired every other night. Because it is one of those bad Black movies that I will stop and watch whenever, I got to see different parts of it a few times. In one of my FB groups, someone else must have done the same, and he started a thread about all of the ways we had misjudged the eldest sister, Teri, portrayed in the film by Vanessa L. Williams.

His shot across the bow--how it was time to have an adult conversation about how Teri was constantly mistreated by her ungrateful family. He argued that her bitterness was justified, and basically that Cousin Faith was lucky that Teri was too smart to actually kill her or whup her ass when she had the chance. He listed various other transgressions, and we had a great discussion of the many ways that her family had taken advantage of her, especially Big Mama Joseph, who presided over the entire dysfunctional mess. I mean, think about how eff'd up it is for your Mama to allow the dude who two-timed you with your younger sister to marry into your family and then eat dinner every Sunday without the constant threat of food poisoning hanging over his head? And that same Mama lets everybody treat you like the Joseph Family Building and Loan, even though she has a stash of cash she's been stockpiling in the house for years?

Yep, it's true. Big Mama Jo was terrible, yet we all cried when she died because that's what we're supposed to do when the family matriarch passes away. We're supposed to forget that she enabled a lot of unhealthy shit because she also was a kind and loving Mother/Grandmother/Auntie/Big Sister who fed all of the neighborhood stray cats. We have watched this movie for years and I have never seen anyone argue that maybe Teri was right to want to sell the house to get some of her money back from her family of freeloaders who were never going to treat her any differently anyway, so why not just be that bitch and finally break free?

The next time you watch that movie, tell me that your eyes have finally opened to see what I saw years ago, but didn't dare speak it lest I be branded a hater. Because I always thought the Joseph family was trash and that the depiction of Teri was too shrill and bitter as if she was just an upper-class snob instead of tired of their broke asses. (Hence why I deem it a bad Black movie, one that is problematic on many levels while still entertaining and watchable.)

At some point, I had an epiphany about another beloved figure in popular culture...I'm not naming anybody just yet, nor will I offer a list of the ways that she was just as bad as the fictional late Big Mama Jo. I will simply suggest that maybe now that she's dead, folks should look more objectively at the terrible shit she enabled and how that might have impacted various members of her family. 

Having lived through the death of a beloved family matriarch myself (around the same time Soul Food was released), I can attest that it blows a gigantic hole in the heart of the family that never refills. My extended family hasn't gathered for a joyous holiday since her death; instead, we have come together for funerals. And at each one, we all sit around at the repast and recall how great things were when we were younger and how we need to get together more often under better circumstances, and then another year passes. Somebody else dies, I skip past their name in my address book, and life goes on. 

Some of us chose to center our lives around a different matriarch. That could be our own mother, and/or some other woman whose mother-like aura has that same magnetic power to draw everyone to her for comfort and refuge. And like the Big Mamas that came before her, she does the best she can to keep her family and the assorted strays together, in spite of the bullshit that goes on in the background. She is polite to the new girlfriend who has replaced the daughter-in-law. She welcomes that troubled grandson who only comes around to borrow money, unannounced and at inopportune times, which she sends to him even though she has promised to stop. She cares for the babies of all the single unwedded women because she knows how hard it is, and she doesn't judge them for continuing to make bad choices with the wrong men. She has co-signed bad loans, hidden unmentionable contraband in her home, listened to every sob story, cooked a lot of comfort food, and keeps on giving and loving for as long as the Good Lord allows.

I want to be clear that I am not poking fun at Big Mama (considering the obvious connection to being a Busy Black Woman), so on general principle, she is not a bad person. She's just very complicated like all human beings. She's giving and loving and strong-willed, which are qualities that not enough people seem to understand these days. If some of y'all had been raised by a Big Mama, I wonder if you would still be such unrepentant jerks. (On second thought, she's the reason why some of y'all are what you are, so carry on.) Some of you reading this are already Big Mamas or in-training without even realizing it. 

I happened to be watching A Raisin in the Sun (2008) recently, and because it is the version with Diddy, it definitely qualifies as a bad Black movie. Watching a few of my favorite scenes reinterpreted by Phylicia Rashad, I saw some of the conflict with different eyes. Her Lena Younger has all of the same overbearing Big Mama presence that made Claudia McNeil so iconic and definitive in this role for so long. However, I noticed how Lena treats her daughter-in-law Ruth (Audra McDonald) like the only other responsible adult in the household. In essence, as her equal, and I missed that for years. As such, it makes so much sense to me why Walter Lee is so resentful and spiteful to his wife as she is the Big Mama in-training. (No worries, we're not going to examine the mother-son relationship nor how it was understood to be a point of contention between role originators Sidney Poitier and McNeil.)

However, the tension captured in the play/movie highlights how Big Mamas occupy a larger-than-life presence in the lives of others, especially their children. Walter Lee Younger is a 35 year-old man whose Big Mama Lena still makes all of the decisions for the family. In Soul Food, Big Mama Jo looms over family conflicts even as she is comatose and dying. Another Big Mama exercised her prerogative to meddle in the lives of her children and grandchildren, which is kind of why everything is so messy right now. Big Mamas mean well, but remember that saying about the road to hell and good intentions?

Like I said, Big Mamas are human. While we should honor and revere them, there comes a point when Big Mama's word isn't sufficient to resolve our problems. While her home can be a place of refuge, it can also become a cage. She can feed our souls, but sometimes she feeds our bad habits and unhealthy indulgences. Big Mama Lena Younger expects her son to act like a man but constantly berated him like a child. Big Mama Jo was clearly a great cook, but she didn't adopt healthier alternatives and it killed her. That other Big Mama kept silent when her voice was needed to silence the viciousness that was aimed at the women who married into her family (probably because the negativity heaped on them contrasted with the praise and honor reserved for her).

Because Big Mama is keenly aware that her time on earth is finite, she often selects an heir. And let me tell you, whew! Sometimes the choice is easy because most women don't want the trouble. It's obvious that Beneatha Younger has dreams beyond taking care of a family. Part of the enmity between two of the Joseph sisters was about who was Big Mama's favorite and heir apparent. Although Teri expected to inherit the mantle with everyone financially indebted to her, second-born Maxine steals earns the role by rekindling the weekly Sunday dinners. In that other family, the lines of succession having already been established, the idea that there was even the need for conflict is one that appears to have been manufactured to sell newspapers...

So, if you hadn't guessed which dearly departed Big Mama I keep alluding to, well here is one last clue: she was THEE Big Mama, even though nobody would have dared to call her that in life. But maybe if the world had regarded her with a little more humanity, then perhaps we wouldn't feel compelled to take sides and make demands regarding what is a very public after-the-funeral squabble that has been going on for these past few months.

I mean, why else do average people in these tweets think they should have a say as to whether one of her grandsons ought to be disinherited because they don't like his wife? Because that is the gist of this--y'all don't like his American wife and feel some kind of way that she didn't much care for how she was mistreated by the British tabloids. So she did what every other self-respecting celebrity does when they want to tell their side of things--she bore her soul to Rich Auntie Oprah.

Which, by the way, is exactly what happens when one feels that their appeals to Big Mama have gone unheard. Somehow, as if out of thin air, a Rich Auntie appears to sprinkle in her special blend of chaos and stir the pot. Mind you, she isn't a rival to Big Mama, just another powerful woman who serves her own important function in family drama. She knows everything Big Mama knows, but with neither the time nor interest in managing petty family business. She's like the therapist who guides you to the breakthrough and then sends you on your way to do the work of fixing your own life.

For all of this self-righteous British indignation over that Oprah interview, it isn't as if she hadn't taken on this same role in this same family in the past. Sarah Fergusen, Duchess of York, gave an interview to Oprah a year before Princess Diana died (and apparently Di was ready to spill the tea as well). And if you pay close attention to that clip, a lot of the stuff Fergie revealed tracks with everything Meghan has said about living in the royal fishbowl and braving the British tabloids (minus the racism). This notion that Meghan should have been made of sterner stuff is utter bullocks considering how the press not only helped to destroy Fergie's marriage and reputation, but some of you forget that Princess Diana developed bulimia as a result of her unhappiness in the Firm.

If Big Mama could have had her turn on the Oprah confessional couch, I'm guessing there is a LOT she would have to say about every last person, from the minor royals to the groupies hanging about the palace. I'm convinced part of the reason she never did was because talking shit about your kids in public is the one thing Big Mamas never do. It is against the Big Mama code, so now you know why she never banished her pedophile son. However, there is a LOT this Big Mama should have done differently, beginning with her failure to protect these unsuspecting women from the tabloid trolls and press ogres. But there's no point in condemning her now that she's dead. Instead, the living need to learn from her mistakes and make better choices. 

In full disclosure, I have yet to watch their Netflix special, pre-order his memoir, listen to her podcast, or binge-watch any episodes of The Crown, so before anyone accuses me of being unabashedly Team Them or Anti-Royal, that isn't the point. This is all about a family and the messy bits that get exposed when Big Mama dies. Since the Royals are too dignified to be caught fighting in the church parking lot after the repast, they dispatched their PR teams to trade barbs. If these were medieval times, William and Harry might have been jousting.

There was a line in The Queen (2006) wherein the fictional Prince Philip referred to all of the drama in the aftermath of Diana's death as a bunch of hysterics who needed help processing their grief, and well...

That 'keep calm and carry on' stuff is a great slogan to put on tee shirts and mugs, but a lot harder to follow in real life in the midst of conflicting emotions and while coming to terms with the inevitability of one's own mortality. Big Mama is no longer around to fix this mess. Somebody needs to man up and not wait until his coronation to declare that certain aspects of his family's lives are off limits. The same press establishment harassed your ex-wife to death, disparaged the physical appearance of your current wife, and referred to your newborn grandson as a chimpanzee. Your majesty, when do the beheadings start??!! Most of the people who claim to care so much about the Firm aren't your friends, Sir, they are friendly to the Crown because it benefits them. Public opinion is fickle and unpredictable, so if it sells more papers, they will rebel like American colonists. Furthermore, when you opened that cage and let those birds fly free, accept that you gave up the right to control their song.

Here are a final few words of benediction over the other Big Mamas, lest I leave the impression that I thought they had more bad qualities than good. Big Mama Younger was right to be suspicious of her son's proposed business venture, but her ability to forgive and ultimately support his other decisions allowed him to feel the dignity he felt had been so elusive. Mama Jo's insistence on keeping her family unified at all costs was something of a double-edged sword, but in the end, it proved to be wise and fortuitous. And hopefully Teri learned that being the Rich Auntie isn't a lesser position in the family--it just comes with a lot less responsibility. To anyone reading this who is herself a Big Mama or one in-training, you already know how much we love you.

Now here's my best hood-Rich Auntie advice to our nephew Prince Harry (even though he didn't ask). Move on. Keep sending Christmas cards and exchange gifts among the children and give your brother a heads up when you're going to be on the same continent. Otherwise, live your best life and perform whatever duties you owe to your Dad as King. You have another Big Mama in your corner for whom it is no imposition or breach of protocol for her to protect your babies and wife. She would gladly lay down her very life for you as well, so let those people across the pond worry about whatever it is the royals do. Big Mama Doria will be here for you as long as the Good Lord allows.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Hello From the Other Side

The results are in and Reverend Senator Raphael Warnock gets to keep his seat for a full six-year term. Herschel Walker can move back to Texas, his son Christian can reactivate his OnlyFans account, and we can focus our attention on something other than saving democracy for the next couple of weeks. But just until MLK weekend...

I had been working on another think piece linking Wakanda Forever to my experiences last month as an Election Protection poll monitor, but let's put that aside for now to address some of the more urgent issues that were raised by this nail-biter of a runoff. Because from this side of the ideological divide, this election should not have been this close.

A lot of folks have memes and jokes and I have a few of my own, but in all seriousness, we need to be very concerned that there was a runoff and that Herschel Walker was still a viable candidate. The man's skeletons had skeletons and all of it was messy AF. While y'all were making jokes about his werewolf and vampire comparisons, he was telling that to an assembled audience of folks who then went to the polls and voted for him. In fact, 1.7 million people did that.

Those of us from the other side are shaking our heads in disbelief, but also praising God that Walker lost. I assume his supporters are taking this hard and are regrouping. Just know that the response will be not to make the same mistake twice, so we've been warned. However, we need to understand how we got here in the first place by dispelling the notion that Herschel Walker was recruited to draw Black voters away from the good Rev. Raphael Warnock. It never mattered to those folks whom we would have supported because they didn't believe our votes were valid in the first place. Never forget that the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol went there to force Members of Congress to invalidate the Black votes from Georgia (along with the Latinx and Indigenous votes from several other states), so that premise was wrong from the outset.

Nor should we be relieved that the more 'respectable' candidate won. They aren't all that concerned about respectability either, given that just five years ago the voters in Alabama nearly sent an alleged pedophile to the Senate. And they are still poised to vote for the Orange Julius Caesar in two years, so don't let any of this talk about restoring American values trick you into believing that their longing for the days of Ozzie and Harriet are wholesome.

It is always about power and keeping it to themselves.

Not that I didn't know that already, but it made so much sense to me during my recent work in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia for the election last month. Someone thought it was a good idea to assign me to a few suburban voter precincts, and let me tell you, the view from the other side is quite different. They got lots of nice stuff out there...

And they want to keep it that way. They don't want Lotti, Dottie and errybody coming up in their exclusive spaces. They immediately feel threatened like we're casing the joint, so they have their security guards, those fancy doorbell cameras, and stockpiles of guns lest we get too close or our fingers too sticky.

For instance, did you know that out in the suburbs, they don't lock the deodorant behind those theft deterrent shields? Apparently, nobody wants to contend with an inconvenienced Karen who just needs to run in to grab a few things on her way to meet her friends for coffee. In the city where I live, the folks at the CVS aren't at all phased about what else I might need to do other than wait for the cashier to find the manager with the key. Where else am I going to go, to a Walgreens with the same setup?

I was stationed in familiar outposts in Northern Virginia, but still far enough away to have been noticeable as an outsider. At the two precincts located just outside of Charlotte in North Carolina, I took lots of mental notes of my surroundings. The first day I was stationed at the Town Hall which was located near an old-fashioned railroad junction. Across the tracks there was a town center anchored by a grocery store with all of the usual retail options such as a nail salon, dry cleaners, and a barber shop. In the shopping center adjacent to the polling place, there was another grocery store. There were landscapers and workers preparing to hang Christmas decorations from the light posts. I greeted the other campaign volunteers who had an entire area reserved for their snacks and coffee. There were even a few actual candidates who spent the bulk of the day meeting voters and exchanging pleasantries. I was literally in a modernized downtown Mayberry where everyone was polite and friendly, just like on TV.

In my hyper-vigilance as a veteran poll monitor, I got suspicious that a police car had driven up and parked at the front entrance of the precinct. I mentioned to one of the campaign volunteers that I was heading over to investigate, and she said "Oh, he's here to make sure that everything is okay" and sure enough, no one was intimidated by his presence. They just kept to their business and after about 30 minutes he left (later I learned that Sheriff Taylor came from the police station across the street). Midafternoon as the line got a little longer, and more than a handful of Black people were gathered (because at that point, it had just been me, myself and Irene), I walked over to get a closer look. I met Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC), and we had a nice chat about the Voting Rights Act, lawsuits over redistricting, and the big barbecue that had been hosted by a local AME church (from which no one brought me a plate, but I digress). 

Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood. One woman I met had brought her dog to spend the day as a campaign mascot for a local candidate. He slept most of the day in her antique convertible that was parked a few yards away, so I found it rather ironic to overhear her complain about the state of the economy and feeling unsafe due to the increase in crime. 

But who am I to judge the economic anxieties of others? What do I know about having to do price comparisons between the Food Lion and the Harris Teeter a mile apart, or the hassle of clipping coupons when it is actually a bigger deal for me to find a grocery store in my parents' neighborhood? Do your worries about crime in your gated community mean that your homeowner's association dues will increase to cover the cost of hiring a security guard? Or is it anything like the gun violence that is a daily feature on the local news in the inner city? 

When I went canvassing by myself in the dark after I completed my poll monitoring shifts, I wasn't all that worried. I was in Davidson, a college community where people literally had their front doors open and possibly their cars unlocked. If anything, I'm shocked that no one called the police on me, not even when I was walking around in the rain down their dimly lit streets. The next day, I did arouse some suspicion from the Black residents on the other side of the tracks who were more concerned about me working on a Sunday. 

I requested to be stationed in Athens for Election Day, which as a college town probably doesn't count as a suburb, but close enough. I had Monday off, so I took a trip down to Atlanta and visited my own college campus. In a comparison between small college towns, Davidson and Athens weren't that different, except that Athens is larger. I have often described my time in the Atlanta University Center as a small college community within a big city. That description is still apt, but we don't have the same imprint in Southwest Atlanta (the SWATS) as the University of Georgia has over all of Athens. While the residential parts of the neighborhood surrounding the AUC have changed dramatically over these past 30 years, the West End commercial strip looks exactly the same, including the Taco Bell that is still there on Lee Street! Davidson and UGA students have access to cute restaurants, bars, and shops; however, we've got the better theme song (because it truly is a different world).

Aside from all of those material differences and distinctions, one of the more pernicious ways of framing the divide in the political parlance is to suggest that what we want is what they have, but how we are undeserving. As in, we have to deserve equal treatment and citizenship, jobs, decent housing, and even clean water. Someone reading that might accuse me of being hyperbolic while failing to recall that just 60 years ago Black people were protesting in the streets for the right to be served coffee and food at Southern lunch counters. Of course, it was always bigger than integrated coffee which is why our other demands for basic dignity have required the same intensity of effort. And with every demand, someone in power is conferring with his colleagues and asking What do these people want now

The same things that have always been touted as the inalienable birthright of every American--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So yeah, a lot more than the kind of superficial integration that elevated Walker to the status of UGA football icon. Winning the Heisman trophy and playing professional football worked out great for him personally, and if that makes him a hero in the eyes of those who voted for him, that's fine. The fact that he has been less than heroic in his personal life is also his business, but problematic for someone who cited his character and faith as his primary attributes for office. That and the fact that he doesn't even live in the state...

Set aside all of those contradictions and what we saw was a contest between two Black men with two different motivations for seeking office. With all due respect to many of my friends who took umbrage to the idea of a less than erudite ex-football player serving in the Senate, I need to point out that there are no qualifications outlined in the Constitution that would have given one man the advantage over the other. They wanted the Buck; we wanted the Preacher. Truth be told, a former professional football player is no different than any other celebrity who has considered politics when being a has-been isn't enough. Some of this country's most beloved politicians were former entertainers.

I was more offended that Herschel Walker had agreed to be the mascot for an agenda that perpetuates the fear among the people who have always had everything that we, the unwashed riffraff, have come to steal from them. You see, Walker left our community a long time ago, not because he went to UGA and then went on to be successful football player. He left us to join the other side when he adopted their trickle down, up by your bootstraps, let them eat cake mentality and never looked back. As long as everything was good for him down at Southfork Ranch, then everything was peachy.

If he had cared about the people of Georgia, then he wouldn't have needed to be enticed to temporarily relocate there for this sham. Take a good look at his campaign biography and show me where he has been working to improve the lives of the people he claims to care so much about. Oh wait, he's a job-creator, so was his company's use of unpaid labor by imprisoned drug offenders an example of his Christian charity? Did Walker express any opinion on SB 202 and how it might have suppressed the youth vote in Athens, where he went to college? (Because it did, and I saw it in operation as a poll monitor on Election Day.)

When we lament how close this election was, we are operating under the delusion that the fears of Walker's supporters should not have compared to our hopes. Now that we know that hope and fear were evenly matched, like I said, they won't make this mistake twice. And we shouldn't be all that relieved by Warnock's margin of victory when his totals in the runoff fell short of the number of votes he received in the general. He received more support when he ran against Kelly Loeffler, so we need to question why more than 960,000 voters stayed home this time.

Finally, because I need to bring this all together, the reference to the conversation I had with Rep. Adams (D-NC) about redistricting wasn't just some random anecdote I included to floss, but a real issue that will continue to impact how we organize and mobilize voters throughout the South. When I tell you that the people who have everything don't think that we deserve anything nice, that includes the ability to elect our own representatives to Congress and to state legislatures. Local and national representation gives us a say over how resources are allocated, and if elected officials from our communities are demanding more equitable distribution of said resources and that results in one less thing for them, then they will draw us into a box and dare us to cross the lines. That's how we got SB 202 and all of its suppressive impact.

And to prove that we're wrong about calling those tactics Jim Crow 2.0, they just overwhelmingly voted for a Heisman trophy to represent them in the U.S. Senate. Even though he lost, they get to forever point to the fact that they supported him the way that so many of them claim they would have marched with MLK in the 60s. But (and here's the rub), they don't want their children to feel bad that their grandparents once opposed going to school with Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes at the same University of Georgia. (I know that's a different issue, but it is all inter-related.)

From the other side, where we see things in color and aren't as covetous as you'd like to think, we wanted someone who would fight for those who have less. Yes, we laughed at a lot of what Herschel Walker said, but we also listened and heard nothing that would improve our lives in the hood. Our families work just as hard for a lot less, so we don't care which spokesperson you choose if the message never changes and the results are always the same. Y'all who drive past our neighborhoods to get to your dog parks, yarn stores, sit-down restaurants, and overpriced sandwich shops, seriously thought that the high price of eggs would be more persuasive than protecting democracy. That's an even bigger joke than Herschel Walker in the Senate. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Irene Cara: We Remember!

This one was rough...normally, I would have just posted a playlist on the Facebook page, but the unexpected death of Irene Cara over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend deserves a more significant remembrance. 

I will be honest and admit that I had recently thought of Cara in passing as I sat through my annual viewing of Flashdance (1983) this summer. As some of you know, I have this ridiculous fascination with that movie, due in large part to the fact that it was HUGE when I was a kid, but it was rated-R so I only saw it for the first time years later in college. And after I saw it, I immediately questioned the hype, so it has become something of a ritual for me to watch and ridicule the absurdity of a movie about an exotic dancer who wanted to be a ballerina without ever having taken any ballet classes!

(And for the umpteenth time, I still shake my head at that premise for a variety of reasons, beginning with the fact that I actually started taking ballet classes around the time the movie came out, so from experience I can attest that the premise is utter nonsense. Even in the 80s when ballet was still very exclusive to certain types of girls, there were programs that made it available to the masses, such as the School of Performing Arts in New York, which we will address later in this piece. I also questioned the sanity of the elderly ballerina mentor in encouraging such nonsense...)

But I digress because the point here is to appreciate Irene Cara beyond her association with Flashdance. In spite of a steady resume of solid acting work in the 70s and early 80s, she will forever be identified with one of the most overrated of what I call the 80s fad movie genre. Movies like Flashdance, Breakin' (1984), Perfect (1985), White Knights (1985), and even Saturday Night Fever (1977) were all derivatives of Hollywood's tendency to capitalize on the latest pop culture trend with a bad movie. Even the film that brought Cara to the attention of mainstream audiences, Fame (1980), could be included in that group for bringing attention to the performing arts high school; however, as we all know, the pursuit of fame itself is not a fad.

Fame is the road that Cara began traveling as a child. I remembered her from The Electric Company as a member of an early lineup of performers in the Short Circus, the kid singing group that was featured in vignettes throughout the show. However, she had already been a Broadway performer and starred in two feature films by the time I saw her in those EC reruns in the latter 70s. I had also seen her on What's Happening (1977) and in Roots: The Next Generations (1979), so that practically made her Black famous before the rest of the world 'discovered' her in Fame. Until her death, I didn't even realize that Cara was just a teenager in the years before her big breakthrough. 

Therefore, by the time her career had reached its zenith with What a Feeling, it would seem that her Oscar win should have opened every door in the entertainment business. Instead, Cara receded from the scene and was practically forgotten in a few years. Similar artists such as Karen White, Jody Watley, Paula Abdul, Gloria Estefan, Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Janet Jackson (a Fame adjacent alum) filled the void. Assuming that her account of what happened to her career in this clip is accurate and knowing that she had more talent in her pinkie toe than most of those others, it just doesn't make sense that everything just stopped.

Or maybe that is just the price of fame, as Lydia Grant (Debbie Allen) warned in this unforgettable monologue on the matter: You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs...

Since she spent so many years out of the spotlight, one can only imagine what Cara's career should have been in these almost 40 years since Flashdance. Starting with that list of her contemporaries, why didn't Cara enjoy more pop music success? She had the voice like Whitney Houston, and she could dance. She co-wrote What A Feeling, so if given the chance, her songwriting talent should have kept her busy like Patrice Rushen or even Babyface. On the acting side, even if she couldn't carry a mainstream film to box office gold on her own, she could have been in an ensemble film, found steady work on some mediocre sitcom, or been featured in some epic TV miniseries. And for goodness sakes, she started out on Broadway, so why didn't she ever find her way back to the stage?

What happened?

She had the look, the talent, the sparkle. The irony of her starring in two movies about the illusive quest for fame is the realization that for Cara, those attributes had already opened the door and ushered her to the center of the room. By 1980, Irene Cara knew a few things about show business. Yet, why it all fell apart is anyone's guess. A variety of other factors can derail someone's career--a bad combination of hubris, fickle fans, and/or the machinations of the suits who make decisions behind the scenes. In Cara's case, it just never made sense that it all went away. Who didn't dabble in drugs in the 80s? Who didn't make the best choices in choosing film projects? Who upon realizing that their work was undervalued didn't seek to rectify the situation?

Two years ago when we mourned the sudden passing of Chadwick Boseman, I wrote this piece and compared his death to the phenomenon that occurs when a star explodes, a supernova. Now I find myself trying to comprehend the opposite--when a star collapses and creates a black hole. Irene Cara was born a star. She deserves to be remembered as such, not as some has-been actor or a one hit wonderful or some pop tart wannabe, but as a bona fide STAR whose light still shines and bathes us in warmth nearly 40 years after her greatest career triumph. In death, we are lamenting that her light was eclipsed, but it was is still there, as brilliant and luminous as ever.

It doesn't seem right or fair that someone with Cara's prodigious gifts would be discarded over a million dollars. Lesser talents flourished in spite of bad choices; stumbled and rebounded; been hella problematic; and in some cases, committed actual harm to others with minimal career interruption. She couldn't have been the first artist to sue her record label (Teena Marie comes to mind) so how did that manifest in the kind of career-ending audacity that consigned her to doing voiceovers for animated Disney knockoffs and what-ever-happened-to obscurity?

For the sake of argument, even if she did become some kind of diva, hadn't she earned that right by 1983? She wasn't some bright-eyed ingenue, nor was she some naive schoolgirl who could be duped by a con man offering big promises. The mere fact that her career could just evaporate into thin air because she wanted to be paid what she felt she was worth for an Academy Award winning song she co-wrote and performed That's the only reaction I can register because somebody's need for petty retribution robbed us of her talents and prevented her from achieving a career worthy of her extraordinary abilities. 

It is well understood that the person who breaks through concrete and shatters glass ceilings first doesn't escape being harmed in the process. I deliberately waited until this point to mention the -isms lest someone assumes that her race and gender were not factors in her career demise. At some point the elephant in the room must be acknowledged as Irene Cara was the first Black Latina to sing an Oscar-winning song (for Fame) and then to win an Oscar (for What a Feeling). It would be tempting to argue how those achievements were proof that racism and sexism did not stop her career ascent. However, the -isms did hasten its demise, for once she broke down those barriers, it revealed that there were plenty of other promising artists waiting in the wings. She obviously deserved those royalties; instead, her demand to be paid was spun as being too demanding and difficult. The moment some record company executive huffed who does she think she is, Cara became a cautionary tale to other young women in the industry to know their place or be replaced. 

Can you think of another multi-hyphenate starlet with a Golden Globe, two Grammys, and an Oscar who had a similar trajectory? That isn't to suggest that her music career might have run its course, because the follow up to What a Feeling was Hold onto the Dream, a minor hit attached to another terrible 80s movie, DC Cab (1983). A few years later when Janet Jackson was taking Control and transforming the pop music landscape for female artists, Cara released this campy song Girlfriends, from an album that was produced by George Duke and a who's who of legendary hitmaking contributors, but it didn't chart. As for her acting career, she did find work...just not the kind of stuff that was any good like Certain Fury (1985) and Caged in Paradiso (1990). Yeah, I don't know what to make of either of those projects except to shake my head again.

Having spent this time wondering what could have been, perhaps it is fitting to rethink this as an exploration of what Cara gained by peaking too soon. She lived to see how others benefited from her journey and that her struggles had not been in vain. I hope that as she watched those others flourish in their careers, she felt some solace that her fate would not befall them. I want to believe that whatever lingering bitterness had faded, so what remained was appreciation, as can be heard on this duet with Mariah Carey. That instead of regarding the remakes of her iconic work in Fame (2009) and Sparkle (2012) as attempts to erase her legacy, she embraced them as tributes. Movies and record sales can't make someone who was born to shine into a star.

Last year when I was compiling the playlist for The Electric Company's 50th Anniversary, I totally forgot about Hard, Hard, Hard, one of the Short Circus numbers on which Cara sang the lead. I still recall a few of the lyrics that in hindsight were way too mature to be sung on a children's show. I mean, how were elementary age kids supposed to comprehend:

Sometimes I sit and wonder all about life
I know that every day will bring sorrow and strife
Even when you're up and feel you're going to win
The bottom drops right out and then the roof falls in

Ain't it the truth, but DAMN! And damn, Irene Cara belted that song out full throttle with no idea just how prophetic these lyrics would be. I wonder if she reflected on these words because nothing's easy in this life you see...

The secret, my friend is to give it your all
Sometimes you win and then life is a ball!

Rest well. We will remember your name.