A Movie for a Poet

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Let’s start with some of my favorite quotes:

“Truly, smoke is like imagination.”

“Sometimes it’s all about risk.”

“The psychic distance between love and hate is the same as the physical distance between a smile and a snare.”

“This is the song for the genius child. Sing it softly, for the song is wild. Sing it softly as you ever can – Lest the song get out of hand.”

“I believe what I feel moves unsaid in the air between us – satellite blackouts. It is true, some of the people we love are terrorists.”

There’s something beautiful about his movie. Perhaps I’m biased because this is a movie for a poet. Or maybe it’s because it’s set in my good old home town of New York City.  The movie highlights important, taboo and volatile aspects of Black culture – the Harlem Renaissance and homosexuality. My reactions during the movie were a whole lotta “holy shits!” Partially because I was so proud to see a young black actor like Anthony Mackie play the role of an openly gay, homosexual, Black artist and student in the 21st century. I learned more about black history in relations to homosexuality from this movie than I’ve ever learned in the years I’ve spent sitting in a classroom. What does that tell you about the history of American education?

A particularly intense scene occurs when a discussion about black men having interracial sex with other black men back during the civil rights movement was addressed in an interview. “You let the white man F*@k you in the ass. Now what does that make you? That makes you the lowest scum on the Earth.” This brings up a major conflict of dual identities of oppressed groups of people – between being a Black man and being a homosexual man. In the clip shown, James Baldwin was criticized by Elderidge Cleaver  and his own people during a time when Blacks were fighting for equality but was also othered because he identified as homosexual. Cleaver was more concerned with the symbolic nature of the action than acknowledging his oppression of his own brother.

Another scene that provoked some thought was when Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston and is changing the language of the publication to sell to a broader audience.

“A good writer has to make concessions to what the public wants.” Zora’s response it’s admirable, “But the language of the novel preserves the folklore roots.” “You’re not writing in easy to read English that people can understand then how do you expect people to get it.” “It is English the Negro’s English.” “How hard can it be to translate that into something that everyone can understand?” It is the oral Negro tradition. The people that are a part of it recognize it. I’m not speaking for these people, I am these people.”

What I loved about Zora and Wallace’s response was that they wanted to stay true to the culture they were trying to represent. This addresses the idea that urban vernacular isn’t frequently recognized as a respected form of language. Zora and Wallace made sure that they were not going to represent their culture in a way that genuinely represent themselves. How do you continue to oppress group of people? You silence them and strip them of their culture.  Unfortunately, silence was perpetuated by black organizations like NAACP. Because there were a lot complaints about their magazine, Fire!!,  from the public, newsstands were told not to display them. I’m not ready to discuss that in too much detail, but I would say that it’s quite disappointing that a center and institution of Black culture would squash the creativity of their own people.

Cinematically, I enjoyed how Rodney Evans incorporated historical instances of some of the most recognized artists of the Harlem Renaissance into a modern day portrayal of a young student’s discovery of self.

Much props to Anthony Mackie for a stellar, mature, and committed performance. Watch the movie to reach into a rare world of black culture.

Check out the history of some of the black artist highlighted in the movie:

Bruce Nugent

James Baldwin

Eldridge Cleaver

Wallace Thurman

Zora Neale Hurston

Literally sources:

Smoke, Lilies, and Jade


Brother to Brother screenplay


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