Saturday, February 28, 2004

Black No More: A Novel

by George S. Schuyler

Life is a Con
By Nicholas Stix

George Schuyler's (1895-1977) novel, Black No More, is a deliciously wicked satire on 1920s American racial mores. First published in 1931, it was initially reissued during the late 1980s as part of The Northeastern Library of Black Literature.

Like many satires, Black No More takes a common, controversial idea, gives it form in flesh and blood, and plays it out to its logical conclusion: "What if white America didn't have any more negroes to kick around?"

This idea is realized by "Dr. Junius Crookman" (most of the characters have similarly "subtle" names), who invents an operation for turning black folks white. In lightning speed, the nation becomes monochromatic, as its entire black population "disappears."

No lack of comic -- and dramatic -- complications ensue, when it becomes clear that the operation doesn't change the genetic program for the pigmentation of one's offspring.

George Schuyler worked from a few basic premises: Most of humanity is a damned sight closer to the Devil than to the angels; most men are con artists; and the few who truly believe in anything are even worse!

For Schuyler, W.E.B. DuBois' (1868-1963) "talented tenth" of bourgeois negro society was of no more help to the average black than were the leaders of the racist, white order. Indeed, Schuyler saw those who made a living railing against Jim Crow as having the strongest interest in its preservation: every lynching brought in more money from rich, white reformers.

Thinly veiled caricatures portray DuBois ("Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard") as a hypocrite, and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940; "Santop Licorice"), the founder of the "Back-to-Africa" movement and Universal Negro Improvement Association, as a common swindler (for which Garvey was, in fact, convicted in 1920, and deported in 1924).

For Schuyler, black nationalist rhetoric was merely a smokescreen to obscure its practitioners' class contempt for their erstwhile constituents, whose pockets they were busy picking. (Has anything changed in the meantime?!)

Down deep, Schuyler says, we're all the same -- and God save us! Ultimately, he surmises, if there weren't a color line, men would have had to invent one! His metaphor for American race relations was that of an "insane asylum." (Already in 1929 -- 60 years before Dinesh D'Souza -- Schuyler had written a pamphlet arguing that total miscegenation, eliminating all distinct races, was the sole cure for America's racial madness.)

Though many of Schuyler's characters are -- as per his genre -- stereotypes, the central pair of "Max Discher/Matthew Fisher" and "Bunny Brown" are as engaging a couple of rogues as any you're likely to be fleeced by, this side of Rudyard Kipling or Chester Himes, their banter generously peppered with the black vernacular of the day.

George Schuyler was a great lover of science fiction, especially the then stupendously popular novels of H.G. Wells. He is the only notable black American novelist to smoothly incorporate science fiction motifs into his work. (To Samuel R. Delany fans: I said "notable" and "smoothly.")

In addition to Schuyler's great story, there are two other reasons for reading Black No More.

First, as by far the most influential black newspaperman this nation has ever seen, George Schuyler bestrode the negro press, and thus, negro America, like a colossus.

From 1924-1966, Schuyler worked at black America's most influential newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. But George Schuyler didn't "write" for the Courier; he WAS the Courier. He wrote the weekly, unsigned house editorial; a weekly column, “News and Views”; wired in scoops and exposes from around America and the world so amazing as to catch the attention of the day's most respected, white newspapers, who also published his work; penned the pseudonymous, serialized pulp novels and short stories that were the Courier's most popular features; and engaged other prominent contemporaries to write for the Courier. It was Schuyler, for instance, who engaged pop historian J.A. Rogers to write the Courier's immensely popular illustrated feature on black history. The various strategies of silence and misrepresentation, which are today used (for instance, by alleged journalist Jill Nelson and her “documentarian” brother, Stanley, and by Henry Louis Gates Jr., to erase or diminish Schuyler's legacy, belong to contemporary black studies and black journalism's many scandals.

The second reason for reading Black No More (together with the serialized novels published in book form as Black Empire), is to see Schuyler's role as unwitting intellectual godfather of the Nation of Islam. The Nation stole its theory of the "myth of Yacub," which claims that the white man was created 6,000 years ago by an evil black scientist, from Schuyler's Black No More, except that the Nation, as was its wont, turned Schuyler's story on its head. (Schuyler, for his part, was reworking H.G. Wells' story, The Island of Dr. Moreau.)

So read Black No More, enjoy some belly laughs, and learn some history in the bargain.

Black No More has an overly informative foreword by James A. Miller, which is best read as an afterword (so as not to ruin your enjoyment of the book), to clarify historical questions.

Originally published in A Different Drummer magazine, Spring, 1992.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Love and Loyalty

by Nicholas Stix

“Without your love,
It’s a honky-tonk parade.
Without your love,
It’s a melody played
In a penny arcade.

“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make believe,
If you believed in me.”

E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics to the classic Depression-era song he co-wrote with Harold Arlen, “Paper Moon,” sum up Jerry Maguire, a movie about the redemptive power of love in a crooked world that is just for show.

“Jerry Maguire” (Tom Cruise) is a top agent for professional athletes, working for the biggest sports representation firm, a butt-kissing and back-stabbing world, where the word “love” gets tossed about as easily as cuss words. And yet, Jerry does have one endearing, enduring quality: Loyalty.

Late one night, Jerry has an epiphany, or as he puts it, he doesn’t know if it was a “breakdown” or a “breakthrough.” He types an inspiring “mission statement” on how agents ought to do their jobs. The mission statement does not have the intended effect, but it does inspire at least one person. (I’m being purposely vague, to avoid spoiling the story.)

“Dorothy Boyd” (Renee Zellweger) is an accountant at the firm, who is inspired by Jerry’s words. She falls in love with Jerry, but does Jerry love her? Oh, and did I mention, that Dorothy is a “single mother”? Well, actually, she’s a widow; calling her a “single mother” is one of the movie’s intermittent pc tics. Dorothy’s chubby, bright son, “Ray” (Jonathan Lipnicki), who appears to be about five years old, and has been starved for a man in his life, takes to Jerry immediately. The feeling is mutual.

(The other pc aspects involve a woman beating the hell out of Jerry, one character referring to a deaf relative as “hearing-impaired,” and the conceit of having a black NFL player lecture his white agent on how to love a woman, and on how to respect a “single mother,” a conceit which will be particularly jarring to anyone at all familiar with professional sports. At least the movie does have a sense of humor about feminism, and even a little about race, as the black player has McGuire shouting, “I love black people!”)

“Rod Tidwell” (Cuba Gooding), whom Jerry represents, is an under-sized NFL wide receiver with an over-sized chip on his shoulder. This character gave America the phrase, “Show me the money!,” which became ubiquitous for a few months.

Most of this two-hour-and-eighteen-minute movie consists of tightly framed, intimate scenes with either Cruise and Gooding or Cruise and Zellweger. “Intimate” means that the actors must carry the scene; there is no distraction to diffuse the drama. (And if you need such distractions, then you have such poor players or material, that you have no business shooting the picture in the first place.) And as good as the scenes are with Zelleweger and Cruise, the ones with Cruise and Gooding are even more intense.

I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, but I have to give the Devil his due. He richly deserved his Oscar nomination as Jerry.

This was Renee Zellweger’s breakthrough role, in which she displayed the winsome, spunky persona that has since become her calling card in movies such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Cold Mountain.

After Cuba Gooding won the Academy Award for best supporting actor as Rod Tidwell, I recall sitting in a Union Square coffee shop in lower Manhattan, and telling someone that Gooding only got the Oscar because he was black. A big, beefy, middle-aged black man in the next booth heard me and sighed loudly, to express his anger. (No, I hadn’t yet seen the movie, but the odds were very much in my favor.) Well, I was wrong. Gooding’s role is much meatier than a typical supporting role – almost a lead – and he makes the most of it.

But there are many other great players, too. And every role is exquisitely cast, particularly Bonnie Hunt as Dorothy’s caustic, feminist, older sister, “Laurel,” who hosts a support group of embittered, man-bashing, forty-something women, Regina King in the Alfre Woodard role as Tidwell’s wife, “Marcee,” and Jay Mohr as Jerry’s slimy protege, “Bob Sugar.” Beau Bridges and Kelly Preston also shine in smaller roles.

Jerry Maguire is not “high concept.” There are no car crashes. There is lots of talk. Amazing talk. Director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe wrote one of the best original scripts of the past twenty years. He does here what he has developed a well-deserved reputation for: Showing the world behind the façade (see also Almost Famous) of an apparently glamorous but actually tawdry social milieu (ain’t they all?). This movie is for grown-ups.

But Crowe does not just film talking heads. He choreographs scenes so well, whether involving a mob of people or just two, that they don’t come off as “talky.” (Besides, unless one is an action junkie, the feeling of “talkiness” is often the result of a bad script.)

And oh, the acting. The comparison that comes to mind, is Terms of Endearment, the quintessential domestic drama. When TOE came out in 1983, I recall a critic writing that it showcased the best acting you’d ever see in an American movie. That judgment was unfair to American movies; TOE showcases some of the best acting you’ll ever see in a movie, period. As does Jerry Maguire. There is not a single clearly flubbed line or wasted scene in this entire movie.

The best thing I can say about Jerry Maguire, is that I liked it a lot the first time I saw it, and I loved it, the second time around.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Suddenly (1954)

The Gambler:
Frank Sinatra in Suddenly

by Nicholas Stix

In December, some big dates passed in relative obscurity. One was December 7th; the other was the 12th, Frank Sinatra’s (1915-1998) birthday, the only showbiz birthday I know by heart. I remembered the Chairman of the Board by ordering the VHS of an obscure movie he made in 1954, Suddenly. (But don’t you order it – the sound quality is horrible. Fortunately, the movie is often broadcast on TV.)

Just two years before he made Suddenly, Frank Sinatra thought he was finished. His vocal cords hemorrhaged, and “The Voice” almost fell silent. Movie producers were no longer interested in making light musical comedies starring the kid from Hoboken, and no one took him seriously as a dramatic actor, a field where he had no track record. And he could feel the love of his life, Ava Gardner, slipping out of his grasp. (Although Sinatra and Gardner had just married in 1951, following his divorce from first wife Nancy, the affair had been going on for years, and the wedding was anti-climactic.)

At his low point, legend has it that one night, a forlorn Sinatra was backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, standing off in a corner, his head slumped over. Someone said, “Frank, why don’t you go out and sing a song?” “Nah, the people don’t want to hear me,” came his defeated response. But that Samaritan somehow convinced Sinatra to go out on the stage for one song. That Harlem audience showed Frank Sinatra where the love was.

Well, Sinatra got his vocal chords fixed. And after a manic lobbying campaign, which had him sending postcards signed, “Maggio,” to producer Buddy Adler, director Fred Zinneman, and Columbia Picures mogul Harry Cohn, offering to play the role for free, and making a screen test, he got the role of a lifetime, as the heroic but ill-fated, “Pvt. Angelo Maggio,” in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. With Sinatra’s help, the movie won eight Oscars, including his own, richly deserved one for best supporting actor. (Hollywood legend has it that Sinatra only got the role after mobster friends made producer Buddy Adler “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” See The Godfather, for the rest of the legend.) For the next 12 or so years (through Von Ryan’s Express), until one of the longest midlife crises in world history took over, Frank Sinatra was among the world’s greatest movie actors. Unfortunately, the third part of his life could not be saved. By 1955, he and Ava Gardner had split up, though as she wrote in her autobiography, Ava, they would have occasional “reunions” in hotels around the world, over the next 30-odd years, until her death in 1990.

Going for the role of Maggio was a huge gamble for a man who had no history of straight dramatic acting, but then, Sinatra was nothing if not a gambler. Existentialism was then a popular philosophy, but unlike pretentious types in French cafes, who knew only the words, he knew the music. From his thirties through his mid-forties, Sinatra lived a life of continual high drama, subsisting off tempestuous passions and guile, with little room left for prudence. (But unlike professional existentialists, Sinatra was no nihilist.)

And so in 1954, he starred in the kind of insane movie that could have ended his fledgling, dramatic movie career. Suddenly (what a lousy title!) is the name of a California hamlet, where the President of the United States will happen to pass through, for about the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Only the Secret Service knows this – and a small group of assassins posing as Secret Service agents, led by “Johnny Baron” (Sinatra).

Johnny is a homicidal sociopath who has no qualms about doing what was then “the unthinkable.” “Sure, I like choppin’” (shooting). He has a $500,000 contract to kill the President, and so kill him, he will.

(Sinatra would go on, in 1962, to co-produce and co-star in yet another - big-budget - movie about a plan to assassinate the president, The Manchurian Candidate. Directed by the late John Frankenheimer from Richard Condon’s classic political thriller, in Candidate, Sinatra gave a now hilarious, now moving performance as insomniac Capt. Bennett Marco. But the following year, his friend, President John F. Kennedy, would be assassinated, and so for the next 30 years, Sinatra would pull Suddenly and The Manchurian Candidate out of distribution.)

The era of the anti-hero had just begun, with Marlon Brando’s 1953 performance as motorcycle gang leader Johnny Strabler, in The Wild One. But not even the young Brando had cojones like Sinatra. No one had shot a president since William “Big Bill” McKinley in ’01, and no one made movies about 20th century assassins.

But Sinatra did. Working almost entirely on one set, on a shoestring budget, and squaring off against dramatic (and physical) heavyweight Sterling Hayden (as “Sheriff Tod Shaw”), he gave a towering performance.

Johnny and his accomplices take the Benson family hostage. The Bensons’ home has a clear shot at the spot where the President will get off his train. “Pop Benson” (James Gleason) is a retired Secret Service agent, whose widowed, pacifist daughter-in-law, “Ellen” (Nancy Gates) has been rebuffing Tod Shaw’s attempts at courtship. Ellen Benson holds all who wield weapons equally in contempt.

Johnny likes to talk, and he has a captive audience. Literally. The set-piece around which the picture revolves, is a soliloquy Johnny delivers, on his failed life as a civilian prior to World War II, as a lost soul, wandering about an anonymous, non-descript, unnamed metropolis.

“Before, I drifted and drifted and ran, always lost in a great, big crowd. I hated that crowd, used to dream about the crowd, once in a while. I used to see all those faces, scratchin’ and shovin’ and bitin.’ And then the mist would clear, and somehow all the faces would be me. All me, and nothin.”

This is not the spirit of America on the eve of World War II, but of a different time and place altogether. It is the spirit of Hitler’s Vienna, on the eve of World War I, the spirit of fascism.

Now, I realize that logically this doesn’t jibe. After all, Johnny doesn’t work in a collective, the way the fascists and Nazis did, or the anti-Semitic socialists of pre-WWI Vienna; he’s more of a freelancer. And spoken abstractly, overlaying a 1910s, European mentality doesn’t work for a story set in America in the mid-1950s. And yet, it does work, gloriously.

Here's how: Already in 1922, before Hitler’s rise, German director Fritz Lang’s first Dr. Mabuse film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler/Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, also known as Dr. Mabuse, Herrschaft des Verbrechens/Dr. Mabuse: The Rule of Crime, told of a criminal mastermind who hypnotized people with his omnipotent stare. (Later, Hitler supposedly hypnotized crowds with his speeches; Dr. Mabuse novelist Norbert Jacques was either a prophet, or an unparalleled observer of his times.)

After Hitler's seizure of power, surely influenced by Lang's Dr. Mabuse film, the notion took hold among artists and academics, that Nazism was nothing but a form of gangsterism. This notion was perpetuated during and after the war by communist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s drama, written in Finnish exile in 1941, Der Aufhaltsame Austieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui).

After the war, many leftwing academics simply swallowed whole the undigestable "theory" (really, a mere attitude or assumption) that equated "fascism" with gangsterism.

(The academics adopted, unthinkingly, the Soviet Communist Party’s propaganda, such that the term “fascism” referred to the actual fascism of Mussolini, to Hitler’s national socialism, and to all conservative thought. One of the many problems with such notions, was that fascism and national socialism were both hybrids of left and rightwing thought. One of the reasons the communists needed to call Nazism “rightwing,” was to distract people from its socialist components – which is why lefties spoke only of “Nazism,” rather than of “national socialism.” The other reason was that communists and their fellow travelers needed to rewrite history to hide the fact that they had been allied with the Nazis, at the time of Stalin’s secret, 1939 non-agression pact with Hitler, whereby the German national socialists and the Russian Soviets conquered and divided Poland.)

But Suddenly doesn't owe its power to the twisted reasonings of academics. Give credit, instead, to screenwriter Richard Sale, director Lewis Allen, and to … The Gambler.

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