“THE VANISHING BLACK MALE”— Disappearing African-American Men

“The Vanishing Black Male”

 Disappearing African-American Men

Amos Lassen

It seems that today the ratio of black females to black males has increased in the United States causing us to wonder where the Black men have disappeared. Director Hisani DuBose was obviously thinking the same and made this film in an attempt to answer that question. DuBose posed that question to a variety of experts and ordinary people to see if they’ve noticed the trend and what they make of it.

DuBose’s film is a thought-provoking documentary that is made up of a series of informative interviews. Each contributor brings a different background and set of life experiences to the table, and speaks about the issue from his or her own particular perspective.

  I think that what makes this film so intriguing is its honesty. We hear politicians, a psychiatrist, a social worker, a pastor, firefighters, educators and students, and more. The diverse panel’s standouts include Sgt. Delacy D. Davis of the Black Police Officers Against Brutality speaks about the negative effects of advertising, the breakdown of the black family and about his organization’s effort to support single-moms and their kids effectively manner. Dr. Duane Dyson, M.D., Executive Director of The Violence Prevention Institute stresses the importance of elementary school education while “indicting the suicidal nature of the ghetto gangsta’ mentality.” While working as an emergency room physician in an inner-city hospital, he has seen gunshot victims on a daily basis. “All of the wounded and dying young males arrive stripped of their macho veneers by the time they end up on his operating table.”

 We hear that guns, the street, failing schools, drugs, the criminal justice system, absentee fathers, suicide, unemployment and a host of other factors all contribute to the vanishing black male. Yet we also hear about hope. We hear the reflections of so many who share a dedication and determination to changing the situation. Even though the film was released in 2005, we still see its relevance today.

“THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST”— Lovely, Touching and Heartbreaking

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

Lovely, Touching and Heartbreaking

Amos Lassen

Set in 1993, we meet Cameron Post, a teenage girl who is caught having a sexual encounter with the prom queen. Cameron’s legal guardians, her conservative aunt and uncle force her into a gay conversion therapy center. In a sentence that is the premise of this Sundance prizewinner.

The film is adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s novel about high school junior Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) who was caught in the backseat of a car at the Homecoming dance with her best friend Coley (Quinn Shephard) and is sent off to God’s Promise, a private evangelical boarding school devoted to “curing” her lesbian tendencies and same sex attraction. She is being taught to “pray the gay away.”

Many of the other teens at the compound are also torn and confused. They feel the self-loathing that society has projected onto them. We meet Cam’s perky and perpetually ashamed roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs) and Mark (Owen Campbell) who is an emotional mess and gives a heartbreaking performance. We also meet Cam’s new best friends Adam (Forrest Goodluck), a politician’s son and Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) who hides homegrown weed in her prosthetic leg. Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) who runs the place who started the camp to reprogram her homosexual brother Rick (John Gallagher Jr.). The two lead various exercises of psychobabble and Christian dogma and blame same sex attraction on anything and everything from poor parenting, childhood trauma, jealousy, and playing sports. They are just trying to do what they think is right through their own brand of brainwashing and we do not see them as mean or cruel.

Cameron wrestles with societal attitudes that are at odds with everything about her. Cameron’s story is a and it is totally relevant, especially for those struggling to accept the truth of who they are.

Desiree Akhavan has directed this film sensitively and we see the humanity in the characters.The humor that is in the film helps to undercut the craziness that is the foundation of the camp. We see how those believed to be going against God are forced to go against nature with sensitivity and style.

The kids run through the motions of “Blessercize” exercise routines and completing psychological profiles called “Icebergs,” in which they list all the conceivable issues in their life that might’ve led them astray to homosexuality. As I said earlier, the film does not mock the absurdity of the process or those administering it and rather sees the humor in it as the students deal “with all its inherent contradictions, working their brains into knots trying to either understand or justify God’s Promise’s logic.”

The characters that we meet here are flesh-and-blood examples of a tragic emotional Stockholm Syndrome that should not be.

“PULSE”— A New Look at Gender Identity

“Pulse”

A New Look at Gender Identity

Amos Lassen

“Pulse” is a provocative film about gender identity with a very different innovative and intriguing take. Olly (Daniel Monks) is a disabled teenager who becomes increasingly unhappy at the same time that his schoolmates are enjoying dating and young love. He is facing yet another operation to help improve his walking and this means another lengthy hospital stay. Olly and his mother (Caroline Brazier) always seem to be at odds. She is a workaholic and has a boyfriend and Olly cannot seem to find a place in her life. Olly decides that the answer to his prayers is a new experimental procedure and he has a total body swap and chooses to be Olivia, a young woman. S ever dreamed of being.  However, Olivia/Olly soon learn that life is not always like we imagine it to be.

Along with the body change, he/she experiences a whole personality change too, and sadly not for the better. Olly/Olivia also feels that the time has come to confess that he had always been in love with his best friend Luke (Scott Lee) and is obviously now hoping that now that he is a woman, Luke may finally feel the same about him.

I understand that Monks who is also disabled wrote this based partly on his own experiences because it is so authentic.  Olly’s cry for help was about being loved and not about wanting to transition to a female to find his/her real gender identity but as a way to escape his own body. This is a relatable theme for anyone who has ever struggled with his or her own body and sexuality.

Director Stevie Cruz-Martin chose to show Olivia (Jaime Peasely) as everyone saw her, but also show her/him on screen still as Olly when viewed through Olly’s eyes and while it takes a bit to get used to this, it works very well.

When Olly’s friends Nat (Sian Ewers) and Luke start dating, he learns he has to have a debilitating surgery that will take him off his feet for weeks.  As frustration builds within young Olly, he is given the chance to swap bodies with a young female and a second chance at a “normal” life.

Waking up in the hours following surgery, Olly discovers he is a beautiful female and soon finally feels loved.  However, the novelty begins to wear off as Olly learns that being beautiful, female, and emotionally vulnerable isn’t so easy.  The fabric of friendships begins to unravel leaving him with some very difficult decisions to make.

It is difficult to take a character and break him into two distinct roles yet Monks has managed to write a genuine script that works with a bit of suspension of belief. Olly’s personality is amazingly never lost, even as her confidence grows after becoming Olivia.  Visually, Cruz-Martin made wise decisions in who played Olivia for certain scenes and alternated between Monks and Peasley.  Though this technique, we sense Olivia/Olly’s emotions, confidences, playfulnesses, and vulnerabilities.

Actually, the film is more about body swapping than the traditional trans experience.  We still get an insightful look into the challenges of evolving into one’s true self and shows us that we can look beyond the physical and consider what really makes us who we are.

“Black Sugar” by Miguel Bonnefoy— Greed and Corruption in Venezuela

Bonnefoy, Miguel. “Black Sugar”, translated by Emily Boyce, Gallic Books, 2018.

Greed and Corruption in Venezuela

Amos Lassen

Miguel Bonnefoy’s “Black Sugar” gives us a look at Venezuela’s social and economic history in the 20th century and we immediately realize that this is the story of creed and corruption as seen through the eyes of a family of sugarcane growers. It tells of buried treasure and the legendary privateer Henry Morgan. The search for treasure has been a literary theme for ages and what makes this one special is that it gives us the true definitions of treasure and the hunt for it. Filled with wonderful descriptions, the story focuses on Henry Morgan’s legendary buried treasure. This is the same Henry Morgan for rum fame.

I had a bit of trouble getting into the story at first but once I did I was mesmerized. I supposed this is because we do not get many stories about Venezuela. It all begins with a pirate ship that is marooned near a rainforest and through the next 200 pages we follow several generations of the Otero family who begin as sugar cane farmers but eventually become industrialists who deal with the production of rum.

I have a bit of problem summarizing the plot because it is a family saga and almost whatever I say leads to writing a spoiler and I am trying to avoid doing so because I want the story to remain fresh for other readers. What I can say is that there is something for everyone here— romance, love and adventure. It is actually a story of finding treasure in unexpected places and we see that sugar is not always as sweet as we might think.

“The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America” by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

 

Butler, Isaac and Dan Kois. “The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America”, Bloomsbury, 2018.

An Oral History of a Great Play

Amos Lassen

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is a moving account of the AIDS era, essential queer history, and an exuberant backstage tale. Those who have either seen it or been part of it, or both have been changed by the experience as we see here in the oral history of great American drama.

“Angels in America” opened on Broadway in 1993 and won the Pulitzer Prize, swept the Tonys, launched a score of major careers, and changed the way gay lives were represented in popular culture. Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Mary-Louise Parker was itself a tour de force, winning Golden Globes and eleven Emmys, and introducing the play to an even wider public. Now some 25 years later, this generation-defining classic continues to shock, move, and inspire viewers worldwide.

Isaac Butler and Dan Kois give us the definitive account of the play through oral history. We are taken into the conversations and debate of actors (including Streep, Parker, Nathan Lane, and Jeffrey Wright), directors, producers, crew, and Kushner himself. They share the on- and offstage excitement of the play’s birth. We now learn that it was beset by artistic roadblocks, technical disasters, and disputes both legal and creative. We hear from historians and critics who help to situate the play in the arc of American culture, from the activism of the AIDS crisis through civil rights triumphs to today and the dark echo of the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. If you love theater, you will love this book as it tells about

one of the great works of American art of the past century that began with a gritty San Francisco premiere and is now a highly anticipated Broadway revival in 2018.

Like a dramatic script, the book is divided into acts with chapters more like titled scenes and a cast of characters listed at the end. The interviews are presented so that they become an ongoing chat about the history, the themes and the continuous dialogue about the drama. The cast is made up of Kushner, the actors, directors, producers, and production teams, as well as the scholars, historians, critics, and fellow playwrights that did not just help to shape the work but who also provide context for its influence. We see all the twists and turns of fate that went into the drama’s creation and we get a sense of suspense and drama. Like the play, Butler and Kois let the complexity of the story come to us via conversations, discussions, and critiques from those involved. We become immediately aware of the sweeping scope of the production and the amount of deliberation and interpretation that went into it.

The entire creative process is here beginning with Kushner finding a title for his masterwork to the dedicated early directors and actors that supplied his inspiration and helped realize his vision.

The brilliant 2017 London production of the show is soon to open in New York and on Broadway this spring. Now, twenty-five years later, it’s Kushner’s vision of the Right that looks so true. We see that the America of Donald Trump is the same America of Roy Cohn. This America is deeply divided between “winners and losers, hatred of the powerless used as a cynical tool to enrich the privileged…” The real emphasis of “The World Only Spins Forward” is the emphasis on the drama as a “work of queer cultural history–both milestone and touchstone–where it ultimately succeeds.” The play grew out of the calamity and death with the AIDS crisis, an indifferent president Ronald Reagan, and a religious fanaticism that pretended not to see the horrors of AIDS while preaching intolerance and hatred.

We go back to the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in 1991 and to the Royal National Theatre, London in 1992, to the Mark Taper Forum in LA the same year, to Broadway from 1993–1994. We see the Culture Wars of the nineties. We learn that an early overture to Robert Altman to direct a film version of the play. We also get a behind-the-scenes look at the events which led to the 2003 HBO film and we read about the 2004 Peter Eötvös opera based on the play. We are reminded of the need to follow one’s truth in the face of oppression and intolerance

“BORN IN FLAMES”— A Fantasy of Female Rebellion

“BORN IN FLAMES”

A Fantasy of Female Rebellion

Amos Lassen

Director Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film, “Born in Flames” rocked the foundations of the early Indie film world with its provocative story fantasy of a female rebellion set in America ten years after a social democratic cultural revolution. When Adelaide Norris, the black radical founder of the Woman’s Army, is mysteriously killed, a diverse coalition of women from all races, classes, and sexual preferences comes together to blow the existing system apart. The film is newly restored in high definition for its 35th anniversary and we see that it is even more relevant in today’s political climate.

Early on in the film two men, both of whom remain off screen and unnamed, flip through photographs of Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), attempting to construct her profile as founder of the Women’s Army that “seems to be dominated by blacks and lesbians.” The exchange abruptly cuts to Norris sitting around a kitchen table and talking about employment legislation as the men’s dialogue bleeds in and overlaps for a few seconds, before being dropped entirely. We see here Borden’s directorial strengths and political cognizance by implicitly placing competing dialogues within the same cinematic space even though the two parties aren’t in the same physical place. Immediately, and without actual violent conflict, the tensions of making one’s intentions heard and understood are presented.

“Born in Flames” brings together documentary and dramatic sequences into a free-form narrative that exists “somewhere between essay film, political manifesto, and exploitation.” Scripted scenes of ongoing conversations about organized protests and recent instances of sexism across the U.S. are broken apart by news broadcasts and the didactic pleas of two pirate-radio DJs named Isabel (Adele Bertei) and Honey (Honey). These occur in an alternative America where a socialist revolution took place ten years earlier, but did little to alter the gender gap or bring about comprehensive social progress. The film refuses to adhere to traditional channels of communication. Much of Borden’s aesthetic entails numerous speakers or messages being sent, but little indication of how those messages are being decoded. This repetition causes a fractured rapidity, which could be mistaken for incoherence or a lack of ability on Borden’s part. A certain level of incoherence is part of the film’s coherent understanding of the many channels of communication brought about by competing political rhetoric.

The consistent binary opposition for the Women’s Army as “Terrorists or Revolutionaries?” does not suggest a functional diagnosis for group actions within a consistently reshaping socio-political milieu. The film uses the conflicting terms to suggest that media outlets only highlight oppositional actions to sell ambivalence and fear to consumers. The film addressing ongoing human rights concerns through zeitgeist-infused pop, even though Borden omits explicit references to actual events. The rhetoric is philosophical and it clouds the atmosphere.

Borden’s strengths as an generate intensive responses to injustice. The film still challenges, confronts and captures the imagination. Because the film was made before we had digital paraphernalia, it must be admired if just for the amount of work that went into it. “Born in Flames” answers the question of what if  the United States went socialist after a nonviolent revolution and people were still disenfranchised?

Borden made the film over a period of five years with no script and very little money, and it fits the definition of “underground film”. It was well ahead of its time, trading fluently in political savvy and It is still a thoughtful, controversial, decidedly unique sci-fi cautionary tale. Borden radically shows that not even a socialist revolution would eradicate gender inequalities; in her imagined future, it would still fall upon women (rather than the government) to protect one another and fight for equal rights. As a narrative, there is much to be desired. However, the imagery makes up for that lack. We see several strong, black, lesbian protagonists; butch females on the subway moving in immediately to protect a woman as she’s openly harassed by a man; a group of women riding up on bicycles to scare away a rapist and women taking collective action to fight for the right to keep their jobs. “Born in Flames” makes one think differently about life itself, and it is a powerful reminder of independent film’s potential to “subvert the dominant paradigm”.

“Never a ‘Craft’ Moment: A Memoir cum Abattoir” by Robin Anderson— A Memoir

Anderson, Robin. “Never a ‘Craft’ Moment: A Memoir cum Abattoir”, CreateSpace, 2018.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Robin Anderson is the most prolific author I know and his tongue-in-cheek writings have kept me entertained during the 12 years I have been reviewing. Because he is such a versatile writer, it is hard to classify when he writes. It is satirical, erotic, shocking, sometimes blasphemous, adventurous and always funny; Anderson’s sense of humor is constant. I believe that he has as much fun writing them as I do reading his stories. What I really love about Robin Anderson is his the way he builds his characters. Both his plots and his characters border on the near obscene and I mean that positively. It is one think to write erotica in trash English and it is something else completely to write literary smut. Robin Anderson writes literary smut and he can do so because his use of language who is so excellent. I believe the only way to describe what he writes is outrageous.

Now in his memoir, it is difficult to know what is memory and what is imagination. Actually it makes no difference since this is a fun read. I really have no idea how to summarize the plot and even if I tried I would not do it justice. While it is not written in the stream of consciousness, it is written to take you to places you have never been before and probably never even heard of. Robin Anderson himself describes this book as a “sumptuous feast of savoury and unsavoury [the British spelling] delights” and a phrase like that shows why he is a writer and I am not. The characters that you will meet here are unlike any you have ever met and they are part of a read unlike any you have ever read before. Do as I do—float in, turn on and enjoy. More than that you do not need to do but if you feel you do want to delve deeper, that is also a possibility.

“Into the Black Nowhere: An UNSUB Novel” by Meg Gardiner— A Serial Killer

Gardiner, Meg. “Into the Black Nowhere: An UNSUB Novel, Dutton, 2018.

A Serial Killer

Amos Lassen

Women in southern Texas have been disappearing on Saturday nights. Some of you might think that this is a strange way to begin a review but it is actually a summary statement about the plot. There is nothing in common as to how they disappear and

Rookie FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, newly assigned to the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, is afraid that a serial killer is roaming the dark roads outside Austin. Caitlin and her crime unit discover the first victim’s body in a bloodstained, white baby-doll nightgown in the woods. A second victim wears a white night gown and is found deeper in the woods. Both bodies are surrounded by Polaroid photos of a woman in a white negligee, wrists slashed, suicide-style.

Caitlin knows that to find the UNSUB, she must get inside his mind and find out how he is selecting these women. She and a legendary FBI profiler search for the elusive point where character and action come together. “She profiles a confident, meticulous killer who convinces his victims to lower their guard until he can overpower and take them in plain sight. He then reduces them to objects in a twisted fantasy–dolls for him to possess, control, and ultimately destroy.” Caitlin’s profile focuses on one man: a charismatic, successful professional who easily gains people’s trust. However, there is only circumstantial evidence linking him to the murders and so the police allow him to escape. As another Saturday night approaches, Caitlin and the FBI are in game of cat and mouse, rushing to capture the cunning predator before he claims more victims.

Some of you might recognize that the plot is based on serial killer Ted Bundy. The plot moves quickly and we also learn about profiling.

“Look for Me” by Lisa Gardner— Families and Facts

Garner, Lisa. “Look for Me”, Dutton, 2018.

Families and Fates

Amos Lassen

Four members of one Boston family were savagely murdered and a fifth member of the family, sixteen year old Roxanna Baez is missing. No one knows if she was unable to escape or was kidnapped or even if she is responsible for the murders. Detective D. Warren is on the case as is survivor-turned-avenger Flora Dane, a “self-proclaimed victim-turned-vigilante”. The two seek different types of justice and they both must make sense of the clues left behind. Even though their alliance is strained, they know that they must work together.

If you enjoy reading suspense than this is the book for you. From the very first page, this is a thriller. Gardner shines a heartbreaking light on foster care and the twists and turns keep you reading and turning pages. We also get two unforgettable characters in the two strong women working on the case. Because this is a thriller, it is difficult to review without giving something away. Writer Garner deals with difficult issues here that include alcoholism, addiction and abuse. Roxanna is a character who is damaged by the system and wants to find the perfect family and she is very, very angry.

“Closer Than You Know” by Brad Parks— Disaster

Parks, Brad. “Closer Than You Know: A Novel,” Dutton, 2018

Disaster

Amos Lassen

Melanie Barrick grew up foster care. She now has a loving husband, a steady job, and a beautiful baby boy named Alex. One Tuesday evening when she went to pick Alex up from childcare, she learned that he’d been removed by Social Services. No one would tell her why and Melanie is terrified because she knows “the system.” Things get even worse when she goes home to discover that her house was raided by sheriff’s deputies who found enough cocaine to put Melanie in prison for years. The evidence against her is overwhelming, and if Melanie can’t prove her innocence, she’ll lose Alex forever.

The attorney assigned to the case, Amy Kaye, is dealing with her own problems. She is working on a cold case that no one wants her to pursue about a serial rapist who has avoided detection by wearing a mask and whispering his commands and has victimized dozens of women over several years. One of those women was Melanie and the rapist just might be the key to being saved or ruined totally.

This is an emotional roller coaster that is filled with suspense and tension already on the first page. You should be prepared for a very strong plot filled with twists and turns and unforgettable characters. The ending will shock you and keep you thinking for days.