Rodney King and the Unanswered Question

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I was 12, just about to turn 13, when Rodney King was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers. During CNN’s coverage, words like beating, riots, and PCP were used often. The home-video footage of the beating was played repeatedly. I remember Rodney King curled up on the ground at the center of the ring of four cops, as their batons rained down on his body.

The other thing that stands out is this: Later, in a moment of desperation and exhaustion, Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

And everyone laughed.

It became a catch-phrase to be mocked and parodied alongside phrases like, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” King’s question, perhaps too naive and too honest to be taken seriously, entered the lexicon as a punchline and left like all timely jokes do: stale and forgotten.

While the Rodney King beating wasn’t the beginning of racial tension in this country, that single piece of video footage brought it to the surface and started a new conversation. Except, we haven’t been talking -- we’ve been shouting, and no one is listening. We’ve all drawn lines in the sand, boxed ourselves in, and now we each live within an impenetrable Fortress of Ego from where we preach and opine at the top of our lungs, only able to hear the voices that support us. Somewhere along the way our beliefs became an agenda. Such is the power of a threatened ego.

Culturally, this is where we are. We are so threatened and angry we fail to see the complexities in life and each other. We only see black and white. We make blanket statements. We refer to “the hive mind.” We formulate beliefs that make the world easier to understand, leading us to say things like, “Anyone that looks like X is good, and anyone that looks like Y is bad.” We label factions and demographics one thing, fraternities and governments another. We undermine thoughtful movements because we feel slighted. We are weak, we are tired, and we are getting more thoughtless with each senseless act of violence.

As I said, I was 12 when Rodney King was beaten. In a few years I'll be 40. Two events have bookend racial violence during that time: Twenty-five years ago, four white cops beat an unarmed black man in Los Angeles; two days ago a black man shot and killed four white cops in Dallas, Texas. Two events separated by twenty-five years of violence. Same intents, different results. Both driven by the same hateful, stupid, and thoughtless agenda.

And we aren't doing anything sensible to fix it.

This is the part where I say we have to live kinder lives, and respect each other, and love each other while remembering how finite and precious life is. But none of that means a damn thing if we don't start talking. We have to start asking questions and listening to the answers -- no matter how hard they may be to hear. We have to start being honest about our feelings for one another. They don’t have to be pretty, but they have to be voiced if we ever expect to heal. We have to be upfront about the fear we have of our neighbors, or at the very least, admit that we do in fact fear each other. We each have to ask ourselves what can we do better to dissolve the tension, fear, and bigotry that thickens the air in our world.

Since Rodney King never got an answer to his question, I’ll answer it now.

Q: Why can’t we all just get along?
A: Because we all choose sides.

At the risk of becoming a punchline, I have a follow-up question...

Q: How does that make our lives better?

Orlando...

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I just watched President Obama address the nation on the attacks at the Orlando night club. Clearly heartbroken. Clearly out of words. He struggled to get through the monotony of what has now become a routine address. His posture and inflection echoed our thoughts and feelings: we are all exhausted, and we are all out of things to feel. As a nation, we are imploding emotionally. We are scared, and we are losing hope.

I tried to look at it intellectually. I asked myself what could come of it? Is there any lesson to be learned that may spin our country in a better direction? I'm not looking for a silver lining, of course -- because there isn't one -- but something not entirely despicable and hateful has to come of it, right?

My only thought was this: maybe Americans who have been outspoken against LGBTQ people will now think twice about their beliefs. These were not simply LGBTQ people that were murdered -- these were human beings. These were Americans.

It’s possible, however, no matter how often the word “terror” is used in headlines and newscasts, this shooting may not resonate as an attack on Americans. It’s possible people might see this as “just another shooting.” Or, worse, it could be passed off like AIDS in the 1980s as “only a problem of homosexuals.” As I write this, from my perfect, safe, white, heterosexual world, I wonder to what degree must human beings suffer persecution before learning sympathy and compassion.

Because here I am, sipping a mojito, writing my thoughts that no one can stop me from writing, in a country where any hatred directed my way has nothing to do with the skin or sexual preference I was born into. If I'm hated, it's because of something I did. Even then, little if any repercussions are received. I don’t have to fear violence simply for existing in my own body. And because of that, I don’t have to care that bad things can happen to people with different skin colors, religions, and sexual orientations. I could just shrug it off and have another mojito. This is white privilege -- more specifically, straight white privilege.

But, like every privilege, it comes with a responsibility to be thoughtful. I have to think about what it’s like for my LGBTQ friends to live in fear because of who they’re attracted to, and because of who they love. I have to imagine living in fear of being killed for it. I have to imagine the discomfort of openly displaying affection for fear of turned-up noses, whispers, and possible violence.

Understand, this thought process isn't a conscious responsibility -- it's simply what happens when you’re a decent, albeit imperfect, human being. Yet, many Americans will not venture the compassion. Many Americans are too uncomfortable -- or too hateful -- of homosexuals to extend their humanity. This is why, very often, Americans are killed for whom they love at the hands of other Americans. Is has been commonplace, and the reactions have been more often than not, complacent. A shrug. Just something that happens.

Well, now it’s happened to Americans, on American soil, at the hands of an ISIS extremist due to the same exact brand of hate and intolerance. I have to believe this will yield a change in perspective.

Maybe knowing such hatred is shared with the most extreme, violent, and misled religious group the world currently knows, anti-gay Americans will reconsider their beliefs. Maybe in the shadow of this massacre, such hatred will be seen for what it is: not only anti-gay, but anti-American. Maybe, with this perspective, we can start respecting every individual’s right to love without persecution. Maybe, anti-LGBTQ Americans will be ashamed of their intolerance, and see their beliefs as un-American. Maybe they’ll want to change. Maybe they'll apologize and ask for guidance on a journey towards enlightenment. In return, maybe the LGBTQ community will take a deep breath, and guide with forgiveness and patience these lost souls into a compassionate future.

It sounds like a fantasy. Some of you are rightfully rolling your eyes. I feel foolish for even writing it -- admittedly to seek some semblance of calm from the anger and heartache.

But, I can’t say it’s a tragedy, because I can’t use that word anymore. That word has lost its weight. Due to constant use it means nothing. What is happening to this country, and what happened in Orlando, is emotionally and morally cataclysmic. In the absence of moving towards understanding and accepting one another, we will soon be unable to turn away from where we’re headed -- which is self-imposed fascism. Again, saying anti-LGBTQ Americans might learn something from this is no silver lining. Just as easily, this massacre could endorse discrimination and further divide our country. But, some change could come from it, and I want to believe it’s possible.



I Can Hear You Peeing: My Take On The Bathroom Law

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Hurt feelings and religion cause more cultural discord than any other institutions available. So of course this two-headed monster has reared its head again to opine on who should be allowed to use which public bathroom. The main debate stems from not wanting children to be in a bathroom occupied by a person with the opposite set of genitals, even if that person identifies as the same gender. The reasons are fear of violence and sexual assault, as well as whatever bible passage supports their side. It’s such a concern that North Carolina passed a law known as HB2 dictating that transgender people must use the bathroom associated with their birth gender.

Forget the fact that transgender people are known to be docile and kind. Forget that few violent and sexual crimes are ever perpetrated by transgender people, and that the transgender community isn’t known to be predatory or criminal. While these are important facts, let's focus on the question being overlooked by many members of the media: how will this law be enforced?

I, like many of you, have used a lot of public bathrooms. From gas stations, to malls, to hotel lobbies, to wherever. Sometimes I’m the only one using the facilities, other times they’re occupied by other men. How do I know those other men aren’t trans? For that matter, how does anyone? We'd have to peek to confirm what genitals they have. I doubt too many people are willing to get caught peeking based on a hunch. So what then? Listening? I suppose a person could analyze the sounds coming from the stalls. But, that’s not necessarily accurate. Plenty of times I’ve had to use a stall only to moments later have to urinate -- and I didn’t stand up to do so. Would people outside the stall presume I have female genitalia because they hear a tinkle?

You might be thinking that’s fine reasoning for a men’s room, but it’s different for a woman’s bathroom. Fair enough. Let’s explore that: You’re in the ladies room, in walks a transgender woman and… she goes for the stall. You hear a tinkle. How can you know what set of genitals this person has without peeking?

North Carolina lawmakers might say this isn’t the point. I say it should be. If no one is peeking, nobody knows. If nobody knows, it can’t be enforced. The second it becomes enforced by some sort of genitalia metal-detector, or bathroom monitors akin to TSA agents, North Carolina will have crossed the line of privacy. And it's interesting to point out, if it does come to such measures, it won’t be transgender people who fall under its scrutiny. It will be everyone else dropping their pants -- because who in the right mind would subject themselves to such a thing knowing they're breaking the law? However, the chances of this type of policing coming to fruition is slim.

The more probable recourse would be police officers responding to reports or complaints. This, of course, would be based on any given bathroom-goer’s perception of someone being trans -- a truth that is more often than not blurred by social conventions like clothing, hair, and surgery -- leading to a lot of crying wolf. Plus, what measures are in place to confirm an infringement of this law? Imagine this series of events: A bathroom-goer believes a transgender man is in the men's room. They alert a police officer. The officer arrives at the scene. A genitalia check is administered on the spot. Now what?

That’s actually the worst part: there is no “now what?” North Carolina Republican state Rep. Dan Bishop, who co-sponsored the bill, wrote in a statement, "There are no enforcement provisions or penalties in HB2. Its purpose is to restore common sense bathroom and shower management policy in public buildings, not to pick out people to punish.”

To be clear, the law has no documented means of enforcement, and if somehow a transgender person is caught breaking this law, nothing can be done.

Why is this the worst part? Because that means the only product of this this law is heightened fear and suspicion of transgender people. HB2 has essentially endorsed transgender hate-mongering under subterfuge of family values and protection of children. While protection of children from predators is not a subject to be taken lightly, here the lawmakers of North Carolina are doing just that. They have used a noble cause not as a reason for protecting their citizens, but as an excuse to stave off their own discomfort which stems from uneducated opinion and a lack of understanding of transgender people. That the law has no penalties is moot when you examine the effect it will have on transgender people both emotionally and psychologically -- not to mention that this may only be the first step in a line of frightening legal discrimination against the transgender community.

Straight Outta Controversy

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There’s a difference between a Great Film and an OK Movie. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences strives to honor the prior. Even though “Greatness” is subjective, and Oscars often go to films that may not represent the absolute best, the Academy Awards remain the high watermark for cinematic accolades.

Every few years a controversy about a lack of African-American nominees arises. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Last year’s omission of Ava DuVernay from the Best Director nominees renewed the controversy. It continues this year with the omission of Straight Outta Compton from the Best Picture nominees, culminating in Oscar ceremony boycotts and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag protesting the lack of diversity.

Disclaimer: I’m an American white male. It’s an unspoken rule that I’m not supposed to be talking about this. With this brand of controversy, I’m supposed to just shut up and say, “Yeah, that really sucks.” But, the thing is, the controversy is misguided. You can take what I’m about to say and twist it into something about race, accuse me of unconscious bigotry, or in some way choose to wave a sanctimonious flag about how I shouldn’t be saying this. But, as an artist and an appreciator of cinema, I watch films objectively and apply my own standards.

Here are a few examples of justified controversy: 1) In 2014, Dear White People got no attention from the Oscars -- even though it was the best American satire since Network. 2) In 1992, John Singleton became the youngest and first ever African-American nominated for Best Director, but his film Boyz n the Hood, got no Best Picture nomination. Instead, one of the five nominees was Disney’s Beauty & the Beast, which is an atrocious oversight. 3) In 1990, Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, yet Spike Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing didn’t even get a nomination.

As for unwarranted controversy, this year it’s centered around Straight Outta Compton. Is it a Great Film? No, it isn’t. It’s an OK movie. It doesn’t come close to the creativity and effectiveness of Boyz n the Hood or Do the Right Thing, so the controversy is completely unjustified. Straight Outta Compton suffers from an uneven narrative, caricature rather than character, obvious attitudes, tonal flaws, forced emotion, redundant scenes, and a 2 hour and 30 minute runtime. The second scene was so stuffed full of cliche mother/son dialog I found my eyes wandering. With the exception of Jason Mitchell’s performance as Eazy-E, which was wonderful, it was just another movie. The same goes for 2014’s Selma. It was OK, but not great. There were scenes that evoked a  powerful response, and in the end I was in tears. But, I attribute that to David Oyelowo’s performance delivering Dr. King’s final speech, not the effectiveness of the narrative. The movie was uneven and had an inconsistent sensibility, thereby removing any supposed controversy over director Ava DuVernay’s omission as a Best Director nominee. Should Oyelowo have been nominated? Yes, 2014 was a solid year for acting, so you could swap him in for any of the other nominees and it would have been deserved.

The same applies to this year’s The Martian. Like Straight Outta Compton and Selma it relies on story concept long after exhaustion, rather than telling the story effectively. If you’re going to make a movie that lasts over 2 hours, you’d better have a good reason. These films do not. Instead, they attempt to trick the viewer with melodrama while clumsily riding their concepts to the end credits. The fact that The Martian has 7 nominations, including Best Picture, and Straight Outta Compton doesn’t, absolutely speaks to a bias amongst voters -- because neither movie deserves accolades. Why would one OK movie receive nominations while the other didn’t?

We often see this occurrence described by bloggers and industry writers as a “snub”. It’s an irresponsible term used as clickbait by substandard journalists without examining the implications of the word itself. Snub implies both conspiracy and lack of dignity amongst the Academy’s voting body. The word alludes to the Academy Awards being doled out by a committee of decision-makers, rather than what it is: a voting process of secret ballots by over 6,000 members. It implies that every voting member has a preference for all-white films. Does the case of Straight Outta Compton vs The Martian indicate a preference for “white” movies or does it indicate a preference for Science Fiction? I don’t know. It would be irresponsible to pontificate. It’s from this sort of question that controversy surfaces.

In an attempt to increase diversity, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, changed Academy membership privileges. Starting in 2016, if an Academy member hasn’t been active in the film industry for the previous ten years they can no longer vote for Oscars. This is, I believe, an attempt not to diversify, per say, but to keep current the cultural outlook and perspective of the voting body. It’s a smart move because every year the Oscars fall under some scrutiny - if not for their lack of diversity, for their lack of recognizing dozens of worthy films.

One such film from this year is Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation. It should have been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Abraham Attah), and Best Supporting Actor (Idris Elba), but received none. In contrast to these oversights, the Independent Spirit Awards saw fit to nominate the film for Best Picture, Director, Male Actor, Supporting Male, and Cinematography. It won both acting awards. In the same night the Indie Spirits gave a Best Supporting Female award to Mya Taylor, a black trans actress, for her work in the movie Tangerine. Did the Academy overlook these films due to their subject matters and primarily black casts? Was Beasts of No Nation overlooked because it was a Netflix Original? It had the required theatrical run to make it eligible. Did they overlook Tangerine because it was shot on an iPhone 5s? It also had the required showings to be eligible for nomination. Does the Academy have a snooty attitude towards non-traditional Hollywood filmmaking? No matter the reason, these omissions speak to the Academy’s dwindling relevance.

We will have to wait to see how things go. There is very early buzz for the Sundance hit Birth of a Nation, a film by a black director, Nate Turner (who also plays the film’s lead), about an 1831 slave revolt. The distribution rights were sold to Fox Searchlight for the largest pricetag in any festival’s history. Fox is holding onto it until next awards season. Is it legitimately a Great Film? For 17.5 million dollars it’d better be. We’ll find out next winter.

But, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, and Birth of a Nation are four films in hundreds. That only four films have gotten attention, by way of quality or controversy, speaks more to the lack of quality “black” films being made than it does to the lack of diversity in Academy voting. The truth is, films with a strong black presence both in front and behind the camera simply aren’t being made at the same rate as movies with a mostly-or-all white cast. Look at it from a math perspective: if 1000 films are made in a given year, at most ten will get a Best Picture nomination. That’s 0.1% of total movies that receive awards recognition, and even in that small percentage the quality is often questionable. If within those 1000 films only 20 films are made with strong African-American representation, the odds of those films being well-made are slim for the sheer fact that making a good film is extremely difficult. Does this put more pressure on African-American filmmakers to stand out? Absolutely. But, to give acclaim and praise to a film simply for getting made is not only counter-productive to the concept of defining a standard of greatness, it is condescending to the filmmakers that made it.

Home Alone & The Hero's Journey

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In this article I break down the 1990 Christmas classic Home Alone according to  Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. Also known as the Monomyth, this storytelling model was used to structure the original Star Wars films (which I will occasionally reference here for clarity).

The Hero's Journey consists of three main movements:

- Departure
- Initiation
- The Return.

Each movement is broken down into story points, numbered here 0-17. Some of the story points overlap, some are loose interpretations, some are obvious, some are in a different order, but they all occur in the story.

While these types of breakdowns aren't concerned with"textbook" accuracy, but rather the exercise of interpretation, please let me know in the comments where you think I'm wrong, right, reaching, or otherwise!

Enjoy...

Part I: Departure

0. The Ordinary World - In almost every story we first get a glimpse of the hero's normal world before he/she is swept up in adventure. It is here we get a sense of the hero's hopes and dreams. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker lives with his Uncle Owen, all the while wishing he could join the rebel alliance.
In Home Alone, Kevin McCallister is surrounded by family members that ignore him and/or don't treat him very nicely. Also, he is kind of a brat. It's during this story point when Kevin wishes he didn't have a family.
1. Call to Adventure - The start of the protagonist's journey towards becoming a hero.
A storm knocks out the power. The following morning, Kevin's family to rushes to the airport for their Christmas vacation, leaving Kevin behind in an empty home.
2. Refusal of the Call - Often the hero will refuse the Call to Action. In Star Wars, Luke initially turns down Obi-Wan's invite to travel to Alderaan.
Kevin wakes up to an empty house and looks for his family. Only when he realizes that he got his wish does he accept this new path.
3. Supernatural Aid - The hero needs someone to guide him/her down their new path. In Star Wars, Luke has Obi-Wan.
Kevin's Supernatural Aid is the gangster from “Angels with Filthy Souls.” Kevin is at first afraid of the gangster, but later draws his strength from the character. It could be argued that Kevin’s supernatural aid is the Old Man, or Santa, but I feel those characters fulfill other parts of the story structure.
4. Crossing the Threshold - The character leaves his "ordinary world" and ventures into uncharted territory. In Star Wars, Luke's travels to Mos Eisley's Cantina.
Kevin eases into living on his own and accepts that he is alone. He shaves, showers, goes food shopping, eats ice cream for a meal, steals a toothbrush, etc.
5. Belly of the Whale - The point of no return for our hero. In Star Wars, Luke leaves Tatooine. It could also be interpreted as the Millennium Falcon being drawn into the Death Star. In either case, there is no turning back. The hero is now completely committed to their new path. (Note: in the Christopher Vogler model, this story point is known as “The Supreme Ordeal” and is recognized in Part II: The Initiation. Both story points represent the same thing: the main arena/plot where the hero will undergo change.)
After almost getting hit by Harry and Marv's van, Kevin recognizes Harry's gold tooth and realizes he's a bad guy. Harry and Marv follow Kevin home, forcing him to deal with their plans to rob the neighborhood -- specifically the McCallister household. This is the main plot of the film, and sends Kevin further into the story and continues his path of change.

Part II: Initiation

6. Road of Trials - The hero is tested along the journey and meets allies and new enemies. Note: In the Christopher Vogler model, this is referred to as “Tests, Allies, Enemies”. In both interpretations these events span a large part of the telling, overlapping and joining many of the other story points.
- Kevin meets the burglars, tricks them into delaying their plan
- Kevin talks to the Old Man in church and loses his fear of him
- Watches “Angels with Filthy Souls” but is at first too scared to look at the screen
- Talks to Santa
- Confronts the furnace
- Steals a toothbrush
- Goes food shopping
7. Woman as Temptress - The protagonist is often tempted to stray from the path of becoming a hero.
When Kevin first goes to see Santa a female elf directs him towards Santa Claus (who is about to leave for the night). Kevin asks Santa for his family back. While Santa isn’t a female, he still fits this story point. By asking Santa for his family back -- much like the willingness of mythic heroes to be drawn off their path by a Siren song -- Kevin is tempted off his path by Santa's mythic powers.
8. Approach the Innermost Cave - This story point exists in Christopher Vogler's model. This is where the protagonist gets ready for the final confrontation or test. It might fit into Campbell's "Road of Trials", but because there is such a distinction I wanted to include it here.
Kevin prepares for the inevitable burglary. He sets booby traps and ultimately declares aloud, “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” He’s as ready as he can be for the next challenge...
9. Atonement with the Father - The protagonist faces the "ultimate power" in his/her life. In Star Wars, Luke initiates his "attack run" against the Death Star ("The ultimate power in the universe") with Vader (his father) on his tail. Luke is, of course, victorious.
Kevin faces and outsmarts the burglars, taking his biggest step towards maturity. (Alternate interpretation: this story point could also be when Kevin confronts the furnace, thereby facing and surpassing a childish fear, however I feel facing the burglars better fits the overall story).
10. The Magic Flight - The hero must sometimes make an escape after achieving his/her goal. In Joseph Campbell's words, "...if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero's wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons*, then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit."
Kevin escapes the house on a zip line. *Note: at this point in Home Alone, the dim-witted burglars seem more interested in hurting Kevin than in burglarizing the house. Hence, their intention falls in line with resenting his ability to escape, as well as resenting Kevin's means of thwarting their plan. As Campbell outlines above, the incident is comical.
11. Rescue from Without - Sometimes the hero needs help attaining their goal. In Star Wars, during Luke's attack run on the Death Star, Han Solo fires a shot that sends Vader and two other tie fighters tumbling into space, giving Luke the time to take a clean shot.
This occurs twice in Home Alone: once when the spider shows up to save Kevin from Marv, and again when the old man saves Kevin from the burglars.
12. Ultimate Boon - The hero achieves his/her goal. In Star Wars the Ultimate Boon is destroying the Death Star.
Kevin accomplishes what he set out to do: defeat the burglars.
A side note: in classic myth the hero often seeks a specific prize. In Jason & the Argonauts, the Ultimate Boon is The Golden Fleece. At the end of Home Alone, perhaps as a nod to classic mythology, Kevin's father finds Harry’s gold tooth.

Part III: The Return

13. Apotheosis - The hero dies a physical or spiritual death; though sometimes it is simply a moment of reflection. In Home Alone, it's both.
The morning after the burglary, Kevin sits on his parent’s bed and looks at a family photograph. He realizes how necessary and important family is as he reflects on their absence. He has left the childish resentment of family behind him. The old Kevin McCallister is no more.
14. Crossing the Return Threshold - The hero returns to life with a newfound wisdom and is able to apply this new perspective to his/her life.
Kevin's family returns, bringing him back to the old world. It could be argued, perhaps, that leaving his parent's bedroom (where we never see him again) signifies his acceptance of still being a child. However, his family returning, thereby bringing the world back to him, rather than he returning to it, fits better.
15. The Meeting with the Goddess - The hero experiences an all-powerful, non-judgmental love.
Kevin is embraced by his mother.
16. Master of Two Worlds - This is about transcendence. In Star Wars, Luke becomes the Hero by blowing up the Death Star (in Episode VI he becomes a Jedi).
Kevin's family sees him differently. They are impressed and surprised that he was able to survive on his own. Even Buzz, his biggest detractor, compliments him. Kevin has realized both the importance of familial support and self-reliance.
17. The Freedom to Live - This is about losing a fear of Death.
Along the journey Kevin faces an irrational fear of Death (the furnace), reasonable fear (being on his own), mythological fear (the Old Man), and justified fear (the burglars). By having faced all these fears and survived he is able to see himself in a different light, thereby allowing the world to see him as more than the bratty 8-year-old we met at the beginning of the story.