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Last week, I wrote tributes to five incredibly talented and inspiring black entertainers to celebrate Black History Month. Five doesn’t cut it. This week, I’m honoring five more wonderful talents. Ten still is nowhere near enough, but it’s better than five.
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I can almost guarantee you that you’ll recognize Kitt from her signature gravelly purr and her champagne-gargled helium voice (which was featured in The Emperor’s New Groove). There was always a trace of wariness and a sad-eyed expression behind her gregariously coquettish persona. It could easily stem from her traumatic childhood. Born on a cotton-picking plantation in South Carolina to a white plantation owner father (whose identity was withheld from her by local authorities for her entire life) and a black mother, she was given up for adoption where she was regularly abused by her half-siblings and even raped by one of the half-brothers. At nine, she fled to Harlem and started singing and dancing as a means to escape living in subway stations. She struggled with an identity crisis at the beginning of her career in the 1950s because white film and TV producers were afraid that white audiences wouldn’t accept a sexualized black woman. She made the most of her stage and nightclub appearances where she donned the persona of “the original Material Girl,” singing tongue-in-cheek songs about gold-diggers and la grande vie in seven different languages.
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Her eccentric persona, which was most iconically displayed as the second Catwoman on the cult 60s TV series Batman, overshadowed the fact that Kitt was also a powerhouse dramatic actress. Her Emmy-nominated performance as a heroin-addicted nightclub singer in I Spy is one of the most uncompromisingly gritty portrayals of addiction I have ever seen (many people seemed to agree as it was widely thought she was actually an addict after this performance). On a Ben Casey episode she gives a heartbreaking performance of a well-to-do and loved doctor’s wife who suffers from crippling clinical depression and mental illness. In spite of the many hard knocks, Kitt has never shied away from her beliefs. In 1968, she was pretty much professionally ostracized from the US for almost ten years when she confronted Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. I am still partial to her 80s disco phase where she humorously basks in her own outrageousness and otherworldly sexiness.
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It may seem cliché now since what seems like every musician has cited Armstrong as a musical influence, but it’s totally justified as he was one of the pioneers of modern music. His sense of rhythm and improvisation were as transformative for the times as those who were firsthand recipients of electricity. He coined the terms “cat” and “chops” which are still used in musical vernacular today. When he was starting out in New Orleans in the teens, jazz, which was billed as “race music,” was still very much a niche genre (and almost completely unknown to whites at the time). Once whites became hip and started diggin’ the music, in typical fashion, the press gave all the air time to white musicians and ignored most of the black pioneers. Armstrong, who had a distinctive vocal and trumpeting technique coupled with an effortlessly warm and captivating stage presence (apparently in real life he had a volatile temper), simply couldn’t be relegated out of the spotlight. His enthusiasm for his craft is contagious, even when listening to him or seeing him perform. What I found most interesting to learn about Armstrong was the liberal use of profanity in his vocabulary. On a recording with Billie Holiday his audible use of “fuck” drew much fire from critics and audiences of the day. His presence made even the most tedious of projects such as the Hollywood films High Society and Hello Dolly worthwhile. Although Armstrong was demoted to playing second fiddle to whites on screen, off camera he didn’t put up with their crap. He publicly called out President Eisenhower for not doing enough for civil rights. He was going strong until his bulimia caught up with him and contributed to a fatal heart attack in 1971. Thankfully his soul lives on in the countless recordings and film and TV appearances he made in his productive and jiving career.
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Indie films and TV shows are supposedly greater outlets for people who don’t fit the norm (anyone not young, fit, conventionally attractive white men and women). Counterintuitively, people of color have fewer opportunities in the alternative sector than in mainstream venues. British comedian, actor, writer, and filmmaker Richard Ayoade has infiltrated this whity tighty community, but strictly on his own terms. His droll delivery, nerdy persona, drawing laughs from constructing the humor of jokes, and his penchant for an absurd point-of-view make Ayoade one of the brightest personalities in interviews, comedy specials, and panel shows. He first gained prominence as one of the nerdy, socially awkward computer geniuses in the Britcom The IT Crowd. In the meantime, he’s directed two films, Submarine and The Double, both of which sound like wholly original concepts done with a dark, quirky touch. The latter film, which should be released sometime this year, is currently on the festival circuit and is drawing great reviews commending his inspired take of a Dostoevsky text. Right now, he’s one of the regular panelists and truthfully the only bright-spot of a too-thin premise British game show Was it Something I Said? His sarcastic defense of Hitler in the first episode is priceless. Since it’s only in its first series, it has potential to get better.
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As in life, black women in the film industry are on the lowest on the totem pole, with almost no chance to direct a feature film (though that is slowly changing). It is super inspiring (and perhaps slightly insane) that young writer-filmmaker Dee Rees would double up on what is considered box-office poison; a film that is largely an ensemble of black females and concerns lesbianism as one of its central themes. Yet she has persisted with this vision for years. The film, Pariah, began as a short that made festival rounds in 2007, drawing great acclaim. Despite the positive notices, Rees only received $500,000 to make the feature-length version. In what must have been trying circumstances, she managed to make an excellent film in terms of narrative, production values, and acting, using the unpolished roughness to create a tone that is in accordance with its realist and impressionist mood.
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Pariah examines the repression and rigidity of the middle class in an upwardly mobile New York City black neighborhood through the experiences of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a thoughtful young adult grappling with being in the closet and trying to deal with her quietly dysfunctional family. Rees’ nuanced script evocatively presents the complexities and contradictions of all its characters, so that no one is strictly one-dimensionally good or bad. Instead, her approach is to present all of her characters as people, rather than archetypes, who are worthy of scorn, empathy, and sympathy. Had an art house theater owner in Rhode Island not shown Pariah, even though he knew he would take a loss, chances are good I never would have seen this film. Although there have been black female directors before Rees, like Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy, their directorial careers typically fizz out quickly. When Pariah the feature was released in 2011, to another round of raves, Rees didn’t receive much attention from entertainment publications and wasn’t part of any of the major panels of independent filmmakers. If we want challenging films that aren’t the typical Hollywood fare, it is in our best interest as consumers to support artists like Rees who have the vision and the craft to execute them.
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While he shares his name with the iconic (white) Hollywood star of the 1960s and 70s, McQueen, a black writer-director from London, has firmly carved out his own identity. What white McQueen was for escapist action entertainment, black McQueen is for gritty and hard-hitting character dramas. This year, McQueen is the critical toast of the town with his stellar and unrelenting masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave, which by multiple accounts is a faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Slave’s lucid somber treatment of blacks is perhaps the first significant antidote to the racist and problematic depictions in Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. The epic scope of the film unflinchingly depicts them as people with their own feelings and points of view, rather than mere victims. It also convincingly shows how slavery is detrimental to white people’s sanity. Slave has received bits of criticism; some have claimed that McQueen’s art school sensibility overly prettified things while others, like well-known contrarian critic Armond White decried it as “torture porn.” Interestingly, Slave is McQueen’s first film dealing with race issues.
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In fact, McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, is uniformly populated with white bodies, as it tackles the hunger strike taken by Irish Republican Army prison inmates led by leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder). Hunger acted as a calling card for both McQueen and Fassbinder, but they gained more prominence with their next collaboration, Shame, a NYC-based drama about the tortuous life of a sex addict. Although McQueen has made only three features, he’s been producing art-house shorts featured in museum exhibitions for nearly twenty years, many of which seem to be more about ambiance and movement than plot. Although his works are more towards traditional narrative, McQueen doesn’t seem likely to tamp down the content of his works. Hopefully the success of Slave will grant him (and other black directors and writers) the opportunity to create more hard-hitting and necessary dramas.