Category Archives: Moving Pictures

Appreciation, analysis and reviews of movies that make valuable points as they entertain..or just plain entertain

“Straight Outta Compton”: A Riquespeaks Movie Review

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It really shouldn’t raise too many hip eyebrows that the N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton” is the most artistically and financially successful Hip Hop biopic to date, joining movies such as “Ray”, “Lady Sings the Blues”, “The Five Heartbeats”, and “The Doors” in the pantheon of the better music films. The Los Angeles based rap group, with it’s snarls and mean mugs, Raider gear, Jheri Curls, Rupert Wainwright directed videos, Dr. Dre’s Westside version of The Bomb Squads manic productions, and Ice Cube’s vivid street reporting lyrical narratives, were tailor made to represent the turmoil of ’80s L.A, and by extension, urban America. N.W.A didn’t just rap about the attitudes and circumstances that young black men found themselves in, inside of a Reagenomics practicing crack infested nation, they used their L.A instincts to embody them in sonics and appearance. Director F. Gary Gray’s film goes beyond simply recounting the details of N.W.A’s rise and troubles, to painting one of the best portraits I’ve yet seen of the perilous decade of the 1980’s in urban America. It throws you for a loop when you realize the young men being repeatedly slammed and thrown to the ground by the police would go on to become cultural icons.

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Th movie begins in the action, with scenes to introduce the principals of the group and film, Jason Mitchell as the diminutive , charismatic Eazy E, Corey Hawkins as the angsty music lover Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube’s own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr, playing a youthful Ice Cube, talented, thoughtful, and resolute. One of the historical points I appreciate is a chance to see the “Batterram” in action, which was a Tank the LAPD used to bust down doors of residences in the inner city. The brutality is crucial when the vehicle uses it’s large gun to push a young lady into the wall, forcing Eazy to run through backyards and hop on roofs as he makes his escape.

Dr. Dre is introduced as a young man lost in music, laying on pile of vintage funk, soul, and jazz records, listening to Roy Ayers anthemic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” on headphones while his little brother shares the next bed. He’s soon kicked out of the house by his mother because she feels he’s wasting his young life. We meet Ice Cube at the end of a school day, being bused from a rich white neighborhood, riding a school bus with notebook in hand, scribbling rhymes, as a gangster boars the bus to warn the youngsters about fronting. The montage provides something all too rare in film, presenting the troubles a young black man might face in terms of humanity rather than pathology, dangerous and life threatening as they may be.

N.W.A is already very close to forming as the film begins. D.J Yella is introduced as an appendage of Dre, and comes off as a fun loving, Morris Day cum Ron Johnson type figure, which is brought across well by Neil Brown Jr. The “Villian” M.C Ren on the other hand, is introduced with Eazy, and Aldiss Hodge does as much as he can with a fairly limited role, about the only thing notable is the fact that Ren is a serious M.C and writer. The movie includes cameos of other rappers who would make up the grand, dynastic saga of L.A Hip Hop, including the D.O.C, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur.

The main villains of the movie are Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, and R. Marcus Taylor as Suge Knight, and on a larger level, the police. Giamatti’s Heller is portrayed as a typical show biz guy who latched on to some black kids nobody would touch and ended up with unexpected, tech start up type windfalls, getting in on the gangster rap business on the ground floor. He’s dowdy, frumpy, and therefore credible enough to sneak his slick show biz hands around N.W.A’s necks. He only flinches mildly when leaned on by the great black Villian, Suge Knight. Suge’s character is not as loquacious as Don King, but he got to members of NWA on the same premise, that his familiarity, blackness, and muscle would give them a Better cut than they were getting from the white boy. He’s exposed as a brutal, bullying gangster, of the kind that has always existed behind the scenes in American show business. The members of the group struggle to come out from under the grip of the white devil on one side, and the black devil on the other. And victory is reached in this movie by surviving the control machinations of both. Ice Cube is the first to break free, refusing to sign a contract giving up his rights for $75,000.

The main villains in the movie though are the police, both white and black (“Black police showing out for the white cops”) who serve as the living face and hands of white supremacy. I literally lost count of how many times members of the group are “jacked” and “ganked” by the cops, thrown on the ground and cuffed up. It happens in front of their parents, their siblings, before stardom, on the way to stardom, and after stardom. There was one sequence where the audience was laughing at something said, and as soon as the group members step out of the door they’re immediately jacked by the police, a jarring example of how regular young men get criminalized in the urban environment.

The rise for the group happens relatively quickly, as they strike gold with their first recordings. The objections of the old school are represented by World Class Wreckin Cru founder Alonzo Williams. The group rises to stardom, women, and parties, but begins to fall apart when Ice Cube realizes they’re being exploited by Heller. Soon he is in New York recording “The Nigga You Love to Hate”, with stand ins for Public Enemy’s Shocklee brothers and Chuck D in the control booth. This forces the group to go after Cube, after which he records one of the greatest diss records of all time, the Brick sampling “No Vaseline.” The story progresses through the rest of the saga, well known to fans of ’90s Hip Hop, from the triumph of Death Row and “The Chronic”, to Ice Cube writing “Friday”, to Eazy E’s success with Bone Thugs N Harmony and tragic death from AIDS.

One of my favorite things about the entire movie is the use of the old school funk music that NWA built their music on. Steve Arrington’s “Weak at the Knees” appears in THREE different forms, first with Ice Cube free styling over it at the club, to it’s use behind N.W.A’s “Gangsta Gangsta”, to it’s manipulation by The Bomb Squad for “The Nigga You Love to Hate”. Big party scenes are underscored by late P-Funk hits like “Knee Deep” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” I already mentioned how Dr. Dre is introduced listening to Roy Ayers “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which could serve as an anthem for the Sunshine State.

“Straight Outta Compton” puts flesh on the story of “The Worlds Most Dangerous Group.” It has the distinction of being produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy’s widow, Tomica Woods Wright. As such it provides a first person view of who N.W.A was and who they thought they were, which I applaud. In doing so, many have complained it glosses over the groups attitude towards women. But I think several scenes make that clear, and should become even more clear when people go back and do their wikiapediang. What the movie does show is how central their wives and significant others were to their success. Love stories for N.W.A? Who would’ve thunk it? It does not quite reach the level of a love story, but Cube and Eazy’s significant others were shown to have very sizeable parts to play in their careers. I think the movie is doing so well because it’s one of the first that covers the historic environment of the ’80s and ’90s Hip Hop explosion, with a group that represented both the best and worst of that time. It sticks right in the 20 year zone of nostalgia, which sadly “Get On Up” missed, but it also does not make the mistake so many make when telling a black story of not dealing with the larger community. The depiction of the hectic environment of ’80s and ’90s Los Angeles takes us behind the Jheri Curl and the frown, and I believe viewers will be better off for it.

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Riquespeaks on SoulSchool TV: Calvin Lincoln and Riquespeaks salute Joe Sample and the Crusaders

Last week was an excellent week for me as I taped my first appearance on SoulSchool Television, which aired in Vallejo, California as well as around the world wide web last Friday. The show was also repeated all weekend. Taping the show last Monday really started my week with a bang because it was fulfillng a dream I’d had for quite some time. I have already ran it down here on how viewing SoulSchool in my teens was something that helped me along the road of deeper music appreciation. Between my parents, Rickey Vincents funk book, my older hip hop heroes like M.C Hammer and Chuck D, and SoulSchool, I was able to escape the vapors of negative thinking and violence that was being sold in much of the pop music of that time period.

And there couldn’t have been a more apt subject to make my first appearance talking about. I’m sure many of you reading this are already aware of the passing of the great Joe Sample, keyboardist and founding member of the Crusaers, formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders. The Crusaders are a group who’s music I’ve always dug, being exposed to it in the home. But as the years have passed, I’ve found out more and more how essential they’ve been to music as session players. Members of the group played with Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Hugh Masekela, Hues Corporation, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Smith, Carole King, Barry White, Seals & Croft and many many other artists. That list puts them up there as a truly dominating force of the 1970s music for me.

The Crusaders anthemic 1979 song “Street Life” is a landmark in particular for me. I grew up hearing the bright, brassy voice of Randy Crawford testifying, “That’s all that’s left for me.” When I was a kid, that song was some other kind of adult business. It was funky, bluesy, hip, jazzy, with a high gloss sheen and notes of sadness at the core when you licked away the sweet coating. It was one of my fathers favorite records, and looking back I could see why. In 1979 my dad was a 48 year old African American lawyer, naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Liberia, where he’d lived for 20 years. He was on his second marriage and had five kids, unaware he had one yet on the way. But for me personally, I’ve always associated the world weary vibe of “Street Life” with where Liberia was in 1979. ’79 turned out to be a pivotal year in Liberian history, with a major civil disturbance known as the Rice Riots occuring that April when the President attempted to raise the price of rice, the staple food, during the midst of the world wide late ’70s recession and commodities squeeze.

What was going on however was more than a riot over the price of rice. It was a full blown revolution over the long years of rule by the descendants of the African American founders of Liberia. It was led by well educated young Liberians, many with a background partially in the ruling class and partically among the native people. These young men were schooled in the United States and Europe and witnessed the upheavels of the ’60s and ’70s and wanted to bring similar liberations to their home country. They began to question things like why their country only had one strong political party, why there was a boatload of money coming in from foreign concessions and yet poverty was rampant, and why the government ministers were the richest people in the land.

At the same time, the nation was prettying itself up to host the OAU, Organization of African Unity Conference, and also recieved a visit from President Jimmy Carter in that same year.

Mom and Dad were there watching the whole thing go down. My mother always told me a story about how the soldiers had set up a blockade during the riots. My father and my older brother George had gone to run some errand, Dad deeming it only safe for the two of them to do so under the conditions the country was in. She said something to the effect of Dad having moved a blockade and the soldiers harrasing them, until he flashed his credentials as an ex member of the Port Security, which was one of his first jobs when he got to Liberia.

My parents had the foresight to begin preparing to leave Liberia very soon after that. My grandmother, Ms. Leona Birden was falling into ill health here in San Francisco. Not to mention the fact that my brothers and sisters school fees at the American Consolidated School, the finest school in Liberia, were spiralling out of control. All of this and the political trouble gave him the impetus to get up and bounce, my family left a year after the Riots, in April of 1980. A week after they arrived, Dad is laying in bed in Oakland and he gets a phone call. “Your President just died”, he was told. “Who, Carter?” Dad replied. “Carters not your PResident, I’m talking about Tolbert, man.”

There is something about the mixture of celebration, joy and pathos in “Street Life” that represents 1979, what happened in Liberia, and also holds cautionary notes for what would soon happen in the black communities of America with the crack epidemic firing up a few years after that. The Crusaders, OG’s from Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas, could have told many a young brother where that broad and spacious road led. Chic’s “Good Times” has similar notes of pathos in it, with lyrics that speak of “A rumor has it/its getting late/time marches on/you just cant change your fate.”

So music from 1979 always has a strong place in my heart and mind. When I hear a “Shake Your Body Down”, or a “I wanna be Your Lover”, or a “Street Life”, those funky, funky, joyful records, I always think about the Babylonians or Nero partying on the eve of their destructions. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tommorow we may die.” But “Street Life” is a record that mourns just as much as it celebrates.

There is a tape I’ve desperately been trying to find among my dad’s music collection I hope to share with everybody as soon as I can find it. It’s a tape from Liberia in early 1980. A young girl calls in to the radio station and requests “Street Life.” The radio announcer, in typical African “it takes a village” fasion, chides her, “You be in the street huh? What you know ’bout street life.” The girl said, “nothing, I just like the song.” Me and Pops would always fall out laughing when we heard that. It was so Liberian, and so full of the old school concern for the young. The same thing folks here talk about when they talk about the neighbors discipling you when you did bad as well as the parents.

“Street Life” was a song Joe Sample wrote, and he also played on a version Herb Alpert cut of it that very same year. I will always thank him for it and his tremendous contribution to his times. Sample and the Crusaders didn’t let jazz critics set their sound, they always let the people and the audience be the barometer of what they were doing. And they were able to touch many people because of that.

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Quick Thoughts on “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “Winnie Mandela”.

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Nelson Mandela’s death last month provided an outpouring of emotion for a man who was already a worldwide icon, and a symbol of worldwide struggle against what W.E.B Dubois called the problem of the 20th century, “The Color Line.” It also motivated people fighting against war, occupation, sexism, and every other kind of social ill on this planet. Mandela’s struggle has been documented on film before. Most of these films have been episodic, for instance, Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine’s potrayal of the negotiations to end Apartheid in “Mandela and DeKlerk”, Morgan Freeman’s potrayal of Mandela’s skillfull usage of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in 2009’s “Invictus”, and Dennis Haysbert’s 2007 potrayal of Mandela’s jail term in “Goobye Banafa.” These films potrayed specific incidents in Mandela’s life, but the world had not yet recieved a full potrait of the great man’s story. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, directed by Justin Chadwick, and starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, is a full life potrait of Mandela taken from his own autobiography. “Winnie Mandela”, the controversial production starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard as the Mandela’s, is a South African production avaliable on DVD that attempts to tell the life story of Winnie Madikezela Mandela herself.

“Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom” is quite simply a must see, and will become the go to flick for Nelson Mandela bios. The film takes its story from his autobiography and chronicles his early years as a young lawyer in Johannesburg and partner in the country’s only black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, the dissolution of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, his days of direct activism, his militant days as “The Black Jacobin”, on through his imprisonment on Robben Island and the series of prisons he was moved to leading up to the negotiations to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Elba gives a confident performance as Mandela, and one that grows with the man, starting off as a brash young lawyer who believes in his ability to impact change through the letter of the law and his own excellence, moving to a firebrand militant and maturing into an elder statesman. The arc he plays is from twenty something to Mandela in his ’70s. The film begins at an excellent point to start a movie about a great African man, at his manhood initiation ritual that takes him into adult manhood. I especially enjoyed the scenes of Mandela flirting in Johannesburg sheebens, even using the racial politics of the time as part of his rap. Mandela tells a lovely young South African lady that the law determines who can have relations by whether a pencil sticks in their hair, and he demonstrates this as part of his rap. He also spurns the ANC’s first overtures toward him, but gets involved when he sees the impact of people concentrating their efforts has over individual effort, a lesson he himself will teach to a young revolutionary who gets shipped to jail years after Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership are incarcerated.

Much of the actual tension and the heart of the film comes from the relationship between Elba’s Mandela and Harris’s Winnie. The film covers the arc of their relationship from Mandela’s days of chasing her at the bus stop, to her support for him in jail, to her own 18 months in solitary confinement and the steel resolve it gave her. Harris does a good job of conveying change from a mild social worker and wife to the strong and untractable leader Winnie Mandela became. The film also deals with the pathos of the dissolution of the Mandela’s marraige amid his release from jail.

One of the things I enjoy most about the film is the way it incorporates things from the autobiography. For instance, in the book, Mandela talks about the Elizabeth Taylor classic “Cleopatra”, and the fact that the Queens potrayal by a white woman was a big topic when the movie was screened in South Africa, “however beautiful” Taylor may have been. In the film, Mandela, under political ban, sneaks into a township movie theather at night, getting up on stage to interrupt an Elizabeth Taylor movie, and he says, “She’s beautiful but I prefer Sophia Loren.” Another thing from the book that made it into the film was a suit African leaders had hand tailored for Mandela when he was in jail for him to look Presidential when he was negotiating for the end of Aparthied. For readers, who generally are dissatisfied with film versions of books, these little touches are gratifiying.

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“Long Walk to Freedom” is a must see, ultimately it’s a character driven film that aims to show the incredible circumstances the Mandela’s faced in trying to free their people while at the same time making great sacrifices in their personal lives. It will definitely be a good film to teach children about Nelson Mandela’s life, or to educate ourselves if our own knowledge of it is in embryonic stage. Of course, a fuller picture can be gained from actually reading the book it was based on which is an excellent portrait of Mandela’s life and South African history as he saw it, and also digging into the wealth of information out there about South Africa and the struggle against Aparthied. But on a cinematic, entertainment level, “Long Walk to Freedom” delivers behind strong performances by its lead actors.
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“Winnie Mandela” starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard takes a look at the same events through the life of Mandela’s second wife and the one he was married to the longest, his comrade in the struggle Winnie Madikezela Mandela. The film has a much smaller feel than “Long Walk to Freedom”, almost like a television special, but a film can only feel so small in the majesty of the South African environment. Winnie’s life is covered from her early days as a tomboy in her village, the granddauther of a chief, born to a schoolteacher father who wanted a son. From there, she moves to Johannesburg to study social work, where she is introduced to the limitations of her Aparthied system, and an activist named Nelson Mandela, who picks her up at the bus stop. From there we see the Mandela story through Winnie’s life and activism, including some insights into the particular humiliations she may have faced as a woman in such an unjust system, including the 18 months she faced in solitary confinement. We’re given a portrait of a woman who fights back in real and symbolic ways, from wearing native dress to court which earns her a reprimand from the judges, to giving speeches on her husbands behalf, from throwing up on South African soldiers feet when she gets seasick on a trip to Robbins Island, to singing songs in her native Xhosa to maintain her strength that drives her jailers up the wall, to leading the Mandela Football Club and getting control of the slums of Johannesburg.

Jennifer Hudson gives a pretty good performance in a difficult role. She does a good job with the South African accent and also with the zeal Mandela had for liberation. Howard’s performance is well meaning and captures the essence of Mandela at times, but I can’t help but thing it’s held back a little bit by the clunkiness of his accent. I do like his decision however to speak certain scenes in Xhosa and I do feel he grows into the gravitas of the role slowly but surely.

I espeically like the scenes where Mandela moves back to Soweto and moves and shakes with the “Mandela Football Club.” It almost reminds a scene in an old blaxploitation film, when her bodygaurd opens the back door of a BMW for her to get in, and we get scenes of her pushing her way into night clubs to meet local power brokers. The potrayal of Mandela as an older activist returning to a Soweto disorganized and wracked by violence was a particularly true to life one to me, and helped me understand the bad press she’s gotten over the last 20 years. It reminded me of Huey Newton returning to Oakland in the 1970s after having been in jail, faced with reorganizing the Black Panther Party and getting control of the activities on the Oakland Streets. When you see a man breaking into her house and putting a knife to her neck you’ll understand the reputation for stern activities she developed in later years.

“Winnie Mandela” is not as strong or comprehensive a film as “Long Walk to Freedom”, but it is invaluable still because it deals with the story from Winnie’s side. It is not as strong towards the end as the Mandela film, but that’s in part because Winnie’s life after Mandela’s release was more problematic. But I do feel putting the two films together gives one a fuller cinematic picture of the lives of these two great South Africans.

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Sex, Drugs and Penny Stocks : The Wolf of Wall Street

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Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a sex and drugs laden motion picture set in recent American history, the easy money rip off days of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The film features more sex and naked flesh than a film set in the world of porn, and as much drug use as a film set in a disco or the world of drugs. What is unique about the film is that all this sex and drugs is not set in the typical worlds of debauchery one would picture. American films have long used crime, underworld, and ethnic settings to put on morality tales of how low a human life can go. This is a film however, set in the world of stock trading, and finance. Since the recent world wide economic recession has been largely blamed on the world of finance, it’s particularly timely. The criminal financial avarice of the character being potrayed with diverse hedonistic verve by Leonardo Dicaprio, Jordan Belfort, a real life penny stock con artist, gives truth and proof to the claims many from the inner city have made over the years. I’d often heard it said growing up in the city that the real crooks are in the white collar world. Jordan Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is one such crook. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a morality tale however. It’s special ambiguity comes from the same source as the ambiguity in gangster rap or films like “Superfly” and “Scarface.” Although we can be sure the principals of the film feel the actions of their characters are wrong, the film cuts no corners in showing the larger than life extravagence of their lifestyles, like a Hype Williams video set on a luxury yacht in 1997. Rather than coming off as a morality tale, it comes off like reality rappers used to speak of their art, as a journalistic excursion into “how it really is.”

The film is the fifth cinematic collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio. It’s also about the third over the top character in a row DiCaprio has potrayed, following the spoiled boy Prince slaveowner Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, and the suave respectability craving Thug Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby.” Here, he plays real life con artist stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who’s real life exploits were covered in an issue of Forbes Magazine, in the early 90s. Amazingly, after his firm, Stratton Oakfort was exposed in the magazine, they had a line outside the door of people seeking employment, an incident documented in the film.

Belfort starts off as a stock broker in the late ’80s at a well established Wall Street firm. His boss Mark Hanna, potrayed with suave corruption by Matthew McConaugey, turns him out over lunch early in his tenure at the firm. Hanna casually snorts cocaine over lunch and tells Belfort cocaine and regular masturbation are the keys to his survival in the stock business.

Hanna also makes a statement that typifies what many see as the problem in the American economy over the past fifty years or so. Gil Scott Heron touched on the same thing in his classic song, “B Movie.” Hanna told Belfort that not only was it not necessary for the stocks he sold to do well for his clients, it could also be counter productive. Hanna goes on to tell him his only goal was to make money, and the profit for the consumer was not as important as the profit for himself and the firm.

Belfort loses his job after Black Monday, the Wall Street crash in 1987 that was the worse since the Great Depression. The late ’80s were full of financial upheavels many trace back to the “Greed is good” financial deregulations of the decade. More such were to follow in the ’90s. Belfort takes this hustlers mentality with him to the world of penny stocks. He finds out that his commission selling these junk stocks would be an extremely high 50%. I can remember my father getting plastic packets in the mail in the ’80s and ’90s with companies selling their penny stocks, because he’d always let me look through them and play with them. Belfort here comes upon the great insight that makes him rich: a crappy product is actually ideal to sell for a creative salesman with a mouthpiece, it’s almost as if his creative ability to B.S was amplified by the improbability of the success of his product. Belfort blows up and opens his own brokerage house in a car garage, with several weed dealing friends, and a dude married to his cousin, potrayed with hilarious creepville douchebagness by Jonah Hill.

From there we’re treated to sex, hookers, endless scenes of cocaine usage and hilarious scenes of the folly such induce. There is one hilarious episode with DiCaprio crawling to his sports car under the influence of quaaludes, and another featuring an ill advised trip on a yacht.

All in all, I’m not sure “The Wolf of Wall Street” is quite the epic it aims to be. If it is, it’s because a movie that takes on the greed of our recent American epoch. At some point in America, people began to make money rather than produce goods of value. I grew up in the ’90s when the conversation was that money was easier to make than ever. This was celebrated in the hip hop and popular culture of the times, like MTV Cribs. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is interesting, because unlike literary epics of old, it does not attack the rich. It attacks those attempting to be rich, mostly from the lower and middle classes, and the loss of morality that attempt can often lead to. This has often been seen from the vantage point of drug dealers, pimps, atheletes, prostitutes, strippers, and other denizens of society’s lower rungs, but it is refreshing to see it take place in a middle to upper class, white setting. In that way, it makes the claim that the same disease affecting the feet and ass, also affects the head. Greed is a part of the American way no matter where on the plane you sit. The entertainment value of the film is the entertainment value of Biggie Smalls or Cash Money Records at its height, an urestrained, unquestioning celebration of carnal pleasures and money. However, it’s very clear to the audience watching the party that it has to come to an end at some point. However, Belfort, in that most American of ways, is able to reinvent himself as a motivational speaker after his jail term, pushing a different kind of hustle. The film could have easily worked under a title of another film out concurrently, “American Hustle”, in the way “American Gangster” worked for the Denzel flick. So if you check out “The Wolf of Wall Street”, make sure to enjoy a party you probably have too high a sense of morality and common sense to attend in real life.

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Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley Doc

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Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley documentary on HBO is a labor of love that pays homage to a seminal figure in American entertainment who paved the way for her own career. Like the Iceberg Slim documentary “Portrait of a Pimp” produced by Ice T, its a valuable historical document and love letter to a major, albiet underrated influence on an icon of today, an example of an artist discharching part of the debt they owe for artistic influence. In putting the film together, Goldberg faced some of the same challenges Ice T battled, namely, reconstructing a black historical figure of whom little of their background is known or documented, and is also not immediately familiar to contemporary audiences. Goldberg may have even less material to work with in constructing Mabley’s background than T had in constructing Beck’s (Iceberg Slim). The film makes creative usage of photographs, old B&W film clips, animations of Moms set to her records, exerpts from her albums, and commentary from popular entertainment figures of today who remember Mom’s comedy and the impact it had on their formative ideas about comedy, transmitting messages, and womens roles in entertainment and society.

One of the first things the doc focuses on is the brilliance of Mom’s trademark character, that of a cantakerous old truth telling lady. Commentators such as commedienne’s Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers, became fans of Mom’s persona in her commercial height of the 1960s, Rivers actually working with her. This was however, a persona she’d been developing since she was a young woman. She grew from a young comedian utilizing the image of an old woman to tell the truth, to being an actual old woman using the old woman persona she’d cultivated to tell the types of truths you’d accept from your grandmother only. Female comedians noted that it’s easier for a woman to get her message across in comedy if they adopt a less glamorous image. Joan Rivers mentioned that the truth, which comedians traffic in, is often unpalatable, but people will often accept it from a homely looking woman. My mother was always interested in seeing female comedians “off duty” because she noticed a long time ago they rarely went for beauty in their image as a part of their acts. Eddie Murphy added that his hilarious grandmother character from the “Nutty Proffessor” movies, perhaps the funniest character in those movies, was based on Moms Mabley. From the voice right on down to the fake teeth. It’s easy to see how Mabley influenced Goldberg, who used to do an impression of her in her own routines, and also made it with an image that flouted so called conventional standards of beauty.

Goldberg makes it clear that there is simply not enough biographical information avaliable for her to do a full biography of Mabley. For Goldberg, the holes in Mabley’s background are symbolic of the black story in America as a whole, one that is underdocumented and requres detective work to flesh out more fully. But she is able to tell us that Mom’s was born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897 in Brevard, North Carolina, to a large family of 4 girls and 6 boys. She ran away with a husband and wife vaudeville team who took her to New York City.

The doc also reveals a not so suprising fact about the legendary comedian, one that is very interesting in the conversations of today. Mom’s was a Lesbian. The great jazz dancer Norma Jean reveals this for us. Mom’s was also revealed to be a tough cookie who gambled with the men, and dressed in a sharp outfit of smart men’s suits, like a comedian Georgia Sands. It was remarked that pershaps, Mom’s masculine demeanor helped her thrive in the tough world of showiz. She was so identified with this, she was known in entertainment circles as “Mr. Moms”. This also reveals a level of tolerance in the black community for gay people that is rarely discussed in our current rush to single black people out for anti gay sentiments. Norma Miller said they didn’t even think of Mom’s as a homosexual at the time, that she was simply “Mr. Moms” and everybody accepted her for who she was.

The documentary follows Mom’s from the black “chitlin circuit” all the way on up to her mainstream success in the 1960s. By the ’60s she came to enjoy great visibility, appearing on television comedy shows, talk shows, and even placing a song, “Abraham, Martin and John” at the top of the pop charts. She also used her storytelling humor to comment on the racial tenor of the times, bringing out the humurous absurdity of racist attitudes in that most tense of time periods.

All in all, Goldberg does well with a tough task. She takes an entertainer born in the 19th century and attempts to tell her story in the 21st. The doc can be seen on HBO on Demand until January of 2014. Check it out, for the unique insight it gives into a great performer, and the lives of blacks, women, gays, and America as a whole in the 20th century, and how Moms help lay the groundwork for where we are today.

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The Best Man Holiday

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“The Best Man Holiday” opened last week to over $30 million in box office, almost taking the top spot from the latest Marvel Comic/Disney super wonderflick installment of the “Thor” franchise. That surprised many in the media, but not those who keep an ear attuned to the word on Martin Luther King Blvd’s across the country. There was also some upheaval over some light shade USA Today threw the pictures way, calling it “race themed.” The film, like it’s predecessor, is based on the lives of good looking, well educated black people, but it’s by no means a film that deals with racial themes, but we already knew that.

The original film was both a pleasure and an inspiration to me back in ’99 when it appeared, and it’s become a perennial classic since then. The 1990s were full of very serious depictions of black pathologies and ghettocentric problems. This was aided by the rise to commercial relevance of hip hop music. There was considerably less room in popular culture for the positive black family ethic displayed by “The Cosby Show” just a decade earlier, and even Spike Lee’s black issue centered, but highly articulate films began to lose “street cred.” “The Best Man”, directed by Lee’s cousin, Malcom D Lee, was one in a wave of several comedies set in environements that were black, affluent, but also, recognizable. The characters for the most part didn’t have the nose in the air affluence of Uncle Phil on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Nor were they super ghetto. However, there were individuals who tilted slightly towards ‘saddity’ personality traits, and those who leaned towards down home earthiness. This made the individuals inch ever so closer to being fully fleshed individuals that any black person or person who has been around real black people would recognize, a mix of human personality traits instead of cartoon reflections of viewers preconcieved notions.

“The Best Man Holiday” picks up where the first film left off, fast forwarding (or “searching”?) 15 years ahead. Lance is a successful football player for the New York Giants still, reaching the twilight of a hall of fame caliber career, and still married to Mia with a family of four beautiful children. Jordan is an Oprah style media mogul running her own television station. Murch and Candice are running their own charter/private school, and Quentin, aside from still being a P-I-M-P, is running his own P.R firm. Harper Stewart is married to Robin, who is pregnant, and struggling through a low point in his career as a writer.

Harper Stewart, potrayed by Taye Diggs, is a character who fascinated me in the first film and continues to do so even more in this sequel. One of my best friends once assigned me the position of Harper and himself the position of Lance when the first flick came out, which is a notion I rejected then but accept now. Harper wrote a book in the first film that aired the dirty laundry of his whole circle in a fictionalized form, including a revelation about his friends Lance and Mia. Harper’s character is an interesting stand in for writers, creative people, and powerful personalities. He is a religous skeptic, contrasted by his football playing buddy Lance, who is a true believer. As a writer of fiction, you control outcomes and fates and create characters, in short, play God. Harper leads a tightly controlled life full of secrets, power moves and scenarios conntrolled by himself. He’s not a “bad guy” by any means, handsome and charming, but his own friends who are closest to him still feel distantanced by his tight sense of control, even as they laugh over it because its such a familiar character trait. The Harper of this film , is much humbler, and carrying out his manipulations for the best of causes, but he can’t help but come across in that same old uptight way at times.

We find our characters all “doing them.” Robin and Harper are now married, and expecting a child, a breech baby after a string of lost pregnancies. Harper’s book is rejected by his publisher, and his publisher suggests the only way to get a fat advance is to secure the memoirs of his estranged friend, Lance (Morris Chestnut). Which moves him to accept a very heartfelt personalized invitation Lance’s sweet wife, Mia, reprised with heartfelt grace by Monica Calhoun.

Terrance Howard’s Quentin is still the live wire of the group, quick with a quip, un politically correct, a free spirit and ladies man, the type of dude who cares about people deeply but also shoots the arrow of satire to keep things from getting too mushy, which is needed in this one, because it’s a tear jerker. Harold Perrinau’s Julian Murch character is expanded on from the first film, still a smart, somewhat uptight dude, but also much more in control of thigns than before, that is at least, until his wife Candice (Regina Hall) is discorered doing the do in her stripper days on YouTube, and his ex girlfriend Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) shows up and still has a thing for him.

Shelby is doing exactly what a woman of her narcissism, beauty, and position should be doing in 2013 : starring on reality television! She also riles up some of the trouble in the flick, taking advantage of the communication gap between Murch and Candy.

The film features the expected “we got the band back together again” scenes of old friends who truly know each other falling right back where they left off after many years. The conversation is raucous and definitely ventures into grown folks business many times. Morris Chestnut does a good job in potraying his characters estrangement from Harper, and it’s a pleasure to see these two old friends gradually thaw out and become close again due to the serious events of the plot. Robin and Jordan have a certain animosity between them as well, as Harper’s wife and Harper’s “one that got away.” As any circle of friends there are tensions all around between different characters, as befitting long time associates.

Mia however is the heart of the film. Her character brings everybody together for a very important reason that should make the tensions in the group seem trivial by comparison. “The Best Man Holiday” succeeds because it’s characters are very likeable and recognizable, and the crew exhibits such a believable group dynamic. Not only does it exemplify the phrase “black don’t crack”, it also does not shy away from a holiday message of love and brotherhood/sisterhood. It will fulfill and exceed all your expectations of seeing these old friends one more time!

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Quick Thoughts on “Portrait of a Pimp”

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Ice T has done some very special film work over the past few years, chronicling the influences that made both his rap career possible, and exposing some of the roots of hip hop. It’s the same discharching of ideological debt that Snoop Dogg has constantly repaid and that the RZA accomplished by finally making his own kung fu flick, “The Man with the Iron Fists”, instad of sampling them. The first documentary Ice T did in this vein was his hip hop documentary, “The Art of Rap”, which took us into the technique’s and motivations of rappers. “Portrait of a Pimp” takes us into the life story of Ice-T’s primary influence, the pimp turned author Iceberg Slim.

Iceberg Slim’s books were very familiar to me growing up in Oakland, California in the 1990s. They were all over barber shops, heavily marked up and checked out of school and public libraries, and constantly referenced by people in the neighborhood. Iceberg Slim was famous for being the primary writer to escape the world of pimping and writing stories about it in great detail. In reality, only his first book, “Pimp: The Story of My Life” was about pimping, his other books told stories of con men of all colors, and his ouevere even included a book called “Mama Black Widow”, which was an empathetic portrait of a black homosexual named Otis Tilson.

Of course, before I was even born, Iceberg Slim’s books had caused a stir in the urban community. His books were known for an unflinching, unglamorized portrait of black street life in World War II and post War America. Ice T the MC, actually came at rapping, MCing, and hip hop, through the works of Iceberg Slim, quoting whole sections of his books along with other hustler rhymes. When T was introduced through hip hop through the Sugarhill Gang’s landmark 1979 “Rappers Delight”, it was the pimp verbiage of Iceberg Slim he turned to to write his own raps.

The documentary “Portrait of a Pimp”, directed by Jorge Hinosa and Executive Produced by Ice T, as well as featuring him as a talking head, is not based on Iceberg Slim, real name Robert Beck’s, life as a pimp. Instead, the documentary is a cradle to grave portrait of Robert Beck the man, tracing his life from his youth, the disappointments that led him into being a pimp, his jail sentence, his relatiionship with his mother, wife, and children, as well as his success as an author and his reclusive death in the early 1990s. In short, it’s a portrait of the man that humanizes him even more than his literature already served to.

For anybody familiar with Slim’s work, the documentary does the amazing work of adding flesh to the stories Iceberg told in “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” The film actually shows pictures of several key figures in Beck’s life, from his mother, to his mother’s boyfriend Henry Upshaw, to the woman who turned him out, Pepper Hibbits, to his nanny who sexually molested him as a boy, Maude. It amazed me to see figures I read about in Beck’s work come to life in pictures, especially being that this activity took place so long ago, in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s primarily.

Robert Beck was born in 1918 in a violently racially divided Chicago, and was brought up in the decade of Prohibition and big time Gangsters like Al Capone and the black pimping king of Chicago, Baby Bell. It was also a time of violent race riots such as the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, which were incited by a black kid swimming into the white area.

Beck was raised primarily by a single mother, who was a hairdresser with a clientele that included pimps and prostitutes. One of the prime hurts of Beck’s life was that his mother totally played for a fool a man named Henry Upshaw, who was a benevolent father figure for Beck, totally stripped him spiritually and financially, in cahoots with a slick hustler. Beck was also molested and forced to perform oral sex on his baby sitter, Maude. These incidents are pointed towards as ones that hardened Beck’s attitude from a very young age.

Beck was also a very smart young man, graduating at the age of 15 with a 98.4 average, while by his own admision, paying little attention in class. He was able to go to Tuskeegee Institute, a contemporary of black writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, two men of leters whom he’d join in the black literary pantheon through a more circumstitious route. Beck tells us in interview footage that his mother suggested since he liked to be around the crimminal element so much, he become a crimminal lawyer and get paid to run with street people, which in hindsight, Beck realized was one of the most brilliant ideas he never followed.

Beck ended up pimping and serving jail terms. The impetus for turning his life around was when he recieved news that his mother was gravely ill and living in Los Angeles. He was able to write a letter that got him out of jail. When he went to LA, he would end up courting Betty, who would marry him and with whom he had his beautiful daughters. Betty is featured in interviews in the film, conducted with her being sick, before she passed away, and she comes across as a tough, no nonsense midwestern woman, with a big heart and a talent for motivation and hard work that ultimately took Robert Beck beyond the status many hustlers of his day remained in, burned out old men telling stories on the street about how bad they used to be.

Beck was exterminating and killing vermin to support his family, a fact the film uses one of his actual business cards to substantiate. In the evenings, after getting “dapped down” in slacks, starched shirt and brim hat, he’d dictate stories of his life in “the life”, to his incredulous wife Betty, who would use her top notch secretarial skills to get down. Together, they created his books, Beck acting them out and relaying his experiences and his wife creating, structuring, and recording right along with him.

In 1969 Beck’s books hit, taking advantage of the same literary civil rights and black power inspired wave that brought attention to Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land”, Alex Haley and Malcom X’s “The Autobiography of Malcom X”, Cecil Brown’s “The Life and Times of Mr. Jiveass Nigger”, Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”, H. Rap Brown’s “Die Nigger Die”, and many other books that chronicled the black (male) experience in America.

The film covers Beck’s period as a celebrated author, and also takes him into his last years, in the Los Angeles of 1992 and the LA Riots, where Beck died from complications of diabetes.

The film features several interesting talking heads, from Chris Rock, to Bill Duke, to Leon Issac Kennedy, to the anthropologist Richard Milner, who wrote an interesting Bay Area based study of pimps called “Black Players” back in the ’70s with his wife Karen Milner, to Dr. Todd Boyd, Quincy Jones, jazz musician Red Holloway, and punk artist Henry Rollins. These individuals all testify to the accurate, unique, and chilling abilities of Beck as a story teller while also vouching for the brutality and flash and dash of the world he lived in, that they either knew his world was authentic because they lived it as well, or were fascinated by how close Beck’s work brought them into contact with that world.

I’m the most proud of Ice T as a commentator in this film as well as a producer because T gets the oppurtunity to do something to perserve the legacy of the man who inspired his rap. I’ve heard T say many times before that his aim through his rap was not only to depict the glamorous side of the street life, but to also make people listen to the “B side” of that record, the side that includes the penitentiary, drug addiction, death and disappointment. This is an impulse I’ve always admired the most in T’s records, from “High Rollers”, to “You Played Yourself”, to “Drama.” It’s just that impulse that T describes as what he took away from Beck’s work as Iceberg Slim, making this film also a brilliant example of how inspiration works.

All in all, my favorite commentators are the ones closest to him, Iceberg’s ex wife Betty, and his daughters. Nothing humanizes the man more than to show these women to whom he was so devoted after years of abusing women. His wife comes off as exactly the type of tough no nonsense woman he needed to make his eventual mark on history, even at one point relating an anecdote that when he stopped writing and she was supporting the family by working, she left him, because she refused to be pimped.

Beck’s daughters are beautiful, lively, intelligent, and spoke of a loving, caring father, who definitely retained the cold demeanor of his past life but also was the most articulate, broad based person they could have ever asked for as a father. Sadly, Camille Beck passed in 2010, before the release of the film, but she is preserved here for posterity. Betty Beck, Beck’s ex wife passed in 2009.

Beck was also known as a man who was passionately involved in black affairs. Though not covered in the doc, I remember reading in a Black Panther biography that Beck regularly bought the Panther newspaper and was very supportive of the Panther cause. Beck felt much of his turn down the wrong path had to do with the oppurtunities blacks faced during his time. That mix of street smarts and social consciousness also reminds me of his rap music heir, Ice T. Ice T is also good friends with Chuck D of Public Enemy and he has been in several political rap scandals through the course of his career. In “Portrait of a Pimp”, Ice T succeds greatly in humanizing a man who gave voice to the struggle on the streets of black male hustlers in modern America. This film is a must see both as entertainment, as well as history, serving as both a part of the black story in the 20th century as well as a cautionary tale of where a life spent chasing fast money can end. I’m sure that Iceberg Slim would feel that if he could warn people away from that as much as possible, his life served a great purpose.

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