Monday

Black Like Me

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, I remember reading "Black Like Me." It was an impressive story, about a white man who masquerades as a black man in the South. But then I was set straight by the Autobiography of Malcolm X.And Langston Hughes.

I grew up in a white suburb. The only black person I knew well was Kelly, the guy who bagged groceries at the Jewel. He, along with Ben the Shoeman, a Jewish survivor of the holocaust who knew who belonged to every shoe in his shop, was one of the two adults who looked me in the eye and talked to me when I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Chicago. My parents liked Kelly and a couple of times asked if he'd bartend their parties - and Kelly had a heavy hand when it came to pouring drinks, so I can remember being about 11 years old and watching the neighbors get wasted in a few cocktails - and Kelly lost his car keys, so that was a panicked moment, until I figured he'd probably put them in his visor.  When he died, Kelly got front page stories in both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times - an amazing person, and my first introduction to African American culture.

My next was in High School.  I had long hair, spent a lot of time thinking of creative ways to ditch school (the ditch king from my high school was made famous in a film by John Hughes, who went to my high school; "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"). One day a teacher approached me and asked if I was interested in being part of a project that married inner city kids with suburban kids - I said "Do I get out of school?" And he said yes - there's field trips that go downtown.  So I joined up - about twenty kids from the inner city, teamed up with white boys and girls from the rich suburbs.

It was hilarious.  This was back in the 70's, so people in the group actually said stuff like "I'm just waiting for the revolution, (the upcoming black revolution predicted by the P Stone Rangers and other groups) and am casing the houses I might want to live in."  I was assigned to Frank Allen - who in every respect was exactly like me - same amount of brothers, football player, musician - he just happened to have a skin color that was closer to coal.  Frank and I became great pals - and we laughed and giggled at the others in the group - including the aforementioned revolutionaries.  We traded homes on more than one occassion - I went down to his place in the projects - many kids claimed they'd never seen a white person up close before, off the TV and one or two would check out my skin.. I'm serious.  Once in an elevator in the Robert Taylor homes public housing, a guy came into the elevator that Frank and I were in - Frank started to giggle and act like he was high - and I started to laugh as well, cause he was laughing so hard. When the guy got off the elevator Frank said "We had to do that to show him we weren't challenging him..." And when Frank came and stayed at our house, he slept on top of the sheets - as if he didn't want to wrinkle anything. And my well meaning parents brought out the family china for him to dine on - I guess to show him that he was an honored guest, I took it as some kind of odd reverse guilt - but my favorite moment was the day Frank and I were at the local Jewel (now that I think of it, I may have introduced him to Kelly, who was still bagging groceries, and who viewed Frank as someone from somewhere else) and ran into a friend of mine's mom - Dave's uptight, suburban mom nearly fainted at the sight of this tall handsome black man in beatler boots and cap (leather) smiling at her.



I mention this casual reflection having seen three terrific films in a row this week; "Precious," "The Blind Side" and "Princess and the Frog."  What they have in common are African American, or black protagonists, antagonists, characters, of all shapes, sizes.. admittedly the cinematic conceipt is that all are from a poorer side of the tracks, but at the same time, each character is different, with different hopes, dreams, desires, and background - a rich cultural slice.  What I loved about Precious, directed by my friend Lee Daniels - who I will now go around claiming to be a very close friend, when in reality we've crossed paths a bit through mutual friends, and I've always been a fan.. what I loved about the film was its portrayal of a world that's never been shown before - even if they appear over the top - Mo'Nique's characterization of Mary Jones is brilliant - I can't think of a worse depiction of a parent, perhaps Jim Colburn in Paul Shrader's film - but she's as memorable a villain as any I've ever seen. The casting was excellent, and I loved the class of girls - each unique, each someone I wanted to know more about after the film was over. As well as the effervescent Paula Patton.. The lead actress Gabourey Sidibe also did a fine job with a few lines.  Just breathtaking filmmaking.



But I have high praise for "The Blind Side" - which is another version of taking someone out of the ghetto and giving them a shot - this happens to be a true story of the amazing Michael Oher.  Wow. I loved the film, and I actually forgot Sandra Bullock was in it until she showed up about ten minutes into the story - and what a hilarious, multi-faceted performance.  I loved the film, kudos to John Lee Hancock, who did such wonderful work with "The Rookie" - he has a nice touch with his actors, and did a masterful job with the adaptation.  It reminded me of my own football days - the action on the field was well done - Not sure if I believed Sandra Bullock would confront the men from Michael's hood on her own, but it felt right, and was something we wanted to see her do - just a great movie all around.




And the Princess and the Frog - well, here we go again.. but in this case highlighting the great music and cultural heritage of New Orleans, one of my favorite towns.  I can see how African Americans could take offense at all of these films - each one is over the top in its own way - Precious created a fantastic reality of people who are in difficult circumstances - Blind Side took a real story and found the humanity in it, and Princess takes a cultural heritage of music and finds a way to weave a great story around Randy Newman's score.. Sure, it should have included the Neville's somewhere - as there's no New Orleans without them - but that's all a way of saying that story telling follows the same rules each time. Put your hero in a tree, throw stones at him or her, then get them out of the tree. If you can find a person with a background that is based in strife, then they're already in the tree, and makes for more compelling story telling... I wonder if people 100 years from now look back on this year as an era when black filmmakers (Tyler Perry and Oprah producing Precious, Perry with his own prodigious output).

As for me, one of these days I'll find a way to tell my own story - I got a call from Frank Allen a few years ago, and he said "Hey Rick, it's Frank, I'm up in San Quentin." And I thought, oh no, something bad has happened to him, so I said "Oh man, I'm sorry to hear that." And he said "No, no, my brother is a guard up here, I'm just visiting."  Frank used to say his only dream was to get out of the ghetto.  He didn't. He had two kids with a local girl, took a job at the Post Office, and basically phone it in for the next twenty years. However, the mother of his daughters did find a way out, and both his girls wound up going to Marquette.  So maybe that's the story I should be telling, instead of this mini review of two wonderful films, and one great Disney flick.  My two cents.

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