Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Peace, Love, and Soul"

“I KNOW there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” James Spader’s hard-driving lawyer says in the new David Mamet play, “Race.” “I know that. Race is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long long while.”

And so Charles Isherwood opens his New York Times review of Broadway’s Fela!, about the Nigerian activist/singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

Isherwood’s review caught my eye because I have attended two very moving events at the day job spotlighting African-Americans.

I have lead a segregated life, not in a negative way, just a defacto way. I grew up on Long Island in racially unmixed Massapequa Park. I went to school at Rutgers, which had a diverse student body, but my crowd was and is mostly white.

On a personal level, I’m just not cool enough to have black friends. Something that has never been more clear to me than the two premiere events I recently attended: the premiere of the VH1 Rock Doc Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America, and The Black List, Volume Three, an HBO documentary by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell in conjunction with an photo exhibit by Greenfield-Sanders.

"Soul Train, Soul Train"
I have vague memories of Soul Train coming on in New York on Saturday morning on channel 5 at noon, after the morning’s cartoons that my brother and I watched. We would watch a little of it, but by noon we were ready to go outside and play, and the show was a little old for us at the time. But I’m glad that I have some direct memory of the “Soul Train Line” when the dancers really strut their stuff, and we must have stayed to see the whole thing sometimes, since I clearly remember the “Peace, Love, and Soul” kiss by host Don Cornelius.

The documentary is excellent, narrated by Terence Howard, scored by Questlove, and with vintage footage of the show, with performances by Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Sly Stone, Smokey Robinson and Snoop Dogg, who also appear as talking heads. There is also great footage of the Jackson Five, Al Green, Barry White Teddy Prendergast, and some surprising white boys: Elton John and David Bowie!

The best talking head is Don Cornelius himself, tv’s best baritone voice of all time. He had a vision back in Chicago where he had to beg acts to perform on the show. In its second year he moved to L.A. baby, the big time. The show took off.

In 1970 there were very few blacks on television outside of the evening news, where the images were mostly negative. But there was Soul Train, the black community’s answer to American Bandstand (which I never saw; it must have never followed cartoons). It was a celebration of black fashion, hairstyle, and dance. In fact, Michael Jackson developed his moonwalk from watching a dancer do a move called the backslide on the show. The talking heads all attest that everyone watched it to find out what was in. Questlove, who grew up in Philadelphia, said it was on after SNL there, and his parents woke him up to watch it to see positive blacks on tv. Now those are cool parents. The documentary has just enough historic news footage to give you the proper context for how groundbreaking this show is.

The audience at the Paley Center was predominantly black, and you could feel the collective emotional connection to this part of everyone’s childhood. Don Cornelius stepped down in 1993, but it stayed on until 2003.

The Black List

Media critic Elvis Mitchell and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders created a project called The Black List, to capture the lives of prominent contemporary African American on film and in portraiture. HBO produced the documentaries where the participants tell some of their story. The newest, Volume Three, will be on HBO on Feb. 8. The portraits from Vol. Two and Three will be at the Paley Center until May 2. They are really worth seeing.

I watched the premiere with a large audience of black film students. Both Faye Wattleton, the first black president of Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Michael Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund, where onstage for the post screening discussion with Timothy and Elvis. Lomax talked about his goal to keep the traditional all-black colleges—Moorehouse, Dillard, Spelmen— open, which drew huge applause from the audience.

The civil rights movement brought about the necessary statues to give blacks legal rights under the law and to end segregation in the south. But there is some benefit to communities staying tight. Lomax talked about living in Tuskegee, Alabama, and what a rich experience it was to have the black doctor and lawyer next door, and for the kids to know that if they stepped out of line on the block, they’d get hit in the head by a neighbor, and get it again when they got home. Of course, this tight community only happened because blacks were not allowed to buy homes in other neighborhoods.

Black History Month

I think everyone has mixed feelings about a Black History Month. Elvis’s introduction at the event riffed on about how much he loves it, but me thinks his tongue was in his cheek. Frank McCourt had a similar feeling about St. Patrick’s Day. He hated it. He said he’s Irish every day.

But there’s nothing wrong with helping the rest of us consider the fate and culture of different communities. What I loved about the Soul Train doc was the testimonies about how every wedding since the show has a dance line, with home videos to illustrate. Now that’s universal.


Christopher Lehman said...

A great companion piece to this movie is my book A CRITICAL HISTORY OF SOUL TRAIN ON TELEVISION, published in 2008. VH1 interviewed me about the show off-camera for hours during production of the movie, and I helped the network locate interviewees for the movie.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Christopher, thanks for stopping by. You must be very happy with the way the documentary came out. I'll definitely take a look at your book.