November 20

Marshall – Extra Credit

The film, Marshall, is about a trial in the early career of the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.  He is also well known for having argued the Brown v. Board of Ed., Topeka, KS trial in front of the Supreme Court.  This particular case is like a famous novel by Richard Wright, Native Son, in which Bigger Thomas, a poor Black man working for a wealthy white family in Chicago, is accused of killing a young white lady.  In the film, it only focuses on one part of his long career as a lawyer for the NAACP, defending Joseph Spell from accusations by Eleanor Strubing of rape.

The power dynamic between Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman – a.k.a. The Black Panther, also Jackie Robinson in 42) and Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad) inverts the normal race relations of the time with white on top and black on the bottom.  Marshall is an self-possessed, extremely confident alpha male while Sam plays his sidekick (in some regards).  One of the things that the movie shows is that racism isn’t limited or secluded in the South; it’s all over the country, and when a white woman’s integrity is threatened by the big Black man stereotype, the ugly side of American racism comes out.

Questions: 

  1. How do the Marshall / Friedman dynamic resemble how minorities (Black Americans / Jewish Americans) were treated in 1941?  Provide specific examples.
  2. Why was (and what was) Joseph Spell (Sterling Brown of This is Us and The People vs. O.J.) so afraid that he would admit, under police questioning, to a rape that he didn’t commit?
  3. Do you believe that the judge in this case was racist?  Or extremely grumpy?  Something else?  Why did he limit Marshall’s scope in this case?  Explain w/ specific evidence.
  4. Why doesn’t Sam Friedman want to join this case?   What does he stand to lose?  Explain w/ examples.

Pick three of the questions and answer them in a minimum of 350 words.  

If you want this to go on the first trimester, please make sure your comment is posted by 11:59 pm on Sunday night, November 26.  

If you want this to go on the second trimester, please complete this by December 11 by class.  

February 22

I am Not Your Negro – review and extra credit

“There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” – James Baldwin, 1963.

This film, I am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is a testament to James Baldwin’s brilliance.  It in one fell swoop places him within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and also as someone who was a latecomer to its activism (though he fought racism through his words while living in France).  He was one of America’s leading intellectuals and social critics and found a way to cut through the baloney, the white ignorance of the time, the cluelessness, like a knife.  At once, the film is a unique history of the CRM, of the past sixty years of race, and also it’s a warning for us today that we still have racial problems left festering.

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

The film’s narrative is loosely based upon Baldwin’s attempt to write a history of the CRM using his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. King, as touchstones.  Apparently, Baldwin only got as far as 30 pages of notes before he gave up on the project in 1979.  What shocked me (though I knew this fact in the back of my mind, being a history teacher) was the fact that all three men were killed before they hit the age of 40.  As someone who is almost 50, I am both in awe and in shock of how much these three men had accomplished in such a short span.

The film begins with Baldwin’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 as the host earnestly implores Baldwin as to where there might be a glimmer of hope in race relations.  Baldwin smiles that toothy grin and kind of shakes his head as if to say he doesn’t know.  But he does.  What Dick Cavett asked him is probably indicative of what other white people have asked themselves during and since the CRM – when will Black people be satisfied with the advances that their race has made?   When Cavett brings an older, white professor of philosophy to come on, all he does is whitesplain the problem of race in America to Baldwin.  Below is Baldwin’s response:

At an interview with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (among others) were gathered together to discuss improving race relations, a “quiet, off-the-record, unpublicized get-together of prominent Negroes”.  JFK was still thinking about 1964 and running again, so he couldn’t look like he was kowtowing to Black people for fear of losing the Southern vote, yet he still had to appear to be leader of ALL Americans. The meeting took place in late May, soon after the film footage of the Children’s Crusade was broadcast to the nation – blasting Black children with water from fire hoses and attacking protestors with dogs.  This meeting, though just briefly mentioned in the film, seems like a typical Kennedy maneuver where the Kennedys do something on the surface but don’t seem to understand the deeper, underlying causes.  The actors and activists at the meeting were told by Robert Kennedy that maybe in forty years there might be a Black president.  Baldwin’s answer, two years later in a debate with William F. Buckley, conservative critic, is telling:

“From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency… We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.” – 1965

It reminds me of something that I had heard once that, when asked, how many more women did Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg feel need to be on the court in order to make women feel equal?  Her answer was nine, with the rationale that the Supreme Court had been all male for 190 years, it’s time to make up some ground.  In the same respect, maybe we need a string of minority presidents of women and people of color to help make America more equal.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

There was a telling scene, a powerful scene, when Baldwin was talking about growing up in Harlem and watching his friends die way too early.  Then, the film cuts to snapshots of modern young Black Americans, all cut down before their 18th birthday, like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and ends with someone holding up a sign that says “We Live in a Police State” or something to that effect.  There are shots of the Ferguson disturbances interspersed with shots of white police officers clubbing Black people on the streets of Oakland, California and Birmingham, Alabama, ramming home the message that though we whites might think this awful string of police brutality is relatively new in America, it’s not.  Now, more things are just being caught on video than ever before.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” 

Baldwin’s social critiques of the nation in the film are just as prescient as they were fifty years ago, maybe even more so.  Because the film is so dense, with layers of meaning and visuals and voice overs going on all at the same time, I feel like I would need to see this film two or three more times to get the entire message.  But one scene struck me, as Baldwin decries the vacuousness of American life, about how that once we discover how pointless life is with an accumulation of stuff, we’ll go crazy.  As he says this (with narration by Samuel L. Jackson), there is some colorful movie with white people dancing all around, and then he cuts to a scene from Gus Van Zant’s 2003 film, Elephant, about a Columbine-like school shooting.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

One of the things that Baldwin stresses the most, where I think he is most consistently portrayed in the film, is his undying belief that it is our humanity that ties us all together.  Peck, the filmaker does an excellent job of contrasting how two different groups of people can see the same thing and view it differently, so I am certain that my film review would be markedly different than a Black film critic (I’m not calling myself a critic, I just love movies).  And it is this underlying humanity and how we figure out who we are in America is what seems to fascinate Baldwin the most.  This humanity is what ties us together, and because of it, we are inextricably woven as a fabric in one piece in American history. To separate the strands between white, black, brown, red, yellow, is to render the fabric useless.

For extra credit, see the film and answer three of the questions below (you must answer #2 as one of the three): 

  1. How did films shape how James saw the world when he was younger?  Also, how are films, especially ones with the great actor Sidney Poitier, used?
  2. How does this film act as a history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 – 1968?  How is it not a history but yet the story of James Baldwin?
  3.  One of the things that the film brings up is how white and black people see things differently, specifically using the pivotal scene in the movie, The Defiant Ones.  How do you think your perception of this film is different than somebody of another color?  Why?
  4. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”  Explain whether or not you agree with this quote and why.

Blog is due by Friday night, March 10.  350 words minimum.  

January 28

Hidden Figures

This film is a stirring show about the intersection of math and history and how math conquers all (rejoice, my math teacher friends!).  The story portrays the struggles of Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, the math expert on the John Glenn flightImage result for hidden figures review and also instrumental in the moon landing; and Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female African American engineer.  It is startling to see how Jim Crow racism was shoved in the face of these strong women, typified in Katherine’s struggle to maintain her dignity while sprinting across NASA’s campus to visit the only “colored” bathroom nearby.  Furthermore, the women of the West Computing Room have to deal with the intersectionality of both racism and sexism since they are women of color.  With Dorothy’s leadership, they are able to carve out a niche in the very male-dominated computing field.

In some ways, this is a film about progress: Civil Rights progress, gender progress, and also technology’s relentless march forward.  This is shown by the real film clips of Civil Rights protests occurring in 1961 and 1962.  We also see progress as women make strides into the male-dominated fields of computers and engineering. Image result for hidden figures review Almost all of the white male characters at NASA are
figurative clones, wearing white shirts, dark pants, and thin dark ties.  Occasionally, we might see a flash of color on Paul Stafford’s tie (Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory), but for the most part, all of the white men have the same uniform and haircuts.  That’s why the women of color stand out, not just in their attire but because of their skin color.  We see technology’s progress, however much it is double-sided, when Katherine temporarily loses her job as a “computer” in the Space Task Group when Dorothy finally gets the IBM Main frame computers online, a machine that can do 24,000 calculations a second.  This machine makes the women of both the East (white) and West (Black) Computing Rooms obsolete.  Only when the computer spits out different landing coordinates for John Glenn’s return to Earth right before launch does Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), NASA’s head of the Space Task Group, bring Katherine back in to confirm the computer’s numbers.

There was an outstanding moment near the end of the film when news of John Glenn’s orbit is released, and all Americans, regardless of skin color or gender, are united in their worries over the fate of Glenn (aImage result for hidden figures reviewnd by extension, America’s space program and maybe even it’s prominence in the Cold War).  Scenes show black and white Americans standing in front of a store front watching the TV reports about the peril Glenn faced as his capsule threatened to burn up on re-entry (an aside: imagine this dramatic scene of a nation gripped by a similar incident today – how would Americans be tuning into the progress of such an incident?  Certainly not standing on a street watching a TV).  Another scene showed Americans parking their cars and listening to their radios, staring up at the sky, looking for a fleeting glimpse of Glenn’s capsule, even though it was going to splash down in the Bahamas.  These scenes showed a united America, hoping and praying for the successful return of one of our golden boys, the Mercury 7 astronauts.  These scenes are also a way of showing how little militancy there is to this story of racial advancement and integration.  The most powerful scenes in the film are ones in which characters stand up for themselves or right the wrongs of our sordid past.  This is not a criticism of this film.  It doesn’t need to be angry about the past. In fact, this film emphasizes the women of the film and to dwell on America’s sad racial history isn’t what this film is about.  It’s about transcending that history.

I think that one of the larger question that everyone should be asking themselves is how did this story not make it into the history books?  It has great human drama, excitement, daring, perseverance, and a thrilling conclusion.  The other question is how many other hidden and forgotten stories are out there, waiting to be told?   If these ladies, who were such an extraordinary part of this story to send Americans into space, can be forgotten and shunted to the side for over 60 years, where are the rest of these stories?  One thing to keep in mind is that by telling these hidden stories of people / women of color, we as historians do not have to pick and choose to eliminate stories of white participants, but to include them all.    History doesn’t have to be like a pie to be carved up into smaller and smaller sections but like a tapestry that continues to be weaved into a more complete picture.

CHOOSE 3 OF THE 5 QUESTIONS BELOW AND ANSWER THEM. 

  1. Explain how the title “Hidden Figures” has different layers of meaning for this film and time period.
  2. Provide at least 2 specific examples of Jim Crow discrimination or racism perpetrated by the white characters and how they affected Katherine, Mary, and / or Dorothy.
  3. This is a story of overcoming challenges that white society put in the way of our main characters.  How did all three women overcame these obstacles.
  4. How did sexism affect Dorothy’s, Mary’s, and Katherine’s careers?  Provide specific examples.
  5. How does the Civil Rights Movement play as the backdrop for the advancing fight against the Cold War’s space race?  Provide examples.

Image result for hidden figures review

 350 words minimum for your total answer.  Due by 11:59 pm Saturday night, March 4. 

March 8

Race

Race is a multi-layered film about a famous African America athlete, Jesse Owens, coming into his own on the Ohio State University track team, running the 100 and 200 yard dashes and doing the long jump as well. He encounters much bigotry and racism as he struggles to establish himself as the #1 college athlete in the country, and then the #1 athlete in the world.  However, the Olympics in 1936 are held in Berlin, and Hitler hopes to make those games the showcase for German / Aryan superiority.  Owens shatters that myth by winning four gold medals.

Please answer two of the following questions:

  1. Describe Jesse’s relationship with his coach, Larry Snyder.  Is Larry racist?  What drives Larry to push Jesse to do great things?
  2. How does Jesse’s relationship with German long jumper Luz transcend the racial and political tensions of the Olympic Games in 1936?
  3. Describe examples of the racism that Jesse and other black athletes faced in both Ohio in the 1930s and in Berlin in 1936.
  4. Describe the conflict between the German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl and German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.  Why is there tension between Riefenstahl and Goebbels?
  5. How does the film portray Jesse Owens as a complex character?  Use specific examples from the film.
  6. Examine the multiple meanings of the word, race, included in this film.  Use specific examples from the film.

Minimum 300 words for both answers combined.  Due by Sunday, March 20.