Category Archives: Personal

I Still Haven’t Seen “12 Years a Slave,” and I Probably Won’t.

First of all, congratulations to John Ridley on winning an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” and also to Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt and everyone else who helped this film land Best Picture. It’s an incredible accomplishment on its own merits, but the fact that two black men were so central to the vision of such a successful movie make these awards especially noteworthy. As an African-American, I’m aware of feeling a tangible sense of pride in their accomplishment.

I haven’t seen “12 Years a Slave;” 2013 was pretty busy and I saw fewer movies than I would’ve liked. I had multiple chances to buy a ticket, but I always chose something more escapist.

When it was released, it received an inordinate amount of promotion in the media I generally consume, particularly on MSNBC. Over there, different hosts relentlessly promoted the film, sometimes on the same day — panel discussions, multiple interviews with the writer, director and stars, ongoing reporting of its progress at the box office, etc. At the time, I was working from home with MSNBC on in the background: the saturation coverage drew attention to itself because the entire tenor of the channel changed for a sustained period.

Discussing race (particularly slavery) in America is very difficult, so I’ve lowered expectations to be satisfied whenever it blips on the radar. Even beyond MSNBC, people who don’t typically cover film were enraptured by the apparent cultural phenomenon this movie “12 Years a Slave” had created.

By all accounts, it’s a truly excellent film. Top-notch performances, stunning production values, emotionally-riveting moments that horrify and exult. It certainly made a lot of money ($140M on a budget of $20M) and it ran the table through awards season, partially a result of good marketing, but underneath it all, quality.

And I have absolutely no desire to see it.

I was born to middle-class, educated black professionals who 1) wanted to make sure I knew our history and 2) understood that no one else had any interest in teaching it to me. One Black History Month in elementary school, I asked our teacher if we were going to hear about Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner; she had no idea to whom I was referring. The only TV program I remember our entire family watching together is “Roots.” Much of the assigned reading in my Introduction to the Black Experience class freshman year of college was on my bookshelf before I’d ever seen a PG-rated movie.

So, I wasn’t moved when I first saw trailers for this lush period piece with actors, producer and a writer I admire. Days after its opening weekend, the heartfelt proclamations from talking heads who’d been swept away by the film’s alternating brutality and beauty left me cold.

I’d never heard of Solomon Northrup until the PR blitz leading up to the release of “12 Years A Slave.” However, once I became familiar with the story of how his freedom was stolen and how he endured, survived and escaped, I didn’t develop an interest in seeing the film; no disrespect intended to Mr. Northrup or the filmmakers.

Only a few black people I know went to see this film. My stepmother: “I could barely stay in my seat. Such ugliness, so hard to watch. Nothing new.” From looking at 2013 movie box office stats, I wonder how many other black Americans felt similarly:

1) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2) Iron Man 3
3) Frozen
4) Despicable Me 2
5) Man of Steel
6) Gravity
7) Monsters University
8) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
9) Fast & Furious 6
10) Oz The Great and Powerful
69) 12 Years a Slave

I suck at math, but I’m pretty sure more black people forked over hard-earned money to see “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” and “Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor” than “12 Years a Slave.” Which suggests to me that any national conversation about race spurred by “12 Years a Slave” didn’t include a significant or representative amount of African-Americans. Again, I might be wrong, but I don’t think so.

I have no idea how to go about addressing, let alone resolving our racial problems. Good art that dramatizes our ongoing struggle to accept and understand each other can raise awareness and foster empathy. So, yes: let’s continue to look at the past so we can understand how we got here, and why we’re stuck here.

But that doesn’t mean art exploring racism should be confined to an historical setting, and that shouldn’t create a dramatic ghetto for actors of color. Clearly, corporate media disagrees with me.

Perhaps that’s why “Fruitvale Station” was shut out of the Oscars.

Or why African-American actors are much more likely to gain recognition portraying maids and criminals than they are as businesswomen or frustrated everymen.

Setting aside action films and historical dramas: what was the last film you saw with a black character where his/her race wasn’t directly related to the character’s actions/motivation? I can’t name one; I’m sure I can think of a few if I gave myself more time.

Here’s The New York Times’ 1853 account of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal and his pursuit of justice. It’s an amazing individual story and a noteworthy event in American history.

I’m told it’s also an excellent movie.

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PANIC IS A LUXURY

When I returned to my desk with coffee a few minutes ago, my trackpad refused every attempt to make a two-finger swipe. A few weeks ago, my “J” key become sticky; now this.

First, I washed my hands to see if I was the cause of capacitance or conduction issues. Then, I carefully swabbed the area with a Q-Tip dipped in isopropyl alcohol before using a thin straw to puff air into the crevices… no joy.

Within moments, I was practically convinced that the trackpad on my 2008 MacBookPro was shot. I’d either have to get used to life navigating with my arrow keys or take the old thing in for a repair that was sure to cost more the value of the computer.

I sat back, sipped coffee and Googled “2008 MacBook Pro trackpad won’t scroll,” which returned several links to Apple discussion boards. I poked around for a few minutes and found a page where one sage shared a Terminal command that resets trackpads to their factory settings:

defaults write -g com.apple.trackpad.scrollBehavior 2

I put down my coffee, copied the line, opened Terminal, pasted the command line and quit. I clicked Log Out and logged back in a moment later. The trackpad worked perfectly.

I’ve always been challenged when it comes to embracing someone else’s motivational phrases. Even when they sounded reasonable and resonated, I could never hear it in my own voice.

But as unique a snowflake as I am, I know I also need some backup from time to time. So, when I’m have trouble focusing on a solution or concentrating on a task, I break out a homemade mental flashcard that reads:

PANIC IS A LUXURY

For me, panic isn’t just an emotional state; it manifests itself in ways that consume energy and attention. If you have time to panic, it means you have time to take a break from worrying about the issue at hand. Panic is a form of procrastination.

Yes, I still dawdle, but much less than I used to. My father’s death in 2013 clarified a lot for me; there are a lot of things I’d like to do, and none of us knows how much time is left on the clock. As a result, I have less and less interest in being waylaid by distractions; particularly those of my own making. I’m learning.

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Chapter 5: Megyn Kelly’s “A Christmas Carol”*

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Running to the balcony of her Upper West Side co-op, Megyn Kelly threw open the doors and stretched out her soft, manicured hands to warm them in the sun; a lush view of the park; her bare feet warmed by terra-cotta tiles with underfloor heating; the doorman’s cab whistle. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

“What’s to-day?” she cried, calling downward to a homeless man rummaging through a trash barrel.

“Eh?” returned the man, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Megyn.

“To-day?” replied the man. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Megyn to herself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. They’re free-market spirits. Hallo, you filthy beggar!”

“Look, I’m not breaking the law!’’ returned the man. “I don’t want trouble. I’ll just move along.”

“Do you know the Zabar’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Megyn inquired.

“They chase me away from their dumpsters all the time,’’ lamented the man.

“An industrious fellow!’’ said Megyn. “A remarkable man! Do you know whether they’ve sold the free-range Diestel Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey; the big one?”

“What, the one that’s like 12 dollars a pound?’’ returned the man.

“What a delightful man!’’ said Megyn. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, you smelly hobo!’’

“It’s still in the window,” replied the man.

“Is it?” said Megyn. “Go and buy it.”

“What, are you high?” answered the homeless man. “It’s Christmas! They’re closed.”

She ran back inside, grabbed her Hermès purse and rushed back to the balcony clutching a black AMEX card.

“No, no,” said Megyn. “ALL service employees now work on major holidays! Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, Come back with the turkey, and I’ll give you an O’Reilly Factor coffee mug. Come back with it in less than five minutes, and I’ll give you a genuine Fox News slanket!’’

She flicked her ebony AMEX card down into the street; the homeless man fished it out of a filthy snowbank, realizing that her instructions might land him a warm bed at The Tombs. He smiled and waved. “Merry Christmas!”

“I’ll deliver it to a grubby poor family. Brown ones!” whispered Megyn, rubbing her hands, and splitting with a laugh. “They sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Sarah Palin! But, wherever shall I find some deserving poors?”

Closing the balcony doors, Megyn shouted “Consuela!” until the children’s nanny appeared, flushed and out of breath.

“Señora, please: as I’ve said, my name is ‘Maria.’”

“Drop whatever you’re doing and make a list of some poor people you know. You know, real layabouts. And hand me the phone; I need to get a producer and a news van together.”

Megyn was better than her word. She did it all, and infinitely more. Her own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for her.

*with apologies to Charles Dickens, but I like to think he hated hypocrisy and sanctimony as much as I do.

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