Writing the biography of a black person who passed for white in 20th-century America adds an extra layer of difficulty to the detective work any biographer must undertake. This is especially true since Herriman seems never to have addressed his deception in his personal writings or confided his feelings about racial identity to family or friends.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2017-01-17 00:25Z by Steven

Writing the biography of a black person who passed for white in 20th-century America adds an extra layer of difficulty to the detective work any biographer must undertake. This is especially true since [George] Herriman seems never to have addressed his deception in his personal writings or confided his feelings about racial identity to family or friends. He claimed he came from a family of bakers and had worked in his youth as a house painter and carnival barker. In truth he was the great-grandson of Stephen Herriman, a married white boat’s captain from Long Island with roots in England, who purchased enslaved workers after settling in Louisiana, and Justine Olivier, a “free woman of color” who engaged in a plaçage relationship in which her lover financially supported her and her two children.

Nelson George, “Invisibly Black: A Life of George Herriman, Creator of ‘Krazy Kat’,” The New York Times, January 12, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/books/review/krazy-george-herriman-biography-michael-tisserand.html.

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Invisibly Black: A Life of George Herriman, Creator of ‘Krazy Kat’

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-01-16 21:16Z by Steven

Invisibly Black: A Life of George Herriman, Creator of ‘Krazy Kat’

The New York Times

Nelson George

KRAZY: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
By Michael Tisserand
Illustrated. 545 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $35.

In our superficially more enlightened age, the phrase “mixed race” has become the accepted term to describe people with parents of different races. In fact the phrase has become a tool of marketers and brand-conscious celebrities to suggest whatever they’re selling is all-inclusive, a living embodiment of diversity. Many take great care in, for example, their Instagram biographies to list their hyphenated backgrounds.

But there are limits to the term’s utility, especially for people with African ancestry. Barack Obama was America’s first mixed-race president. His father was Kenyan and his mother a white woman from Kansas. Yet the tawdry racial history of this Republic demanded that he claim blackness as his primary identity because one drop of black blood has always decided your fate in this country. “Mixed race” notwithstanding, an African heritage in America is never just a cool exotic spice; one taste and it becomes all anyone remembers of the meal.

This rigid attitude toward race is often enforced by black Americans as fiercely as whites. For them the “mixed race” label, when employed by black people with a nonblack parent or grandparents, seems more a transparent attempt to dodge racial pigeonholing than a heartfelt assertion of identity. Jim Crow, which ended officially in the 1960s, has never been completely dismantled. So attempts to escape its grip, while understandable, create resentment in those unable to slip across the racial boundaries.

All of which makes Michael Tisserand’sKrazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White” a fascinating and frustrating biography. Though Herriman’sKrazy Kat” comic strip was admired in his lifetime, it wasn’t until years after his death in 1944 that his vast influence received widespread critical respect. Herriman’s depiction of the tangled relationships among the black cat Krazy, his white mouse tormentor and sometime love interest Ignatz and the bulldog Officer Pupp, set against a desert backdrop in fictional Coconino County (taken from a real area of Arizona), inspired several generations of cartoonists. Charles M. Schulz’sPeanuts,” Ralph Bakshi’sFritz the Cat” and Art Spiegelman’sMaus” all owe a debt to Herriman’s draftsmanship and poetic sense…

Read the entire review here.

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A Ballerina’s Tale

Posted in Arts, Media Archive, United States, Videos on 2016-02-09 01:59Z by Steven

A Ballerina’s Tale

By Nelson George | in Dance
Independent Lens
Public Broadcasting Service
Premieres 2016-02-08

Few dancers reach the highest levels of classical ballet; of that few only a fraction are black women. Against the odds, Misty Copeland has made history by becoming the first African American principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, considered the pinnacle of ballet in the United States. A Ballerina’s Tale is an intimate look at this groundbreaking artist as she breaks through barriers and transcends her art.

For more information, click here.

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“I will continue to talk about race… I think that’s part of my purpose.”

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-12-28 00:37Z by Steven

There is also a sort of evangelism at work. She is of mixed race, but, as Mr. [Nelson] George pointed out, she embraces her blackness, grasping every opportunity to speak out as a role model, getting out her message that a person’s so-called flaws, skin color among them, need be no hurdle to success.

“I will continue to talk about race,” she said. “I think that’s part of my purpose.” —Misty Copeland

Ruth La Ferla, “The Rise and Rise of Misty Copeland,” The Year in Style 2015, The New York Times, December 18, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/fashion/the-rise-and-rise-of-misty-copeland.html.

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New Film Shows Misty Copeland’s Journey as a Black Ballerina

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Videos on 2015-10-21 21:41Z by Steven

New Film Shows Misty Copeland’s Journey as a Black Ballerina

NBC News

Maya Chung

The 2015 Urbanworld Festival closed out on Saturday night with the highly anticipated documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale,” which details Misty Copeland’s journey to become a principal ballerina.

The film festival, founded in 1997, is a five-day event that showcases narrative features, documentaries, short films, and spotlight screenings with the goal of redefining and advancing the impact of the multicultural community in the film world.

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is one film that is making that impact. The documentary gives an in-depth picture of Copeland’s struggles with being black in a predominantly white Ballet world and it chronicles her experience recovering from a leg fracture – one that could’ve stopped her dream of becoming a principal dancer…

…Copeland, 33, beat the odds and became the American Ballet Theatre’s first black female principal dancer in the company’s 75-year history this past June. But, it wasn’t easy and the film makes that clear. She explained that she struggled being a black dancer when she first began in the professional ballet world.

“I’ve never strayed away from being black. I’m biracial but something that my mom constantly said to me growing up in southern California was ‘Yes, you are Italian, you are German, and you are black, but you are going to be viewed by the world as a black woman’,” Copeland said. “I never felt different growing up but when I came into the ballet world as a professional I immediately felt different.”…

Read the entire interview here.

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Misty Copeland on Why She Doesn’t Identify as Biracial: ‘I Am Viewed as a Black Woman’

Posted in Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Videos, Women on 2015-10-18 18:19Z by Steven

Misty Copeland on Why She Doesn’t Identify as Biracial: ‘I Am Viewed as a Black Woman’

Black Entertainment Television (BET)

Evelyn Diaz

Misty Copeland

The history-making ballerina on changing the game.

Misty Copeland and director Nelson George recently talked about their new documentary, A Ballerina’s Tale, which chronicles Copeland’s awe-inspiring rise to becoming the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. The film is not only a portrait of one of the most exciting artists of our generation, but a look at how difficult it still is for people of color to gain entry into some parts of American life.

Asked why it was important for him to tell Copeland’s story, George’s answer is simple: “Black artists aren’t documented very well,” he says.

Copeland, meanwhile, got real about the backlash she’s experienced from her own people because of her skin color. “I’ve gotten some flack from the African-American community…[people] say ‘you’re not really Black,’ or ‘you don’t really have dark skin,'” she says. “I’m fully aware that it’s harder to succeed in ballet as a darker-skinned woman, but it has to start somewhere.” She adds that the racial discrimination in ballet — and the rest of the world — doesn’t differentiate between dark-skinned and light-skinned. “I know that I’m viewed as a Black woman in society,” she says.

Watch our full interview with Copeland and George below, and see A Ballerina’s Tale in select theaters and on VOD now.

Watch the video here.

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An Essentially American Narrative

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2013-10-19 20:38Z by Steven

An Essentially American Narrative

The New York Times

Nelson George

A Discussion of Steve McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’

Amid comic book epics, bromantic comedies and sequels of sequels, films about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple. In the last two years, “The Help,” “Lincoln,””Django Unchained,””42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” have performed well at the box office, gathering awards in some cases and drawing varying degrees of critical acclaim.

The latest entry in this unlikely genre is “12 Years a Slave,” the director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. A free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y., Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into brutal servitude in the Deep South. During his ordeal, he labors at different plantations, including the one owned by the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a tortured sexual relationship with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Following a buzzed-about preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters Friday amid much online chatter that it may be headed for Oscar nominations. But Mr. Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, and Mr. McQueen, known for the bracingly austere “Hunger” and “Shame,” both say that getting audiences to see an uncompromisingly violent and quietly meditative film about America’s “peculiar institution” is still a challenge even with the presence of a producer, Brad Pitt, in a small role.

While the material was developed by Americans (including the screenwriter John Ridley) the director and most of the major cast members are British, a topic of concern among some early black commentators.

On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the “12 Years a Slave” production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue. These are excerpts from the conversation…

Q. I wanted to start with contemporary analogues. One thing that came to mind was stop and frisk, a way the New York City police could stop a black or Latino male. I thought of Solomon as a character who, for a lot of contemporary audiences, would be that young black person. [To Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ejiofor] When you were seeking a way into the slave story, was what happens now part of that?

Steve McQueen Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.

What do you mean? 

McQueen The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever…

…Servitude and Sexuality 

There’s a lot of things to say about sex in the film, but one of the things that is going to leap out is Alfre Woodard’s character [Mistress Shaw, described in the book as the black wife of a white plantation owner]. 

McQueen In the book, she doesn’t say anything. I had a conversation with John Ridley, and I said: “Look, we need a scene with this woman. I want her to have tea.” It was very simple. Give her a voice.

Walker It’s not that it was that uncommon. That planter would be sort of the crazy one, the eccentric one, and she’s getting by.

Ejiofor It was against the law to marry, but it did happen.

Foner There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners

…Solomon has a wife beforehand. In the film it seems as if he lived with Eliza [a fellow slave]. Then obviously [he has] some kind of relationship with Patsey, a friendship. But I wondered about Solomon’s own sexual expression. 

Ejiofor  His sexuality felt slightly more of a tangent. I think the real story is where sex is in terms of power.

Foner Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book.

Walker But in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [by Harriet Ann Jacobs] and other slave narratives written by women, that’s always kind of the subtext, because there are children that are produced, relationships that are formed or allegiances that are formed with white men in order to have freedom.

Foner  Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people.

Walker Yes, but it’s always the subtext. Even “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s like, there’s little mulatto children, and that’s the evidence…

Read the entire interview here.

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Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, United States on 2013-02-15 20:41Z by Steven

Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible

The New York Times

Nelson George

A black slave is torn apart by dogs as a crowd of white overseers savors the sight and a black bounty hunter watches passively behind shades. A black father makes his little girl crack open a crab with her bare hands then flex her tiny muscles like a pint-size N.F.L. linebacker. A black pilot snorts a line of cocaine after a night of debauchery and, just a few minutes before liftoff, knocks back several miniature bottles of alcohol. A black woman tells President Lincoln that God will guide him as he pushes legislation that will end slavery but not dent notions of white supremacy.

The four films noted here are contenders for a slew of major Oscars: “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Flight” and “Lincoln.” In the year America gave its first black president a second term, some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films, all by white directors, dealt with black-white race relations or revolved around black characters, which is rare. For the first time in recent memory race is central to several Oscar conversations. But the black characters’ humanity is hit or miss. These films raise the age-old question of whether white filmmakers are ready to grant black characters agency in their own screen lives.

Looking at these Oscar-nominated films, we should ask: Are black characters given a real back story and real-world motivations? Are they agents of their own destiny or just foils for white characters? Are they too noble to be real? Are they too ghetto to be flesh and blood? Do any of these characters point to a way forward…

…A more sophisticated standard for judging a character’s merits has emerged as the most obvious stereotypes have, for the most part, faded and as filmmakers, for better and sometimes worse, have attempted to normalize the black image. In the age of Obama, when a black man is the protagonist in our national narrative, are Hollywood’s fictional characters allowed the same agency in the stories built around them? That’s a fair question to ask of these Oscar contenders…

Read the entire article here.

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