Waaayyyy too long. So when I finished it, I started it again. 🙂
The show, the after-party, the hotel: metaphorically busting up American hotel rooms in his youth, before he “grew up”
Muhammad Ali always made this reviewer laugh out loud, but this may be the first time that open cackle is the result of a very serious Ali documentary. Ken Burns, in filmmaking combo Blackface and cross-dress, takes the role of Black church grandmother with the big hat, waiting for her grandson Cassius to give up that Panther mess and return to their neighborhood AME.
To Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Muhammad Ali is a Buddy Holly figure who got to live and grow old. He’s an Elvis-type who didn’t die suddenly on his toilet, a living, breathing hula hoop and frisbee, the dark fifth Beatle. Making a Third World activist who was a borderline revolutionary–someone who even Burns said was encouraging Afghan guerillas to overthrow the Soviet Union in his later years–into Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy took some skillful, involved work. The trio accomplishes this by using every rock-star convention, trope and cliche–the innocence, the power, the excess, the decline, the fall. There’s Ken Burns’ and Co.’s forced narration–aptly provided by Keith David–and then there’s Ali’s actual narration, so the socio-political-cultural tension is always there: Burns keeps trying to win the bout, the most prominent examples being that the Nation of Islam is treated like some sort of annoying cult-fad that Burns patiently waits to burn out, and Ali’s calls for Black/African/non-white solidarity just a phase of his–a step toward human consciousness (which only comes through illness and the subsequent white, matured sympathetic gaze, according to this tale), not the call for self-determining power.
Proving once again that PBS can put a pale frame on anything, this future award-winner can start with this writer’s mental tropies for chronological detail, where to put the episode cliffhanger, effective use of Digable Planets 🙂 and the proper poignancy, particularly at the close. If this presentation is the “white” Ali and The Trials of Muhammad Ali and When We Were Kings are respectively the political and Pan-African Ali, that means the only Ali story left to tell is one about his relationship to religion. At his best, Burns at least comes close to that–chronicling how the sinner who, now humbled, learned to ask for forgiveness. Ali had a lot to atone for–he was cruel to his opponents, the doc repeatedly says; the Black interviewees keep reminding the viewer that he took public umbrage to those Blacks who proudly represented America during the time of a worldwide Movement. That story is not emphasized here enough (although Burns would vehemently disagree), and the rationale for that lack of emphasis is that, for the purpose of this narrative, this Ali first peaks and, later, begins his denouncement at the Olympics, symbolically draped in Burns’ Love, Americana Style.
If Season Three of Genius was about Aretha Franklin standing on her own two feet and not letting men dominate her, then this very-fast moving, more symbolic story is about the protection only a true parent can provide. Surrounded by domineering men, Jennifer Hudson portrays the Soul Queen as a woman puttting together, then self-destructively pulling apart, the puzzle pieces of her life. It is only when she embraces her dead mother and her Heavenly Father does she fully form. Interestingly enough, perhaps we need even more hours of Franklin to really understand her.
a) Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds me how Ta-Nehisi Coates described Barack Obama: an activist, not a protester. (Nice move he made with NPR’s Maria Hinojosa to get some intellectual/activist cred! :)) This is the most thoroughly gentle–even if ever-present!–film portrayal of systemic white supremacy I’ve seen on film. Miranda, who loves 20th-century white popular culture at least as much as I do 🙂 , does NOT want to upset Whitey, EVER. 🙂 Having said that, I enjoyed seeing the undocumented struggle included in this. It shows how, like Coates, he is VERY careful.
b) This story is highly cultural–very BROWN, the way Hamilton is (ironically!) very WHITE. (I can see Miranda on that Heights vacation, reading that Ron Chernow bio and going: “Yes! I can now go completely in a new and opposite direction, like an artist should! Past instead of present, white instead of Black/Brown, historical narrative instead of love letter, naked, individual ambition instead of family/community survival, birth of a nation instead of death of a neighborhood!”) As a concept, Hamilton makes a LOT of sense to me now. You can clearly see the themes in both New York-centric, immigrant-centric musicals that attract Miranda–the power of personal drive and dreams with/versus sacrificial commitment to family and community, etc.
c) Whether it is culturally stereotypical I will leave for Brown people to discuss. To this outsider, it looks like he’s trying to hit EVERY cultural mark.
d) Because Hamilton was first for me, this seemed like a workshop to test out the style he would perfect with the slaveholders. 🙂
JUNE 12th UPDATE: So now that I’ve laid my issues on the table, I will admit he’s a FREAKIN’ GENIUS!!! Have you seen the teaser (below) for his directorial debut?!? And the Oscar goes to…. 😉 The year 2021 is only halfway through, and he’s already its savior!! LOL!!!
At one point, Glenn Thurman shows Aretha Franklin The Trust Fall and it takes a little bit of internal work for Aretha to make it. But make it she does. Watching eight hours of Genius‘s third season requires a lot of trust in showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, because the viewer has to wade through aaaa lottttt of Lifetime-type, music-biopic tropes to get to the core of Franklin’s story: She is a woman who is sometimes-comfortably trapped in concentric gender and music circles, pushing out only when they threaten her windpipe. Each burst-through creates its own cycles of searches. Aretha’s stoic speaking voice is the outer shell that hides deep insecurities but also hidden strengths. The seemingly endless flashbacks show where and why the holding patterns stick; her grown-ness comes in her 40s, as an unavoidable right-of-passage beckons. Parks has said she read all the books and articles, so while the hours went by this viewer had to trust that she was going in a direction worthy of so much (relatively) limited discussion of politics and society that seemingly dominated the show’s first two seasons. What the playwright has shown is how complicated the sexist male circles are to surmount–how it takes time and patience to wedge through, to prove oneself, to burst free into a full identity who can do anything–even sing opera on 15 minutes notice.
Why these Carr-Hunter discussions are growing in popularity. Look how Dr. Carr links Chadwick to: a) Black playwrights, b) Black bookstores, c) Black protest, d) to Black cultural development. And then e) THOTH!
1) Once upon a time, a great New York non-white artist tried through multiple meanings to find America. As a result, he becomes one of the most popular artists in the world. So this is a 21st-century remix. Hamilton is amazing in its constant past-present tensions, its constant double-meanings. Some/here around the fifth time I watch it, I will put the captions on to catch everything.
2) I reserve Lin-Manuel Miranda’s right to have a favorite white writer–one who took his pen and created his persona and shook an elite world in which he gained entry. I definitely do. But I would not write a glowing tribute to his racism and/or create sympathy for his society’s application of it. (Having Thomas Jefferson, the enslaver and rapist of Sally Hemmings, look and act like Prince’s and Morris Day’s love child was genius!) How much more politically powerful this would have been if that silent ensemble had been enslaved Africans, commenting on them! But then it would have made America uncomfortable, see, so….
3) There’s no way this musical would not be loved by any national media personality, artist, writer, thinker of any type. Who would ever hate (on) a pre-written story about a young underdog who by grit and talent moves to New York City, re-invents him/herself and becomes a star and then a legend? We now know it’s not just a post-World-War-II Great American Novel thang, but a popular fantasy that pre-dates the establishment of the nation itself! Hamilton might as well used this song in the prologue or during intermission.
4) It’s still hard for me to worry about who lives, who dies who tells your story while the enslaved Africans’ saga still awaits. Frederick Douglass, Daveed? Daveed? Hello? Hello? Are you gonna make me a fan of (Broadway/Hollywood) biting? And you’re playing him already? Hmm……
5) My simplistic ideological comment has been my favorite since the beginning of the Hamilton phenomenon: If Dick Cheney likes your musical, you’ve written the wrong musical. While I still hold that position while bowing down to Hamilton’s pop-a-ganda greatness, I truly hope that a future Miranda–And I believed it too/And *I* know who *you are*—will grow past this American-fan-service phase into rubbing his subdued anger about the state of his American colony in America’s face, a la the Paul who is no longer Revere-d. 🙂 As I sing along, I truly hope for and look forward to America’s future disappointment in you.