Will Star Wars Be a Tiny Baby Step in Black Film History?

Happy Star Wars Day everyone, and May the Fourth be with you!  Expectations for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens are already stratospherically high, but I’m going to set them even higher.  After all, I’ve been a devout Star Wars Fanatic all my life and I deserve this entitled moment to make some demands.

It’s really not that simple though.  This is a necessary step the film industry needs to make.  Hollywood is notoriously bad at casting people of color (POC) and whitewashing period dramas, the most egregious recent example being Exodus: Gods And Kings.  As far as anyone can tell from the two trailers and released information, it appears that John Boyega will be the lead protagonist.  In fact, the two main heroes might be a woman and a British-Nigerian, which is actually a very big deal.  Some figures help show how big this may be.  All information provided by Box Office Mojo.

Top Ten Grossing Films Ever Worldwide and (Domestic) With POC Cast in the Lead Role

45 – Independence Day (46)

89 – Hancock (113)

90 – Men In Black III (199)

97 – Life of Pi (412)

102 – Men In Black (88)

106 – I Am Legend (81)

175 – Men In Black II (170)

185 – Django Unchained (242)

221 – Slumdog Millionaire (314)

238 – Hitch (198)

Pause for a moment and reflect on Will Smith.  He is in 7 of the 10 movies on that list.  SEVEN!  He is also the only Black lead who has ever been in the top 100 grossing films all time worldwide or in the US.  But come on, Will Smith isn’t the only Black actor in this world.

Now, if John Boyega is indeed the lead, then all three films in the upcoming Star Wars trilogy will fall under the above category, and all will most likely crack the top ten.

Star Wars Franchise Worldwide, (Domestic), [US Adjusted For Inflation] Box Office Gross Spots

Phantom Menace – 17 (5) [17]

Attack of the Clones – 84 (43) [87]

Revenge of the Sith – 40 (22) [60]

A New Hope – 52 (6) [2]

Empire Strikes Back – 124 (61) [12]

Return of the Jedi – 151 (45) [15]

So casting John Boyega is a pretty big deal for Black box office numbers, but of course Star Wars is a franchise that can afford not to pamper to white, subconsciously racist audiences.   And the cast is still almost all white.  The highest grossing film where a majority of the cast is Black is Coming To America, which is absurd and culturally offensive.  The most successful and/or profitable Black films almost always portray people who are in submissive roles (12 Years a Slave) or solidify insensitive and absolutely messed up stereotypes (Big Momma’s House).  There are reasons why Selma did not receive Best Actor or Best Director nods, and those reasons are triumphant Black role and Black Woman director, respectively.


First and foremost, let’s put away the pessimism.  George Lucas did not write the script and–okay hold on a sec.


Nor is he directing.  So no trade disputes and no static, completely lifeless attempts to create political intrigue.  These reasons alone are enough cause for celebration.  The other reason for pessimism is that when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, they announced they would do away with the current canon and expanded universe.  Therefore those of us who are sad we won’t see the alien race who’s gods name I just invoked, we’re going to have to deal.  I however, am really happy that those stories won’t get a movie adaptation, because my childhood imagination and memories of them will remain uncorrupted.

Nothing is ever going to match the original trilogy, and why waste breath bemoaning the prequels when you can look to the promising future of one of the best franchises in cinematic history?

May the Force Be With You,

Sincerely, Deej*

*Deej was an Ewok wind spirit that gave her life to teach the Ewoks the secret of music.


State of Emergency? No Shit!

For Baltimore, this was going to happen eventually.  When I read the Baltimore Sun’s story about systemic police brutality back in September I was unsurprised given the history of my beloved home state’s most cherished and infamous Gotham equivalent.  Crime, the socioeconomic disparities, the corruption, the endemic racial atrocities, all of it was going to boil over.  Especially in reading the story in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder a month prior, I became convinced that we had entered a new chapter of United States human rights history.

One of the biggest pet peeves for me when discussing history is the argument that it’s 2015 or whatever, as if the year that we live in is symbolic of a more equal era.  In many ways it is, but just because we live in a certain year doesn’t mean that racism, poverty, homophobia, etc. are magically gone.  This is so far from the truth that it’s hard to keep my cool and keep the discussion reasonable.  Then some people argue that we’re no longer separate but equal but then forget that most people who participated in the civil rights movement of the 60s and those who opposed it are still alive.  That’s how young this country’s history is.  It’s a work in progress.  “But, but Obama is President!  Racism is over!”

If you strip away that argument and look at the sentiments behind it, you discover the perception that the US has progressed enough and therefore racism is not a problem.  The flawed belief fueled by patriotic pride that we are better than this.  This precise dogma of American exceptionalism is a key component in the argument of how to properly respond to these police brutalities.

Those who think that protests should be peaceful are in denial of a system that protects them and is harmful to others.  They cite Martin Luther King and the 60’s movement as a precedent for the progress that we can make with that political strategy.  They blindly put the US on top of the pedestal of human rights, believing that we are better than everyone else.  They see the destruction of police cars and stores but not the destruction of lives.

Those who are fine with windows getting smashed and rocks being thrown also believe in American exceptionalism.  They also put the US on the pedestal, except that they hold it accountable.  They do know we are better than this and they hold us to higher standards.  They are also frustrated that we have not improved.

I cannot speak for Black lives, but I cannot condemn a person for lashing out against a system that is almost always racist, usually brutally violent, and sometimes murderous.  I condemn all of the violence done to minorities as well as the violence during the protests.  But maybe that is the only way ground can be gained on this anymore.  Maybe it is past the point of patience.

The issue of police brutality has finally become a national issue, and for better or worse, our democratic process has been slowly and painfully made aware of it.  Maryland Governor Larry Hogan called for a state of emergency last night, but that is among the weakest of all possible responses to the troubles going on in Baltimore and across the nation.  The government has ignored the problem of systemic racism for far too long and it will only get worse until progress is made.

“While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.  And I don’t think there’s anyone… (who wouldn’t) accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.” -Donald Rumsfeld

Concerning Viet Cong and the Politicization of Band Names

The cancellation of Viet Cong’s show at my alma mater Oberlin College is now receiving national attention.  They were scheduled to perform at the ‘Sco (which is the small club located within the Student Union) on March 14, but the promoter, Ivan Krasnov, cancelled it after receiving backlash over the offensive band name.

In the past I have argued that band/musical project names should hold nothing back from the artist’s work.  Specifically I have fought for people not to blindly hate Tom Krell’s band because of the silly name How to Dress Well.  In making that point in my top 10 albums of 2014 post my girlfriend and occasionally brutally honest editor (I am immensely grateful for this) told me that band names are important and that one should judge music based on its titles and artists to a certain degree.  She told me that it was especially important for Tom Krell, an independent artist who’s band name plays an enormous part in its image and promotion.  I grudgingly concede, especially after I asked a good friend the other day if he would listen to a band with the name How to Dress Well and his response was to laugh and say hell no.

While How to Dress Well may be a somewhat absurd name that decreases Tom Krell’s pool of potential new fans, the negative effect is nothing compared to Viet Cong.  If you chalk it up as “just a band name,” you discredit those who were or had family veterans tortured for years in prison camps.  No, discredit is not strong enough a word to describe the impact this name has on those directly affected by the Vietnam War.

In an interview, front man Matt Flegel laughs the controversy off.  Not only is he aware of the problematic connotations, but he dismisses a letter directly from someone who had family that were tortured.  It is repulsive to see his reaction, and based on the half-assed apology that he released today, he’s keeping the name.

Our band, Viet Cong, has existed for a little over three years now. When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about. We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong. While we don’t take any concerns about the name lightly, we feel it is important to let you know that we never meant to trivialize the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam War. We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.
We truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback we’ve received, and we will continue to be open to listening to issues and concerns from all perspectives.
With love from the band Viet Cong.

There are several problems with this “apology.”  They acknowledge the band name is problematic and that they are in the wrong for choosing it.  They claim to “better understand” the appropriation they are benefiting from and “truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback,” and yet have made no efforts to change their name.  They do not care, and to prove it, they end the damn thing with the damn name.

For those who believe that censoring artists for politically charged names is ridiculous should at the very least recognize that there will always be social backlash.  This band, bathing in its power and privilege, doesn’t want to aid a marginalized community and are actively promoting the racist notion that their feelings are invalid.  If you don’t see it that way, then consider starting a band called the Auschwitz (insert word here) and see how that goes.

So yeah, Oberlin added to its progressive reputation and cancelled Viet Cong’s show.  To his credit, promoter Ivan Krasnov made the tough decision to abort the event after he made the effort to bring them to perform.  In his issued apology, Krasnov explains the motives behind the decision and gives some really good points.  The one that I appreciated the most from a history major perspective was the citation of Oberlin’s commencement cap and gown tradition.  In the summer of 1970, Oberlin seniors refused to wear the cap and gown to their commencement ceremony and used the refund money to give to Vietnam War protest efforts or local community projects.  To this day, graduating Obies wear whatever they want.

Do Not Risk a Myopic Opinion of Kanye’s Character for the Sake of Etiquette

“People talk about the number of viewers the Brits get, or the number of viewers the Grammys get. They need to do award shows for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I guess that doesn’t sell as many MasterCard commercials.”   — Kanye West

I tried to avoid the Grammys, because I’ve grown to hate them and I really did not want to try to rationalize the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decisions when most of them are bollocks to begin with.  When Beyoncé did not win, my opinion solidified.  I became slightly intrigued when I heard Kanye West stood up during Beck’s acceptance speech and then sat back down without saying anything.  Still, I was not too concerned with it and did not think too much about it.  But I’ve heard some things and held conversations that have made me upset and I would like to address them.


Comparing apples with oranges makes a lot of sense, so we may as well do it with music too!!!!!!  Let’s talk about how a Pop Diva’s VIDEO ALBUM is more or less artistic than a SINGER-SONGWRITER’S.  There are more people on Queen Bey’s album simply because it is much more complex than Beck’s.  If anything, the extent of the collaboration is monumental given the fact that her album was surprise released and NEVER LEAKED.  Beyoncé also wrote, produced and arranged all fourteen of the songs on her album.  There were a total of ten producers on Morning Phase and every single one won a Grammy for Best Album.  If Beyoncé had won the Grammy for her Self-Titled Masterpiece, then every single producer would have won a Grammy.  Therefore the point about Beck’s production is irrelevant.

I am going to keep going on this rant, because this is important to me.  To say that Beyoncé is only a performer and not an artist is filth.  Art is a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative, creative or technical skill.  Beyoncé and Beck are both artists.  The number of instruments that either one plays might make them more or less proficient, but not more artistic.  That’s right, I minced words and am now done addressing this vaguely sexist photo.

One more thing.   A lot of the internet (youth) have responded to Beck’s win with “Who is Beck,” and I have never heard of Beck.  He has written twelve studio albums (four of which have gone platinum) and is responsible for one of the biggest singles of the 90’s, “Loser.”

I would argue that he has deserved a Grammy since Beyoncé was 15 years old, but that does not mean he had the best album of 2014.  Beck even said later that Beyoncé should have won because her album is simply better.  For me, both albums are superb, but if the Grammys were truly a fair process, Beyoncé would and should have won.  I won’t crunch the numbers or talk about sales, but I think the biggest reason she lost was because her supporters split their votes with other nominees.  Furthermore, the bigger Grammys are completely and utterly ridiculous.  “Best New Artist” is usually given to someone who has been around for years and a white dude almost always wins in the Rap category.  Rarely do the artists who deserve it win.

Kanye West knows that, so he walked on stage as if to say it, but then left.  The most common response to this most recent interruption (or lack thereof) is one of anger and resentment.  On the surface, this is a good thing because it means that most people are aware of proper etiquette.  However, I believe that there is much more to be discerned from this event.


“The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy.’ It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.” –Dave Chappelle

He has since apologized, but Kanye’s history of making his opinion known at awards shows is notorious.  The most infamous occurrence was at the 2009 Video Music Awards when Taylor Swift won Best Female Music Video for “You Belong With Me” over Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”  Placed in this context, Kanye is almost making fun of himself by walking on stage in silence and changing his mind.

Make no mistake, I believe that Kanye is egotistical and rude.  But I recognize that in doing so without looking further I risk having a myopic view of his character.  Exploring the methods behind his calculated intrusions helps understand his persona and this essay does a wonderful job in delving into the themes that Kanye’s serial interruptions signify.  If you had to name one person who was the face of African American music today, who would it be?  Most people I’ve asked respond with Kanye West or Beyonce, therefore, should it not be their obligation to create spaces for the marginalized groups they represent and identify with?  Criticize me all you want for “making a non-race issue a racial one,” but it is no accident that all of the discussions I have had about this usually ended up in white men telling me Kanye should kill himself and Jay-Z and Beyoncé need to respect real art.  If I manage to get a last point in, my response is this:

Mr. West uses a lot of samples in his songs (as is prevalent in his genre), and this involves paying the artist who’s music he’s using.  Depending on how much of the song he samples and depending on the loaning musician’s permission, Kanye will give that person(s) co-writer credit.  That’s not only art, but also generosity and synergy.

“My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater.  That always sounds so funny to people, comparing yourself to someone in the past that has done so much, and in your life you’re not even allowed to think that you can do as much. That’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.

“This humanity that I talk about, this civilization that I talk about…it can only happen through collaboration.”

Kanye West, Oxford Lecture, March 2, 2015

kanye smiling