Archive for the 'Race' Category Page 2 of 3

The First 11 Black Videogame Stars

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil's leading lady

Can you name all the black main must-play characters in gaming? Hint: There are only eleven so far.

When I was younger, I always wondered why there weren’t more black superheroes. And, while you could ask the same question today, it also probably matters less. Today’s kids don’t dream about playing superheroes, they get to be the heroes in videogames all the time. So, that got me thinking: just how many black characters are there heading up games these days. I’m not talking about non-playable characters. And I’m not even talking about playable characters in a roster of characters you can choose between (like Street Fighter). I’m talking about the primo alpha prime you-don’t-get-no-say main playable character of the game. In other words, I wanted to find out how many times game developers have said: “You are Black. Period.” Here they are…

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The Last Black Senator

Barack Obama has been all over the news of late with hints that he may run for president. So, I wondered what the Senate would look like without him. It turns out that, if he leaves, there will be no more black folks in the Senate at all. He is the only black senator — but it doesn’t end there. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that there have only been 5 African Americans elected to the Senate. Ever.

Give that a minute to sink in. Of the roughly 2700 Senate elections held since 1789, only 6 were won by an African American (Ed Brooke won re-election). That’s .2% or 1/5 of one percentage point. Considering that black folks have made up a fairly steady 10% of the population, this is a pretty serious reminder of how far the land of the free still has to go.

Of course, there are lots of factors that muddy the water. I’m not sure how many black folks were up for election or even ran in primaries. And this doesn’t take into account that there was a long period of time when black folks couldn’t run for any office, let alone Congress.

But none of that changes the fact that the Senate hasn’t seen nearly as many African Americans as it should have and that gives me pause. It also gives me pause that the first black senator, Hiram Revels, resigned his office after serving less than one year. How must he have been treated for him to decide, after making such a dramatic leap for his race, that he should give it all up almost immediately? I can’t imagine.

If the fifth African American senator decides to leave office prematurely, though, it does seem like he might do it for quite a different reason. And I must say that I’m more than happy to lose the last black senator if the result is the first black president. Hot damn.

Update: If you like Obama, check this poster.

with thanks to Mom; photo via Slate

N-word Futures

The future is coming. Will the n-word come with it? In the wake of Kramer’s meltdown and public penance, Jesse Jackson and company are calling for a ban on the n-word. And it’s hard to disagree in principle; the word is powerfully hateful. But is an outright ban the answer?

After all, some would argue that when we black folk use the n-word, it can be subversive — an attempt to re-appropriate it, to take away its power, to defuse it. That approach seemed to work out alright for the LGBT community and “queer”.

And what about reporting? Take, for instance, a recent Wired article that quotes a myspace post by a woman whose boyfriend was murdered:

Soon after, police formally charged Handy – not for the Sixth and South Union murders, but for the other shootings he was allegedly involved in. The charges were two counts each of assault in the first degree and unlawful possession of a firearm. Foley posted a note to Varo’s page: We caught ’em baby! Fuck that nigger.

The quote is factual and speaks to her character and her emotional state, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the trend of using the n-word to convey authenticity in gangland films. For a recent example, see The Departed (Nicholson drops it inside the first minute) and Reservoir Dogs had characters spew it every other sentence some 15 years ago. This is how these people really speak and the use of the language is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

Still… Did I really get anything from hearing that the only black character in the Wired story is a nigger? What does it say that the person who speaks the word is portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner for the rest of the article? When does it stop being reporting and start being comment? (Not to mention Wired is a bit more suspect than most; I’m still reeling from seeing the n-word featured alongside the first black face to grace its cover, but that’s another story…)

Similarly, many gangland films end up creating a dark appeal for the bad guys and with it, an appeal for using their language. At what point does the use of the n-word stop speaking to the character and start speaking to the screenwriter’s character? (Is it me or does the n-word seem to be used more often in white-directed films these days than black ones?)

All this is to say it’s complicated. So perhaps the only thing everyone will understand is that they should just never say the word under any circumstances. I certainly would be happy to never hear it again. But part of me still wonders if making the word even more taboo really solves anything. After all, making things less accessible often makes them that much more desirable.

A thoughtful history of the n-word can be found in the Jim Crow Museum.

Fear at Home

Seen at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side, this image resonated. Not because of the boldness of the statement but because of what that it says about fear and country. Could it be that African American soldiers who fought in the war felt more comfortable with the Vietnamese than they did on their racially charged home soil? I wouldn’t doubt it.

That brings to mind a more recent point: I remember so many saying they felt fear at home for the first time after 9/11; peril was so close. But I don’t recall any black folk saying exactly that. It’s not that the attack wasn’t terrifying and clearly great pain was (and continues to be) felt equally by all, regardless of background. It’s just that black folk in this country have had to live with fear for so long. And Builder Levy’s photo stands as a particularly pointed reminder.

For more on Levy’s exhibit, see the Henry Street Settlement. We were there to see the Chris Earle’s fabulous post-9/11 exodus play Democrats Abroad.

image grabbed from

Astronauts in Africa

African Astronaut

Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronauts hinges on a powerful video. In it, we see the response of people in one of the world’s poorest countries (Burkina Faso) to news of men on the moon. Reactions range from disbelief to “How do they eat on the moon?” to “Why are they sending men to the moon when we need food here?” And it’s that last question that’s been with me since long before this show.

As a technologist by trade I certainly love technology, and the space program is no doubt a technological showcase that inspires many (including folks in Burkina Faso). But when such exorbitant expense and effort is applied to that task while basic human needs remain unfulfilled for so many, it really starts to seem that we’ve gone wrong at a basic level.

To be fair, the space program is just an example. It’s not so much about the space as it is about an America that is so fabulously wealthy not being particularly troubled by people starving so long as we don’t have to see them. What this show does is bring that wealth and lack of wealth together in the same room and asks us to think about it. A spaceman on the moon and a spaceman on the African plain — so far apart.

Another piece that brings this issue out is Bodys Isek Kingelez’s New Manhattan City 3021 (part of the fabulous American Effect exhibit). It shows lower Manhattan a thousand years from now as imagined by a Congolian, having risen magnificently from the ashes of 9/11. While this is an inspiring vision for ground zero, it also begs the question: “Where will the developing world be in 3021?” From the multitude of spare-no-expense gleaming towers on display, it seems we may have continued to invest largely in symbols of our own wealth.

For more on African Astronauts and other beautiful, culturally complex imaginings of spaceflight from an African perspective, check the installation photos and background.

The North Will Rise Again

Walking out of the generally excellent Slavery in New York exhibit, one thing sticks out as strange: in the exit hallway, Abraham Lincoln is once again painted as the great and just emancipator. But we all (or at least should) know that it wasn’t nearly that simple. While no exhibit can cover the full breadth and depth of slavery’s impact, this particular coda still didn’t stomach well.

That’s why it was so satisfying to see Kevin Wilmott’s irreverent yet immensely thoughtful Confederate States of America (CSA) pick up right where Slavery in New York left off, with Lincoln and the Civil War. There’s just one twist: the South wins (and that’s a lot more plausible than some might think). We see Lincoln (in exile) regret not truly freeing the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation (the real proclamation didn’t, either — it merely put some wheels in motion). From there, the film takes a revisionist ride through the last 140 years of American history with slavery fully intact.

What’s fascinating about CSA is that it provides a way for us to think through slavery by placing it in a more modern context and pointing out that humans can convince themselves that even most awful acts are normal and reasoned if it serves them. (Want an example?) One way it does this is by cleverly mixing fact with fiction throughout. We see historical events we remember weaved into into a slavery context (including an inventive edit of a JFK speech). Some of it, though, is saved for a later punctuation mark. I won’t ruin it, but I will say the film bears repeated viewings. Wilmott also mixes difficult material with humor by interleaving serious documentary narrative with “funny” commercials in a way that strikes a tough balance: making the serious material easier to watch and the humorous more difficult.

It’s the best science fiction that saves us the laser duels, spaceships, and feathered hair, instead using a slightly removed context to allow us to better examine ourselves, today. And that’s just how CSA sneaks up on you.

In a recent interview, Wilmott mentioned that we now get more of our history from movies than from books. This is precisely why films like CSA are so important. Spike presents CSA and, while hasn’t taken on such topics since 2000’s abortive Bamboozled, it is nice to see him in the trenches with those to whom he might pass the torch.

For more, see the CSA website, listen through OTM’s interview with Kevin, and have a look at the Confederate Geographic Timeline (spoilers). Also, don’t miss Robert A. Pruitt’s fearless reminders.

image grabbed from csathemovie

First Black Man in the Fleet

Plotting Evil Threatening People Quite Dead

Plotting evil, threatening people, quite dead. It’s sad that we still have to have this conversation, but is there any good reason why the only black male character to appear on Ron Moore’s otherwise outstanding Battlestar Galactica is a demon that needs to be put out of his misery?

In a recent episode (somewhat ironically titled “Black Market”) we find the first black man in the fleet to get screen time (Bill Duke as “Phelan”) trafficking in everything from murder to booze to stolen goods to, oh yeah, child sex (all white kids, mind you). And he’s killed at the hands of Apollo’s righteous vigilante justice in his first episode. Shades of Dirty Harry?

Now, I’m first to say that the exploration of moral ambiguity is one of Galactica’s strongest aspects (especially in the current political climate), but this character has no grays — heck, he doesn’t live long enough to develop any! And perhaps the argument that it was morally questionable for Apollo to shoot the guy in cold blood holds some water, but not much. Ultimately, by nearly any cinema metric you choose to apply, Phelan deserves death. It’s depressing to see a show that makes its living going against stereotype go down this kind of road.

With black folks still struggling to find decent roles in film, it’s particularly sad that science fiction of all things can’t at least invent a future where black men aren’t still portrayed as being at the bottom of all the bad stuff. As it is, Hollywood Shuffle remains relevant nearly 20 years on. Ron, I know it’s not your job to fix the industry, but I still thought you were better than this.

The continuing poor representation of African Americans in film was previously scoped in Snubbed.

Fear and Elvis in South Asia

Love ’em or hate ’em, Pitchfork doesn’t seem particularly afraid of being critical. Even so, I found a more-firey-than-usual take on Talvin Singh’s now classic OK digging through the archives today. This time, though, the flamethrower isn’t directed at the artist but at the industry:

Mr. and Mrs. I’m So Fucking Happy probably won’t go for the distinctly Eastern approach to melody and texture featured on OK. Singh doesn’t just stick some sitars over a breakbeat– the arrangements of tablas, strings, and frenzied backbeats is allowed full prominence here.
Stuff this adventurous is not made for everybody. But all it takes is a couple of famous white people to take notice and distill it into a more palpable format and there you go– you’ll all be eating bhaji and hanging out of dhotis. What’s that, you say? Never mind.
Samir Khan

Now that’s angry. Apparently, Elvis’ outright theft of Chuck Berry’s act still resonates (and around the world, too). I suppose having mile markers along the way hasn’t hurt, either. Red Hot Chili Peppers remind anyone of a poor man’s Fishbone? The beat goes on — the cash goes white.

Well, at least the South Asian D&B bleach-fest hasn’t got full steam yet. The Anokhan sound never managed to get fully overground and Talvin’s been working the console more than the stage of late (if he gives a white artist his sound, at least he gets paid). Bhangra keeps threatening to emerge from the basement, though. If that happens, we can only hope it keeps some of its origins intact. Cross-pollination is beautiful. Combine it with a selective memory, though, and you’ve got, well, Elvis.

If you like Samir’s brand of angry, more hip yet heated Indian point of view can be found at turbanhead.

image grabbed from fringedigital

Back to Africa

Boys of Baraka opens with a startling statistic: 76% of black male students in Baltimore City Schools will never graduate from high school. The balance of the film is spent exploring one possible solution: taking kids out of their environment — ten thousand miles out, and for nearly two years.

Some will compare this movie to Hoop Dreams and as far as documentaries about inner city kids go, that’s fair. But what Boys of Baraka has that others can’t touch is, well, Africa. Seeing the effect being there has on the kids — being in a country run by black folks, miles from the nearest town, surrounded by people poorer than them but prideful — is worth the trip.

It made me think about the middle passage and all the family history and heritage lost beyond doors of no return; connections we can never reestablish. It reminded me of the importance of knowing you come from someplace you can be proud of. All things lost through slavery. The question the film asks, then, is can this kind of journey back to Africa begin to help kids rebuild some of this for themselves? Can what was lost be regained in some way?

As you might expect, Baraka doesn’t provide any easy answers. But it does ask a number of thoughtful questions, and that’s why it matters.

Read more about Boys of Baraka at Loki Films

image grabbed from thinkfilm


Syriana is a fantastically entertaining and important film. There’s really no other way to put it. It’s great to see so many big names stick their necks out to bring attention to such a controversial and complex set of issues.

It’s a bit sad, then, to see the way the only African American character in the movie is portrayed. To be fair, one of the most fascinating things about Syriana is that none of the characters are good or bad — they are all shades of gray. Still, the black guy is a deeper gray than most and the darkness of his character is only deepened by the fact that there are no other black characters to soften him (save a quick interlude with a Condoleeza clone).

Damon’s character is ambitious to a fault and ends up not the great family man, but ultimately figures out what is important. Clooney’s character has trouble managing his relationship with his kid because of constant deep cover and he does questionable things, but does them for the right reasons. Cooper’s character a fairly one-dimensional oil big-wig, but that’s okay because he’s balanced by all the other white guys (not to mention our lifelong cultural training). Jeffrey Wright’s character (token black guy Bennett Holiday) is also one-dimensional, but with no similar balances.

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