Sunday, August 23, 2009

More About the Movies

So, last week I took my 8-year-old to see Shorts, the new movie by Robert Rodriguez. (He also directed Spy Kids, and its two sequels, which we watched on three consecutive Family Movie nights. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our children!)

Half-way through the picture, it struck me as it often does when I take my boy to the movies, and I asked myself, "Where are the black people?" Oh, late in the picture there were a few in a crowd scene, but they didn't have speaking parts and were gone as quickly as they'd come.

This paucity of speaking roles for black actors reminded me of Stormy Weather, James Gavins' flawed new biography of the great Lena Horne. Roles for black actors were limited when Horne became the first black to sign a long-term movie contract in the 1940s. At best, they were allowed to play maids and Pullman porters. At worst they were the kinds of clowns and buffoons typified by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland.

Understand that I'm not calling for a return to those not-so-good old days, but as bad as those stereotypes were, at least there were black characters in the movies. Now, alas, blacks seem to have virtually disappeared from pictures. And when they do appear (as in Shorts), they've been silenced, which I suppose could be considered an improvement over that time when black actors were forced to speak dialect that bore no relation to reality because it was how white screen writers thought black people should speak.

So, coming home from Shorts, I talked to my boy about some of my concerns, and together we came up with the Black Star Movie Rating System. Here it is:

Zero Stars: No black characters in the picture. None. Nada. Zilch.

One-Half Star: Black characters in the background, but no speaking roles.

One Star: Black characters with minor speaking roles.

Two Stars: Black characters in supporting roles such as sidekick.

Three Stars: Black characters in major roles playing a pivotal part in the action of the picture.

Four Stars: Several major black characters, with one or more playing a pviotal part in the action.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

One More Thing I Hate About the Suburbs. . .

5. Play Dates

When I was a kid, you walked out of your house after school if you didn't feel like watching television or reading, and you played with whoever was outside. If no one was--but there usually was--you might walk up a friend's front steps, knock on the door, and ask if he could come out.

Now, living in the suburbs, I have to call or e-mail the parents of my son's friends to set up times when they can get together. I understand why it's that way--kids make friends in school, and their friends don't always live nearby.

Whenever I go to pick up the telephone, though, I start to feel the butterflies I did, oh so many years ago when I was single and calling to ask
someone out on a date. I'm doing it for someone else now, but it still doesn't make it any easier.

Which makes me glad my kid's learning how to use the phone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Waiting is the Hardest Part

After finishing my novel, I sent out query letters to agents a few weeks ago and got back lots of "Thanks, but no thanks letters," including--the unkindest cut!--one photocopied slip on pink paper.

But two agents were interested in the book (it's called The House of Eli, and it's about black men, fatherhood, and violence). So now I'm waiting and, in some ways, it's just as hard as writing the book was.

Meanwhile, I've had some good news. My story, "A Few Good Men," published last year in this anthology, has been selected to appear in an antholology of best fiction from black writers. It's supposed to come out next spring.

I'd feel better though, if I weren't having a
recurrence of the hand and wrist trouble that's plagued me off and on for the last few years. Especially since I had to give up blogging--well, typing, really--a few weeks ago after slashing open my palm trying to replace the handle on a ceramic compost container.

A Few Things I Hate About the Suburbs

We moved to the suburbs nearly two years ago because we wanted a better school for our 8-year-old. We found what we wanted, but I also found things to regret about leaving the city. Here, in no particular order, are some things I've come to hate about the suburbs:

1. SUVs

Seems like every time I get stuck in traffic, it's behind someone driving the kinds of vehicle you need a step-ladder to climb into. With four rows of seats, these gas-guzzling Gargantuas and Sasquatches are what you'd expect to see that reality-TV family with eight kids driving. Most of the time, though, the ones I pass are carrying no one but Mom.

Who are these people and why do they think they need such large vehicles?

I confess to a certain schadenfreude and smug superiority last year when gas prices edged up to $4 a gallon.

2. The fetishization of the American flag

Many of the SUVs and cars I see are bedecked with American flag stickers. Lots of folks in our neighborhood fly the flag year 'round, day or night, rain or shine.

We fly ours, too, but only on national holidays, and we bring it in when it starts to rain and at night, because it's not illuminated by a light. (I'm a Cub Scout den leader, and the boys had to pass a requirement on how to treat the flag.)

About 40 years ago, when my old college roommate was going to drive across the country--something of a rite of passage in those days when we all read On the Road--his father gave him a flag decal to put on his Nash Rambler. Sometimes I wonder if we're not returning to those Vietnam-era divisions so that, once again, it's become necessary to display the flag to prove you love your country

3. The idea that military service is the only way to honor America

The other thing I see on people's cars--I spend a lot of time ferrying my child between various summer camps and after-school activities--are stickers proclaiming allegiance to the Army, the Marines, or some other branch of the service or one of the service academies.

I'm still waiting to see a sticker for the Peace Corps or Teach for America, either of which is at least as honorable a way to serve the country.

4. Too much emphasis on sports

I thought, briefly, about signing our kid up for baseball when we moved, but my wife said it was too late, and she was probably right. He was 7 then, and most kids had been playing some kind of organized ball for a couple of years.

Most afternoons after school (and on the weekends) the fields in our little town are filled with kids playing sports. I suppose it's a good thing and, as one father told me, "It keeps them out of trouble." And if I had a child who was athletically gifted, perhaps I'd feel differently, but I've got a boy who'd just as soon read a book as kick a ball.

Sometimes, when we're out, and moms or dads see him reading, they'll come up and say, "Oh, that's great! I wish I could get my son to read." And I think--but never say--"Well, maybe he would, if you'd just take that ball out of his hand and give him a book!"