[29 November 2009]
Wait: A gay hero? They are going to unmask the ‘blacky,’ and solve the murder. But will all turn out dandy?
Pow! Boom! Crash! Crunch! No punches, just blows. This was 1961, and this scene at least was the birth of the gay hero. We see the people mourning over their losses, and folks belittling on others’ debts- this is a real feel good flic with all the highs and lows of any melodrama. Instead of a red suit with emblems and tights, this hero wears his dignity and refusal to be silenced by shame.
1961’s film Victim is a classic. It’s not slapstick comedy, nor a thriller. But the one liners are often thrilling slaps in the face:
“But Mr. Farr’s married, sir.”
“Those are famous last words,” sir shoots back.
“Insincere bastard,” says the fag hag hanging off the bar, perched on her regular stool.
Well, what else can I be,” replies the barman, presaging something about the characters of his well-wishing.
“Nature played me a dirty trick. I’m gonna see I can get a few years peace and quiet in return,” said another sinner.
The main character coming out to his wife was one of the most powerful scenes. She drags him out of the closet- not to throw him away, but only to help him realize that he has actually known and expressed love in their relationship. She insists on her love for him, but as importantly asks him to be true to himself; her ego is small and her compassion grand. She offers him the opportunity to acknowledge his love for ‘that boy’ for perhaps the first time in his life. She accuses guilt of displacing her in his heart, not the ‘way’ he was, an interesting distinction on all the preaching against the Down Low (it’s society that breeds guilt, silly).
A Human Stain, A Gay Hero and Modern Martyrs
Race still marks difference in our society with minorities often burdened with the task of unraveling race, let alone racism, and whites often unable to perceive the hegemony. The post-Civil Rights strategy of Obama portends to ignore ‘race’ altogether, promising that the best of us arrives from taking care of all of us.
People wonder why there is no Malcolm X, nor Martin Luther King to galvanize queer people. But, unlike 1961 London, or pre-2003 USA, or pre-2009 India, the modern gay movement won’t be fought on the marching ground, and we won’t have martyrs like Harvey Milk serve as our only impetus for change. Each and everyone of us has the power to assert agency in our daily lives. The Internet has exponentially, for example, increased the means by which radical, anti-white-washing, anti-polarizing voices can spread across the universe. Stains of inequality which sat and shroomed in pockets in the old world, such as Apartheid in South Africa or Jim and Jane Crow in the American South, can no longer persist in the modern world. Might this be the fate of caste in India?
How might have the Suweto uprising changed had there been mobile phone cameras and MMS texting, let alone E-mail, blogging, and posting videos to YouTube?!? Where one radical picture of Hector Pieterson- a slain Black school boy- galvanized resistance against Aparthied, and evidently sparked an entire revolution, the visualization of the beating of Black Los Angeles motorist Rodney King brought home the normative way in which ‘race’ materializes in law-enforcement. Thanks to just mobile phones, let alone other technologies, witnesses can testify around the world to micro and macro atrocities that others never wanted to believe existed. Now consider the viral video of fights, including in schools (search YouTube for “school fight” and do not be shocked that most results are not dramatizations, are almost always ‘boys’, and often before a cheering crowd.
Then consider Derrion Alberts, a Chicago youth who was beaten to death near his school on the way home. Those street fights are a real and present danger, a known but ignored reality of modern urban decay. The video not only brought some of the gang members to the clutches of justice, but also provided an anchor for other mute witnesses and community members to take a stand: The viral nature of the video clip, and its circulation in the media encouraged folks to name the accused, in a neighborhood where gang violence silences many through retaliation. A concerned citizen specifically took the video in response to lack of action taken against the regular street violence in front of his sister’s high school, and still he remains hidden for fear of his safety and allows the medium of video to represent his presence; that videographer witnesses, and agrees to testify. “Damn” and “Oh my God, get closer” a young sister says off screen during the video of Derrion’s last minute. Damn” someone says after Derrion’s death, “dey still down ‘er goin’ at it.”
Also, think about regimes which silence an entire people. Think about the police crack down in Guinea, the citizen reporting from Iran, or the role Internet video in modern terrorism. Video in the hands of the people can assert the kind of agency that topples dictatorships and oppressive ideologies like never before. Moreover, that kind of footage is almost tangible. It’s more real than The Blair Witch Project, and more personable than the reality TV show Big Brother - even with the run-of-the-mill racists rows with Shilpa Shetty and greasy Jermaine Jackson’s coaching that Indian princess). We face our violence and are forced to acknowledge that violence is deeply ingrained in our society and interwoven into who we are- what it means to be a man, for example.
Boys must learn not to hit girls, and men are shamed for hitting women. But I know many a bitch that will beat a nigga down (like Precious’ mama); but those are the ‘quality’ chicks the commercial rappers cheer about (“beat dat bitch witta bat”). Nonetheless, we approve men committing violence against men, and even encourage it as a part of being a man. Boys are especially given toy weapons from miniature tanks and battle-ready starships, to guns and swords for potty training! We are a beat down nation! Americans really, really get high on violence. After comedian Bernie Mac: We hate like a mutha fucka! And we Americans love us some mutha fuckin’ violence!
Mobile phone clips are just one technology revolutionizing how we act out. Societies’ recent past often show that once we actually ‘see’ our violence, we are transformed. Somehow time and distance can only be traversed through the person-to-person reportage, not just reporting, but witnessing and then testifying. Former slave Harriet Ann Jacobs’ (b.1813, slave; d.1897, free) Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl is said to be the definitive book that introduced northerners to the lived reality of slavery allowing may to ‘see’ their complicacy through their tacit support of the Fugitive Slave Law. First published in 1861, Jacobs’ personal portrait of slavery sparked change. Hector Pieterson’s had the same ramifications in Apartheid South Africa, for there are many reports from (white) Afrikaners who claim to not have been aware of the extent of the oppression in which they were silently participating and, crucially, therefore approving.
Rev Dr. Martin Luther King had to go from place to place and show his face for people to understand the weight of Jim and Jane Crow, while the 1955 photo of Emmet Till’s open casket exposed many complacent Americans to the violence of racism- 14-year old Till’s head bashed in by sick white racists, all in a damn day’s work in that place and time. We all saw the ominous picture of the fencing where Mathew Shepard’s mutilated body was left to perish, and we promise to ourselves that this just should not happen. Yet, frankly our inactivity, and then mobilization around slight, localized causes like Prop 8 and military conscription demonstrates that we are still waiting on another Milk.
No, gays won’t have to march- there are plenty more ways for heroes to come out to battle. What if lynching had gone viral? Remember that Dr. King had no iPhone, hence the distance between Montgomery and Atlanta was enormous, but dwarfed by now the Internet (not to mention I-85). Just consider the hate crimes and non-violence protest organized around Jena Louisiana. No, Beyoncé, you cannot do for me what Martin did for the people! Ran by the men but the women kept the tempo No, B. you’re no shero like Fannie Lou Hamer, and certainly not Mahalia Jackson. The people are asking for a bit more substance, building on the impact of these images of real people- unarticulated through market forces- can create change; the mobile clip might supersede these modern divas.
Remember, the iconic image of Hector Pieterson!?! Still, we’re unfortunately still into martyrs. It took images like HU’s own Skip Gates’ arrest to give credence to the sitting president to address the violence of how race mediates how we interact on every level from the boys and gals in blue and the average citizen, to even civil public discourse. At least Big B did what he could do and fashioned a “teachable moment,” the sort that viral media gone rancid cannot. Too many folks eat images like a hit-and-run (or fire-and-forget), and we feel as satisfied as filling up with soda- what we in Kentucky call pop. It’s just empty calories. We feel temporarily full, high even from the fantastic sugar, sodium, caffeine combo; but soon enough we just piss that crap out and hunger for more. That’s how we do pop (culture). Luckily, our local convenient stores and school vending machine are always on point, offering a cooled supply of junk.
Might we ever see images of genuine, soulful luster and grandeur- happiness articulated through something other than material bliss, and come out the better? Might we ever lust for pop images that give us soul to satiate us with pleasures beyond hype and bling, and without the typical modern cynicism? The cynicism derides and berates anything critical, which leaves us to only feed off the pain, the sheer martyrdom of others. We get high off of a good beat down, and become excitable around shows of guns, tits and ass. No one really dare stand out, lest the sound-bite, viral media take a chunk out of their lives and call them a Smooth Criminal (Damn right, I said that sh*t! I could teach you, but I’(d) havta charge).
Might this technology continually produce videos like the brutal death of Derrion Alberts and galvanize Americans to transform ourselves into a non-violent society, which was King’s true dream, to recall the mantle upon which the Nobel Peace Prize stands! King sparked a social revolution, and the Nobel Prize apparently hastened, galvanized broader dialogue in support of his efforts. “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” says King, opening his acceptance speech in Oslo in December of 1964. The Nobel Peace prize was awarded, and King accepted the Prize on behalf of a movement, which likens it more to a grant, a note of support. Notably, the Prize apparently focused King’s efforts on ending the violence of poverty and the violence of war. Peace is the real upgrade. At issue here is what sparks change, for change is inevitable.
Victim, with it’s extraordinarily woven narratives and almost melodramatic dialogues that liken the film to more of a stage production than a moving picture flic gives the film a quality of liveliness. Shot in Black and White, the close-ups and sustained dialogues really focuses our attention on experiencing the emotions involved- we are after all talking about a non-violent crime so the action is in the anxiety. At one point we even have an extreme close-up shot of one main victim panting, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes, having lost his freedom for the crime of homosexuality, ashamed, considering his next move. This finesse makes the experiences of the narrative as personable as Black Box Theater.
The finish of Victim shows that always cowards sell each other out and end up selling themselves out by not standing up for anything. They act out of fear, something that it seems far more easy to do today sitting behind a laptop or a flat screen, virtually experiencing the world. When communication is mediated by this technology, we are embolden to take a stance- to basically stand at one pole or the other- shades of gray are less hued now than in this pre-Technicolor film. The trouble is, for those who experience most of the world virtually, they’ve really nothing of substance to say, and are robbed of opportunities to develop skills for dynamic dialogue- not just posting something on a site, never knowing if it actually gets read. But, then there are those whose circumstances demand change. Some of us even tend to speak out more through these technological mediums, but only enough to leave a vile response or tacky, ill-worded reply to an article.
That sort of virtual existence we’re approaching is the theme of plenty of contemporary Sci-Fi flics from the 1999/2003’s Matrix Trilogy to 2009’s Surrogates, or for example, 1998’s Pleasantville. One can even see this polarized virtual reality in 1975’s The Stepford Wives or its 2004 remake starring Ms. Nicole Kidman. Like the Stepford husbands living in a virtual reality, modern folk can also have an easier reality with which to contemplate. Yet, rest assured that these blokes and their modern net-freak flock are the true casualties of modernization. Few of these folks actually find the courage to stand up in their daily lives as does the main protagonist of the ironically named film Victim. A punctuating message of Victim seems to be that despite the cynicism, which was well dramatized in this film by the behavior of the flock, there are still those who refuse to cow down. Like the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope few seem to consciously ‘get’ these dramatic twist.
Yet, that’s just the twist: There’s as thin a line between love and hate, as between courage and fear, dignity and humiliation- a line that the main characters of Rope failed to identify, but one that Victim’s ultimate hero has. Failing to locate that line could cost you your life. And perceiving that line takes a bit more than a sound-bite can handle. Yet, that’s what makes Victim also an action movie, where one outstanding citizen dares to go against the tide within the confounds of daily life. The action: daring to speak ‘out’. The heroine: Daring to stand by. Both are examples of everyday courage.