Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nate Parker and Predators of Faith

By Sikivu Hutchinson

A man of deep faith.  That is the lofty mantle actor/director Nate Parker has self-righteously ascribed to himself in a Facebook post written in response to the firestorm around his alleged rape of a fellow student at disgraced Penn State University in 1999. 

The details of the incident involving the unnamed victim, Parker and his Birth of a Nation writing partner Jean Celestin, have rocked the Internet.  Celestin was initially convicted but the ruling was overturned on appeal four years later.  Parker was acquitted partly because the jury concluded that the victim couldn’t have been raped because she had had “consensual sex” with him prior to the attack.  According to court documents, Parker and Celestin harassed and stalked the victim.  After attempting suicide she sued the university, alleging that it had not protected her from the harassment.  In 2012, she died by suicide after battling PTSD and depression, reportedly due to the sexual assault.

Parker's and Celestin’s status as athletes at a university which has a history of complicity in sexual assault is an especially ugly irony.  Their commodity value to Penn no doubt shielded them from the long jail sentence that almost certainly would have been slapped on two ordinary young black men charged with raping a white woman.   

Yet, the phrase “man of faith” resonates with many black audiences. In this instance it’s designed to elicit an unquestioning cultural solidarity that Parker does not deserve.

The implication that “faith” defines morality is the gospel for a majority of the American public in general and African Americans in particular.  Expressing regret for his youthful “carelessness”, Parker wrote that “there is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in [that] situation”. Presumably a “man of faith”, one who adheres to the bible (with its prescriptions for the subordination and rape of women, damnation of gays, and murder of infidels) would have held himself to a higher standard of conduct.

For sexual assault survivors, the phrase is both bludgeon and vise.

How many times has a “man of faith” used his position as a respected community leader to sexually abuse a child?  How many times has a black girl been told by a man of faith that her life, her voice, her body, are less than zero in the face of violent male domination and control? And how many times have queer youth been gutted by the tale that men of faith can’t rape amoral gay, lesbian and trans folk?

Parker’s cynical manipulation of this term is repugnant, an affront to all of the sexual abuse victims who have been crushed, silenced by its use. His retrospective plea for “empathy” to his younger self is a politically expedient smokescreen.  It banishes all those who’ve been brutalized into submission because the adults in their lives—mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, law enforcement, counselors and other authority figures—have told them it’s improper to question the moral authority and righteousness of “men of faith”. 

In his statement Parker also invokes his identity as a father and husband.  But would he look the other way if one of his five black daughters—in a nation where approximately 40% of young black girls are raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust—were victimized by a man who trotted out his faith as a cover for his actions?

According to early reviews, The Birth of a Nation includes a scene depicting the graphic rape of Nat Turner’s wife. Commenting on the glut of Negro slave and servant movies a few years ago, bell hooks remarked that she was “tired of the naked, raped black female body” being used as a space of projection for white and black male subjectivity. Here, black women’s bodies become vehicles for exploring what really matters; the boundlessness of black male pain.  Thus, it is profoundly troubling, but not surprising, that Parker would depict the brutal institutional rape of African American women under slavery then have the gumption to philosophize about his faith-inspired empathy for the dead rape victim he stalked, harassed and victim-shamed.  This ardent man of faith has not connected the dots between his own patriarchal privilege, heterosexism (Parker has stated in the past that he would not play a gay character in order to “preserve the black man”) and American rape culture. In light of these revelations, his Nate Turner retelling will be read by many of us survivors as yet another instance in which cis-het black men are redeemed as proper stewards, keepers and protectors of defiled black femininity in that epic time of “celluloid slavery”—one which allows good black men of faith in contemporary America to deflect on their own complicity in normalizing sexual violence.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Khans and the Masters of War

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1919, Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia after serving in World War I.  Instead of being heralded as a hero he was savagely attacked in public by white thugs.  The mob forced him to take off his uniform and strip to his underwear. When he refused to obey the mob’s demand that he never wear his uniform in public again he was lynched.

Little was murdered during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919 when race riots instigated by whites swept the nation, fueled by postwar tensions over jobs, housing and the wave of African Americans moving to Northern cities. Isabel Wilkerson recalls the irony of his lynching in her landmark work on the Great Migration The Warmth of Other Suns. Instead of being treated like heroes, black World War I veterans were subjected to white hostility and outright terrorism. "America the Beautiful" hypocrisy was never more so than in its treatment of soldiers of color hoodwinked into believing Jim Crow violence would magically dissipate with military service. 

During World War I, families who’d lost relatives in combat were dubbed Gold Star families.  Because Wilbur Little was lynched on American soil, his family never received this designation, his death due to one of the longest wars the U.S. has waged—one against its own black “citizens”.
Decades later, this paradox still resonates when it comes to the fraught question of African Americans and other people of color serving a “democratic” war machine—to paraphrase conscientious objector Muhammed Ali—based on inhumane, imperialist militarism towards nations of color.   The recent flap over the Khan family’s DNC speech—parents of slain Gold Star soldier Humayan Khan, viciously maligned by Donald Trump and catapulted into the national arena as symbols of Muslim Americans’ unappreciated sacrifices to “flag and Country”— highlights the divide between the aspirations of immigrants of color and the homegrown reality of white Christian supremacy.  No matter what the “good” upstanding immigrant/person of color does to meet the litmus test of American patriotism they will never be validated by the dominant culture as human/citizen/hero—especially in times of nativist backlash. In his DNC speech, as well as during his TV appearances, Khizr Khan trumpeted the exceptionalist line, invoking the Constitution and proclaiming (in response to the outpouring of support the couple received after Trump’s tirade) that “every step they [the U.S.] take, the world emulates it.”

Throughout the GOP and Democratic conventions, both parties predictably trafficked in flag waving bombast and paeans to American exceptionalism.  Awash in “Greatest Nation” platitudes, the DNC was capped by Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s repeated invocations of the slaveholder-rapist founding fathers. 

Of course, one of the most eloquent (semi) antidotes to this propaganda came when Michele Obama referenced the slave legacy of the White House’s construction.  The First Lady thoughtfully summoned the image of her daughters romping on a lawn that black folk tending to antebellum plantations could only have dreamed of.  It was a subtle, albeit unintended, rebuke of the rabid Christian fascism spewed by Ben Carson the week before when he proclaimed that secular progressives are “antithetical” to the principles of the founding fathers.  In true lunatic fringe mode, Carson went off the rails about the Dems being in league with Lucifer, while Michele Obama highlighted the subtext of America’s New Jim Crow reality in which the descendants of the White House builders are in another kind of bondage, one cosigned by the Clinton/Obama administrations.
For his part, president Obama sounded the theme that everyone on the planet strives to emulate the U.S.  “American democracy works”, Obama declared.  “Gone” were the record numbers of black and brown inmates incarcerated in American jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities during his time in office. “Gone” were the drones that his administration has unleashed on thousands of Middle Eastern civilians marked for death in the name of American democracy.

Against this backdrop of imperialist devastation, the Khan’s display of patriotic heartbreak was tragically ironic and all too familiar.  Similar appeals touting the heroism and basic decency of Muslim-Americans were made in the wake of 9/11’s anti-Muslim backlash.  Whether viewed through the lens of 1919 or 2016, when it comes to the sacrificial bodies of people of color, this message of patriotic “redemption” is just another narrative that the “Greatest nation” will always manipulate to sugar coat its sin of endless occupation.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Black Women’s Film Confronts the Whitewashing of Jonestown

By Sikivu Hutchinson

For most people, the story of the 1978 Jonestown massacre is "simple"—a bunch of gullible Kool Aid drinking “cultists” from San Francisco followed a crazy manipulative white man into the jungle “Heart of Darkness” style and were systematically killed in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history.  For decades, a succession of Jonestown productions, most notably the 1980 TV film “Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy”, and countless books authored by white people, have focused squarely on the lethal charisma of the Reverend Jim Jones, leader of the infamous Peoples Temple church which emigrated to Guyana in the 1970s.  Mainstream history’s “Jones ‘jones’ “ whitewashes the fact that black people comprised over 75% of the church and that the majority of those who died in Jonestown were black women motivated by the utopic promise of a black paradise.  In the turbulence and disillusionment of the post civil rights, post-Vietnam era, Jonestown was supposed to be an antidote to the racial strife, economic inequality and segregation of the U.S.  For black women and black people looking back, one of the profound lessons of Jonestown is that these conditions have only intensified in a nation in the twilight of a black presidency.   

My 2015 novel and new film White Nights, Black Paradise are a corrective to the devaluing of this history.

I decided to produce, write and direct a short film treatment of the novel with an all-black crew and predominantly black cast of insanely talented actors out of frustration with the parade of white savior/redeemer/villain representations of Jonestown.   The short film will be a springboard for a feature length treatment.  Over the past few decades, films like Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Django Unchained and, most recently, the cartoonish Stonewall, have used charismatic white leads to tell histories that should revolve around black folk.  Recent portrayals of Jonestown marginalize black women and omit the intersectional gender politics, queer identities and socio-historical context of the Peoples Temple movement.  Even African American documentarian Stanley Nelson’s otherwise on point 2006 film The Life and Death of Peoples Temple fails to amplify black women’s pivotal role in and contribution to the church’s activism.

Ernestine (Camille Lourde Wyatt) & Ida (Janine Lancaster) 

Doing a film adaption was also an opportunity to showcase underappreciated and underrepresented multigenerational black actresses. Many of the cast hail from screen and stage via Los Angeles’ acclaimed Black theatre company the Robey Theatre, which was founded in 1994 by actors Ben Guillory and Danny Glover.

As adapted from the book, the film production centers on black women characters partly modeled on real life Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown.  Theatre pro Camille Lourde Wyatt plays Ernestine Markham, a character based on Christine Miller; the only person recorded challenging Jones’ command that the community commit mass suicide on the so-called “Death Tape”.  Because there is so little known about Miller’s background I wanted to provide her fictional counterpart with a rich back story.  In White Nights, Black Paradise, Markham/Miller is an English teacher, politically conscious “race woman” and Temple loyalist who speaks out when the corruption and abuse in the church become impossible for her to ignore.

Hy (Aba Arthur), Jess (Dionne Neish) & Taryn (Tiffany Coty)

The diversity of belief systems in the church is reflected in the atheist and agnostic world views of lead protagonists and sisters, Taryn and Hy Strayer.  Played by electric actresses Tiffany Coty and Aba Arthur, the often contentious pair becomes involved in the Temple out of a commitment to social justice in the Bay Area.  This was the unifying theme in the lives of many surviving Temple members who lost family in Jonestown—black women and women of color like Jordan Vilchez, Juanell Smart and Leslie Wagner-Wilson (the only black woman to pen an autobiography on the tragedy*) were all motivated to stay with the Temple because of family ties and the church’s commitment to progressive politics.

The rich gender and sexual diversity of the church is reflected in the characters Taryn, Devera Medeiros and Jess McPherson.  Devera is a transwoman and writer cultivated by Jim Jones while Jess is a holistic therapist involved in an intense, often co-dependent love relationship with Taryn.   As played by Latonya Kitchen (making her film debut) and the riveting Dionne Neish, both exemplify the ways in which strong, accomplished black women became ensnared by and complicit in the Temple’s culture of persecution and terror. This dynamic is also illustrated by the role of Zephyr Threadgill, an aerospace engineer incisively rendered by Robbie Danzie, who serves as Jim’s “prosecutor” in a pernicious Salem Witch trial-esque interrogation scene. In her role as co-conspirator, Danzie is ably matched by veteran actor Darrell Philip, who nails Jones’ brooding megalomania.

Zephyr Threadgill (Robbie Danzie) & Jim (Darrell Philip)

In tackling the key role of Taryn, Chicago-native Tiffany Coty said she was attracted to the film because of the dearth of meaty, complex roles for black women in the industry.  Black actresses past the sexist “prime” of ingĂ©nue must fight tooth and nail for limited opportunities in the Hollywood pipeline.  Mainstream film has no use for older black women beyond the obligatory self-sacrificing mothers, white women sidekicks, or austere, Talented Tenth one-scene courtroom procedural judges.
In our film, black women emerge as powerful historical actors representing the entire spectrum of religious belief, “apostasy” and agency. They also have pivotal roles as documentarians of the church’s politics and power struggles.  Most fictional portrayals of Peoples Temple have avoided focusing on the complex role of the Black press in the church’s rise.  White Nights, Black Paradise highlights the influence of Carlton Goodlett, firebrand publisher of the once prominent Sun Reporter black newspaper chain as well as the Peoples Forum newspaper.  In the book and film, Goodlett’s unwavering support of Jones and the Temple is offset by the critical presence of Ida Lassiter, a fictitious investigative journalist and activist.  As played by actress and former reporter Janine Lancaster, Ida spars with Lourde’s righteous Ernestine over the emigration of the church to Jonestown and her checkered past with Jim Jones.

The limitations of interracial “sisterhood” and second wave feminist solidarity are epitomized by the divisive figure of Carol, played by Allison Blaize. Modeled on Carolyn Layton, a white Temple lieutenant, chief strategist and mother of one of Jones’ children, Carol represents one of the biggest paradoxes of the church.  White women, often sexually manipulated, were installed as “gentle” enforcers and authority figures by Jones.  The tacit conflict between black and white women over leadership upended the image of socialist egalitarianism the movement attempted to project in public. These kind of politics—all too real in this era of Clintonian white corporate feminism--are conspicuously absent from the white gaze of historical fiction. 

In White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is a space of projection for black women’s dreams, ambitions, and struggles for self-determination in apartheid America.  As Robbie Danzie (Zephyr) notes, “The novel reminds those of us passionately committed to organizations (spiritual or not), that our participation must be based on inquiry and self-study, as opposed to heightened emotion and blind faith or trust stirred by others.  Even today, there are those of us roused to action, sometimes tragically, by leaders of churches and/or political organizations, who've become intoxicated by increased money and power.”

*Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash narrated her life story to an autobiographer for the book The Onliest One Alive

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.  The film will be released this fall.