Four filmes were shown, and one preview for an uncoming one that I'm very excited about. These films are:
Again, it's important to keep in mind the fact that this page is filled not only with the comments of the filmmaker panelists and descriptions of the films, but with my own impressions as well. Beware attributing my own opinions to the filmmakers themselves.
Both of Krawitz's films were very personal, which is actually a nice change of pace for people like me who only usually watch TV and movies and have no access to artsy type stuff. This film revolved around women and body image -- how women modularize ourselves into parts, and how we're constantly being judged, and judging, based on how well the separate bits of ourselves stack up. (And how those bits are never ever allowed to come together to form a whole person.) There's a lot to talk about with a topic like this, so I'll just dive right in.
The film consisted of interviews with various women about their bodies, how they felt about them, how their lives brought them to the state where they just didn't feel that great about them, and how it made them feel and interact with other women. The diversity of women was good to see -- no, not every woman was white and overweight. Body size, shape, race, hair color, height -- all varieties were demonstrated by the women who were interviewed. The interviews were interspersed with beauty contest newsreel footage from the 40s and 50s that was utterly blatant and disgusting -- really obnoxious stuff. All women who were interviewed were wearing a white mask, including the African American women, which makes a point about white standards of beauty being applied across the board to women who simply aren't going to look like Barbie.
This film was angering, illuminating, and disquieting at turns, and frequently together. The angering stuff is always the easiest for me to focus on -- stock newsreel footage of women in the 40s and 50s being literally judged like prize sows; I mean, they weren't even subtle about it. It was infuriating -- especially since in one shot, the men who were judging sure didn't look that great themselves. But their bodies weren't exposed to judgement, and even if they were paunchy, wore thick glasses, were overweight, had a double (or triple) chin, or had no hairline to speak of, they didn't have to stand up in front of a crowd next to a gorgeous guy and feel the eyes of the audience running over them.
Illuminating? You bet. No, the large women weren't the only ones to hate parts of their bodies. The blonde women disliked themselves just as much. The skinny women were made to feel gawky and ugly, something that a large woman might not even have guessed. Stock footage was used to illustrate not only the terrible lengths to which large women have always been pushed to lose weight, but the lengths to which thin women have been pushed to become more voluptuous. Large women might have big thighs, but thin women are often small-breasted -- and neither body type is good enough for the world. There is no woman alive who hits the nonexistent and arbitrary ideal of a boy's hips with an earth mother's breasts.
For myself, it was interesting to listen to the women talk about how they viewed not only themselves but other women -- positively and negatively. Large women looked resentfully at thinner women, thin women felt boyish and gawky if they didn't measure up to the ideal voluptuous figure, blonde women felt as if other women regarded them as having had perfect lives despite the ills and trials they had suffered. Obstacles were placed in the way of all of the women, all of whom felt trivialized and ignored either because they didn't follow the beauty ideal, or because they did.
I also thought of the ways in which this made me interact with other women, and the strongest instance of this for me is the way that I look at other women. I find women to be physically attractive, and the body type that I like most is very different from mine. I am middling-tall at 5'8" and relatively thin. Through no effort of my own, it seemed to have been spontaneously decided when I hit 25 that I was very pretty. And despite not really caring about what I look like, my exterior puts a wall between me and the kind of women I find attractive -- fair, round women who many people would consider too heavy. I find that even in a queer-friendly setting, I cannot look openly at the women that I find attractive because I know that my intentions (admiration) will be misinterpreted as hostility and smugness since I am thin, and the women I would look at are not.
It also impacts my life since I an affected by a disability called Marfan Syndrome, which you can learn more about at The National Marfan Foundation. Among the symptoms of Marfan are height and thinness, and I've experienced some frustration at how body image issue for women have narrowed to "whose thighs are fat and ugly," and a lifethreatening disability that results in tall, thin bodies throws most discussions for a serious loop.
This was a very personal film, revolving around the filmmaker's youth, how safety and endangerment had been presented to her as a child, and how the entire edifice came down the day she was sexually assaulted in a motel room in Texas while making a documentary film about the drive-in theaters that dotted the Texan landscape. The film uses copious voiceovers over film shot by Krawitz before and after she was assaulted, as well as liberal contemporary footage of the "duck and cover" variety, instructing schoolkids not to talk to strangers, and how to avoid being in harm's way.
Krawitz had grown up in the 50s, when nuclear war and "Russkies" were buzzwords, when schoolchildren were subjected to war drills and had to hide under their desks when the schoolbell rang to "protect" themselves from a thermonuclear blast. Polio vaccines had just been perfected (the oral Sabin vaccine administered on a sugar cube), protecting young children from the everpresent fear of life-changing paralysis that could come with the onset of any fever.
(As an aside, I recall my mother, who was raised in the 30s and 40s, talking about the fear of polio. It was very, very real -- every parent in any neighborhood would feel fear whenever any of the children got a fever -- the first sign of polio. It ravaged schools, and left those affected by it oftentimes paralyzed -- flat on their backs for the rest of their lives and dependent on ventilators even to breathe. Polio fear, and nuclear fears, were very, very real, with justification.)
While the Sabin vaccine certainly went a long way to protect kids and adults from polio, the point illustrated by the other warnings and "protections" such as hiding under school desks was that a lot of the guidelines given to people that protect them from harm are in fact talismans and very little else. Hiding under your desk at school made you feel as if you were safe and doing something to protect yourself, but in the event of a nuclear war, you and the school were more likely to be atomized or fatally irradiated. Fearing strangers was not going to save a child (or adult) from harm, since moving around in the world of necessity involves dealing with strangers for the rest of one's life. Many of the rules and advice given to keep one safe result not in safety, but the illusion of safety -- and that illusion is very, very easy to rupture, as happened for Krawitz the day she was assaulted in Texas.
The rupturing of that illusion is also particularly painful, and in the first opening shot of a building being professionally imploded, the very strong comparision to the cataclysmic (and sudden) collapse of an already-rickety edifice is made openly. Boom. Ten seconds, a minute, fifteen minutes -- and between that eyeblink and another, what looked solid and was taken for granted is now dusty rubble.
One shot that was used a few times, the significance of which I didn't understand until Krawitz spoke at the panel was one shot of her in a headset, looking up into the camera. That shot was one of her making a sound check while filming the aforementioned drive-in documentary the day before she was assaulted. Krawitz remarked that, while putting that film together, she found herself drawn to that one shot, seeing that un-assaulted woman looking up into the camera and thinking, "If she only knew what was in store for her." *sigh*
This movie, about the relocation of thousands of Japanese-Americans during WWII, was instructive and illumiating -- and also impacted me as an Italian-American in ways that I will go into later.
The movie focuses on the experiences of the Omori family during the relocation. The filmmaker, Emiko Omori, was only a year and a half old when her family was relocated. Her sister, Chizu, was ten and hence her experiences were much more tangible. However, this is not just a personal film, and many others are interviewed for their perspective on just what happened.
This was a wonderful film (except for one comment which I'll focus on in some depth below), and gave me a lot of information about the internment that I hadn't had before. I knew that it happened, which is something that I didn't know when I was young -- and for that the filmmakers and those involved in the internment awareness should feel very proud. If they hadn't worked so hard over the past several years, no one would have known. Even now, it's a race against time to get the story from those who were interned before they die.
Many of the trials of relocation are gone over in detail -- lack of access to good medical care, which hastened the death of Omori's own mother. Having to sell profitable businesses for a pittance, which had financial repercussions still being felt by the families in question. How nisei (second generation) Americans and kibei (American born Japanese who were educated in Japan) were interned along with their issei (Japanese nationals) parents and grandparents. Having no privacy whatsoever and having to sleep on straw-stuffed mattresses and live in barracks-like conditions. Newsreels of the time were interspersed with the interviews and other footage that cast the internment as something done for the safety of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, "who would find Uncle Sam a kind master," as one announcer stated.
However, much of what the film illustrated I didn't know, or hadn't thought through. For example, anyone in the camps who was over a certain age (perhaps 14, perhaps 17, I can't clearly recall) were expected to answer a questionnaire that would give the authorities an idea of how "loyal" they were. By using a classification system based on the answers, people were filed in any of a variety of acceptable or unacceptable categories. For example, if a person could speak, read, and write fluent Japanese, two points were subtracted from their acceptability standing. If they spoke, read, and wrote only English, points were added. If the person was Christian, they were awarded points. If Shinto, they were marked with "reject."
Two questions in particular were sticky -- 27, and 28. Question 27 asked whether the person in question would be willing to go into the Armed Forces and serve anywhere they were told to go. This seems like an innocent enough question -- but upon reflection, it made no sense. After being treated like criminals, many people weren't willing to die for a country that had imprisoned them without cause. And many others were willing to serve in the armed forces -- but not in Japan, where they might be called upon to kill family members. (Omori's own family members served in Manchuria in the Japanese Army.) Yet any response other than an unqualified "yes" was marked reject.
Question 28 asked whether or not the person was willing to give up any allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Again, this seems like a simple question -- but it's not. For a Japanese American, the question also made no sense. Give up what they never had? This was much like asking someone, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" when they never did it to start with. There was no reasonable way for a Japanese American to answer the question. For their parents and grandparents, many of whom were Japanese nationals, giving up all allegiance to the Japanese government would make them stateless, without a citizenship of any kind.
Because of these and other factors, many people simply didn't answer the questionnaire -- a move which put them in the "reject" category anyhow. Many others were so angered that they answered no/no out of principle, and were rejected.
The analogy given by Omori reveals the message behind the movie's title, and the motivation of the government in demanding that the relocated people un-Japanify themselves and assimilate into a (nonexistent) uniform, white American culture. In western society, the Moon is seen as a person's face, "the man in the moon" looking down at us. In Japan, the dark shadows and shapes on the surface of the Moon are seen as a rabbit, "the rabbit in the moon." What the United States wanted was for them to stop seeing the rabbit.
Another facet of the history that I didn't know were the details of the government's interaction with the interned people. In the Japanese community, the people with the most standing were of course the eldest ones, most likely to be issei, and Japanese nationals. The government, however, would only deal with the nisei, in many cases the adult children of the issei. This upset the hierarchy that was already in place in the community, and made for much friction between the nisei, who were put in the place of speaking for their people, and the issei, who felt wronged in having to take orders from people who were in no place to give them. As a result, the community began to come apart at the seams, and the JACL (the Japanese American Citizens League), which included many of the nisei who were placed in charge, became demonized as collaborators.
The entire exercise sounds like a psychological experiment in how best to break up the cohesion of a community. Step One: take them from their homes and move them to someplace where they would feel rootless. Step Two: Introduce a separating element into them (the questionnaire) that would attempt to "weed" them out, and cause some to feel separate and different from the others, according to the jailer's criteria. Step Three: Put an authority system in place that would run as counter to the one already in place as possible. Step Four: sit back and watch.
The one lack that I felt in the film was an interview with anyone from the JACL. When asked about this lack at the filmmakers' panel, Omori stated that she felt that the JACL had had enough time to put their own case forward, and have controlled the interpretation of events for long enough that it was acceptable to concentrate on the other side. The problem that I have with this as a viewer is that, speaking as someone who is just beginning to understand the fact that there are "sides" to this, I would have appreciated an interview with a JACL member. I can see how they may have felt that they were doing the best by their people that they could, by attempting to "smooth relations" between the interned population and the government -- however you may see that yourself. Omori, as a Japanese American, is intimately familiar with the story as it has been presented so far. I am not -- I have no idea what the JACL has said so far, nor that they have "controlled" the version of history that has thus far been presented. This is completely news to me. I feel that the film would have been a better one had Omori been (strange as this sounds) more aware of the magnitude of the ignorance of the majority of the audience for this film.
The comment that I took issue with was made by Chizu Omori, when she stated that the German and Italians and their children (the US had after all been at war with the Axis powers, including those in Europe) had been left completely untouched by the General Order which resulted in the Japanese American internment. While I watched the film, the comment elicited a very audible shock-reaction from me which was probably out of place. Oh, not a yell or anything, just a very audible whoof of air which may have seemed rude. Initially, I was very angry at the ignorance of the German and Italian American internments and restrictions until I realized that I, an Italian-American, had not even known that our people had been targetted by the same General Order until I was 31 years old. (Chizu's children had not even known the full extent of what had happened to their mother.)
As a result, I don't feel that I can hold it against the Omoris that they were unaware of this until recently. I'm dead certain that few to none of the people reading this were aware that several thousand Italians and Italian-Americans were interned, nor that 10,000 Germans and German-Americans were interned.
I heard about it on CNN myself, and I was so shocked that I made special efforts to contact the people in charge of "Una Storia Segreta," the exhibit that showcased the ways that Italian/Italian-Americans were wronged during WWII. The name means both "a secret story" and "a secret history." I was sent a pamphlet about the events, and took it home to show my mother over the winter holidays. When she read it, she got a strange look on her face, ran upstairs, and brought down my own grandfather's enemy alien registration card. Any paisans who are now reading this would be well-advised to go to the Una Storia Segreta website for the exhibit. If your parents were alive during WWII, or your grandparents are still alive, print out some of the site, then bring it home and let them read it. You'll be very surprised at what you unearth. This internment injustice was larger than anyone knows.
It's also worth stating that, during the film, the comment is made that for years, the Japanese-Americans said nothing about what they endured because by the war's end, the term "concentration camp" had become something so utterly horrific that they felt that their own grievances were too petty to bother mentioning. This is, for the most part, the same way that the Italian and Germans Americans feel about what we endured during the war -- only this time, it is the Japanese Americans who suffered so much more than we.
Chizu was very gracious during the filmmakers' panel, when I stood up and spoke of this to the room and again, I feel no enmity toward her for being ignorant of something (at the time of the film's creation) that I didn't even know about until two years ago as an Italian-American. But for me, the one moment when she stated that those of German and Italian descent were untouched by the General Order still grates on me like nails on a blackboard. The film can hardly be revised to remove that one second of film, but it would stick in my ear were I to hear it again, even knowing that the filmmakers were aware of the error.
Anyone who would like to learn more about the restriction, exclusion, evacuation, and internment of Italian-Americans during WWII is invited to visit the Una Storia Segreta website and use the contact page. The travelling exhibit "Una Storia Segreta" is open and can be requested to travel.
This was also an intensely personal film, which was unusual since the woman who made it, June Cross, is a Frontline producer and is more often behind the camera (or the editing devices) than in front of it. It was an absolutely fascinating look at the way that two women, a mother and a daughter, both chose and were forced to interact over the gulf of race that separated them. In a strange way, it reminded me of "Maus," Art Spiegelman's look at how his father and he interacted over the abyss that divided them -- the abyss of his father's Holocaust memories.
Now, those are very different things, certainly, and I'm by no means attempting to equate the two. However, the two situations were similar insofar as you had a parent and child attempting to relate "normally" over a canyon that was placed between them through no fault of their own, one with vast social implications and about which the entire world feels qualified to pick the occasional nit. Every family has its skeletons in the closet, certainly, and there are many varieties of dysfunctionality. But Cross's position is unique in that the particular flavor of drama in her own family is one that mirrors the race problems of the United States almost perfectly: the way that whites and blacks have always been intertwined, with a shared intimate history -- and the way that we have always played it separate when the lights come up, particularly white people.
Cross's family situation is the following: she is the black daughter of a white mother, and was raised as her mother's adopted daughter. When she was very young, she was sent to live with a black family and was raised by her Aunt Peggy, a black woman and family friend. During the summers when school let out, she would return to her white mother's home, where she was presented as having been adopted.
Cross's mother fell in love with her father, a brilliant stage entertainer named James Cross, one half of a legendary theatrical comedy team called "Stump and Stumpy." Sammy Davis Jr. had observed at one time that "Stump" Cross was more talented and probably should have been the one in the Rat Pack -- had it not been for personal problems with alcohol that limited his career.
Another limitation was, of course, his race. At the time "Stump and Stumpy" were very popular in theaters (and were plagiarized by such luminaries as Martin and Lewis, revealed in an annoyingly circumlocutious interview with Lewis himself), but the lifetime of the theater was growing short with the advent of television. White performers had no problem making the transition from stage to camera, or at least the problems that they confronted were not based on their race.
Black performers, however, could not bridge the gap; television had to appeal to a much wider audience, and a show shot in New York could have real fears of losing the southern market by including a black performer. A theater need not worry about that, given that most black theaters were in black areas -- and given that the theater community had always been a bit more liberal than the general population. Hence, while a black performer could reach respectable heights in the theater, television was unwilling to risk hiring them. Demographics had begun to exert their chokehold on the entertainment industry (as they continue to do).
And "Stump" Cross's career felt it. Between the loss of his career and the effects of alcohol addiction, his life began to come apart, and his wife ultimately left the abusive atmosphere and took their daughter with her.
However, her own family was unwilling to deal with her, and certainly unwilling to open up to June, as living proof that she had had an intimate relationship with a black man. Between that and the abuse that she endured from both the white and black populations (and her fears for her new husband's career, the well-known comedy actor from "F-Troop," Larry Storch), she reached the conclusion that she would have to give her daughter up so that, in her words, "I wouldn't get in your way, and you wouldn't get in mine."
The truth isn't whitewashed in the film, pun intended. Cross's mother is not presented as saint or demon, and many of her choices are ones that would make a white person uncomfortable. She would distance herself from her black daughter while still wanting connection, apparently unwilling to risk whatever she would lose by bridging the gap between the two. At the same time, Cross herself admits that, had she been raised by her mother instead of by her Aunt Peggy, she would have been a "confused mess," and certainly would not have become a "Frontline" producer. The tangles in their relationship are nested and descend almost infinitely, like looking into a roomful of mirrors. Their discomfort with one another lays bare the nature of racism in this country -- what once had a clear and focused origin (slavery) is now almost a chicken-and-egg problem where whites and blacks behave unconfortably around one another because of a problem that was caused by them being treated differently in the first place, by whites.
Cross's mother endured discrimination from whites, blacks, and her own family as a white woman who had fallen in love with and married a black man. She had also perpetuated it by giving up her daughter and minimizing their relationship. She was quite willing to discuss the nature of the racism, and was very honest about everything but her own mother's attitude, where she couldn't resist a little selective editing (much like Cross herself, who coldn't resist skirting the issues when she was pinned down on her relationship to her mother -- more on that later). She was not defending white racism at the same time she was a perpetuator of it, and was quite willing to remark about the O.J. trial that most white people wouldn't care about Nicole Brown Simpson's death since they would just shrug their shoulders and say, "She deserved it." She also stated openly that she wanted to shield June from the judgmental eyes of her white family and friends, admitting freely that white people were very suspicious, even of their own kind -- which surprised Cross. "You mean you're like that even with each other?" was her reaction. Hell, yes. The line that's been drawn between white and black is constantly crossed; that's part of the reason why it's so vigilantly watched.
And yet at the same time, Cross's mother was unwilling to challenge this, perhaps thinking that it was too big for her, and not wanting to risk her standing with her upperclass white friends. She may have disliked the prejudice, and she may even have suffered at the hands of it -- but she did not challenge it, even for her daughter. This was made clear when Cross and she were talking, and she told her daughter that she didn't want Cross to live with her since it would mean living inside of a box set out by white people. "But all black people live inside that box," was Cross's reply, and it was plain that her mother was uncomfortable with the fact that she had failed to shield her daughter from that truth -- and likely could not have prevented it no matter what she did. All black people live inside that box, but all black people are not her daughter. I hope that that came through sufficiently in the film -- that what was evidently her mother's discomfort was not merely the guilt of a white person confronting the realities of racism, but the guilt of a mother who could not protect her daughter from the ugly world.
The skirting that I mention above was . . . interesting. Cross was on camera during many of these interviews, and many of the people that she spoke with were family members and friends. One of these people was her Aunt Sheila, who put forth as many questions as she answered. On camera, she asked June openly to state her feelings about her mother, telling her that she reserved a particular venom for racism and white people (understandable; I know that I can really get moving when I start ranting about sexism and men). She also pinned Cross down on how racism had impacted what, until then, Cross herself had been willing or able to see only as a mother-daughter conflict and not so much as a white-black conflict. It illustrated the split nature of her feelings over her life very plainly -- call her mother a racist and betray her. Fail to admit the racism behind her choices, and betray her people, and the truth. What a minefield to navigate.
What also came through in the film was that her mother was navigating a similar minefield, in her own way. In one extremely unpleasant moment, Cross's mother was talking about the way that her own mother, June's grandmother, had reacted to June's existence. (She had never been willing to acknowledge her granddaughter openly, nor her daughter's relationship with James Cross -- but it seemed that she was willing to tolerate it as long as her own daughter behaved in a properly penitent fashion and hid the whole thing. She didn't mind a family skeleton -- as long as it stayed in the closet.) June's mother stated that, once when her own mother had met June as a tiny child, she had said, "She's a nice little girl when you get to know her."
June's memory was quite different, and she recalled the comment as, "She's a nice little monkey once you get used to looking at her." And she confronted her own mother on this, and her mother was just as uncomfortable with that as June was when her Aunt Sheila confronted her. Call her mother a racist, and betray her. Refuse to admit it, and betray her daughter. Neither woman really wanted to pin their mothers down on what was obviously purely racist behavior -- and to their credit, both were willing to confront it. Cross by making the film, Cross's mother by agreeing to be in it.
She was entirely prepared to ask her mother to be interviewed on camera and be turned down -- and nearly fell out of her chair when her mother said, "Yes." In a twist of fate that made the entire audience cringe, however, the "yes" was given a chance to turn back into a "no" when, due to Cross's own nervousness, she forgot to turn on the mike during her mother's first interview on camera. Every journalist's nightmare, and when coupled with the sensitivity of the issue, I could imagine Cross's stomach falling into her socks when she realized what had happened.
And because of this, her mother had the chance to "think better" of her decision, and said no when her daughter told her that she would have to be inteviewed again.
Ultimately, her mother's temporary change of heart resulted in a better film since, during the months of recalcitrance, Cross was able to research her father's career and learn things about him (and herself) that she would not otherwise have known. Her mother's retreat made for a better piece of work -- and she agreed to be interviewed again.
During the panel discussion, Cross stated that she had been motivated to make the film while working on other documentaries about race and family in the Caribbean. When she heard stories of children who had also been shuttled back and forth between white and black families, she realized that her own family life had political implications that could not be ignored. The journalist in her realized that this film did have to be made; it dovetailed too perfectly with America's own dilemmas over the gate in the fence between white and black, which no one will admit exists, and everyone uses.
As a white person, this film made me uncomfortable in ways that also feel infinitely nested. I feel the white person's typical reaction to racism, which is, "Can't we all just STOP DOING IT?!" and the common sense knowledge that it just ain't that easy. Not only that, but the "just stop doing it" solution often presented by white people is suspect simply because it pretends to be a solution to the problem that does not require white people to examine ourselves. "Can't we just stop doing it?" is well-intentioned, but it often translates to, "Can't you stop making me uncomfortable by talking about racism in society and just pretend it doesn't happen?"
Another parallel to June Cross's family life and the racism that permeates American society is one that I'm not sure came through in the film, but it's one that does have to be stated. There is a great deal of white guilt over racism, and I don't mind seemingly diverting the discussion of a film by a black woman over to a white woman's issues (mine) because I don't believe that this particular aspect of the white "side" of the issue has ever been openly stated. The white guilt over racism is not just the guilt over its existence, over the nature of selling and buying millions of human beings like furniture not-so-long ago. It's more complicated than that.
White people are constantly told that we have all the power. And I'd venture to say that the vast majority of us dislike racism. In Cross's mother's own words, white people are damned suspicious of one another and everyone else; that's the price you pay for being top dog when you have no real right to be, by virtue of something other than your own hard work. You know that you are there arbitrarily, and that the whole reasoning behind your position on top of the heap is a sham. No one wants or likes to live like that. Hence we also have selfish motivations for ending racism. And we're always told that we have all the power, that we're in charge, as individual white people.
So if we have so much power, why can't we make it all better? Like Cross's mother, we are supposed to be in the position of power as white people, just as she was supposed to be in the position of power by being white and a mother. And yet she could not successfully navigate the mess in front of her and arrive at a solution to the problems that would allow her daughter to live with her, retain her self-identity, and keep her own standing in the community.
It's not just guilt over racism that white people feel. It's guilt over not being able to use what we're told is our "power" as individual white people to end it, immediately, for our black family and friends.
Another aspect of the film that was revealed is that, despite the dubious decisions that Cross's mother had made in her life, Cross turned out extremely well. Educated, accomplished, professional, a model daughter in every conceivable way. Strange as it may seem, this is also something that a white audience might have a problem confronting.
We tend to believe not only that whites are responsible ultimately for racism (true, let's face it), but that that responsibility translates to ultimate power over the fate of millions. Not only are we racist, but that our racism can utterly demolish whole communities. Whether we cast ourselves as God or the Devil, we're still an all-powerful divine force in our own eyes. White people still see ourselves as controlling the ultimate destiny of black people, and while we're a factor (we're all a factor in each other's lives), it can be deflating to realize that we're just not as center-stage in the lives of black people as we might think. We often feel that, whether it's by a positive or a negative force, we shape the black universe.
There is a wonderful snippet of a poem that I remember that runs as follows:
Once in a stately passion, I cried with desperate grief,
"Oh Lord, my heart is black with guile; of sinners, I am chief!"
Then stooped my guardian angel, and whispered from behind,
"Vanity, my little man. You're nothing of the kind."
White people can claim more than our fair share of blame purely because it's sometimes arrogant to claim it all. Whether it's credit or blame, we are still center stage, and as a result, it can be hard to confront the reality that, as in June Cross's case, a woman's life can still be well-lived, well-adjusted, and brilliantly successful even given such a racism-tinged upbringing.
This is a film about which I am immensely excited. Ken Burns is best known as the man who brought us the definitive Civil War documentary, as well as a beautiful piece on the life of Thomas Jefferson (which doesn't whitewash the man's past in any way). He has a talent for decribing world-changing events and people in such a way that the import is fully realized, without any loss of the messy aspects or human frailties. I have watched his piece on Jefferson countless times, and I'm always struck by the way the film manages to convey both Jefferson's astonishing significance and his frustrating flaws. He is presented as admirable, and yet not deified or excused for his ethical and moral blunders in the slightest.
And now Burns has turned his instrument to Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two women at the heart of the women's suffrage movement, neither of whom lived long enough to cast a vote themselves. Knowing Burns's skill and talent, I simply cannot wait until this two-part show is broadcast. This film will be broadcast on PBS on November 7 and 8, 1999. Write that down on your calendars! Both halves will be 1.5 hrs long.
The bits that we were able to see were incredibly exciting, and I can't communicate how important it is to finally get this story out: the full extent of what women had to go through to win the vote. Two women whose mothers were suffragists are interviewed, ages 94 and 100, both of whom were able to vote in 1920, in the first election that truly represented the will of the entire American population. Much is made of that fact in the preview that I saw -- that while the founding fathers may have created the United States, it was left to Stanton, Anthony, and the other tireless revolutionaries to enfranchise over half of the American population. Not until 140 some years after the Revolutionary War was won did over half of Americans finally gain the right to representation that the war supposedly brought to us.
The film will go into the lives of Stanton and Anthony is no small detail, as well as their lifelong friendship and the exchange of ideas between these two amazing American minds. While watching the preview, I was struck by the similarity between their friendship and that of two other American revolutionaries, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. One erudite, privileged, high-liver (Stanton/Jefferson), and one cranky, brilliant religious moralist (Anthony/Adams). And one breathtaking friendship and an exchange of ideas and fire that reshaped the world's political and social ideals to include a principle that had never been seen before in real depth -- truly representative democracy.
Annoyingly, support and marketing for this film has not been what it was for Burns's other works, and he is quite aware of it given his creation of the preview and personal appeal during it to promote awareness of this most significant chapter of American and world history. GM and PBS, who were delighted to promote the bejeezus out of Burns's other films, remain convinced that there isn't as much of a market for this one, and hence they are not marketing it nearly as much. (Thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy -- they don't market it, it doesn't sell as much, and hence they are proven right in not having marketed it. Aparently the success of the WNBA, the Women's World Cup, and Xena hasn't made a dent in their tiny little skulls.)
So set your VCRs for this film on November 7-8 -- or better yet, buy a copy from your PBS catalogue. If you don't get the catalogue, be sure to visit the PBS website after the film has broadcast to give them positive feedback, and keep an eye out for the video release.