One of the most interesting things about this year’s Left Coast Forum was its timing. Initially, I wondered about setting it during August, in a city where an entire industry is either off on location for a feature or on vacation before series start shooting again, and when most professionals go on vacation.
It was fascinating that the Forum was set during the first weeks in theaters for Black Klansman and Crazy Rich Asians. The “progressive” community has labored to reconcile desires for “progressive purity” with equally heartfelt beliefs in practical progress. Each of these well received films addresses this dichotomy.
[pullquote]It was fascinating that the Forum was set during the first weeks in theaters for Black Klansman and Crazy Rich Asians. The “progressive” community has labored to reconcile desires for “progressive purity” with equally heartfelt beliefs in practical progress.[/pullquote]
Ron Stallworth’s memoir was only a starting point for Spike Lee. The memoir makes much clearer than the movie how virtually all of the virtually all-white Colorado Springs Police Department backed his 1978 investigation into the Klan and the Posse Comitatus, and saw those groups as simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous. At a time when many progressives still saw all cops as “pigs,” white cops in the Colorado State Police, Denver Police, and military police gave full support and cooperation to a black cop’s investigation into white supremacy groups.
Ron Stallworth’s book also goes more deeply into the activities of “leftist” groups who wanted to counter the Klan and Posse presence in Colorado. Stallworth was not a black man motivated by civil rights zeal and goals. He was a cop, dedicated to enforcing law and protecting his community, who happened to be black.
The Left Coast Forum put this dichotomy on full display. To start the Forum, Professor Sharon Kyle provided space to Professor Lytle Hernandez to elucidate research establishing facts about conscious racial violence in Southern California, and its consequences, starting long before the recent years of police killing unarmed people.
The Kyle-Hernandez panel provided data from which activist can, if they want, build programs based on reality, and therefore, hopefully, offer reality-based, and potentially implementable programs to fix problems. And the panel was followed by a speaker, Melina Abudllah, who is working daily to deal with real facts, real on-the-street problems, and real, practical solutions.
Then on Saturday, perennial polemicist Eric Mann roused the troops with philosophical dogma that remains unchanged since the ’60s. He reminded us that both Social Security and Medicare are merely corporate devices to keep the masses under control. They must be done away with so that the masses can see the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and of course, the non-white suffering and dying in the street. Only then can the real “revolution” get under way, as the rabble see how terribly they are being treated by the corporate world.
Railing on at the evils of Social Security, foisted on an unsuspecting world by that ultimate corporate tool, FDR, and Medicare, forced down our throats by the evil LBJ, represents a “revolutionary” purity that derides all cops as “pigs”, whether investigating political crimes or giving DUI tickets to “revolutionaries” out celebrating after a successful demonstration. The FBI men who investigated the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner murders, and laid the grounds for prosecuting their killers, were of course, also merely corporate tools.
It is “revolution” in terms that Dick Cheney could love. And in fact did love, as he tried to privatize and destroy Social Security during his administration. In a world so wracked by divisiveness, it is heartening that some self-proclaimed revolutionaries find themselves able to agree with Dick Armey, Dick Cheney and Paul Ryan.
By giving voice to both fact-based, modern activisim and old school, essential religious devotion to dogmatic drivel, the Forum provided hope for the future as well as familiarity, continuity and therefore, comfort with our familiar past.
Although both have been well reviewed, the studios dumped Black Klansman and Crazy Rich Asians into theaters when audiences traditionally seek action-adventure, fantasy and kids-oriented fare. What box office success either film reaped was in spite of the studios’ doubts about the audience. The audience proved the studios wrong.
Black Klansman hasn’t hit big. But Crazy Rich Asians has reached and pleased audiences far outside the Asian community. How recently was it that the studios wouldn’t pay Asian actors the same as whites on Hawaii 5-0? Now Asian actors, directors and writers are finding work around Hollywood.
Crazy Rich Asians reminds one of Rebecca Wells 1996 book Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. The heroines of Secrets were wealthy white women, in the U.S. southern states during the ’30s through ’60s, learning to understand their own places and strengths in society. The book gave permission to women across the nation to understand and embrace feminism.
They did this all without acknowledging the humanity of the black servants who made each of their households function. Read in retrospect, Sisters is not nearly as bad as Laurence Olivier’s execrable King Lear, but it reprises the same lack of vision. And it was similarly lionized by polite white society.
Crazy Rich Asians touches the same themes. An identifiable isolated group is observed and seen to be human. They have money, which makes them OK with most Americans. They have foibles and families with which we can all empathize. And they don’t show us any overt bigotry.
A feature length comedy is rarely fertile ground for nuance. (Although Mel Brooks’ ability to cram subtlety and nuance between the lines of slapstick should be required study at every film school.) So it isn’t really the place of Crazy Rich Asians to teach a mass audience about Asian bigotry, even as it shows up in Asian comedy. It is one step forward to get viewers to see Asians as fully human individuals, rather than members of a “minority” group (given the population of Asia, it is almost slapstick to call them a minority group).
A next step may be to accept Asians as enough like us that they too can have biases and bigotries, beyond brand preferences. More than two decades ago, San Francisco-based comedy group 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors built parts of their sketch comedy routines on the traditional Asian treatment of Filipinos as the “n*gg*rs” of the Asian world. Asian comics deride Filipinos as stupid, lazy, and all the things that popular culture for most of U.S. history ascribes to black people.
When we begin to see Asians not as a monolithic population block, but as a variety of human cultures and political thinking, we will have taken another step on the journey of which Crazy Rich Asians is an important stride. George Takei helped with this process, creating an image as an actor, then a gay man and activist, who in the end is almost only incidentally of Japanese heritage.
The Left Coast Forum is an engine for driving this progress. By giving full voice to backward looking polemics and to forward looking activism, the Forum reminds us that humanity always makes progress. Dr. King was right, “the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.” Not without potholes and side-tracking. There are Pol Pots and Donald Trumps along the way.
Ron Stallworth’s work was four decades ago. He was playing Radio Raheem’s tune while people were calling him “pig.” And in those four decades we have moved so far. Forum presentations on real community research data, community organizing, and helping people see roles for faith groups in progressive activism (beginning to overcome decades of dogmatic rejection of religion as “the opiate of the masses,” despite the very clear role of churches in driving the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements) help us learn that progress may appear too slow, but it is always available to those willing to work for it.