Movie Review (SATURDAY CHURCH)

A few nights ago, I enjoyed the movie SATURDAY CHURCH (from 2017). This is a sweet, interesting, sometimes uneven story about Ulysses, a gay African American fourteen-year-old living in NYC. He (possibly identifying as she, but this is never clearly indicated) finds his way into the local trans and drag show fashion community. Ulysses’ being gay and cross dressing is disapproved of by his strict, Catholic Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) and over-worked mother Amara (Margot Bingham), the father having died right before the start of the film. Not surprisingly, he’s bullied at school.

I enjoyed the periodic musical numbers as a device to show the main character’s colorful fantasy life. The ensemble cast of drag queens, most of whom work as prostitutes, are beautiful and sassy. They are all of Latinx or African American background. A lot of the supporting extra cast is also African American, in part because much of the story takes place in a largely Black and Brown neighborhood. This chosen family befriends Ulysses and proceeds to show him (her?) the ropes, including how to look fabulous in makeup.

Ulysses has a reluctant brush with prostituting himself for survival. The way this was filmed felt effectively upsetting, adding some believable grittiness to the story.

Veteran trans activist and writer Kate Bornstein has a small supporting role as the founder and mother hen of a weekly community center and soup kitchen for trans people. This social resource is open on Saturdays in a local church, hence the title of the film.

The acting was very good overall, with Luka Kain as Ulysses portraying a believably quiet, soft-spoken, depressed, feminine teenager. He comes more to life when doing voguing fashion moves while walking down the street, trying on high heels, and fantasizing about being the center of ensemble song and dance scenes in his urban environment. The attentions of his adorable love interest Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) also help to perk him up. Raymond is probably fifteen or sixteen, having also been “adopted” by the group of drag queens, possibly just months before Ulysses’ arrival into the fold.

SATURDAY CHURCH felt uneven in genre, shifting between musical to serious, slice-of-life drama. At first, this felt awkward but I either got used to it or the movie grew more graceful with transitions into and out of musical performances, dialogue, and Ulysses quietly navigating his fraught life. I looked up this film on Wikipedia, which describes it as a “musical fantasy drama.” Hybrid genre movies are produced here and there, I realize, but their grace of flow and emotional effectiveness are often hit or miss. Overall, this screenplay and production add up to making more of a hit than not, and are certainly impressive for a first feature by Damon Cardasis, who wrote and directed the project.

I particularly enjoyed the drag ball scene and the footage of drag queens on a runway during the end credits– so much fabulosity! I heartily approved.

I was left wanting a bit more, particularly further development of the relationship between Ulysses and his mother during the last part of the movie. Her sudden remorse and acceptance of him felt like an abrupt transition. Perhaps the budget did not allow for the production to be a little longer, which, if it were, would have lent more fullness and a sense of completion to the story for me.

Movie Review (BROTHER TO BROTHER, from 2004)

BROTHER TO BROTHER (released in 2004), starring Anthony Mackie, who would later go on to be in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS movies, is one of the most heart-felt, emotionally nuanced films I’ve seen in a good while. Mackie’s acting was outstanding. He compellingly plays Perry Williams, an African American gay art student at a university in New York City.

This movie is an homage to the Harlem Renaissance and Richard Bruce Nugent (who apparently went by his middle name) within it. He was a painter and writer who knew Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. His character (played by Roger Robinson as the elder Bruce and Duane Boutte as the younger) befriends Perry. Together, they converse throughout the film about being African American gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance vs. in NYC of the 1980s (when the present day story takes place, I think). Black and white filmed flashbacks of Nugent’s younger days in Harlem help to flesh out the exchange between he and the young Perry, who largely listens.

Perry is lonely after being violently disowned by his parents and unable to find meaningful companionship with another man. He finds deep meaning through learning about the Harlem Renaissance from Bruce and how he is naturally part of an ongoing culture of artists within African American history. Sensitive, vibrant portrayals of human relationships and their direct impact on artistic expression come through repeatedly in this piece of cinema. Along the way, socio-political issues are grappled with, such as the rampant homophobia within much of the African American community(ies) and the objectifying fetishism of black men by white men. These disconnecting dynamics felt painful to watch throughout Perry’s quest for love, meaning, and a sense of belonging. (And I found Perry captivating and lovable.) That is the movie’s intention, which led me a bit closer to better understanding, as a white viewer, what many urban African American gay men face in their daily lives. At least I felt somewhat more informed and genuinely empathetic than I did before watching this film. I bore witness for a little while.

I found my thinking and feelings particularly challenged around Perry’s fraught relationship with Jim, a white, long-haired fellow college student who becomes his lover for a short while. Jim is new to sexual involvement with other men but is clearly taken with Perry, who initiates their physical intimacy after Jim comes to his dorm room one evening. Before the morning arrives, he exhibits a pang of homophobic-informed regret by fleeing from Perry’s bed. He soon works through this discomfort, however. Sometime later, in a post coital moment of deep infatuation and appreciation, Jim compliments the main character’s physical attributes, including his lips and “black ass,” which he explains is the best he’s ever seen (or some such similar wording). The more experienced Perry is offended and leaves abruptly, much to Jim’s puzzlement and dismay. The next scene has the leading man conveying disappointment to his (straight) childhood friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), who commiserates with him about how white men are so insensitive and basically all the same. Initially, I felt sad and unsettled, thinking how Jim had no idea how he was ignorantly fetishizing his lover, which was not his conscious intention. I’m certain his words were well-meaning though not well thought out.

While watching this passionate but doomed relationship play out on screen, I recalled a humbling moment in my mid twenties when I said something fun and complimentary to an African American lover I was seeing at the time. My remarks were met with an awkward, tense chuckle. I quickly figured out my mistake and never spoke to him that way again. I felt too ashamed to apologize directly for my fetishizing words, which I’d taken from a Broadway play. He did not call me out on them, though it was his right to do so. It can seem like such a fine line between racist sexual objectification and true, caring appreciation of a beautiful black or brown man for who he is as a whole, unique, thinking, and feeling person. With the mainstream commodification of body parts, including African American men’s penises, buttocks, lips, and skin, it is understandably hurtful when he is (usually) yet again viewed and spoken to in a skin-deep, culturally programmed way, particularly in such an intimate moment as lying naked in bed with a lover.

Before seeing BROTHER TO BROTHER, I had mainly an intellectual, logical understanding of the importance of using non-racist, non-fetishizing language– both body/facial and spoken– with black and brown people. But, it hit home for me just how visceral an experience it is to be at the other end of such mindless, conditioned objectification, which creates a psychic wall between two or more people trying to love each other. At one end is the identified object while at the other is the dominant objectifier. Suddenly, it’s like each party is alone looking at the other across a chasm, one filling the space between with preconceived notions/prejudices, the other longing to be seen accurately and fully for who they are. It sure can seem and feel that way.

The naively racist Jim had a big lesson to learn. The already hurting Perry had no more emotional energy to spare to patiently wait for the young white man to wise up and love him back properly, unfettered by racist, fetishizing thoughts and words. I felt sad for both of these attractive lonely men. But, life is filled with such saddening misunderstandings and subsequent disconnections, including those tinged with racism, and therein lies a collective tragedy to overcome.

Later in the narrative, Perry finds a healing balm for his wounds of rejection by his parents, straight black peers/brothers, and his kind but clueless white ex-boyfriend. He and Bruce Nugent go to the run-down apartment building in Harlem where the latter used to live and create with his artist and writer friends decades before. There, the two take turns painting each other’s portrait late into the night, to a soundtrack of melodious jazz music. They pour their souls into their efforts, accentuating facial features with precision, care, and passion, sensuality pushing through the curves and vibrant colors. I was mesmerized and moved. Finally, Perry is not at all objectified, but admired and permanently rendered as the beautiful, deep thinking man that he is. He returns the favor to his older mentor, who gets showcased for being such a soulful, passionate man and talented artist after so many years of living in social isolation. I still well up when I think of this scene, having watched it over a day ago now.

I was able to suspend disbelief over the fact that actor Roger Robinson was a good fifteen or so years younger than the actual age of his character, the elderly Bruce Nugent. I looked up Nugent and read that he died in 1987 at eighty years old. An octogenarian could be less likely to get around so readily and confidently New York City the way Robinson in his early 60s could still do. I allowed for artistic license to happen for the purpose here of telling and showing a wonderful, multi-layered story of two men meeting up from very different yet powerfully similar (in racial and sexual identity struggles) eras. Nugent is portrayed as being like a wandering lone specter or ghost from a time long past who– through his eloquent poetry– captures the attention and imagination of a young, contemporary black gay artist brother. This brings Nugent’s work more into the present. For some moments, past and present are united and suspended together during the two men’s meetings, allowing for the vibrant exchange of ideas, including the passing down of inspiration and hope to a younger artist. Ultimately, art, such as poetry and painting, is often timeless, or so the narrative here reminds us viewers.

It should also be emphasized that BROTHER TO BROTHER is about celebrating life in the face of so much adversity. A scene that particularly crystallized this point and had me cheering is when, in flashback, Bruce Nugent and his cohorts, including Hughes and Ms. Neale Hurston, defy social convention while sitting in a local restaurant. They proceed to read aloud from their collective publication FIRE and loudly sing a song with this same title, ignoring the disapproving looks from other customers nearby. Their unbridled joy felt palpable and inspiring. These artists were not only expressing themselves genuinely and happily, pushing against oppressive shackles of convention, but, in so doing, giving permission for their fellow African Americans around them to consider doing the same. Such creative genius as these vibrant, life affirming moments keep occurring in this cinema gem. Put another way, the interweaving of these great authors’ quotes, along with the screen writer’s own thoughtful words spoken by Perry and other characters, give life and meaning to powerful experiences, this movie being an effective, honoring vehicle for so much cultural richness of human expression.

“Through him, I learned the complexity of what was inside me was also outside if I was willing to look deeper,” Perry reflects on his time spent with Nugent. “With words and images, I could convey the truth of my experience, putting it down, and passing it on.” Such encapsulated wisdom addresses much of the human experience, this striving to feel a part of the larger outside of one’s individual self and to capture such truth to then be passed on to others, including after death.

This incredible screenplay had me laughing and crying at different times throughout. I can see why Anthony Mackie became a star after doing such poignant, courageous work. The entire cast was excellent. Bravo to Rodney Evans, who wrote and directed BROTHER TO BROTHER, a labor of love and a cultivated mind.

Thoughts on America’s Current Civil Unrest

It is very possibly the design/intent of many of the current vandals and looters in assorted American cities to throw off the central narrative of the urgent need for racial (and economic) justice. However, we each have the choice to keep this recent heinous crime born of racism at the forefront of our minds in the face of what’s going on and to insist others do the same. We privileged white people owe that to our long oppressed Black and Brown fellow humans. Please don’t let all the smoke blur/confuse your mental vision or moral compass around the changes that need to happen. This latest ground swell of violence all started from yet another lynching of a defenseless Black man (George Floyd, pictured) and the lack of justice against this hate crime. There are surely agitators involved who wish to keep the status quo of systemic racism and there are the usual criminal opportunists out looting for their own immediate material gain. And then there are both the nonviolent and violent protestors who are sick of this oppression. Please let’s speak and act up against these ongoing wrongs, and not choose to be inactive so as to simply avoid being associated with violence and criminality when nonviolence is one’s preferred ethical course of action. Such deliberate inaction is acting from out of white privilege, or so I’ve come to understand.

I did see some film footage and accompanying written narrative of peaceful Black protesters in Minn. trying to dissuade white people from vandalizing and looting. Again, please don’t lose site of what’s at stake, especially for people of color.

I want to add that, coupled and intertwining with ongoing system racism, America’s economic structure has been strained to a breaking point. To my understanding, civil unrest such as what we’re currently seeing is what eventually arises from more and more disenfranchised people being juxtaposed up against increasingly concentrated wealth and power of a few. In my lifetime, this imbalance has only grown more extreme. And Drumpf’s divisive words and deeds keep just fueling the pent up rage and anguish so many people are going through, as misdirected as these visceral emotions are for some. This current chaos is a storm of a sort fueled by the need for a new and better, fairer order, racially and economically. The status quo won’t hold because it can’t, not at least if enough of us collectively want a truly working, thriving democratic republic.

A Lovely Day

I spent a lovely day with my husband shopping for assorted necessities plus a pretty bird bath (pictured), which we then set up by one of two trees in our yard. We capped it all off by taking a pleasant evening walk in the neighborhood. I observed how the next phase of plants and trees are blooming, the bulbs along people’s lawns having peaked some weeks ago.

Amidst a culture peppered with so much Drumpf-inspired Sturm und Drang idiocy, I’m continuously grateful to be living La Dolce Vita of sorts in a peaceful, largely sensible-filled immediate community. (How’s that for a pretentious mix of literary and cinema references?)

Housewarming Postponed

I was intending to throw a housewarming party in late July, with tiki torches placed around our lawn and deck, lounge exotica music playing. I’d happily host while nursing some tasty gin drink in one hand, my other free to gesticulate enthusiastically whilst showing friends around our nice home and yard. Well, that won’t be happening this year, thanks to COVID-19. Whenever this damn pandemic is truly, safely over, I still plan to hold such a party. By then, there will be much more to celebrate along with a housewarming. May we all do our best to stay healthy and alive in the meantime.

Crescendo of Spring; My Full Cup

Today, on my walk through the neighborhood, I felt a crescendo of the season, which began when I spotted some lavender lilacs in bloom. Finally, I thought, they’re here. Now, May and springtime seemed complete. Turning a corner, there were more lilacs, then more a little further on. I took a picture of a select bush of them standing tall under a clear sky. Further on, trees gently shook in the breeze.

I grew full from all the verdancy around me, such thriving, joy-provoking leaves and blooms everywhere. And the sorrows lingering inside my mind and body welled up, folding like a wave into a stronger, confident fount of thrill and gratitude. Not for the first time, I thanked the trees and plants for their bountiful splendor; the cared-for homes all about (including my own); the big-hearted, gentle man I have for a husband; the meaningful job I have; and on and on. I was not dismissing the mountains of pain in this present, uncertain world or sad and anguished moments strewn over the path of my own past, some of which still overly-inform certain relationships for me to this day. Rather, I felt like a vessel with room inside to hold all of this. I was a container fashioned of gratitude and awareness of the present, beauty-filled moment, soaking in the richness of my surroundings. All of this became like a substance spreading out from the edges into the depths inside me, my bones, my heart. This could and would sustain me now and in the days ahead, this here-and-now sense of presence, a wealth beyond measure.

“Remember this day, these moments,” I said to myself as I gazed upon a Japanese maple, its almost burgundy and rust-red leaves shimmering in the sun.

I wistfully wished I could share this time with some others in my life in addition to my husband. I walked along in this paradox, a sense of joyous unity with everything around me yet awareness of prolonged separation from particular people with whom I share strained histories. Such is life for many of us, perhaps even everyone to some extent these days, this happy moment of clear connection in which we find ourselves that also holds lingering sad ones of disconnection. That is what it is. But, again, all of this was folded into me, bathed and held by an ocean of gratitude, a sense of aliveness, and then, also, I realized, hope.

Today, finally, I understood more clearly a truer, deeper meaning of “My cup runneth over.” And my cup is part of an ever-larger cup.

Mini Movie Review (MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES)

I’ve been watching documentaries lately– three within this past week. The one that stands out for me the most is the fascinating MAPPLETHORPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES, from 2016. The title is wittily taken from a statement made in the U.S. Senate by the late, ultra conservative Senator Jesse Helms. He pushed to ban the artist’s work from being shown in a museum in DC in 1989, shortly after the famous photographer’s death at aged 42.

Having long enjoyed Robert Mapplethorpe’s skillful, thought-provoking, sensual, and sometimes disturbing photography, the narrative of his life from a Catholic-raised suburban, middle class gay boy to controversial New York City-based avant garde artist of the late 1960s through the ’80s was deeply compelling to me. The visual exploration of gender and race of his human subjects was both playful and venerating. Even this creative master’s photographs of flowers come across as powerfully erotic and beautiful.

For the general public, Mapplethorpe courageously threw open a window into an existing urban gay subculture. By extension, I think this helped force people to acknowledge and grapple with the very real sexuality of queer people in general. And while I wouldn’t have wanted to live his intense life of self destruction and enormous creativity, I very much appreciate the legacy of work and cultural expansion this talented artist left behind.

Shamanic Journey (4th One Posted)

I went to the Upper World, flying into my spiritual guide L_______________’s floating black onyx and obsidian fortress. After soaring through a dark, round tunnel, I came upon a wide circle of grass under a clear dome beneath the stars, the upper center of the fortress.

L_______________ stood by the one tree, likely an oak, in the middle of a small field, thick black hair flowing down to Her feet. I asked Her what I needed to know at this time. She answered, “The rhythms and pulses of life go on regardless of what happens with humanity.” She then merged with the tree, which glimmered with inset jewels. The whole space filled with colorful flashes of light emanating from gems set inside the frame-edged sections of the dome above.

Along with L_________________, I levitated up and through the clear glass expanse, then quickly flew into a redwood forest carpeted with ferns. I grew aware of the network of mycelium along the floor of wilderness, a mighty web within the more vast matrix of all life, matter, and energy. Just ahead of me, L_________________ transformed into a peacock, throwing rainbows off Their feathers. I lay on the cool, damp ground, conscious of how my body after death will decay for new life to come forth. This felt very reassuring.

I returned to my Journey tree, a network of white and long, bare branches (which sometimes are covered in lush green leaves). Rainbows shone from out of me and all around. I’d returned with some of L________________’s wondrous fractal light and energy.

A Shamanic Journey (3rd One Posted)

Part I.

I ascended to the Lower World where I met up with a bat. It soon grew to around my size and transformed into a black winged humanoid with glowing red eyes, the elongated face and head both bat-like and feline. The creature seemed more feminine than either masculine or androgynous. For a brief moment, I felt a little scared by her appearance, though a sense of fascination soon took over. I held her outstretched hand and we flew to the moon. I thought we’d penetrate the surface of this satellite but we flew over it instead. I sensed a transition into the Upper World.

I turned to witness sun and moon communing, both seemingly so close by, especially the moon before me, but the sun was not too far off to my right. I steadily fused with the black winged being, becoming one with her.

I asked about how I can turn my creativity over and through this alchemical union of light and darkness inside and all around me. One of my primary Upper World guides, L_______________, came forth, partly out of me, Her black hair flowing in the gravity-free cosmos. She showed me my back yard, there now before me in my mind’s eye. I could garden. I asked for additional possibilities. Steadily, what came forth is writing about her (L_______________) via my dreams and story ideas. I asked for Her to please help me keep my mind and heart open to Her ongoing nearby presence, she being the embodiment of so much beauty. That way, my creativity can better flow.

At one point, there was an interplay of L_______________ and Light Being (my other Upper World guide, a man-like entity of pure white light) up there in space. They even merged for a time. His light refracted through Her as sparkles, scintillations from out of Her jewel-sprinkled dress of black velvet and accompanying peacock feather cape. Also, His light twinkled in L_______________’s large blue-green eyes, mingling with Her essence, so dazzling.

Part II.

I quickly returned to the Upper World, entering a billowing, gaseous lavender cloud. Inside, I met up with Light Being then L_______________ too. I followed Them as They flew close together to Her floating fortress of onyx. After floating fast through a long hallway, They alighted upon Their huge stone thrones rising up out of the shiny black floor. I asked Them both how I could better focus on my creative expression of this inner understanding and experience of this divine alchemy of light and beauty of the physical world. I then lay down on the stone floor at the foot of the wide expanse of steps to Their thrones. High above, a cathedral ceiling inlaid with jewels shot through with light, fading into transparency. I beheld stars blanketing the firmament.

I heard Light Being and L_____________ say in unison, even as one voice, “Be still your heart, your mind, and trust.” They relayed the importance of me sitting and walking, being with this inner richness from which I could then begin to write about It, as I also live It. And this as a response to my more recent, but now ongoing, sense of urgency to be generative in my life, to leave something worthwhile and significant behind after I am gone.

Two Dreams I Had Before Waking Up Today

I.

I dreamt I was both witnessing and going in and out of being a woman in Hawaii, or some other Pacific island, getting initiated into the indigenous culture’s shamanic swimming cult/association. This was a great honor. The woman appeared Caucasian and was a world renowned champion swimmer, or this was strongly implied. Her hair was long, thick, wavy, and blonde. She sported a tan and thick, excellent muscle tone. I was often beside her, but sometimes seemingly her. There were some fascinating underwater scenes which have already pretty much faded from my memory, as so often happens after I wake up from a dream. Somehow, I think this woman had a special round tattoo drawn on her skin, like the kind the Maori create, but I could be recalling this wrong. She/I had to swim to various places as part of her/my initiation. At one point, there was a row or group of swarthy native men in leaf or grass skirts. I think they were overseeing this rite, ensuring it was all going correctly. The overall feeling was that something of great importance was occurring. The earth would be healed with this great gesture and the woman’s/my life would never be the same. She/I would be part of something big, an old lineage of stewardship of the ocean and connection with mysterious spirits of this realm. Sometimes we/I were on land by the water, sometimes looking up a cliff edge while bobbing along in the waves. We/I saw seaweed covered rocks below the water. There may have been sea creatures, but I don’t remember.

I wake up but then go back to sleep.

II.

Later, shortly before I woke up for the day this morning, I dreamt I could fly, though awkwardly at first and not very far. Around and below me stretched a green field for miles in every direction, mountains in the distance. Some man was narrating the scene, explaining how if you shrink to a small size (about a foot in length or even smaller) and become wispy like the fairies, you can fly with ease and very high, up to ten thousand feet with no safety issues (re: atmospheric pressure, oxygen sufficiency, etc.). I began to see the sky fill with wisps, people venturing to fly high and free. I consciously made myself shrink, lighten, and promptly rise up on the wind currents. I stretched out my body and flew high with grace and confidence, the tips of tall evergreen trees growing increasingly far below me.

I awake and soon get up for the day.