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Oakland on the Brink… of a Creative Explosion
By Doniphan Blair
Carmen Madden's masterful freshman outing, Everyday Black Man, explores a lot of the issues endemic to Oakland. And no wonder -the mild mannered Madden is from here and swings for the fences in all she does: writing, directing, and putting her house to cover it. photo: CineSource
Although Oakland has lots of nice neighborhoods, two lovely lakes, a couple of museums and colleges, hills full of millionaires and redwoods, and flatlands full of artists and filmmakers, it has been in crisis for a long time.
Times were tough when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale started the Black Panthers in West Oakland in 1966. The city was ravaged by the crack epidemic in the 1980s. Oakland didn't riot for Rodney King, like San Francisco and Berkeley - due to its multiculturalism, folks said. And Clinton's social services and Silicon Valley's billions did trickle down, in the 1990s, but the '89 earthquake downed 1.5 miles of freeway and the '92 fire destroyed 1500 houses. While those natural events killed about 50 people each, the unnatural killing kept climbing even higher. In the beautiful Bay Area, next to the boutique city of San Francisco, the People's Republic of Berkeley, Marin hot-tub-capital-of-the-world County and even San Jose, now part of Silicon Valley, Oakland is the odd city out.
Despite having renown liberal Jerry Brown as mayor, by the 2000s, Oakland was back at the top of the list of the United States' most murderous cities. That statistic got a human face on New Year's Day, 2009, when an obviously innocent young man, Oscar Grant
Check out the cell phone video
), was shot in cold blood by Oakland BART train police. It was embellished on March 21, when, after a simple traffic stop, an accused felon killed four police officers - Sergeants Mark Dunakin, Ervin Thomas and Daniel Sakai and Officer John Hege - the worst police massacre in California history.
Does this reflect a certain Oakland pathology? Or is Oakland the canary in the coal mine? Many of Oakland's ghettos are speckled with artists in converted warehouses or middle class Blacks in restored Victorians, both enjoying the California dream. Does this proximity leave lost souls even more alienated? Is Oakland particularly plagued by "urban terrorists" - as Jerry Brown, now California's Attorney General, called killer thugs, or is this proof of a catastrophe of diversity? With no ethnic majority in a single census tract, Oakland officials and residents alike claim it as the most diverse city in the United States, which means it must be the most diverse city in the world. Does that make Oakland a stand-in for our collective uncertain future: a multicultural, out-of-control society of mixed economies, technologies, classes and races?
"We have to deal with the violence," insists Carmen Madden, a modest writing and acting teacher turned filmmaker, who can also stand up and speak truth to power when need be. Indeed, Madden is currently finishing her crisply professional first feature film,
Everyday Black Man
, at her office in downtown Oakland (
See interview with Ms. Madden
). "People need to start paying attention and standing up, which is hard. The best way to deal with the violence is to start talking to other people in your community, taking a more active part, become a leader even"
"And then there's making art," continues Madden, "I agree with bell hooks that cinema can help create reality, not just reflect it." Can films change society, not by preaching, of course, but by exploring various sides of a complex issue? If the dialogue between characters can bring a viewer to a new narrative, well, that is a voluntary change, at least for the duration of the movie.
Everyday Black Man
, Madden's story about a man who escaped the streets but returns to its ways to defeat a drug dealer masquerading as a Black Muslim, attempts just that.
"What I really wanted was another
Do the Right Thing
," says Madden, "I really like Spike Lee, especially his older pieces. That is what I was looking for, a film we could ask questions about and wonder about. I was trying to approach the complexity of the situation. I think the movie turns out to be a little more pro-Black Muslim then against. Moses [her lead] is a store owner, but he isn't making any money. Maybe desegregation wasn't the best thing for Black small business owners and re-segregation, Black Muslim-style, has its points. The movie raises issues for people to think about."
"Oakland seems like an idea that hasn't been fully realized," comments Mateen Kemet, a wiry, bespectacled filmmaker who actually reminds his friends of Spike Lee, save for the long Cali-style dreadlocks. Kemet just completed
Oakland B Mine
, a piece for the video wall at the SouthWest terminal at the Oakland Airport. Originally from New York, where he was a bond trader, Kemet came to Southern California to study film at Chapman College and work his craft in LA, although he took up permenant residence in Oakland - mostly - around 25 years ago. Kemet is a serious reader and thinker as well as cinematographer and director, and provides an eminence cinema grise to some younger local filmmakers.
Mateen Kemet, cinematographer, director and local eminence grise for younger filmmakers. photo: CineSource
"When they started Oakland in response to SF, they never finished it. Like Gertrude Stein said, 'There is no there there' - it has to be invented," explains Kemet about his new hometown, with which he identifies fiercely. "On one hand, Oakland is incredibly poor, uneducated and brutal, on the other, you have pockets of beauty and refinement, like Rockridge, Piedmont and the lake, these layers and fragmentation. All that should be reflected in stories that take place in Oakland - what Barry Jenkins did for 'Frisco. While Barry told a story of a city that lost its soul, so to speak, if you told Oakland's story, you'd be talking about a schizophrenic character. Genius and disgusting at the same time. That is the thing filmmakers should play with."
Well, Oakland filmmakers better start playing, soon and hard, because if their town doesn't find a new narrative and pronto, the killing may become catastrophic. Fortunately, what is hell for the average man, is great training for the shaman (to paraphrase Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan) - and artists are the shamans of our day. Indeed, for filmmakers, Oakland is a wealth of inspiration, a cauldron of dramas, a cacophony of story arcs, not to mention a plethora of lower-priced media workers and facilities.
Jaylani Roberts is a young woman bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, but her smile belies the spiritual weight she's obliged to carry. Up from the hippie 'hood of San Francisco's famous Mission District, where her uncle played bass in the Santana Band and her mother was an arts enthusiast as well as a musician, she has suffered the ravages of Oakland life - brother gunned down at 18, college drop out, being a single mother. But Jaylani is still surfing the uniquely California - indeed, uniquely Oakland - dream. She got her life together, graduated from college, got a great job - running an inner-city after school arts program - and she has started making movies, feature length movies, which she learned DIY (do it yourself) plus a few classes at the now-defunct Film Arts Foundation.
"I got into film because my boyfriend was studying film and rhetoric at Cal and he couldn't write. Being a good girlfriend, I would write his papers," says Roberts, with a laugh. "I wondered why his professors didn't notice anything. Then I started going to his classes and helping him make his film assignments."
"We did a 22-minute doc about his cousin getting murdered in gang violence when he was only 18," Roberts told me, " Just like my brother." From racially mixed parentage, her brother was struggling with his identity and hanging out with the wrong crowd, as usual, despite the Roberts family's determined efforts to keep him safe - they were comparatively middle class, after all.
Jaylani Roberts lost a brother to the streets but turned filmmaker and is on her 2nd feature. Mercury Rules. photo: CineSource
"It was fate," said Roberts, who believes in karma, "If you project bad things and surround yourself with bad energy, those things come back to you. After that, I had to do some serious self-observation. I had to reshape my script to send a different message. I am devoted to realism, to stories that don't have a happy ending but are true to what is happening in Oakland."
Recently, Roberts has been researching her next project,
, a story of the two historical kingpins who invented and competed with each other for Oakland's massive drug economy in Oakland's "Killing Fields" '80s.
is currently in production with funds raised entirely by herself and her mother.
Shut up and Dance
, Robert's youthful but heartfelt first feature, about her own experiences and the multiplicity of Oakland dance styles cost $40K - forty thousand dollars! - contributed by an angel out of Washington State. It will screen at the Black Cannes Film Festival in May.
Another interesting filmmaker, also female and African American, but exploring an entirely different terrain, is Oakland native Darice Jones. Her first feature,
She Wasn't Last Night
, concerns a woman who was everyone's best friend but has a horrible breakup with her girlfriend and has to learn to start taking care of herself.
See trailer for
She Wasn't Last NIght
"Everything is political, but the only way to express it to other people is how you feel about it, how it smells, what it tastes like," notes Jones, with a disarming smile and mellow presentation, when we met at a cafe near her Jack London-neighborhood office. Alas, her personal subject matter is controversial and political, in fact, since same-sex relations are still an edgy subject in a community where churches are a major source of support. Indeed,
She Wasn't Last NIght
is the first Black same gender dramedy, according to Jones, who tries to build bridges in her work. "When I write fiction," she says, "it has to have an element of healing. The African American experience has been so disrupted for so long and the representation of what it looked to be a Black person was a caricature for so long."
Darice Jones, filmmaker of
She Wasn't Last Night
, next to Oakland's lovely Lake Merrit. photo: CineSource
The media often paint Oakland as a place of endless violence, often Black-on-Black, but Jones reminds us there are plenty of people who live their lives here apart from it. "It's important to tell the good news, of people who are navigating complicated situations, who are finding ways to make community gardens, go to school, graduate and work, who are faced with these things but for whom life is not a news story."
From East Oakland, Jones went to Emeryville High, due to a determined mother. She studied journalism at Cal State Hayward but, after finding that corporate control made it difficult to tell the truth in that medium, switched to film. Jones's production company,
Griot Soul Films
, is almost a village organization masquerading as a film company. Seeking to give voice to people of color, it will roll out workshops with local filmmakers at low or no cost to help Oaklanders tell their stories and express the true nature of the city. "There is a model city in Oakland that the government may not be aware of," says Darice, with a twinkle.
Given Oakland's socio-political situation, you'd think it would also be ripe for documentary filmmaking - and you'd be right. George Csicsery and his Zala Productions are best known for films focusing on the odd nitch market of mathematics, including
N is a Number
See Trailer for
, about students competing in the math Olympiad in Slovenia (coming to PBS in October). But he does have one very timely, as well as very Oakland, offering,
The Thursday Club
In 1967, Csicsery was beaten by police at a huge demonstration against the draft at the induction center in downtown Oakland. "Thirty years later, I started getting annoyed with a lot of what I was seeing and hearing about 'the glorious '60s,'" said Csicsery. Thursday revisits that decade from a less-known viewpoint: the police's.
"I wanted to get beyond the stereotypes, beyond the bad things that happened, to find out about what the people involved on the other side thought, which was a missing piece," explained Csicsery. A number of retired officers opened up to him about violence as the police experience it. "It turned out that most of them had been through WWII and attacking demonstrators wasn't what they'd imagined themselves doing as cops." Through interviews with some of its first Black officers, the film also tells of the Oakland police's racial integration. A dedicated documentarian, Csicsery believes film can challenge a viewer's assumptions and play a role in social reconciliation. He plans to show
The Thursday Club
at a benefit for the four, recently slain, Oakland officers.
West Oakland-based David Moragne's feature-length documentary,
Flashback: Summer Sail One Revisited
, in final stages of post, is also about reconciliation from violence. Eight years in the making, it explores the downing of a Marine Force Reconnaissance Team during the Vietnam conflict - when no bodies were recovered - and what their families had to endure.
Some Oakland docs also focus Jones's recommended vision of a positive culture. One is about MC Hammer, an Oakland native, in production this year, another is Maureen Gosling's new piece. Fully shot but in need of finishing funds, its about Chris Strachwitz, who started Arhoolie Records and recorded Lightning Hopkins, Fred MacDowell, and others, across the South. Strachwitz, who is in his 70s and still working - digitzing Chicano Norte–o music - highlights the needed dedication to local culture as a survival response. Another Gosling film, in pre-production, concers cloth dyers in Mali; it is not about music but will have lots of what Mali is world famous for.
Local culture will be preserved closer to home now that the California Grants for the Humanities has endowed Erin Fitzgerald a generous grant to make
The Legacy of West Oakland
. And what would philosopher Kemet's advice be to a filmmaker starting to shoot in Oakland?
"Get the correct pulse. Take it several times because your first diagnosis probably won't be right. The film just can't just be about one thing, unless you are going for the microscopic view. Two, get the right people behind you, like Amy Zins, at the film office (
More on film office
), to get that pro component - but be ready to go guerilla. If you only stay above aboard, you'll be mired in red tape. Number three - good security. Ha ha. No, the real key to Oakland is a script that passes the sniff test. When you put your nose right in, it is pungent, flowery and overtly sour, as well."
There is a movement to get filmmaking tools of into the hands of young people, from Griot Soul Films to Youth Anarchy, which has a great program at the hard-bitten East Oakland high school, Castlemount. Youth Radio, which does national programming for PBS and is located in downtown Oakland, is starting a film program. The Asian Arts Center in Chinatown had a whole section at the 2008 San Francisco Film Festival. With the next generation of filmmakers in training, we are poised for a new wave of voices tackling the difficult, gritty, vibrant reality that is Oakland.
And not a moment too soon. With Oakland on the brink of chaos, with the city cutting services by two full days a month, or 10%, with the world economy in free fall and social services dropping, it is to up to the artists and filmmakers to inspire, heal, confront, seduce and, ultimately, change society. Since film sales rarely suffer in a down economy, and a Saturday night out is the main object of disenfranchised youth larceny, great movie making is a way to get into their hearts, if your film has the right mixture of pathos, dream and action. But this is hard.
"Black women writers easily outnumber black male writers at least ten-to-one," according to
, Oakland's famous DIY fiction author, whose
Way Past Cool
has been reprinted dozens of times around the world. "One will find relatively few works of fiction written by or for black males - especially for young black males," notes Mowry on his website, "The genre often described as 'adventure stories for boys' is almost totally absent from Black literature," except, of course, "sports and music figures. And gangstuhs, thugs and hustlers... As a result, what sort of people do young Black males have... to nurture their dreams and imaginations? If there's a black Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, I have yet to meet him in a book."
"There are several reasons for this gap," explains Lowry, "And the fault cannot be entirely attributed to the greed, ignorance, and racism of the mainstream publishing industry. In fact, I would lay more of the blame upon Black publishers for producing mostly 'scholarly works' and non-fiction to 'uplift the race,' while ignoring the simple fact that no one will read scholarly works unless he or she develops an interest in reading in the first place!" While everyone passively watches television, the same can be said of quality filmmaking - educate early.
"We are also in a hopeful time with President Barack in the White House," notes Jaylani Roberts. "I watched him on Jay Leno, I was so stoked! He's marvelous example of what you can be. I hope more young men aspire to be like that instead of rappers and ballplayers. I think Obama is on the right track, focusing on the bigger picture, instead of a reactive fix."
"I was a nerd in high school, on the debate team, although I was also popular," continues Roberts. "But with our young Black men, there is a terrible pressure not to be seen as a nerd. You could see that in my brother. He wanted to fit in and prove he is cool. Between 18-24, they're on the endangered speices list.'" With her tragic fraternal experience and elevated arts upbringing, Roberts is well positioned to crack the code of male malfunction, despite Mowry's dissing of Black female literary predominance. If she does, do you think others around the world will want to hear about it?
Darice Jones, filmmaker of
She Wasn't Last Night
, next to Oakland's lovely Lake Merrit. photo: CineSource
"We got flown out to London by Outburst UK [www.ukblackout.com]," Darice Jones told me, "They were so excited about the making of the first Black same gender dramady. They saw it as an important beacon for people in the UK [United Kingdom] where things are a little more conservative. They hooked me up with Million Woman Rise, a group that does a walk every year about ending violence against women in London. I was able to talk about the roll of the arts in ending violence in the world."
Oakland clergy, neighborhood folks and officials have started getting together in a public demonstrations, the first was held on April first in East Oakland, near the scene of the March 21 killings of the police officers. Certainly, filmmakers, writers, and musicians should come out of their studios and join with them to help make communities work. This is precisely what Jones encourages, with her Griot Soul Films and Carmen Madden emphasizes, when she speaks of "standing up, taking a more active part, even becoming a leader."
But Jones and Madden are filmmakers, which is a full time job. Moreover, while community activism is retail politics, filmmaking is mass media and wholesale dream making with the capacity to touch millions - but only if it works. Good cinema requires a deep knowledge of the subject, as Kemet says, sophisticated character interaction, as Madden notes, the new narrative that Roberts searches for and, last but not least, the surpassing of stereotypes, that documentarian Csicsery emphasizes. That, perhaps, is the most a critical part.
As if Oakland filmmakers didn't face enough intricacies, the Oakland story is no longer amenable to traditional progressive or leftist analysis. Like President Obama himself, it is White and Black, as well as Latino and Asian, middle class, poor and rich, Third World and California, broken glass and Redwoods - indeed, any Oaklander can go camping in the woods, only six miles from the ghettos, just sign up in advance.
And thug and artist. Of the latter, there are some great ones of all media. West Oakland is home to The Crucible, a university of "fire arts," which every summer does a three-ringed circus of massive sculptures, bands and acrobats - increasingly attended by locals. Or how about Darcel Walker's ambitious project, already half built, to start Art and Music News, the CNN of the Arts (
See Soundman Starts Arts Channel
). I can hear it now: "This is AMN, broadcasting to you live out of Oakland, California." That might help the local economy.
If Oakland filmmakers can capture the Oakland zeitgeist, I see a bright future for media arts here, both culturally, in a world hungry for fresh ideas on complex issues like class and race, and financially, for local talent and facilities. If the aforementioned art institutions make good on their promises, or better yet, if a few Bay Area millionaires can see the wisdom of a local cultural investment, Oakland could, in fact, be on the brink of a creative explosion.
Even if they don't, not to worry, because Oakland is DIY to the bone. To make
Everyday Black Man
, Ms. Madden raised a couple hundred thousand refinancing her family homes while Roberts is cobbling together financing for
from within her own family. Oakland filmmaking, already ascendant, will obviously grow substantially in the next few years.
Posted on Apr 06, 2009 - 11:49 PM