Thoughts on GREEN BOOK, Yugen Blakrok, and The Stanley Brothers

Nicole and I took a tiny road trip to Fulton (a frequent getaway for us), mainly to eat some exquisite gumbo and po’ boys at Fontenot’s, but also to take a chance on the Oscar-nominated Green Book. I’m just being honest–we don’t go to many mainstream movies these days, and not because we’re high-toned snobs. We’re both tired of simple explanations in these complicated times, and so many of the films that hit the multiplexes have precisely that to offer. Perhaps not explanations, exactly; more accurately, they’re hawking simple, comforting reflections of who we are. Our lives are too short for those. HOWEVER, I’d only heard of Don Shirley in passing (Nicole not at all), we both love pretty much everything we have seen Mahershala Ali do, and good ol’ Viggo is pretty reliable, so we thought, “How bad can it be?” Our answer was not that bad.

We’d purposely not done much research into either Shirley or the movie. Stuff does slip in over one’s transom: I was aware of some critical disagreement over the handling of racial issues, but often that’s a sign of something good, and I knew Shirley’s family wasn’t happy about the facts–but, um, it’s a movie. Well, that’s what I said to myself, but I ended up being a little bothered myself. Thoughts:

The lead performances were pretty great (though I did not get the impression Ali was a supporting actor–that designation tells me much). The aloofness and self-possession Ali brings to the role of Shirley ensures we do not see him as a monolithic black man, and Mortenson infuses Tony Lip with a childlike spontaneity–it’s only after witnessing him win a hot dog-eating contest with about 10 seconds of preparation that we can buy him taking a job driving Shirley after having just put two Negro-besmirched drinking glasses in the trash. I did feel, however, that at about the 3/4ths mark, both actors let their grip slip on their control over their respective characters and turn them into something broader–a sign of a fledgling dramatic director at the helm, perhaps.

I was also was a shade disappointed by how quickly the film scurried past the revelation that Shirley was possibly gay or bisexual. Really, no conversations about that? No mixed feelings? Maybe Shirley’s only too happy to put that back in its container, and Tony’s only too happy to not have to talk about it (think about his early letters home to his wife). But I do like how we are provided enough insight into Shirley’s intense loneliness by that point to understand why he would risk same-sex-intimacy-while-black in the Deep South. Fortunately, he has white muscle to rescue him (over and over again).

Finally, I was a bit curious about the depiction of the Macon, Georgia, police department as being racially integrated in 1961, and about Shirley being able to magically play Little Richard-styled piano with feeling at a moment’s notice. Did the Celtics ever barnstorm as far south as Birmingham? I just read two books by and about people who’d know and would have recalled it in their writing, but I don’t remember them doing so. But, hello, these films don’t have to be completely factual!!! Still….

However, taking it for what it was–a mainstream film about an inspirational professional relationship between a black man and a white man, portrayed by two excellent actors–we ultimately felt it was not a waste of time. It’s good stuff for right now, assuming the people who need to see it actually do see it (and do they ever?). For both Nicole and me, it piqued our interest enough to listen to Shirley’s Orpheus in the Underworld–humorously referenced in the film–on the way home (the YouTube copy’s been ripped from forest-fire vinyl, but it’s not impossible to track down on CD–I know, I did) and enjoy it thoroughly.

 

In other news, my favorite rap album of 2019 was released Friday: South African MC Yugen Blakrok’s Anima Mysterium. Her debut release, Return of the Astro-Goth, and her appearance on the Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther companion were both very promising, and this modestly makes good on that promise. Blakrok parses African history, mythology and iconography (of Africa and elsewhere), and the cosmos to offer a critique of our present and a forecast of our future. Needless to say from that claim (if it isn’t just gobbledy-gook), she’d be categorized as an abstract rapper, and, until she finds catchier and thunkier beats and varies her cadence more regularly, that’s going to be a fair assessment. But her adeptness with meter, figurative language, and rhyme is special; you can’t hear it by staring at these words from Mysterium‘s “Carbon Form,” but check back to the video track after you’ve let these sink in:

Cosmic breath, I’m air element, find strength in the mental
The thought behind the rhyme’s consequential
The flow’s decked in space boots, leaping over lunar tombs
Write lyrics in runes and play the Muse
Inspire Fate to paint predestination’s landscapes
For the awakened, imaginations are stargates
Whistle, I’m listening – Pilgrim of the House of the Wind, I’m the emissary
Hearing voices in the breeze observing airy commentary
Asleep in howling deserts with thorn trees in bloom
Until the spell breaks, I’m wolf to the full moon
And wild as the monsoon, glassy eyes like crushed minerals
The pattern’s troublesome – planet’s crying rivers of literals
Wooden tears flaking into fragments and splintering
Buried in the earth where dark secrets lie whispering
That the end has not yet come to the place where dreams rest at
I look at self, facing the mirror, nothing’s reflected
Black stone carbon, I’m stardust
Bizarre, trust – quiet, part-mime invade the mind like archons
My jargon’s a headache to decipher, never idle
The heavy burden’s only light work to bright disciples
And I’m sky bound, messenger like Malachi
Cardinal offspring of Capricorn and Gemini
Born from a sandstorm, whirlwinds in my burning eyes
Slayed a beast with seven tongues, electrifying
So I vibrate in coded synergy, linguistics my Achilles heel
Wade in stellar waters deep, a mystic whistling in the reeds
That cosmic breath, that air element that finds strength in the mental
Make all doubts of the mind inconsequential

As much as she does limit herself with a favorite cadence, there is a cool, defiant, but almost deadpan quality to her delivery that I find spookily addictive. For those in search of a new and unique voice in hip hop, I strongly suggest that, should the above samplings agree with you, you indulge in and support her art.

 

Of late, I have been deeply enjoying David Blight’s massive biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. One extremely powerful achievement of Blight’s is intensifying our understanding of the degree with which Biblical stories informed Douglass’ abolitionist and natural rights philosophies. In a development pretty typical of the way I zing and zoing from lit to music, I found myself drawn unavoidably to The Stanley Brothers’ King and Starday recordings, where the bluegrass legends tap, better than in any other period of their recording career, the Bible and Christianity in general as sources for extremely moving, often frighteningly intense performances. I am not a Christian at all, nor will I ever be, but the political and personal power of gospel anecdotes warms my blood and stimulates my brain on a regular basis. It’s a testament to the consistent excellence of these recordings (roughly ’58-’61) that they broke Brazilian pop’s seven-day grip on my attention.

For an excellent look into the story behind “Rank Strangers,” check out what Mr. Gary Combs has to share on his spiritual blog.

 

 

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