Vices Versus Virtues - Representations Of Iconic Black Figures On Screen (Survey)

by Tambay A. Obenson
October 17, 2011 4:48 AM
10 Comments
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Watched The Black Power Mixtape again recently which led me to further research on Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture (he's featured heavily enough in the movie)...

He passed away in 1998, but I'm not certain that he actually saw Spike Lee's Malcolm X, which was released in 1992. At least, after a Google search, I couldn't immediately find any sources to confirm or negate that.

What I did find were the following comments he made in 1993 during an interview with Paris-based African-centered weekly Jeune Afrique: "Spike Lee is incapable of making a film about Malcolm X," calling Spike a "petite bourgeois who took the choice of selling his people for a fist full of dollars."

Needless to say... Ouch!?

I couldn't date the below interview, so I'm not 100% certain that his comments in the early half of it are targeted specifically at Spike's movie, or just a general commentary.

But what I really wanted to draw your attention to are his theories on depicting vices versus virtues in filmic representations of real-life people (like Malcolm X). I focus on that especially because it fits quite nicely into conversations we've had on this site about films on Civil Rights luminaries like the aforementioned Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you recall, one of the reasons for the holdup in the production of 2 high-profile MLK film projects (one by Lee Daniels and one by Paul Greengrass - both which would reportedly emphasize MLK's vices, and not just revel in hagiography) was Andrew Young's objections - the civil rights activist, member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 60s Civil Rights Movement, a supporter and good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a key role in the events in Birmingham, Alabama, was a strategist and negotiator that influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. And also, he was with MLK in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated in 1968.

Young reportedly objected to scripts which included scenes of marital infidelity during MLK's final days, among other "vices."

Some might express concern for the play currently on Broadway (The Mountaintop, with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett starring) that "humanizes" MLK, as the plays stars have said in interviews they've done marketing the production.

The same thing could be said for holdups in developments of maybe 1 of the Marvin Gaye projects that have been in the works for awhile; specifically, Janis Gaye, the late singer's second and last wife, who objected to British director Julien Temple's project which she reportedly said would "focus on his drug abuse, on other negative aspects of his life."

Kwame Ture suggests in the video below that Hollywood peddles vice as entertainment, and he obviously has a problem with that.

Obviously, there are those of us who prefer that films/projects like the above, about these iconic figures of history should essentially canonize them, or at least, as Kwame Ture notes, focus on their virtues and not their vices. And there are those who feel that a warts and all depiction "humanizes" them, making their achievements more accessible to those of us who hold them in such high regard.

I think this also ties in very nicely with our ongoing discussions about the "burden of representation" some expect black public figures to carry and others don't; or more specifically, the battle between "positive" and "negative" portrayals of black people on screen.

Watch the video, think about all I've said, and let the conversations continue... whether about Ture's observations about Spike Lee and his Malcolm X movie, or the virtue versus vices debate.

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10 Comments

  • JMac | October 18, 2011 10:34 AMReply

    "They were average in the sense that we are all capable of doing what they did. "

    Some are and some aren't. Depends on the person and maybe the zeitgeist of the moment.

  • Damone Williams | October 18, 2011 8:31 AMReply

    Eh...I agree with Brotha Ture on some things, and disagree on others.

    I think that holding icons up as superior and non-flawed is dangerous.
    The HUMAN quality of them is what's intriguing. It's what brings about change.
    If I can look at Malcolm X, Dr. King, etc. and see that they WERE flawed, just like I, yet they accomplished greatness, I can then be inspired to seek to do the same.

    Embracing the humanity of these people...of ALL people...is where it's at.

    Gone are the days of icon worship.
    Now we must begin to cultivate the next generation of game & world-changers. And I think that can only happen if they feel like it's possible. And what better way to help them feel like it's possible, than to show them that Dr. King and/or Malcolm X, etc. dealt with shit just like them, and pushed through.
    :)

  • Mel | October 18, 2011 5:13 AMReply

    "The reason we remember them is because they weren’t average and their superiority is often not just in regards to their talent but also their discipline - in whichever way it manifested itself."

    They were average, and articulated such often. People called it humility, but MLK was right. They were average in the sense that we are all capable of doing what they did. It is innately inside of us. They also didn't do it alone. He is not a prophet; he is a man, with the same frailties and faults.

  • Neziah | October 17, 2011 11:06 AMReply

    Vices are completely necessary and Spike Lee's Malcolm X was a masterful achievement, period.

  • urbanauteur | October 17, 2011 10:30 AMReply

    Human Frailty manifests to Humility.

    and like most human endeavors, We Live,We Learn.

  • saadiyah | October 17, 2011 9:40 AMReply

    JMac great comment. If there's a GOOD reason for depicting a (verified) vice, then definitely include it.

    I probably wouldn't have much an opinion about this topic if we weren't caught in the throes of "Reality TV HELL" nowadays. I definitely don't want to be entertained by anyone's vices nor be hit over the head with them continuously to normalize them.

  • urbanauteur | October 17, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    In these Tenor of the Times, i think its Paramount, to illuminate ALL VICE, of our iconic figures, with the anticipated release of Clint Eastwoods-J.Edgar Hoover bio-pic, i'm curious how he will handle that KINKY Lawman's Black Militants thru the years-Margus Garvey,Henry Harrison,W.E.B.Dubois,Queen Mother Moore,George Padmore,Alice Dunbar Nelson,Claude Mckay,Ella Mae Baker,Huey Newton,H.Rap Brown,and Stokley Carmichael, (before he high-tail it to Africa, after some Black panther members,with a Micro-nationist slant,nearly beat him half to death!, when he TRIED to introduce Pan Africanism into the group) as for his color commentary , it REGALES in Brutal Honesty,especially in the context of this retrograde sh!t pass off as somekind of Neopolitan Americana.

    Ninga please!

  • JMac | October 17, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    Super Hard Core as I expected from him.

    I think the dividing line is what real purpose showing a vice(s) serves in the film regardless of the filmmaker's intent . If it takes away the person's dignity it shouldn't be included. Also, if the vice is disputable (as to whether it happened or not) it should not be included. Another factor - the placement of the vice: does it happen early in the person's life before their transforming moment or is it something that crops up later (yet has no real place in the story at all because it doesn't cause a chain reaction of events, iow it's just an aside)?

    For Malcolm X, going into his criminal past (which is verifiable by his own words and documents) is important because without that event, he would not have gone to jail, would not have converted, and would not have become a spokesman for the NOI. Marvin Gaye's life would need some mention of his drug use because it greatly affected his life, relationships, and music (also lots of documentation proving the vices occurred) but there should be greater emphasis on his family, religious background, fame and anything else that were his x factors for turning to drugs in the first place. For MLK on the other hand, there is no real evidence of him philandering - there are guesses and suppositions even by Coretta (at least according to Dyson) and statements made by a couple blacks who want to sell books but no one really knows. With all the people surrounding him, I would have expected more than a few to have said something by now and/or for some woman to have come out too. Can't trust the CIA and FBI surveillance. What point does it serve in the story to show that? Did it contribute to his assassination or is it just there to be there - solely for entertainment purposes? I'll pick the latter.

    I think there is too much emphasis on "humanizing" certain historical figures to make them more accessible to average and below average people. The reason we remember them is because they weren't average and their superiority is often not just in regards to their talent but also their discipline - in whichever way it manifested itself. The message should be that it is possible to raise yourself from your averageness to be great, not to make you feel better that someone you admire also suffered from your vices. Just because you went to jail, converted to Islam, and started helping black men after your release does not make you similar to Malcolm X. Also have to disagree that MLK was "just a man." He wasn't a God but I've yet to see any other black married man with children come remotely close to him.

  • Jug | October 17, 2011 6:54 AMReply

    I'm echoing blaqbird. A very interesting clip. I agree with some of the things Ture said regarding education & primary sourcing, but my main issue is that his opinion seems to be as one-sided as the one he argues against and honestly that's not necessarily a bad thing. But if the basis of your argument is Truth & Fact, then an argument against that, in any depiction not focusing on the totality of a person or public figure and instead aggrandizing them (using that term loosely Malcolm's transformation is almost super-human), is just as obtuse as one "humanizing" them-in his use of the term.

    I also don't think that media has to be either or-entertainment or educational or political. It can encompass all things, just as a person can encompass all things. That's what makes them dynamic, interesting and expressive of the human experience. And with that dynamic, one can choose who or what they wish to be & espouse.

    Isn't that the sort of freedom from oppression he is referring to?

  • blaqbird | October 17, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    I'll say this: I'm not sure if I necessarily agree that virtues should only be depicted while their vices are left on the back burner. MLK Jr. was like any other person; he had his strengths and weaknesses which greatly influenced who he was as a man, husband, father, and Civil Rights leader.

    I can see why some may have a problem with digging into the "dark" aspects of his and Marvin Gaye's character. We as a society tend to take biopics as fact when we should know better by now that H-Wood definitely embellishes for the sake of entertainment. For example, at the end of Ray, they tried to make it seem like Ray Charles and his wife pretty much lived happily ever after. It was never mentioned that he father 12 children with 9 different women or that he was married twice. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

    In Walk the Line, it was public knowledge that Johnny Cash's children greatly criticized the film for the depiction of their parents. Obviously Cash's alcoholism and drug use was addressed, but what they didn't tell was that Cash was pretty much addicted to drugs off and on for many years after that. They also didn't address the fact that he got back in touch with his spiritual side and produced many gospel records....which was why he was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame as well as the Country and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. The movie also made Cash's first wife seem crazy and mean for no reason....

    I could go on and on with biopics that always tend to stretch the truth or leave things out. The problem with this is that we as people are picking up books less and less to learn the truth and are taking these films at face value and as gospel. And we know that people will do ANYTHING to discredit the work that MLK did. We know that he was not always doing the right thing, but it seems like "they" (the government, media, whoever) will use that do invalidate MLK and everything that he fought for.That's why something like "The Mountaintop" is cool because the audience goes in knowing that this is a fictional account of MLK's last night alive.

    I like Kwame Ture's interview, but I don't agree with his assertion of how everyone should feel walking out of a movie about Malcolm X. We're all different and we have our own opinions that have shaped our world. Of course we would like them to think the same way we do concerning certain topics, but that's not the way it is.... But interesting nonetheless...

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