Black Westerns: A Brief Overview

black westerns 1This piece originally ran in BadAzz MoFo #4, which came out in 1999. It is part of The BadAzz MoFo Collection, now on sale.

The cowboy has long been a perennial part of American folklore. Like the Japanese samurai, or the European knight in shining armor, the cowboy has gone on to become the American ideal of heroism, manliness, truth and honor. Thanks to the motion picture industry, images of Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood all come mind as the arch-typical hero of the old west; and have kept the cowboy white.

In truth, the black cowboy did exist in the Old West. But while the popular fiction and yellow journalism of the day was quick to call attention to lawmen like Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp and outlaws like Billy the Kid; their Black counterparts were largely neglected. U.S. Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves was long considered one of the greatest lawmen of the old west, with a career that spanned thirty-two years. Outlaws like Cherokee Bill were as ruthless as Billy the Kid, and The Rufus Buck Gang committed a crime spree worse than the Dalton and James Gangs combined. Yet these historical figures are barely known, and hardly discussed.

Thanks to the whitewash of history, the contributions of Blacks (not to mention Chinese, Indians, and women) has been neglected. Likewise, Hollywood has been notoriously irresponsible in their depiction of truth, justice, and the American way. The great explorer Jim Beckworth, who discovered the Beckworth pass, which connects California and Nevada through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, was portrayed by white actor Jack Oakie in the film Tomahawk.

Despite Hollywood’s reluctance to show Blacks riding tall in the saddle, the Black cowboy has found a home in the movies. One of the first Black Westerns was the 1921 silent film The Crimson Skull. World famous rodeo star Bill Pickett appeared in Crimson Skull, and two years later Pickett would star in the documentary Bull-Dogger. The comedy short A Chocolate Cowboy appeared in 1925, in an attempt to give Black audiences a cowboy hero.

The big break through for Black Westerns came during the race films of the thirties. In 1938 Herb Jeffries (a.k.a. Herbert Jeffrey) starred in Two Gun Man from Harlem, the first in series of films that would establish Jeffries as the Black singing cowboy. Appearing as the heroic lead in Harlem on the Prairie (1938); The Bronze Buckaroo (1938); and Harlem Rides the Range (1939) Jeffries would go on to be come a matinee idol for the segregated audiences of the time. Riding to the rescue on his trusty horse Stardusk, Herb Jeffries became one of the first black action heroes in the history of film. (NOTE: Years later, Jeffries would confess that he was not of African descent, but merely passing as being black.)

Along with Jeffries, other black actors of the day appeared in the handful of westerns that were produced. Spencer Williams appeared in several films along side Jeffries, including Harlem Rides the Range, which Williams wrote. Mantan Moreland appeared in Come On, Cowboy (1948), a comedy western musical, and Louis Jordan starred in 1946’s Look-Out Sister.

woody strode rutledgeThe 1950s saw virtually no screen presence for the Black cowboy. It wasn’t until 1960, when Woody Strode appeared as the title character in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (above), that Black actors would begin to start appearing mainstream Hollywood westerns. Strode would prove to be the forerunner to the black action heroes of the seventies; making several appearances in horse operas throughout the sixties. Strode’s performances ranged from memorable cameos (Once Upon a Time in the West) to co-leads (Sergeant Rutledge, Boot Hill and The Professionals).

As America (and the film industry) began to desegregate, so to did the Hollywood western – albeit grudgingly. The path that was blazed by Woody Strode would be followed by Jim Brown. Roles in Rio Conchos (1964) and 100 Rifles (1969) would help to establish Brown as the leading black action hero of the 60s. Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis would also make appearances in westerns during the sixties; Poitier in Duel at Diablo (1966) and Davis in The Scalphunters (1968).

outcastsTelevision westerns were never more popular than they were during the sixties. Taking advantage of changing racial attitudes, popular western television series like Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Big Valley occasionally would have black guest stars. Yaphet Kotto, Brock Peters, Woody Strode, Frank Silvera, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Raymond St. Jaques were among the actors that usually played former slaves or buffalo soldiers. In 1968, ABC premiered the series The Outcasts (left). The offbeat series followed the adventures of two bounty hunters; Earl Corey (Don Murray), a former slave owner, and Jemal David (Otis Young), who co-starred with Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail) a former slave. The shaky alliance between the two bounty hunters allowed producers to explore issues of racism in the old west.From a historical standpoint, the series offered what may have been television’s first black action hero. The Outcasts held a certain amount of promise, unfortunately, it only lasted one season.

legend of nigger charleyDuring the seventies, the blaxploitation genre was taking America by storm, and it seemed as if there was finally hope for Black westerns. Jim Brown started the decade by starring in 1970’s El Condor. Two years later came Buck & the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte; and Fred Williamson in The Legend of Nigger Charley. Cleavon Little appeard as perhaps the most famous of all on-screen black cowboys, in Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles, which had been co-written by Richard Pryor, who was originally to star in the film. Pryor would get his shot at a comedy western when he appeared in Fred Williamson’s disappointing Adios, Amigo. Williamson starred in a series of westerns (Joshua, Take a Hard Ride), doing his most to make the Black cowboy a familiar part of the American consciousness. Unfortunately, Hollywood has been reluctant to release it’s stranglehold on the western, and white cowboys.

John Wayne, and the white cowboy has become the last bastion of hope for the white race; promising to ride up on his white horse to save this great nation of ours, from whatever savages threaten our safety. Through Hollywood and the western, lies and half-truths can continue to be propagated, and the Black cowboy, the true original cowboy, will remain forever an oddity.

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I’m Not Dead…

…just really busy with a ton of projects. I know someone, somewhere, is concerned about my lack of posts this month. And for that I am appreciative. Lots of interesting stuff in the works, stay tuned.

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The Invisible World of Black Comic Creators

sdccOkay, so I got back from the San Diego Comic Con a few days ago, and I really wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts, before they are lost in the jumbled mess of my mind. Let me start by saying that I’ve been going to SDCC since 1998, and in that time there are only two years I’ve missed. Some years have been great, and other have been not-so-great. This year was one of the best years for Comic Con—especially considering where my life is at on a personal level (which I won’t bore your with). Professional things are going well, but because of a series of non-disclosure agreements, I can’t talk about what I’m working on (nor could I talk about these various projects at the con itself).

The Supernals Experiment #1 - Comics by comiXologyOne thing I could talk about was The Supernals Experiment. This is a five-issue mini-series that I wrote for Canon Comics, founded by NFL great Phillip Buchanon. The Supernals Experiment is the creation of Phillip, and through editor Shawna Gore, I was brought on to write the mini-series. The first issue debuted digitally on Comixology the day before SDCC kicked off, and Phillip was at the show handing out physical copies of the comic. He also debuted New Money, another creation of his, written by my friend Hannibal Tabu, and drawn by N Steven Harris. It’s interesting to me that no one has really picked up on the significance of all of this. Phillip is a black man, who has started his own comic publishing company, and has hired predominantly creators of color to craft stories with a diverse line-up of characters. This in and of itself might be one for the history books. But that was just the beginning.

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Hanging with Phillip Buchanon (left), creator and publisher of The Supernals Experiment.

If you pay any attention to pop culture coverage, you’ve probably read about the lack of diversity in comics (as well as just about everywhere else). I’ve raised this issue myself on multiple occasions, but I have also been very critical of those critics that bemoan the lack of diversity in comics—both within the pages of comics, and within the ranks of creators—but who do little to mention who and what is out there. The truth is there is a problem with a lack diversity and representation in comics (and all facets of pop culture), but the other truth is that there are some truly amazing people doing some truly amazing work out there. And I ran into quite a few of them at SDCC 2014.

watson 3I’m not going to name everyone I saw, because that would take too long. But I do want to make mention of some great creators who I crossed paths with. Amongst the writers, there was Brandon Eason, who along with N Steven Harris and Karl Bollers, was nominated for an Eisner for his work on the comic Watson and Holmes. I ran into Joe Illidge, whose upcoming graphic novel The Ren has got my heart palpitating. I also talked to Brandon Thomas, Geoffrey Thorne, Hannibal Tabu, Gary Phillips, Kevin Grevioux, and Reggie Hudlin, all of whom are amazing writers. You might not recognize some of these names, but that doesn’t mean their work isn’t top notch.

comictemplate3aI got to meet Ray-Anthony Height, whose comic The Midnight Tiger is one of the most impressive debuts of the new year. And though it was all too brief, I did say hello to Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, whose upcoming Concrete Park is the comic I’m most looking forward to this year.

concrete-park-1-coverSpeaking of too brief, I barely got to talk to Keith Knight, an old friend, creator of The K Chronicles and (Th)ink, and one of the best cartoonists on the planet.

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Keith Knight. One of the best cartoonists in the game.

I got to finally meet Ted Lange IV in person, and his brother Turner Lange, both of who are comic creators (Ted’s series is Warp Zone, and Turner’s is The Adventures of Wally Fresch). I saw some incredible comic artists, including Sanford Greene, Khary Randolph, Robert Roach, Jason Reeves, Jamal Igle (whose book Molly Danger is killin’ it), and JJ Kirby (who drew an amazing picture of my character, Darius Logan). If you want to see what the work of these artists looks like, just do a Google search.

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Me, John Jennings, and William Foster, plotting to take over the world.

The highpoint of SDCC was spending time with artist/college professor John Jennings, writer/college professor William Foster, and writer/artist/badass Jeremy Love, creator of the critically acclaimed graphic novel Bayou. All three of these guys have some amazing projects in the works and, hopefully, some that will allow me to collaborate with them. I was with Jennings, Foster, and Love, when we had a truly amazing moment. I stopped to take a picture of a guy dressed as the superhero Static Shock, when artist Denys Cowan photo-bombed the picture. Cowan is the co-creator of Static Shock, and a founding member of the legendary Milestone Comics line.

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Legendary comic artist Denys Cowan photo-bombing a picture of Static Shock, a character he created.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the point that I’m trying to get at is that there are black folks out there making comics. You may not have heard of some of them, or the comics they are working on, but that doesn’t mean that they are invisible. It means that many of the creators like those I’ve mentioned—and those I haven’t mentioned (sorry)—aren’t getting enough press. Big publishers like Marvel (owned by Disney) and DC (owned by Warner Brothers) haven’t given that many black creators (especially writers) a chance. That has left it up to publishers like Action Lab, Lion Forge, and Dark Horse to give creators of color a break. And of course, some of us just self-publish, while fighting to get noticed.

This is just a brief glimpse at the people I ran into at SDCC 2014. Some are old friends. Some are people I just met. And, of course, there are those I didn’t list (again, my apologies). I encourage everyone to check out the work of the creators I’ve mentioned, as well as seek out the work of others. We are not invisible. We are just waiting to be seen.

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Black Captain America vs. Black Jesus (a.k.a. Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Going to Vomit in the Corner)

black cap and jesusOnce again, I find myself on the slippery slope of pop culture commentary, in a position that requires full disclosure. Recently, I wrote a piece about Marvel’s announcement that Sam Wilson, a black man better known as Falcon, will be taking over at the new Captain America. I also admitted that I know writer Rick Remender, who will be chronicling the adventures of Black Captain America. With that in mind, it is only fair that I admit to knowing Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks, as well as a new television series that is about to debut, Black Jesus.

My relationship with McGruder is far more complex than my relationship with Remender, to the extent that I’d say at one point Aaron and I could’ve been considered friends. We haven’t spoken in a long time, and based on his work as of late, I’d say that we exist in differing ideological universes. If that’s not the case, he is more than welcome to get in touch with me, as I’m sure he still has my number, and we can talk about how his work often makes me want to vomit in the corner.

Yesterday, shortly after I finished posting my rant about Black Captain America, I saw the trailer for McGruder’s new show, Black Jesus. Now, I want to be careful, and not jump to conclusions about how something might be, when I haven’t seen it yet. Black Captain America might turn out to be the best comic of all time, though I doubt it. And though the trailer leads me to believe that Black Jesus will be the sort of show that makes me cringe, all the while wondering if it simply wouldn’t have been better to get white people to perform in blackface, it might be a great show. It might not be the minstrel show it looks like it is going to be, and again, I don’t want to rush to judgment. Okay…I do want to rush to judgment…but I’m fighting that urge.

Now, before I go an further, let me make a promise to everyone. Here goes: I will buy the first issue of Black Captain America (not the real title, BTW), and I will watch the first episode of Black Jesus, and if either leaves me pleasantly surprised and forces me to rethink my initial reactions, I will admit to be a pre-judgmental jackass. But until that time, I’ve got some things to say, especially about Black Jesus.

Long before I met Aaron McGruder, I was a fan of The Boondocks—the comic strip that is, not the show. The show had some funny moments, but by and large it was a disappointment on many levels. I get why some people like the show, in the same way I get why some people like McDonald’s hamburgers, or drinking cheap beer until they black-out. That’s to say that even though I had problems with The Boondocks—just like I have problems with McDonald’s hamburgers giving me the runs—I’m cool with people liking the uncle ruckusshow. I just wish the show was more like the comic strip. You know…intelligent and not pandering for cheap laughs derived from low level jigabafoonery. I wish that the character of Uncle Ruckus was not a break-out hit of the show, because the market is already flooded with minstrel-like shenanigans. And if I thought Black Jesus was going to be anything other than minstrel-like shenanigans, I’d be excited. But the truth of the matter is that the minstrel—whether it be a white person in blackface, or a black person shucking-n-jiving—is alive and well, even though it needs to be laid to rest with a stake made of a fried chicken drumstick driven through its heart.

Look, I get that comedy is one of those things that can divide the room. What one person finds funny, another person finds offensive, and yet another person is left scratching his or her head, mumbling, “I don’t get it.” And while I have no doubt that some people will find Black Jesus funny, based on what I’ve seen so far, I won’t be one of them. Call me a bourgeois, hi-yella Negro, but I tend to shy away from anything that uses malt liquor as a comedic tool. But more important than that, I recognize the incredible power of comedy, both as a tool of oppression, and as a tool revolution.

For black people in America, comedy and music have been the two most powerful forms of social protest. Both comedy and music are the two greatest tools in shaping how black people are perceived—even more so than sports. Black music was the secret language we used to communicate with each other. Black comedy was the secret weapon we used to express our rage. This is part of the reason why I take black comedy so seriously—because it can either make black people, or break black people.

Most of the ideological views of the race and racism in America have been greatly formed by comedy. It was through the comedy of the minstrel shows of the 1800s that some of the worst stereotypes of blacks were introduced into American popular culture. White performers in blackface defined who black people were through a comedic framework, first on the stage, then in motion pictures. Black performers in the 1800s and well into the 20th century had to perform in blackface, simply to be accepted, at which time many of them were able to subvert some of the ideological conventions that defined blacks as inferior. But make no mistake, the paradigm of racial inferiority never went away, it just changed appearance.

stepin-fetchitPerhaps the best-known perpetrator of the myth of black inferiority as seen through the lens of comedy is Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry). To be sure, Stepin Fetchit was a comedic genius. But his comedy was problematic then, just as it is now. It was comedy derived from the misplaced ideological belief that blacks are inferior, and that is a tool of oppression. My concern is that Black Jesus will be pretty much the same thing—comedy derived from stereotypes and ideological beliefs that keep blacks stuck in a role of inferiority. It may be a funny show, but if it doesn’t defy existing socio-political constructs used to define black people in America, then it is just one more thing to add to the already long list of things that can kiss my hi-yella ass.

To be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to Black Captain America more than Black Jesus—though not much more. I already have a good idea of what Black Captain America will be like, and I know that it is just a gimmick that will be relatively short lived. And in the end, I’m not that worried that it will perpetuate damaging stereotypes. I suspect the worst we’ll see from Black Captain America is the same sort of writing that fails to give black characters real depth or resonance. And I can handle one-dimensional black characters written by white people, because to be honest, I’ve been raised on that crap. But it is the stuff like Black Jesus—or more specifically, what Black Jesus looks like it will be—that really gets me to worrying.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope Black Jesus is so intelligent that it raises the bar not only for what is expected from us comically, but how we are perceived—both by ourselves, as well as by others. I hope that it is a show that celebrates what is good and strong about black America, as opposed to mining the depths of our despair and depravity for some cheap laughs. Most of all, I hope the show doesn’t suck. But I ain’t holding my breath.

When all is said and done, the thing that bothers me the most are the limited options presented in the form of both Black Captain America and Black Jesus—not just for black people, but for everyone. What we’re being given are options that are about as limiting as the oft-asked question, “You want that original recipe, or extra crispy?”

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Marvel Launches Diversity & Representation 2014 (a.k.a. Don’t Piss on My Head and Tell Me It’s Raining)

SDCC_MARVEL_CMYK.JPGLet me start by saying a few things. First, I’m trying to write less about companies like Marvel (Disney) and DC (Warner Brothers), because I’m not paid to do publicity for them. Second, although we are not close friends, I have known Rick Remender for more than a decade, and where I’m about to go is not meant to be an attack on him personally. Finally, it is no secret that if Marvel (or DC for that matter) called me tomorrow, I’d jump at the opportunity to work for them—which might make some of you view me as a hypocrite, and that’s fine with me. All of that said, my undying childhood desire to write comics, my acquaintance with anyone who works for Marvel or DC, and my belief that both of these corporate-owned companies don’t need another bit of free publicity, does not change what I need to get off my chest.

This has been a busy week for Marvel, as they have kicked what could easily be called their Diversity & Representation 2014 campaign into high gear. First, they announced that Thor was becoming a woman, which was then followed by the announcement that Sam Wilson, a black man better known as Falcon, would be taking over as the new Captain America. There was also the unveiling of a new Avengers team, which includes the new Black Captain America, Female Thor, and a line up of characters that features more women and people of color than it does white guys (see above). All of these announcements have created the requisite stir within the world of pop culture, and in the days leading up to San Diego Comic Con, Marvel/Disney has gotten a good amount of press. And given the fact that the more than half of the 100,000-plus people attending SDCC are women and people of color, Diversity & Representation 2014 certainly feels like a gesture to cater to the needs of a larger cross-section of readers.

Now, at the risk of sounding cynical, I can’t help but feel that Marvel is pissing on my head, and telling me that it is raining. Everything they’ve done this week is a gimmick to increase sales, and none of these changes are meant to last. Female Thor will be a woman for probably a shorter time than Dr. Octopus took over Spider-Man’s body. Black Captain America will hold that title for a while, just until Steve Rogers gets his powers back, and until some other writer gets the idea to have Falcon take over for Cap, ten to twenty years from now. How do I know this? Because all of this crap has happened before.

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Sam Wilson becomes Captain America in Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #9.

Back in 1999, writer Mark Waid had Falcon don the Captain America suit and identity, after it appeared Steve Rogers had been killed in Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #8 and 9. And though I can’t be sure—because I’m too lazy to go through my comics—I’m pretty sure Sam Wilson pulled duty as Captain America at least one or two other times over the past forty-something years. Nor is this the first time someone else has wielded the hammer of Thor.

The point I’m getting at is that this is not the first time Marvel (or DC) has shaken things up, all with the hope of getting some press and attracting new readers. I understand that. It makes sense from a business standpoint. But what Marvel is doing right now—whether or not it is the intention of the creative teams on these books—is turning Diversity & Representation into a commodity, when for some of us it is a matter of life and death.

Time and time again, Marvel and DC have proven that when push comes to shove, they care about their existing audience/market, but really don’t care about the bigger audience out there. Sure, Female Thor and Black Captain America may bring in some new readers—and these new readers may even be women and people of color—but 18 months from now (if not sooner), the original Thor and Captain America will be back in action. This kind-hearted gesture of inclusion that Marvel has initiated is temporary, and will only last until sales taper off. But that is only part of the bigger problem with this latest publicity stunt.

I don’t want to be too quick to judge the work of any of the creative teams working on these newly announced projects, because the work they do may be good, given the limitations of what they are doing. What they are doing, however, is not that original—as I’ve pointed out—nor is it nearly as forward-thinking as it needs to be if Diversity & Representation 2014 is to be anything of merit.

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The ultimate success of a black man is to do what a white man does, as seen in Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #8.

I’m not trying to pick on Rick Remender for having Sam Wilson become Captain America, but some things need to be said. I don’t want to go so far as to say that only a white writer would think to have Sam Wilson become Captain America, because that’s not the case. I do, however, think that only a writer who isn’t trying hard enough would come up with that already-been-done story. More important, I think only a writer caught up in existing racial ideologies would think it is a good idea that a black man assumes the identity of a white man, as if that is the pinnacle of identity.

Let me be clear, so there is no misunderstanding, any writer working in comics could have come up with the idea of Falcon taking over for Captain America. It is a no-brainer. What is troubling to me—and is something that I’ve talked about before—is that in his forty-plus year history, Falcon has no truly defining story. Even the best Falcon stories are either mediocre or forgettable, and now, after all this time, the character gets to do something memorable by taking over the job of a white guy. This is the real reason why Marvel’s Diversity & Representation 2014 initiative is such a joke. It is all superficial (not to mention temporary), and it only perpetuates the notion that in order for people of color and women to achieve greatness, they must literally fill the shoes of a white man. Gimme a break.

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Playing Around with Oppression and Omission (a.k.a. How Something as Simple as a Doll Can Reinforce Racial Ideology)

og dollsSaw a video on Facebook this morning by a young woman I don’t know, but somehow it still managed to catch my eye. The video was made back in December 2013, and you can watch it HERE. If for some reason, you don’t watch the video, basically it is the young woman, Zenobia (love the name), pointing out the differences between a line of dolls. Zenobia points out that all the dolls are priced the same, and each comes with a book and a bunch of accessories—all except the black doll. The black doll comes with no book and no accessories. Some people don’t see the problem with this, so I will explain it on two levels.

First, we have the financial level. If all the dolls cost the same amount, but you get less merchandise with the black doll, chances are it won’t sell well. Most parents—including many black parents—are likely to look at the black doll, and see that they are getting less product for their consumer dollar, so they’ll pass it up for another one. This will result in low sales of the black doll, which will then make it seem like no one wants the black doll, which the sales figures will back up. Then this company (and other companies, I assure you), will use this as an argument for not making or selling black dolls. In turn, this creates a scenario where kids are then left to only play with white dolls. Now, I’m not saying kids shouldn’t play with white dolls, or that black kids should only play with black dolls. What I’m saying is that kids should be playing with dolls that offer a realistic representation of the world, and not a hegemonic enforcement of white power structure. Which leads me to my second point…

This line of dolls is called Our Generation Dolls. With the exception of the black doll, and one that may be Latino, the rest are all white. No Asian, Native American, disabled, or any other types of representations are to be found in this line of toys, which I might add is clearly made and marketed towards girls (and which raises a whole bunch of gender identity issues I’m not even going to touch). When you look at all these Our Generation Dolls (which I admit, creep me out), and you see that all the white dolls come with accessories and books, but the black doll comes with nothing, it sends a message. This message is firmly rooted in racial ideology that endows white people with a richer history and greater sense of importance than it does people of color. By now some of you are saying, “But it is just a doll!!!!” And to that, I say with as much love and affection as I can muster, “The hell it is.”

What we are talking about is a form of oppression through omission—both financial and ideological. It may not seem like it is that big of a deal, because it is a bunch of creepy looking dolls that I would never want, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal. Oppression through omission is insidious and devastating, and often difficult to spot, because it comes in the form of something as simple as a doll, or a movie with an all-white cast, and not a single person of color anywhere to be seen. This form of omission renders people of color invisible, or it devalues their worth in comparison to white people, and thereby dehumanizes them.

It’s great that Our Generation Dolls has a black doll, but give her some accessories and a book, just like the white dolls, or at least lower the price so that parents won’t feel like they’re getting ripped off. And while you’re at it, Our Generation Dolls, do something to bring a greater sense of diversity in representation to your products, and consider the role that you’re playing in enforcing old school gender roles that do little more than capitulate to existing patriarchal paradigm.

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Sidekick-ism, Part 2: Oh, What a Difference Race Makes (a.k.a. A Tale of Two Felix Leiters)

Felix Leiter 1After the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I wrote a piece about the supporting character Falcon and something called Sidekick-ism. Race and racial ideology was at the heart and soul of what I wrote about, which of course rubbed some people the wrong way. Fortunately, I’ve never cared about how my observations about race and racism may or may not upset people who wander through life with blinders on, convincing themselves that it’s all good when it comes to issues of race. And though it was never my intention to revisit Sidekick-ism, there is more to be said. Because some people still don’t fully comprehend the impact of racial ideology, and how it affects everything—including things as innocuous as pop culture—I wanted to take a look at Sidekick-ism through a very narrow and specific lens. This leads us to today’s topic: Felix Leiter, sidekick to James Bond.

Fans of James Bond—both in films and books—know that Felix Leiter is an American CIA agent, who is friends with Agent 007. In the books, the relationship between Bond and Leiter is better developed than it is in the films. In the Bond movies, Felix Leiter is a textbook example of the Sidekick. Felix Leiter has appeared in ten James Bond films (including Never Say Never Again), and in the 1954 made-for-television Casino Royale, in which Bond was an American agent, and Felix Leiter became Clarence Leiter, British spy. Not counting either the 1954 or the 1967 versions of Casino Royale, in a total of twenty-three movies to date, James Bond has been played by six different actors. By comparison, to date, 007’s Sidekick and friend Felix Leiter has been played by eight actors in ten different films. This in and of itself speaks volumes about the true importance of the character—Felix Leiter is an interchangeable (and sometimes forgettable) supporting character that can be played by just about anyone (see random sampling below).

Felix Leiter 2Of the eight actors to play Felix, most people are hard-pressed to name half of them. At the same time, there is this impression that the character is somehow important to the world of James Bond, given that he is one of only a select few to have a recurring role in the stories. The fact of the matter is that when you look at Felix Leiter in the James Bond films, he could be a character with a different name, and it would not change the outcome of the story, making him a half-ass Sidekick at best. The only reason he keeps coming back is to appease a sense of nostalgia—though not continuity—amongst more dedicated fans.

So what does race have to do with any of this?

Felix Leiter has been played by eight different actors—six were white, two were black. This makes the character unique amongst not just Sidekicks, but amongst literary characters portrayed on film. Felix Leiter is one of the few characters to appear in any film franchise to be played by actors of different racial backgrounds. On the surface, this is as inconsequential as the character himself is to most of the stories that finds him in service to Bond saving the world. But if we look a bit beneath the surface, where racial ideology lurks, we can begin to see how the race of Felix Leiter has a larger impact on the story. Let’s look at two different Leiters, the first, played by Jack Lord in Dr. No (below), and the most recent, played by Jeffery Wright in the 2006 version of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Felix Leiter 3Considered by many to be the best version of Felix Leiter, Jack Lord set the standard for who and what the character was supposed to be. He dutifully fulfills the role of the Sidekick by providing James Bond with crucial information, lending assistance here and there, and showing up with the cavalry, seemingly just in time, but actually after Bond has defeated the bad guys. This is the role Felix Leiter always plays, with only slight variations to the formula. He is there to make sure that Bond fulfills his heroic duties by saving the day and getting the girl. And in that regard, Felix Leiter, as played by Jack Lord and five other white actors, is a Sidekick in the truest sense of the word. That dynamic changes, however, when a black actor like Jeffrey Wright becomes Felix Leiter (below).

Felix Leiter 4There is no escaping the fact that the world of James Bond is riddled with ideological problems surrounding sex, gender, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism (just to name a few). I mean come on, let’s be honest with each other, when it comes to women and sex, James Bond is his own form of deadly STD. In every single movie, there is at least one woman that he has sex with who ends up dying. I mention this, because it is important that we admit—no matter how much we may love 007 movies—they are a hot mess of ideological wrongness. This is especially true in how women are portrayed and treated, but also in terms of how people of color are presented. Once we accept that the Bond movies do not treat women well, we must look at how these same films treat people of color—in this case, specifically black people, and how issues of race affect Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Felix Leiter.

Throughout the history of James Bond films, black characters have been largely portrayed as background extras or small supporting roles in films like Dr. No, Thunderball, or Diamonds Are Forever. It wasn’t until Live and Let Die that there was any significant presence of black people in a Bond movie, and in this movie it was so omnipresent that it made Roger Moore’s first outing as 007 essentially a blaxploitation movie. But here is the thing to keep in mind—Live and Let Die featured a massive cast of black actors, nearly all of who were villains. Take a good look at the image below from Live and Let Die, and ponder the racial implications of what is going on in this single image. After Live and Let Die, the black presence in Bond movies was limited primarily to Grace Jones in A View to a Kill, and Colin Salmon in a thankless role as a MI:6 bureaucrat in three of Pierce Brosnan films. There may have been an extra here or there, or a supporting character so forgettable that I have, in fact, forgotten them (and no, I haven’t forgotten Naomi Harris in Skyfall).

live-and-let-dieIn 2006’s Casino Royale, Jeffrey Wright became the second African American actor to play Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey played the character in 1983’s Never Say Never Again). When Wright introduced himself as Leiter in the franchise reboot, hardcore fans got a little giddy. Here was a familiar name, to remind us that despite outward appearances, we were still in the world of 007. And as was the case with every other actor to play Felix Leiter, Jeffrey Wright acquiesced to Daniel Craig’s Bond, ensuring that the true hero remained the true hero of the story. But here’s the problem that lies just beneath the surface of franchise conventions and predictable plot contrivances—Jeffrey Wright was the only black character representing the forces of “good” in the world of Casino Royale, and he steps aside to let a white man do his thing. Now, I know that what Felix Leiter does in Casino Royale is in step with what the character has always done, but the dynamic takes on a deeper ideological meaning when it is done by a black man. And this dynamic changes even more significantly when you consider the only other black characters in the movie are bad guys played by Issach De Bankole and Sebastien Foucan.

In nearly every James Bond that has Felix Leiter as a Sidekick, both characters exist in a nearly all-white world, where one white man is stepping aside to give another white man the chance to be a hero. This does nothing to change the racial dynamic created within the world of these films (though it does reinforce all the ideological constructs that exist). When all is said and done, Bond is the hero who saves the world. But things begin to chance when Felix Leiter is black. No longer is this an all-white world, blissfully content with its hegemonic reality that has no place for black people. Suddenly, this is a world with black villains, trying to kill the white hero (who symbolizes all the evils of colonialism—though that’s a topic for another time), and the only counterbalance to this black villainy is a Sidekick who can’t play poker worth a damn, so he tells the white guy, “It’s up to you, boss.”

When a Sidekick like Felix Leiter is played by a white actor like Jack Lord, he has the luxury of being a largely ineffective character at service to the hero in a world of whiteness. When a black actor plays the same Sidekick, and is the only non-criminalized representation of blackness, his ineffectiveness takes on greater significance—his servitude to the hero speaks more loudly. There is nothing to it when one white man gives away all their power to another white man in a predominantly white world controlled by men. But it is something else altogether when a black man gives away all his power to a white man in a predominantly white world controlled by white men. Even if most people don’t see it, or want to believe it, race and racial ideology have a tremendous impact, even on something as innocuous as the Sidekick in a James Bond movie.

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Why Do You Take Pictures of Flowers? (or, How I Learned to Slow Down and See the World)

flowers 2People that follow me on Facebook and Twitter ask me all the time, “Why do you take so many pictures of flowers?” Friends at parties ask me the same question, and once in a while, someone will walk past me as I’m taking a picture, and look at me like I’m a bit weird. I guess that in the broad scheme of things, I don’t strike people as the sort who takes pictures of flowers, and then posts them on Instagram. I find myself explaining why I take these pictures on a regular basis, and I don’t mind sharing it with anyone who wants to listen (or in this case read).

flower 5If I were to pinpoint when it all really started, I would have to say that it began on July 4, 2012. I was walking to a friend’s house for a barbecue, when I just happened to notice an odd-looking flower I’d never seen before. I stopped and studied it, and was amazed at its color and shape, and kind of wished I could take a picture of it. About a block later, I saw the same flower in another yard, and was fascinated by it. A few blocks later, I saw a woman, tending to her flowerbed, and she had the same flower growing. I asked her what it was, and she told me it was a Lucifer flower, also known as a Crocosmia (that’s it, above and to the left). We talked for a few moments, while I wished I could take a picture of this thing, when it dawned on me that I had a camera on Samsung Galaxy media player. I asked her if I could take a picture, telling her I’d never seen a flower like that before. While I was taking the picture, it dawned on me that every flower in the woman’s garden was foreign to me. And that’s when it dawned on me that not once in my life had I ever really stopped and looked at flowers. I told this to the woman, and she looked like she was about to cry.

I continued on to my friend’s house, but as I walked, I stopped and looked at flowers along the way. It sounds like a sad cliché, but it felt like an entire world had opened up to me. A few days later, I went for a walk with the sole purpose of looking at flowers and taking a few pictures. It was perhaps the most relaxing day I’d had in years.

While all of this was going on, one of my oldest friends was nearing the end of his life. Paul West, who was younger than me, had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and he was close to dying. I would visit him regularly at the nursing home, where he was in hospice, and the entire process—walking into the place, visiting with him, watching his slipping away, and then going home—was beyond words. It felt soul crushing.

flower 4One day, I didn’t have the strength to go in and see Paul. I had parked my car, walked to the entrance of the nursing home, but the thought of watching him die, left me emotionally crippled. I stood outside the nursing home, and all of a sudden, I noticed that there were flowers blooming everywhere. As it had been on the Fourth of July, I became mesmerized by all the amazing colors and shapes. Feeling a bit energized by the flowers, I went inside to see Paul. I told him about the flowers, and asked if he’d been outside, but he hadn’t. The heat was oppressive that summer, and his sickness left him in a condition where he couldn’t go outside. So, I went outside and started taking pictures for him.

I was trying to make sense of the world, and come to grips with the reality of Paul’s death, which I knew would be coming soon. I was more bitter and cynical than usual, and in a deep depression, as I questioned the meaning of life and the ugliness that seemed to be everywhere. But there were these beautiful flowers, blooming all around me. I began to realize that even in the midst of death and the ugliness of the moment, there was beauty, if we I just stopped long enough to look at it.

randomnessAnd that’s how I started taking pictures of flowers—I slowed down long enough to see the beauty in the world. Then I started looking around me for more than just beauty. I started looking for the interesting, the weird, and the funny—all of which is everywhere, if we just slow down enough to see the world that surrounds us. So, when you see me posting pictures of flowers, or public art, or graffiti, or a toilet sitting on a loading dock, know that for a brief moment I have stopped worrying about whatever is stressing me out, or being overwhelmed by the negativity of the world, and that I am appreciating what is around me. Don’t worry that I’m going insane, because the truth is the exact opposite.

Check out more of my random photos on Instagram.

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TRUTH REVEALED: The BadAzz MoFo Collection

Best of BAMF cover 9 low resA few days ago I posted about something I’m calling The BadAzz MoFo Collection. In theory, if this were to exist, it would collect material from BadAzz MoFo #4, 5, 6, and 7. These are the only issues that have digital files (or at least some digital files). So, here’s the deal…the collection does exist. I spent the better part of the last week putting it together, which was more difficult than you might imagine. Most of the files for BadAzz MoFo #4 were incomplete, and I had to reassemble over half the issue (to the best of my half-ass ability). I had to replace some images, and do some design adjustments because several fonts were no longer recognized (which threw off the text flow), but other than that, nothing has changed. All the writing exists as it was written. All the typos are still there. All the terrible grammar and punctuation has been kept intact. And the writing, which is questionable at best, remains as profane, politically incorrect, and just plain bad as it was when it was written more than a decade ago. The BadAzz MoFo Collection clocks in at over 180 pages. It features more than 150 film reviews (blaxploitation, Injunsploitation, spaghetti western, and more). And there are some great interviews. The book will be available as a downloadable PDF, as well as a print on demand book. It will be go on sale within the next week or two.

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The BadAzz MoFo Collection?!?

Best of BAMF cover 9 low resI’m not saying this is a real thing or anything like that. I’m just putting it out there. What if there was a collection of select material from the BadAzz MoFo archives? What if this collection was available as a PDF and/or a print-on-demand book?

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