A special edition of Thumbnails detailing the recent sexual harassment cases in the entertainment and tech industries and the brave women who broke their silence.
Donald Liebenson chats with actor/comedian/writer Patton Oswalt about his new book "Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film."
From the moment that Hal Holmes and I slipped quietly into his basement and he showed me his father's hidden collection of Playboy magazines, the map of my emotional geography shifted toward Chicago. In that magical city lived a man named Hugh Hefner who had Playmates possessing wondrous bits and pieces I had never seen before. I wanted to be invited to his house.
I was trembling on the brim of puberty, and aroused not so much by the rather sedate color "centerfold" of an undressed woman, as by the black and white photos that accompanied them. These showed an ordinary woman (I believe it was Janet Pilgrim) entering an office building in Chicago, and being made up for her "pictorial." Made up! Two makeup artists were shown applying powders and creams to her flesh. This electrified me. It made Pilgrim a real person. In an interview she spoke of her life and ambitions.
I have a friend who walked out of THERE WILL BE BLOOD during that baptism scene, when Daniel Day-Lewis exclaimed, "I've abandoned my child!" My friend was just divorced, lost custody of his children, and was tormented with the remorse that follows these things. As Daniel Day-Lewis shouted, my friend almost needed to cover his ears. He returned to his seat shortly afterwards, but needed that moment to collect himself.
I have another friend who was molested by a family friend. She refuses therapy, but she attributes multiple aspects of her personality, that she herself identifies as disorders - social ineptitude, sexual dysfunction and confusion, chronic despair - to that period of molestation. When she watched MYSTIC RIVER, a movie speaking of the physical and psychological abuse of children and the long term consequences on their hearts and minds, she found herself painfully revisiting those experiences, but not where we might expect.
From its incendiary opening to its somber but exultant conclusion, Spike Lee's grand and important film "Malcolm X" captures the life of a complex, charismatic and gravely misunderstood man who fought for human rights and justice for Africans and African-Americans. The film, based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, is arguably Mr. Lee's best and most universal film, and one of the great American film biographies.
For context, "Malcolm X" had extraordinary publicity leading up to its 1991 production. Numerous black activists in New York City and elsewhere had forecasted that Mr. Lee's film would not accurately depict the essence of Malcolm. "Don't mess Malcolm up," was a refrain the director heard over and over again.
A joke should have the perfection of a haiku. Not one extra word. No wrong words. It should seem to have been discovered in its absolute form rather than created. The weight of the meaning should be at the end. The earlier words should prepare for the shift of the meaning. The ending must have absolute finality. It should present a world view only revealed at the last moment. Like knife-throwing, joke-telling should never be practiced except by experts.
For many laymen, a joke is a heavenly gift allowing them to monopolize your attention although they lack all ability as an entertainer. You can tell this because they start off grinning and grin the whole way through. They're so pleased with themselves. Their grins are telling you they're funny and their joke is funny. The expert knows not to betray the slightest emotion. The expert is reciting a fact. There is nothing to be done about it. The fact insists on a world that is different than you thought. The fact is surprising and ironic. It is also surprising--you mustn't see it coming. That's why the teller should not grin. His face shouldn't tell you it's coming. If the joke is also vulgar, so much the better, but it must never exist for the sake of vulgarity. That's why "The Aristocrats" is not only the most offensive joke in the world, but also, in the wrong hands, the most boring.
Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, 1902 -1985
"We need to examine the history of blacks in film to appreciate their deep roots.... Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the top comedy stars of the 80s, have a strange, subversive ancestor in Stepin Fetchit, America's first black millionaire actor." -- Richard Corliss, Time, "The 25 Most Important Films on Race"
See: "Stepin Fetchit to Denzel Washington (Part I )"
"Stepin Fetchit, then and now" by Jim Emerson (2005)
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The day Clarence Thomas was nominated by George H.W. Bush for the Supreme Court, I was interviewing 23-year-old writer-director John Singleton about his upcoming movie "Boyz N the Hood" (1991). Singleton was sitting in front of a hotel-room TV tuned to CNN and the first words out of his mouth were: "He's the biggest Uncle Tom."
That memory came back again recently as I was reading Harvard Law Professor and Supreme Court bar member Randall Kennedy's book, "Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal."  Kennedy writes: Sometimes "Uncle Tom" is used interchangeably with "sellout." In a Washington Post profile of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, two journalists write that "Uncle Tom is among the most searing insults a black American can hurl at a member of his own race." They describe "Uncle Tom" as a "synonym for sellout, someone subservient to whites at the expense of his own people."
How to Act Black: "Black Acting School" from "Hollywood Shuffle" (see clip below).
This usage is ironic. The original Uncle Tom -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom -- was a character who chose death at the hand of his notorious owner, Simon Legree, rather than reveal the whereabouts of runaway slaves. Still there are those who use "Uncle Tom" to refer to any black whose actions, in their view, retard African-American advancement. Others are more discriminating. For many of them, the label "sellout" is more damning than "Uncle Tom" or kindred epithets -- "Aunt Thomasina," "Oreo," "snowflake," "handkerchief head," "white man's Negro," "Stepin Fetchit"....
View image The late Richard Pryor, All-African-American. Negative criticism of Pryor is usually limited to his acceptance of inferior material.
Of course, all those terms aren't synonymous, either. The name of Stepin Fetchit is nearly as well-known, and almost synonymous with "Uncle Tom" -- and that, too, may be somewhat ironic. Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry, 1902-1985) was a tremendously popular movie star with black and white audiences. But his act, on stage and screen, was also vilified for perpetuating a stereotype of African-American men as lazy, shuffling, bowing and scraping buffoon. (Other stereotypes of black men as pimps, gangstas, rapists, con artists, drug pushers/addicts, violent criminals, woman-abusers would come from elsewhere, and long outlive him.) He was admired and in many ways emulated by Muhammad Ali, with whom he converted to the Nation of Islam, and he was honored with an NAACP Image Award in 1976.
But how many people today have actually seen him in a movie?
(Note from Roger Ebert: Cynthia, who now lives and works in Tucson, was a features writer at the Sun-Times in the 1970s, where our desks faced each other and we shared everything from coffee to the mysteries of the new computers. She sent me this after the death of Richard Pryor.)