ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Moore is excellent as Abner and captivating as this manic director. Luis Laporte plays Cairo and gives a tempered,
but strong performance. The arc of his character and the changes he goes through are remarkable.
As An Act of Protest– Exposing the Black Man’s Psyche
A commentary by Jonah Willis
Sun, 12 May 2002
I originally saw this film when it premiered in February 2002 at the Pan African Film Festival at the Magic Johnson Theater in Los Angeles. I knew then that the film was something special, and after seeing it at the Anthology in NYC, I accepted my original conclusion that the film is a challenging movie by a very experimental director. It is the first American film I’ve ever seen that exposed the black man’s psyche’ and the internal wounds inflicted by racism. Cairo, the central character, goes on a journey that many of us have gone through or are going through now — whether you’re a black man or woman.
The film was written in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo. Moore refers to Diallo as the “Emmett Till of my generation” in his program notes for the NYC Private Screening at the Anthology Film Archives in lower Manhattan. Moore is a twenty-six year old guerilla filmmaker and part of that group of younger underground voices. We have Lauryn Hill, we have cartoonist Aaron Magruder (“the Boondocks”), we deserve alternative filmmakers as well. And we need them to be politically conscious and aggressive.
As an Act of Protest follows the spiritual trip that a black actor goes through to find out who he is and what he can do, instead of acting on stage, to rid the world of racism. This itself is a bit of an abstraction, but the film shows how society is drenched with the blood of racism and antipathy towards the black man. Period. Although the sound was shoddy in some areas (an unfortunate problem many low or no-budget filmmakers experience and it actually could have been the theater’s speakers), and the rhythm atonal and discomforting at times, the movie is powerful and showcases strong directing, writing, and acting.
Moore does not seem concerned with traditional structure in his film and this is nothing innovative because many other directors have done the same thing in terms of breaking away from conventional “storytelling. However, what is interesting is how he does it. The first half of the film seems tight, straight forward, and energetic. At first it seems like the movie is about Abner, the impassioned theater director, and his mission to revive the Black theater scene. Although I do not agree with the fact that Black Theater in America is eternally in dire straits, Moore makes a good argument about loss of culture, history, and political consciousness via the symbol of theater and that of the “Actor.”
Moore is excellent as Abner and captivating as this manic director. Luis Laporte plays Cairo and gives a tempered, but strong performance. The arc of his character and the changes he goes through are remarkable. Laporte imbues Cairo with an almost child-like innocence and complexity. You can really feel what he is going through by his body language alone something the filmmaker seems to be interested in. I noticed physicality was just as important as the dialogue and imagery in the movie. Hands and Faces seem to play a big part in Moore’s world.
JJ, Abner’s theater producer, is expertly voiced by Stephen Dye. I honestly found the theater discussions to be the most original aspect of the film and Dye reveals the pettiness, insecurity, and self hatred that many have who are forced to moderate between art and commerce. Dye’s JJ is pathetic because of his seriousness and desire to please the white benefactors. Still, Dye never falls into the trap of making a character like JJ unlikable. This is the strength of Moore’s work with the actors and performances such as Stephen Dye’s. Personally, I don’t know if I would be able to play a part like JJ because I’d be so concerned about looking foolish. Dye does not care and his risk-taking shows.
Crystal Mayo portrays Karen, Cairo’s girlfriend and emotional support during the first part of the movie. Mayo gives a gusty and realistic performance. She does not seem self-conscious about her part, which I thought was interesting. Particularly in the moments when she is hedged in between different characters. When Abner and Cairo argue in the theater, Karen ups the ante and confronts Abner in defense of her man. She wrestles with the racing dialogue with Moore in that sequence and does it exceptionally well.
Likewise, in the scene between the white girl, Charlotte, and Cairo, Mayo is devastating and perhaps it is the best scene in the film because of its emotional power and various peak and valleys. Karen and Charlotte are alone in Cairo’s apartment getting drunk and rambling on about patching up mice holes and Cairo’s seemingly fanatical obsession with racism and oppression, and the apartment is a mess.
When Cairo returns home after seeing his parents and getting jumped by some white men in pig faces (seriously), he rails on Charlotte and displaces his anger and frustration he has towards the White Man Power Structure onto this innocent white woman who is nothing but a friend to him and Karen. This often happens however in racially mixed milieus or even in racially-mixed couples. What we see, though, is Karen’s intolerance and fear of the situation.
Mayo handles this well and it is a hard thing to do. Cairo eventually causes Charlotte to breakdown and admit her “white guilt. It is a startling moment and Sarah Lewis came out of the scene like a real trooper. It is one of the most surreal sequences ever put in a movie. Chilling and all the more strange, because of the natural dark lighting and documentary feel of the scene.
Moore is definitely an actor’s director. The actor is at the center of his work and everything else works to support that. For instance the use of dissolves in the movie imply something ethereal and dream-like about the world. However, it is the pacing of the scenes and acting in conjunction with the film’s visual conventions that give it its power and originality. The first part of the film, as I said earlier, is anarchic and improvisatory in feeling. Abner represents this.
Likewise, Ward Nixon, in highly impressive performance as Professor Eastman, imbued the second act of the film with an uneasy and paranoid feeling. Eastman, a black college professor, is a latent black psychotic neatly buttoned up in a suit. He is what Harold Cruse writes of in Crisis of the Black Intellectual, and what Frazier speaks of in “Black Bourgeoisie. Eastman is likeable at first, then grows more and more sinister for no apparent reason until we realize that Cairo is basically holding a mirror up to Eastman’s nature and destroying his phony, comfortable, black upper-middle class lifestyle. Nixon has been around a long time and I hope he gets his due. He was creepy and inviting as Eastman and I look forward to more roles like this, which show various layers of a character.
The entire film is sprinkled with interesting performances such as cameos from the Last Poets. The scene with Umar Bin Hassan was excellent. Umar plays himself giving Cairo advice about the artists role in the revolution. It is a classic scene.
As an Act of Protest was a strange film, but an emotionally engaging one. It is not for everyone. It is confusingly cut with convoluted symbolism and a lot Christ imagery which eluded me. The film was also very long and kind of over-the-top at times. Still, as a movie it is worth seeing. It had an interesting (if not strange) look and feel, but a lot of heart.
Racism and the impetus to get revenge on one’s oppressor is always going to be of interest. Politics aside, the humanity came through. With war in the Middle East going on perhaps the emotions involved in getting revenge for an attack will be understood.
Jonah Willis email@example.com
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Gregory Johnson Responds to Jonah
Mon, 13 May 2002
Thank you for your review. It does seem like the movie is of interest to some people, but honestly, at this point, I find it to be more of hype or excitement than anything else. People always want to be “in the know,” and the film As an Act of Protest seems to be a piece of work that some want to discuss within heavy philosophical discussions or serious artistic achievement. I do feel that the director is talented and I do appreciate any sort of talent – particularly among young people. But I do not condone chaos or rabble rousing. Dennis Leroy Moore is more of a provocateur than a serious director. I do see his ability to work with actors and you noted that quite well in your piece.
Yes, thank god, he is more of a Dramatist and character-explorer than a lot of other young directors, but I find that he still has a lot to learn. There were interesting moments in the film, and the musical selections were effective (except for the bastardization of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake Finale” which was absolutely ridiculous) but I find that spending all this time discussing a film that is forgotten as easily as the credits roll is absurd. Absolutely absurd.
If you want to write and learn about new or alternative black films and directors look at the work of Kasi Lemmons – her movie “Caveman’s Valentine” was extraordinary cinema. There was a wonderful film by a new black director at the Pan African Festival called “Harlem Aria.” That film was extraordinary – with a tour de’force performance by Damon Wayans.
African films can be very good, but I find them to be way too polemical. Politics can be very dangerous and alienating in art.
There was an excellent movie I saw about two years ago called “One Week” which was a treat! You can rent it. Also, “Monster’s Ball” with Halle Berry could also be considered a radical step in black cinema – merely because a black actress gave an Oscar-winning performance in it! Antwon Fuqua, who directed “Training Day,” is actually one of the best new Hollywood directors. He has a very promising career.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that black filmmakers need to spend more time acquiring the proper skills and ideas needed to make a film. School is a must and learning what makes a good script into a good movie is also something that has to be learned. Technique is very important. Emotion and life experience does not translate in powerful art alone.
Money is required and that is also something so-called “guerilla filmmakers” need to understand. Proper lighting, set dressing, and make up are required. Films are what? Images. If you make something seem appealing you can invite the audience in, you can cleverly trick them even though what you may have in mind is the opposite of what they are expecting. If folks want pretty pictures I say give it to them. Remember, if a movie isn’t entertainment at the end of the day then what is it? I understand some filmmakers don’t believe in these traditions but that is also the number one reason their work will not withstand the test of time.
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By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 January 2012