Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Film Comments: The Great Debaters & Notes for an African Orestes

Excerpt from "Once More, with Feeling: Denzel Washington’s film The Great Debaters and Robert Rosenstone’s book History on Film/Film on History"

“Like the shape of Africa,/ the raison d’etre of Art is a question mark,” poet Melvin B. Tolson wrote in the poem “Delta,” Harlem Gallery (Collier Books, 1969; 28). It may be impossible to reduce any art worth contemplating to a simple idea or explanation, but part of the value of The Great Debaters is its giving form and spirit to questions that have haunted too many of us concerning the place of African-Americans in the world. Are we to be discouraged by circumstances and expectations, or inspired to excel and exceed them? Are we to be whole or forever condemned to self-division—“a half-breed,/ a bastard of Barbarus and Cultura,” as Melvin Tolson described a character in “Upsilon,” Harlem Gallery (105). The principal characters in The Great Debaters choose excellence and are exhilarating and touching because of it (and their challenges and doubts are merely some of the dragons that every hero has to slay, but heroes they are); and the film pays tribute to them, and offers encouragement as well as pleasure to its viewers, something the actress Jurnee Smollett realized when she said to Movies Online: “it’s giving voice to the voiceless, putting lips to something, and that’s one thing that makes you so proud to be part of a film like this, because you’re giving a salute to everyone who has come before you.”

Excerpt from "Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes"

In Notes for an African Orestes, we see Pasolini in Africa, mostly in Tanzania but also in Uganda, looking for casting and locations (he thought of using sites in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Kampala in Uganda, as Athens). Pasolini has a severe handsomeness, and, attentive, he speaks quickly and smartly, as he explores the culture, commenting on how the transformation of the furies, the Erinyes, into the Eumenides, the benevolent, is a metaphor for African political experience. Tanzania, between Kenya and Mozambique in eastern Africa, near the Indian Ocean, and rich in iron, coal, diamonds, gold, and gas, was formed as a nation after Tanganyika and Zanzibar won their independence from England in the early 1960s, and Tanganyika and Zanzibar united in 1964. The country has more than one-hundred tribes, making up the Bantu people, who speak Swahili and English in addition to diverse Bantu languages. The Tanzania that Pasolini visits is poor; and it remains poor. It is an irony that many people farm (coffee, tea, cassava, corn, cotton, nuts, tobacco, wheat), but that less than ten percent of the land is conducive to farming. It might be easier to think of Tanzania as a probable place for a Greek play if one recalls that few Greeks participated in democracy—those who did were like a village within a town. If one thinks of democracy as a dynamic process involving consciousness and choice, one can see how promising this could be for Africa, which, following colonialism, has seen so many despots (such is the case for Uganda, which Pasolini considered for his proposed feature film).

All texts (c) DG: the texts were written in July and August of 2008.