The Harder They Come: Reflections on FX’s Snowfall

(These are my accumulated episodic notes on FX’s completed summer series Snowfall. If you haven’t seen, I originally tried to stick to general impressions, but spoilers are definitely, increasingly, extant, culminating in the outright dangerous. Snowfall was my favorite show of the summer, followed by USA’s Shooter and Queen of the South and SyFy’s Killjoys and grindhouse mash-up Blood Drive.)

“Like the Earth, she cools down until she hardens.

Thus creation is born.”

— Swim (RZA), Snowfall, Episode 7, “Cracking”

I CIA Connection: Unknown / II Whose Street?

I watched two episodes—the Pilot, “Make Them Birds Fly”—this morning of executive producer John Singleton’s—along with co-creators Eric Amadio and Dave Andron (Justified)—FX series Snowfall about the cocaine explosion in South Los Angeles in the early 1980s. So far, the CIA connection, Logan Miller (Eric Mitro, Or Die Trying webseries) is not well known. He overdosed during a sex party in the pilot episode but left a stack of bricks behind at a modernist Hollywood Hills retreat with views. His partner is a Contra rep, Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cardenas), who explains to the new CIA liaison, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson)—a disgraced agent who persuades his handler, James Ballard (Swindon, England’s Nic Bishop, Covert Affairs, Body of Proof) to continue the operation under a shroud of plausible deniability with a promise of an illicit weapons field day for the counterrevolutionaries—that the Contras are assembled but starving and in poor shape. Alejandro complains that the Americans are always inconsistent and have abandoned them. He is using a Latino supply connection—crime family kids Pedro Nava (Lisbon native Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn: The Series, True Detective, The Bridge) and fallen Lucha libre wrestler turned strongman Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata (Madrid native Sergio-Peris Mencheta)—as well as an eccentric playboy Israeli, Avi Drexler (the acclaimed Alon Aboutball, Legends, Low Winter Sun) who may be ex-intelligence. A decent and intelligent African-American youth, Franklin Saint (London native Damson Idris, Megan Leavey, City of Tiny Lights) seizes an opportunity to cash in with Avi to sell in his neighborhood, but so far gets the cash from his second and third bricks stolen from his ever-present backpack along with his newly acquired motorbike during an ambush outside an underground Black club run by an overlord madame, Claudia Crane (veteran character actress Judith Scott), he distributes to. It’s interesting, well acted, and somewhat addicting.

III Wall Street to Main / Another Gear

In episode 3 of Snowfall, “Slow Hand,” Franklin’s wide-eyed and freewheeling entrepreneurial skills are put to the test by the realities of urban street life. These, after all, are not so much different than those in the capital boardrooms with the glass windows and scenic, panoramic views over the years, decades, and into the present day, in which the enforcement of territorial monopolies runs counter to the inalienable rights of capital competition and can be enforced by the most raw and infantile personal maldevelopment—not just speaking of the current American president and monopoly capitalist—and savage violence. In business, whether in the capital exchanges or in the street, weakness is just not tolerated and can be a sure bellwether of pending losses and financial doom. The episode pivots on Franklin’s character development, and not just on the lesson of whether one must swim with sharks in order to keep from being eaten.

His “softness,” along with childhood best friend Leon’s (Isaiah John), is characterized by street-gang enforcer Karvel (Sheaun McKinney, Vice Principals, upcoming NBC series Great News) as of the “soft-serve ice-cream ass…” variety, but Franklin is not just being adverse to having to enforce violence to sustain his threatened enterprise, but because of practicality. The throttle goes into another gear on his reaction to Karvel’s astonishing assault on Saint’s rival Lenny (Craig Tate, Aquarius, Ravenswood, 12 Years a Slave). When Franklin peers in the door as Lenny lay beaten on his bed tied and striped on his stomach, the gaze he receives back is not one of defiance, but something like reconciliation. Franklin’s single-minded anger at Lenny and determination to avenge him for jumping, beating, and robbing him morphs into empathy, as Franklin perhaps sees himself in Lenny’ gaze, with the understanding that Lenny is just like him: a burgeoning entrepreneur whose territory—and livelihood—he unknowingly trampled upon. Franklin realizes he is not in this alone, but that there are competitors around him who may share his like-minded dreamz of self-betterment. The story arc has nowhere to go but to see at what cost he is willing to go to sustain them, and just how much he and others around him may suffer from it.

IV Poetics

Darkness intensifies in Snowfall episode 4, “Trauma.” The foreboding opening title sequence, with a spotlight perceptively illuminating the silver bejewel-encrusted 3D main title, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire in both style and effect, becomes impactful. It’s also just one of the portentous symbolic manifestations of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that is suddenly transparent and imbued in this episode, nevermind actual action and complication. That escalation moves on Franklin’s and Leon’s kidnapping and botched execution of Karvel in the unforgiving terrain of the Mojave, always a reliable film and television trope. Franklin’s consuming obsession in reclaiming his now twice-stolen money is betrayed by the stark whiteness of his determined eyes as he aims a gun at Karvel. If Karvel’s half-buried-alive body epitomizes Saint’s humanist hesitation as his general approach, his friend’s finishing Karvel off to loud, off-screen effect at sundown shows we are firmly within the grip of Aristotle’s Poetics.

As the episode shifts to a shady Contra camp inside Honduras, when Teddy announces to Alejandro they’re not prepared to fly the Central American cocaine into Hawthorne Municipal Airport, a sprawling airfield that intersects Crenshaw Boulevard off the 105 Freeway to LAX, it definitively brings home the CIA/Contra/South Los Angeles connection, so long considered an urban legend even after Gary Webb’s definitive series in the San Jose Mercury News. When the CIA point man, whose omnipresent Kansas City Royals baseball cap betrays his eccentric, fish-out-of-water character, becomes a sort of father figure to an impetuous young contra boy, Popeye (Marcel Ruiz, upcoming Netflix reboot One Day at a Time), the personal really hits home for the private and professional misfit when he unintentionally outs the boy as an FSLN plant and the boy’s swift retribution at the hands of matter-of-fact camp forewoman Elena (Zabryna Guevara, The Get Down, Gotham) brings back memories of the loss of his own son. Popeye’s outing also confirms the legitimacy of the FSLN that the adventurous young boy is actually on the right side. Emmy-winning Jeff Russo’s (Fargo, Bull, The Night Of) loud bass & drum and eerie keyboards bring home the episode’s theme, as does Avi’s colorful description that body disposal is a professional prerequisite, so what do we make of Saint’s surprise response, “I’m out”?

V Dark Side of the Moon

Snowfall episode 5, “Seven-Four,” is all about the state of the nation as defined on its birthday. It’s not so pretty: A Latin crime family enjoys a luxury indoor/outdoor house party, an African-American block party is interrupted by police, and the CIA’s reckless and hapless attempts to subvert sovereign democracy are cast in stark tragicomic relief. The episode opens rather stunningly with Teddy ranting and raving to himself and an unconscious Alejandro, slumped in the cockpit of the pair’s four-seat, single-engine plane, stranded amid the burning expanse of the Mexican desert running out of water with 75 kilos of cocaine from Peru. The scene is a stage for Hudson’s bravura acting, and demonstrates the show’s admirable dependence on several relatively unknown and inexperienced actors, who all, nonetheless, decidedly come through. In case we’re not aware of the theme of the episode, Teddy even shows off his history skills in a monologue on casualties at Lexington and Concord.

Lucia insists on bringing Gustavo to Pedro’s father Ramiro’s (veteran Honduran-born dramatic television presence José Zúñiga, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) holiday cocktail gathering, and the lowly former luchador must prove his trust and loyalty in an understated tête-à-tête out by the horse stables. Franklin informs his mother, Cissy (terrific Birmingham-born Jamaican television veteran Michael Hyatt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ray Donovan, True Detective), he’s quit his job as a liquor store clerk and promises her he’ll help take care of their needs, in addition to the income from her contentious position evicting low-income tenants. Franklin’s Uncle, Jerome (Bronx-born rising star Amin Joseph, Baywatch, Sister Code) and plucky Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) decide to go forth with their annual Fourth of July front-yard BBQ, but like so many assertions of African-American independence, it nearly ends in tragedy. As the smell of marijuana wafts densely in the air and day turns to night, Jerome sets the roof afire with a misjudged fireworks launch by light of the moon and the boisterous perimeter is penetrated by two officers emerging from a squad car. Franklin mouths off and is put in a severe chokehold. Needless to say, for Saint, the liquor store can wait and it’s back to the cocaine. That’s the promise he made.

VI Prophesy

As the title suggests, in Snowfall episode 6, “A Long Time Coming,” Franklin Saint, or Youngblood as he’s called on two separate occasions by two different people, gets schooled in the recent history of the street. Claudia, Jerome, and Jerome’s old friend, Knees (special-guest star Bokeem Woodbine, Underground, Fargo) all provide crucial lessons and cautionary tales that evoke prophecy, especially on turning to cocaine for personal profit. A colorful meeting with Knees in his warehouse office is particularly contextual: The Korean soap seller lays down a crucial history of African-American street life from the 1950s forward to the “crazy kids nowadays,” but Franklin is barely intrigued. He’s much more interested in the locus of the Mexican-American street gang where he may unload the two kilos from Avi rejected by Claudia, who assumed only one, because as the madame repeats, she’s “a purveyor of entertainment, not a drug dealer.” If Franklin is somewhat tone deaf to the wisdom of the previous generation, at least he’s not a total fool, as Leon and third musketeer Kevin’s (Malcolm Mays, Rebel) brusque immaturity is given a graphic tongue-lashing by Claudia, and the duo later prove too sophomoric to equitably partner in Franklin’s disciplined routine. By the time Saint reunites with Cissy, it’s apparent this fine supporting African-American cast is typically emblematic.

The lessons hit home in reality in two separate ways that illustrate just how precious individual life is on a typical African-American urban street: Lenny’s scoping out of Franklin’s home from his car, gun in hand, with less resolute associate Ray Ray (Markice Moore, Shots Fired, Rectify) as the musketeers walk home in broad daylight, and Saint’s harrowing escape—with the aid of Gustavo, who’s there under similar purport—from the racist machismo of the Latino street gang whose neighborhood he penetrates for his own profit. Selling in the upscale White neighborhoods of the Valley would be easiest, but as Jerome counseled, that’s the surest ticket to prison, but how ‘bout to an early grave? After some more deft acting from Hudson, the episode concludes on the posting of a missing persons flyer on a utility pole that has grave consequences for Alejandro and the entire operation: Seems a young woman, Victoria (Justine Lupe, Mr. Mercedes, Madam Secretary), is taking a keen interest in one of the girls who “disappeared” the night of the former CIA liaison’s sex party, all to the tune of the Temptations’ essential “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” The episode also manifests the depth of Snowfall’s three parallel storylines.

VII The Base / All of It

Snowfall episode 7, “Cracking,” is a stunning depiction of the stark origins of rock cocaine on the West Coast. After again stringing along Cissy, this time over the broken window of her car upon his narrow escape from the previous episode, Franklin and the other musketeers take a drive to Oakland in Kevin’s rickety car to pursue a distribution opportunity with Kevin’s cousin, Devon. The trio arrive at an underground club where the party’s going all nite, and a nervous, fish-out-water Franklin—so (in)conspicuous with his serious demeanor and ubiquitous strapped-on backpack, departs toward his own much more adventurous all-nighter. Walking down a deserted alley, alone, with two kilos stashed away upon him, Franklin runs into a shabby building that he realizes is the former Black Panther Party headquarters his now homeless, outsider father took him to as a young boy. Down a dilapidated hallway and into a decrepit room, he finds a wrecked flower child (Abby Miller, The Sinner, Aquarius) who looks like she’s permanently strayed from her English studies at UC Berkeley. After much mutual flirting, she takes Saint to her street dealer who, in turn, accepts a big pile of cash to take Franklin, intoxicated by witnessing the girl’s cheap, quick high and the dealer’s returning customers, to “meet the Wizard.” Turns out the Wizard is named Swim (Brooklyn-born special-guest star RZA, Mr. Right, Gang Related) who, with his clandestine lab and maestro mixologist Angel (Anthony Rutowicz), is to Oakland’s drug underground what Lewis and Clark were to the Pacific Northwest. If Franklin didn’t necessarily appreciate the brief history of South Los Angeles African-American men from episode six, he is positively wide-eyed in hearing Swim’s take on what in Peru is called “la base,” the ultrapotent, when treated, bottom-barrel paste residue left over from the manufacture of cocaine, and how his scientists came upon freeing the base from the powder with ether like ice from the snow. There is more than one way to get high, and Franklin’s gaze at the process is so crystalline that by the time he reunites with his friends at sunrise with a large clear plastic bag of large rocks instead of the two packed kilos of powder his pupils have turned to dollar signs like crosses in the devil’s.

VIII Like Dow Jones / Creatures in the Morning Sun

I would moralize here about Franklin Saint’s clear-eyed decision to procure and distribute such a devastating street drug at the expense of the people in his own neighborhood and only to the benefit of himself and his mother, who would clearly disapprove—otherwise why would he be hiding it from her?—but I’m not Immanuel Kant or Søren Kierkegaard, so I won’t. Such discourse is probably best left to the individual. Franklin certainly believes so; if he chooses to win, and others to lose, it is what it is, and in life, there are always winners, and always losers. Perhaps capitalism is the most appropriate economic—and moral—philosophy for us, after all.

Needless to say, in Snowfall episode 8, “Baby Teeth,” Saint and associates have the people reeled in. Franklin again becomes intoxicated himself, though in a different way, upon Kevin‘s euphoria after pleading to try out the new high himself: “We gonna make bank!” Like all great entrepreneurs before him who have dropped out of school to pursue their dream in business, Franklin creates a new market for the perfect product, establishes the right price point, declines to extend credit to his avid new customers, and watches the magic of street econ 101 come to fruition. It’s all actualized by posting Leon and Kevin at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the morning sun, hooking those curious unemployed folks looking for a new high with free samples, and reeling them in the next day when they come back for more at $10 a bag; hook, line, sinker. J.P. Morgan, Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs and the Republican Party could be so proud, but establishing a new business always comes with consequences: Leon the Peon and Stingy Saint get into a struggle over the value of the means of production, and in the aftermath, tragedy strikes at Franklin’s front door. As Leon lies gasping and bleeding away, Franklin scrambles to ditch his backpack in the closet of his next-door neighbor’s, Melody’s (Reign Edwards, The Bold and the Beautiful) bedroom, before the authorities, whom he alerted, arrive. They do, the screen fades to black and credits roll to the sounds of the sirens, open and closing vehicle doors, and dispatch radios. Breathless.

IX Apart

Snowfall episode 9, “Story of a Scar,” is a masterwork in dramatic episodic television that, from the writing to the directing to the ensemble acting, should be shown in every film and television school. From one dramatic interior scene to the next, it was the most impressive hour I saw on television this summer, and if its writers—co-executive producer Leonard Chang (Justified, Awake) and Jerome Hairston (Game of Silence, Deception) don’t receive an Emmy nod for it—and they won’t—it’s a serious slight. From Franklin with Cissy, to Teddy with Alejandro, to Gustavo with Lucia, to Franklin with Melody, to Cissy with Aunt Louie, to Franklin with Leon, to Franklin with Claudia, to Gustavo and Latin street-gang padrone Stomper (Tony Sancho, Hulu’s East Los High), to Franklin with Louie, to Saint with Ray Ray in a diner à la Moonlight, it’s just one tour-de-force scene after another.

The episode occurs in the aftermath of losses sustained in all three storylines—Leon’s harrowing front-doorstep shooting, the Sandinistas’ immobilizing attack on the Contra base across the Honduran border, and Gustavo’s personal and operational ouster from Ramiro’s crime family. It begins—and ends—symbolically, with the extended shadow of Franklin’s footsteps as he walks dejectedly to Melody’s at night and the passing of Lucia’s serene and philosophic father, Mauricio (Salvadorean Carlos Linares), a foreboding event that presages the potential explosiveness to come. With the entrance to Melody’s home barred, the prodigal son decides to return home for a crucial face-to-face with Cissy, incredulous at the ease with which Franklin is able “to look me in the eye and lie your ass off.” After just a partial coming clean, Franklin states simply he “had to step up and get something going.” The next day he walks Melody home from the vocational center she attends but only to reveal his more pressing agenda is to retrieve his backpack, which earns him a quick boot and a scolding with words that could be emblematic of the entire series, “I thought you actually cared about me, but you can’t see anything else besides what’s in that &^%^&#$ bag.”

The episode’s acute dialogue continues across the street at Jerome’s, when Cissy steps over for another disintegrating confrontation with Louie over responsibility for Franklin’s dawning delinquency. Louie deflects and directs, telling Mrs. Saint, regretful that she allowed her son to drop out of school and “throw away all the advantages I gave him,” that it’s her “who should be thinkin’ real hard about her own choices.” “Look at what Franklin sees—you, kissing to some crack-ass slumlord.” Cissy responds with several saucy one-ups. “You better watch your *&^$(^% mouth. I will not stand by and watch you try to drag my son into that gutter your stank ass come from. You hear me?” Needless to say, Louie’s conciliatory offer of coffee will once again not come close to being realized. “I am goddamn sick and tired of your condescending, hypocritical, siddity ass bullshit. Yeah, get the *(%$ up out of my house, you Stepin Fetchit *&%(#.

Franklin’s visit to a rehabilitating Leon finds the subordinate contemplating Godfather-style vengeance as he lay stretched out on the couch with a bandaged knee. “You gotta let *^$&^# know right here, right now, that we official, ’cause if you don’t, *&^%$#*&^$#*@ are always gonna be comin’ at us.”

In their stark, stealth warehouse where they previously had been painstakingly taking the serial numbers off an arsenal of automatic weapons, Alejandro informs Teddy of the necessity of a new Colombian connection since Peru was dismantled. Ramiro, Lucia, and Pedro arrive later to confirm the logistics of acquisition and distribution. In Gustavo’s tense but eventually agreeable confrontation with Stomper, he seems to be playing both sides, but when the padrone takes him to show off a clandestine cache of automatics in a chest, there appears little room for sentimentality. Teddy, whom Hudson continues to play with effective, taciturn eccentricity, walks into another crisis when Victoria shows him photos of Alejandro, the “Latin Freddie Mercury,” at a niteclub conversing with her sister Kristen’s (Taylor Kowald) companion, Jess (Catherine Chen), who also later “disappeared” the night of Logan Miller’s sex soirée. During a scene with the lovely Scott involving Claudia and her new prize possession, Shayla, Franklin arranges a sit-down with Ray Ray. “And get this sad brother some Henney, Goddamn!” the bossy proprietor pleads to her bartender. “That’s how it’s going down? You a snitch, &^%$*($#@*%$?” Ray Ray lashes out at Franklin at the meet. “If you’re looking for some type of truce, you’re in the wrong place.” “No, no, no, no. No truce. We gonna talk business. Because that’s what it’s about, right? Money?” If Saint’s new “business” involves invoking Kant and Kierkegaard for moral clarity, at least we know he’s the Barack Obama of shot-callers—gracious, peaceable, and quietly efficient.

X Rise / Godfather

Given the sustained excellence of episode 9, the show comes back to earth in Snowfall episode 10, “The Rubicon,” but the season finale, directed by Singleton, then deepens, building to a crescendo that includes a good handful of downright breathless scenes and a cathartic cinematic climax so well-played by Idris that he almost deserves an Emmy for the scene alone. The episode soon finds Jerome counting stacks of bills on his living-room table as of he were a banker; there’s plenty more of that to come. Once quit reluctant to join the snow campaign even while steering his nephew away, he’s now in for 25 percent. Franklin comes home to discover Cissy is jobless after confronting her boss about a lost promotion on the Westside. Franklin says not to worry and hands her a roll of bills, which the mother rejects. When he leaves, he silently leaves the cash for her on the table. As in episode 9, a visit to Leon sees John deliver another fine performance, imploring Saint that when he “pulls that trigger, I want you to think about taking care of your people,” and not blink.

When Gustavo visits Stomper at the gang ‘s home—which appears to be in Highland Park or vicinity where The Avenues were ascendant—Peris-Mencheta again proves there’s no actor better at looking another in the eye without blinking however tense the situation or however much his character is compromised. We already know that Rios photographs extremely well on close-up, and here she again asserts that she could be the talented ensemble’s best actress. Bitter at her perceived secondhand status as a woman that intensifies with her uncle’s plans to bring on someone else to do the family’s books, Lucia joins Gustavo in a gritty post-sex scene of mutinous plotting that’s right out of The Godfather. In a beautiful parting scene with her visiting mother, Mariela (Bronx-born Saundra Santiago, Gang Related, One Life to Live, Gina on the original Miami Vice), who advises her to return to Mexico at Mauricio’s hacienda funeral, the matron relates it was not her second sex but her father’s fears that the impetuous young girl “could tear up our family” that kept her rise up the jerarquía familiar at bay, words that soon become prophetic.

A devastated Teddy, wrung dry by the crimson events after coming upon Alejandro in the process of dispatching a lifeless Victoria in her bathtub, is cheered by James in a bar. The intelligence bureaucrat reports from DC that the director (then William Casey) and the president (Ronald Reagan) are both “extremely pleased,” citing the southerly flow of dollars and supplies and the resurgent Contras. While a tacit acknowledgment that the affair was known at the highest levels early on, Ballard also refers to Teddy’s past actions in Tehran for a second time, to which the incredulous field op replies, “I could’ve prevented Tehran. I could’ve. I should’ve pulled my agent out. I knew he was in trouble, and nobody would listen.” James’ assertion that “sometimes shit just goes wrong in our business” is perhaps the understatement not only of the series, but of the century.

In an earlier heartbreaking telephone scene with estranged wife Jules (the powerful Peta Sergeant, The Originals, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), Hudson shows to just what levels he’s managed to make his most vexing character sympathetic, and he’ll need all of that dexterity in a risky meeting with Alejandro’s uneasy Cali connection in a hotel presidential suite. The besieged agent promises to provide intelligence and keep law enforcement and border security at bay in return for pure product at insanely low prices. When domestic cartel rep Diego (Wade Allain-Marcus, Insecure) asks him whom he represents, Teddy’s answer is simple, “the U.S. government.” In an earlier contentious meeting at Avi’s with Franklin, Jerome, and Kevin, the uncle insists Franklin go straight to the “crazy ass Jew’s” direct source. “Can’t just sit outside his house and wait,” Franklin replies. “Be arrested in five minutes in this neighborhood.” Later, we briefly see Franklin’s White ex-college roommate, Rob (Taylor Kowalski, The Detour, Homeland), espy Teddy coming from Avi’s on a stakeout, another portent that the three storylines will soon be completely meshed.

Nothing, however, can really prepare us for the scene that unfolds on a hilly oil field—looks like Signal Hill—when Leon’s direction comes to fruition, albeit with an insane twist. Franklin and Jerome meet Ray Ray, who’s brought a rock-cocaine deranged Lenny in the trunk of their car. The sudden transformation in Idris’s crazed eyes and authoritative construction as Franklin commands a reluctant Ray Ray to do the job for him is sensational, a countenance that seems to turn to sorrow until he kneels over Lenny and spits out the terse epitaph, “For Leon, &*^%$#*^%#@.” It’s a Scarface moment, the devastating nighttime execution signaling the sudden rise of a kid with a backpack to neighborhood kingpin, reinforced on Jerome’s front porch the next day when Franklin pays off an ice cream truck driver (veteran character actor Damon Standifer, Becker) with a large bill to distribute treats to the coinless children. The message is clear with Franklin, Jerome, Louie, Kevin, and Leon sitting idly in the shade, the reigns of production in hand, chillin’ to the tune of what I believe is Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin’.” Yet, it remains to be seen whether Franklin is neighborhood savior or destroyer; you already may know that when Saint and associates are finished, sunny day or not, there may be no need to get to L.A.

(Snowfall is available on FXNOW, Amazon Video, and iTunes. The series returns to FX in 2018.)

(Special thanks to Springfield! Springfield!—UK—television and movie script database!)

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours


Blindsided: In the Case of the NFL versus Michael Jerome Oher—A Happy Ending in Sight?

(Like a predawn invasion of the Middle East or a heavyweight championship boxing match, another NFL season is upon us. Some of the strongest and fastest men in the land, many apparently on HGH, will be hurtling themselves at each other on the nation’s most perilous playing fields as if shot from canons, most wearing “protective” helmets with polycarbonate shells that actually enhance brain injury. (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was wearing a new, more absorbent and spacious model developed by innovative Seattle company VICIS on opening night that is being selectively introduced.) Gone are the games of Twenty Questions: Will Dallas Cowboys’ rookie quarterback sensation Dak Prescott, who sent oft-injured Tony Romo into early retirement and the broadcast booth, suffer a sophomore slump? What really caused those multiple bruises on the neck, arms, legs, and body of his equally sensational teammate Ezekiel Elliott’s ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson—bumping into tables as a waitress or the football player himself? Why is Afro-American ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he of the silent and dignified Anthem protest, not in a NFL uniform, other than that he mistakenly opted out of his contract? Just how good is preternaturally young Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle? Will the beleaguered body of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger—once credibly accused of forcing himself upon an intoxicated female college student in a niteclub bathroom while his off-duty law enforcement bodyguards stood watch—hold up long enough to take his team back to the Super Bowl yet again? How will frequently battered and recently concussed Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor fare now that his wide receivers have disappeared from the team? Will Jehovah level the City of Angels in 2020 for luring and hosting not one, but two franchises in an eventual multibillion dollar hi-tech luxury stadium to ash and dust? Were any of them answered? But for the bruises, do any of them matter? This is what does.)

“I can speak for a lot of the guys that play the game, we live and breathe and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” — New York Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams, at a fan forum July 31, on a question about CTE

I Blindsided

Perhaps Sandra Bullock wasn’t aware—or was she? Was Bronx native Quinton Aron, who played him? Was anyone? When the Carolina Panthers announced it was releasing former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher—the subject of the hugely popular, Oscar-nominated 2009 film The Blind Side that starred the dyed-blonde, raven-tressed, iconic actress as the hulking football player’s real-life rescuer, counselor, and confidant—in July because he had failed a physical, it merited but a small, single paragraph on the back page of a typical major metropolitan newspapers’ sports section. In the official record, the announcement in fine print was terse, like the posting of a handicap for a horse race: Transactions: Pro Football: Carolina—Terminated the contract of offensive tackle Michael Oher. With that, the team was released of any further financial or moral entanglement or complication, like an ER surgeon who’d just pronounced a gunshot victim dead on arrival in a besieged urban hospital as he washed the blood off his hands. Terminated: If Bullock had ever been part of the Hollywood Golden Age studio system, would her contract with, say, Paramount or Warner Brothers, also have been “terminated” when they realized, perhaps, she was no longer a bankable sex symbol because she’s gone past her prime? Was Oher past his prime, the day he was terminated? He was 31, a veteran, but in NFL years, he could’ve been headed for the twilight for sure, so much the easier to excise him like a malignant contusion to be deposited into the Monday morning medical waste bin. The 6-4, 300 lb.+ former Super Bowl champion with the Ravens who’d led the Panthers to the promised land in 2015 protecting the blind side of MVP quarterback Cam Newton as if he were his own grandmother, if he ever knew her, sustained a concussion three weeks into last season after being rewarded with a contract extension for three years and $21.6 million—with $9.5 mil guaranteed—through the 2018 season. He didn’t return, and was still on the NFL’s concussion protocol that prevented him from practicing or playing in games when he was terminated nearly ten months later. At the time of the former Ole Miss All-American’s season-ending concussion last September, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, “We just want to see the young man get healthy.”

Who knows what they think of the young man now? In the NFL, used-up players are tossed aside like pairs of old shoes—you may think about them now and then, I don’t know, but it’s only uselessly sentimental. Then general manager Dave Gettleman, who signed Oher to two deals totaling $28.6 million within 16 months of each other, himself was terminated by the organization just three days before the young man was: a news item entitled “Panthers Part Ways With Gettleman” consisted of eight paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times, which shows just where priorities are, even to those who give lip service to the besieged league’s concussion crisis, which, like those crises in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, seems to reach boiling-point levels each and every day. No, Gettleman wasn’t in the league’s concussion protocol, but he won’t be terminating anyone anytime soon, either.

II Summer Eclipse

If you saw The Blind Side you know, as depicted, Oher was a nice, respectful, soft-spoken young man, a big cub to Bullock’s mama bear. You might not recognize him now, even as himself, I’m not sure. At times, crisis arrives with a glimpse of trouble: In April, much like Captain Kalanick himself, Oher got into it with an Uber driver while riding with friends to a restaurant in the wee hours, ultimately asserting himself by pushing the offending driver to the ground outside of the vehicle and giving him a kick as if trying out a new calling as a punter; he had to be restrained by his posse. Oher, under suspicion of alcohol use, was booked and cited for misdemeanor assault. His case has been continued to October. A life unraveling? It doesn’t take much. Behavioral signs are an initial symptom of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a diagnosis that can only be confirmed on a laboratory slide in the morgue.

Two weeks before Oher’s termination, the aforementioned Times published a piece by sports enterprise reporter Nathan Fenno that was riveting, essential summer reading. Fenno chronicled the stunning fall of a talented, disciplined young football player from Los Angeles into the depths of darkness, depravity, and despair; for those aware of many of the abnormal mental manifestations like depression, social withdrawal, mood instability, mental illness, and substance abuse, it has CTE written all over it, and it most disturbingly cost a loving football mother her life.

Fenno wrote about De’von Hall, a football protégé who had a close relationship with his mother, Alecia Benson. He possessed the requisite physical skills to excel, but also “a killer instinct,” as an uncle described, and a passion for hitting opposing players within a game that encourages such frightful behavior and a fan base that appreciates it. Hall went from distinguished Cleveland High School in the Valley to Utah State, where an ex-teammate described his abilities on the playing field as a linebacker as “freakish.” By his senior season, subsequent to multiple hits throughout his young playing career (my words), his head coach noticed his mental acuity beginning to fade, and Hall went undrafted by the NFL. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings that spring but released by the start of the 2009 season for perceived immaturity. He then signed with the Indianapolis Colts, played in four ruthless games as a safety, making three tackles in a two-point win against the Ravens, and was cut in late winter two weeks before the team’s postseason run to the Super Bowl led by league MVP and poster boy pitchman Peyton Manning. He landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where his physical abilities remained eclipsed by perceived mental deficiencies: Always a young man who kept to himself, his self-isolation reached uncomfortable levels that vexed coaches and teammates who routinely discovered Hall alone in the darkened clubhouse behind a door staring at a wall. He told an ex-college roommate he was profusely smoking marijuana and told a mysterious story about hitting his head in an auto accident and having to be restrained and pharmaceutically subdued. The Bucs dispatched him the following summer before the 2010 season but apparently made no attempt to get him behavioral help. Why would they? It was the NFL. Another bizarre vehicular encounter was actually confirmed as Hall was driving home through New Mexico in September and was apprehended for erratic driving that resulted in an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge that eventually was pled down to a misdemeanor. The next summer, two weeks after acting queerly at his grandfather’s funeral, his once-promising NFL career came to a swift and ignominious end at the hands of the Panthers themselves: they added soiled clothing to the list of grievances.

According to Fenno, his post-NFL career involved incoherent speech, distant voices, laughter when mirth wasn’t called for, and emphatically discharged disturbing music lyrics. Then the inevitable fragmented Facebook posts arrived, as if from someone consigned to a mental health facility. Benson was losing the battle for her son, who denied having any issues whatsoever. He took to living in a park, smoked used cigarette butts, and wandered up and down the street. One day he was hit by a bus after straying from the sidewalk. Anyone familiar with South Los Angeles knows people like him, crisscrossing the intersections barefoot like the dazed, disembodied souls of former slaves. He took to black garbage bags and shopping carts. This April, at the culmination of a heated exchange over personal hygiene, Hall stomped Benson, his own mother, to death, as she lie on the floor of her home in an affluent African-American community adjacent to View Park. He did to her bruised, battered face as encephalopathic lesions upon the tissues of the brain, then walked away into the night, where he was apprehended.

This summer, Hall’s legal proceedings came to a halt upon a mental evaluation order for competency to stand trial; his defense attorney doesn’t believe he can. Fenno reported some of his family aren’t sure he’s even aware Benson is deceased. They point to a head trauma Hall experienced as a Colt that seemed to change his subsequent behavior. Ex-teammates at Utah State believe he became a drug addict after a party in Miami during his stint with the Bucs in which he smoked a laced marijuana cigarette: perhaps cocaine or heroin, they surmised. At the time the article was published in early July, Hall resided at the notorious Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. [Update: In an exchange with the writer, Fenno, who admits to being haunted by the story every day and hopes to write a follow-up, said Hall’s next scheduled proceeding will be in two weeks and that the accused murderer, with his acute mental issues, remains in Twin Terrors.] For anyone aware of conditions at that teeming facility, they know it is the external equivalent to the 29 year old’s broken, battered brain. For those mothers who have pulled their boy(s) out of youth football leagues, the unparalleled story must possess a discomfiting affirmation; for those who haven’t, it must be a most expressive cautionary tale.

III Sunset Clause

For anyone who knows the trajectory of a life subsequent to the NFL, one shouldn’t be so surprised, and some aren’t waiting around to find out. Amid the eye-opening exodus of players retiring early over the past two summers, more have followed suit this offseason, although the threatened flood has slowed to a leaky faucet. It may be death through a thousand cuts to the NFL’s reputation, which the league has attempted to uphold with all the tenacity and obfuscation of the Tobacco industry: Their lung cancer and emphysema is now the NFL’s CTE. Wheels are spinning on Madison Avenue, hot Campbell’s soup bowls are a’readyin’, and league reps sound like former ExxonMobil officials denouncing climate change. In late July, researchers at Boston University published a journal article that stated that of 111 donated brains of deceased former NFL players it studied, 110 bore the signature scars of CTE and that, of those, 95 bore it extensively. It was not surprising news, not at all, and not just because many of the donors were known to have exhibited behavioral issues associated with CTE up to and including suicide. Los Angeles Times health and science reporter Melissa Healy, who covered the article, drafted a beautiful turn of phrase when she wrote about how the eyebrow-raising findings might affect agents and followers alike of “a sport that, at its highest levels, has been a showcase for violent hits.”

The same day the article was published, diminutive wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who lost the second half of the 2015 season to a concussion—that’s eight weeks, announced he was running to the hills before even playing a down for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots after six seasons in the state of Ohio for the Cincinnati Bengals and rival Cleveland Browns; he also said he would donate his brain to the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation. Hawkins, who complained that his body wasn’t suitably responding to training, had an out: ESPN reported he received a master’s in the Ivy League with a perfect GPA this offseason and is moving on to a doctoral in business and econ. Riddled with injuries and exits at the position, quarterback Tom Brady—who was involved in his own concussion scandal this offseason when the league investigated his Patriots—notorious for bending and breaking NFL rules and hiding injuries—for possibly covering up a concussion he’d sustained last season based on media claims made by his concerned wife, Gisele Bündchen, whom he admitted is profusely begging him to retire—could probably use him. Instead, Hawkins announced on Twitter he’ll be within the protective walls of a studio on Sundays doing a show for ESPN Radio.

Perhaps proving that 31, Hawkins’ age, is the new 41, 22-year-old Su’a Cravens, projected starting strong safety of Washington, left the team two weeks ago and is moving toward early retirement after a series of injuries, believe fretful teammates, whom, according to ESPN, he walked out on with the farewell, “Peace Out”! “Cravens leaves ‘Skins stunned, future in doubt,” the Los Angeles Times headline screamed. (Stubborn Washington majority owner Dan Snyder still insists on calling the team by the overtly racist moniker R—, as if it’s just another plague upon the league to be buried.) The 2nd-round pick from USC tore a meniscus three plays into the exhibition season and missed three games at the end of last season with a biceps bruise after earlier missing two after suffering a concussion that he claimed altered his vision. Cravens was criticized for allegedly not taking his rehab from the biceps injury seriously enough and was reportedly nervous about coming back from the knee injury. It’s also been reported ownership talked him out of retirement and otherwise placed him on the colorfully named exempt/left squad list that essential gives him a 30-day time out to think about his options. Many, including his head coach, teammates, and observers, are likening his walkout to “personal issues,” but it seems there’s only one issue going on to me: injuries. Whether the mercurial young man with the Hawaiian heritage who once had to be talked out of leaving ‘SC after a new coach changed his position returns or not, precedent has already been set by the twentysomething players who have preceded him out into the pasture the last two seasons. [Update: Cravens’ 30 days and 30 nights are up; he is ineligible to play this season. “We sincerely hope Su’a uses this time away from the club to reflect upon whether or not he’d like to resume his career in the National Football League in 2018,” Washington stated. “The last time I talked to him was when he informed me that he was leaving,” head coach Jay Gruden said.]

Some players can deal with injuries, others can’t. It’s the league’s culture that glosses over them and makes them routine. After all, there are touchdowns to be scored, and billions to be made. Some players value other aspects of life more than football. The Boston University study found that the more one plays the more pronounced CTE becomes. In addition to four in high school and three at Mississippi, Oher played seven complete seasons plus the concussion-shortened one last year in the NFL, putting him right at the 15-year mean of the study. His dismissal from the Panther’s roster may be a blessing in disguise; it may also have come too late.

IV The Blind Side

The Carolina Panthers’ odds to make the Super Bowl after week one stand at a respectable 25-1, up from a preseason 28-1, on There is no over/under, as far as I’m aware, on how many injuries, concussions, or missed games quarterback Cameron Jerell Newton will sustain; if there was, I imagine, bets would be placed. After all, it’s a lively wager: Newton, who had to be consoled by his head coach after a disappointing performance in the team‘s opening 23-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers, got rattled and hummed to much fanfare last season. In short, he took a ’lickin, and at 6-5, 245 lbs., largely kept on tickin’. In March, he had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in a shoulder that may be only mildly less marginalized than Roethlisberger’s, who’s injured his four times and has seven seasons on him; it’s a lingering issue from late last season and he is still questionable to play Sunday because of it. The former Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 first overall NFL draft pick sustained a concussion earlier in the season the week after Oher left the field, apparently for good, with his and missed the following week’s game. Two years prior, after ankle reconstruction surgery in the spring, the controversial former Auburn star, whose father was involved in a pay-to-play scandal with a Mississippi State booster, missed games after suffering a hairline fracture of a vertebra and, separately, two fractures in his back from an auto collision. Even without the concussion and the hits to the head, pain is Cameron’s game, and the engaging young man is seemingly heading for a difficult retirement. He’s an athletic quarterback who sustains damage while trespassing outside the pocket, but even when’s he’s in there, he’s vulnerable. After all, Michael Oher won’t be there to protect his blind side. Then again, who will?

(Blindsided: Business Insider, CBS Sports, CNN, Dallas Observer, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, NFL, New York Daily News, The Boston Globe, The Charlotte Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, VegasInsider, Wikipedia)

(Nathan Fenno’s feature on De’von Hall:

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

The Words, This Time: James Baldwin: Nobody’s “…Negro”—A Home Video Preview

(This is a much delayed review and commentary on Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and released to Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download—including Amazon Video—May 2 by Magnolia Home Entertainment.)

“There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” — Time, May 17, 1963

What does an effeminate writer with a cartoonish face; a wide, effusive, queer grin; crooked, gaped teeth; and a habit of crossing his legs and dangling a cigarette holder in his right hand like a dandy when he speaks have to do with recent outrage over the flagrant and most foul police shootings of primarily young African-American men? As Haitian filmmaker and international citizen Raoul Peck sees it, quite a bit. It may or may not seem as if the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Birmingham followers were just released from jail Saturday, and not necessarily on April 20, 1963, but one thing’s for sure, the more things change, the more they stay the same—a fitting turn of phrase when it comes to the African-American experience. I’m not sure if James Arthur Baldwin would believe that the redemptive election of the nation’s first African-American president ultimately represented progress or a step back, but had the Harlem native son clawed his way through the muddy depths of racial provocation, strife, and social ill still plaguing his people to the surface of his grave to awaken to this, I’m also not sure if he might rather just cover himself back up with dirt and go back to sleep. Peck doesn’t believe so, and not just because Baldwin’s dreams be so disturbed; it was just this sort of contemporaneous riot—then, the dignified demeanor of Dorothy Counts walking—schoolbooks in hand—through a gauntlet of abusive White citizens to attend class at a newly integrated high school in Charlotte; today, the moving responses, ripostes, and vigils of the wives, sisters, girlfriends, etc. of the victims of those shootings—that brought Baldwin out of his Parisian exile. Besides that, Peck was not even a young man when he discovered the American’s writings that form the basis of …Negro so penetrated to the bone the essence of the “negro problem” they ventured on prophecy. If Baldwin’s bones do rattle at the forcefully lethal expression of malice and ill will toward his brothers (and sisters) under color of authority, he might hardly blink an eye at the rest; after all, his testimonies ultimately predicted it.

If the film is based, then, on Baldwin’s written and oral expression, including Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street and other essays, magazine and newspaper articles, including an April, 1978 piece in The New York Times entitled, “The News from All the Northern Cities Is, to Understate It, Grim; the State of the Union Is Catastrophic,” a few things still need to be clarified. NO, James Baldwin did not “write” this film, as the odd and misleading opening credit states, as if we were about to witness a posthumous realisation of an August Wilson piece, which was strange enough. It’s a homage, for sure, but make no mistake about it, Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April, Lumumba) crafted this film. Second, the film’s title is a watering down of Baldwin’s initial, actual “N—“ expression that today still might carry the same shock as it did then when Baldwin was trying to wake folks up, though in today’s pop-culture-influenced parlance, it’s used in ways that I can assure you Baldwin would write an entire tome on the psychological complexities at work. …Negro is divided into segments with titles such as “Paying Your Dues” and “Witness,” but it was primary inspired by an unfinished book-length testimony Baldwin was intending to write about his contemporaries King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X entitled Remember This House. You may or may not be too surprised to see who comes out best—besides the unassailable Evers, it’s King. While Baldwin joined the chorus in denouncing the southern Christian’s “early” departure from Birmingham—after a resolution with city leaders but before a particularly virulent put-down of “rioting” by police and National Guardsmen—and asserted that Malcolm X “corroborates [African-American} reality” when he speaks, this is particularly acute when Peck includes an excerpt from a television interview conducted by Kenneth B. Clark in which he makes ugly and juvenile assertions about “ignorant Black preachers” and “Uncle Toms,” to which King gives a calm, cool, and collected rebuttal. While this was Malcolm X about at his worst—and Baldwin believed that toward the end the two had not only come closer to respecting one another but were essentially espousing the same things—it’s this same calm, cool, penetrating intellect and deep reservoir of knowledge and wisdom of King’s that Peck draws from Baldwin in the film.

While that “unconditional” voice, as the filmmaker puts it in his dedication, the one that became to be known as the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, is sometimes typewritten across a black screen in white typography, it’s more often given dramatic resonance by Samuel L. Jackson’s deep cadences, rich pauses, and emphatic precision. His profound and moving narration is not only one of the highlights of Jackson’s career, but one of the most devastating and authentic I’ve heard committed to narrative voiceover. No, this is not the nauseating commercial spokesman pushing the benefits of Capital One’s cash-back credit-card rewards program over those of Chase and the others, not to worry. Besides that, Peck captures Baldwin, whose oratorical eloquence was honed during a teenage stint replicating his abusive stepfather’s calling as a junior minister at a Pentecostal assembly in Washington Heights, at some particularly entertaining and illuminating events: a Harvard forum in 1963; a University of Cambridge debate in 1965 in which he receives an effusive standing ovation from a packed audience of White students; and an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that not only captures the chain-smoking writer in fine form as he respectfully reproves Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss, but the classic facial expressions and uncomfortable glances at the audience of the host, who encapsulates Baldwin’s take on the current status of the American negro by saying, “At once better and still hopeless.” Witticisms and deep, incisive comments abound from the subject throughout. One can’t help but think that for today’s generation who may lack tolerance and even respect for Civil Rights-era and other veteran African-American leadership—and who declined to even vote for Hillary Clinton despite all that was at stake—Baldwin would immediately fill a void and command respect. That may or may not be why Peck thought the time was right for this.

Baldwin arrived at this preeminent place perhaps because of his status as an outsider. His escape to France as a young man in 1948—even with nothing but $40 and the clothes on my back on the Paris streets “nothing worse could happen to me” than already had in America, Jackson narrates—practically guaranteed that. When he returned as a “witness” to the troubles in 1957—some of the most satisfying footage is seeing a wide-eyed, wonderstruck Baldwin riding shotgun in a car as he tours the Chicago streets nodding his head this way and that to get views from every window—and though he toured the South in 1963 in support of the Congress of Racial Equality, he formally turned away from the principle organized movements—the Muslim Brotherhood, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the NAACP, which he believed exhibited class elitism. The sometimes emotionally brittle writer took pride in his poor Harlem street boy days—“My school was the streets of New York City”—and rejected organized religion. Besides, as Jackson also narrates, “I was never in town long enough to commit myself to the movement. My motive was to write about it.”

Here, I couldn’t help but be reminded of similarities not only to Afro-Caribbean writer Franz Fanon, who woke up left-wing European intellectuals with his stark depictions of the effects of colonialism and who died in December, 1961, at the age of 36, but French writer Jean Genet, who was rescued from a lifelong prison sentence by French intelligentsia led by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre who were most impressed with his penmanship. A ward of the state before his first birthday, the national treasure turned to a life of crime, homosexuality, visionary writing, and, after being pardoned, a life of international activism à la Sartre. But Genet never felt comfortable with his comparatively bourgeoise peers—his The Thief’s Journal is one of the darkest and most extremely lived autobiographical pieces I can imagine—and remained an outsider of the literary establishment and any other. Baldwin actually toured America with Genet in support of the Panthers, George Jackson, and Angela Davis during the time of the Soledad Brothers Defense in 1971. Genet’s provocative caricature on race and class, The Blacks, arrived off-Broadway in 1961 with a cast including James Earl Jones; Louis Gossett, Jr.; Cicely Tyson; and Maya Angelou as the White Queen. The long-running sensation “inspired” A Raison in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry to write Les Blancs as a more dignified Pan-African response to themes of colonialism—an adaptation by Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre in Los Angeles is actually currently running through July 31.

Hansberry appears in …Negro not only as a close confident of Baldwin’s who also died young—just 40 days before Malcolm X at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer—but because of her demonstrative role in a surreal encounter with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May, 1963, subsequent to the Birmingham “Riots.” Baldwin recounts how Hansberry defiantly walked out of the meeting with other civil-rights leaders after delivering a particularly stinging summation of the president’s younger brother’s out-of-touch views of negroes in the struggle. The contingent had been hoping to persuade the administration, “the good white people on the hill,” as Baldwin referred to Washington, to provide federal support for African Americans who were enduring the threats, harassment, and violence of integration and peaceful protest, but they left empty-handed, with Baldwin feeling that the future Democratic presidential candidate was completely out of touch with Black Americans. No, despite some of his and his brother’s intervention on behalf of integration, the man whose own assassination five years later would close like a guillotine any hope of a liberal 1960s political movement segueing into the next decade does not come off well here at all. As if to illustrate that insularity that so bedeviled the East Coast prep royalty, Kennedy reportedly referred to Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.” Among the AG’s dangerous dalliance with closeted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was to put Baldwin in his crosshairs, with much of it being plainly discernable muckraking focused on the writer’s alleged homosexuality, in which the writer pretty much wore the “alleged” on his sleeve. Peck graphically reveals some of the organization’s conclusions among the astounding number of pages—some 1,887—it compiled on Baldwin, far more than many others at the time, ultimately portraying the morally questionable citizen as a “dangerous individual,” a threat not only to national security but to the very democracy itself, a distinction Genet most certainly would‘ve been proud of if it were even true. The official dossier, perhaps an unparalleled waste of time and energy, echoes Baldwin’s opinion expressed in the film that White society held a “laughably pathetic” view of Malcolm X “were it not so dangerously wicked.”

Yet, Baldwin’s outsider status was cured and sealed much earlier in a way that he himself felt was similarly wicked, and Peck spends a good deal of the film on this, which came as a surprise. As a middle-school student Baldwin not only came under the influence of Countee Cullen, but his math teacher, Orilla Miller, took the promising young student under her wing, introducing him to the city’s art and culture but also, significantly, its cinema. His first film was the seemingly innocuous Dance, Fools, Dance starring Joan Crawford; images of her dancing wildly on a stage in B&W play while Jackson narrates Baldwin’s impressions from The Devil Finds Work. Classic Hollywood can at times appear very innocuous, especially with talented stars around, but if the treatment of women isn’t appalling enough, the fact that most everyone in them is White to noticeable exception can leave one not used to White society feeling left out, to put it mildly, not to mention an impressionable young boy of a different skin. Things get more literal with patently questionable cowboys and Indians fare like John Ford’s The Stagecoach; the boy’s childhood with the stars now includes John Wayne and Gary Cooper cleansing the prairie with wild, wanton rampages on horseback and stagecoach, guns a’blazin’. The psychological effects of racism are realized; faced with thrilling depictions of national genocide, the boy sees that “my countrymen were my enemies,” and with a choice between good guys and bad, “the Indians were you.” In Wayne and company, “immaturity is a virtue,” creating “a legend out of a massacre.” Gunplay seems to be all the sensation, unless you’re a Black Panther. Baldwin then takes on what he perceives to be Hollywood’s misuse of Sidney Poitier to fit White expectations. Amid scenes of The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, Baldwin muses that Black audiences must either be howling with unintended laughter or hugely disappointed. By the time Jackson relates the writer’s reminisces of a thwarted interracial relationship with a White girl in which the couple are forced to clandestinely date, a missed opportunity at love that also haunted King, the young man’s already halfway to Paris.

On it goes, a deeper journey into darkness as the film progresses; it’s not quite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now!, but it may as well be. Images of B&W civil-rights actions, police brutality, Baldwin, King, Evers, and Malcolm X flash to contemporary scenes of Ferguson, incendiary protests, and further police intimidation. Peck does an excellent job compiling text, stills, and video; still, segueing to the contemporary scenes may require the audience take a leap of faith, no matter how convincing they may seem. Upon a latter, second viewing, I realized the filmmaker had gone to the well too often with scenes of Classic Hollywood bucolic Americana contrasted with racial unrest and aggressive, out-of-control policing. Assisted by editor Alexandra Strauss and animation and graphics designer Michel Blustein, it’s agit-prop filmmaking, to be sure, but one that strives to remain truthful. A concluding chapter emerges, “Purity,” a title with evocations of a final solution.

For Baldwin, there is no separation between the destiny of the American nation and that of African Americans, those “unique” peoples from whose bright eyes “a light seems to go everywhere,” as Jackson narrates. The very fabric of the democracy depends on a permanent uplift and unification, a nation born from slave auctions and carried on through cheap labor, a democracy that has not yet even begun. “The story of the negro is America’s story. It is not a pretty story.” A good writer typically has a nice degree of amateur psychology in his or her bag of tricks, and Baldwin is certainly no exception. In analyzing the impetus for carrying forward a race-based system far beyond the blossoms of slavery, the trenchant social observer asserts a similar perspective to King’s “sick white brothers” diagnosis of the psychological pathology behind it. Through the genocide of the native peoples and the inculcation of a system that “repudiates my existence” and remains entrenched in deep economic poverty, White Americans have completely abrogated their “moral authority”; “it’s a “formula for a kingdom’s demise.” Baldwin believes the way out is for Americans to start taking responsibility because “we need each other.” He offers the spark for a new beginning: “The future of the country depends on white people figuring out why you needed to have a n— in the first place.”

One of my biggest takes from …Negro is the Dick Cavett excerpt. I can’t get beyond contrasting that show with today’s ebullient late-night figures the likes of Jimmy Fallon and their absolutely useless shenanigans, celebrity adorations, and trifling interviews, while Tavis Smiley can barely string together 20 minutes of content in exile on PBS with hardly enough funding to stay afloat. It may seem a curious take, but it actually goes right to the heart of Baldwin’s essential beliefs. Amid wild scenes from The Jerry Springer Show, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine on The Gong Show, and staged game-show giveaways on Let’s Make a Deal and The Price Is Right, Jackson asserts Baldwin’s critique of an “immature… narrow-minded” nation in which “the empty lives we live” are reflected in “the empty, tame, bland images on television” through which “we fail to recognize who we are.” Far from being just commercial decadence, the broadcast entertainment confirms a deep psychological denial and moral surrender, an inability of White Americans “to come to terms with themselves and the race problem.” “To look around America today is to see radical insights into white complacence,” Jackson intones. Peck wonders what’s changed; so do I. About all he doesn’t include are the reassurances of Fox News Channel hosts and commentators that yet another senseless shooting was not the dreadful confirmation of a prejudiced, out-of-control police force but the unacceptable and unfortunate actions of a suddenly lifeless Black man, or countering to a guest with barely concealed indignation, “What, me worry? The problem is your racial consciousness…” let alone the network’s inflammatory coverage of the Ferguson unrest that I had the misfortune of catching on a plane one night.

Toward the end of 1987, the body of James Arthur Baldwin perished in his home in the medieval commune of Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the French Riviera from stomach cancer and was returned to the state of New York to be buried in a cemetery plot, yet his words are still there, all around us. Just turn on the television, or open your web browser, if you prefer, look, and listen, then you tell me.

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

The Order of Identity: Split—A Home Video Preview

If the purpose of going to the cinema is just to enjoy oneself, let alone be completely stunned—slammed against your seat, like all of the mostly “urban” youths I saw this with in the sanctuary city of all sanctuary cities in the renegade state of California, then Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest exhibit in his career renaissance, is certainly going to be one of the films of the year. It is that alone for the simply monstrous performance by James McAvoy, the talented and expressive Scottish actor who made his breakthrough here upstaging Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and who’s gone on to digital Hollywood serial exposure and fame. In a consummate performance that would earn him an Oscar nomination for sheer audacity and brilliant execution if horror-thrillers were given any consideration, McAvoy twists and contorts all of that facial expressiveness and beyond to the requirements of playing a handful of the multiple personalities of one Kevin, the host of a “horde” of characters who come to fruition under the methodological term now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID.

Among these colorful players, who materialize much to the amazement of the three girls—mean girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen); second-fiddle beauty Marcia (Jessica Sula); and deeply isolated, nearly mute social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, Morgan, Barry)—who are precipitously abducted from a shopping center parking lot in a brazen daylight action very early on, within the stark industrial confines of a makeshift home that was not properly zoned by the city, are Dennis, the brazen, bespectacled, big-brother kidnapper who’s gained the upper hand on Kevin himself; Miss Patricia, a matronly, upper-crust caregiver dressed like a new-age Scottish bagpipe player whose exceptional breeding barely masks a sinister Dickensian inner channel; and Hedwig, a young adult with the mental and behavioral capacity of an adolescent who flirts with the distressed girls and fancies petty and more actual rebellions against Dennis and the Misses so long as he can get away with them. A fourth, the OCD fashion designer and primary interloper Barry, tries to warn Kevin’s psychiatrist, the nearly professionally exiled Dr. Fletcher (a perfectly cast Betty Buckley), of the startling goings-on, but is beating to the punch by Dennis, whose tête-à-tête with the caring, concerned, but implicitly intuitive therapist is worth the price of admission alone. D. can barely keep the lid on the basis of all the uproar—the imminent materialization of a new character known as The Beast, whose depiction in Hedwig’s childlike drawings is ominously, monstrously inhuman.

The late realization of the setting of Kevin’s twisted domicile tips Shyamalan’s hand to the latter of the nature versus nurture debate, and allusions to The Beast’s proclivity for flesh betrays cannibalism for a more animalistic hunger; hence, the girls abduction as “unpure” sacrificial lambs. It’s Nietzsche and Dostoevsky run amok. The true basis for Kevin’s diagnosis, of course, is extreme childhood trauma—could it be anything else?—trauma that is also mirrored in Casey—whose backstory is intercut in some inspired editing by Luke Ciarrocchi, who also edited Shyamalan’s previous, The Visit, and who cut his teeth as an assistant on the director’s The Happening—which allows her to instinctively alight to and even empathize with Kevin’s motivations, as if she had seen the X-Files episode, Unruhe, and was following Agent Scully’s rational lament, “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them…” (Taylor-Joy and the other young actresses are all excellent.)

Monsters? One of the original in the Western canon is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a multilayered metaphor for all sorts of personal, social, and political demons at the monstrous time, and certainly evoked here with the emergence of The Beast, a necessitated, perhaps, materialization of all sorts of similar forces hence, like neofascist and neocommunist uprisings from Germany—foreshadowed cinematically in brilliant recent films by Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) and Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)—to North Korea to Cambodia to Cuba, not to mention the turbulent formation and realized nuclear ambitions of Pakistan, carved out of the writer-director-producer’s own native land. Shyamalan’s smart script must be aware of this; before making Split, he had just formulated much of Fox’s rather excellent dystopian sci-fi social satire, Wayward Pines.

Still, Shyamalan has childlike tendencies himself, and here, he’s like a kid in a candy store. The departure for Split is certainly the schizophrenic horror genre and a more tasteful modification of the more recent torture-horror films—Claire’s white sweater is dispensed with early, under a pretext, of course, and the distressed Richardson spends much of the film in undergarments. Detractors may point to a few liberal and derivative indulgences toward the end as material evidence of a misfire, but what would otherwise exasperate myself in a lesser film are merely a few pardonable missteps here. Indeed, Split nearly rises to the level of a Halloween, one of the more excellent of the schizophrenic offerings, especially in Buckley’s exceeding performance, which evokes Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis. Her heartbreaking reaction in her office to the realization that Dennis has, in fact, overcome Barry, the brief interlocution of Kevin himself in a pivotal moment, and the empathetic flashbacks to Kevin’s and Casey’s childhoods all contribute to this being no mere horror knockoff or exploitation flick.

As we just saw Monday night on A&E’s Bates Motel, when Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates is condemned with having the same dreadful condition, which presupposes madness, he replies quite calmly and directly, though with a hint of preparatory schoolboy agitation, that all of us, after all, have multiple personalities, depending upon the social situation and particular player(s) involved. In the hands of Shyamalan’s gritty and penetrating script, Split is a transformative piece that calls into question the nature of identity itself, not only for the abnormally developed, but for all of us who may believe we are normal, and whose close adherence to a civilized routine has pronounced us definitely as anything but. All good cinema is transformative, altering your reality and view of yourself and the world around you, and Split certainly qualifies, not that anyone will leave a viewing inquiring too closely, ‘less they go mad. It’s a bit of a dilemma, one’s unexamined mind, and nowadays, in these modern-primitive times, it may be best to just leave it alone. After all, Freud already did that, and his findings were none too comforting.

(Be completely stunned—be slammed against your living room seat; Split is now available with extras, including an alternate ending and deleted scenes, on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download from Universal Studios Home Entertainment!)

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

Ghosts of Nat Turner—2016 Film Award Favorites

Now that #oscarssowhiteandblack has been revealed, with only an actor of Indian decent crashing the party—so much for true diversity, then—and having myself seen some 30 films in the busy last quarter of last year, I have emerged, then, from the dark, dim and dreary theatres and into the light with these startling not so year-end film-award insights, which incorporate those theatrical releases from the last year, divided into domestic/English language and international/foreign language categories.

Domestic/English Language

Top Five Films

The Birth of a Nation

Knight of Cups

Born To Be Blue


Free State of Jones

Filmmaker of the Year (Writer-Director)

Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation)

Runners Up: Terrence Malick (Knight of Cups); Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Director of the Year

Pablo Larraín (Jackie, Neruda)

Honorable Mention: Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Screenplay

Noah Oppenheim (Jackie)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Runner Up: August Wilson (Fences)

Honorable Mention: Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship)

Male Performance of the Year

Ethan Hawke (Born To Be Blue)

Runners Up: Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones); Tom Hiddleston (I Saw the Light)

Female Performance of the Year

Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane)

Runners Up: Carmen Ejogo (Born To Be Blue); Natalie Portman (Jackie); Rachel Weisz (Denial)

Honorable Mention: Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship); Marion Cotillard (Allied);

Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker)

Male Supporting Performance

Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures)

Runner Up: Adam Driver (Silence)

Honorable Mention: Tom Wilkinson (Denial); Jeremy Renner (Arrival)

Female Supporting Performance

Meagan Good (A Girl Like Grace)

Runners Up: Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson); Zoe Saldana (Live By Night); Sienna Miller (Live By Night)

Honorable Mention: Chloë Sevingny (Love & Friendship)

Actress of the Year

Rachel Weisz (Denial, Complete Unknown, The Light Between Oceans, The Lobster)

Runner Up: Natalie Portman (Jackie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Jane Got a Gun, Knight of Cups)

Honorable Mention: Amy Adams (Arrival, Nocturnal Animals)

Best Cinematography

Emmanuel Lubezki (Knight of Cups)

Runners Up: James Laxton (Moonlight); Bradford Young (Arrival)

Best Music

David Braid, Todor Kobakov, Steve London (Born to Be Blue)

Runners Up: Café Society; Hanan Townshend (Knight of Cups)

Best Original Song

“Born to Be Blue”—Arranged and performed by David Braid (Born to Be Blue)

Runner Up: “Honky Tonkin’”—Written by Hank Williams, performed by Tom Hiddleston and the Saddle Spring Boys (I Saw The Light)

Best Mood Piece

Exodus—Composed by Wojciech Kilar, performed by the Crakow Philharmonic Chorus and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit (Knight of Cups)

Costume Design

Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh (Love & Friendship)

Breakthrough Filmmaker (Writer-Director)

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Runners Up: Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation); Robert Budreau (Born To Be Blue)

Breakthrough Actor

Trevante Rhodes “Black” (Moonlight)

Runner Up: Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

Breakthrough Actress

Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, Moonlight)

Runner Up: Ryan Destiny (A Girl Like Grace)

Honorable Mention: Jaz Sinclair (When the Bough Breaks)

Best Ensemble

Knight of Cups

Runners Up: Moonlight; Fences

The I, No I, No I, Can Carry This Film Award

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures)

Special Citation for Creative Filmmaking

Anna Biller (The Love Witch)

Special Citation for Filmmaking Merit (Director—Writer—Actor)

Ben Affleck (Live By Night)

Underseen and Underdistributed Film of the Year

A Girl Like Grace

Repertory Screening of the Year

Howards End—New 4K Restoration (Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, Sep 2-22)

Runner Up: Daughters of the Dust—25th Anniversary 2K Restoration (Laemmle Ahrya, Beverly Hills, Nov 25-Dec 1)

Charles Chaplin You’re No Longer Welcome Here—Ghost of Nat Turner—Award (RIP)

Nate Parker

International/Foreign Language

Top Five Films

The Childhood of a Leader

The President

Rabin, The Last Day

Under the Shadow

The Model

Filmmaker of the Year (Writer-Director)

Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The President)

Runners Up: Amos Gitai (Rabin, The Last Day); Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)

Honorable Mention: Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

Director of the Year

Pablo Larraín (Jackie, Neruda)

Best Screenplay

Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold (The Childhood of a Leader)

Runner Up: Guillermo Calderón (Neruda)

Male Performance of the Year

Senior: Mikheil Gomiashvili (The President)

Junior: Elmer Bäck (Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

Honorable Mention: Matthias Schoenaerts (Disorder); Roland Møller (Land of Mine)

Female Performance of the Year

Senior: Catherine Frot (Marguerite)

Junior: Narges Rashidi (Under the Shadow)

Runner Up: Lou de Laâge (The Innocents)

Male Supporting Performance

Luis Gnecco (Neruda)

Runner Up: Liam Cunningham (The Childhood of a Leader)

Honorable Mention: Robert Pattinson (The Childhood of a Leader)

Female Supporting Performance

Bérénice Bejo (The Childhood of a Leader)

Runner Up: Diane Kruger (Disorder)

Best Cinematography

Reinier van Brummelen (Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

Runner Up: Lol Crawley (The Childhood of a Leader); Sergio Armstrong (Neruda)

Best Music

Scott Walker (The Childhood of a Leader)

Runners Up: Mike Lévy (Disorder); Amit Poznansky (Rabin, The Last Day)

Costume Design

Brenda Gomez (Eisenstein in Guanajuato)

Runners Up: Sang-gyeong Jo (The Handmaiden); Andrea Flesch (The Childhood of a Leader); Muriel Parra (Neruda)

Breakthrough Filmmaker (Writer-Director)

Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)

Runners Up: Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow); Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul)

Honorable Mention: Mads Matthiesen (The Model)

Breakthrough Actress

María Mercedes Coro (Ixcanul)

Runner Up: Maria Palm (The Model)

Special Citation for Creative Filmmaking

Hans Petter Moland, Kim Fupz Aakeson (In Order of Disappearance)

Overdone and Overrated Film of the Year


Runner Up: Julieta

Top Ten Films of the Year (in order)

The Birth of a Nation; Knight of Cups; The Childhood of a Leader; The President; Rabin, The Last Day; Born To Be Blue; Moonlight; Under the Shadow; The Model; Ixcanul

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours

2016 Election Day Preview: California Ballot Propositions II

(This continues my 11th-hour take on the state’s lengthy list—17 in all—of initiatives to be decided by a vote of the people—at least those who have not already—Tuesday.)

  1. Adult Film Condom Use. Health Requirements. Initiative Statute.

Yes, adult film sites, not those ubiquitous webpages found all across the WWW, but those retro California cool bedrooms, living rooms, and poolside patios, are, much like NFL stadium playing fields, actual worksites, and safety is paramount. After all, a good number of adult film stars perished during the AIDS crisis, and one-quarter of performers today have been consigned to an STD, according to the measure’s proponents. That’s a high rate of failure, even on a Sunday. Sixty would close loopholes those well-meaning pornographers and exploiters of human flesh exploit in state regulations that require condom use for recorded acts of nonsimulated intercourse. The initiative, much like 61 just below, is being proffered by AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein, yet is opposed by other AIDS advocacy organizations. Why? Besides clarifying requisite condom use and mandating fuller cooperation and engagement with Cal/OSHA, 60 empowers casual viewers and, indeed, apparently anyone to litigate adult film producers for failure to comply with the condom requirement. This has a host of respectable folks, including not only AIDS and LGBT advocacy groups, but most of the state’s newspapers and its two major political parties, warning of a potential trove of vindictive suits of questionable merit against not only wayward adult film producers, but performers, film crews and even cable and satellite providers, as well as the possibility of potential vindictiveness and harassment through the apparently potential publication of performers names and addresses. Even mom-and-pop producers operating out of their garages and bedrooms improperly displaying their wares could be caught up in the litigation circus! Sixty follows Measure B, the 2012 Los Angeles County initiative that folks like the Los Angeles Times editorial board lament essentially drove adult-film production out of the San Fernando Valley and with it all those skilled, good-paying production jobs. Similar claims are now being made against 60. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health stated 60 could drive wayward pornographers further afield and underground. Opponents also posit that the industry’s HIV testing protocols are working. My view on Measure B was that if you’re not complying with the law, then good riddance! And now, that there’s a lot of potential hysteria with 60, and that testing and pre-exposure prophylaxis isn’t quite enough. But as I said before, I’m no expert, but then again, who is? An unassuming voter may defer to opposition by the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee and the Adult Performers Actors Guild, who also claim that Weinstein wouldn’t meet with them when drafting this proposal, and still won’t. It’s also alarming that Weinstein himself would apparently be promoted to an honorary position within the state bureaucracy in which he would personally review films for offending content. No Recommendation: Leaning No.

  1. State Prescription Drug Prices and Standards. Initiative Statute.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein, whose nonprofit organization certainly has a stake in such affairs as prescription drug pricing, returns with this possibly well-intended measure. Intent is everything in these initiatives, and a good reason why so many California voters are pulling their hair out when trying to decide them, especially when it’s just a single individual who’s initiated them, and whose motives for doing so may remain inscrutable. After all, his foundation, which boasts it is “the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care” in the nation, operates outside the purview of his own initiative, which is opposed, like 60 above, by other AIDS advocacy groups, as well as the trove of state newspapers alluded to above, not to mention others like the California NAACP. Who resides within the purview are the state agencies that spent $3.8 bil two years ago on prescription drugs for their employees and others—those 12 percent you see in the ubiquitous ads paid for by the multinational prescription drug companies themselves to the tune of nearly $110 million. Advocates, who include the California Nurses Association, AARP and Sen. Bernie Sanders, argue that the potential effectiveness of the measure has them running scared. Opponents argue that the other 88 percent of state prescription drug users will be hit with a retributive increase in costs to make up for the drug companies’ losses if the measure goes into effect. Sixty-one would require state agencies to negotiate and purchase prescription drugs at the lower pricing points of the U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs, which are essentially about 20-24 percent lower, for various reasons, than customary, according to proponents. Lo, there’s precedent for this, and the drug companies themselves essentially tell us in their ubiquitous ads, making the claim that prices will, indeed, rise for those remaining 88 percent privately or un-insured. This makes 61 a potentially damned if you do or damned of you don’t initiative. On merit, it’s valid, and there’s no question that prescription drug costs are wildly out of control, par for the course for the entire healthcare industry, long before the Affordable Care Act came along, which is now absorbing so much the criticism. Other states are eying the vote here, and if 61 passes, it could spread like wildfire across the nation, eventually ending up in Washington, where legislators have been reluctant to reign in their corporate sponsors, and where W. gave up federal control on prescription drug pricing in his administration’s unsightly Medicare Part D corporate unveiling, perhaps settling into provisions in the Affordable Care Act that would benefit all. Perhaps that’s why The Bern is so excited about this measure, and if it’s damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and while for us nongovernmental employees and privately insured, it might take a little more pain before we receive any further relief, I say we go at it with all guns blazing. Recommendation: Yes.

  1. Death Penalty Repeal. Initiative Statute.

There are few arguments for capital punishment, and none are really tenable. There are several against, and all are virtually compelling. I don’t wish to belabor the point here, as I’ve done so often in the past, but a lot of us, as with 64 below, have been waiting for this for a long time, since even before California Chief Justice Hon. Rose Elizabeth Bird and others were excised from the Court by voters in an effusive right-wing hit for essentially refusing to carry out the provision. Sixty-two would affect sentencing in first-degree murder convictions under those prosecutorial-beloved “special circumstances,” mandating life without the possibility of parole as the state’s maximum sentence, and really the ultimate sentence under which civilized human beings can collectively operate. If it passes, it will be too late for Stanley Williams, the reformed Crips founder who turned to authoring children’s books advocating for a life free from the thrall of street gangs, and who was excruciatingly executed in 2005 two weeks before Christmas. In ads you’ve seen, proponents have called out the state’s death penalty as hopelessly derailed, and, indeed, it’s a fraught process that reeks of punitive injustice and alarming condescension, from the biased selection of those defendants subjected to the punishment all the way to the, yes, excruciatingly unnatural way in which the condemned are ultimately put away, a catalog of horrors so horrific that in 2014 a federal District Court jurist ruled it rose to the unconstitutional level of a cruel and inhumane practice. Duh. Recommendation: Yes.

  1. Firearms and Ammunition Sales. Initiative Statute.

As you well know, California has been at the forefront of so-called gun-control legislation, sticking to an effective assault-weapons ban that, nationally, is absent across a vast majority of the land. Just this year, the Democratically controlled legislature passed several bills, some of which were signed by the governor, and some that were not. Some appear here, in yet another “common-sense” approach that I believe was originated by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is likely on the precipice of removing that “Lt.” from his title, I imagine. Sixty-three goes beyond most measures by extending controls like background checks beyond firearms to actual ammunition, which makes sense, considering its actually the ammo that does the killing, and not necessarily the guns, so perhaps the NRA is partially correct. Most alarmingly, certainly for weekend warrior M&P assault weapon-style enthusiasts and wannabe special ops aficionados, it bans the possession of large capacity—10 rounds and above, I believe—magazines, moving those previously excused pre-2000 possessors into the ranks of the criminal. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but the measure’s other provisions are all solid, intending to keep potentially explosive firearms away from the most dangerous among us through essentially “common-sense” measures. Sixty-three also requires commercial ammunition providers to register with the state DOJ and obtain a license to sell. Proponents correctly argue that assault-style weapons are superfluous—and can only exponentially add to the body count when madmen strike, which has been quite often, it seems. They are designed, after all, for military use, and have been appropriated by police departments, not to mention criminals. Which raises a paranoiac question: While I don’t believe—nor should anyone—that the Second Amendment applies to individual firearm ownership, the constitutional framers, so mindful of that distressing Redcoat presence and billeting, certainly didn’t intend to have U.S. citizens be at the mercy of a heavily militarized and trigger-happy police state, which is something we seem to be precipitously gravitating toward, at least those of us beyond the confines of what Donald Trump so reverentially refers to as the “inner cities,” which is already there. Still, a vote for 63 means that James Brady didn’t die in vain, and this state, and nation, is so awash in gun violence that only a sadist or misanthrope would actually provide a human being with a loaded one, much like matches to a neglected child. I’ll just leave it to the militias to defend their positions as they see fit, and, besides, if we ever do decide to come together to overthrow a neofascist police state, we can always import our semi-automatics from East Africa or the Balkans, no worries. And our large-capacity magazines, as well. Recommendation: Yes.

  1. Marijuana Legalization. Initiative Statute.

Yes, a lot of us have been waiting a long time for this, and this is round two, after 2010’s unsuccessful Prop 19, even though the state’s 1996 Compassionate Use Act essentially went a long way toward full legalization given how lax obtaining scripts and enforcement have become. But don’t get too carried away, 64, after all, was not written by Zonker Harris. As its advocates suggest, it’s actually quite restrictive, not only limiting possession to a single ounce, but consumption to the domicile or point of sale, and not in places like parks, planes, trains and automobiles, and bars, where alcohol is actually allowed. Far from effecting a vision of middle-school-aged boys toking out before, during and after school, and eventually dropping out of not only school, but society, 64 would actually benefit youths by placing the legal sales of upwards of $1 bil in annual taxable income into youth programs like afterschool, job placement, and substance abuse, and it restricts legal sales to those under—not 18—but 21. Opponents have argued that a legion of zoned-out drivers will be unleashed upon unsuspecting and sober-minded motorists throughout our streets, highways and byways, but evidence from states that have already legalized suggest this is sheer hysteria, much like just-mentioned fears of increased usage. Driver-usage technologies will eventually adapt to the proposition. What hasn’t been adequately discussed is, to me, the most consequential component of recreational drug decriminalization—its impact upon the drug cartels and violent street gang distributors. Much as 61 above has prescription drug companies quite alarmed over profits, so initiatives like 64 have the cartels in a potential bind. After all, however you’re going to vote on this, would you rather your kids and/or their friends got high from a joint supplied by a licensed, law-abiding Californian, or smuggled in and distributed by the Mexican Mafia? Recommendation: Yes.

  1. Carryout Bag Charges. Initiative Statute.

This is a deceptive measure—as if we need another one—propagated by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the four largest plastic bag manufacturers, from places like New Jersey, South Carolina and Texas, who are also responsible for the opposition to 67 below. Sixty-five would divert the proceeds from stores of carryout bag sales if 67 passes into a Wildlife Conservation Fund. Sounds lovely, but opponents argue the APBA is exaggerating the revenue 65 will generate, putting the actually amount to upwards of $80 mil from the organization’s $300 mil claim. Stores have to pay for the bags anyway, but this is more about presenting a united front against the plastic bag consortium. Sixty-five has to receive more votes than 67 for it to take effect. Recommendation: No.

  1. Death Penalty Procedures. Initiative Statute.

This initiative is a dream come true for death penalty advocates, stymied by execution delays that have effectively castrated the sentence, as if waiting for an eternity amid throngs for a government entitlement on a hot, sunny day. Like 62 above, it would apply to first-degree murder death penalty sentencings involving people of color, er, excuse me, special circumstances. Much like Al Gore’s abandoned appeal of the 2000 presidential election verdict in the fair Sunshine State, we as a nation just don’t tolerate delays, for any reason, however justified they may be, and even in the interest of justice. According to the Legislative Analyst, there are nearly 750 condemned prisoners residing now at San Quentin and the Central California Women’s Facility, unless somebody’s died since the Voter Information Guide was printed, and supporters want them excised from the community of prisoners pronto, and not dyin’ of “natural causes,” which is, up to now, far more likely to happen. Sixty-six would get the wheels of (in)justice spinning faster by opening the trial courts to death penalty cases, expanding the attorney pool, and limiting appeals to a five-year period and the filing of habeas corpus petitions to one year from attorney appointment, which even now is an aggravatingly time-consuming affair. That’s all fine and dandy, I suppose, but opponents are pointing out that if these were to materialize, miscarriages of justice would increase due to substandard proceedings. Sure, the present system is a mockery, I’ll agree, making career prisoners—and litigants—of the condemned. I mean, after all, the most efficient way to execute the sentencing humanely is just to take the condemned out back of the jails and shoot them in the head, like Stalin used to do. For sure, if one of my sisters was kidnapped, tortured, raped and dispatched from the living, I’d want to organize a posse to locate the perpetrator and bash his skull in with a lead pipe by dawn, and unlike the Russian soldiers, not even have to worry about the cleanup. I agree that Lonnie Franklin, Jr. is a great candidate for a sped-up process. But the death penalty sits atop an egregiously flawed judicial system that is becoming more illuminated with each passing day, one that, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has seen more than 155 death row exonerations nationwide in the past five decades, with 13 coming in the last two years alone, and with three of them having been resident since 1975. These figures are likely far more astounding, and in this light, is it really a good time to adopt a system more akin to China, North Korea, Iran and Texas? If this measure receives more votes than 62 above, it supersedes it, and like Sean Penn’s Jimmy Markum in Mystic River, do you really want to live with yourself knowing you just offed an innocent man you were convinced was guilty, which is now even more likely under this initiative? Recommendation: No.

  1. Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban. Referendum.

Like a lot of things, especially issues concerning the environment, this initiative comes about two decades too late. It’s too late for the wildlife compromised by the vast stream of disposable plastic strewn across our nation’s waterways, but better late than never. Our conspicuous consumption has never seen anything like the single-use plastic bag. The Legislative Analyst claims that 15 billion single-use plastic bags have been distributed to unsuspecting state shoppers every year, and, if you’re like me, you know that maybe 10 billion of those were superfluous. Several communities—150 in all—across the state have enacted single-use plastic bag bans at grocery and drugstores and the like, and 67 is a referendum on the state legislature’s passage of SB 270, which also requires a charge—typically $.10—to cover a recycled paper or plastic bag that can be reused, with certain exemptions, such as for low-income residents. I’ve seen it in action here, and, trust me, everyone, from customers to the checkout people. is just glad the single-use bags are gone, like a rainbow after a storm, or the dissipation of a really bad dream that couldn’t have been real. Recommendation: Yes.

© 2016 John Tyler/24 Hours

2016 Election Day Preview: California Ballot Propositions I

(I’m not an expert on the state’s lengthy list of initiatives—17 in all—to be decided by a vote of the people—at least those who have not already—Tuesday, but this is my 11th-hour take. And when it would take a semester college course to get even a tentative grasp on them, then again, who is?)

  1. School Bond Funding for K-12 and Community Colleges. Initiative Statute.

You’d have to be a Scrooge to come out against a bond proposal to construct and modernize schools for our kids, and, lo, Ebenezer himself—Gov. Brown—has done just that! The issue, so to speak, with this initiative is that, unlike past measures, it was not introduced by the state but by private developers, who would win big here by shifting funding away from local development fees on new construction within the local school districts that would benefit. At the same time, this is such a pressing problem that if 51 were to fail, the legislature would certainly, IMO, adopt a similar measure by next election that would not contain this provision, er, giveaway. School supporters are so desperate for the funding they’re supporting it anyway. There’s also concern that it would not benefit low-income communities as much as it should, an old tune, that, as the former mayor of Oakland, the governor knows a thing or two about. Recommendation: No.

  1. Medi-Cal Hospital Fee Funding. Initiative Statute.

The state’s Medi-Cal program received a huge boost form the Affordable Care Act—one of its signature successes—$15 billion in new funding to modernize healthcare for the poorest Californians. Several initiatives Tuesday address additional funding of the socialist program. Fifty-two would continue a program in which hospitals fund Medi-Cal with matching funds from the Feds that kicked in more than $8 bil last year alone to the $95 bil program. In short, if you’re a Blue state, you accept this gift, if you’re a Red, you run for your lives from the hand that feeds, and to let your poor suffer alone. Recommendation: Yes.

  1. Statewide Voter Approval of Revenue Bonds. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.

Of all the initiatives on the ballot, this one may not only be one of the toughest calls, but may have much broader implications than we give it credit for. This, in short, could be a sleeping giant. The initiative proposes the seemingly benign objective of requiring voter approval of revenue bonds of more than $2 bil, a seemingly handsome reward for our Fair Democracy. Its proponent is Stockton agribusiness landowner Dean Cortopassi, who, depending on who you talk to, is either an even-tempered and well-minded millionaire, or a petty and self-interested businessman who’s misusing the initiative process to jab a thorn into Brown’s $25 bil Sacramento River Delta water project that would affect Cortopassi’s holdings. The argument against is that it will cripple the ability of state and local governments to fund necessary projects in times of need. While I’d certainly like to tell the governor and the state just what they can do with their environmentally unsound water project and insane $65 bil—and likely exponentially rising—High-Speed Rail project, this, unfortunately, may not be the avenue in which to do it. Cortopassi is correct to point out that we are on a slippery slope with bond funding, which last year ate up $6 bil from the general fund, what with the expected avalanche of anticipated bond projects arriving soon—of which the school bond measure is just the tip of the iceberg—we need to choose our bond expenditures carefully, all the while knowing it’s essentially the only way to fund these types of infrastructure projects and improvements, and, thus, the sleeping giant here. What tips the scales additionally, for me, is that it’s supported by the right-wing Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, perhaps the single most corrosive force in state politics in the modern era, and one of the principal reasons why this once-great state is in such decline and in need of such revenue in the first place. It’s an insane idea to hand your voice back to the closed-door state politicos and their grandiose schemes, but, as we just witnessed with Brexit, granting the people the authority to vote on certain issues may not always be the best idea, even in a Democracy. No Recommendation: Leaning No.

  1. Legislative Proceedings. Initiative Constitutional Amendment and Statute.

Ditto this initiative, in which the Mask of Democracy rears its often grotesque, two-faced head, once again. It’s seemingly benign contentions—supported by the likes of the California League of Women Voters and California Common Cause—would require 72-hour online postings of pending legislation and the audiovisual posting of legislative proceedings, seemingly aiding and abetting the cause of legislative transparency. Citizen activist groups could monitor legislation for back-door shenanigans before it arrives for a full vote, and we could witness ourselves if our elected representatives are, indeed, as eloquent as, say, Roger Williams or Thomas Payne. However, and here’s the rub, the 72-hour window would also embolden the “special interests”—those business-suited and briefcase-clad white men crossing L Street in the hot, midday sun in droves—to swarm like bees to flowers on the awaiting legislators, turning representative democracy into a game of The Price is Right. The provision for allowing personal recordings of legislative sessions and using such material for attack ads come election time is nauseating to say the least. As always, the “special interests” could likely gain the most from this initiative. Besides, I’m no fan of the Internet myself, especially for video use, and, anyway, you can already find the text of the bills online, whether pending or not, here: Recommendation: No.

  1. Tax Extension on Wealthy Income Earners. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.

This extension of an earlier initiative—2012’s Prop 30—taxes an additional one-three percent of annual income on earners making more than $263,000 on a prorated scale, injecting an additional windfall of $4-$9 bil annually into the state’s general fund, with about half going to the K-12 schools and community colleges and up to $2 bil on Medi-Cal under a formula I read about but hardly understood. This is what’s known as a win-win—don’t worry, the luxury auto, yacht and wine industries will still do fine, recession or no—and if you’re like capital magnate Warren Buffet, you won’t mind paying the additional tax to fund a more livable environment outside the walls of your secluded castle. The rest of us will just be grateful for your generosity, even as we plant and harvest your fields and pay exorbitant rents on your squalid tenements. Recommendation: Yes

  1. Cigarette Tax. Initiative Constitutional Amendment and Statute.

Poor cigarette smokers. I hate to punish them again, but their noxious habit—I used to have it—accounts for $3.6 bil in state healthcare costs annually, according to the measure’s proponents, but that’s precisely what this initiative will do: exact a $2.00 per pack tax on top of the $.87 tax they’re already paying—with $.75 of that coming from previous voter-approved measures—further driving up the cost of a pack of the so-called cancer sticks to more than $8.50, when you include the sales tax. No, those allied toughs, everyday heroes and alluring heroines seen daily in B&W on TCM would be in an uproar! But the numbers were more concerned with as we step over these folks on our way to a better society is that it will bring in about $1.5 bil into state coffers, primarily to be used on the ubiquitous Medi-Cal program—up to $1 bil annually—and things like tobacco prevention programs. Yes, here, at least, it’s now good to be an indigent on a state-sponsored healthcare program, but terrible to be a smoker, in more ways than one. The tobacco industry is opposed to 56, of course, spending more than $55 mil to defeat it, which just goes to show that, yes, there’s a sucker born nearly every day. Recommendation: Yes

  1. Criminal Sentences. Initiative Constitutional Amendment and Statute.

This initiative would do what Prop 66 below would not: return state prisons to more of a rehabilitation-based system rather than a punitive one, fueled by overzealous criminal prosecutors eager to put even nonviolent and juvenile offenders away for as long as they can get away with. As I understand it, Fifty-seven would provide for parole hearings for nonviolent offenders after they complete their base sentences as well as rehabilitation credits even for those who haven’t. The result is that, according to the Legislative Analyst, prison terms could be reduced by perhaps 25 percent for the former population. The impetus for this is the state’s teaming, overcrowded state prisons and the judicial decree that even law-and-order-minded Gov. Brown couldn’t empty these decrepit houses fast enough of nonviolent offenders in his great state-to-county prisoner migration of 2012. The state’s nonviolent prison population numbers into the tens of thousands—with nearly 30,000 last year—and while Californians are certainly sick of hearing about reduced sentences—and rightfully so, considering the revolving-door policies of several of the state’s county jails—this initiative will complete the process of not only trying to save the state needed revenue but maintaining these notorious walls for those violent offenders—those truly Bad Hombres, so to speak—we definitely do not want to see filtering in and out because of the severe overcrowding crisis, with emphasis on the word crisis. Even better, it would relinquish authority for the adult sentencing of juveniles—a truly heinous act, no matter the circumstances—from automatic sentencing requirements and prosecutorial retribution and put rightfully into the esteemed chairs of the more sympathetic, wise and level-headed juvenile court jurists, resulting in, by my calculations based on Legislative Analyst data, a reduction of such atrocities by roughly 85 percent. Recommendation: Yes

  1. English Proficiency. Bilingual Education. Initiative Statute.

Back in 1998, with Proposition 227, even our kids were subjected to a right-wing political hit when California schools were severely restricted in their authority to utilize bilingual education programs for English learners, the vast majority of whom—80 percent—are Latino. 227 required parents of English learners sign a waiver for their kids to be instructed in an English-only classroom, after an introductory haircut, so to speak, as with the native Californian “savages” in the Spanish missions; with enough like-minded others, kids could escape the wrath of the folks wielding the scissors in the English-only classrooms. Fifty-eight would largely reverse this by waiving that requirement, so to speak, and re-establishing bilingual education as a primary learning tool. It would essentially bring decision-making authority on bilingual learning back to the parents and the community, and away from right-wing Republican hacks who certainly support the notion when it comes to Charter schools. Why do we do this? Not only out of respect for the immigrants and their families, but because dual-immersion language programs work, and in a Blue state, we try to do not only what is right, but what actually works. Recommendation: Yes

  1. Corporations. Political Spending. Legislative Advisory Question.

Many are questioning the validity of this initiative, but, hey, if the legislature is going to ask my opinion on an important matter concerning campaign financing, I for one am going to give it to them. The legislature is inquiring upon its citizens whether it should go to Washington, like Mr. Smith, to try to initiate a Constitutional amendment reversing the widely panned 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Sounds like a bit of a long shot, but, hey, taken upon its merit, why not—why should we doubt its sincerity. The typically narrow 5-4 decision by the Roberts activist conservative court asserted, IMO, that corporations, non-profits and the like are essentially individuals when it comes to Constitutionally protected free speech in influencing elections, and that no restraints should be placed upon them, whether in money spent or transparent disclosure, on election campaigns independent of a federal office seeker or political party. It largely resulted in the creation of the SuperPac, politically action committees funded almost entirely by superwealthy individuals, which operate independently of the party or candidate they are advocating for, creating a superfine line between the federal prohibition of corporate-funded federal campaigns. While the result of the decision has played out as feared in that regard, the decision was widely believed to have favored Republican supermoneyed interests, but, lo, Democrats, much to the dismay of a Bernie Sanders, have adapted and also use it to their favor, with Tom Steyer actually outcontributing Sheldon Adelson at the top by $13 mil this year. The California legislature is largely Democratic. Go figure. The party is opposed to Citizens United en masse, but raises SuperPac money like there’s no tomorrow, if only because it has to, as if it were a drowning man treading water. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Recommendation: Yes

(This posting continues.)

© 2016 John Tyler/24 Hours