Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Race and Villainy

I forgot this week was Obama inauguration fever week, so last night instead of stressing about what Michelle wore (why bother, she always looks magnificent) I watched Django Unchained. Oh, did I love it! How many directors are still making live-action cartoons for adults? It's no hardship at all to watch Jamie Foxx stride around as Django, long of leg and goddamn fine no matter how crazy the outfit. But the movie is MADE by Samuel L. Jackson's character Stephen. He absolutely killed it. Blah blah, whatever. A movie needs a hero, but to truly work a movie needs a villain who is deliciously villainous.

When Denzel Washington became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor, it was for his role in Training Day. He played a villain. This upset many people and to this day it is commonly held by some film afficionados that it was an act of racism to recognize him for playing such a bad man. Reinforcing stereotypes about African Americans as drug-dealers and violent men, that sort of thing. 

I beg to take a different view. Up until then, Washington was known for playing good guys and the truth is that he shines in any role. This man does not do bad performances. But there's something about playing a villain that really uncorks actors, lets them go places where the weak fear to tread. If an actor is given a villain role and they flub it, well. They're basically limited. Don't expect too much much from them, they have clearly not plumbed any of the depths of human character and are swimming safely on the surface with their floaters on.

Being able to play ugly, to unhinge- that's committing. That's craft. Denzel deserved his Training Day Oscar because he was so messing with his own created stereotype. He duped us. He was calm, he was kind, he was authoritative and trustworthy... until he revealed himself to be an evil bastard. How could one not love such an upset? Similarly, Jackson has been enjoying his eccentric self by playing flamboyant villains for a while now. I suspect a large part of the motivation is to escape the Magical Black Man Trope. If you don't know what I mean, think of Morgan Freeman. 


This is one of those things that might be seen differently depending on one's shade of Africanist or Diaspora politics. I spent a little college time writing a senior project investigating the depiction of Africans by Hollywood between 1930 and 2000. I watched Gone with the Wind and Roots and the Cosby Show and all that other ish growing up. This is not unfamiliar territory. It is why I prefer South African work- in SA, African characters are allowed complexity. My first fascination with a seriously bad guy performance was Henry Cele's Shaka Zulu. It's an incredible epic, one of the jewels of African cinema, on par with Ousmane's work. And Cele put such intensity in that role, it can never be remade. Ever.

Anyways, so: Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen in Django Unchained and as the title character says- and I paraphrase somewhat- "...Head House Nigger... that's pretty fucking low." The only way this could have been any more interesting an encounter between two excellent performers is if Stephen had been played by squeeqy-lovable Will Smith. No beef with Will, he's done a great job with the science fiction genre and other breakouts. But I want to see his crazy gleam, if you know what I mean. Can he bring it?

Django Unchained is grand fun as a movie, if a little long and a lot wordy. But, you know, Quentin Tarantino. I committed nonetheless. Even managed not to get too exasperated by Christoph Waltz' measured tones and smug didactic attitude. If I had been Django, I might have slapped Dr. Shultz a time or two for being so far up his own righteous backside. But the movie only really begins when Stephen takes sight of Django, and offers up an Uncle Tom like you have never seen before. I hope Hollywood doesn't mess things up and give him an award for this, it'll make all kinds of people crazy. If you need to forgive Jackson for his Stephen, watch that Sunset Limited* he did with Tommy Lee Jones.

Rest of y'all- and you know who you are, who found Mo'Nique's performance in Precious dreadfully awe inspiring- if you can stomach roles for African men, or men of that descent, that just don't give a shit about your delicate nature? Watch on.  Django, Unchained. Alternate title: Stephen, Unhinged.

*excuse me, I got the movie the movie title wrong the first time around. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Yes, I Find 'Rebranding Africa' Suspicious.

A couple of months ago, I was offered an opportunity to write a longish piece for the 'African Strategies for Transformation' issue of the Society for International Development journal Development. The topic was irresistible as presented to me: conflict between tradition and change, whichever way I wanted to swing that cat around the room, as long as I also touched on this rebranding of Africa business. The challenge was how to tackle these well-worn topics without regurgitating what has already been said, and said better. 

In the end, I wrote what amounts to a long blog post. The political is personal, and I think the occasional narrative doesn't hurt, especially when the topics at hand are serious. There's some stuff about youth in there, and a segment linking King Mswati III with feminism and early journalistic impulses. I did an interview with Ahmed Salim for the East Africa Today podcast that's being featured on the SID website this week*.

The issue is going to be launched all over East Africa any day now, and for a taste of what looks like a good read check out Charles Onyango Obbo's introduction

*Credit where it's due: Pernille of Dunia ni Duara took that picture, am not that good at self-portraits yet. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Teke Linalokuijia

Technology, eh. It's great when it works. When it doesn't, it's a disaster. Generally speaking, you want people who know what they are doing to handle that stuff. Since 2011, the government has been making noises about the switch from analog television broadcast to digital. Nice idea, there's plenty of good reasons to make the transition and if I remember right The Google told me that this is some kind of international agreement.   

December 2012 was the last month in which Tanzanian television broadcasters were allowed to broadcast in analog. To be kind I have to admit that the government spent a bit of money advertizing the coming change for no less than three months leading up to the change. But, you know, this is the government of Tanzania. A nation-wide exercise, involving technology? Ha. This week in The East African

"The early results are in, and they are not looking good. As expected, all involved in this “national” exercise have performed somewhat below par. Rumors are starting to spread about the Great Blackout of 2013: from roughly 8 local channels or more, Dar es Salaam residents have been reduced to a piteous handful of offerings. And we're the lucky ones- other rumors suggest that depending on where you live, even the state broadcaster isn't available for a daily dose of grossly transparent propaganda. Word to the wise: the revolution might not be televised in Tanzania depending on what channels one can still access, you're better off sticking to radio until we sort this out."

...actually, radio's been somewhat affected too, but at least you don't need a "decoder" to access the wild and free airwaves.

Friday, January 4, 2013


I have some leftovers in the freezer section of the blog that have been accumulating throughout the year. Posts that I started and couldn't finish, topics that are on the verge of being unfresh but that can still be salvaged, bits and and pieces strew here and there with nary a coherent thought to string them together. But I mean to start 2013 as I hope to go on, so a little organization is in order.

Here's a list of thirteen things that I hope to get around to this year:

1. Get out of town more. I have heard there are places beyond the borders of Kinondoni Municipality and it would be nice to find out if there is any basis to these rumors.

2. Read. Like, physical books, before they become extinct. Starting with the ones I have appropriated from friends, so that I can finally give them back so that they can lift the ban on my borrowing stuff from them.

3. Go back to some form of "school" for a mental tune-up. It's been a couple of years and the media-heavy diet is making me think I could do with a recalibration.

4. Burning questions: why is feminism doing so poorly in Tanzania? Follow up musing- is feminism even the right lens through which to frame a gender debate in our here-and-now? What's not happening, what could be better? Seriously, these questions burn me.

5. Taboo topic: Our emergent drug culture. Let's just say I am on the liberal end of that debate, and worried that we're stuck in the least productive mind-set about this- the War on Drugs. Going to have to think about how to frame this so I don't get into too much trouble.

6. Burning question: is the concept of exceptionalism total bullshit? I have heard at least four people whose opinions I respect even when I disagree with them say that Tanzania is 'schizophrenic.' All of them Tanzanians, all of them Tanzaphiles, all of them deeply engaged with change via their work, all of them somewhat frustrated. I have sold the gospel of How Special We Are like a traveling snake oil peddler, but this year is the year I must sit down and acknowledge the challenge and work it through. If South Africa has so clearly shown the perils of excessive self-regard, as young a democracy as they are, what should I be learning from them and how should I be re-looking at my own polity? Actually, kind of kicked off the topic with this week's submission to the EA:

7. Back to the drawing board: so, where does the power lie in Tanzania? In years of trying to figure it out, the best I can say is that it's diffuse and there are shadowy pockets of it here and there, and it's all negotiated and it shows up in the most surprising places. Which is saying precisely nothing more than: I'm still confused. Which might make it a great topic for the going-back-to-school bit.

8. Burning question: Religion. I am content to leave the topic alone, except that it has a way of not being so gracious with me. The Marxists and Africanists are all retired, nobody talks ideology let alone philosophy anymore. And the clerics are politicians are starting to get real friendly with each other. This is not good.

9. Changing times: Immigration. We have gone from being a taunted backwater to having the world interested in us. Hence: people moving in. I love it, and think there's more than enough room in the country for an infusion of immigrant energy. It's going to be very interesting to watch what comes of this as it challenges our notions of national identity.

10. Speaking of globalization and trends: ... I understand a lot of the traffic that comes this way is probably due to the interest in African opinions on development and stuff. But ever since Africa started emerging, I have been... well... losing interest. It's a bad and petulant habit- as soon as something becomes popular I don't want to play with it anymore. Actually, it's more than that: something's going on here and I find that even in the industry I dabble in, development, there is a marked shift towards taking an interest in the politics end of things, not just the money. And that interests me, especially since we're in a mode that can only be called 'anticipatory' as we start to get our thoughts together for 2015.

11. Speaking of 2015, the election year that's dragging it's feet in getting here. Only two years away now, and I'm going to take my cue from the politicians. Since they're already talking about who is going to run (or not) for which party, hunting season is open. :)

12. Clean up the blog, give it a scrub and a facelift and stuff. No really. This year. I promise. Um... yeah. I will get to it. And the Twitter account and the Facebook account (maybe) and the gmail account.

13. ... I can see why lists stop at 10. Hope you were a bit more realistic and focused about your resolutions/ To Do list for the year.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Real New Year's Resolution

Like a reasonable person, I have spent the past couple of days recovering from the festivities of the end of last year and the beginning of this one. By which I mean curing the hangovers by lying on the couch staring at La Dee's TV (she has satellite!) and taking short breaks to load up on YouTube Videos while letting the sound of the rain soothe the aches away. That is, when Tanesco permits, seeing as keeping the electricity supply steady is still a major challenge. 

Oh, yeah: and writing for the EA. Pounded out my 800 words and change this morning (thanks for 72 hours of dodgy service, Tanesco! Love how you make life easy!) when I had an OMG moment. And the moment was this: you know Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and The City*? And how she'd spend, like, an hour a week writing a lifestyle (lifestyle!) column in New York? And this wee job afforded her a ridiculous apartment and an endless supply of shoes that said unprintable things about her sexuality? And you know how she was constantly tripping over gorgeous, solvent men with great haircuts who could hold a conversation with words that had more than three syllables?

I can't believe how utterly different the reality is. Turns out that major media houses are actually tight-fisted (fill in the blank) and columning is about as glamorous as folk singing.

So, sure. World peace. And let's concentrate on the important stuff like good child-raising, healthcare from womb to grave and public libraries. I'll say that for effect because I actually care about this stuff, being demented and all. But when it comes down to it, my resolution for 2013 is to appropriate just a bit more of that Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle. Minus the shoes perhaps, because while bondage is perfectly exciting, six-inch heels are not my thing.

*If you don't know Sex and the City, don't worry. God invented YouTube so that Her creatures could be saved from their ignorance of Americana whenever the need arises. Enjoy.

A little birdie told me...

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