Tuesday, April 27, 2004


1. Sweetback is Back!


I caught a screening of Mario Van Peebles' BAADASSSSS!, a "making-of" narrative about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the groundbreaking 1971 film by Melvin Van Peebles that ushered in both black independent cinema and the blaxploitation era. Let me be frank in saying that I haven't always been a huge fan of Mario's over the years though I admire his directorial initiative for films like New Jack City and the well-meaning but uneven Panther. Maybe part of it is that I have so much respect for Melvin - undeniably one of the most creative Black artists of our time - that watching Mario in dreck like Posse and Gunmen makes me feel like the disparity between father and son is more than in just age.

Yet, with this film, Mario's ode to his father and the legacy of Sweetback, I believed in his project and I feel this strong compulsion to help it along. It's not that BAADASSSSS! is an awe-inspiring film but what it does well is capture the moment at which Sweetback unleashes itself on America. In our days of Barbershop 12 and Soul Plane, it can be a little difficult to imagine a time where something like Sweetback would be among the very first films where an African American vision is given life and form. People tend to use the word "revolutionary" loosely but with Sweetback how else can you describe a film about a hustler-turned-hero who kills corrupt white cops and escapes their wrath by running into the desert? BAADASSSSS! manages to provide a window into just how remarkable a time it was to be in America in the early '70s.

Mario and Melvin were at hand for the screening last night and their presence, especially Melvin's, was felt throughout the crowd like ripples of energy. Melvin was in fine form - one of the first questions asked them was what his next project was and he replied, "I can't say - her husband in the audience." But all jokes aside, Melvin exuded gravitas in promoting populist power, telling people that they needed to get out and vote this year as well as help promote this movie by word of mouth. He's a '60s radical whose passion for politics still burns strongly but he sounded less a relic and more a sage. I went up to him after the screening, just to shake his hand (I own almost every album he's ever put out though ironically, I still haven't even seen Sweetback yet) and it's hard to stand in front of him and not be just a little in awe of him. He went out with the ambition of making history and that's exactly what Melvin Van Peebles ended up doing.

One funny anecdote that Mario related during the shooting of his film was that he went back to Crenshaw Blvd. in L.A. to shoot a scene mirrored off of what happens in the original Sweetback. Mario was wearing the same outfit that Melvin had sported 30 years back and as he ran through the neighborhood, one local shouted out, "Sweetback's back! Just like he said he would!"

P.S. BAADASSSSS! will have a screening at Oakland's Jack London Square on May 13th, sure to be one helluva raucous affair and the movie goes into wider release later this summer.

2. Home Sweet Home

It's always strange for me to read about my hometown of San Marino. I should say, it was my hometown from 1983 until 1990, after which I've become a Bay Area transplant to the fullest. In fact, I've now lived in my current Oakland apartment as long as I ever lived in San Marino but as the town where I spent junior high and high school, it had, shall we say a "formative" impact on my journey to personhood.

Unless you grew up in the San Gabriel Valley of L.A., I don't assume that most people have ever heard of San Marino. It's a very small town, barely 3 or 4 square miles, nestled right below Pasadena and bordered by several bigger towns like Arcadia and Alhambra. San Marino's main claim to fame is that it is affluent. For a while, when I lived there, it was considered one of the richest per capita cities in California, exceeding even Bel Air and Beverly Hills. There is no "wrong side of the tracks" in S.M. You were either well-to-do (like my family) or wealthy beyond comprehension. The city, like the rest of the Valley, was also infused with a large percentage of Asian American families, many of them Taiwanese and Chinese. Sharon was reading a book where the author claimed that the whole S.G. Valley was known as "China Valley" but I have never heard such a term used before and even when you google it, only one example surfaces. That said, just because the term doesn't really exist in popular parlance doesn't mean it's not accurate. San Marino has a massive community of Asian Americans within it, evident if you ever step onto the campus of my alma mater, San Marino High School, home of the Titans. (The city as a whole is now 40.6% Chinese. And an about 0% African American, but that's a whole other story).

I'm relating this because I was recently catching up on my issues of The New Yorker. I perenially seem to be a month behind which is no knock on the mag but more on my reading habits. In the March 29th issue, there is a long profile of Yabshi Pan Rinizinwangmo (better known to most as Renji), the daughter of the Tibet's 14th Panchen Lama who passed in 1989. For the neophyte Buddhists (myself included), the Panchen Lama is the other main spiritual/political leader of Tibet, alongside the Dalai Lama whose reputation, in no small part to Hollywood, is far better known. Technically, Renji shouldn't even exist - no previous Panchen Lama had married but then again, no previous Panchen Lama had been incarcerated under Mao and been "rehabilitated" back into society following the Cultural Revolution.

Why any of this is relevant to my original post is that in reading through this article, I discovered that when it was time for Renji to attend high school, her mother Li Jie decided to send her to Southwestern Academy, a small private school located...yup, in San Marino. I know Southwestern Academy fairly well - it's less than a mile from where I used to live and though I never knew any students who attended it, I drove by the campus on a regular basis. That Renji should live in the town where I grew up shouldn't surprise me (S.M. was filled with the children of minor and some major celebrities) yet I have to say that it's yet another one of the strange and serendipitious ways that San Marino sneaks back into my consciousness though I rarely think of the city that often these days, especially since my family moved away from L.A. in the mid-90s.

This reminds me too of a book I came upon about two, three years ago called The Jasmine Trade. I won't even bother with linking it to Amazon.com, frankly, I don't want anyone actually buying that sorry excuse for a piece of fiction. What was interesting about it is that the book, an insipid murder-mystery, is set among the Chinese American community in San Marino and so I couldn't help but read it, only the realize that the white author was basically turning S.M. into a 21st century, Chinatown opium den. Case in point, like the rumored "China Valley," the author of Jasmine Trade claimed that the book's title was taken from the practice of sexual slavery trafficking among young Asian girls but when I went online to find any mention of such a thing as "the jasmine trade," nothing came up. It was just another example of authorial conceit but to make matters worse, done so in a way that attempts to exotify and racialize the situation in really banal and transparent ways.

One day, I'll write some definitive essay about growing up in San Marino. For now, I can rest easy knowning that the daughter of a Lama resides in my own hometown. One hopes she brings some good karma with her since Buddha knows, San Marino could use some.

3. Too Many Men, Too Little Time

Speaking of Chinese, in this week's Chronicle of Higher Ed, there's a fascinating essay on the increasing surplus of sons in countries like China and India. China currently has a 121% ratio of boys to girls and as one might well imagine, this is likely going to create some huge headaches into the future. It's one thing to be a bunch of patriachal SOBs and try to avoid conceiving daughters but guess what dumb asses, that means your sons won't have women to eventually couple with and frankly, I doubt they'll be very pleased by that outcome. Here's an excerpt from the story (which requires a subscription to read):
    In a new book, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population (MIT Press), Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer warn that the spread of sex selection is giving rise to a generation of restless young men who will not find mates. History, biology, and sociology all suggest that these "surplus males" will generate high levels of crime and social disorder, the authors say. Even worse, they continue, is the possibility that the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men's aggressive energies.

    "In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause," says Ms. Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

    Those apocalyptic forecasts garnered a great deal of attention when the scholars first presented them, in the journal International Security, in 2002. "The thing that excites me about this research is how fundamental demography is," says David T. Courtwright, a professor of history at the University of North Florida and author of Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder From the Frontier to the Inner City (Harvard University Press, 1996), a study of sex ratios and murder rates in American history. "The basic idea that they have, that in some sense demography is social destiny --?that's a very powerful idea."

    But other experts are unpersuaded. They say that Ms. Hudson and Ms. den Boer's argument rests too heavily on a few isolated historical cases, and that the authors have failed to establish a systematic correlation between sex ratios and violence. Critics also suggest that the argument promotes false stereotypes of men and masculinity, and that the authors do not offer detailed knowledge of Asian societies and political systems. Offspring sex selection is indeed a serious problem, the critics say, but to treat it as a problem of international security is an unwarranted distraction.

I'm not sure if I believe that a surplus of men is going to instigate World War III but I would imagine that there will be many unhappy heterosexual men in China and India in about 20-30 years. Somewhere, millions of abandoned/murdered Indian and Chinese daughters peer down and smirk.