Sunday, 27 June 2010

Me and Samuel Beckett and homophobia in the Caribbean

Some people are willfully hateful bigots, and some people are bigots because they haven't thought long enough or hard enough or well enough about things to be otherwise. They are comfortable in their bigotry; it is warm and familiar, keeps their friends around, and maintains their own privilege. That distinction may not be important if the results are always the same. But every once in a while, that distinction means that people from the latter group, because they are in some measure open and reasonable, are willing to have their minds changed by another party or situation.

I just met someone who I think falls into the latter group. I've been travelling for work quite often, and he happens to work in a hotel I sometimes stay at when I'm travelling in the region. He came to my room to help with something, and we got to talking. I won't share the entire conversation, but it was about homophobia, LGBT rights, and was initiated by the following exchange:

Employee, as he is about to leave: What's your name, though?
Me: Mar. And yours?
Employee: Samuel. Think Samuel Beckett.* You can remember it that way.
Me: (laughs) Is that what they call you though? Because that would be pretty cool.
Samuel: No. They call me Hitler.
Me: Oh no. That's no good. Why on earth do they do that?
Samuel: Because my last name is [something associated with Hitler*]. I hate it. It's awful. And sometimes the joke doesn't stop friends make a lot of Hitler jokes.
Me: Ugh. Yeah. Hitler jokes are rarely funny. Plus, working in a hotel, I guess you have to be pretty careful what you say around people. People are coming from all over the world.
Samuel: Yea. It happened already. We had some Jewish people staying here and the guys were joking around. They didn't like it. (Freezes) Are you Jewish?
Me: No. Not Jewish. But yunno you can tell people to stop calling you Hitler. I don't think that's an unreasonable request.
Samuel (looking troubled): Yeah. I really hate it. You know they say he was gay.
Me: (Blinks) Well...maybe bisexual? I don't know. He had relationships with women though.
Samuel: Yes but they said he slept with men. (Looks increasingly worried) Do you know anything about that?
(In the blink of an eye I've become an expert on Hitler's sexual history.)
Me: couldn't say for sure. But um...he also murdered millions of people...
Samuel: Yeah I know in [country name here], we take gayness very seriously.

At this point I'm suddenly aware that I'm alone in my hotel room with a man who considers gayness far worse than murder, but we press on, talking about homophobia in the Caribbean (apparently Barbados is seen as the champion of LGBT rights in the region, a notion that while laughable to those of us who know the environment, makes me proud, even as it makes Samuel eye me suspiciously as if he is aware of my implied agenda); what it means to discriminate; why it's necessary to have anti-discrimination legislation; and why Caribbean men feel threatened by gayness. 'Gayness' is Samuel's word.

At some point when I ask him pointedly: "So are you saying the thing that worries you about being called Hitler is not the fact that he killed over 10 million entire human beings but that a couple people speculate that he was gay?" he says soberly:

"Well, here in [country name] we have people who are in jail for murder or whatever. And they go in, come out, and people don't really check after a while. But gay..."

I must have interrupted that sentence. I don't recall. Because of course it's not just the thorough and embedded homophobia operating here that is disturbing, but the fact that at the same time, Samuel seems not to understand or acknowledge the importance of the Holocaust. And I'm not talking all of the context of it, the eugenics, the politics, the war: I'm afraid the teaching of that part of history is pretty lacking in the Caribbean, and for that reason, a lot of young people don't appreciate its importance until much later. I'm talking about the fact that Samuel acknowledges the fact that Hitler killed millions of people. Whatever the circumstances, killing millions of men, women and children is a really horrible thing, right? Worse, arguably, than killing one man. And far worse than killing no one at all, i.e being gay. The thing is, I can't even be sure we're operating on that assumption. Because if Samuel thinks a murderer in the jail downtown is meh maybe not as bad as the gay guy on the bus, then who knows? Maybe he also thinks a murderer is a murderer, and after the first 20, it's all the same.

We carried on talking after this, and Samuel began to listen and nod and think a bit. And he started to make some sense after a time, to make some important associations and parallels with other parts of civil rights activism. I like Samuel. He is really a likable guy, open, interested, interesting, not hateful. And I think sometimes we have to realize that what we're working against is an attitude, a culture, not necessarily (although sometimes) the people who inhabit them. In the context of the Caribbean, where anti-gay sentiment is vastly more common and embedded than the opposite sentiment, as compared with other nations in the North where LGBT activism and legislation are far more advanced, engagement of people every day on their thoughts and beliefs, the music they write, the things they tell their children, and why, is where the movement needs to take hold.

*Names have been changed. The name used here was that of a famous person with the same last name. And somehow when I decided to use the name Samuel as a pseudonym, Beckett was the first name that sprung to mind as a famous person I could use. You can tell I'm not a fan of Samuel L. Jackson, right?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Newsclips and Quotes [Strange New Phenomena]

This is a real item in the Nation Newspaper today:

Why are so many men keen to enter relationships with single mothers, and what can these women do to encourage these partners to marry them?

Share your views below or by calling or texting your comments to telephone number [246] 262-5986, or e-mail us at

I think we should all call or email Sanka Price to tell him exactly what is patently absurd about everything going on above, starting with the framing of single motherhood as some kind of scourge on humanity with which no reasonable person would want to associate, hence the certainty of some Strange Modern Phenomenon afoot. And including the assumption that a single mother in possession of (presumably) no fortune and (certainly) no self respect must be in want of a husband.

The Back-up Plan: The Almost Demise of Sookie St. James

Just the other day I was thinking how great it would be to see Melissa McCarthy onscreen again. Only I didn't call her Melissa McCarthy in my head. I called her Sookie - the best friend from Gilmore Girls? She's great. She was great as Dena in Samantha Who as well, even though she played the same character. But who cares? She could play Sookie St. James in the next Star Wars film and all would still be right with the world.

Well, be careful what you wish for and all that. Shortly afterwards, a friend asked me to see The Back-Up Plan, which made me wrinkle my nose and think 'Really? Are you sure that's what you meant to say?' but turned out that was the only non-ridiculous option at the theaters. At least that's what we thought at the time. I was all set to relax into some harmless mediocrity, perhaps redeemed by an interesting wardrobe or a leading man who wasn't too bad to look at. But then to my surprise: Sookie! Sookie St. James as I live and breathe! Well my dears, believe it or not: Sookie was not enough. And, as it happened, harmless mediocrity was way too much to hope for.

So quick synopsis: Jennifer Lopez's character Zoë is an educated, accomplished pet store owner who decides that since the traditional family track hasn't happened for her, she's going to find a sperm donor and have a child. Then, in what is perhaps the weakest, least cute meet-cute ever, she meets a guy who could be The One but goodammit too late the baby's already in there, festering, throwing a wrench into things.

I want to be quick and painless here; no reason you should suffer as much as I did. Everything about this film is bad. Where to start? Lopez's performance is not good. True, we don't expect it to be, but perhaps if it had been less lazy and perfunctory, this film would have been better. Yeah no that's not true. There was no saving this thing, because it failed everywhere. Lopez's Zoë is loopy in a way that is not at all endearing. I do not care about her and her philanthropic pet store, or whatever it is. She doesn't even seem like someone who likes animals. She has no chemistry with any of the other characters; her execution of the fall-down, get dirty slapsticks scenes falls way short of her Monster-in-Law performance, if that's any standard (but of course, those had Jane Fonda, and that's a lot of help); and in general she's just Jenny - miles from the block - determined to play someone who's having twins just after she's had twins.

She is foiled in her efforts by one of the worst rom-com scripts I've witnessed in a long time. And that's quite the accomplishment. It is hard to separate out the poor performances from the very very very bad script. Take the supporting cast, for example. The best-friend-sidekick, that character who's supposed to be slightly less attractive than the leading woman but attractive enough to have her own relationship to serve as a point of comparison, but not so attractive that she's not credible as the Funny One because everyone knows a woman can't possibly be witty and attractive at once - it's too hard; that woman is there to be funny, and strange, and interesting in some way that the leading lady is too impossibly beautiful to pull off. And obviously, a good actor helps, but you have to write and direct her that way. You have to give her the backstory and the dialogue to be funny and strange, not just stick her in there with her mousy hair and plain wardrobe and expect magic to happen. Every single line from this character, set up though it was to get us all ready to laugh and go 'oh that sidekick!' fell horribly flat. So horribly flat that I started to wonder if I had misread this character altogether. Maybe she wasn't the sidekick. Maybe she was just some weirdo stalker who was going to end up stealing JLo's babies and completely switch the genre to some kind of rom-com/thriller a la From Dusk Till Dawn. It was none of that, just a very bad script and equally bad direction.

Speaking of sidekicks, the leading man got one too. I'm sure if I give you three guesses you can figure out who the actor is. A hint: portly, Black sidekick guy, perpetually played of course by Anthony Anderson, who is not funny in the best of circumstances. But even so, has this guy not earned his stripes, just from prolificacy alone? How long is one to be shoved into that wise, Black counselor, dudebro place? Especially when one has been a part of (granted the worst era of) one of the best courtroom dramas in TV history? Doesn't mere proximity to Jack McCoy disqualify you from having to labour through really awful scripts opposite really awful actors? (But then, especially as a Black actor, I suppose not. S. Epatha Merkerson is as much an L&O institution as Sam Waterston, and brilliant in the role, and she's still hanging out playing bit parts in Lifetime movies. [It may be an insult to Merkerson and the exercise of her own agency to suggest that she doesn't choose the work she does for a reason. But honestly, we all know the constraints faced by Black women who are actors in Hollywood. Man, that was some digression.])

But undeniably the worst part of the film - beyond the atrocious script, the poorly-drawn characters, the yawn-inducing slapsticks, the so-what story - is the character and performance of the leading man, Alex O'Loughlin, who plays Stan.

Let me talk to you about Stan. Stan is an asshole.

From the first moment of our introduction to Stan - the meet-blargle - he comes off as an obnoxious jerk. But by this time we're not even sure we like Zoë yet, so maybe we don't care that Stan is a jerk. Maybe they can be jerks together while we talk amongst ourselves. But soon, Stan reveals himself to be such a thorough jerk that not even our apathy towards Zoë can stop us from hating him. Now, a leading man in a rom-com can be an asshole and still make for a good film. In fact, one of my favourite films featured the most brilliantly-executed asshole ever - Jason Patric's Jay in Expired - opposite an equally inspired performance by Samantha Morton. Not only was Jay layered and wonderfully interpreted while one-dimensional Stan floundered around embarrassingly on screen. But Jay's character and the relationship depicted also rang very true. We cringed when his manipulation and abuse were accepted, but we also laughed at his insecurity and the absurdity of the lie he was trying to perpetrate on Samantha Morton's character; the lie that he was it, and she could do no better, one that she ultimately rejected as she went on to be happy without him.

By contrast, here is what I hated about the message of Stan and this film: here's this woman - successful, happy, with friends and interests and things going on - who decides to have a child. She follows through with her plan, gets pregnant, then meets a man that she's at least interested in getting to know, sleeping with, but perhaps not in anything more. Who knows? it's only been 5 seconds. Of course, once he's in her life, she starts to feel guilty about not telling him of this decision she had made about her own body and life long before he fell obnoxiously into her taxi. So she tells him. And all kinds of whiny, entitled, territorial, paternalistic bullshit ensues. It becomes wholly about him, but this fact is partially obscured by the writers, whose only concern is the old "women who try to have it all need to stop pushing men away, beg their forgiveness and eat some crow" meme. (See: Tyler Perry)

To top things off, Stan has no chemistry with anyone - not Zoë (the kisses are among the worst I have witnessed. Stan is a Really Bad Kisser), not The Black Friend who is unceremoniously thrust upon him, not a single other character in the film. In fact, no one has chemistry with anyone. All the other characters exist on the fringes of the film as props in JLo's vanity project and the story's uncomfortable message. They run helter-skelter around in supermarket encounters, gratuitous, unfunny, labour scenes and other messes. And at the end, we all hate everyone and want the last two hours of our lives back. Except Sookie. We don't hate Sookie, but we do come dangerously close.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rue McClanahan has passed

Golden Girl Rue McClanahan has died at the age of 76.

"She passed away at 1 a.m. this morning," her manager, Barbara Lawrence, tells PEOPLE. "She had a massive stroke."

McClanahan, who played man-happy Blanche Devereaux on the still-popular '80s sitcom Golden Girls, had suffered a minor stroke earlier this year while recovering from bypass surgery.

You all know I think Rue is awesome. I wish her family and friends well.
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