STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 22nd, 2011, by Staff
Photo by: Van Evers, TS Media, Inc.
Photo by: Van Evers, TS Media, Inc.

In this Web-exclusive clip, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker addresses a recent piece in The New York Times entitled “Hollywood’s Whiteout,” about the absence of Black artists in the 2011 Oscar nominee class.

The article states:

The consolidation of a black presence in the movies and television did not signal the arrival of a postracial Hollywood any more than the election of Barack Obama in 2008 spelled the end of America’s 400-year-old racial drama. But it was possible, over much of the past decade, to believe that a few of the old demons of suspicion and exclusion might finally be laid to rest.

Are the coming Oscars an anomaly, or an unsettling sign of the times? The Academy, in any case, does not work in a vacuum. A look back at the American films of 2010 reveals fewer of the kinds of movies — biographies like “Ray” and urban dramas like “Training Day” — that have propelled black actors, screenwriters and directors into contention in the recent past. With a few exceptions, like the romance “Just Wright” and the ghetto farce “Lottery Ticket,” it was perhaps the whitest year for Hollywood since the post-Richard Pryor, pre-Spike Lee 1980s. The superhero, fantasy and action genres were drained of color. The urban dramas were set in Irish-American New England neighborhoods. Even the male-male buddy picture, a staple of interracial bonding since 1958, when Mr. Poitier and Tony Curtis were chained together in “The Defiant Ones,” has become a largely white-on-white affair.

“There has been a paradigm shift,” says Whitaker, who won an Academy Award in 2007 for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. “We’ve moved a long way, but we’re not at a destination point.”

Watch the Web-exclusive clip below, where Whitaker explains why he embraces technology to help with the democratization of Hollywood, and watch the video of his full conversation to find out what more he had to say.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 15th, 2011, by ALAN KURTZ
Mark Twain, left, with John Lewis, a lifelong friend and inspiration for the character Jim in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Mark Twain, left, with John Lewis, a lifelong friend and inspiration for the character Jim in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

“Until the lions have their own historians,” begins an African proverb, “the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth noting that the African American experience has often been chronicled by whites. Do such accounts, in effect, glorify the hunter at the lions’ expense? And if so, is the solution to declare Black history off limits to “white hunters?”

African American culture has long been irresistible to white authors, and often to the dismay of Blacks. In 1957 the NAACP condemned Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, citing its unseemly Negro dialect and lavish use of the N-word. As late as 2007, the book was banned from a Connecticut high school after a parent objected to its language. Now an Alabama publisher is selling a sanitized version that replaces the N-word with “slave.” Such controversies, writes Twain biographer Ron Powers, “have left deep imprints on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encouraging students and general readers to approach the work not so much as literature but as battleground in the American culture wars.”

In a recent blog at Technorati.com addressing this subject, I argued that America’s story is no one’s property. It’s our collective experience and belongs to all races. Three days later, The Huffington Post adopted my title “Are Whites Entitled to Write Black History?” for an article that attracted hundreds of online comments, mostly from readers who identified themselves as African American. Not everyone answered my question, but of those who did, a ratio of 4 to 1 were in favor.

However, many Huffington posters attacked the question itself, calling it “a non-issue … a question that does not need to be asked … dumb beyond words … irrelevant … insane … nonsensical … ridiculous … silly … most stupid question ever … blatantly racist … racist and really ignorant … this is why racism is alive and well.”

Several Huff posters went so far as to flatly deny the existence of African Americans today who oppose a white author’s claim to write Black history. One even accused me of race baiting. “Ah yes,” he wrote, “nothing like a little Jewish race baiting to get the Blacks and whites worked up.”

Yet consider the following extracts from this same Huffington Post thread.

“White people should stay away from writing about other people. Leave Black history to Blacks.”

“Whites have written as much Black History as I’d like to see written by them. How about we let Black people write their own history for a change!”

“Whites have misquoted, outright lied about Black history. I prefer the offspring of the people tell the story.”

“When whites have the unmitigated gall to write about Black history they inevitably find a way to venerate themselves, no matter how undeserving. Their white racial frame makes it necessary. We have nearly 300 years of white folks writing American history and we have nothing but a one-sided lie.”

“One cannot possibly write the history of a people who were here on earth hundreds of thousands year before they were. We are tired of your lies about history.”

Given that 20% of these African American respondents reject on principle a white author’s legitimacy in writing Black history — without reading a word of what he wrote — anyone who calls this a non-issue or a question that doesn’t need to be asked is celebrating Black History Month by wearing a blindfold. It’s something that must be discussed, if only to dispel the myth that “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” If the historian is honest and true to his trade, the color of his skin should not matter.

Alan Kurtz blogs at Technorati.com and is the author of Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 10th, 2011, by Staff
AmyChua1-rs

When The Wall Street Journal slapped the “Why Chinese Mother’s are Superior” headline on an excerpt of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it sparked a national controversy about parenting that took Chua by surprise.

The problem with the subsequent controversy and hate mail that the Yale Law professor received is that it was not reflective of what she had originally written.

As Chua states in her conversation with Tavis tonight, her book is a memoir, not a parenting guide. The author goes on to say that she feels she “got caught in this amazing perfect storm,” which is partially fueled by every mom or dad’s concern with being a good parent as well as Americans’ growing fear of a rising China.

Watch the clip below, where Chua talks about the pressures she felt while raising her two daughters, and tune in to the full conversation tonight, when she clears up all of the misconceptions surrounding her book.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 9th, 2011, by Staff
JohnLegend2

Six-time Grammy-winner John Legend, whose latest project “Wake Up!” finds him paired with The Roots, discusses the socially conscious project tonight.

“I was always a bit of a political junkie, even as a kid,” says the singer/songwriter, who is nominated for five Grammy Awards for this latest album.

And when it comes to making music with a political or social message, Legend says, “it’s a risk that I’m willing to take.”

Watch the clip below, where Legend reflects on the price that some artists can pay for being outspoken. And tune in tonight for the full conversation.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 4th, 2011, by JUDY LUBIN
JudyLubin-rs

It was two years ago at a Black History Month celebration that Attorney General Eric Holder observed that we live in a “nation of cowards” unwilling to have an honest conversation about race. Holder’s remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who felt his comments painted America in a negative light. But was Holder right?
   
In recent months, we have been reminded that American history is all too often the subject of revisionist interpretations that whitewash the nation’s past to score political points. These insults on our historical consciousness are far too easy to cite.
   
Take for instance a January speech by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to Iowans for Tax Relief, during which she declared that America was always a resting place for people of all colors. “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status,” she said.

Ignoring the plight of black slaves who first arrived in 1619 — more than 100 years prior to the founding of America — and the enduring fight for racial justice, Bachmann went on to say that the nation’s founding fathers were ardent abolitionists. “The very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” said Bachmann. While the founding fathers professed that “all men are created equal,” that sentiment did not apply to the slaves many of them owned.

Interestingly, when the Republican leadership decided that members of the House of Representatives would read the Constitution as the first major act of the new Congress, the sections on slavery, including the one that indicated slaves were only three-fifths of a man, were conveniently left out of the reading.
 
And in December, presidential hopeful and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in an interview with The Weekly Standard praised his hometown’s White Citizen Council for their support of integration. This is the same White Citizens Council movement that has long been on record as a white supremacist organization and known for launching campaigns throughout the South to intimidate blacks who were active in the civil rights movement. Barbour, in the same interview, appeared to not comprehend the injustices that led to the struggle for equality. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” he said.

There has been no shortage of examples of the cowardice that Attorney General Holder referred to a few years ago. But these convenient errors and omissions should not be taken lightly. It may be easier and far less uncomfortable for some to rewrite history than deal with the reality that the nation has struggled with living up to its ideals. But we do ourselves and future generations no favors when we pretend that an entire segment of our population was never denied basic human rights or the chance to fully participate in society.

As Holder noted in his speech, “if we’re going to ever make progress, we have to be honest with each other.”

Judy Lubin is a writer, communications strategist and Ph.D. student in sociology. She writes about the intersection of race, class and gender in the media and in politics on her blog LeadingVoices.org and on The Huffington Post.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
February 3rd, 2011, by Staff
Photo by: Van Evers, TS Media, Inc.
Photo by: Van Evers, TS Media, Inc.

If you haven’t yet heard of The Fighter, you will.

The film – starring Mark Wahlberg as boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and Christian Bale as Micky’s half-brother Dicky Eklund – has received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, a category that two of the film’s actresses – Amy Adams and Melissa Leo – received nominations in.

On Friday, Tavis will talk to Best Actress nominee Melissa Leo. The award-winning actress, who played Micky’s mother Alice Ward, discusses what it was like to play the mother of Mark Wahlberg’s character when she and Wahlberg are nearly the same age.

Watch the clip below, where Leo also discusses her apprehensions about portraying Alice and what it took to get her to take the role.

For the full conversation with Leo, tune in Friday, Feb. 4. Check local listings here.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
January 31st, 2011, by Staff

Country music duo Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones of Steel Magnolia discuss the success of their first album and share their thoughts on the sophomore jinx.

Watch the clip below and tune in to the full conversation tonight.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
January 27th, 2011, by Staff

Academy Award-winning actor Sir Anthony Hopkins, who stars in “The Rite” and “Thor,” describes the origins of his acting career.

Watch the clip below and tune in to the full conversation tonight.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
January 25th, 2011, by Staff

In a preview of tonight’s State of the Union address, Former Senator Bill Bradley explains how the unemployment rate impacts President Obama’s chances for re-election. Bradley suggests that President Obama would increase his chances of re-election if he guaranteed the unemployment rate will be at 7 percent the summer of 2012. Tavis pushes Bradley on whether unemployment will get anywhere near 7 percent by the presidential campaign season.

Watch the clip below, and view the full conversation here.

STAFF & GUEST BLOG
December 2nd, 2010, by MARGUERITE DE BOURGOING
Photo by Van Evers
Photo by Van Evers

The first time that I went to a taping of Tavis Smiley was after getting back from lunch with my WNET team, and I saw Nas. As I glanced behind me, here was the “Illmatic” — as Tavis would greet him later — nonchalantly talking on the phone, without sunglasses. This was my cue to go on set.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Nas and Damian Marley.)

As I discovered, it’s the little details that make the show’s behind-the-scenes interesting: Nas and Damian Marley sitting silently watching the monitor and bobbing their heads to the beat, entranced by their song “As We Enter” as if they were hearing it for the first time. Venus Williams effortlessly elegant, changing into a pair of low-heeled ballerina pumps and covering her arms with a cropped, slightly military-style jacket as she sits down.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Venus Williams.)

But the thrill of being behind the scenes is witnessing the object of the interview unravel live as Tavis engages in a question/answer type of dialogue with different personalities. Witnessing it live is an experience very similar to the viewer’s, but with the added tension of the build-up to the interview.

What makes Tavis a great public broadcasting talent is his ability to be a catalyst for an in-depth exploration of a subject matter that is often disregarded for a more superficial and consensual approach. A prime example is when Tavis goes straight to the matter with his interview of Nas and Damian Marley introducing the “Distant Relatives” project as “an African heritage exploration.”

Just like he implies in one of his questions to Nas, it’s not a topic that the general public or regular hip-hop audience is particularly interested in. A couple of years earlier when he interviewed Nas on the controversy that surrounded his solo album, Tavis was probably the only interviewer to pronounce the “N” word when he explained to the audience “what Nas had originally intended to call the CD.”

Again, by calling a spade a spade, he enables the conversation to go beyond its more controversial aspect and settle in a more progressive realm.

Tavis’ approach is hermeneutic, like when he goes back and forth from Nas to Damian, keeping the audience and the interviewees on their toes, establishing a rhythm to the talk.

This approach was obvious with photojournalist Stanley Greene. I was curious to see how Tavis would translate into words the work of a cultural agent who produces a visual universe. Two impressions emerged from the interview. The first is that this was a great exercise of improvisation. After the last-minute briefing from his production team, it became clear that he’d made up his mind to focus on Greene’s work in New Orleans instead of his overall work.

My second impression is that he’d found and grabbed an angle that he just went at. To make the interview more visually appealing he focused on the material side of the photographer’s work: the traveling exhibition van, the objectified vision of the New Orleans disaster.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Stanley Greene.)

Again, I admired this ability to make the unseen visible. In this case I thought the material angle he chose was a good way to anchor the viewer’s attention, while at the same time bringing up the Katrina disaster that culminates with the airing of his own Tavis Smiley Reports episode “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long.”

The interview with Oliver Stone was great to watch, as the attention was on the documentary South of the Border, arguably a subject with not too much headline appeal, instead of the eagerly awaited sequel to Wall Street. As a non-U.S. citizen, I thought it was a fascinating way to bring up U.S. foreign policy as the film itself was less in focus than what was discussed in the film. For Oliver Stone, it was a great platform to voice some of his opinions.

(Watch Tavis’ conversation with Oliver Stone.)

Again, Tavis’ approach to Oliver Stone was to ask him why the subject of Latin American politics was so important to talk about: “What are we are not being told?” The importance isn’t so much the biased — or unbiased — approach by Stone (Tavis alludes to it later when he says he enjoys controversy), but the talking about it. It just throws in a completely different perspective: “Six of these countries have gotten together with democratically elected presidents who are from the people, who came up from the roots, many of them poor.”   

Finally, one of my greatest delights is to witness the interaction between Tavis and the production crew. From the recording booth to the set, they are like a family, where everyone knows their place, the atmosphere is always relaxed in between the takes, and once the recording starts, all the energies, including those of listeners like me, focus on the talk. On set, it isn’t rare to see Tavis bring up one of the crew members in the conversation and even, in some cases, in the shot — like when John Mellencamp was surprised by a producer with a cake. The Tavis Smiley show is especially the result of a great team effort.

Marguerite de Bourgoing moved from London to Los Angeles to complete a master’s in communication at University of Southern California. She is in the midst of producing her first documentary via LAStereo.TV, the multimedia hip-hop Web site she founded.

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