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American Sniper: the James Earl Ray Story

I admit it: recently, in a very private, high-tech Vodun ceremony (fear not: no animals were harmed), I focused on the death of a particular individual. This person is both a class enemy, and a race enemy; i.e., a double “savage” to borrow the language of another American sniper. However, I cannot name this individual at this time. I need to make sure my Vodun powers are still good, before taking public credit (just in case it doesn’t work out!). However, I could no longer delay writing about my deadly thoughts because I am angry. I am often angry, but my preferred anger topics for today are the meaning of 94% White, historical distortion and how censorship works in American film. It is not really about Mr. “Empty Chair” Eastwood and his much-discussed sniper story.

When I heard that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was 94% White, I was curious as to how many other organizations of influence may have similar demographics. So I googled the words “94% white” — the first two results were (I kid you not): 1. Oscar voters and 2.The Ferguson, MO Police Department. Lack of diversity is a pretty serious issue and many have already written about that, but I wish more commentators (outside of the left-wing blogosphere) would dare to remind us of the class orientation of the Academy.   How much difference would it make if its membership was very diverse but its politics were essentially the same?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not run the film industry, but this writer has seen clear evidence that it is a part of the film industry culture to fear and respect the powerful, the people who can “green light” or “kill” your next project. A few years ago, I worked with a good friend of mine as we tried to make a documentary about how people get screwed in Hollywood. We interviewed a number of high-level industry people, some of whom had Oscars® in their houses. Nearly all of them were reluctant to say bad things on camera about anyone who might have abused them, no matter how horrendous the abuse; e.g., having your screenplay idea stolen outright or having a big producer say to you something like, “Look, it’s going to cost you at least $50,000 to sue me and I owe you $100,000. My lawyers are bigger than any you could ever hire, so why don’t I just pay you $50,000 and we will call it a deal.” We were never able to finish the documentary because there was too much fear of bad-mouthing the powerful.

The recent hack of emails at the Sony Corporation shed some light on how some of the powerful people in the industry think. One of the most telling is the reported email conversation between Sony Pictures Co-chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin. Pascal, who is reported to have been a big financial supporter of Obama[1], jokes with Rudin about Obama watching Black films at the White House. When the emails were made public she decided to call[2] Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (two African-American “leaders” in charge of accepting apologies for us) to “accept responsibility for these stupid, callous remarks” and to begin her “healing process.”

I have to ask how you publically support a President and then laugh at him in private. This fact suggests to me, that Obama works for Amy and not the other way around. Amy is considered to be a Democrat, but she may well suffer from the same ill perspective as the Republicans. Juan Cole, in a recent piece[3] about Prime Minister NutNyahoo’s disrespect of Presidential protocol, points out that “Republican ideology is latently about hierarchy… For an African-American to be president deeply violates this unstated hierarchy, which is why they treat President Obama with such lack of respect; disrespecting someone in public in primate societies is a way of putting them in their place and restoring power hierarchies.” Many African-Americans still stand-up for Obama, mostly because they see any disrespect toward Obama as disrespect toward the entire race. But many others, myself included, realized early on that Obama would not be a BLACK President, but instead a President of the United States with darker skin than the others before him.

This brings us to the significance of the Academy having a current president, Cheryl Boone Issacs who is darker than the others before her. To this writer, it is particularly interesting that she is the sister of another trailblazer, the late Ashley Boone (one of the most prominent African-Americans involved in marketing and distribution of films for a major studio at the time). For nearly a hundred years now, African-American filmmakers have expressed a desire to set up our own film industry, controlling production and distribution. Many have tried with varying degrees of success. Early efforts like those of Oscar Micheaux and the Johnson brothers (who founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company 100 years ago) inspired others to resurrect the concept, even after cinemas were integrated and Black people were theoretically free to go see any movie they wanted. Back in 1992, when revenue from distribution on videocassette was starting to surpass revenue from theatrical exhibition, I again worked with a good friend in an effort to set up an independent distribution system specializing in Black films from around the world. My partner at the time went to see Mr. Ashley Boone for advice. Mr. Boone appreciated the intention but advised her to forget it, because from his perspective high-quality, independent Black films would not be able to compete effectively with the low-quality but heavily marketed studio product. We launched our effort anyway and we had some success (e.g., releasing the first-ever African film to the commercial homevideo market in the US). However, in retrospect, it seems that Mr. Boone was right.   Today, non-theatrical distribution generates far more revenue than theatrical distribution, and many people are now excited about the potential of web-based distribution. But just as major corporations have maneuvered to control internet searches and browsers, it remains generally impossible for any well-meaning independent filmmaker or distributor to compete against a major multinational corporation simply on the level of creative use of marketing dollars. But what if one could create a film that could galvanize people into revolutionary action, one like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers?   That film was considered so provocative that it was introduced as evidence by a Deputy DA in the trial of Lumumba Shakur[4] in the early 70’s, with the implication that merely watching it was evidence of conspiracy to commit subversive acts.   Yet, is stronger content really the answer?

Many writers have already outlined the historical distortions in the apparently popular film “Sniper”. So I choose instead to focus on how censorship works in American cinema. Provided one gets a rare opportunity to have one’s “pitch” or screenplay considered, it simply starts with the fear mentioned above. One thinks about how not to offend the people who have to “green light” your project and then you pretend that you have to keep in mind the “marketability” of your film. Then you have a meeting with someone more powerful than you and you grudgingly accept “notes” about the script. Some might argue that this process does not apply to “independent” films, but this writer would argue that it does. The independent filmmaker’s meeting just happens in a cheaper restaurant but the result is the same. This writer finds it staggering to think about all the films that have never been made, even while some in the industry complain about not having any good scripts so they have to keep doing “remakes” and “sequels” of the same tired ideas.

Presumably, Hollywood loves stories about human transformation. This notion brings us to the title of this piece. Why some may ask have we not seen a film about the life of James Earl Ray? — not that Ray should be a priority over all of the other biopics that should be made (like Yuri Kochiyama, Amilcar Cabral, or Frantz Fanon) but just to illustrate a point. James Ray was accused of having murdered Martin Luther King. Here is a guy who starts out as a racist and a failed criminal. He gets busted for robbing a Kroger store, escapes from prison, tries his hand at being a porn director in Mexico, later is convicted of having killed Martin Luther King, escapes from a state prison again, claims he was set up as a patsy in the assassination conspiracy. Many people ended up believing Ray was a patsy and he eventually won the support of the King family who still have information up on the King Center website[5] describing who they think the real culprit was. Now, is there any chance that if this film was ever made, one could argue as CNN’s Brandon Griggs[6] did about Eastwood’s sniper, “it’s about a real person…it’s a human story, not a political one.”

Well if I could ever make a truly revolutionary film, can I reasonably expect some multi-national corporation to spend millions marketing it and then more millions to promote it for an Oscar® nomination? Not bloody likely! It makes more sense to trust the power of the Loas, the powerful spirits of Vodun as they manifest themselves through the power of the people!

Bernard Nicolas is originally from Haiti. He became a political activist in the 70’s and obtained a Master of Fine Arts in film production at UCLA during the recently celebrated “L.A. Black Rebellion” era. He is now a mental health therapist and a committed film industry outsider.

[1] http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/leaked-sony-emails-reveal-jokes-about-obama-and-race-1201376676/

[2] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/amy-pascal-calls-al-sharpton-756782

[3] http://www.juancole.com/2015/01/netanyahu-democratic-republican.html

[4] http://prospect.org/article/revolution-now-and-then

[5] http://www.thekingcenter.org/assassination-conspiracy-trial

[6] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/american-sniper-is-almost-too-dumb-to-criticize-20150121#ixzz3Pb6pswOb

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