Friday, August 31, 2018

(I watched 'America to Me', the first of 10 episodes last night. It's on Starz. I'd read about it. It's very good. Look for it.)

Steve James on Observing the Racial Inequities at a Progressive School


During the 2015-16 school year, Steve James, the documentarian behind “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself,” and his team of filmmakers observed students, families and staff members at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. The community has a rich history when it comes to race; Oak Park’s resistance to white flight in the late 1960s led to a diverse population that still exists today. Yet a racial divide remains — the wealth and educational disparities between white and nonwhite residents are often vast.
“America to Me,” a 10-part docu-series airing weekly on Starz beginning last Sunday, was initially born out of Mr. James’s personal connection to the community. A longtime Oak Park resident, he sent three children to the school between 2002 and 2010, and perceived stark differences in the experiences of one son, who struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder, and his daughter, a “high-flying” Advanced Placement student. “It’s not like my son was ignored,” he said. “It was just a very different experience.”
He continued, “I just remember thinking one day, ‘How much different would my son’s experience be if he were black and here, too? If you added that into the equation?’”
During a recent trip to New York to promote the series, Mr. James discussed the process of identifying a dozen students and their families to profile for “America to Me” and the resistance he faced from the school administration. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.


How did your children’s educational experiences inspire you to make this film?
At that time, I just thought it would be a really interesting microcosm to look at race, at education, in a place that — you would think — has the best hope of solving these things. But I never thought it would be possible, because I figured the school would not want us to come in and do that story. And I was right about that.

The principal, Nathaniel Rouse, did not want you there.
Right, and most of the top administrators.
So how did the series happen?
It was the school board. John Condne, who is a teacher there, and who also became a series producer, he read an interview that I did back in 2014. I guess, at the end of the interview — I haven’t gone back and looked at it — but they must’ve said, “Is there something you’ve always wanted to do?” Since it was for the local paper, I said, “Well, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to … ” I think I even said, “But I don’t think that would ever be possible.”

He called me up, and he said, “Actually, I think it could be possible.” I found out that a lot of the people that were on the school board, they run on equity issues. It was easier for them to say yes, but it was also still courageous because they defied their administration in doing it. They heard the administration out and they took a vote, and 6-1, they said “We’re going to do it.”

Jada Buford, one of the students profiled in “America to Me.”Credit

What challenges came out of the administration’s resistance?
For the most part they made a genuine effort to give us the access we wanted. But they tried to control that, too. Partway through the year, they tried to say I couldn’t speak to teachers in the school without first clearing it. I’m not talking about on camera — just have a conversation with a teacher. I said, “That’s never been the understanding.” They said, “Oh, no, that’s the understanding.”
There were times like that where I had to threaten to go back to the school board, and they backed down.
You were still able to get a dozen students to participate. How did you pick your subjects?
This was unusual for me, because I’ve never done a film where I’ve cast it. All the films I’ve done, I’ve either met someone or I’ve heard a story, and then I do it.
With this one, it was different. John Condne and I, the teacher producer, we met with about 40 families. I was looking for kids who would span the grade levels, at first. And this was ultimately a shortcoming of mine, because I knew we were going to want to follow some white kids, but I gave primacy to the black and biracial kids, in terms of our casting, initially thinking — erroneously and kind of stupidly, honestly — that it wouldn’t be that hard to find some good white student candidates. Given what this was about, I should’ve known better.
What would a “good white student” candidate look like?
[Chala Holland, a former assistant principal] is the one that really impressed upon me that you can’t just tell this story and focus on black and biracial kids. She was right about that. Initially, that’s all I was going to do — I expected to see white kids and students, of course, but not focus on a kid’s story.

I was trying to figure out, am I just going to be picking white kids to hold them up as a kind of example of cluelessness or white privilege?

Diane Barrios-Smith was a junior when Steve James and his team filmed “America to Me.”CreditStarz

That didn’t feel right — I wanted to tell stories that would present their views, whether they were completely enlightened or not. I also wanted you to like them as kids, and want them to succeed. The same was true with all the black and biracial kids. Oak Park is a magnet for biracial families. It’s also a magnet for adoptive families, usually white parents with black children. I wanted different family situations — single parent, biracial situations, intact families, blended families. I kind of wanted everything, which is how you end up with 12 kids.
Each of us [including the segment directors Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parrish and Bing Liu] followed three kids, ultimately. I knew it was important to have a multiethnic crew of filmmakers, who were also shooters and who also were a lot younger than me.
Some of the black and nonwhite kids are in this environment where they don’t necessarily trust the white teachers or white authority. What was it like to build that trust with them?
Yeah, the last time I really filmed with high schoolers was “Hoop Dreams,” and that was a long time ago. I was a lot younger. In this case, you’d have to ask [the segment directors] their process, but I kind of know. I mean, Bing has made this amazing film, “Minding the Gap,”which may be the documentary of the year. He has tremendous rapport with his subjects in that film, and he brought that skill to bear with the kids here. His youthfulness and his way, the currency in documentary is access and trust.
I like to say, and it’s not just a line: I really feel like I try to live it. I feel like the filmmaking process, ideally, is one where I’m making a film withthe subjects, not on the subjects. I want them to feel like it’s something we’re doing together, and that they set the parameters. I also tell them they’re going to get a chance to see this before it’s done: “I can’t give you editorial control, but I promise you I will seriously listen to concerns you have.” I’ve changed things over the years, always, as a result of that. I feel like the films have gotten better as a result of that, and more true.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The man with the striking African face was smiling as he stood and looked at my sign this morning. He took the cellphone away from his ear, and in a warm but worldly British accent said, 'But then there would be no underclass.'


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

(from Literary Hub at, a site that will daily email you good stuff)

Why the President
Must Be Impeached


By  Rebecca Solnit

The other evening, when the air quality had become too poor to go outside because my state was burning, sitting in a window facing another of those apocalyptic red suns going down we’d gotten used to here, on the week that the president unleashed more coal on the world and thus more of the climate change driving the trouble that afflicted oceans and upper atmospheres and, while the wildfires burned the lungs of asthmatic children, I turned again to the chaos and destruction emanating from the White House.
The commission of a crime is not normally the coverup for another crime, but if they keep them coming, it’s hard to keep your eye on any one or keep track of them all, or so it seemed on that day last week when the president had tweeted out some white supremacist bullshit about South African land expropriation, which maybe distracted people from the fact that about 36 hours earlier his fixer and lawyer had named him as a coconspirator in a felony; it was one of hundreds of racist dogwhistles and shouts he’d broadcast while some people waited for evidence that he had said the n-word as though his constant insults to black people from Maxine Waters to LeBron James to Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis and his attacks on Latinos and immigrants and voting rights were not enough, for it was also a day that the White House had, with a tweet, turned the murder of a young white woman into an attack on undocumented immigrants even though the alleged murderer’s immigration status was unclear and there had been a more recent and more spectacular murder by a native-born straight white man, who killed his pregnant wife and daughters and dumped the little girls’ bodies in oil tanks belonging to his employer, Anandarko Petroleum, that no one made into an indictment of that murderer’s category, because collective punishment is never for straight white men (and should not be for  anybody).

But you couldn’t stay focused on the racism alone with the many kinds of destruction which also, at times, felt like a distraction from the crimes, and that the law was getting closer to the crimes was clear, as was the president’s fear, for he had put out another of his all-caps tweet at 1am the night before about collusion and witch-hunts, those constant refrains of his, because his lies were the only transparent thing about his administration.

He was a man who was forever lying and whose lies could not help but point toward the truth he was anxious about trying to cover up, incapable of leaving alone, like a murderer returning to the crime scene, like a dog returning to its vomit, like an elephant in the room, stomping and roaring (and I often thought of  him as being something like a bull elephant that state of enraged excitement called musth, with his staff trying to herd him away from his most destructive impulses while fearing getting trampled, for the news was forever full of stories of their attempts to gingerly dissuade, to nudge away, to redirect, to correct, and of all the ways they worked around him, and the fact that he is ignorant, incompetent, and often out of touch with what is legal and eager to violate the law, a state that would disqualify any other office holder, and even his statement after the Cohen verdict, that “I have seen it many times. I have had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal,” was not only the language of gangsters—“Trump goes full Gotti” Vanity Fair put it—but oblivious about why presidents shouldn’t talk like gansters about opposition to cooperation with the federal government, though that remark too had no obvious repercussion).

It was the week that the Washington Post got tired of calling his lies misstatements and untruths and got down to saying lie in an article also noting that he had committed, by their count 4,229 lies during his time in office, but what they meant by lie in that article  was a whole chain of evolving lies denying categorically that there had been a Stormy Daniels affair and payoff, to claims he hadn’t known about it, and various twisted versions from Michael Cohen, and it all culminated in the desperate inanity of Rudy Giuliani on August 19th saying that “truth isn’t truth,” because if you sabotage the facts and the record and the history enough you end up in nihilistic incoherence, in which  nothing means anything, and this seemed to be Giuliani’s specialty, with a sprinkle of pepper and spray of spit, at this stage of his career.

But the layering of it: it was hard to pay attention to while the Education Department was trying to destroy education and undermine Title IX protections when the Housing Department was trying to destroy public housing while the Environmental Protection Agency aggressively pursued the opposite of protection for the environment while the Secretary of the Interior tried to destroy public lands and attack endangered species, and the Department of Transportation was attacking vehicle efficiency standards that served everyone’s interest.
Even atop that rampage on all fronts there were ornamental flourishes and signs of malicious idiocy meandering in all directions, such as the legal counsel at the Department of Transportation, Andrew Kloster, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, tweeting on August 22nd that a Hollywood actress was a succubus melding together satanism and the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah in one loopy tweet, a perfect marriage of antisemitism and misogyny.

That single tweet from Kloster was the kind of thing that used to fuel a news cycle or be a weeklong scandal—I can still remember the racist and sexist thing Nixon and Ford’s secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz said and was fired for in 1976, long before he was jailed for tax evasion. But the Trump administration: it was like snowflakes falling atop snowflakes, each covering up the layer below and sometimes it was an avalanche no one could keep up with and perhaps the answer was not sifting but a snow plow.

Though winter was itself perhaps a strange metaphor for these people intent on melting the poles, since, after all, the Cohen verdict had come the day before the news that “some of the oldest ice in the arctic is now breaking apart,” and also this week the nominee for head of NASA, Jim Morhand, waffled about whether humans were driving climate change, and also climate change research proposals in the Department of the Interior were being reviewed by a character named Steve Howke, who as climate journalist David Roberts pointed out, seemed to have as his sole qualification being an old high-school football buddy of Secretary Zinke’s from Whitefish, Montana.

It was hard to remember, with the over-the-top corruption of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort frothing up like a badly poured beer, to keep track of the conspiratorial roles of Roger Stone and George Papadopoulos, long after everyone had forgotten all about Carter Page, who’d been reported as a foreign agent by US intelligence while he was toddling about Russia and maybe making some secret deals with the oil company Rosneft, or Michael Flynn, who’d been the first to be fired for corruption, and who’d been convicted for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, but whose sentence was being held up because he might have further use for the Special Counsel investigation.

And it seemed that everyone had forgotten all about Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of  state, fired by tweet way back  in March, Tillerson who was himself an oil titan heading Exxon which had been violating the Magnitsky sanctions against Russia to make deals, and somehow too Jared Kushner had disappeared, as had the story about the secret direct communications channel he’d tried to open up to Russia and discussed in a meeting with then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, who later said on Russian TV that when it comes to his meetings with Trump officials, “the list is so long that I’m not going to be able to go through it in 20 minutes,” the same Kislyak who’d been photographed with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office, by their own state photographer, in that meeting that US journalists were barred from, the one that produced those photographs of Trump looking beseeching and bewildered at the two men laughing at him because they’d just tricked him into revealing classified secrets.

That meeting was held the day after Trump had fired FBI director James Comey on May 9, 2017, at first offering preposterous reasons for the firing—more lies—then admitting that he’d fired him to obstruct justice, the justice of an investigation into the apparent collusion with Russia that he is so desperately eager to cover up and in so doing keeps revealing. In his infinite undiscipline, he was only able to stick to his coverup and stay away from his preoccupation for a couple of days before he told NBC’s Lester Holt, the day after groveling before those Putin appointees in the White House, “I was going to fire Comey… And in fact when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, “You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story….” but who thinks about Comey now, when the blizzard of news makes visibility so limited beyond a single week’s events?

Those Magnitsky sanctions, which were named after a Russian lawyer Putin had jailed, tortured and killed for daring to investigate how the oligarchs were stealing from the Russian state and the people were apparently part of the topic at the meeting in Trump Tower on June 9 of 2016, along with the promise of stolen campaign information on the Trump campaign’s rival, and then the president drafted a coverup about the topic of the meeting with the help of his assistant Hope Hicks, the one who was dating Rob Porter, the guy who had to leave the White House because both of his ex-wives testified about his domestic violence abuse of them.
Though domestic violence wasn’t really an exotic species in the White House, since among the men charged with it were Trump himself by his first wife, campaign chair and advisor Steve Bannon, another campaign chair, Cory Lewandowski, and Andrew Puzder, who had to withdraw his nomination as labor secretary when old charges surfaced, though of course Porter wasn’t canned because he beat women but because the charges became publicly known, since the Administration was so okay with domestic violence that it withdrew it as grounds for refugee status, condemning myriad refugee women fleeing murderous spouses to be sent back and maybe be murdered, but that got lost in the mayhem.
Even ordinary citizens seemed to have forgotten the epic of—what shall we call it, baby gulags, child torture, or what they called it, incarceration in “tender age camps,” gratuitous family destruction, contempt for human life when it wasn’t white human life, because the fury in June about the imprisoned children and babies had faded, and of course the right-wingers who claimed to be against abortion because life was sacred had said nothing or gloated about foreign-born infants being damaged intentionally and irrevocably: the ones who had believed that Hillary Clinton was part of a child trafficking ring in the basement of a Washington, DC, pizzeria that didn’t actually have a basement didn’t seem to care about actual children, since they were the same people who claimed that the children gunned down in various school shootings since Sandy Hook were “crisis actors.”
Of course believing in the reality of mass death by gun might undermine the right’s advocacy of unfettered arms proliferation domestically, the cause of the gun-lobby backed NRA that turned out, also, to have been infiltrated by a Russian agent who introduced senior officials to the wife of another oligarch in Russia—because NRA officials were just one group in a mass pilgrimage of right-wingers from Richard Spenser to Rand Paul to Moscow, the mecca of white supremacy where David Duke had lived for years, the same David Duke who had thanked Julian Assangefor handing Trump the presidency, and there’s some way I could probably loop back from Assange to his visitor Roger Stone or to Putin and also to sex crimes, but that’s probably a long enough tour of the thicket or the swamp or whatever filthy thing we just swam across or whatever avalanche of foulness we hacked our way through.

I remembered this sense of barrage from early in the George W. Bush Administration, before 9/11, when they’d gone after environmental regulations and a number of other things that protect the vulnerable all at once, and it was so overwhelming that it was hard to know which to react to first or how to react at all. I’d known that we’d face it again if Trump was elected, and the one thing that remained perfectly clear to me through it all was that you couldn’t cure much of anything by treating the symptoms, and we had to go after the cause which meant uprooting the whole illegitimate amateur criminal syndicate.
It’s why I’m an advocate of pursuing impeachment, which is certainly unrealizable if we do nothing and possible if we press for it with all we’re worth, and whether or not it’s possible a lot of good things could happen on the road there. 

It certainly seems a lot more realistic and widely supported, since last Tuesday’s revelations, by people who understand what it means that the president is now, atop all the rest of his abominations, an unindicted coconspirator in some felonies (because apparently being a profiteer from emoluments specifically forbidden by the Constitution, as well as the beneficiary of a fatally corrupted election whose corruption he colluded in, was not enough). And a very nice new impeachment project has been launched, called By the People, that looks, to me, very promising.

We got here by disengagement, the disengagement of the progressive majority; we get out of this fix by engagement. The path to impeachment is one of engaging civil society in taking back our country from the crooks, in pressing politicians to take a clear stand on this regime, and in setting a precedent that we will not accept a corrupt, unaccountable administration, not this one, not any that may follow. It is how you dig your ice axe in on the slippery slope. At this juncture sitting on the sidelines is acceptance of irrevocable destruction of rights, rules, and even the biosphere.
Darkness has fallen as I’ve written, and tomorrow will dawn again in smoke. But the urgency is clearly visible from here.

Rebecca Solnit

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The sign feels good in my hands. I hold it midway down the sides. It’s very light. I’ve never dropped it or had anyone passing by bump it out of my hands. When I first started holding it six or seven years ago--I forget exactly how long it’s been--a menacing-looking guy, in his early 40s I’d say, tried to act tough and would mumble something dismissive of the sign's message and of me as he marched by. He once called me the illegitimate son of Bill Clinton. I sometimes thought maybe he would knock the sign that bothered him so out of my hands or push me into the slow-moving rush hour traffic going by right next to me. I didn’t see him for a long time; then a few months ago he walked by me without acknowledging me. But you could feel his look even as kept his eyes straight ahead.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The city’s quiet. Relatively quiet anyway. People are away. I took an easy walk downtown over the weekend to an always-impressive bookstore, McNally Jackson, on Prince Street. I seldom head down there. I went to get a paperback book of stories by Thomas McGuane. I’ve already got three books going. But I felt a need to read stories set in the west, mostly Montana, where McGuane moved to decades ago. My youngest daughter lives in Wyoming. Another daughter from here with her twin kids is visiting her. Three nieces and kids are gathering there too. The McGuane stories would connect me.