That Change: Thank you, MJ

I don’t know where I was in 1969 when I heard the glittering piano intro to “I Want You Back” for the first time. But my life hasn’t been the same since the Jackson 5’s first television appearance on “Hollywood Palace” — contrary to most accounts of them being on “The Ed Sullivan Show” first.

Though I loved The Temptations, The Miracles and The Spinners, the Jackson 5 were my age. So I believed they understood me; and, of course, I understood them, as evidenced by their song lyrics. “Maybe tomorrow, you’ll change your mind…,” “I don’t know why I love you…” (Stevie Wonder actually wrote that one), “but, I’m sho’ nuff the one you need…”

“Right On” magazine devoted its entire premiere issue to The J-5. We black girls no longer had to rely on “Tiger Beat” — which featured David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman or Donny Osmond on its cover — for pictures of Michael and his brothers buried in the back. “Right On” was filled with full-color pages of each chocolate brown Jackson (and a couple of Sylvers) haloed in well-groomed ‘fros. Feature articles chronicled their day-to-day lives, their migration from Gary, Indiana to Encino, California, their favorite foods, hobbies and other pastimes. It said they spent most of their time rehearsing for their shows (a big thing we had in common, since I had performed in church and school programs from the time I could walk).

Every black girl at District 7 Elementary had this issue of “Right On”. During recess or milk break, we’d convene to discuss who our favorite Jackson was, and why. While most went for Michael or Jermaine, I declared Marlon as the one I fancied most, mainly to be different; and I didn’t want to share. I taped every large fold-out poster of each Jackson brother on my cinderblock bedroom wall. Then I clipped out a small black & white picture of Marlon and kept it in my bill fold. When Miss Pierce, my fifth-grade teacher caught a glimpse of it, I told her it was my boyfriend who lived ‘up the road’ in Philadelphia. “Right On” also provided a mailing address where I could write him a letter. Which I religiously did every Saturday night while wishing we were out on a date having a hamburger, fries and vanilla milkshake, comparing dance moves.

On rainy days when we couldn’t go outside for recess, Miss Pierce let us play our own 45 records and dance. Needless to say, I brought Motown (except for the Spinners, who were on Atlantic). The white girls brought the Osmonds, and the white boys brought Three Dog Night or the Beach Boys. We engaged in heated debates about whether “One Bad Apple” was a rip-off of “Mama’s Pearl,” playing sections of each song to prove our point. Fearing accusations of treason, I never confessed that I’d learned the lyrics to “One Bad Apple”, after recording it from the radio on my reel-to-reel. I wanted to pop Boogie Bullard in the mouth when he called the J-5’s mini-bikes pictured on the back of their ABC album cover “lawnmowers” just because he had a Honda CT-70.  I defended them as though they were my own kin, pointing out that since they rode in planes and limos most of the time anyway, they were probably just posing with the “lawnmowers” to make a statement. The whole fifth grade class found a peaceful medium when “Rockin’ Robin” came out. I think the white kids felt it was okay to dance to it, because a white band had also recorded it.

Nine years later in a dorm room at SUNY Purchase, I was challenged to guess who was speaking the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” intro. I hadn’t heard anything from the Jackson 5 since the Destiny album, except for seeing pictures of Michael with Brooke Shields at Studio 54, which fueled rumors that they had split up. Once Michael’s first solo effort was unleashed, me and every other Jackson disciple knew we’d be swinging from a whole new kind of star. Without any assistance from his brothers, but under the precious guidance of Quincy Jones, every note of “Off the Wall” reignited the hearts of former fifth graders around the world.

By the time “Thriller” came out and sold twenty million albums, the four Jackson brothers had faded into obscurity and us ‘colored girls’ had to share Michael with every spectrum of the known universe. I could never keep up with the “Thriller” dance, but this was the age of the Walkman. So I strutted with my Crown Prince of Rhythm & Blues from the East Village to Rockefeller Center, courtesy of Aiwa stereo headphones.

Without missing a beat, the King of Pop conquered a whole new generation, as evidenced by my daughter’s heavy rotation of his “Moonwalker” VHS. Michael beckoned everyone to “take a look at yourself” with the same fervor he promised to “be there” two decades prior.

Anyone who had a pulse on June 25, 2009, the day Michael’s stopped, felt a “disturbance in the force.” Just like the death of JFK or Elvis, we all remember where we were when we heard MJ had left the building. I was surfing the web at my miserable day job at a bankruptcy law office, grasping for an inkling of peace before the next misguided soul called sobbing about their car being repossessed or not being able to pay their cable bill. While MSN’s home page stated that Michael had been rushed to the hospital after going into cardiac arrest, TMZ had to trump everybody and declare him DOA.

Each of us carries at least one invincible human around in our bosom: an untouchable being who can defy death, exist beyond time and dwell intimately in our ethers whether near or far. While oftentimes it’s a relative, stage and screen icons most readily fit into this compartment of our psyche. Without a doubt, this entertainment prodigy from the cover of “Right On” that gave us black girls bragging rights in 20th Century pop culture, and united a planet through song held space in more hearts than the number of people McDonald’s serves everyday.

As I watched vintage videos of Michael glide and croon, the void that seized me was not only for his death, but for a revelation that the love he so fervently bid me to save, had silently seeped from my soon-to-be-fifty-year old soul. I didn’t know where or how long my effortless glee had gone, but I most assuredly wanted it back. So I had to “make that change”.

© 2017 Carolyn McDonald

A previous version of this essay appears in Ms. McDonald’s book “INFLUENTIA: 50 Years on Earth as It is in Carolyn” available now on Amazon.

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For Love of the Screen says Happy Birthday, Sean Penn!

Sean Penn young2The first time I saw Sean Penn was in BAD BOYS, after which a magazine wrote a cover story about him entitled “Son of DeNiro” (with whom he shares an August 17 birthday) and cited him as ushering in a new generation of realist actors. He’s been true to form ever since, transforming the full spectrum of his being, head, toe and heart, into every character he plays.  From Jeff Spicoli in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH to his Academy Award-winning performance as Jimmy Markum in “Mystic River” one can’t find the seam between where Sean lives and the performance begins.

Every time I try to declare my favorite Sean Penn performance, I get caught up in a sizzling potpourri of 21 GRAMS, HARVEY MILK, MYSTIC RIVER, FALCON & THE SNOWMAN, CARLITO’S WAY, AT CLOSE RANGE… I challenge you to find just one favorite.

Behind the camera, Sean Penn has given us complex stories and characters rarely explored on the big screen. My personal favorite is INTO THE WILD chronicling the journey of a college student’s cross-country odyssey to find himself. Though the story ends on a quote-unquote tragic note for the audience, it was evident that the character had fulfilled his mission of being one with the cycle of life greater than human spectrum.

I am proud to be part of a “Timeless Generation of 50-Somethings” who, while operating in an often trivial techno-driven age, use new media tools to uphold the values and human rights instilled in us before such technology existed. For this, Sean Penn is one of the few famous people I enjoy watching when he’s being himself. Though I’m still tempted to regress to the twenty-something groupie I was when I first saw BAD BOYS three decades ago, he won my deepest respect as a humanitarian when he moved into a tent to help rebuild Haiti after their devastating earthquake. (Even grungy, he’s still not hard on the eyes…)

Sean Penn older

Well versed in social issues, Sean brings his creative sensibilities and insights to the table, while driving nails into the wall of a new house.

In an imdb quote, he states, “Your life is what you bring to any story. This is a life craft. It’s ‘How do you feel? Who are you? What do you have to say?’”

So Happy Birthday, Sean, wit’ yo’ bad self!

 

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“For Love of the Screen” celebrates Whitney Houston

whitney houston-flotsI’ve been sitting here for hours contemplating the right words to honor Whitney Houston’s enormous contributions to the screen, and express my deep admiration and love. Gifted, gorgeous and graceful are the first words that come to mind for the music icon who graced millions of fans around the world with her beauty and talent.

The first time we saw Whitney Houston on the big screen was in THE BODYGUARD with Kevin Costner. Costner’s intuition as producer, to combine his global box office success with Whitney’s universal music appeal, paid off big time when the film grossed over $400 million worldwide. In a commanding marriage between song and screen, the film’s soundtrack remained on the Billboard 200 chart for 20 non-consecutive weeks, spawning several chart topping hits, including its signature song “I’ll Always Love You” (previously recorded by Dolly Parton) and “I’m Every Woman” a funked-up version of Chaka Kahn’s beloved anthem. According to Billboard, it has sold over 45 million copies, and is the best selling soundtrack of all time.

Whitney’s next screen endeavor, WAITING TO EXHALE, based on Terry McMillian’s best-selling novel, would also be an enormous success. Co-starring Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon, the film told the story of four African-American women dealing with relationships, single parenthood, divorce, and career choices. The number one film at the box office on its opening weekend, the film went on to earn over $80 million dollars, as one of the first African-American films to “crossover” to a global audience.

Starring with Denzel Washington in THE PREACHER’S WIFE, a remake of THE BISHOP’S WIFE, Whitney plays the wife of a minister (played by Courtney B. Vance) who receives an unlikely answer to a prayer, in the form of an angel (played by Washington) for help to save his fledgling church. Released theatrically during the 1996 Christmas season, the film has become a perennial holiday favorite. Its soundtrack is the biggest selling Gospel album of all time, featuring the hits “I Believe in You and Me” and “Step by Step”, and performances by gospel legend Shirley Caesar.

Establishing herself as a force behind the scenes, Whitney partnered with producer Debra Martin Chase to form BrownHouse Productions. Their first outing was a multi-racial re-imaging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA starring Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander and Bernadette Peters. Viewed by almost 60 million people on its broadcast debut, the film was the highest rated program for ABC in over 15 years, and went on to garner 7 Emmy nominations.

Whitney’s duet with Mariah Carey of “When You Believe” for Dreamworks’ PRINCE OF EGYPT soundtrack proved Whitney was a major influence of films even when she wasn’t on the screen.

Her final venture for the screen as Executive Producer and co-star was a remake of the beloved classic SPARKLE. Though she and, then partner, Chase began developing the film with Aaliyah before her untimely death, the film finally made it to the big screen in 2012, with Jordin Sparks in the title role.

Like that of Michael Jackson, Whitney’s ascension into global superstardom provided a definitive role model for African-Americans. Their magnificent gifts and acts of kindness evidenced that one’s universal voice can be embraced universally.

Though I only crossed paths with Whitney Houston twice in person, her anointed voice and beauty made an indelible image on my soul. Needless to say, I am one of a multitude who celebrates what would have been her 50th ‘earth’ birthday today, and will infinitely adore her.

Time is priceless… Voice is a gift… Show your love!

Watch the “I’m Every Woman” Music Video:

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“For Love of the Screen” celebrates “Ernest T. Bass”

ernestt_go_signOn a rare moment of channel-surfing the other night, I was halted by the whistle of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW theme song. (Unfortunately, the TV show theme song is a lost art – which I will address in a later FLOTS post.) Having grown up in rural North Carolina, an occasional serving of the Andy Griffith Show is as comforting to my soul as the sound of a distant train whistle in the wee hours of the night.

This particular episode was a treat because it featured my favorite character “Ernest T. Bass” played by the multi-talented Howard Morris. After “Ernest T.” is rejected by the object of his affection because he lacks education, Andy and his lady friend school teacher, Helen Crump, take on the duty to educate him. While I always adored “Ernest T.’s” hysterical rebellion as a kid, watching him as an adult [and filmmaker], I was awed by Mr. Morris’ precise choices as an actor.

Every actor will tell you that they work very hard to create the many layers of a character with their whole body. Actors will also tell you that listening is a vital part of their creative process. Looking into Howard Morris’ eyes as he listened to Andy Griffith in this performance, revealed a fierce focus and peaceful “in the moment” presence that is the embodiment of character at its best – and the reason why we all still love “Ernest T. Bass” after more than half a century.

* Watch clip of Howard Morris as Ernest T. Bass *

A dynamic film artist, Howard Morris brought this passion to every medium of his art. Whether acting in sketch comedies with Danny Kaye or Sid Caesar, or directing episodes of series such as BEWITCHED, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE LOVE BOAT or the pilot for GET SMART. For the big screen, he directed WHO’S MINDING THE MINT? and   WITH SIX YOU GET EGG ROLL, featuring George Carlin and Doris Day.

Those of us who spent our Saturday mornings in front of the TV in the late 60s and early 70s, remember Howard Morris as the voice of many cartoon characters including Archie’s pal “Jughead”, “Mr. Peebles” from MAGILLA GORILLA, ADAM ANT, and a plethora of voices in Hanna-Barbera productions such as THE FLINTSTONES and THE JETSONS.

Watch clip from THE JETSONS as Howard Morris plays “Jet Screamer” *

It’s artists like Mr. Morris, whose name we don’t often know or recall, who give us some of our most memorable and entertaining moments of the screen.

Time is priceless… Voice is a gift… Show your love!

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For Love Of The Screen: The Flip Wilson Show

Flip Wilson ShowOK, so I’m doing some cross pollinating with today’s “For Love Of The Screen” post with an excerpt from my memoir INFLUENTIA celebrating The Flip Wilson Show. “Don’t fight the feeling!”

The Flip Wilson Show. 1970 – 1974

I was ten years old when the Flip Wilson Show premiered on NBC in September of 1970. Back in those days, we only had a choice of three channels. There were actually four, counting PBS. But it only showed Sunrise Semester or educational programs, which we got enough of in school and certainly weren’t going to watch once we got home. Living so far back in the woods, our television was like a member of the family: always there to inform, entertain and make a precocious ten- year-old like me feel good.

Daddy was very good about yelling outside when I was playing to let me know one of my favorite stars was on TV. He knew I loved Diahann Carroll and Diana Ross. And I fought him and Mama tooth and nail to let me stay up late enough to watch “Wild Wild West,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and Johnny Carson.

Diahann, Johnny, Napoleon and James T. became my loyal and trusted friends when those at school teased me for wearing homemade clothes, having frizzy bangs, using a word they didn’t know, or anything they could find “different” about me than them. I’d practically sprint all the way home to finish my chores and have supper before my favorite shows started coming on.

I can easily recall the glee that pulsated through me when the theme song kicked in and the announcer cried, “The Flip Wilson Show… This week’s guests: Diahann Carroll, Frank Gorshen (“The Riddler” from “Batman”), and The Temptations!”

The musical guests were always part of the sketches. It was fun to see them take on other characters, and really funny when they forgot their lines and started laughing at themselves in the middle of a skit. My favorite line was “In the booth, in the back, in the corner, in the dark.” Flip must have liked a lot too, because he used it in a couple of different scenarios.

The musical guest roster was also like a precursor to iTunes, in that they covered every genre, style and culture. While I often heard my favorite Soul groups on WIDU, I grew to appreciate people like Roger Miller, Bobby Darrin and Robert Goulet. I was already a big Lee Marvin fan because I watched him in Army movies and Westerns with Daddy. “Cat Ballou” is still one of my all time favorite films. But I loved him even more when I heard him sing “I Was Born Under a Wandering Star” from the movie he did with Clint Eastwood.

While I don’t know what could have been going on behind the scenes of the show, for me it was the manifestation of a multicultural melting pot. It filled me with aspirations of moving to Hollywood and just camping out on that set with the vast spectrum of entertainers who performed together. Bill Withers, The Supremes, John Creach, Della Reese, Ed McMahon, Roy Clark, Cicely Tyson, Don Knotts, Richard Pryor, Ruth Buzzi, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Cash, Slappy White, Jim Nabors, Kris Kristofferson, Roscoe Lee Browne, The 5th Dimension, Paul McCartney & Wings, Carol Channing, Ed Asner and Donny Hathaway. Everybody who was anybody showed up on Flip’s round stage.

With no reference points other than the snippets on Walter Cronkite, little did I know that riots, violence and racial discrimination were going on around the country as I curled up on the couch giggling at Burns and Schrieber. Looking back on this period, I believe this sheltered backwoods environment was the cocoon I needed to formulate my identity and aspirations, much like a young tomato plant needs to be propped up by a stick until it comes of age. For I believe that had I heard of, or been a victim to, such racially motivated harm at a young age, I’d have grown up with a deep-seated bitterness, or subconscious concept of being “less than…” because of the color of my skin, which I’ve never harbored. I have had my issues, but I’ve always felt just as entitled to walk on any street, or sit at any drugstore counter as Diana Ross or Lola Falana felt on Flip Wilson’s stage. Had I watched all these riots and brutality, I wonder if I’d have dreamed the same dreams. Or would I have been too bitter or afraid to pursue them?

Decades later, when my worst encounter with racism happened in an office in New York’s Herald Square, I was so shocked that someone else had to call the ugly thing for what it was. But by then, my dignity and vision were already intact, unscathed by history. So this incident merely contributed to my fervor to effect change and encourage creativity.

I couldn’t fight the feeling of choking up a few months ago when I happened upon a YouTube clip of Sammy Davis, Jr. performing “Mr. Bojangles” on the Flip Wilson Show. It seems like only yesterday that Daddy called out, “Poot, Sammy Davis on Flip Wilson doing Bojangles…”

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For Love Of The Screen: Phat Tracking Shots

Today “For Love of the Screen” celebrates phat tracking shots. For non-filmmakers, a tracking shot is where the camera moves along with one or more characters for a period of time to reveal several layers of information in a story before cutting away to another point of view in that scene, or onto the next scene.

One of the highlights of going to film school in New York in the 80s was going to revival houses to check out some of the scenes we’d just studied in class on a big screen. High on that list of memorable moments was watching Scorsese’s pool hall brawl in MEAN STREETS. Covering a fight scene between neighborhood gentlemen after one is called a ‘mook’, the scene is comprised of a some wonderful fluid moves by both actors and camera to convey inner and outer chaos of the characters. It’s a wonderful display of using the camera to communicate both text and subtext in visual storytelling.

MEAN STREETS – pool hall brawl

To this day, I salivate when I see a director use his camera to dig deeper into the story or into characters’ lives. One tracking shot that continually gives me the fever is the sequence in LA VIE EN ROSE when Edith Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard) learns that her lover Marcel has been killed in a plane crash. This single shot – almost two and a half minutes – is choreographed to the centimeter and millisecond. I’ve no doubt that it is Ms. Cotillard’s performance in this scene that helped win her the Oscar. The camera’s movement unveils layers of denial, revelation, desperation, devastation and ultimately survival. When the camera arrives at its final position of the sequence, it reveals the contrasting identity that the character, as she grasps onto the only bit of life she can embody: performing.

LA VIE EN ROSE – Marcel’s death

What’s the last film you saw where the camera revealed a story so masterfully?

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My First Love of the Screen: Jim Kelly

images

Roberts Vaughn and Conrad had held a groovy crush around my heart for most of my elementary school preteen years. Each week, I begged my great-grandparents to stay up past 9:30 to see how these cute and cool men would use their latest gadgetry to outwit a nemesis that threatened to destroy the planet. Though the worlds of “UNCLE” and “WEST” were literally a hundred years apart, both were populated with colorful and charismatic villains. Finite knowledge of the weaponry and methods were valuable ‘currencies of cool’ to my classmates during recess the next day. Yet, unbeknownst to them, it was my fantasy of being the episode’s featured love interest that kept me coming back week-to-week.

When I migrated from the farm up to Port Chester, New York in 1974, I quickly abandoned my habitual TV consumption, and I engaged in the more urban pastime of going to Sunday matinees at the Embassy Theatre up on North Main with my new junior high classmates. SPARKLE, COOLEY HIGH and CLAUDINE were among the movies that inspired me during these formative years to pursue a career in film.

I wasn’t really into martial arts movies; but I loved Bruce Lee when he played Kato on the GREEN HORNET. So I definitely had to check out ENTER THE DRAGON when it played in a double feature with FISTS OF FURY. Though Bruce’s lightning speed packed some piercing punches, it was Jim Kelly who entered my 14-year old heart the first time he appeared on the screen. It wasn’t until I saw the movie the fifth time – all sliced and diced with commercials on TV – that I paid attention to the storyline enough to know what the movie was actually about. Definitely ‘The Crush of the Century’, I collected every picture of Jim Kelly I could find from “Right On,” “Black Stars” and “Black Belt” magazines. I no longer had a room of my own to display my pin-up treasures. So I kept them in my 3-ring binder, where they became a handy visual balm during Mr. Goldschmidt’s painfully dry monologues about horse breeding in Biology class.

Needless to say, I bought the first tickets on opening days to THREE THE HARD WAY, BLACK BELT JONES, HOT POTATO, TAKE A HARD RIDE and BLACK SAMARAI. I never remembered the storylines for any of these films, other than the fact that Jim Kelly colorfully kicked the ass of every villain that crossed his path. I silently prayed that one day I’d add a Kelly hyphenate to my name, and glide along the red carpet with him into the premieres of his films. After which, I would take him home and make him my best veal parmesan – the only dish I knew how to make at the time. Jim-Kelly-e1372715106102

While strutting up the red carpet to my own premieres, or those of friends, two decades later, I often wondered if Jim would ever show up. When it was rumored that he was coming to the premiere of the Jim Brown documentary, I hovered the lobby of the WGA Theatre like an LAPD copter until well after the opening credits were over. I asked several producer colleagues about him – feigning that I wanted to discuss a project – but no one seemed to know what he was up to, or how to contact him.

Long before Denzel, Wesley or Idris, Jim Kelly was a sex symbol to us colored girls who had only seen one end of the rainbow when it came to matinee idols. His chiseled cheekbones, nose and lips. His perfect pear-shaped ‘fro, replete with sideburns. India.Arie’s “Brown Skin” would have been a perfect theme song for a TV show starring him. I’ve no doubt that if Jim Kelly were at the prime of his career today, he’d give Denzel a run for some box office dollar; and 14-year old girls of every hue would be as spellbound as I was upon first glance at his swift kicking package.

Monday’s news of Jim Kelly’s death underscored several priceless lessons I’ve committed to embody. Among them are to beat down procrastination, spend my time far more wisely, be consistent, and silence the committee in my head screaming, “who cares about what you think about what you watch?”

When I launched “For Love Of The Screen” (a/k/a FLOTS), my intention was to “say nice things about things I’ve seen”. Because, let’s face it, media-driven people are so quick to trash, find fault and *opinionize* even the greatest visual works. So, for what it’s worth, my contribution to the game with FLOTS is simply to ‘show some love’. There are few things on the plethora of screens taking up time and space these days that “give me the fever”. So I’ll dedicate most posts to childhood favorites or recently discovered classics unearthed in the library (shout out to the Nashville Public Library for its outstanding film collection), on Netflix and Hulu.

images-1Regardless of the beat down from the committee in my head, I couldn’t remain silent about my love of the screen when I heard about Jim Kelly’s death. For he was one of my great loves of the screen. I truly wish our paths had crossed. That we had worked together. Or even shared a cup of tea. Nevertheless, I will always be grateful for his having inspired me with the excellence of his craft; and giving me the fever by “being too busy looking good.”

Time is priceless… Voice is a gift… Show your love!

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