Saturday, October 31, 2015

Judge Yeakel's Senior Moment

            There was a time in the South when black people looked to the federal judiciary for succor. We were having problems at the county courthouse, you might say, registering to vote, serving on juries and the like, so we hired lawyers or lawyers volunteered their services and took our cases to the federal courts where we very often won. Today in the Texas capital the problem is different. We’re still having issues at the county courthouse, an exceptional number of prosecutions of minorities versus whites, for example, but today in front of the federal bench in Austin we lose. We’ve been losing for some time.
            Last week U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel issued a stunning but expected decision. He quashed the indictment against former Austin police detective Charles Kleinert for manslaughter, in a case from two years ago when Kleinert chased down and shot dead, with a bullet to the back of the neck, an unarmed black man named Larry Jackson. Jackson was apparently attempting to run a scam on a bank when he met Kleinert, who was serving on a federal task force. A chase ensued. Kleinert said that when he caught up with Jackson he lost control of his gun while trying to club the suspect with his fist.
Federal law allowed the quashing of the county indictment if the judge didn’t see anything wrong and that’s what Judge Yeakel ruled, basically, that former Det. Kleinert was just doing his job. Apologists in the media, among them American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman, have cited case law that gives a federal judge power to make a similar decision. First, to deal with Herman’s contention requires only a look at Herman’s own background and his own biases. He’s Jewish, which is a wonderful thing, just as being black or Hispanic or Polish-American is. But if this were the case of a Muslim officer who “mistakenly” shot an unarmed Jewish suspect point blank from behind, and was the latest in a string of shootings of unarmed Jewish men by Muslim peace officers, one can assume Mr. Herman’s opinion would be different. Let’s hope that kind of violence never happens to Jews however because that would be yet another blow to equal protection in policing in Austin, Texas. In any case, to move on to the meat of Judge Yeakel’s thought process, things just got out of hand in normal police activity. A mistake was made and Larry Jackson died. There’s a lot you can say about the Kleinert ruling but the most important thing to say is that the judge is wrong. As is the American-Statesman. This is actually the latest in a string of bad rulings for minorities attempting to challenge the white power structure in the Texas capital, especially the power of the police.
Last year, in a much talked-about ruling in the courtroom of Sam Sparks, who is the other regularly-assigned federal judge in Austin, a jury awarded $1 million to a Hispanic gentleman who was beaten and Tasered by two white patrol officers after he called 911 to report suspicious activity. Sparks, who has been a fixture on the Austin legal scene since his appointment to the federal bench in 1991, and who is known for a folksy temperament, and a mean temper, said he did not believe there was reason for punitive damages. He cut the award to $50,000. Sparks was wrong too. Before explaining why, let me say that this will not be a partisan argument. Yeakel is presumably a Republican, yes, an ex-Marine who looks like an ex-Marine, who served as a state appellate justice before being appointed to the U.S. judiciary by W. Sparks is a Democrat, he likes to tell people, the only Democrat appointed to the federal bench, he says, by Bush senior. He was managing partner of a silk-stocking El Paso law firm before that. So it’s not about party affiliation. There’s another dynamic at work here entirely.
            It helps to build my argument by noting a little bit about the recent history of the federal judiciary in Austin. Forty years ago there was only one U.S. trial judge in town, named Jack Roberts, a toad-like little man who had been a LBJ crony back in the day. The prior federal trial judge, Homer Thornberry, was a former Travis County district attorney and local congressman before becoming judge, and had by that time moved on to the court of appeals in New Orleans; before leaving for the appellate bench, Sam Sparks was his clerk. Anyway, Jack Roberts lived an unexceptional life in the courthouse with one exception: his son, nicknamed “Little Jack” was hired as a political operative by the most feared and most-pursued state official of the era, Bob Bullock. The rumor was that Bullock, who didn’t miss many tricks, hired Little Jack in order to avoid the attentions of the FBI. No matter how big an individual FBI agent’s balls may have been, the likelihood that the Bureau was going to open an investigation that might reel in the son of the only federal judge in town was extremely limited. Nor was this mere cronyism. Little Jack turned out to be a very talented political operative in his own right, and this story is mentioned here only to illustrate that federal judges may be gods, as the saying goes, but they’re not saints. Their decisions can be parsed, their “calls" questioned, just like yours and mine. And not just by the Court of Appeals, which is usually concerned with how the law is applied. Determining the facts of the case is usually up to the trial judge and that’s where we’ve been losing in Austin. That’s where we lost in the Kleinert case: Judge Yeakel made a God-like determination about the facts, but more on that in a moment.
            The next federal judge in Austin after Jack Roberts was named Jim Nowlin and he made what is probably the single most disastrous decision for the minority community in town. Nowlin was a Republican, a state legislator from San Antonio, appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan. Thirty years ago, refusing to order single member districts in the Austin city council, in order to protect minority voting strength, a step that federal courts were taking in municipalities across the country, he allowed the continuance of the “gentleman’s agreement” that permitted the selection, by the city’s upper crust, of an “acceptable” Hispanic and African-American candidate to run for the two seats set aside for, respectively, those demographic groups. It led to tame representation, blacks and Hispanics elected at-large, for decades, who were more beholden to white voters in this majority white city than to the interest groups which minority candidates were elected to represent. The result has been, over the succeeding years, the almost-complete gentrification of East Austin, without complaint by minority officeholders, and the relentless, year after year, shooting of generally at least one unarmed black man by police officersoh, every twelve months or so. We’re due this year, by the way, so if you’re a black male and out and about on city streets you may want to avoid anyone in a uniform this holiday season, unless it’s Santa.
Lately, eschewing the prior effort to get the district attorney’s office to indict officers for these killings, attempts at justice have moved to the federal courts, to no avail. A couple of years ago, in a case also heard by Judge Yeakel, involving another unarmed black man shot by white police, these efforts also came to naught; it probably wasn't a good sign that Yeakel praised the police chief in the middle of the trial. That Judge Yeakel saw no intentional wrongdoing on the part of Det. Kleinert, who ignored department policy regarding unsafe chases, is probably true. Judge Yeakel just doesn’t see what the African-American community sees.
“The court carefully observed Kleinert’s demeanor when testifying,” the judge assures us in his most recent opinion, adding that he didn’t even have to hear testimony in the case but magnanimously did, “and has equally carefully considered his testimony and considers his testimony credible. Any variations between his in-court testimony, his affidavit, and his grand jury testimony are insignificant. To the extent variations exist, they are what the court would expect when a person is called to testify several times under different circumstances and questioned in different contexts. The court finds no attempt by Kleinert to materially alter earlier testimony or to mislead the court. The court finds no guile in his testimony. Kleinert’s testimony was straightforward, direct, consistent, and without evasion. The court finds no contradictions in Kleinert’s testimony about what occurred from the time Kleinert arrived at the bank until he phoned police dispatch to report that he had shot Jackson. Further, the court finds no evidence nor any suggestion that Kleinert ‘acted because of any personal interest, malice, actual criminal intent, or for any reason other than to do his duty as he saw it.'” Kleinert should not be tried, in other words, he should be given a medal. Race was not an issue and need not even be discussed, per Lee Yeakel. Judge Yeakel, in his omniscience, sees what only God—and federal judges—can see.
 That Judge Sparks also has skewed vision also seems likely. One of the officers, in the case for which Sparks found no evidence to warrant extraordinary damages, had killed an unarmed black suspect in a chase a year earlier, to outcry in the black community. The week before Judge Yeakel issued his ruling in the Det. Kleinert case, that same officer from the Sparks case was suspended for ninety days for provoking and Tasering yet another minority suspect. Federal judges, even though they may be gods, make mistakes too, it seems after all. Defense of Yeakel’s ruling in the Kleinert affair emphasizes the law that is used to quash the indictment. Certainly it exists, no one questions that. But what Yeakel and the American-Statesman argue is that we can take for granted that Kleinert, although he may lack judgment and doesn’t know how to handle a firearm, acted in good faith. In the minority community we’re not willing to concede that argument. That’s not the belief among blacks in Austin for whom this is just the latest case of cops acting “in good faith” and leaving dead black men in their wake. A black judge listening to Det. Kleinert’s testimony might have just as easily found Kleinert to be unreliable and any discrepancies disturbing. A different judge than Lee Yeakel might have concluded that to the degree Kleinert’s story was consistent, it’s because he’s had so much time to practice it.
Let’s suppose a different theory than Judge Yeakel proposes, one that explains why African-Americans might “like” Charles Kleinert for the role of a racist killer. Kleinert was an aging detective, with a colorless career, who saw an opportunity to be a hero. The officer involved in the chase and killing the year before Larry Jackson was the now-infamous Eric Copeland, who just got the 90-day suspension. In 2012 Copeland was feted as a hero for chasing down and killing Ahmede Bradley, over a loud music complaint. Descriptions of Kleinert’s pursuit point to the same dynamic at work in 2013, a cop ignoring the manual with an unarmed non-violent suspect. You don’t even have to say Kleinert’s a racist, although many of us would. It’s just coincidence, Judge Yeakel tells us, that it was once again a white cop and an unarmed black suspect.
            There may not be justice from federal judges but there is, it seems, justice for federal judges. The key is you have to weigh what they do on the bench together with what they do to get on the bench. A case in point is Rob Junell. Junell was a Democrat, the powerful chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee when W came to power as governor. Junell was one of the last Democrats standing in state government at that time and he could have made W’s life hell as governor. Instead he rolled over, allowing outrageous cuts of social services for example, making the new Republican governor look good, supporting Bush’s claim to being a bipartisan leader and an attractive candidate as president—and the rest is history. Junell got his payoff when he was appointed by President Bush to the federal bench, sitting in Midland. And there is karma apparently, what goes around comes around, because Junell just finished a rough ride in West Texas. During the recent oil boom, Judge Junell’s area of the state became a kind of Meth Alley, and at one point Rob Junell had the busiest federal courtroom in the country. Literally, statistically. He just recently went to senior status, a kind of semi-retirement for federal judges, after something more than a decade on the bench. Looking tired and worn-out, he hung up his gavel. One can only wish the same future—soon—for Yeakel and Sparks. Not exhaustion, but senior status. Both of these men are beyond service to the entire community they are supposed to serve.
Both Sparks and Yeakel have made headlines in recent years trying to curb some of the craziness coming out of the Texas Legislature, regarding women’s rights among other issues, but as regards race they are products of their times, which have passed. Sparks is in his mid-70s and Yeakel is only five years younger. Presumably the recent disclosures about police misbehavior across the country—if these two judges were to accept the news, which they have not—would turn upside down their world views. Both grew up as white men in an era of white male privilege that was not even questioned. Professionally, for them the rock bottom foundation of jurisprudence in this country, the presumption that the police as a general rule do not treat minorities differently than whites, has been shown to be a lie. Both judges are in denial. They will go to senior status soon enough, one hopes, but still refusing to believe anything is wrong because to accept any other theory is to throw their entire lives as judges into doubt. It’s not that Earl Leroy Yeakel is an Okie (he’s from Oklahoma) or a hick, it’s that he is at an age where he is unlikely to start believing anything that would leave most of his life’s work on the bench in question. It’s not that he and Sparks are racist. It’s that they are old men, specifically old white men for whom the world has been turned upside down. It’s not that they don’t understand. They can’t understand.
            There may be justice coming for African-Americans and Hispanics in Austin, however. All these judges, Junell, Sparks, Jack Roberts, Jim Nowlin and Lee Yeakel serve or served in the sprawling and infamous judicial subdivision known as the Western District of Texas. Centered in San Antonio, the Western District covers Waco, Austin, Del Rio, and stretches to El Paso and Midland. Alpine and Pecos, too. The newest judge in the district, appointed by President Obama and confirmed just this year, is Robert Pitman who was U.S. Attorney for the district until his appointment to the bench. Pitman will serve half the time in San Antonio and half hearing cases at the new Homer Thornberry U.S. Courthouse in Austin, with Messrs. Yeakel and Sparks. Pitman is no pushover and he’s no bleeding heart. Like the president he served as a prosecutor, Pitman has eschewed the death penalty but made a clear distinction between civil liberties and civil rights, which means as U.S. attorney he wiretapped any phone he could get his hands on: but to fight crime he has preferred earphones to the needle, you might say, and that’s an improvement. And there are already indications, his lack of civil liberties credentials notwithstanding, that Robert Pitman may be the kind of judge that blacks and Hispanics will learn to appreciate in Austin.
            He’s gay. Pitman is said to have been the first openly-gay U.S. attorney in the country and is one of the first openly-gay sitting U.S. judges. That doesn’t imply he’s a “liberal,” whatever that means anymore, and that blacks and Hispanics can suddenly sleep easy in the Texas capital city. What it means is that he has a single qualification that Sparks and Yeakel do not. He knows what it’s like to be different in mainstream society and that the claims that everyone is treated equally in our society are often false. In fact, if he felt that way as a gay in Texas, he also has had the idea drummed into him as a student abroad. Pitman has a master’s degree from Oxford in human rights. None of that assures anything, although for blacks it’s somehow more reassuring than Yeakel’s service with the Corps in the Sixties, or Sparks’ time at a rich law firm in El Paso. Indeed there’s already one concrete indication that Judge Pitman, for the purposes of minorities in Austin, is a different man than the men he joins on the Austin federal bench.
            In 2012, after the Ahmede Bradley chase and killing, and after publication of data showing that the Austin cops were targeting minorities (see prior posting, “They Shoot Niggers, Don’t They?”) Austin city manager Marc Ott, who is black, asked the Justice Department to look at bias in his own police department. The federal government refused, but the decision was apparently made by the Civil Rights Division in Washington over the objections of the local U.S. attorney, Mr. Pitman. The context of the decision is important. This was before Ferguson. Attorney General Eric Holder had been slapped down at the beginning of the Obama presidency for his suggestion that Americans were unwilling to hold a real conversation about race—a contention by Holder that now seems like famous last words.
So, Pitman’s arrival in Austin, wearing black robes, seems like a good thing for minorities, although there are no assurances from case to case how the facts will be viewed and how the law will be applied. Still, if we have to take our chances in federal court it’s a better chance, it would seem, with Judge Pitman than with Judge Yeakel.

M.T.


(Mbeki.Townsend@gmail.com)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Lynching in Austin

There will be a lynching in Austin in November, with jury selection to begin next week. That’s when Rashad Owens, age 22, goes on trial for capital murder in the deaths of four people during the South By Southwest festival almost two years ago. To say that this is a trial that no one wants to hold, with the exception of Mr. Owens—that the police and SXSW backers in this liberal capital city want Owens and his case to go away, to the state prison in Huntsville, never to be heard from again—is the judicial understatement of the year.
Owens, who evidence will doubtless show was intoxicated, led police on a chase that in addition to the four deaths also resulted in 20-odd injuries. In no way is his behavior excused or excusable. But with a nod towards circumstances, that will unlikely prove extenuating, but nonetheless should be mentioned before trial, he was being chased by the police under unsafe conditions: for him, for the cops and ultimately for the public, in the mardi gras-like atmosphere of SXSW, and at midnight, despite the Austin police manual’s warnings to avoid chases in unsafe conditions. Does this sound familiar? It should. Because this is not the first time.
The L.A. Times ran an interesting story last weekend about how often LAPD takes out civilians in chases under even good conditions. In Austin there’s been a particular racial dynamic as well. In the last three years there have been three high-profile instances of police pursuits of African-American men for non-violent offenses that, as much due to the chases themselves as the behavior of the suspects, led to deaths: Ahmede Bradley, in 2012, chased down and killed in a struggle by white Officer Eric Copeland after Copeland attempted to arrest Bradley for “loud music” and marijuana use (see prior posting “They Shoot Niggers, Don’t They?” on this blog); white Detective Charles Kleinert’s pursuit and “accidental” shooting (point blank and, lest we forget, from behind) of Larry Jackson Jr. a year later; and Owens. After much soul-searching on the part of the district attorney and grand jury, Kleinert was charged with manslaughter, a case he now has a good chance to beat on a technicality in federal court. The Austin chases fit nicely into a pattern of inappropriate pursuits of black men for non-violent offenses across the country. If Owens was trying to escape, we have learned post-Ferguson, he may have had a reason. “Accelerating into a crowd” and “accelerating away from the police” are not the same thing, although the district attorney will say they are. One is murder, while the other may represent self-preservation for black men.
The question of charges in the Owens case is a particularly interesting one. In the last twenty years two Austin police officers have been killed on duty by drunk drivers, at least one of who was trying to avoid arrest. The suspects (one male and one female, both white) were charged with intoxication offenses, one sentenced to five years and one to life. Owens was charged with capital murder (the D.A. says the death penalty is off the table, as if that is an act of compassion) for a crime that differs in degree but not in nature. Anyone can parse the decision to file capital murder as they like but two obvious possibilities stick out. The city and influential SXSW promoters are trying to fade any heat directed towards themselves, in other words regarding police actions; and that SXSW, although worth some $300 million at last count, was still being run in an unsafe (read “cheap”) manner. Attempts earlier this year by the SXSW promoters to have the crash-related civil suits against them dismissed because the deaths and injuries were “solely” related to criminal actions were denied by the judge. How hard a fall Owens takes in court may greatly influence the success of the civil actions. (An attorney involved said recently that SXSW is playing a slow-down defense with discovery in the civil case until the Owens criminal case is disposed of. SXSW attorney Pete Kennedy refuses comment.) The second reason is that by filing a strong charge at the outset the hope may have been that Owens would fold and cop a plea, which he did not do. It’s of interest that the Austin American-Statesman’s courts reporter, the very thorough Jazmine Ulloa noted in a recent story that use of capital charges in similar circumstances is unprecedented.
The case for possible police bad judgment just got a boost from, of all people, Chief Art Acevedo, who has been moving recently to tighten controls in his department. Yesterday the chief suspended for 90 days (together with enough extra conditions to make a continuing police career unlikely when/if the officer finishes his suspension) Eric Copeland, of the Ahmede Bradley killing. A year after killing Bradley, Copeland and another officer were found liable in a civil case involving inappropriate conduct with another minority suspect. In the most recent case, just disciplined by the chief, Copeland lied, Tasered a suspect while kneeling on him, and then Tasered again, all after starting an argument with the cuffed (minority) prisoner and without allowing the suspect time to actually comply with any commands. That’s a mouthful—a mouthful that, one might argue, should be pronounced “You're fired.” In any case, with yesterday’s decision Copeland officially received “Rogue Cop” status (although many African-Americans had already come to that conclusion after the Bradley killing, which was viewed as unnecessary because the chase was unnecessary) to go along with Kleinert who would have had the same dubious honor if he hadn’t resigned. The political dynamic of policing in the city is actually changing for the better, if slowly. The Austin Police Association, once the most powerful lobby in town next to real estate interests, is in decline because of recent revelations of what cop behavior towards minorities is really like—and because as the city has grown, power has simply become more diffused, the upside, if you will, of uncontrolled growth. Chief Acevedo may also have finally come into his own. He no longer seems on the defensive dealing with his own officers and the police union.
The question in the upcoming Owens trial is about the officer(s) who initiated the chase, in crowded conditions, in darkness, with inebriated festival-goers in the streets. The argument can be made that the outcome might have been worse had the police not become involved but to test that idea requires a single simple question: Ask yourself, if the police had it to do over again, would they have chased Rashad Owens? What do you think is the answer? Another good one to ask: Had the police actually gamed or planned for the possibility of a drunk driver in similar crowded, alcohol-friendly circumstances? If not, they have to take responsibility too. Austin has one event after another and drinking is usually a big part of the atmosphere. At some point during the trial, the prosecutor will inevitably tell the jury that “the police are not on trial,” but actually they are, and have been since Ferguson.
You may think that “lynching” is a tad strong. But if you look at the history of lynching in the South, not all of the people who were strung up were innocent. In some cases the individuals were guilty but for whatever reason—and not just the cost of a trial, or “hot heads” taking the law into their own hands—the community involved didn't want the case properly handled in a courtroom. Others involved for example were white, or the crime was something whites had gotten away with in the past or there was some community secret that would be revealed in an open courtroom. Owens is not innocent but neither may be the people trying to convict him of capital murder. That’s what needs to be explored in court. Two big issues in the case actually have nothing much to do with Rashad Owens’ guilt per se which, as lawyers say—failing an act of God—can be stipulated to: Did the police involved have a history of pursuits in unsafe circumstances, or with minority suspects, and what is their explanation for why the chase was begun in the first place? Was there a supervisor present to tell them to shut it down? One might also ask if African-American men are still the prime targets for APD officers? And what were the conditions as regards security and barriers at the event? A white paper has already been produced on SXSW conditions but we may need to go over that one more time, under oath. Questions, questions: And what better venue than an open courtroom where we can all hear the answers? Unless there are answers it won’t be a fair trial, nor can we wait for the civil case to be heard because by then, with money on the table, and a lot of it, settlements may be reached and we’ll never know. Rashad Owens may not deserve much but he does deserve his day in court, a fair shot at a defense and a fair hearing. And as trite as it may sound, the public (including African-American victims) needs to know what really happened at the Red River Massacre.
Another comment on race in the trial itself also seems to be called for. The district attorney will attempt to convince the public that the fact the judge is black (former police monitor Cliff Brown) means that Owens will receive a fair trial. One fact does not necessarily follow the other. Judge Brown is still part of a Travis County judiciary that has traditionally imprisoned more minorities compared to whites than do other jurisdictions in the state. (See prior posting, "The Designated Negro," in this blog.) Presumably, also, Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb, who has positioned himself as successor to the discredited Rosemary Lehmberg, and is black, will make an appearance, at least in the gallery, as part of his efforts towards election. As was made clear in the Baltimore rioting the interests of African-Americans in power are not necessarily the same as those of African-Americans not in power. While he was in charge of the grand jury, ADA Cobb was noticeably reticent to challenge the police because his ambitions required Police Association support. As the civil rights movement in this country develops, the next targets for scrutiny after the police are the prosecutors and courts. Rashad Owens needs to watch his own ass, because neither of these men will: Judge Brown and Mr. Cobb have other priorities.
And the public needs to watch the trial, because a miscarriage of justice is in the making.

M.T.

(Mbeki.Townsend@gmail.com)



Friday, October 9, 2015

A Texas Detour on the Road to a Theory of Blacks in Film


Right now, speaking as a black person in this country, in this time of upheaval, my biggest concerns are not the police whose behavior so worries the BlackLivesMatter crowd and for good reason—for me, it’s mostly about the movies. Worries are not keeping me awake at night but do concern me as much as the actions of the Texas Highway Patrol. The worst the cops can do is kill you but Hollywood can dehumanize you or worse, stereotype you. And then the real cops shoot you because they’ve seen the same movie. That’s what the screenplay calls for and who is Officer Bovine to question such a well-regarded script? Or the very, very worse, you get a bad actor to portray you or people "like you" or bad actors to portray your tribe, whatever tribe that may be. Mao said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun but it also comes out of a camera lens, a different kind of power certainly but one that can be just as overwhelming and final. The issue for me is that the very strength of film, its ability to encapsulate life or something approaching life in a gripping and—this is important—effortless way for the audience, unlike reading where you have to pay attention and turn the page, is what makes it so dangerous. People will say “it’s just a movie,” but with such a powerful medium very often things are not that simple.
If you think this is shaping up as some kind of rant about a particular movie or star, it’s not. There are a few candidates out there, it seems to me, for going off on film (practically anything with Adam Sandler for example, but that’s just my view.) That’s more the role of the critics, isn’t it, to tell you which is a bad film or not? My opinion is offered solely as a viewer and with a sole caveat, one who is African-American. Nor is this about what’s going on behind the camera, an issue of current concern because of the recent ill-chosen comments of a certain Caucasian male Hollywood A-lister who seems clueless about racism in his own industry. You may say, well, who is behind the camera is intricately tied to who appears in front of it, a connection the A-lister missed despite his time in the business and that’s true. But as scientists write in learned papers, which it was my duty to read in my recent university experience, that is beyond the scope of our work here. Besides, that’s something that will have to be explained by someone who knows the industry, the ins and outs of filmmaking, how to position the casting couch so to speak, as opposed to who lies down on the couch which is what concerns me. Again, my opinions are expressed purely as a moviegoer, a consumer of the final cut who is African-American, the cinematic version of the “man in the street” who journalists used to talk to before the man in the street got a blog or a Twitter account and started speaking for himself. Mine is an inexpert opinion coming from someone who doesn’t “know film” but who knows black people and who has a certain consciousness and who is worried by what he sees.
There have been, it’s my thesis, having seen a lot of movies, old and new, as many of us have, only two eras of film for blacks in this country: “Pre-Dooley” and “Post-Dooley,” designations which we will tinker with slightly to make the former era “B.D.,” “Before Dooley,” for simplification, because otherwise both will be “P.D.” and confuse the reader. The “D” stands for Dooley Wilson who played ”Sam the piano player” to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca. Dooley Wilson like everyone else important was actually from Texas, from some pineywoods pisspot near Tyler, wherever that is (may Allah never find me there, don’t know why, but it sounds like the kind of place people are best known for leaving.) Wilson got out as soon as he could, from Tyler and from Texas, as many black people did at that time, and never looked back. It’s worth mentioning however the “Texas connection” only because so often in modern history, both U.S. and world, there is a connection to something that has happened or is happening south of the Red River: a link that others have commented on at length—and has been the subject of not a few screenplays itself, the worrisome “Texas connection.”
Before Dooley, there were three sub-eras for blacks in American film, loosely speaking, represented by three movies or kinds of movies, the blatantly racist like Birth of a Nation, any of the blackface films or anything with Stepin Fetchit or a Stepin Fetchit-like character, and the “Mammy” portrayals like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. These films or kinds of films were not accurate but were pretty consistent with the status of blacks in the Jim Crow America of the time. GWTW might even have been considered progressive in race relations, at that time. McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar after all, basically for rolling her eyes and warning “Miss Scarlet” not to commit some kind of foolishness, but an Oscar nonetheless, and McDaniel became a role model, not for her role in the film but for her successful entrĂ©e as a black into “the industry,” which was not cars or home furnishings or domestic service but movies. The credit you have to give her is despite her work in the film. The thing about films even today and even for whites, is that bad movies cannot be held against good actors. It’s the Hollywood corollary of the idea that bad things happen to good people. You can be an actor walking along Sunset Boulevard, minding your own business and humming a Shakespearean soliloquy or just humming because many big stars see themselves as singers too, when suddenly you get hit with a bad role, like lightning—and you’re not to blame. Taking the bad role is usually about working in a very competitive industry where everyone wants to be, and most actors usually want the work, even the good ones who may not need it, and often explain that they want to see what they “can do with the role.” Then there’s the paycheck that is often supersize. McDaniel got a paycheck and presumably a big one. Playing a maid in a white woman’s house in a film was certainly better than being a maid in a white woman’s house, which is the best that many black females had to look forward to, again at the time. Then, right on Mammy’s heels came Dooley Wilson playing Rick’s sidekick, the wise world-weary brother who loves and is loyal to Bogart, which makes Bogie cool, if he wasn’t before, because he can hang with Negroes and he’s not racist. That’s kind of my take on the action in Casablanca but it doesn’t really matter because the plot is incidental. Wilson is there as a presence more than anything else, a totem, and nascent stereotypes are there too but they’re different from what came before, which is an improvement. Wilson’s mere appearance on camera in this kind of film was progress. The conceit of Casablanca which has become immortal, both the film and its motif, is the black guy or girl who kind of has no life of his or her own but whose center of attention is focused on the white lead character and who serves as soulmate for the star although they’re not fucking. That’s Sam in a nutshell. We still see him today by other names and in other movies.
He’s spiritual too, that’s a big part of the package, black people are always spiritual and know things white people don’t, and in Casablanca Sam knows that the sudden appearance of Ingrid Bergman is “bad news” for Rick and that’s what concerns Sam most, what’s good or bad for Rick. When Bogie is getting ready to split for the desert, to join the Free French or whatever, he makes clear to the club’s new owner that Sam gets a piece of the action which is cool too, and new, groundbreaking, revolutionary in fact. Suddenly we’re making money in film and on film, a percentage of the action that hitherto had been reserved for whites, a step up from Ms. McDaniel whose only apparent reward on screen was her love of that scatterbrained scheming white girl Scarlet O’Hara. Sam is not getting any horizontal rewards that we see or at least not that one—not any concrete affection from Ingrid Bergman, Bogie’s love interest—and that’s where the storyline breaks down a little for me because most brothers of my acquaintance, feeling that a chick is not right for their best friend, for whatever reason, would make a move on her themselves, especially anyone as fine as Ingrid Bergman. But this is Hollywood not the real world and Hollywood is a parallel universe to our own, a virtual world where some rules we know on Earth apply and others do not. In any case that’s how Dooley Wilson changed our world for the better. He was still a stick figure but one who was making some money and getting significant screen time. He rolled his eyes once or twice but that’s cool. He got to sing and play the piano on camera which many of us even today might like. My theory is that we, black people, have been living in Dooley’s world ever since, certainly on camera but also to some extent on the streets of the U.S.A. Not because his role is so attractive to us still but because whites like it so much and they’re the ones who usually do the casting. We’re in a Post-Dooley Era only because he’s dead. At best we’re living in a post-Post Dooley Era that sounds like more radical change than there’s actually been. Things have changed but haven’t changed much. White people still see us as sidekicks and want us to have suffered so that we can be spiritual for them and they want us to be discriminated against so they can show how open-minded and cool they are by hanging out with us nonetheless. Dream on, many black people would say today. Unless all of this is supposed to happen on film and we’re getting paid for it, in which case the script is a little old but depending on the paycheck we may still join the cast.
There have been some hiccups in the telling of this particular narrative, yes. Everybody is on Bill Cosby’s case recently and apparently for good reason although as a black male my preference is for a trial before the hanging. Whatever his faults, Cosby was the first person to come close to changing the role of blacks on screen and in some sense in America. For purposes of this discussion no distinction is made between the big screen and the little one, it’s an increasingly artificial distinction anyway, with so many movie stars doing TV. Cosby’s most important role was not as the good Dr. Huxtable in the The Cosby Show, that would be my point, it was as the tennis-playing CIA agent on I Spy in the mid-60s, as the first African-American to star on a network television show, a big deal then and a big deal still, historically, whatever he may or may not have done since then. You’re struck watching the old show how much cooler Cosby was than his white partner Robert Culp, especially when Cosby was wearing his shades and this actually is a frequent experience for black filmgoers, how much more interesting for us the ethnic second-banana is to the white bread lead. There was a movie a few years ago in which Tom Cruise played a hitman and Jamie Foxx played the taxi driver who chauffeurs him to his victims and it occurred to me at the time how much more compelling Foxx’s role as the fearful taxista was to Cruise’s psychopathic killer. Foxx is from Texas too, another presumed pisspot called Terrell and he is a talented actor, also an Academy-Award winner: in a state enamored of Matthew McConaughey however, Foxx’s work doesn’t get much ink here although it has nothing to do, you can be sure, with race. The real reason is that McConaughey hangs out in Texas but Foxx split, apparently for good, like Dooley Wilson.
Mostly though, it’s my view, as blacks in America and on film we’re still playing Dooley in some shape or form. Even the great Denzel Washington: not long ago he was in a spy flick (yes, that’s my genre) with Ryan Reynolds, and Denzel did the buddy-thing or a modified buddy thing because they weren’t real buds or anything but the ending was what you would expect in today's cinema, he died for Reynolds, so that Reynolds’ character would live, which is a plot twist that white people like in life and in the movies. And, you know, it seems to me that Reynolds is an okay actor but hardly in Washington’s league and the only thing that Ryan Reynolds has done of any real note is being married to Scarlet Johansson which does give him points in a guy’s world that his acting does not. There’s a parallel here to our parallel universe, actually. Very often it’s been my observation that whites somehow expect me to take a spear for them, metaphorically speaking, the way Denzel took a bullet for Reynolds, or take a lesser position or less pay because “that’s what it means to be black in this country,” while the white guy or white girl gets the girl or guy and the big paycheck and gets to feel sympathy at my condition as a black person in this country, which makes my white friend empathetic or cool or whatever, on top of the higher salary. Does that sound familiar? If so, it’s because you’ve seen the movie. Probably multiple times. And you have to explain to them, you know—to your white friends—that black people are trying to get away from that particular narrative, right? That movie has been made. Several times. We’re trying to write some fresh material here. And Caucasians always seem a little hurt because that’s the plot they are used to. It’s coming from the big screen, that’s my opinion.
And it’s not just blacks for whom those same old lines are being written. Michael Pena is a very good young Latino actor but he seems to be dying a lot recently so some white guy with less talent can live: in Fury where Shia Leboeuf (who is a complete tool off the set, so they say, “a dick with no head,” he’s been called which is my favorite description of his non-cinematic persona) was deemed to be the one member of the tank crew who was survival-worthy in that World War II epic, and in a cop movie with Jake Gyllenhaal where Pena took a bullet for Jake. The question in many films is which characters live to see the final credits roll and as in other areas of white privilege those characters tend to be white. This is important because Hispanics run the very real risk of having Hollywood “handle” their narrative the same way Hollywood handled Native Americans’ narrative. It’s certainly starting to look that way. American Indians have had a rough time since the Plains Wars not just due to the original unwelcome intervention of the U.S. cavalry but also because people like John Ford, John Wayne and Gary Cooper took an early interest in their “story,” including depictions of alcohol, “savagery” and mayhem that was actually visited on Indians as much as they visited it on settlers. You can probably say that Native Americans’ lack of success doing the same thing to white people that whites did to them is how Indians lost the West. It was all a question of efficiency not morality or civilization. Until Hollywood screenwriters stepped in and changed the storyline.
It’s hard to have a balanced view of your own culture even today when, if you look at old Westerns, which were cutting edge cinema at the time, armed with bow and arrow or even a repeating rifle, the worthy Winchester, and at a pretty close range your team can still only hit the white guy in the shoulder. Or your team persists in charging a wagon train that has circled and your warriors don’t seem to notice they are getting mowed down by the dozens. Just as Hispanics in American film today are showing up very often not as themselves but as white people would like to see them, “humble and hardworking,” “with strong families.” Nothing wrong with any of that of course, never forget the strength of Hispanic families, which is real, but that seems to be the only thing Hollywood producers know about the culture. Or Latinos portrayed as drug dealers, and Latinas as hos. And maids! Don’t forget the maids. Talk to Hattie McDaniel, she can tell you, at least it’s a start in the industry. If blacks are doing better today it’s only because we’ve been fighting the stereotypes longer and the very conditions of our arrival in this country made us extremely suspicious of subsequent offers of employment from Caucasians, in Hollywood and elsewhere. We want to know not just how much we’re going to get paid, or if we’re going to get paid, but exactly what the work entails and if there’s health insurance. Believe me, you can’t be too trusting, whether it’s when the state trooper asks you to step out of your car or a movie producer says he’s going to make a film about “your experience as a black person.” The latter is potentially more dangerous than the former. You hand over your narrative to others only at great risk, that’s my view. If Hollywood producers didn’t even have to cast blacks or Latinos, they might not, that’s my opinion too.
A couple of years ago there was the completely forgettable Man on a Ledge with Australian hunk Sam Worthington, the film stands out in my memory only because the very white Kyra Sedwick played TV journalist Suzie Morales. C’mon now, they couldn’t find a Latina to play a Latina?
How is that any different from blackface?



A geek pretty much my entire life and liking numbers more than words, because they are true, and beautiful, and indisputable—right or wrong not both, or neither—it was my idea some time ago to write a formula as an assignment for a business class to describe any individual black actor’s success in Hollywood or lack thereof. It involved only two figures and a simple arithmetic operation, division.
You’d take the number of people the given actor had killed in his roles and divide by the number of times he had been killed on the screen. It was that simple. For women, and this is going to sound just a bit retro, the idea was the number of times she got the guy as opposed to the number of times she got dumped or was never the love interest. Okay, so that’s a little shaky—“The Chick Factor,” the second equation was called—but "The Kill Ratio" still seems pretty valid. And today, the world having changed in just a short while, even the women can be judged by who they’re capping: witness Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Whoever in the Hunger Games, a series of films which truth be told has never done much for me—especially after the first installment when a black contestant in the Games gave up her own life so that Katniss could live.
The point is violence, nothing more, nothing less. This is America after all and the number of people packing, on film and in real life, is awe-inspiring and, in some sense—this is an exaggeration obviously but not much of one—in our society “you are who you kill,” on screen and in real life. And somebody like Denzel Washington, his movie-homicide index you couldn’t even calculate. In his most recent one-man war The Equalizer he put down like a dozen Russian mobsters in the last half hour alone, and kicked the shit out of a couple of white cops before that, which was my favorite scene actually, so the rare roles like the thing with Ryan Reynolds where Denzel died to save Reynolds’ bacon was more than made up for. So, we may be moving out of the Post Dooley Era after all. Dooley may not just be dead but dead, you know? There’s a danger nonetheless, despite all this progress. And it’s coming from abroad.
One is reluctant to reveal one’s intimate viewing habits but Law & Order is one of my all-time favorite shows. Not the spin-offs but the original series, with S. Epatha Merkerson as the lieutenant and a varied rotation of assistant district attorneys and detectives. Recently the 20th anniversary season, which somehow missed my attention when it first aired, came into my hands and looking at the prosecutors, who usually include a hottie, this time the female lead was Alana De La Garza who is from Texas too, or grew up here. But it was actually the male prosecutor paired with Garza who caught my attention, Linus Roache, his face vaguely familiar as a character actor and not exceptionally convincing in L & O as a rabid-dog prosecutor for the County of New York. Googling, well, it turns out he’s British. Which raised a question that has been troubling me ever since: if Hollywood already has too many white actors, why are they importing more? This may sound mean-spirited but it’s not. We’re not talking about software engineers or nuclear physicists where there’s genuine scarcity, there’s no shortage of actors in this country, presumably many of them at Mr. Roach’s level or with his looks. The fact of the matter is that most of the British actors are Caucasian and are presumably not adding anything to the diversity mix on screen. The crop of British starlets in American productions which seems to be growing all the time, many of them named Emma or Emily—how is casting them any different from casting white American actresses at the expense of blacks and Asians and Hispanics? Especially when, like Linus Roache, they’re being hired to play Americans. Isn’t that like, to use an Anglicism, bringing coals to Newcastle? Apparently, Hollywood producers consider this some kind of diversity. It’s not. Nor is the new wave of Australian actors who seem to be everywhere at once.
One recent movie that really appealed to me was Zero Dark Thirty which had a couple of Australians, good actors, sure, playing respectively a CIA agent and a leader of the very non-diverse Seal Team Six (which may be an accurate portrayal because a recent USA Today story reported that US special forces, like much of the rest of our society, is a white show, too.) And my question is, like, are these Australian actors and actresses, although apparently well-trained, really doing something that American actors and actresses can’t do? And is there really a reason that a black person or a Latino or an Asian-American or an Asian from Asia couldn’t be in that particular role?
The Australian wave may have started with legitimate stars like Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe (who is apparently also pretty much a tool, off the screen and like everybody else has a “Texas connection” since he’s tight with Rick Perry and his band played at the Governor’s Mansion a couple of years ago, on one of the Perry kid’s birthdays.) But Kidman and Crowe are forces of nature. Margot Robbie and Sam Worthington are not. They are, respectively, a hot blond and a hunk, which America already produces and who are already over-represented in film. It’s not all bad news though. For black stars specifically there have been a few iterations during the Post-Dooley Era, a Post-Dooley 2.0 and 3.0 and now a 3.5. Starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s there were “good Negro” roles in which earnest black actors, after great trials, ended up bonding with skeptical Caucasians on screen. The actor was usually Sidney Poitier or someone like him. Poitier's homicidal index was low but no worry because almost simultaneously the Blaxploitation films started with the until-then unknown concept that African-Americans killing white people, even cops, was not only acceptable but could make for joyous cinema. Since then, in the wide sweep of American film, and our small slice of it, of the black actors, the most significant has probably been Will Smith, the self-described “Mr. Box Office” who made a series of movies in which he played a black person. No irony is intended. As a matinee idol, as a black conceived by whites, Smith was engineered inside out, and as we say in Texas he was “all hat and no cattle,” which is not a deterrent to success in the Lone Star State or in Hollywood. He had the moves and mannerism, he had the look, he talked the talk—but he was, in essence, a white director’s view of what an edgy black person is like. There was never any real threat, no reason for discomfort, no reason for guilt, Smith said once in an interview that he could have been elected president of the United States if he wanted to run and he was right but Barack Obama beat him to it. You could say that Smith’s most genuine performance was when he wasn’t trying so hard to please, in Ali. Since then, the market has cooled for what Will Smith is selling which is a shame because he's a first-rate actor but it’s still hard to underestimate his effect on film, especially in the way Hollywood keeps score: His movies made a lot of money. We’ve now reached the opposite extreme where black actors are “too real,” like Idris Elba who was recently dissed as “too street” to play James Bond. That’s only a correct assessment depending on how you view the Bond franchise: as tongue in cheek, a series of motorcycle chases and unlikely derring-do, or something more substantial. My guess is that if you did a survey of clandestine services across the globe, our own CIA included, the people doing the work would be a lot closer to Idris Elba than to Daniel Craig.
You may ask why it’s okay for Elba and David Oyelowo, of Selma fame, who are both British, to come to the U.S. and take American roles but the reason is, frankly, they’re not white. And if you can’t see the difference between what Elba and Oyelowo offer on the screen as compared to Sam Worthington, or Chris Hemsworth, then we might as well go back to blackface and have whites in all roles. For me, being African-American does not mean seeking ideological purity in a movie theater, exactly, but you don’t want to be embarrassed either. There’s a big ideological component to the arts that you can’t escape: nor, in this country, where minorities are still living something less than the American Dream, should we want to. My own modest contribution to The Struggle is not to see any film in which blacks are portrayed “in service,” working as either cooks, chauffeurs, maids or butlers. This prohibition includes almost any film with Oprah Winfrey. She’s actually a better actress than she is an interviewer, you saw that right away with her first roles, and there’s the added plus that when she’s in a film she can’t, as she does on her show, bring the subject around to what interests Oprah most, which is Oprah. But in the movies she specializes in quiet dignity in the face of adversity, or racism, while my preference is that black characters facing challenges do what white stars do and reach for a handgun. My only excuse for seeing Selma in which Oprah also showed quiet dignity is not knowing she was in the movie to begin with. My most controversial call, deciding to see the hitman movie with Tom Cruise, in which Jamie Foxx was chauffeuring Cruise around, was justified only because Foxx killed Cruise’s character in the end. Not having seen The Help or Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t prevent me from criticizing these films, however. Remember, this isn’t film criticism it’s just criticism. Political protest, you could call it, "talking shit to the white man," others might say. There’s a reason why Stalin and Mao sent a lot of artists and writers to prison, or worse, for the sake of revolutionary change. When the revolution comes, if the revolution comes, you like to think that anyone involved with Driving Miss Daisy, especially whoever wrote that title, will get a blindfold but no last cigarette.
It’s not that art imitates life or life imitates art. It’s that they are one in the same. Life is art and art is life, especially at the movies. We need to pay as much attention to who Hollywood is casting as to who the police are pulling over. Too few of one and too many of the other still lead us in the wrong direction as a society. But that’s just my opinion, as a moviegoer. Don’t mind me, it’s like the Republicans say, “black people are fixated on race.” And after all this venting it’s time to chill: Goina go check out a movie at Redbox, my idea is something called Lila & Eve, it’s been described to me as a kind of Thelma and Louise for colored people, with Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis. The ideological police still haven’t cleared the multi-talented Ms. Davis for accepting a role in The Help, a movie which (again, not actually having seen it, only because my high principles won’t allow me) it’s my belief set back race relations in this country a century, playing into white women’s wet dreams about their “special relationships” with their maids: the same way Casablanca did for guys, but without the same pretensions to innovative moviemaking.

The thing is though, Viola Davis’s mom was a maid and Viola was born on a former plantation in South Carolina, which is worse even than Texas, if that’s possible, another one of those places black people are known for leaving on the first bus. She’s come a long way, baby, and as an African-American you question her street cred only at great risk to your own. Lila & Eve has a Rotten Tomatoes score of like 12 but it’s only $1.62 a viewing. The film may be execrable but the casting is revolutionary.

M.T.
mbeki.townsend@gmail.com