Blerdcon 2019

This past weekend I realized I have a tribe. On the bottom floor of a Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, Virginia, surrounded by hundreds of cosplayers, beats alternating between 90s throwbacks and anime intros, box braids, dreadlocks, BBQ, and multiple arcade iterations of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, I found my people. This was my second Blerdcon. It’s now an annual pilgrimage my girlfriend make to D.C. each summer.

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If you haven’t heard of Blerdcon or you’ve never heard the term ‘blerd’ (black + nerd) don’t worry, both are fairly new on the seen. The convention bills itself as:

“Blerdcon is an event that highlights and celebrates Blerd culture and creates a marketplace of ideas where sharing that culture can take place with proper context, attribution and positivity in an inclusive environment.

Blerdcon celebrates our connection with LGBTQ, the disabled, POCs and the international community! All are welcome to partake in the experience as we are an open community who love all the same nerddom.”

(Panels, Celebrity Guests, Presentations, Workshops, Gaming Tournaments, Cosplay Contests, Cosplay Guests, Music and Dance, Anime Screenings, Maid Cafe)

Year three for the convention saw another pleasant surpassing of expectations as attendance broke 5,000– still waiting on the final numbers to come back. I caught wind of the con two years ago on Instagram, followed them, and attended the next summer.

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Suicide Squad

This year, we flew in on a red eye, landed in D.C. around 9am, and got to the Hyatt not long after. Like much of the weekend, I fueled myself through pure excitement and soaking in everyone else’s energy. The lobby wraps around an opening to look down on the two floor below. At the bottom floor, surrounded by an arcade was a DJ stage, beats already bumping.

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Ryoga & Shampoo

Cosplay was in effect event before the opening ceremonies jumped off at noon. We got our room shortly after, took a quick nap, then suited up. My girlfriend and I started things off with a Ranma 1/2 pair. I was Ryoga and she was Shampoo. TSA damn near confiscated her props in the Portland airport but luckily they made it through. We looked really dope together and got some great pictures, too.

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Cowboy Bebop

The Hyatt was noticeably more packed than the previous year which meant a whole lot more melanin. It’s tough to put to words how nourishing the space felt. The joy is tangible, you can feel it in your heart. It’s black men free to express their eccentricities and oddities, black women claiming space in every facet of pop-culture, or an auditorium of hundreds singing along to ‘Cruel Angel’s Thesis’ and then ‘I2I’ from ‘A Goofy Movie,’ right after, I just kept coming back to this feeling of, “Damn, this is EXACTLY where I need to be!”

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Saturday morning, we went to see Beau Billingslea’s panel interview. I felt like I was listening to Jet Black himself. Beau seemed really genuine. He took his time answering each question, weaving in tails of coming up as an actor and a voice-actor specifically. He really got me when he talked about his old vocal coach. I’m paraphrasing but the advice was something along the lines, “Soft voices are a dime dozen but a big voice is something special.”

Afterward, I shook his hand and did my best attempt at singing his praises. Whenever I meet someone I admire, I carefully craft a concise statement that demonstrates the love and appreciation I feel, but then I open my mouth and it comes out like, “I like what you do… it’s good… and I like it…” It’s just a bunch of half formed sentences and pleasant handshake. Beau was really appreciative, though.

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Monkey D. Luffy

This year, Blerdcon invited several food trucks to post up in the big lot on the side of the Hyatt, so we had BBQ, slices, sliders, Jamaican BBQ, pho, and ice cream at our disposal. The heat was almost as oppressive as white supremacy. To stand in the shade outside was to sweat, and the food truck lot had about four small canopies. Lots of folks posed against the giant mural on the side of the building.

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SAMMUS

Saturday night, we saw Sammus perform. I can’t think of a better context for her to perform. A black nerd and intellectual wielding an arm cannon, she fit right in. Her set was full of emotions from the joy of checking out into a world of fantasy, or the weaving of pop-culture and race theory, to her desire to been seen and respected as a black woman in a society that constantly disrespects her. Joined by her band the Galactic Federation, they were just so nourishing. We met her afterward and of course she was incredibly friendly and thankful to be in the space.

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The best Doflamingo cosplay I’ve ever seen.

Sunday morning, my girlfriend and I hosted our first panel together entitled, “State of Black Marvel,” where we discussed our favorite melanin in Marvel comics and films, and suggested some lesser known stories for folks to check out– Riri Williams (Iron-Heart), Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, World of Wakanda. Besides a bit of technical difficulty at the beginning getting the slideshow up and running, things went great. We had about 20-30 adults and kids attempt.

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State of Marvel Panel

We spent the rest of the final day floating around like ghosts, fatigued but unwilling to pass on to the hotel room and sleep. I picked my cousin up some pins and magnets and a recent volume of One Piece. At closing ceremonies, they announced 2020’s theme: Chocolate City. Can it be next year already?

Those are the highlights. I forgot to mention that I cosplayed as Android 17 from Dragon Ball on Saturday. It was hella fun but I didn’t run into a single Android 18. Rats! I am sure of one thing after this weekend. Blerdcon is my favorite convention. It’s rapidly evolved into a space for and by black nerds while also incorporating other facets of black culture like the cookout, the barbershop, and Afro-beats. It’s really become a special space for myself and thousands of others and comforting reprieve from the ever darkening political culture. I am so thankful to all the coordinators, staff, and volunteers at Blerdcon.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures. Until next time.

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Aquaman Fumbles Mixed-Race Representation

 

Before I get into this, I want to say I really enjoyed Aquaman. I was ready to crap all over the film but I left the theater eating my words. Sure its long and bloated with enough material for three movies but it was fun-as-hell. The battles were pure eye candy, James Wan didn’t take the character too seriously which lead to some hilariously cheesy, albeit enjoyable moments. I rented it for another viewing the other day and showed a group of friends and it was just as fun the second time around.

My qualm with the film is how it handles its multiracial protagonist Arthur Curry (Aquaman). Aquaman is a film that revels in the idea that being multiracial means being emotionally and biologically stronger, more progressive, and just overall better, but fails to explain why. Traveling the well-trodden troupe of a hero caught in a tug-of-war between the diametrically opposed cultures of their biological makeup (See: Blade, Star Trek, Underworld, Vampire Hunter D). While Curry isn’t quite the brooding Blade or stoic Spock, he is a loner. He doesn’t have a place in Atlantis and on land we never see, nor is it implied that Curry spends time around any humans besides his father and those he rescues from the sea. He mostly drinks and keeps to himself. We get little insights into how he sees himself like the dialogue in the introduction. Overlapping the chance meeting of his parents in the opening scene, Curry tells us,

“My father was a lighthouse keeper. My mother was a queen. They were never meant to meet. But their love saved the world. They made me what I am: a son of the land, a king of the seas. I am the protector of the deep.”
-Arthur Curry (Aquaman)

All of this resonates deeply with me. As the child of a black man and white woman, the metaphor connected immediately. I feel sympathy towards this type of character. The ones who don’t fit in, who never feel like they are enough, those who quietly shoulder their burden alone. I feel that weight in my chest.

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Where the film loses me is when it (like so many others in this tired troupe) decides to lay the collective weight of international/cultural/diplomatic relations on one person whose genetic make-up just so happens to link the two worlds. Instead of exploring some of the nuance and anxiety often experienced by multiracial/mixed folks, Curry acts as a walking, breathing MacGuffin. The film quickly establishes (with no explanation) Curry’s race is the first, last, and only solution to the seemingly inevitable race war, and we spend the subsequent two hours chasing this idea.

You might ask, what’s so wrong with that? Doesn’t love conquer all? I get the impulse. The quickest, most obvious way to dispel a belief in genetic superiority or the inherent separation of races, is to show the (sexy) product of a multiracial couple.

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*Note: Black audiences will recognize this troupe for what it is, a simpler, more digestible way to humanize non-whites. Empathizing with a dark skin character is often a bridge too far. That’s why we see anthropomorphic animals (Planet of the Apes),  humanoid aliens (Avatar), artificial intelligence/androids (The Matrix Franchise, Blade Runner) serve as racial metaphors without ever having to offer any subversive or critical takes on race. Instead, they give audiences simple, digestible metaphors that are often thematically decades behind progress but provide enough catharsis to trick white folks into thinking they ‘get it.’

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But multiracial people aren’t the solution to nationalism or prejudice or solving race relations. In case you were unaware, there were multiracial men and women 400 years ago. There were hundreds of thousands of multiracial babies born throughout slavery in the United States and somehow… it didn’t fix systemic oppression, nor did slow the tide of Jim Crow. Instead, we got the One Drop Rule.

“Your half-brother, King Orm, is about to declare war upon the surface world. The only way to stop his war is for you to take your rightful place as King.”
-Mera

Growing up mixed (black/white) there were many white folks along the way who assured me of the post-racial fantasy: “everyone will look like you in fifty years,” or that “eventually everyone’s gonna fuck everyone else and we’ll all be some shade of brown.” I’ve heard a million variations of this sentiment from the young and old, all liberals. I even believed it myself for a number of years. I sort of wore the possibility of a mixed up future like a badge of pride. Like I made it to a lame party I knew would be bumping in a few hours. Even up to a few years ago I would get revved up about the multiracial possibilities ahead on the horizon the potential of multiracial men and women to be the bridge of understanding and unity between two races. Now it’s just frustrating. It’s cynicism masquerading as optimism. Just as the race relations in the world of Aquaman have reached a boiling point, so too have relations in our reality. Somehow this hasn’t produced an innovation in thought or problem-solving, rather we seem to cling all the stronger to the simplest solutions, the ones that let us feel good without exerting much thought or energy.

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Aquaman offers the same sort of racial catharsis that films like Green Book put forth. The antagonist is so backward and ignorant that they say egregious things like, “A half-breed mongrel dares to come and take the sacred relic of King Atlan?” providing a distinct image of ‘what a bigot looks like’ thus giving some audience members the sigh of relief, “That’s a bad person. That’s what a racist looks like?” The unspoken, yet understood sentiment is: Not Me.

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National Geographic: The Changing Face of America (2013)

 

My One Big Issue w/ Yu Yu Hakusho

Last month saw the release of the highly anticipated Jump Force, a fighting game ambitious enough to gather 30+ (playable) Shonen Jump All-Stars. I pre-ordered my copy and got to battling the day of the release. To my surprise, Jump Force was met with lukewarm reviews. It gets called out for its stiff character interactions and lack of coherent direction in the Story Mode. As a longtime fan of several Shonen Jump/Shuiesha titles, a major selling point for the game was getting Goku and Hisoka, or Gon and Yusuke, or Boruto and Luffy in the same place. To say their interactions leave something to be desired would be accurate. I can live with that though, my imagination is vivid and I can make up my own reasons for our heroes to duel.

The major, glaring flaw of Jump Force is the absence of playable female characters. There are three: Kaguya (Naruto: Shippuden, Rukia (Bleach), and Boa Hancock (One Piece). This means the men outnumber the women by a ratio of almost 10:1. Even with the list of DLC characters on the way, we see the addition of one more female character, Biscuit Krueger (Hunter X Hunter). Where’s Android 18 (Dragon Ball Z)? Sakura (Naruto)? Lisa Lisa (Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure)? Where’s Genkai (Yu Yu Hakusho)? WHERE’S GENKAI?!

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This was pretty much my issue with Yu Yu Hakusho: Poltergeist Report, the second theatrical film of the series. When the Spirit Realm is threatened by the reemergence of the Nether-Realm, a plane of existence which previously rested above the Demon Realm in the same way that the Spirit Realm rest above the Human Realm. This is all significant because the three gods of the Nether-Realm seek to co-opt our realm (the Human Realm) to remake their world. This of course means lots of death and destruction and carnage for humanity, starting with Tokyo. I rented an old U.S. Manga Corps. DVD so there was a quality drop from the remastered episodes on Hulu. Still, the film was entertaining. The events fall somewhere after the Dark Tournament and the Demon Realm arcs. Yusuke, Kuruma, Hiei, and Kuwabara have honed their fighting skills to extraordinary levels yet remain teenage boys in their emotional development. The animation really leaps in quality in the final fight producing some dazzling moments.

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The film seems fine with leaving its female characters on the sidelines. Botan, the Spirit Realm messenger/Cute Reaper, is almost exclusively shown battered in the arms of a comrade, Yukina and Keiko appear briefly before being injured as well. There is a fight between Genkai and Yakumo is fun but concludes quickly and takes Genkai out of the game for the rest of the film. And Shizuru isn’t even present…

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Poltergeist Report is a microcosm of my qualm with Yu Yu Hakusho, in that it relegates the women to catalyst roles that serve mostly to advance the development of the boys. Keiko is presented early on in the series as a friend turned romantic interest for Yusuke, and while she stays that way for the duration of the show’s 112 episodes, her screen time is limited to scenes where she plays the nervous cheerleader in Yusuke’s quest. Initially, Keiko is a needed tether to the life Yusuke moves away from in his service to the Spirit Realm. Unlike Yusuke, she isn’t whisked away from the life of a teenage student. She still has to manage the everyday and the mundane while the boys go on distant adventures. Personally, I don’t see her character as integral to the series, BUT if she’s going to be present, you’ve got to do more with her than clench her knuckles every time Yusuke gets himself involved in danger.

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Yukina is another missed opportunity. While she is the distant (and estranged) sister of Hiei, the two never have a moment to unpack this together. In fact, Yukina never discovers the truth even while several other characters do. Hiei decides not to tell her at the end of the series and within Poltergeist Report, Kuruma again asks why Hiei abstains from filling her in and is brushed off. Like Keiko, she is a spectator of several battles throughout the series though her actions are limited to nervous worrying.

Shizuru is a little different in that she uncovers latent clairvoyant abilities and is able to act as a medium in moments of otherworldly dangers. She’s written as mature, cool headed, stern yet compassionate, and always smoking (I know it’s bad for you but she looks so cool with a cigarette). Shizuru doesn’t fight but with her abilities she’s at least able to be more than another worried wreck.

Lastly, there’s Genkai or Ba-san (grandma). She is a wise mentor, a difficult teacher, a formidable fighter, and one of my favorite characters. When we first meet her, she falls into the old mentor role so common in shonen stories. She becomes so much more she fights alongside our heroes in the Dark Tournament. In fact, it is her history with the younger Toguro that forms the backbone of the arc and the motivation the team being there in the first place. Even after relinquishing her power to Yusuke for him to advance against Toguro, she’s still exceptionally formidable and able to tango with the baddest of fighters.

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That’s why it was such a disappointment when Poltergeist takes her out after her first fight, and why it’s such a disappointment that we don’t see her among the Jump Force lineup. Have we forgotten who taught Yusuke the ‘shotgun’ a technique where one balls up their fist releasing a scattershot of rei beams? Who went toe to toe with the brothers Toguro?

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Yu Yu Hakusho does so much right. It consistently shows us what positive male friendships and rivalries can look like, it honors the growth of a team over one (Goku-esque) hero who is usually the only hope of survival. It features a non-binary individual as a major character. The opening and ending themes have found their way into my regular rotation. Hell, I actually struggle to come up with characters I don’t like– usually it’s merely small facets of their character.

Obviously, I’m talking about a show nearly 30 years old at this point, so not a whole lot can come from my gripes but as we continue to see the release of new Shonen series like My Hero Acadamia that appeal to the same demographics and walk closely in the footsteps of Yu Yu Hakusho, it’s so imperative that we critique the ways in which the genre handles the women they present. Afterall, there are HELLA women that ride hard for all things Shonen. Just ask @blackgirlsanime!

Bombed Out / Undeterred: Stromboli

Ingrid Bergman the name without a face I knew for years, and often confused with famed director Ingmar Bergman. I believe her roles in the films of Roberto Rossellini (watched recently) have been my first experiences with her work. Actually, as I type this, I’m remembering that I saw Casablanca over a decade ago, and to be honest, all I remember is that I enjoyed Humphrey Bogart’s performance. With that said, her performances in the Italian Neorealism classics ‘Journey To Italy’ and ‘Stromboli’ were immensely enjoyable. Let’s talk about the latter.

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Stromboli opens with Karin (Bergman), a Lithuanian, in an interment camp. Charmed by Antonio (Mario Vitale) an Italian ex-POW fishermen who proposes to her with promises of returning to his home island of Stromboli to start a life together. Their marriage secures her release and together, they voyage to the island. Upon arrival, Karin is met with the harsh reality of life on the island. The year is 1944 and throughout the preceding decade many of the island’s inhabitants have migrated elsewhere, seemingly leaving only the most staunchly conservative residents on the island. Much of the structures, including Antonio’s previous home, are in disarray and in need of serious renovation. And to add to all this, the two have only a few dozen lire between them.

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Initially distressed and dismayed at her new life, Karin turns to an island priest with experience of the world outside of Stromboli, as a source of support. In time, Karin comes to embrace her surroundings. She renovates Antonio’s childhood home, attempts to make friends of her own, and regularly confers with the priest on marriage advice. Unfortunately, the island and its inhabitants are as resistant to her as she is to them. Many of the island women, especially the clergy, view Karin with disdain for her “lack of modesty.” They view her attempts remodeling her living room by painting floral displays and her friendliness with any male not her husband as an affront to their ways.

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The story is told through the eyes of Karin, though we are often asked to reflect on Antonio’s dismay. Unlike Karin who was shuffled from camp to camp across Europe during the second world war, Antonio has only ever left the island to fight in the war. He is simple and young with no worldly desires. He settles back into the humble life of a fisherman immediately after his return. While courting Karin, he tells her that he knows what kind of woman she is, that he understands her. In the moment, this feels like the sweet naivety audiences are accustomed to in romantic pictures. These two have survived the largest war of the century, surely a happy marriage is attainable. The assumption may be damning. Antonio receives Karin’s woes and financial worries as a mark on his home and heritage. It is clear that Karin’s struggle to assimilate distresses him, though he struggles to understand why.

The second and third act feature extended scenes of animal struggle meant to mirror the hopelessness and disconnect in Karin and Antonio’s marriage. First, we see Antonio bring home a pet ferret in the hopes of using it to catch game like rabbits. Joyfully, he displays the ferret’s hunting prowess with a live rabbit. Karin looks on in horror at the helplessness of the rabbit, seeing something of herself in the creature’s plight, while Antonio cackles in delight. This scene, along with the big fishing haul near the film’s climax, serve to highlight the chasm between the lovers. Antonio celebrates the haul as it will not only feed the village, they can sell the excess fish on the mainland to support the village. Karin, again, sees herself in the fish’s plight.

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Events escalate when Karin confirms she’s three months pregnant just hours before the island’s volcano erupts. The island inhabitants quickly rush to the boats and take to the sea for protection. Eventually, Karin and Antonio return to the island, though Karin has made up her mind. She tells Antonio that she can no longer bare life on the island, she is returning to the mainland. The film climaxes with Karin attempting to cross the island. Choosing to go up and over, she reaches the peak, stares down into the magma pit, and passes out in a fit of despair. She awakens with new resolve, vowing to God not to be defeated as she puts a hand to her belly. But by who? The island? Life?

Bergman’s performance was by far the most enjoyable part of this film. The fishing scene is extraordinary in that it is shot documentary style– those are real citizens of Stromboli and real fisherman. In fact, as per Neorealist style, most of the island’s inhabitants are not professional actors. The shot of the volcano’s eruption are dazzling and terrifying. Unfortunately, much of this movie dragged. While we understand the distance and aversion of the islands inhabitants have to Karin, we never get to know them. Rossellini writes them off quicker than Karin can. Also, Karin’s direction at the end of the film is vague.

3/5

Bombed Out / Undeterred: Paisan

Paisan (Paisà) is Italian slang for a fellow countryman, a compatriot.

It was the image of Joe (Dots Johnson), an African-American MP, and Pasquale (Alfonsino Pasca), an Italian child and ‘orphaned street urchin,’ that really put the hook in me. With just a few Italian Neorealist films under my belt, I saw a clip of the odd duo planting themselves atop a heap of rubble on the battered streets of Naples and knew this was one for me.

Any time any film before 1970  humanizes black actors, I want to know more. It lights up the hopelessly naive part of my brain eternally seeking some sort of racial reconciliation. This is probably why audience keep turning up for films like ‘Green Book’ despite their surface level and often antiquated reading of race relations– not to mention the controversy. Paisan is not one of these films. It’s actually six vignettes (roughly 20 mins each) about six sets of characters, Joe’s story being episode two. So let’s talk about it.

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Episode two takes us into the aftermath of the Allies capture of Naples (circa late 1944). A group of children roam the streets in search of materials to barter or sell. Pasquale, a young orphan, is presented with the opportunity of obtaining a ‘negro.’ *cringes* Tagging along with the other children, he soon meets Joe, a heavily inebriated American solider. Pulling Joe along, the two stroll through the garbage strewn streets of Naples before scaling a mound of rubble and discarded aluminum cans. Pasquale shows Joe his harmonica and Joe tries in vain to play, choosing instead to sing a verse from ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.’ In a drunken role-play, Joe takes Pasquale (who he refers to as Paisan) through an idealized version of Allied victory over the Axis powers. Not only does Joe assist in ultimately defeating the Axis powers, he’s personally congratulated by a general and flown back to New York City for a ticker tape parade. Joe’s not selfish, he tells Pasquale he can tag along as they visit Wall Street and Manhattan. In this scenario, he even offers to introduce Pasquale to New York City’s mayor.

As the minutes pass in episode two, it would be easy to look past Joe’s dark skin and see simply another G.I. physically and emotionally shaken by the second World War. Past the first mention of race when the children tell Pasquale he can sell a negro, race is not explicitly stated nor discussed, and yet it is this unique inclusion of an African-America from which the story derives its superior depth. The second world war was a brutal conflict that reshaped the entire world. Millions died fighting and millions more were crushed between the gears of its machinations. Despite unequivocal victory, tens of thousands of men returned home with what we now acknowledge to be PTSD. It was hard on everyone. But there is a particular bitter irony for African-Americans fighting in the war, just as there had been in the first World War, the Civil War, and nearly all wars stretching back to the American Revolution. History shows us that black veterans returning home from the second World War faced harassment, physical harm (including lynching), and were still barred from entering white restaurants, clubs, and schools.  The G.I. Bill which famously uplifted a whole generation, failed miserably at assisting blacks.

All of this to say, things aren’t looking good for Joe– and it shows. Starting out with great gusto, things peter out when reality sets in and Joe bemoans his return home with all the anguish one might expect from someone who sees war as something of a reprieve. “I don’t wanna go home. I don’t wanna go home. My home is nothing but an old shack. I don’t wanna play no more, Paisan,” he says, leaning back with all the fatigue in the world. In brutally honest moment of levity, Pasquale warns Joe not to pass out or he’ll steal his shows, and of course this happens.

“Looky here, America, what you done done? Let things drift until the riots come. Now your policemen let your mobs run free. I reckon you don’t care. Nothing about me. You tell me that HitIer is a mighty bad man. I guess he took lessons from the Ku Klux Klan. You tell me Mussolini’s got an evil heart. Well, it must have been in Beaumont that he had his start. Cause everything that HitIer and Mussolini do, Negroes get the same treatment from you. You Jim Crowed me before Hitler rose to power, and you’re still Jim Crowing me right now, this very hour. Yet you say we’re fighting for democracy. Then why don’t democracy include me? I ask you this question, cause I want to know. How long I got to fight both HitIer and Jim Crow?”
-Langston Hughes

The following day, we see Joe clean shaven in a taut, starched uniform of the Military Police. Joe once again has a chance encounter with Pasquale, eventually discovering that the orphan stole his shoes. Demanding to know where he lives and how to recover his stolen shoes, Joe makes Pasquale take him to his home. So the two take the Jeep and shortly after, arrive at a cave. Inside, Joe is stunned to see dozens of poor men and women hobbling together what little a life they can in the aftermath of the war. The slum strikes a cord with Joe, it pierces something deep inside him, and upon laying eye on the cave slum, Joe ceases the charge to retrieve his shoes and in the next scene he’s seen driving away.

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I must admit, pairing the downtrodden struggles of the post-war Italian poor and a black man returning to African-American ghettos of 1940s is a take I considered too nuanced for any non-black filmmaker of the era. Yet, here we are. The climax of episode two brought me to tears. The arc of understanding between an adult and child, black and Italian, with no common tongue between them is both subtle and bold. As soon as the episode finished, I knew I had a new favorite.

Bombed Out / Undeterred: Italian Neorealist Film

Switching gears, I want to talk about a subject outside of the traditional nerd realm: film, the stuff of olden day geeks. Italian Neorealism popped onto my radar some years back simply as the name of a style mimicked in Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep.’ I knew nothing about the genre but it appealed to my pretentious curiosity in that it was both foreign and intellectual. A few later, when I got into French New Wave for basically the same reasons. I scooped as many films as I could get my hands on; most were by Jean-Luc Godard. A spectacle for the eyes, his films often flew over my head, but they were also a  gateway into a style and vision wholly new to me as a film lover. So, even more years later, I took it upon myself to really get to know the works of Italian Neorealism.

What is Italian Neorealism?

“The proponents of this politically committed reaction to the glossy, studio-bound, Hollywood-influenced productions approved by Mussolini’s regime were determined to take their cameras to the streets, to neglected communities and their surroundings, to show the ‘real Italy’ in all its diversity. Here was a new kind of cinema, one that returned to its roots, a people’s cinema that chronicled the struggle against Nazism but also highlighted the hardship and upheaval of the post-war period.”
-Pasquale Iannone, Film Lecturer, writer and broadcaster, British Film Institute

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This meant a focus on the desolation of the Italian people and Italy itself in the years following the second World War. Scenes shot among the rubble and debris are a defining feature of genre. You would be hard pressed to find a Neorealist film where the characters are not strolling along war-torn avenues or climbing over lumps of shattered concrete. These films focused on issues of poverty and the every day life of the working class and poor. They were a meditation on the process of shifting away from fascism and the literal devastation left in its wake. Neorealist films did not shy away from subjects like infidelity, crime, and prostitution. Directors held a lens up to the seedier elements of society, previously concealed in Italian film during Mussolini’s reign (1922-1945).

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I’m attracted to these melancholic films because of their grainy texture and the undercurrents of rebirth. Seventy years after the fact, I know that by the end of the 1950s Italy’s economy will have bounced back and that nation will heal, physically and artistically, in the years to come. But Roberto Rossellini could not see into the future, neither could Alain Resnais or Vittorio De Sica. Standing the literal rubble of a world war, coming down from a twenty year fascist overdose, they saw through the destruction to another Italy, one still in its conception. Our modern era has seen a resurgence of violent hate crimes, racial and antisemitic, along with an ever increasing trend of authoritarian strong men taking power. As the modern era flirts dangerously with the follies of the mid-twentieth century, I look back to the anti-fascist artistic and political movements of the past for assurance, hope, and strategy.

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The next few post will be reviews for a few of my favorite Italian Neorealist films.

*PS~ Here’s a great (and quick) video essay by No Film School (video).

Cowboy Bebop Live Action & Casting

A few weeks ago, news of a long-awaited adaptation of the 90s cult classic, Cowboy Bebop, sent vibrations through the internet. Produced by Netflix with Shinichiro Watanabe (original director) serving as a ‘consultant,’ the show is slated to have 10 episodes in its debut.

Debates over the aesthetic, the acting, cultural considerations, and the direction of the shows semi-present story arc are sure to trickle out over the following months. Today, I want to talk about the casting, since this week the character breakdown list which included specific and non-specific directions casting the characters respective ethnicity.

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A quick bit about my history with Cowboy Bebop and why I’m excited to discuss these details. I bought the Session 1 DVD of Bebop at my local mall at the age of 13. I was immediately enraptured with it slick animation, its brooding tone paired with fast jazz and traditional blues, its mashing of races and cultures, and the litter of western pop-culture references and nods. A few months later when I’d collected all six DVDs, I re-watched the series, and then again, and again. I would say that by the time I graduated from high school, I had watched all 26 episodes and the movie upwards 15-20 times. Some of my favorite individual episodes pushed 50 viewings and I could recite some of the dialogue by heart. I watched the American premiere of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door‘ at Anime Expo 2002. To this day, Bebop remains my favorite short anime (Under 50 episodes– my own arbitrary way of categorizing).

I remember during the early 00’s when there was a very real possibility of Keanu Reeves helming a live-action adaptation, wherein he would play Spike Spiegel. Around that time, I was super into Constantine and The Matrix and could think of no better actor to assume the lead role. I mean that genuinely. At that point, Reeves was well accustomed to martial arts training and had worked under some of the best stunt coordinators in Hollywood. To add to that, he even possessed the look of the lanky, apathetic bounty hunter. And Reeves even claimed to be a huge fan of the source material, which as a young nerd was super important to me– he’ll be too invested to fuck it up, I thought. This was years before ‘Ghost in the Shell’ with Scarlett Johansson and a mainstream conversation on whitewashing in film. I was more invested in whether film could capture the rundown futuristic flavor of Bebop.

Years passed and no Bebop adaptation came. Every now and then I still see folks calling for Keanu to assume the role of Spike, which now seems silly since Reeves is 54 (and would play a 27 year old). I’d given up on the hope of every seeing Spike, Vicious, Faye, Julia, Ed, Jet, and Ein on the big screen… or at least my television. But everything moves in waves, especially the pop-culture we consume. So, let’s take a look at the casting descriptions and see why Netflix has in mind.

**No worries. Spoiler Free**

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Spike Spiegel

“An Asian (or partially Asian) man in his mid 20’s to mid 30’s and must have athletic ability. Spike is the young and handsome male lead with a body like Bruce Lee. His carefree demeanor hides a seriously dangerous individual. Spike is prone to shoot first and improvise, unlike his more serious partner Jet, but he gets the job done. Spike tries to hide his sensitive side but is a sucker for a damsel in distress and is haunted by his past.”

An Asian guy named Spike Spiegel? Odd, right? I would say, sort of. Traditionally, anime characters come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and unless specified, are assumed to be Japanese. Bebop, however, leaps regions and intentionally states that it features a clash of cultures. Spike even mentions his Martian birth in the first episode. Being that this is an adaptation of Japanese media, and given the recent backlash another Netflix adaptation received– Iron Fist, which features a white, martial artist protagonist in a predominately Asian setting, its safe bet that they (hopefully) learned and opted for an Asian lead.

In high school, my best friend would argue, convincingly so, that Spike is Jewish. My friend, of Jewish decent himself, pointed to Spikes unruly curls and the surname Spiegel. To this day, if you google ‘Spike Spiegel+Jewish’ it will reveal a wealth of message board debates and websites dedicated to uncovering this possible truth– like this one.

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Faye Valentine

“An Asian (or mixed heritage) woman in her early 20’s to mid 30’s and must have athletic ability. Faye is the female lead of the show. She is an attractive bounty hunter with a sharp tongue. She’s a survivor who will con anyone to get what she wants. Faye has no memory of her early life, including family or friends. So, even though she’ll never admit it, she likes working with the other members of the Bebop crew.”

Perhaps its the look of her hair and eyes, but Faye seems the most obvious to me. I’m not so cavalier as to pin any specific nationality to her background, but she reads Asian in her physical features.

I like that Netflix included ‘or mixed race,’ though that could be applied in problematic ways. Being multiracial myself, I’m all for greater representation of mixed folks, though I am anxious that we could end up getting a nearly white-passing actor.

Whoever they pick will carry the bulk of the show’s ‘sex-appeal’ while also portraying Faye’s tragically scattered past. That’s a tall order.

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Jet Black

“An African American (or partial African American) man in his mid 30’s to early 50’s. An ex-cop, Jet looks intimidating but is a softy at heart. He became fed up with the corrupt system, but he still catches criminals as a bounty hunter. While Jet believes in the law, he will always back up a friend. Occasionally, he will even relax and have fun.”

Honestly, this reveal solidified my interest in this project. As a teenager, it was a known and accepted FACT that Jet Black was… black. In that same way, that we know Max and Goofy are black. Yes, his skin color is light. Jet, if black, is hella light-skinned. Maybe it was his old head demeanor or his uncle vibes, but we just knew. I mean, you knew that when watching it in Japanese. Switch over to the English dub and Jet is voiced by black voice actor, Beau Billinslea– look at that melanin.

The direction casting is taking makes me so happy. Not only will it mean a black main character, but a black main character among a (potentially) Asian cast. How often does that happen? Seriously! How dope will that be?

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Radical Ed

14-year-old girl, must have athletic ability and short stature. Ed is a 14-year-old computer genius and expert hacker whose talents are indispensable. She is extremely energetic with a child-like wonder and is eccentric, bordering on the bizarre.

Interesting that no racial/ethnic direction is given. This seems like a great opportunity to cast an actress of Latinx, Arab, or South Asian decent. Ed’s brown skin and ambiguous backstory leaves the door wide open for all kinds of interpretation.

Surprise me, Netflix!

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Vicious

A man in his mid 20’s to mid 30’s of any ethnicity, with pale skin and white hair. Vicious is the merciless leader of the criminal organization known as the Syndicate. He will kill anyone who gets in the way of his business without a second thought.

To me, the casting of Vicious seems directly related to whoever they choose for Spike. If I had to bet, I would say one will be Caucasian and the other Asian. American pop culture loves to play on the whole ‘we’re not biological brothers, but we’re all the stronger because of a cross-cultural bond.’ I’m talkin’ out my ass here, but that’s my prediction. If they cast an Asian actor for Spike, then Vicious will be Caucasian, and vice versa.

Personally, both fit for me. Vicious isn’t derived of any cultural significance, nor are Vicious’ origins known. Whoever they cast better have a deep, brooding voice. That’s all I ask.

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Julia

“A woman in her mid 20’s to mid 30’s of any ethnicity. Julia is a sophisticated blonde damsel in distress that has a mysterious connection to Spike. She appears to him in visions and whispers to him about his past. The real Julia is the girlfriend of the merciless Syndicate leader Vicious.”

Lastly, we have Julia– of ‘any ethnicity.’ Personally, Julia has always read white to me but I think this is actually an opportunity to play around with her character. With the only requirement being that she maintains a blond head of hair, I ask, what about a brown skin Julia? Race is in no way integral to her backstory and the direction her arc takes. Why not give the show a bit more melanin?

Conclusion:

There will inevitably be debate, maybe even controversy when the cast is finally assembled– Will it be too white? Not Asian enough? As I said before, I hope that Netflix has learned from the mistakes of the live action Ghost in the Shell, and last year’s Death Note. This will undoubtedly be a show aimed at Western audiences, which while more diverse than Japanese audiences, are still very white. Fortunately, there’s more room for error than say a production of Akira or Spirited Away, which bear a great deal more significance to Japanese history and culture.

“Jazz agers, flower children, lost generation, beatniks, rockers, punks, nerds, hackers, lovers, Generation X – whatever the designation, there have always been outlaws in our society who live in pursuit of autonomy.

The year 2071 AD. That future is now. Driven out of their terrestrial Eden, humanity chose the stars as the final frontier. With the section-by-section collapse of the former nations, a mixed jumble of races and peoples came. They spread to the stars, taking with them the now confused concepts of freedom, violence, illegality

and love, where new rules and new generation of outlaws came into being. People referred to them as…”

Bebop, unlike most of its peers, overtly leans into multiculturalism, it thrives on it. In our current climate, where actors of color are pushing further and further into the mainstream, this presents a unique opportunity, one that I hope the creative team embraces.

I have got to say, these little details regarding the cast have got me hyped. I’m genuinely excited for whatever comes. Years back, I gave up my purist stance on the anime. I’m just excited for the potential of a whole new generation discovering Cowboy Bebop.

Until next time… See you, Space Cowboy.

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