Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Happy Cancer Chick - The Women Behind the Web Series - Part 3 of 3

We activists are fond of saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, and when it comes to the representation of Latinos in popular entertainment, the problem remains huge in 2013. 

Look no further than this past Sunday’s Oscar telecast.  In addition to overlooking prolific and gifted actress Lupe Ontiveros in the memoriam segment, Seth McFarlane’s “joke” about no one understanding nor caring what Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek says because they’re so hot had a dissertation full of fail. For example, Zoe Saldana – who co-presented earlier a technical award with former co-star Chris Pine a technical award doesn’t count as a Latina because… what exactly? She’s Black? She’s not hot? She doesn’t have an accent?  Or is she not hot because she’s Black? Because she’s doesn't have an accent? Or because she's Black and doesn't have an accent? 

See… layers upon layers of failure.  And let’s not forget the enduring and complex politics of casting most recently exemplified and further complicated by this year’s Best Picture ARGO.  These are only three examples of how little Latinos have come in fourteen years since the so-called Latin Pop Explosion. 

Lupe Ontiveros, 1942 - 2012

One way to be part of the solution is to seize control of our own images and independently produce media with whatever technology, capital, talent and other resources we have available. For two seasons, producers Jenny L. Saldaña and Linda Nieves-Powell did that with the web series Happy Cancer Chick. Read on in this third of three installments to discover how they exemplified another saying by inspirational writer Orison Swett Marden: Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great!"

SQ: Before HCC, Linda, you were well-known for theater and your novel Freestyle. What made you decide to realize this concept as a web series instead of, for example, a play such as YO SOY LATINA?

LNP:  I love writing.  Period.  I don't stay in one place for too long.  My first short story, The Fly Ass Puerto Rican Girl from the Stapleton Projects was just published in the Akashic Books anthology, Staten Island Noir.   I love to try new things and I'm not afraid of the learning curve when doing so.  I really wanted to try this out and now that I have, I think I'll produce more

SQ:  With two seasons under your belt, what advice do you have to others who may have an idea for a web series?

LNP:  Writing, whether it's on the web or TV or the stage is still key to a successful show.  Writing is the blueprint.  If it doesn't work on paper, it won't work at all. Season 2 I actually got hung up on this a lot.  I threw out a lot of ideas before finally feeling that the current format would be the best format to use.  I watch a variety of different webseries, some feature great actors, great writing, most have great intentions, but a lot are trying to mimic TV.  My favorite webseries is THE GUILD.  It's done really well and the content is perfect for the medium and demographic.  There are other series like THE MISADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL, that are about funny moments and less about story arc.   I think ABG structure is a great format for the web.  This isn't always easy. I'm story driven.   So for me, I have to learn to keep it shorter and sweeter but still have a great beginning, middle, and end.   I find that the ABG series is more about that moment.  I like that.  But I can't write like that.  My brain doesn't function in moments.  I need connect ideas and themes.  Stories have to be bigger for me.  So fitting my writing sensibilities into this tiny, quick format, requires me to build new skills and create ideas that will fit this format.  My overall advice is do it.  Just do it.  You won't know until you try.   And don't be afraid of  the unions like SAG/AFTRA or WGA.  Jenny and I were able to become members of the Writer's Guild Of America because of this series and several of our actors were able to join SAG through our little project.

SQ:  So what is next for you? HHC Season 3? Something else?  

JLS:  I think we've said all we've wanted to say with HCC. For right now the HCC is going to bed. I'm working on a book of short stories, and am really enjoying that process of reliving some of my college antics.

LNP:  Yes, we decided that we said everything we wanted to say about HCC for now.  If someone came along with an idea for future episodes, I'd think about it. For now, I've been developing a few projects the last few months, one for the stage and a few screenplays.  As for the web, I have a couple of ideas I'm developing.  One is very close to being finished. Now that I know the medium a little better I want to try a few things.  I find that I can now play in two worlds instead of one.  The web (new format) and the real world (traditional format).

Here are Parts I and II of my Q & A with the fierce women behind Happy Cancer Chick. In the meantime, you can check out all five webisodes here and on Facebook. And by all means, comment and share! 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"I Should've Been Motherfuckin' Black Mamba:" What the Poetic License of Quentin Tarantino Reveals about His Racial Politics

In the midst of all the online debates over DJANGO UNCHAINED, I had an epiphany.

It was inspired by something a gentleman had posted on a friend’s Facebook wall. He had written that he had listened to an NPR interview with Quentin Tarantino in early January where Tarantino described himself as amoral, said that he wanted to remake the 1966 film DJANGO and chose to set it during slavery because he needed a setting that was appropriate for the kind of violence he wants in his films. In other words, the gentleman concluded, “It is the violence [for Tarantino] that is cathartic. It’s not a matter of principle, but a matter of violent reaction, revenge. He is using our story for his get-off…” 

Of all the takes on DJANGO UNCHAINED and Tarantino’s intentions for creating it, this is the one that has stuck with me most.  I have very mixed feelings about his films and major issues with the man himself that would require another post to elaborate.  Not yet having seen DJANGO UNCHAINED, I’ve only lurked discussions except to comment on the filmmaker based on things he himself has said. You know, shit like this everything-but-the-burden comment about his past lives to BRITISH GQ:

“I know I must have been a writer in a few other lives. I know I was a black slave in America. I think maybe even like three lives. Yeah, I know that. And I know that I was Japanese in another life and I was Chinese in another life."  

So even though I have yet to see DJANGO UNCHAINED, comments like these made this fellow’s theory about what really drives Tarantino as a filmmaker resonate.

Then I woke up one morning and realized that all the understanding we need regarding the intersection of Tarantino’s racial politics and artistic impulses can be found in one line from KILL BILL VOL 1.

I should've been motherfuckin' Black Mamba. 

I’m no stranger to the use of poetic license. But license not only engenders responsibility, it also casts more transparency than even the most deliberate artist may realize. Whether a media maker is aware of the deeper motivations influencing the way s/he wields poetic license is irrelevant. Poetic license is gonna tell on you.

And what does the Black Mamba moment say about QT? 

Let me ask you this.

Do you think for a second in the Real World Vernita Green wouldn’t have been Black Mamba?

On the surface, it’s a hilarious line. An effective one, too, saying a great deal about not only Vernita and Beatrix’s relationship but also about their respective standing in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.  And that's precisely why it’s bullshit. It reveals that when it comes to race, Quentin Tarantino just ain’t that fuckin’ knowledgeable or deep, er, his past life as an enslaved African in the United States notwithstanding.

For all the racial messiness that often insidiously permeates even the most progressive of multicultural organizations, there’s no way that a woman like Vernita would have allowed Beatrix to take on the moniker of Black Mamba. No. Freakin’. Way. Beatrix could’ve been turning Bill out three times a day and all-day Sunday. Never would’ve happened. The minute Blondie would’ve piped up at the meeting talkin’bout, “I wanna be Black Mamba,” Vernita would’ve said – say it with me – …

“Bitch, please. I’m motherfuckin’ Black Mamba.”

And that would’ve been the end of that. She either would’ve been Black Mamba or she would’ve been out. With the skills she had, Vernita had plenty of opportunities in the underground economy to bounce to an organization where this never would’ve been a question.  The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, after all, is not a member of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. Or the left for that matter.

The fact that Vernita Green was not Black Mamba and is sore enough still so many years later to even mention it is proof-positive to the extent Tarantino will flex his poetic license to pursue the superficial laugh at the expense of accuracy.  “I should’ve been Black Mamba” reveals he either has a flimsy understanding of how racial dynamics play out in an organization or doesn’t care about depicting those dynamics accurately.  Rather he only wants to approximate the truth to that delicate point where it can be named without being disrupted. Therein lies the shits and giggles for him, and the rest of us if we don’t give it a second thought. The bottom line: it was far more important to Tarantino to solidify the Bride’s superiority over Vernita, physical and racial, and for that superiority to be so obvious and impervious, the Black woman is the one who has to complain about it.

Don’t even get me started on the shit that comes out of Tracie Thom's mouth in DEATH PROOF.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing Hop: the traveling blog that asks authors whom they consider the NEXT BIG THING, and then has them pass along the questions for those authors to answer in their blogs.

I'm flattered to have been tagged by Zetta Elliot whose blog you can read here. Rules: Answer ten questions about your current Work In Progress on your blog. Tag five writers / bloggers and add links to their pages so we can hop along to them next.

What is the working title of your book…
My current work in progress is my second young adult novel SHOW AND PROVE. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The novel is set in the summer of 1983 in New York City, and I’ve been incubating on it…. Well, for thirty years!  At that age, I was writing novel-length stories capturing my observations and experiences, and hip-hop culture was a major part of that.  This was at that time when hip-hop was proving to have staying power and was starting to reflect more social commentary with songs like THE MESSAGE and Run DMC’s first few singles like IT’S LIKE THAT. 


What genre does your book fall under?
Other than to say YA i.e. young adult fiction, I honestly don’t know what the subgenre is named.  Maybe some of you reading this can tell me. I’ve posted an excerpt to give you a taste.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is tough for me to answer because I’m not very familiar with who are the visible young actors of the day. I might if I watched the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, but I don’t. To be transparent, I doubt that even if I did, I would find actors who fit the way I envision my characters. There are so few young actors of color who work consistently, and most who are given an opportunity to do so because they can cross over to White audiences. There’s a certain edge they either don’t have or are compelled to hide.  

When I write SHOW AND PROVE, the movie in mind casts actual young people I encounter in New York City. The best I can do here is (1) take suggestions from those of you who are reading this and (2) approximate which adults I could have imagined playing these characters if they were the right age.  Ever since I saw DRUMLINE, for example, I’ve seen a young Nick Cannon. Same with Victor Rasuk in the role of Nike whenever I watch RAISING VICTOR VARGAS.  And because Cookie is an athletic Afro-Latina I see Zoe Saldaña.


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Set in the summer of 1983 in New York City, two young men reach a crossroads in their friendship as they struggle to come of age without drifting apart. 
Honestly, I think this needs work. 
It’s true but not accurate or compelling.
I mean, if you were a teen, would you read it based on this?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
SHOW AND PROVE is going to be published by Alfred A. Knopf.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Years. I began actually writing it in 2010 after the publication of my first young adult novel EFRAIN’S SECRET. However, like I said, this story’s been incubating since I was twelve, thirteen years old. I just submitted to my editor what I call a “zero draft.” Not everything that needs to be there is on the page yet, but there was enough story for me to need direction as to what might be missing, underdeveloped or even overdone.  I’ll consider my next draft a true first draft.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
This is tough. When choosing what to write about, I usually think, “What’s the book that I’d want to read that doesn’t already exist?” I don’t know of any stories set in the 80s that interweave the hip-hop culture and the social and political events of the time into the unfolding of the characters’ lives. I also use a great deal of vernacular – slang as it was spoken – in my work and especially in this novel.  With respect to tone, I would say it’s similar to the works of Paul Volponi and Rita Williams-Garcia and adult novelists like Abraham Rodriguez and Richard Price.  Not saying that my work is as good as any of theirs, just sayin’….

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I liked the idea of creating a literary time capsule of my adolescence.  My own experience as a kid who attended a summer day camp in the South Bronx was filled with colorful characters and indelible events that I actually think are pretty universal.  I’m also compelled by the notion of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. With every draft of the novel, I discover more elements that bring this idea into sharper focus. It’s fascinating.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My hope is that this book will not only pique young readers but also the parents, teachers and other adults in their lives who might’ve come of age at that time.  It’s a novel that I hope they’ll read and discuss together and even bond over as they explore, again, how things have changed and how they haven’t.
You can read an excerpt of SHOW AND PROVE here.
Below are my tags of other authors: