Category: Reviews

On ‘Savages’ and ‘End of Watch’

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Photo Credit: The New York Times

THE NARCO-WARS of today have begun to see the big screen. Oliver Stone’s recent release Savages sets itself inside the designer dope game, where special strains of West Coast Buddha produced by a biochemist and his war-vet buddy, provides Cali’s connoisseurs with highs that elicit particular moods and experiences so good that it threatens the dominance of a powerful Mexican cartel. David Ayer’s End of Watch has two Los Angeles street cops exposing how a connection between gangs, their street politics, a narco cartel and a human traffic chain are interrelated, and places them in a predicament. End of Watch also makes a brief mention of the tensions between the immediacy of local police concerns and the longer-term goals of federal-level law enforcement operations. (E.G. Patiently moving to dismantle an entire network, versus busting up the low-hangning fruit involved in lower level illegal activity.)

Savages and End of Watch are somewhat a rarity in the prevalence of the movies of now, since most recent drug-crime flicks are about the past, like Blow and American Gangster, which were history-based retrospectives and period-pieces, though not in the Merchant Ivory film way. Savages is a somewhat fantastical soap-opera look at the drug operations of West Coast weed distributors and their barbarism (hence “savages”), with both sides, one Californian; the other Mexican, performing superlative acts of violence. It’s narrated by a young Orange County girl, the Shakespearean, “Ophelia,” who is the third node in an open love triangle between her, a Cal Berkeley world-saver, biochemist grower, and a former soldier in the War on Terror. They all just so happen to accept and love each other and are legitimately friends who run a multi-million dollar bud business, but become ensconced in a literal hostile takeover that leaves the bodies of those crucial to a rival Mexican cartel in their wake.

End of Watch, the better of the two films — because there is none of Oliver Stone’s funny, but slightly ridiculous sense of humor, or an unfocused plot — is a half-cinematic experience, and half first-person, cinema verité ride; because of a plot that features a young war vet, beat cop, who films his outings for a graduate-level course. End of Watch is equally gruesome in its portrayal of the life out there affected by cross-border cartels, especially focusing on the viciousness of their tactics and their reach into local communities via gangs, deployed to exact revenge; which falls upon the two officers. What makes End of Watch is its portrayal of the partners, as they are made heroes for numerous acts of valor and are great friends, committed to each other in the way cops are, sharing their lives while trapped in an L.A.P.D. black-and-white. The film follows them on routine community-relations duties, saving babies from burning homes and whatnot, as well as responding to backup calls and involved in crazy urban shootouts.

End of Watch owes its existence and success to David Ayer, a director whose produced several works on Los Angeles’s gang and street life, most notably, Training Day. Ayer, who partially grew up on Los Angeles’s mean streets, is able to effectively capture the banter and camaraderie between two cops in the midst of an ongoing battle for civility in the city. It’s a camaraderie that is not unlike that of soldiers in the battlefields of now, when speaking of a frequently-engaged L.A.P.D. unit like Rampart, where Ayer’s two cops: one white, a graduate student and single; the other, Latino, responsible and married, both highly skilled at their job, working in what is a battle space between gangs, drug dealers, hustlers and the police. It’s also the place where they kick up plenty of dust and rile hornets’ nests for fun.

Both Savages and End of Watch are rides submerged in violence and testosterone, that are strong portrayals with different aims. End of Watch’s goal appears to be to produce a glowing, apolitical tome to service and the partnership and brotherhood of cops within the cold worlds they inhabit, amid the toughest assignment and division of the L.A.P.D. Savages is an epic discussion of the mind state of those in the cannabis game and cartel bosses’ lives in the upper-reaches, that is only halfway-to-great. However, both do not disappoint in providing a fairly true portrayal of a world which happens right beneath our noses, outside our doors, or at the production end of the “broccoli” our nation and particularly the West Coast consumes to a degree that — unless nationwide legalization occurs — we’ll see the continuing violence and ugly influence of.

Read a review of Savages [Here]

Read an interview with End of Watch‘s David Ayer at the New York Times [Here]

Read a review of End of Watch at the New York Times [Here]

On ‘The Wire,’ Season 1

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DOING THIS six years late, particularly after these recent remarks*, reminds me (somewhat) of, how as a condition of certain behavioral treatments and recovery from addiction, people attempt to rectify the things they said and did, when they weren’t on the straight and narrow, with a mere apology — sometimes adding full acts of contrition — only to find those harmed or offended holding misgivings about full-hearted forgiveness. While it’s not that dramatic, with considerations to my political and cultural interests and erstwhile sociopolitical musings, not having uttered a word-processed sentence on The Wire is a sin of omission unfathomable.

Reviewing David Simon’s and Ed Burn’s drug war opera seems imperative to me, because it covers just so much of our contemporary sociological issues. As a series it’s so sweeping in its legal, institutional, criminal, surveillance and law enforcement scope that it has no equal. Though similarly formatted “wide-angled,” examining procedurals in Britain (Traffik) and Canada (Intelligence), provided similar investment-payoff ratios and edification on social matters. It even might be belonging to that unquantifiably volleyed title “best television show ever.” It may not be the most exciting show and certainly it was not the most watched in history, at first — with its revere largely cordoned-off by gender, education level and those with premium cable, along with a “media intelligentsia” and “intellectual snob” variety who we snicker at — but it is probably the best combination of an ambitious, entertaining, dramatic but accessible work on one of the greatest public policy debates of these times.


The series opens with Jimmy McNulty an on-the-outs, swashbuckling Baltimore homocide detective sauntering into a city courthouse to observe a ruling on defendant D’Angelo Barksdale, a nephew of yet-known East Baltimore drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale, in a homocide case. D’Angelo is found innocent — skating on a murder wrap under odd circumstances — when the state’s key witness amends prior statements while on the stand, leaving Barksdale sliding off into the sun. (And back to slinging again as a street-level manager in East Baltimore’s deadliest housing project.)

McNulty, in turn, being a crusading Don Quixote, striving for absolute right to be done in his professional world, is frustrated by the outcome. Because, beyond justice, McNulty’s personal life is a just-stepped-on pressure-plate attached to an I.E.D. of his own making. His wife’s divorced him and hectors him, he drinks the night away, and due to his long hours, he barely sees his sons. He’s basically looking and feeling like a fuck-up. In Baltimore’s world of overworked murder case-crackers, however, McNulty, is “good poh-leece,” something uttered in the series with a colloquial cadence, as a complimentary title ascribed to the get-it-done-right cops.

McNulty, on a hunch and with the bad taste of the ruling concerning D’Angelo Barksdale, decides he should enlist an old friend: a judge, who to the judge’s political detriment agrees to green-light a sprawling investigation, culling a rag-tag bunch from across the divisions of the department to look into D’Angelo’s uncle, Avon Barksdale, and his associates, all on the possibility of intimidation of a state’s witness in a murder trial: Ordered by a man who oversees a narcotics ring in a housing project, and whose enterprise carries several murders to its name.

From there, the onion layers peel by the episode. Over thirteen chapters, the Barksdale’s criminal and economic influence — totaling in the double-digit millions in East Baltimore’s dope trade and washed in and by multiple fronts — sketches a complex, multi-generational drug operation where viewers become witness to their keen abilities to elude law enforcement, sell in public, produce counter-surveillance and prosecute Baltimore’s street code.

Told through season one’s arc are the “inside baseball” games of Baltimore’s police: As they work within a counterproductive results-based tracking of cases that simply focus on the rate of “clearances” (closed cases), and creates internal and city-wide political pressures which thwart honest police work by lazy and case-trading officers, worried about their own clearance rate numbers and careers. It’s just as if the constant standardized testing in schools, that takes away from lasting teaching**, had been moved on to law enforcement.

Viewers of The Wire are also privy to a less-flattering depiction of the everyday work-life disposition of detectives who disdain truly grueling investigative work, and avoid prima facie unsolvable cases, not-so-affectionately referred to as “Whodunits,” which are frowned upon by division heads. Since those cases consume inordinate amounts of time and are no stop-gap against the cascade of murders in a murder-rich environment. The Wire also demonstrates how interwoven personal ambitions can hurt what small progress and peace can be achieved on the streets through policing, as much as incompetence and a constellation of long set-in institutional dysfunctions.

Of the many strengths of its inaugural season is a feat that its forerunner in H.B.O.’s acclaimed flagships of original programming, The Sopranos, had achieved; which is to humanize the believed to be utterly despicable high-level criminal. Just as we saw the smarts and skills necessary to juggle family dynamics and crime with Tony Soprano, the audience of The Wire similarly bears witness to D’Angelo Barksdale and the operation’s kingpin, Avon Barksdale, along with the sharply cerebral lieutenant, Stringer Bell.

Watching The Wire is a Rorschach test on personal perspective. For those 17-year-olds who watch Cocaine Cowboys with a romantic awe and aspirationally bounce to Rick Ross and The Clipse, it is another engrossing Grand Theft Auto-ish way to escape the mundane aspects of life. For politicos or ideas and information consumers, it is a confirmation of data parrotted over the last two decades about just how much is wrong with drug enforcement policy. For the lay, who are less plugged into the realities of an American criminal underclass, at both the popular culture level, and as the targets of actual policy; this show could simply be a Bible on the matter.

And for those in the intersections who hold a reformist’s bent towards what is quickly being the nation’s least talked about, most important domestic issue, aside from security, though they are entwined, the first season of The Wire is a realization of just how much must happen — just how many pieces of a puzzle must fall into place — in order to achieve significant results against the tide of illicit drug markets. But, real shit, no matter who watches The Wire, they will know that the War on Drugs has failed, and they will know it intuitively, without a political harangue being bellowed between the lines of its characters.

According to the Pew Research Center in a study conducted eleven years ago, 74% of Americans agreed with the statement “We are losing the drug war” and 74% also agreed with the statement “Demand is so high we will never stop use.” In 2012, it’s hard to imagine people would agree less. The amount of incarcerations in the war has amounted to nothing but a war on minorities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice data in 2011** supports this. In December 2011, the estimated percentage of blacks incarcerated on drug sentences at the state level was 21.1% of the total population of state prisons, and 19.5% of the estimated total number of those incarcerated on drug offenses at state prisons were Latino.

Prisoners under federal jurisdiction who were sentenced on drug offenses in 2009 amounted to 96, 735 and 94,472 in 2010. Those federal drug incarcerations dwarf the next highest category of incarcerations for those same years, public order offenses, a category which comprises immigration crimes, weapons charges and a miscellaneous “other,” that amounted to 63,714 in 2009 and 65,873 in 2010. A New York Times op-ed titled “Numbers Tell Failure of Drug War,” from July, further hammers the unnecessarily high incarcerations rate home:

And the domestic costs are enormous, too. Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations. Four out of five arrests were for possession. Nearly half were for possession of often-tiny amounts of marijuana.

Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York, told me that processing each of the roughly 85,000 arrests for drug misdemeanors in New York City last year cost the city $1,500 to $2,000. And that is just the cost to the budget. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly black and poor, are unable to get a job, a credit card or even an apartment to rent because of the lasting stigma of a criminal record for carrying an ounce of marijuana.

There’s just no other way around it, in analyzing that data, or watching The Wire, that one cannot see that this war is a futile endeavor. As the end of The Wire‘s inaugural season notes, following a 13-hour — in viewer’s time — painstaking dragnet that lands a kingpin and his third in command, into custody. Yet little changes on the street: Another generation of youth who grew up as junior associates in Barksdale’s company happily move up the organizational ladder in reward for their willingness to commit rather gruesome acts; all of them perfectly trained in what is not much different than an internship, only the lessons are in the drug economy. The young bucks who take the hard lessons from their imprisoned boss, and the new leadership, keep the wheels of narcotics sales moving just like a corporation in post-crisis; holding true to their foot soldier status and newly-appointed mid-level manager positions, in a literal cut-throat industry.

In its present day of 2002; a decade ago, now, The Wire‘s first season served as a journalistically-mirrored artist’s depiction. But not much has changed in the very world it attempts to accurately portray with passion and a journalist’s scope. It’s a meditation on many of the Drug War’s fronts still suspended in time, preserved in amber; a fossil of urban decay and the permanency of the institutional failures of then, which are so wholly indistinguishable from the now. It might as well be a time capsule from last week in many cities.

The neighborhoods in our poorest communities are stocked with kids from families who’ve done nothing but sell and hustle drugs in someway — as D’Angelo Barksdale points out in one scene, laying out the matrix of his notorious and multigenerational family business – all of whom with no real hope to be on the legitimate path, mostly due to a generation of draconian incarceration policy, financially abandoned communities and failed educational systems. And so they are left to embrace the only opportunity they believe they have to make it in the world. For them the drug game is the company in their company town.

The takeaway from season one isn’t a shining coat of arms for cops, Baltimore or the American central city. It’s an indictment of the War on Drugs policy’s once-good intentions becoming that platitude of a “path to hell.” From the many failures of policing to the unfortunate and disconnected, deeply segregated communities that sprang up in housing projects becoming a lesson on what not to do in law enforcement and urban planning, season one of The Wire is an examination of what can be done to effect small change, while not ever truly dismantling illegal drug markets.

And to be frank, it is hard to grasp what the objective of the War on Drugs was other than to curtail abuse and sale, since outright eradication seems ridiculously unrealistic. You soon realize in watching The Wire that what the War on Drugs is now, can’t remotely be the objective; producing an unending loop of incarcerations and escalating violence.

The War’s blowback is counterproductively providing life-support to all kinds of ills from global terrorism (which networks use the sale of drugs to fund), to the reason for the grotesquely violent narco-terror. It’s also the lifeblood for all sorts of gangs and the interrelated nodes in the points of criminality in-between these categories: from the elastic murder figures of some cities, to, partially, why there are so many guns on the streets. Because one of the most common ways to make money on the streets is the drug sales. And the trade’s most important personal defense tool against the risk posed by other drug pushers, and addicts on a hunt to catch an easy fix, is the handgun.

Further, the war is exactly why there’s so much money involved and why the stakes are so high. Because — to bring in the fundamentals of supply and demand economics — the drugs are not so hard to secure and their demand isn’t remotely in danger of drought; it’s then safe to presume that the inherent risks involved are what make for the cartoon amounts of muscle and firepower. It’s the cost of conducting business, and the stakes rise with every successively higher level of product and dealing that dealers commit to. These paragraphs from “Numbers Tell Failure of the Drug War” are precise:

Yet the presidential elections on both sides of the border offer a unique opportunity to re-examine the central flaws of the two countries’ strategy against illegal narcotics. Its threadbare victories — a drug seizure here, a captured kingpin there — pale against its cost in blood and treasure. And its collateral damage, measured in terms of social harm, has become too intense to ignore.

Most important, conceived to eradicate the illegal drug market, the war on drugs cannot be won. Once they understand this, the Mexican and American governments may consider refocusing their strategies to take aim at what really matters: the health and security of their citizens, communities and nations.

Prices match supply with demand. If the supply of an illicit drug were to fall, say because the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped it from reaching the nation’s shores, we should expect its price to go up.

That is not what happened with cocaine. Despite billions spent on measures from spraying coca fields high in the Andes to jailing local dealers in Miami or Washington, a gram of cocaine cost about 16 percent less last year than it did in 2001. The drop is similar for heroin and methamphetamine. The only drug that has not experienced a significant fall in price is marijuana.

And it’s not as if we’ve lost our taste for the stuff, either. About 40 percent of high school seniors admit to having taken some illegal drug in the last year — up from 30 percent two decades ago, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The use of hard drugs, meanwhile, has remained roughly stable over the last two decades, rising by a few percentage points in the 1990s and declining by a few percentage points over the last decade, with consumption patterns moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.

A pithy observation to glean from The Wire‘s opening act is the cunning and intelligence needed to run a high-level drug ring. The logistics, the precautions against an in-place legal framework, the robust investigation methods and resources, the unpredictable human element, which is wildly inconsistent, due to the involvement in one of the highest stakes businesses around; it seems if all things were equal, and if participants were once steered toward another path in a different environment, many of these fictional characters would’ve succeeded somewhere else in life, on much more linear paths. And it’s easy to assume that this would be true for those involved in the actual drug trade, outside of the capsule of an Ed Burns and David Simon teleplay, since The Wire isn’t some fantastical display of police cunning and truly daft criminals. It is a portrayal of humble triumph achieved at the hands of many smart police and well-honed investigation methods, over institutional dysfunctions, and a local drug franchise weighed down by human variables. And even then, that operation wasn’t dismantled.

It’s obvious that the economically downtrodden communities with nothing to lose tend to have more visible drug abuse — in the form of open sale — and are more actively policed. But what’s especially awful is that the victims of the War on Drugs are victims of the system already, before they even take on the trade, and so the war is in effect a double-whammy. As these are the working-class and poor, suffering from the generational divestment in the inner-cities, outsourcing, the loss of jobs due to increasing computerization efficiency, widening education gaps, a digital divide, and the outright death of American manufacturing, all ripping a hole into the lower-ends of the American economy.

That inequality only creates incentive to use as a way to cope, or for them to participate in an otherwise booming, recession-proof, tax-free business, with low-entry risk, but which also happens to act as a trap. Any “War on Drugs,” would generally be in some way a war on the poor. Sure there’s some rhetoric in there; but the entire War on Drugs enterprise has only provided a shaky amount of justification and far too many inconsistencies. (Such as the once-active sentencing disparities — amended by President Obama through the Fair Sentencing Act  –  in powder cocaine sentences and the more urban-consumed crack, which lead crack offenders facing a penalty that was equivalent to 100x times the carry-weight of cocaine.)

And much like in The Wire, in real life, there is pressure for law enforcement to “put drugs on the table,” meaning show the fruits of drug busts garnered from stash house raids and the like, in order to win the very obvious political game of police captains and mayors. The war has just been far too narrow, focusing on small-time busts rather than the elevated and out-of-reach kingpins. If wars, as one of the younger detectives in the first season notes, have a beginning and end, then this hopeless undertaking is no war at all.

Such as the “War on Poverty” or “War on Terror,” it is a twilight struggle, but unlike the one geared towards poverty, as a social policy it has mostly wreaked havoc, and you could argue the same about the War on Terror. But this war has not provided any tangible evidence of enough of actual lives saved, or of order being upheld, or even established. To merit its continuance in the way it is currently constructed, seems illogical.

Add to it all the yet mentioned: mandatory sentencing, a lack of drug education, porous borders that facilitate trafficking, our open society (whose unintended consequences) has greased the rails for smuggling operations; the shame our culture places on those affected by drugs, our aversion to focusing on prevention — along with a lack of focus on treatment — and finally the prison-industrial complex, which have all placed the nation in this awful place. No family, community or city has been left untouched, it seems. The Wire hits on so many of these elements in just its first stanza, as it connects the dots, while providing a tertiary experience in the form of a dramatic arc, for all those informed, and those with a mere passing knowledge of what has gone on in the American city and law enforcement policy for the last three decades.

In my defense to David Simon’s protestations and “weariness” about the whole cottage industry of blogging concerning The Wire; as a “blogger”/writer on the topic, I was too young and in college during The Wire‘s early run. And I further argue, blogging about The Wire without the totality of my education in sociology and political science, any writing wouldn’t have been skillfully executed. As he argues, the series really does not pay out in the minutia or end-of-season calculus, but does so in the sum-of-its-parts, it’s Gestalt.

** Right table, “Standardized Testing : Con,” bullet points 4-7.

*** The report was edited and updated in February of 2012.

On ‘Chiefs’

I’VE been developing a perhaps misguided but devout belief that basketball’s culture — its general milieu — is the most sociologically observant, tolerant (though taken with a grain of salt, since it is perhaps as homophobic as any other male-dominated arena), and socially liberal of all the four major sports. (As anecdotal evidence: women’s college hoops is perhaps the most prominent and male supported of any female sport.) For one, basketball, though started in the environs of the Illinois countryside by Dr. Nasmith, has become a sport almost wholly linked to the urban experience due to the role-modeling of cohorts of basketball families and the urban planning of many populous cities who created public parks that included basketball courts as central to their arrangement, and the fact that the game is thusly cheaper than baseball or football, comparatively, both of which require more persons and equipment to play with any kind of intensity.

Basketball, particularly in cities, only requires a ball, and you can essentially become above average in the sport just by practicing all by your lonesome. But I believe the game truly excels because it is inclusive in every way, from cost to numbers needed to play: any number of multiples can play through the playground game “21,” and so it is in some sense perfect for the urban environment. And even if a city-dweller doesn’t have a basketball court planned and erected near their community; with just a bit of industriousness one could in short notice produce a makeshift basketball court as the now famous images of bottomed-out, milk-crate hoops hanging off light-poles and telephone-poles, implies.


These sociological factors in concert have made basketball a draw for particular demographics: the young, urban and generally liberal — since urbanism tends to create socially liberal dispositions — at every level. While, yes, you can still have a Bobby Knight and/or Rick Majerus, a man who once infamously said that he wouldn’t recruit players who wore earrings, and then there were the Adolph Rupps of the world, who were unapologetic bigots, modern basketball has been dominated by its awareness that its players often have come from sometimes very difficult and different backgrounds, and to be successful as a coach, general manager, or league official of almost any kind at any level, it is necessary to have an understanding of this.

This is the backdrop of the basketball documentary Chiefs, which followed a perennial high-school championship basketball team with a legendary coach, who all hail from a reservation in Wyoming, for two seasons of state title contention in the late 1990s. While the film was about the young boys’ love of the game and their First Nation’s community’s commitment and sense of pride about their squad, it was also a peer into their family lives and the cloister and pitfalls of life on the reservation; often echoing the same struggles of the urban ghetto, and it makes the film a fitting bookend to the seminal basketball documentary that every hoops’ doc is ultimately compared to, Hoop Dreams. In both films, the shared story of a hard-scrabbled existence for some truly great prep-level players is exposed for all the world to see, and they are only separated by geography. The reservations’ problems were what as seen as the characteristically “urban problems” of Chicago in Hoop Dreams.

Throughout the nearly two hours, one is also given the requisite run-down of generational plight, the cycle of poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse, and the historically low expectations that has befallen the Native American community as a result of a “separate and unequal” program that has ravaged the lot of several of their generations of potential human capital. The film particularly tracks a young star swingman during his senior year and his year following graduation, where he experiences the personal turmoil of his existence — through some fault of his own — and his decisions concerning his future, with the expectation that he is one of the kids who could “make it out” of the situation that his people have been mired in.

The film also simultaneously follows another subject, a model citizen, who provides the counterbalance to the oft-told story of local reservation kids not seizing and mobilizing the opportunities they are given. Both stories are essential to the documentary and produce an ethnographic understanding of what it means to be a young male on a reservation, who is looked to as the pride of the community because of its rich basketball legacy, and who is saddled with great expectations. Chiefs was powerful because its lens was the game that is so important to these young men, but its message was more about what the game could particularly do for them in regards to their social mobility, if they chose to exploit it.

The First Public Embroglio of Allen Iverson

Photo Credit: Daily Press

AT least half of the (listed): 6’0, 165 pound, shooting guard, now-prematurely-retried-for-reasons-of-pride, Allen Iverson’s legacy; is wrapped in an everlasting bifurcating air of controversy. It is to the point that saying the formerly great gunner’s name in a sports culture so toxic that even a sanguine personality like Magic Johnson’s would’ve found it hard to survive all the slings and arrows from the fans and media, will generally conjure ill-will or a child-like fascination with his on-court ability and lasting cultural impact of cornrows, shooting sleeves, a go-to crossover, [at least] three pairs of classic Reeboks, and an air of unabiding strong-mindedness. Any middle ground between an ill-will towards him or “fascination” with his game, exists merely on the margins.

How this came to be is partly on Allen Iverson, and as mentioned, partly on the culture that has spawned around sports since the 1990s and its every-minute-of-play examined, every rumor explored, dissecting radio stations, filled with primarily white patronages who provide a seemingly only petulant, one-sided voice to fans and further charge the environment with their sometimes venomous talking heads. (There is in some sense a parallel in this environment to right-wing radio, with figures who are purposefully spiteful by trade.) It is a place where the feeling among them is: “We can go hard at them (pro-athletes), because they’re all arrogant, undeserving millionaires.” Iverson is a victim of this, in a small way. But the role Allen Iverson has played in his sometimes unflattering perception, feeding into the nasty elements of the sports environment megalith, should not be underplayed, as it partly stems all the way back to his roots and an incident he experienced as a kid in Hampton, Virgina, where he learned that he had to be as hard as the times he lived early on, and to always appear bulletproof.

I have been making a point to watch E.S.P.N.’s outstanding documentary series, 30 for 30, which commemorates the cable sports news network’s three decades of existence. Nearing the eve of this year’s N.B.A. playoffs, E.S.P.N. aired their latest installment, “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson.” The film by Steve James of Hoop Dreams, a native of Hampton, Virginia — the very same town that Iverson grew up in — and a man who attended the very same high school years earlier, and who is the son of a Bethel High fanatic that rooted for Iverson’s football and basketball teams passionately, was enlightening for just the Iverson sociopsychological sketch and the biographical history it chronicled. Not to mention, a hearty examination on Iverson’s unwitting effect on race relations in Hampton. But that is just one facet of the now-cemented Iverson story of being polarizing, in the publics’ mind. And Allen Iverson, “the standout athlete,” it turns out — as the documentary revealed  for those who do not remember the first national headline-grabbing Iverson case was about — had pretty much always been publicly ensnared in a heated debate that split people down the lines of culture and race in some way or another, since the time he was one of the nation’s top prep athletes.

Those who remember Allen Iverson as a rookie N.B.A. phenom in the fall of 1996, following his more or less lilly-white, cross-cultural appeal and respite from negative perceptions, at the elite university Georgetown, where he performed legendarily well during his time there for John Thompson; can surely recall his obstacles towards acceptance and praise among the establishment of pro-basketball. “A.I” immediately drew fire from all angles in his first few games for being anything from too “brash” or “ignorant” of the game’s history– I still have no idea if that means he was not deferential enough, or if he genuinely was unaware of who to dole out heaps of respect to according to the established league pecking order — to being the physical manifestation of the beginnings of David Stern’s death rattle as the commissioner of a less-threatening league than the coke-blown, “too black for T.V.,” thugged-out one that he inherited in the 1980s.

But years before donning Philadelphia 76ers’ red and blue, as a Virginia prep-level legend in football and basketball, the young man known as “Bubba Chuck” to the denizens of Hampton, found himself and some friends notoriously caught on videotape in Allen’s crucial senior year of high school; where they unfortunately participated in a Valentine’s Day bowling alley brawl that pitted white residents of the community against black residents of the community on the innocence of Allen Iverson, a person some within the Southern, coastal community had begun to believe was given too much, already. The video that was dug up for James’ doc clearly shows Iverson, but it is also unclear in the video that he did what he was accused of, hitting another person with a chair; a young, white girl, at that. (The racial overtones already then-overpowering, as it still would be now, and far before the gender of the alleged victim of Iverson was brought to public record, and which only inflamed the situation.)

Photo Credit: E.S.P.N. 30 for 30

What set forth following the brawl, which began according to some due to the slinging of a racial epithet by whites who had confronted Iverson and his friends, could have derailed the promising career of the 17-year-old, in 1993. That year Iverson was a consensus top basketball recruit in the nation and a Pied Piper for the depressed Hampton community and particularly so for its black residents, many mired in a restless situation of poverty. According to Steve James, Iverson was already on the level of a Muhammad Ali figure for Hampton by the time he found himself in quite a bit of trouble, especially for a Southern town, even if it was the more progressive 1990s. In the words of James: “The Allen Iverson case in Hampton was O.J. before O.J.” The town was going to attach years of prejudice and tension to the trial, from both sides of its divide, and marry it to a newer one, that of: “the over-privileged athlete.”

The documentary poignantly outlines the dramatic racial divisions among the faction-ed communities of Hampton and how the event also played into the various racial and local politics of the town. There is even an implication of a high school rivalry affecting the judicial decisions in the case. Steve James goes on to make mention of the clear delineations between where he was raised — a more middle to upper middle class section of the town, though his father, integral to the story and its underlying sympathy for Iverson-the-athlete, owned a tile company for several decades in the “black” area of Hampton — and the city’s more “redneck” areas, in his words, it seems to be defined by, though he was less familiar with.

While the ground, granular truth of the case is never revealed, Iverson and his friends did end up doing time for the charges leveled against them and Iverson was harshly sentenced to 15 years, which some believed was for him to be “made an example of,” for his involvement in a bowling alley matter that produced minor injuries, and despite near-overwhelming support for Iverson by Hampton’s community activists and black leaders of the time, as well as extremely shoddy evidence. Though, it turned out to only be four months of served time for Iverson, after he was granted clemency by Virginia governor Doug Wilder and the Virgina Court of Appeals overturned the entire case for insufficient evidence.

Whether what Iverson and his friends experienced because of that night, all inevitably spending time in some kind of correctional facility, was justice, though, is left out in the ether by James. What is known is that the prejudices (on both sides), and the narrative that surrounded the “Iverson case,” which even drew the attention of C.B.S.’s Tom Brokaw, had left the Hampton community ravaged by racial tension that is still unresolved 17 years after the fact. And ironically, in a racially-charged brawl, it was four young black men who were draconianly sentenced  due to an obscure Virginia law — known as “maiming by mob” — which was  placed on the books, post-antebellum, in order to protect people like them, a century earlier, from lynching. To his credit, Iverson has said something akin to, “Whatever I went through, I had to go through at that time,” either cryptically commenting on the incident that nearly left him to the clichéd fate of so many athletes who never make it, trapped in a ghetto, or the need for him to endure to be the me-against-everybody-ever-in-my-way person he was, and was so loved because of. And it is perhaps why, even, the young man has been given so many chances, because everyone knows the Iverson internal creed that sprouts from all of his adversity: “Make it in spite of all of this.”

On Soderberg and ‘The Informant!’

I FINALLY saw one of 2009′s sleepers, The Informant!, and I realized once again, how much I love a Steven Soderberg flick. Why? Because Soderberg seems to never be too divorced from complexity: The complexity of modern life, the institutions, the structures and their strictures, (sometimes) the social psychology involved, and the personal. Traffic was the first Soderberg work I really remember, not actually recalling any of Sex, Lies and Videotape, years after I watched it on the Sundance channel. (Other than James Spader probably being sort of creepy, again, per usual.) The Informant!, based on the actual case of high-level corporate star-cum-whistelblower, Mark Whitacre, of agribusiness power, Archer Daniels Midland (A.D.M.), was able to traverse a very serious, droll subject — market manipulation, collusion and price-fixing in the corn-based additives trade — and make it funny. (Though the jocularity is partly at the cost of Whitaker’s mental illness, but also just how mundane and stereotypically “exurban-Mid-Western” the characters are in the story and the setting.)

Amid a man who was by most common standards brilliant and accomplished, comparative to the general population, holding advanced degrees in a tough subject matter, who is also vice president of the company as well as a biochemist with a complex understanding of an area most turned off just after organic chemistry, if they even took it, Soderberg was also able to show the absolute naiveté of a person who just wanted to pay a good deed forward: A good deed he experienced in his life that changed his entire course, in fact, and has informed his decision to help the F.B.I. (The paucity of details, obviously meant for those who’ve yet to see the film, and are unfamiliar with the Mark Whitacare story.)  This “good deed” is nearly the cornerstone element for his justification for deciding to coöperate with the F.B.I. — to their cynical surprise — and volunteer he and his company’s involvement in a vast price-fixing scam to a federal agent he comes into contact with for an entirely different matter, and risk the grand fruits of his labor, and what he has further gained in his participation in corporate malfeasance.

But within The Informant!, as with other Soderberg alignments, there is a great moral question, as the government’s bumbling star-witness and case-builder, Whitacare, is revealed to be less than clean himself, to the point of his credibility not only being shot, but completely obliterated by both institutional practices by A.D.M.’s top-shelf players, which he participated in, and his own mental scaffolding crumbling. Throughout the film you are left to wonder how one man can be so bright, but also so dim as to actions and their consequences, and the fact that good deeds very rarely are rewarded, as the Mark Whitacare character sketch has him saying at least once in the film that he thought he was heroic because of his exposing of wrongdoing, while conveniently forgetting his own transgressions, to which he pays dearly, ironically suffering a harsher fate than other A.D.M. execs prosecuted, or if he had, honestly, just kept his mouth zipped about the entire operation.

In the end, Whitacre’s “helping” actually costs him several years of his once-fruitful, enjoyable, monied life, due to the stress of his case-building for the government against some very well-connected, political folk, which added to the character’s paranoia in the film and heightened his generally humorous incompetence, and made one ask,  “Was it really worth it, for him to tell the truth?” For those who originally watched the global lysine price-fixing scandal unfold in real-time over the period of the early to mid-’90s, or read the similarly titled 2000 book by Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant, Soderberg’s adaptation, The Informant! (with an exclamation mark [!]), seems to do what the auteur has done so well over his body of work: that is take a semi-political, semi-journalistic and erudite examination of a particularly unexplored and faceted world or subject, and interject some cutting commentary.

In his film, Soderberg is able to mine the funny from the absolute boring, drab environment and the unassuming ephemera of the business life it is set in, and do so particularly well for a large-level corporate crime, which normally would be played up in its weightiness. The sole difference from this film and his past ones, however, is the ability to make what could’ve been an even more serious, mordant, exegesis of a real-life case (somewhat) in the mold of Michael Mann’s The Insider, light and enjoyable, while still keeping it extraordinarily rich in informational detail about the actual event.

On ‘In Between Days’

IN all the “model-minority” code speak that seems to denigrate all “others,” while simultaneously backhandedly complimenting Asians, that seems to go on in the less nuanced parts of North American society; one thing that is often overlooked by those quick to make a monolith out of a diversity of cultures and experience, is that life as an Asian emigrant is generally very rough, just as it is for any recently immigrated population.

While it is presumed — based on recent history — that many first generation Asian immigrant youth (and even higher percentages of second and third generation Asian immigrant kids), with enough hard work and a bit of luck, end up attending the U.C. Berkeleys, Stanfords or U.C.L.A.s, if not the Ivies, and then summarily transition to relative security in middle class careers and a perceived “well-integrated” station in Western society, because that is a part of their parents’ understanding of “making it”; for most first generation immigrants, merely adjusting to the Western ways is an uphill climb.

The 2006 film, In Between Days, anecdotally examines such a world, through the eyes of a Korean girl who is new to her North American environs: estranged from her father, with a strained relationship with her mother and only one friend — a male — as her escape and sole compass in an entirely different world than the one she is accustomed to navigating. But that is where the problems just begin, as she falls in love with her friend and vies for his attention against “Westernized” Asian girls, whom he shows more interest towards. The result is a look at the personal Asian immigrant struggle in full interplay with the normal challenges of teen life, school and home.

In Between Days was a Sundance Selection Winner in 2007, and it drew much-deserved magnanimous reviews from critics and viewers. The film worked in a deliberately artistic way that conveyed the awkwardness of not only the main character’s life and personal situation, but the absolute foreign nature of everything to her and many making similar transitions to a wholly different society. It made every moment appear to be if not just some small struggle, then part of a larger, never-ending one: from the expectations of her mother, to the expectations of her friend, for her to adapt to new ways and teen rebellion.

And the film succeeds in telling the story of Aimie — the main character, a South Korean emigrant — without saying much in its dialogue. In much of the exposition, there is only but a paragraph of actual verbal interaction dispersed over the span of multiple scenes, as visuals and the situations viewers find themselves watching Aimie in, say much more: from awkward interactions with Westernized Asian girls who display their personal freedom demonstrably at a party, and their comfortability in such expressions, to the My So-Called-Life, “Angela-and-Jordan Catalano”-type angst that she feels in regards to her object of affection, Tran.

In this way, In Between Days universalizes the emigrant experience, and it helps one to both relate and care for the character of Aimie, who is given a very rough road to trudge, as the memorable scenes of her walking alone in the snow symbolically convey. In Between Days is the first feature film directed by So Young Kim, and it is a masterful debut; as the film strikes on two fronts, being both incredibly honest and very well-acted. And though it is about life as a South Korean, teenage, female emigrant, the film is wholly relatable and especially skilled in re-creating the sense of the liminality of youth and the feelings of isolation, even when with someone, or in a crowd.

‘Body of Lies,’ Review

Body of Lies Blog Image

IT was an adaptation of the eponymous Body of Lies: A Novel, the spy-thrilleron Middle East espionage by The Washington Post columnist David Ignatiuas and written by William Monahan, the man who wrote the The Departed. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in the lead roles as intelligence officers, with Crowe playing the old dog, superior; disconnected, Washington office bureaucrat with a false sense of the ways of the spy game in the Middle East, and DiCaprio; playing the pup, who possesses a clear albeit idealistic understanding of how the region operates, borne out of his time in the field and a respect for the ways of the region’s culture. So it was safe to assume by the standard equations of modern film that it would at the very least, be just above mediocre. It wasn’t. Sadly.

Though the film wasn’t bad, its great promise was squandered in writing that failed to flesh out the relationships between the principal characters or provide a clearer overview of the problems and tensions in the region in regards to intelligence gathering and counterterrorism efforts, after seemingly slipping on that yoke. Instead it ended up placing all of the early drama squarely on the two C.I.A. agents’ differing perspectives on the matter, and some sticky situations. And that is where many of my problems with it begin. The film appeared to be fully going down the path of being an ambitious look at the reality of the situation facing the nation with regards to the front lines of counterterrorism, with an equally enthralling intraagency spy-versus-spy work relationship story to tell.

There was even a moment where the film could have made a lasting comment on the use of torture, but did not, using only one line on the matter and reducing it to window dressing, when torture has been proven to be anything but window dressing in this world. Nor did the film provide the perspective of the average citizen in the midst of the chaos between the jihadists and the very tip of the American government’s sword, in any real way. This is while there was at least one character that could have done so, by my count, only shown once; in a dinner conversation between the mother of DiCaprio’s characters’ love interest, Aisha, played by Golshifteh Farahani and DiCaprio’s, Roger Farris, the University of North Carolina alumnus turned field operations officer.

What all school children learn.

To whom evil is done. Do evil in return.

-W.H. Auden

Problems with the love interest aspect of the storyline also crops up, since the true nature of the relationship was never expounded on past their initial attraction and their two dates, despite her presence in Roger Farris’ life becoming integral to the plot’s arc. Even the tensions of an American man who works for the United States government and is seeing a young Arab woman in a less than open country (by Western standards) like Jordan, and the potential struggles of such a pairing, were barely mentioned, though done so in a nuanced way that seemed to downplay what I would believe to be far more palpable societal reactions, considering the current political climate.

All of these things: of limited perspectives, overall myopic writing and the lack of providing a clear sense of the problems and cross tensions in the world of Western-styled hardline approaches to counterterrorism espionage and for lack of a better term: “people savvy, human-based Middle Eastern intelligence and counter terrorism,” ultimately adds Body of Lies to a growing roster of disappointing Hollywood attempts at dealing with the complexity of the in-the-shadows-war of American intelligence and counterterrorism policy post-9/11, that was seen in everything from The Kingdom (somewhat), Redacted, Rendition to the show 24, at times. (Though, to Hollywood’s credit, the Bob Baer story in Syriana was a formidable showing. Ironically, Syrianna was one of the earliest looks at the problems we face in the region and was based almost wholly on C.I.A. agent Robert Baer’s own writings.)

Now the goal of Body of Lies may not have been to be a profound explication piece on the political matters or to even take a political stance, but its setting, our times, and its expressed authenticity for mood and attention to the general detail of how that world works and looks, made it seem as though the film dropped the ball — not rising to the level of its settings’ implications. It seemed to dumb down the complexities. Even if it were not meant to be political, by its very subject it is, and should have been more honest and robust in its approach, avoiding sins of omission. The film’s apolitical stance, becomes a curious, noticeably absent choice as a result.

Granted, Hollywood has failed in almost every flick it has trotted out dealing with the matter of post 9/11 counterterrorism, primarily because it is so very complex an issue, that requires a sense of regional history that begins about 20 years before 9/11 (if not longer) to be established in the narrative in some way, and the mentioning of how geopolitical economics, oil money flows and big business relationships affect the goals of counterterrorism, as it somewhat did in Syrianna. Further, the way that this element of the Global War on Terror is fought and how it operates is so muddled to even those inside fighting by the most clandestine means, that those on the outside (perhaps) could never fully tell a lucid story about it, yet. (Which is why Baer’s writings forming the basis of Syrianna helps that film to excel where others have failed at being honest, non-polemic accounts.)

Body of Lies was not a terrible treatment, but neither was it as ambitious as it should have been, nor did it do justice to the lead actors’ skills or the themes it almost explored, but somehow managed to fall short of. The film even begins with a W.H. Auden quote that to anybody paying attention to the state of affairs in the world, or has any sense of the covert realms the movie deals with, would know that it was supposed to drive the theory behind the movie. The quote, which dealt with violence begetting violence exponentially, as a tact, seemed to be about everything from state-sanctioned torture to the logic of fighting small groups who hide among innocents and the consequences of policy because of that (i.e. indiscriminate roundups of 18-35 year old Arab males, in these regions by American forces), but even in the quote’s usage in the film, it seems to not fully work. It is unclear if the quote was to be applied to the particular brand of terrorism that the movie addresses or the American policy towards it, or what I believed to be the target: both sides of the conflict and the stalemate that would be visited, in their cycle of violence.

While my assessments deal with the film’s shortcomings, the film does manage to entertain. Crowe is funny at times with an indistinct, Virgina-esque, Southern accent and DiCaprio is utterly believable as a field operations man in a grueling, nasty situation, who can see that just because there are bad people in his line of work, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t also good people. The film, aside from the politics and confusion of the situation it sets itself in, but somehow manages to not embrace, is still interesting and does provide glimpses of the psyche of several archetypes on the intelligence side of the War on Terror. Although, the confusion of that world can also be summed up in a plot that is also less than clear. And while its undefined romance aspect had some flaws, it did provide some sweet moments and humanity to an otherwise extremely inhuman situation and world. The film could have become an epic on the cloak-and-dagger policy and the political aspects of the war as it possessed all of the personal, surrounding societal elements to do so. That it did not, and seemed to run away far from them in a subtle and not so subtle way, made the film disappointing.

Body of Lies is in theaters now.

Madlib and Kweli’s ‘Liberation’

Editor’s Note:

I wrote a review for print (a while back) about a free release album by vanguard label Stones Throw Records that teamed the forces of the eccentric West Coast hip-hop producer Madlib and the erudite, pedagogical, lyrical prowess of Talib Kweli. The L.P. went by the name of “Liberation,” and despite its most meager of price points, the nine-track L.P. was shot through with a kind of quality, spirit and focus that belied its monetary value and distribution scheme. (That being download.) It was then, Kweli’s best work, I argued, and I still do. Unfortunately as things go sometimes, the piece was never exposed to the light of day. But recently I listened to the album again, after it had been on the shelf for the span of a year, if not a bit more, and I feel the need to publish the piece in any way that I can because of the album’s glaring ability to show Kweli in his best form. The review is below, in full.

Talib and Madlib’s “Freedom Opus”

THE thing that Talib Kweli projects have lacked in the past is solid production. As gifted as he is an emcee, the Black Star member and preeminent political rapper, has often been failed behind the boards, sans his partner in crime, Hi-Tek. Kweli, who is known for spitting razors in an automatic machine-gun style that leaves listeners rewinding the track and asking “Yo, what’d he say?!?!?”; hasn’t experienced a production level commensurate to his verbal skill since the late ‘90s Rawkus days and that era’s jazzed-out beats; the time when he began his steady ascendance to the mantle of being a hip-hop purists’ favorite, and a critical darling. It was the “Fortified Live” 12-inch that drew my attention, and the attention of my circle to Kweli, as I was just in high school and just beginning to cut my teeth in the growing independent hip-hop scene. Since then, I have always held out for the promise that I had heard on that 12-inch.

So when rumors that the quirky, West Coast producer, Madlib, and Talib Kweli, were combining their forces like two comic book heroes for some hip-hop community service in the form of an album, I was as charged as a kid on Jolt cola and Nerds. And later when rumors surfaced that the album would be limitedly released for no-charge through Stonesthrow.com, I was excited for the community of hip-hop, based on the pure potential of the pairing, and the possibility of Kweli sounding as well as he did on that “Fortified Live” 12-inch from 10 years ago; the very record that got me and the world “open,” in the words of Buckshot. The thing about potential, however, is that it is just that, potential. That is, until it is turned into a realized, high-quality product. And Talib’s and Madlib’s album, Liberation, is a top-shelf, high-quality, realized product. The album is filled with dusty grooves from Madlib’s beat crate and record-digging forays, and Kweli’s lyrical craftsmanship.

Talib brings his normal automatic-fire flow on the album, and his unusually sharp knowledge dropping, along with his witty observations on the hip-hop community, saying on the track “The Show”: “the only thing we know about Africa is from Nas in Belly,” and “our music went from the tap dance to the lap dance.” Where Kweli differs in this outing compared to his former incarnations from the not-so-distant past is in the fun that he brings to it, finding a very happy medium between the sometimes diametrically opposed sociopolitical lyrics that he is known for and the, “let’s just say stuff to entertain” ethic of old school hip-hop. On the boards, there might not be another producer as skillful as Madlib to bring that old-school soul, blunt-out beats and West Coast underground sound to an album. He has blessed Kweli strong on Liberation, and on tracks like “Funny Money,” he has provided the perfect frame for Kweli’s paintings. On another standout track, the autobiographical “Happy Home,” Madlib is able to catch and match the feeling of Kweli’s family journey, and he compliments Talib’s narrative well with an ultra-melodic section of horns and keys that hit just right.

For those who missed the free release of Liberation, I am saddened that they may have entirely missed what might be the best free E.P. that they will ever come across. It is that good. But according to the rumor mill, Stones Throw will release the album again later in the year. Regardless of how the record is obtained, PreQuel recommends that you find the nine-track E.P. in either your virtual hand (in the form of MP3), or physical hand, and that you knock that album very loudly upon receipt. Liberation is worth the listen, free or purchased.