Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Son of a Biscuit

I have to laugh when a speaker begins by asking his lecture audience, "Why are you here?"

The lecture was another installment in VCU's race, citizenship and memory series, the man in question was professor William Maxwell, and his topic was that of his new book, "F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African-American Literature."

Oh, right, and his question was based on what ridiculously gorgeous October weather we had abandoned for the sake of hearing his talk.

His lecture was a dense one and at one point he read something and then asked rhetorically, "Did I really write that sentence? Obviously I did." You could tell he'd relished getting access to the scads of recently-released FBI files to figure out the lengths the FBI had gone to trying to police black literature.

As if the FBI hadn't had better things to do.

One of the first men he spoke of was Hoover's #4 man, Sullivan, who, as it turned out, had written the so-called "suicide letter" to Martin Luther King, suggesting he'd failed in his mission and that he should "do the right thing," along with sending Coretta recordings of MLK with other women.

As a full-on geek, I was fascinated by Sullivan since I'd learned plenty about that letter from recently reading Ralph Abernathy's autobiography and now I was hearing about the perpetrator. It never stops amazing me how often that kind of coincidence happens.

He talked about how Hoover's bureau had targeted black organizations and all of the artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance, right on through 1972. How they had ghostreaders to try to suss out upcoming black protests.

But, of course, black writers knew they were being watched and read by these morons. Many wrote works addressing the surveillance, such as Richard Wright's "The F.B. Eye Blues" from 1949, to my mind, a brilliant and nervy way to protest such an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

He explained how white agents tried to "write black" in the forms of poetry and newspaper articles, their intent being to sway black opinion with fake black writings.

The biggest problem with Maxwell's lecture was that the topic was enormous and we could barely scratch the surface in the time allotted. Even so, I managed to glean the fascinating tidbit that Yale had produced an inordinate amount of spies from its English department during the mid-20th century.

That's a book there waiting to be written, if you ask me.

Talking about how there were files on every black literary figure and artist of the era, he said, "There was one on Billie Holiday. There's one on Duke Ellington. I'm sure it's very elegant." He said his father, an activist during the '60s, was disappointed to learn that the FBI had no file on him. Should've been black, sir.

He has to be one of the few to be disappointed not to have been in J. Edgar's cross-hairs.

While you might think, well, the logical thing after such a heavy lecture, Karen, would be something completely opposite, something frothy and fun, but no. Next on my agenda was VCU Cinematheque's screening of the documentary "Salvador Allende."

I've gone on record as saying how much I enjoy the eclectic programming of the Cinematheque series, but a weekly free film also comes with a price: VCU students in attendance.

I've got nothing against students, but at times, the vapid and inane conversations I'm privy to make me wish I was anywhere else. Case in point: tonight.

Some kids come in and one begins addressing the guy sitting nearest me. "Dude, your talk today was great. I was really into it. You should get a job selling something."

The object of his admiration seems genuinely touched by the compliment. "Thanks. Like what, man, sell informational videos and shit?" It's suggested he's good enough to give a TED talk, the benchmark of accomplishment for millennials.

Meanwhile, a nearby girl playing with her hair says to no one in particular, "The only thing I could give a TED talk on is, like, walking back and forth." No one acknowledges her.

There, I submit, are tomorrow's leaders.

And they must have been film students since I'm not sure a documentary about a former Chilean president trying to move the country to socialism would appeal to your typical 19-year old otherwise.

The problem is, they just don't appreciate the time capsule element of a good documentary. It's not just about the time depicted - in this case, early '70s -  but also about the time the documentary is made, here 2004.

And in another impressive coincidence, waiting for the film to start, I passed the time reading about Bob Woodward's new book, "The Last of the President's Men" about Nixon aide, Alexander Butterfield, all but guaranteeing that Tricky Dick would be all over tonight's documentary.

I'm telling you, life is weird that way.

My grasp of Chilean history was negligible, so I found the story of a man elected by the people who sets out to lead a non-violent revolution to create a socialist country completely compelling.

Like all great documentaries, director Patrico Guzman uses amazing historical footage to tell the story and here that includes scenes of a virile and smiling Castro on a visit to Allende after his first year in office.

There's Allende addressing the United Nations, abut multi-national companies answering to no one, a speech that garnered him a standing ovation.  The man is basically talking about globalization before we were sick of the word.

And there was terrific footage of rallies and marches, with all those handsome '70s-era Chilean guys smiling and posturing for the sake of a fair and free world.

But back to Nixon, who was worried about a Cuban/Chilean alliance and the spread of Marxism in that part of the world.

In an interview with the former US ambassador to Chile, we hear delicious details of how pissed Nixon was - calling Allende an S.O.B. and a bastard, both funny when coming out of the mouth of such a proper-looking man - about all that was happening.

Nixon was, of course, the man who ordered the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Allende's regime and put Pinochet in power. History's proven just how long the "bad choices" side of Nixon's accomplishment list is.

Totally unexpected was hearing a recording Allende made shortly before killing himself as the coup was happening. Let's just say tonight's Cinematheque offering was a hell of a history lesson.

Even a fine, fall day couldn't keep a girl from so much learnin'.

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