There I was watching snippets from some of the great speeches given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seeing where he spoke and where he was assassinated. All history lessons I’ve experienced before.
But never in the context I found myself in yesterday. For perhaps the first time, I was listening to Dr. King speak in public surrounded by strangers. And definitely for the first time, I was listening to Dr. King speak in a room filled with African Americans.
Blaggle - a gaggle of bloggers
We were all at Tavis Smiley
’s guest house in Hancock Park. The radio and TV personality had invited a gaggle of bloggers to screen his first movie, “Stand.” It’s contemporary history meets a road trip. Smiley took some of his buddies, including luminary Cornel West, on a tour of Tennessee last summer. While the nation marked the 40th anniversary of King’s death in Memphis and Barack Obama was winning his campaign for president, these guys were visiting with comedian Dick Gregory, singer Isaac Hayes and others.
“The Summer of 2008 – we will always remember where we were,” Smiley said as he introduced the film. “Such a historic summer. It was a time to get together and situate where we find ourselves at the moment, with King on one side an Obama on the other.”
Smiley invited the bloggers – some came from as far as Lancaster and San Diego from such places as the Hip Hop Republicans and Yahoo!Music - because he had angered the blogosphere before, early last year when he had first criticized then-Sen. Obama and admonished people for falling in love with his aura. The populace didn’t like Smiley’s tone or words and let him have it. It wasn’t pretty.
Smiley gave up a good gig as a syndicated columnist on a radio show based in D.C. because of the controversy
Critical vs. Accountable
But Smiley didn’t give up his critiques
. Smiley says it’s his responsibility to hold Obama accountable for the promises he’s made and to make sure that African Americans are being well represented. Well the message boards haven’t forgiven Smiley
So he wisely took it upon himself to proactively wine and dine in the hopes that we might get the word out. He can’t go wrong. Even if you don’t like the movie, it still gets it out there. And I don’t mind a bit - he’s like a star and we’re all a bit awed.
Blogging v. Journalism
But this is a pretty serious assignment. It’s the first time I’ve felt the butterflies of journalism in a long time. It’s that feeling of responsibility when you get special access and you have to write about something that’s not black and white. Though my story has to be informed by my life perspective, I have to work hard to also be representative of my audience. And foremost, my neighbors are my audience. I don’t speak for them, but I am responsible to them.
What does my neighborhood think of Smiley – I don’t know. It’s never come up. His studio is in Leimert Park, just south of the Village. I’m sure nobody knows that.
I hear he’s a self promoter. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Martha Stewart and Donald Trump. And they get by promoting food and money. Tavis gets by on politics and heritage. A slightly higher calling? And self promotion – “isn’t that what blogging is all about?” I ask myself as I twitter, facebook and blog the event.
I only recall one interview that Smiley conducted. He talked to Ron Howard this year about “Frost/Nixon,” a largely feel-good interview. Except Smiley did ask one really tough question about the midnight call Nixon made to Frost when they talked about cheeseburgers. The problem was the call was completely fictional wrapped inside a largely true story. Why would they do that, Smiley asked? There wasn’t a good answer and the scene ruined the movie for me.
Stand: The Movie
So all the bloggers plugged in their lap tops, got out Flip cameras and readied their iphones.
While the characters have a lot in common to be sure, the group usually steers clear of group think, whether the topic is music or religion (and usually it is one or the other).
Jesse Jackson is one of the first controversial subjects they tackle, when Sam Moore of Sam and Dave says he heard that MLK told Jackson to tone down using the “n” word. Instead of a gotcha moment – Jackson had just been in the news for using the word and for criticizing Obama – the film allows a nuanced picture of a flawed human being to be projected.
Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who probably got more face time than Smiley or West (and he made the most of it), explains that in the ‘60s Jackson was young and charismatic compared the King’s more passive demeanor. And Jackson’s image was important in the battle for a the minds of blacks as much more radical militants were recruiting people away from a peaceful Civil Rights movement.
I put “Stand” in the same category as “Made in America,” the story of the Crips and Bloods by Stacey Peralta of “Dogtown and Z-boys,” and “When the Levee Breaks,” by Spike Lee. It’s not that ground was broken, but there’s a valuable point of view that will further refine your own on a topic you may already know well.
More Obama Drama
But back to Obama.
There are some minor criticisms of Obama in the film. But most of the stories on the web focus on what almost seems to be Smiley’s reticence to support the president. Smiley says that’s nonsense.
“I want Obama to be a great president,” Smiley said. “I think he can be. We must hold him accountable.
“If we want to see another black president down the road he had better succeed. If this brother fails it may be another 400 years.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. So I asked flat out for Smiley to point out the good things Obama is doing.
Smiley said Obama:
• Has been very aggressive on economy
• Did a good job on the stimulus package to aim money at the environment and “greening the ghetto.”
• Has worked on transparency by creating recovery.gov.
• Has started the process of repairing America’s reputation around the globe,
But Smiley can’t stop criticizing even when he compliments.
“On healthcare, he’s doing the right thing,” Smiely said. “We just have to keep him honest on single payer. “But there’s no way in the world he’ll get this thing nailed unless the American people rise up … like we did in the civil rights era.”
Obama has said he can’t do it alone. Smiley agrees and is eager to help.
“I can’t abide looking back four years from now and seeing that we did not take advantage of this moment,” Smiley said.
“Stand” will have a special screening
in Los Angeles at 2 p.m. May 24t at West Angeles Cathedral, 3600 Crenshaw Blvd.
“Stand” debuts at 9 p.m. on May 24 on TV One.