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Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight"

June 28, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Both of these award-winning new releases are exclusively acted by Black Americans and could be seen as slices of African American life. Each focuses on the life of a man, the life of an individual that’s offered to us with such a high level of acting that the black in the story disappears. 

I have long respected the talent of actor Denzel Washington despite his appearance in so many films with violent themes, and even though he usually plays noble men. The first time I saw him was in Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala in the role of Demetrius Williams. There and his many superb performances thereafter is why I decided to view Fences. I wanted to hear his consummate voice again. Washington’s familiar timbre is barely recognizable in Fences. But I was not disappointed.

As strong as Viola Davis is as his co-star, Washington is outstanding, arguably because he’s able to totally disembody himself and build the complex character of Troy Maxson, the central figure in Fences. That performance stands out for me because I forgot that his skin color and that of the other characters is black. Not only this; I forgot that Troy Maxson is the actor Denzel Washington. In Fences Troy completely overtakes Washington; moreover, we recognize him as a type of man who to one degree or another we feel we know personally. Troy is a person I know.

If you’re familiar with the narrative of Fences, you’ll understand what I mean. What many reviews overlook is the complexity of the character Maxson, a hard working man, but a man bent, wasted, and embittered. Troy Maxson is a man with unrealized expectations as a baseball player, a father unable to inspire his sons, a brother carrying a shame he cannot hide; he’s a father who does not enjoy the pride he desperately needs. Thanks to Washington’s artistry, we may walk away from the film reflecting on some failure in ourselves or someone close to us, how we manifest our letdown, and perhaps like Troy, inflict hardships on those dear to us. I hadn’t seen this human experience played so powerfully on screen in many years.

Few actors can transcend either their race or their celebrity with a performance like Washington gives us in Fences. Which takes me to Moonlight, another outstanding recent film with a full cast of African Americans and centered on a Black American family. Mahershala Ali, best known for his fine performance as the self-serving lobbyist in the televised series House of Cards, was awarded an Oscar for his supporting role in Moonlight. But the real talent there is exhibited by the three actors who play the boy, the teen, and the adult ‘Chiron’ whose painful growth we follow into adulthood. Moonlight is also a story about manhood, about feelings unrealized (labeled by others as a “gay coming of age film”). Beautifully constructed and with restrained, spare dialogue, most of the film seems to be a story about one corner of Black American life. But with the final scene when Chiron, powerfully played by Trevante Rhodes, now transformed into a man, confronts his first love, a childhood friend, it rises to another level. It is a love story, pure and subtle. No race, no class; just two men quietly finding each other. 


[ Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight" ]

Palestinians Will Never Give Up

June 15, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Every month, it seems, a new book on Palestine comes across my desk for review. I think: “Oh, this reminds me of one I saw last year,” or “She’ll likely pursue the same theme as in her last novel.” Perusing a few pages of this volume, seeing that the stories herein are not really new, I nevertheless declare: “They will never give up.”

I mean by this, the infinite ways that Palestinians-- mother, child, shopkeeper, student, prisoner, poet, exile or resident, teacher or politician, from peasants to scions of established Jerusalem or Jaffa families—devise to narrate their heavily traveled route from the bucolic olive groves and stone houses of the Jordan Valley, across the biblical lands, through wars to prisoner cells, tattered refugee shelters, and uneasy exile.

When I say ‘they never give up’ I am of course aware that countless have. Many perished in their struggle for statehood by one means or another; others have been co-opted into a bourgeois lifestyle and successfully (sic) assimilated, or otherwise lured away. Perhaps for every one still identifying with the struggle, ten times that number has burned out and abandoned the cause. Not to mention countless (millions) of fellow Arabs who championed their cause with their scholarship and poems, through sanctuary, financial aid, diplomacy, and armed action as well.

Still we have at least four generations of Palestinians dispersed throughout the world--from Australia and South Africa to inside Israel, to the Caribbean, Brazil and our NY neighborhoods-- who persist. Many feel compelled to know and value their story, then to make others hear them and be moved. It’s not just the injustices and indignities endured, but the contrary too: stories embedded in found family portraits, in diplomas won, in property deeds folded away, in emblems embroidered into gowns, and in songs. 

Just last month, my colleague Francisco Casanova (Chahin/el-Mufdi) originally of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, now settled in New York via Dominican Republic, circulated a newly unearthed photo of his great-grandparents Yadallah and Ackle Mufdi (~1920), located by his cousin in a magazine in Dominican Republic where Francisco’s family settled in the late 1800s.

This is one example of tens of thousands of narratives that infuse an enduring campaign to resist. Traces make threads and threads are woven into something decipherable emerging into an instrument for action. Defying the Zionist agenda to erase Palestine, more stories emerge, year after year-- from those married to non-Palestinians, even children of families who seemed to have forgotten the homeland. Memoirs pour forth from those with the most tenuous ties to the land, and from those newly dispersed. This “persistence of memory” is discussed in poet Ibtisam Barakat’s latest essay.

What provokes my observation ‘they never give up’ is not just today’s hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, those past daring flotillas to Gaza, inspiring graffiti on the apartheid wall, or words by hip-hop artist Shadia Mansour. It’s the tireless reinvention of the quintessential story.

On my desk is the newly released Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation, yet another collection of testimonials and historical sketches. Designed for young readers it offers maps, notes, interviews and photos assembled by two British writers.

Some may conclude it’s a worn and futile theme. Indeed, the book offers nothing new to those familiar with Palestinian history. But we always find people for whom the story is unknown. The books roll on, even when few Palestinian histories will reach American schoolrooms. A portrayal of military occupation in another part of the world may be welcome by librarians. But given Israel’s vigilance of its international image, this book, if selected for an American school library or listed as a school resource for world history, may find itself banned.

From the testimonies of the children interviewed and comments by school staff quoted in Young Palestinians Speak, the injustices are evident. Like another collection for young readers, Gaza Writes Back some writers, editors and publishers remain compelled to remind us of the story of Palestine. Sameeha Elwan, one of 23 contributors to the Gaza book writes how each tale, “whether it stems from genuine experience, the representation of experiences of others, or those enshrined in Palestinians by virtue of being Palestinian … are worth remembering and telling. Memory is itself the only thing that is left of (our) comprehension of home and identity.”  END


[ Palestinians Will Never Give Up ]

Watch Out for ReclaimNewYork-- 'alt-right' prowling your neighborhood

June 12, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What is RECLAIM NY Up To?   March 15/17    by Joyce St George, New Kingston, NY

There is currently a debate in this area about the appearance of Reclaim NY’s full-page ads in several local newspapers. Reclaim NY is an organization established by Steve Bannon, the current Senior White House Counselor and former publisher of Breitbart News, and Rebekah Mercer, a billionaire who donated heavily to the Trump campaign and served in his transition team. The goal of Reclaim, according to their website, is to make governments in NYS more transparent, and to hold government more accountable for financial waste and corruption.

The organization has already requested all financial documents from more than 250 schools, villages, towns and cities in Orange, Westchester, Putnam and other counties in New York state. Nearly 200 of these entities have provided requested information under the Freedom of Information Act. But several of those, including Peekskill School District and the town of Chester were sued by Reclaim for not being forthcoming or transparent enough for Reclaim’s interest. The school district, town, and others around the state, have had to spend money on legal fees and extra clerk hours to accommodate Reclaim’s requests. They also had to face articles in the local papers with interviews by Reclaim leaders alleging lack of transparency and corruption.

Reclaim NY is now in Delaware County, not only with full-page ads, but with the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce inviting their leaders to speak at an upcoming breakfast meeting in Hancock. After researching the organization, several concerns have emerged.

First, the Reclaim organization is reported to be a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization. However, it does have a heavily “right” leaning leadership and perspective on government. With Steve Bannon, Rebecca Mercer and other conservative leaders formulating the organization and its mission and strategies, it is hard pressed to believe that it is non-partisan. And while it is perfectly appropriate for conservative organizations to have a say in the state, it is not appropriate to hide its political leanings. Shielding itself from its own political perspective creates an insidious, covert shadow to the organization, which seems antithetical to its goal of transparency in governments.

Secondly, there is little said in its website about the purpose of this collection of financial data from schools, villages, cities and towns in NYS. The website indicates that reports will be produced by Reclaim that helps New Yorkers better understand why taxes are so high and living is so costly in NYS. While it is appreciated that an outside organization would care so much about the cost of living in this state, Reclaim does not explicitly say what it will do with those reports. Will they work with the local governments to improve financial management? Will they assist schools struggling to pay teachers adequate salaries? There is simply no way of knowing what Reclaim will do.

Third, transparency is one quality that small towns, cities, villages and schools seem to pride themselves on. The town boards of Middletown, Roxbury and Andes have monthly meetings as do the villages of Margaretville, Fleischmanns. Budgets are openly discussed at these meetings and community input supported. Local public schools open their financial books to the community as well. There are no mysteries to where our taxes going or how our money is being spent. The problem is not transparency, but poverty, infrastructure and limited resources. Reclaim does not address any of those issues impacting communities of NYS today.

I will go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting in which a Reclaim representative will speak, and I will listen. And yes, I do have a bias because of the articles I read from Peekskill and other areas that were sued by Reclaim. If the organization can truly help our rural areas improve conditions, I would support them wholeheartedly. But I haven’t read one article about them that would encourage me in that direction. I hope others will attend the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce meeting on April 7 in Hancock as I will, to learn, and I hope others in our area will do their research on Reclaim to learn what the organization is doing to our state.

See report on ReclaimNY's Hancock, NY presentation-- Catskill Mountain News

Also BN Aziz'  “My View” in The River Reporter (Narrowsburg, NY) Mar 23-28/2017

ReclaimNY sounds innocuous; it might be a movement you’d want to support. To some, it may suggest something that can help improve our lives in Upstate NY. Certainly we all want to hear from anyone who can stem corruption and save us money. Indeed various local Chambers of Commerce and other civic groups seem open to consider what benefits ReclaimNY is offering.

But beware. This is not an organization with an aim to help regular citizens like you and me.

A few watchful residents have revealed that Steve Bannon is behind this movement. In fact he’s its co-founder; the same Steve Bannon lurking in the White House, rumored to have an enormous influence on our president; the same Steve Bannon behind Breitbart News, the powerful media corporation unknown to many of us until its extreme social agenda was revealed just weeks before the election; the same Steve Bannon determined to remove so many of Americans’ social benefits and environmental protections, and scrap the Affordable Care Act—for a start. Take note that co-founder of Reclaim NY is a major Trump campaign donor, billionaire Rebekah Mercer. (Under pressure to eliminate conflicts of interest, Bannon resigned from the board last year.)

We may believe this kind of far-right group prevails in the Midwest or Louisiana. But it’s right here in our own backyard. ReclaimNY’s organizers have been at work in the Hudson Valley and are now planning programs in Delaware County: in Hobart, Delhi, Hancock and Binghamton (in Broome County, for example).

Some alert citizens of Delaware County, NY were able to inform a private business in their area about Reclaim New York’s background. It then decided to remove its sponsorship of a planned meeting, although the Chamber of Commerce hosting the event has not cancelled the program, not yet.

The group seems to be focusing on Delaware County northwest of Sullivan County at present. It has already moved forward with its agenda in other parts of the state: Orange, Westchester, and Putnam for example. In order to gather information to carry out its ‘reclamation’, Reclaim NY requests financial information from schools, villages, towns—they can do this under the Freedom of Information Act. And when those public entities refuse to comply, the group proceeds with law suits against them. Peekskill is a town that had to spend tax income to defend itself from Reclaim’s charges. 

A perusal of the Reclaim New York’s website ( ) does not make clear its background and agenda. One finds no mention of Bannon or Mercer—only bios of a number of educated young men and a woman, many in finance and law. The words “Republican Party” do not appear either, or the name of its leader Donald J. Trump; indeed it presents itself as non-partisan, and is a registered 501(c) 3 organization. One finds nothing about why it seeks financial information about our schools and other public institutions. That very agenda is odd given that towns and schools annually present their budgets and financial records to the public.

Slowly—too slowly—the public is learning the unsettling truth about the backgrounds of our elected and non-elected leaders. We are at a time in our history when every citizen needs to be more active than ever in uncovering the forces swirling around us, forces that could take us back decades in our struggle to establish and hold American ideals we once thought were unassailable.

by Barbara Nimri Aziz, PhD




[ Watch Out for ReclaimNewYork-- 'alt-right' prowling your neighborhood ]

Shamless in America

May 30, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian newspaper writes what some may consider a virtuous and urgent charge. In his newspaper’s May 12th edition 

Opining that the US president is shameless, Freedland may be correct. But I disagree with his suggestion that Donald Trump’s behavior is particularly unique and that this shamelessness is immoral. While Trump is acting and speaking in a shocking manner, he is, in fact, giving voice to (a hitherto whispered, backroom) an American tradition.

When will Americans who enjoy huge benefits of citizenship in the world’s strongest economy and in the globe’s pre-eminent cultural, political, and military power realize that its glorious ‘empire’ is itself a shameless beast? Empire is largely effectively above morality. Moreover, isn’t this an integral part of what is called exceptionalism?  

Whether we like (to admit) it or not USA is an empire. As such it can be shameless. Just as it can be arrogant; just as it can police the whole world; just as it demands others adhere to its declared standard of human rights; just as its military cannot be criminally responsible for excesses and atrocities abroad; just as its negotiators can coerce weaker nations to follow its dictate.

Several American presidents in living memory (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, and Obama) provided a veneer of morality with their grace and political intelligence. Trump does not follow that script. In his bumbling, ungracious way, he is the ugly face of empire, exhibiting all the righteousness of what Americans --only Americans-- boast is the ‘most powerful person on earth’. The president, like the empire, is almost above law: he can disregard convention; he can fire the head of intelligence; he can sign edicts to wipe out years of development and progress; he can refuse to submit his tax returns; he can retain his businesses while serving in office; and his flippant tweets can hurl personal insults and instigate political chaos.

American foreign policy flaunts norms in the international arena; why not the head of state in regards to domestic issues? Not unreasonably, if a nation is shameless, its leader too can behave without shame. Donald Trump is shameless enough to challenge the norm. (Although in his arrogance he may inadvertently overstep some solid and sacred law, and be assured that hoards of opposition lawyers are closely following his every step to clutch a tangible legal breach.)

                Perhaps what so disturbs our distraught liberal class who Freedland speaks for is that Trump is directing this arrogance onto domestic issues and the privileges of Americans. As long as US bullying is focused outside, whether towards friends or enemies, it’s ignored or tolerated. Take the spurious principle of ‘mutual respect’ and the verbiage about members’ ‘equality’ within the United Nations. In its embargo wars against Cuba, Iran, Iraq and Vietnam, Washington successfully coerces and threatens others to comply. Even the U.N. cannot withstand US intimidation. A cursory review of reports emerging from infinite U.N. committee meetings around the globe would either shock you or make you ask if anything noble is ever accomplished there, anything except what’s determined by Washington.

(One recent climate change meeting offers an example of what can be accessed by Third World Network.) These daily displays of American prowess are buried in hard-to-comprehend reports laden with mysterious acronyms and a maze of subcommittee reviews. Their itineraries are so imponderable; easier to browse multi-pages of our esteemed press with their doctrines on Kurdish factions, sectarian strife in Muslim lands, or the drama of a dismissed FBI chief than to study how America bullies and obstructs the agendas of others, whether powers like India, or weak or impoverished nations, or respectable European friends.  

                True, not every American leader acts as boldly or as oafishly as Donald Trump does. Certainly his immediate predecessor behaved differently…most of the time. But recall one of President Obama’s foreign speeches—in Havana a year ago— and the former Cuba leader’s knowing response. Fidel Castro’s reply notwithstanding, the American’s imperial message, albeit proffered in a handsome velvet cloak, is clear. Barack Obama, like many American leaders (whether trade negotiators, press aides, human rights advocates, or military officers) may speak and act more discreetly than his successor. It’s just that Trump openly exhibits his nation’s arrogance. Combined with his personal tactlessness, mixed with a degree of bald ignorance, it’s, well, embarrassing.

But Freedland and doubtless many others in our liberal class, symbolized by the self righteous New York Times, do not dare admit America’s own long history of shamelessness and how Mr. Trump merely epitomizes this.

In today’s comments by US historians on how the 45th president compares so unfavorably with past occupants of the White House, there is a highly selective process underway. Since the November election and US intellectual’s misjudgment of its outcome, liberals have jumped onto the moral high ground with their remaking of Mr. Obama’s tenure. As if the last administration were free of responsibility for destabilizing other nations, of gross, illegal surveillance, of unlawful bombings and runaway profiteering by banks.   

Trump’s behavior is ‘difficult’ no doubt. Perhaps it’s because when a leader lies, he reminds us all of the national lies, of the shame (or sham) that American democracy has become, at least of its weaknesses. How can US negotiators and diplomats force human rights standards on others; how can the US insist on democratic principles in countries whose polities are at odds with Washington?

Today Mr. Trump is bullying the hallowed institutions of America. That’s what is insufferable. This is where we recognize shame.

















[ Shamless in America ]

Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump

May 04, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A month before the US presidential election, my sister from Canada called asking: “Aren’t Americans embarrassed?” She was referring in particular to the character of the leading Republican candidate, now living in Washington-- in the White House.

Even today few Americans actually say they’re embarrassed by Trump, whether it’s his tweets or his declarations of policy or his interactions with foreign leaders. Many dismayed Americans express anger; others moderate their feelings with ridicule, recounting his missteps and inelegance, surrounding themselves with likeminded associates to stoke their spirits. Certainly the president’s cabinet appointments and threats of policy changes create fear which in turn has motivated the widespread but calm and calculated street protests. Journalists have never been so busy muckraking over presidential appointees, tracking the leader’s ramblings, and fact checking the deluge of data on all sides.

Meanwhile, we (on the left) are indeed embarrassed, very embarrassed. Here’s what I mean.

It’s not the president’s amateurish utterances and his threats that embarrass. It’s about us: we’re embarrassed for ourselves. We—that is, the liberal American community who have such high regard for our sophistication, our grasp of issues, our education, our trendiness, and our facility with social media—couldn’t read our own country. We could not control the democratic process; we could not speak for the country; we could not use our multi-media savvy to effectively inform and communicate; we relied on barely two print sources and no more than two TV news channels who are, we now realize, biased.

There’s the feminists’ embarrassment too. Not only were we-- this land of dynamic, daring, accomplished women-- incapable of lifting a woman candidate over the top. We could not ‘read’ the whole of America’s women, (nor its youth, nor all its minorities). How embarrassing to admit to ourselves that not only does the U.S. lag behind African, Asian and South American nations in our inability to find a acceptable woman president. Fifty-three percent of white American women voted for what appeared to be a grossly misogynist Republican candidate! Hard to admit, but we, the knock-down-barriers know-it-alls, failed. Moreover, however many popular votes went to Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic Party—our self-declared champion of women and minorities-- also failed to read and to touch the pulse of the country. Not only was that boorish fellow installed the White House; 32 state legislatures went to the Republicans and 33 state governors are Republican.

It’s this embarrassment that’s now driving the weekly marches, the protests outside congressmembers’ offices, the plethora of new local committees and get-to-know-our-neighbors gatherings across the country. It’s this embarrassment that is sending reporters and camera crews into towns in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Louisiana and Kansas. Forget about Alabama, the Inner City and the metropolitan suburb. National Public Radio and BBC correspondents are descending on farms, mom-and-pop stores, and hamlets across the county to reveal the ‘real’ marginalized American:-- the less educated, the poorer, the underemployed, and the chronic opioid user.

We are newly interested in rural American wisdom. Today’s journalists are like anthropologists sent out to the dark corners of the hostile empire to study the natives for future conquest. University courses will be created to read newly written monographs on this forgotten, discovered America.

If embarrassment has a positive side, it’s self discovery. Although this doesn’t guarantee an easy overthrow of the current regime.  END

[ Americans Should Be Embarrassed, But Not About President Trump ]

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