Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler’s must-see documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism In America” won’t be hitting San Francisco theaters (and hopefully more than a few Southern states) until February 4, 2022. While its message about the racist legacy of America is timely especially in light of GQP efforts to legislatively whitewash accountability for racial injustice (or other ideas it despises), tickets to catch the Kunstlers’ film aren’t available just yet. However, that doesn’t have to mean the politically-minded gift-giver is left without options this holiday season.
For example, now available in hardcover is Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.” Even if you’ve read and were impressed by the original project in the New York Times Magazine, you’re still going to want this book. It’s an expansion on the original material, adding eighteen essays looking at the present day legacy of American slavery plus thirty-six poems and stories that capture historical moments of struggle and resistance. Among the contributors to be found here are Jamelle Bouie, Terry McMillan, Barry Jenkins, and Eve L. Ewing. In addition to buying a copy for a loved one, you can also donate a copy to the SFUSD (or some other educational institution in need) and see the always worthy Green Apple Books or some other indie bookseller get a cut of the sale.
Extra good karma points can be earned by gifting the Ibram X. Kendi (“How To Be An Antiracist”) and Keisha N. Blain-edited anthology “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History Of African America, 1619-2019.” Sadly the Bookstore.org donation deal doesn’t apply to this collection.
Another possibility to help spread Black culture this holiday season comes courtesy of some Blu-Rays or DVDs from the venerable Criterion Collection.
“Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films” offers four landmark films directed by the multi-talented African-American independent cinema pioneer. “Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song” tells of a Black brothel worker who’s on the run from racist Los Angeles cops yet has trouble finding shelter from his community. “Watermelon Man” delivers a racial spin on the Franz Kafka classic “The Metamorphosis” with its tale of a white racist insurance salesman who wakes up one day to discover he’s become a Black man. The French New Wave-influenced “The Story Of A Three-Day Pass” concerns an African-American soldier stationed in France who falls in love with a white woman during his furlough from the base. Finally, “Don’t Play Us Cheap” adapts Van Peebles’ Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical about a pair of Satanic agents whose plans to wreak havoc on a Saturday night Harlem house party gets thwarted by the generosity of the party’s hosts.
Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes’ electrifying (and polarizing) debut film “Menace II Society” has now been re-issued in a 4K/Blu-Ray edition. It does draw from the old story of a young man who needs to abandon his life of crime before it’s too late for him. But the difference here is that protagonist Caine does not have the latitude to make such a choice. LIfe in Los Angeles’ crime-ridden Jordan Downs housing projects presents only steadily shrinking options for a future or even a belief in the same. Jada Pinkett plays the female lead in this film.
Power-hungry right-wing culture warriors such as Pat Buchanan subjected late multidisciplinary S.F. Bay Area video artist Marlon Riggs to Nikole Hannah-Jones levels of persecution. What better way to celebrate the endurance of Riggs’ artistic legacy than with “The Signifyin’ Works Of Marlon Riggs,” which collects all seven of Riggs’ films. Despite coming out in the 1980s and 1990s, such films as “Black Is…Black Ain’t,” “Tongues Untied,” and “Color Adjustment” present still potent artistic challenges to homophobia and society’s attitudes towards Black people. Besides, it’s time Riggs gets some well-deserved public props for putting the first gay kiss on American broadcast television. “Tongues Untied” screened on PBS in 1991 despite right-wing screeching.
Another subject of right-wing public demonization in recent times has been the transgendered. Fear and hatred of the transgendered as some sort of modern-day pariahs has been stoked to justify public bigotry. So why not gift books from transgendered authors that de-Other the trangendered and show them to be people with very human and understandable problems?
Writer and poet Ryka Aoki’s luminous “Light From Uncommon Stars” takes place in California’s multi-Asian San Gabriel Valley area. Here, the lives of three very unique people cross. Young transgender runaway Katrina Nguyen has a musical gift with the violin. Legendary violin teacher Shizuka Satomi eyes Katrina as her key to lifting the Devil’s decades-long curse on her. Starrgate Donuts shop owner Lan Tran has a very visible emotional connection to Shizuka. But what will happen to the possibility of a relationship if Lan reveals she’s actually a retired interstellar starship captain seeking refuge from a war in outer space?
This moving novel captures the joy of listening to and making music. In addition, it takes three distinctly different fictional tones (mundane realism, deal with the Devil fantasy, and space opera) and magically balances them off against each other. Katrina’s tale grounds Aoki’s story, but Shizuka’s and Lan’s tales prevents the realities of Katrina’s life from feeling cripplingly oppressive to the reader. In turn, the wild fancies of food replicators and demonic visits of Lan’s and Shizuka’s stories get emotionally grounded by such details of Katrina’s struggles as the black eye and broken ribs her father gave her. At the very least, the book will make you wish somebody could create in real life an Alaska Donut (which is a lot bigger than a Texas donut).
Aoki’s friend and beloved local unapologetic trans weirdo and literary treasure Charlie Jane Anders amazingly put out three books in 2021 which offer a wide range of gift-giving options: Victories Greater Than Death, Never Say You Can’t Survive, and Even Greater Mistakes: Stories.
The delightful YA novel “Victories Greater Than Death” can be called “Star Wars” for readers who aren’t cishet white males. Supposedly ordinary high-schooler Tina carries a big secret: she’s the clone of a James T. Kirk-level starship captain. When the opportunity arises for her to finally go to the stars, she eventually finds herself falling far short of worthiness for the Chosen One pedestal. Fortunately, the found family Tina develops help ground her and teach her how to lead without hate. Elza, in particular, proves influential thanks in part to her anti-authoritarian nature. The highly transphilic air of Anders’ space opera will give transphobes of all ages the vapors. For the rest of us, that air primes us to await “Victories”’ upcoming sequel.
“Never Say You Can’t Survive” is a writing book that thankfully lacks the rule book tone or gate-keeping pretension of other writing books. Between the shout-outs to the recently concluded “She-Ra And The Princesses of Power” and “The Good Place,” the advice she offers comes out of her own personally hard-won experience. For example, abandoning a story that doesn’t gel for you isn’t an act of failure or shame as a writer. She ultimately shows how the act of telling tales can become a means of political empowerment. Anders’ book can inspire the recipient to imagine a better life for America than the GQP’s fascist meathook future.
“Even Greater Mistakes” collects some of Anders’ shorter fiction in one convenient spot. The pieces range in tone from “gonzo comedy to quiet introspection,” as Anders puts it. Her book of “intellectual speed dating” includes a sequel story to her amazing “The City In The Middle Of The Night,” a meditation on the link between violence and slapstick comedy, a look at the joys and pitfalls of a relationship between two people with precognitive powers, and a powerful confrontation with the trans/nb fear of their body becoming illegal. If the recipient is hesitant about committing to a full novel by Anders, this book will provide a satisfying sampler of her emotional range in stories.
Wild in a far different way is the film “Zola,” still available for home video purchase. Janicza Bravo dramatizes Aziah “Zola” Wells’ notorious Twitter saga about a pair of strippers whose money-making weekend trip to Miami goes so badly south that their friendship takes a permanent nose-dive. The account of this weekend of amateur-hour prostitution, truly sleazeball motels, and males of various levels of toxicity may not seem political. Yet the film’s also about stories and the people who tell them. It’s very hard to ignore the racial aspect of the film when the very white Stefani’s version of events denigrates the very Black Zola by claiming Zola was jealous and dressed in modified garbage bags.
Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and early 1990s have been more a source for artistic theft by white Hollywood talent than a recipient of peer respect. For those who wonder why such films are revered, the now available on home video “Raging Fire” will answer such questions. Veteran actor Donnie Yen plays a tough-nosed but honest Hong Kong cop pitted against a gang of disgraced cops led by a former protege played by Nicholas Tse. What lifts this film above copaganda aside from its astounding action sequences is that the objects of the disgraced cops’ revenge are respectable yet corrupt men who used those cops as scapegoats. Thanks to the new censorship rules Mainland China has imposed on Hong Kong’s film studios, director Benny Chan’s last film may be the swan song for seeing new balls to the wall action films from this part of the world.
Speaking of thrilling crime fiction, the Reckless graphic novel series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has expanded since a previous piece on the initial volume in the series. Two more books have come out this year and a third one will arrive next year. Protagonist Ethan Reckless’ cases wind up being tied into the seamier side of 1980s Los Angeles history with its villains being involved in snuff films or crooked urban redevelopment. But Brubaker and Phillips balance the series’ pulp detective staples by making its problem solver for hire lead a spectacularly flawed character. It also helps that Reckless resembles a younger Robert Redford.
Eleanor Davis’ powerful graphic novel The Hard Tomorrow may have come out a couple of years ago. But its very human question of the morality of bringing new life into a world going down the tubes remains timeless. For home healthcare provider and antiwar activist Hannah, her desire to have a baby with stay-at-home pothead Johnny needs to be measured against the harsh reality of a visibly worsening political situation.
Obviously, there’s no right answer on ideal political gifts. But here’s hoping the above suggestions can get the reader’s mental wheels turning.
Filed under: Arts & Entertainment