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The Butler in Three Reviews

The White Review:
If the fact that Oprah is in it isn’t enough to get you to a theater to see a film directed by a black person, let me further make the case here that you should if for no other reason than Lee Daniels has gone through great pains to make a black film for white people. Shout out to the one Random Evil White Guy in a bowling shirt and slacks who shouts “Get out of here nigger!” in every film about racism.

The Black Review:
You all were at the last meeting. You all know we have to buy a ticket for it regardless, so you might as well go see what they’ll be nominating Forest Whitaker for next year.

The Cinephile review:
The ADD version of this review is, “eh, DVD.” Go enjoy the rest of your day.

Whitaker works hard here and Oprah is fine. Most of the casting leaves a lot to be desired, though I did enjoy the 30 second dollops of a trifling Cuba Gooding Jr. here and there. Most of the presidential casting – which is a big draw for this film that’s wasted once you see it, since all of them appear collectively on screen for about 15 of the 132 minutes of the film – is way off: Robin Williams is a serviceable Eisenhower, Alan Rickman is a just-okay Reagan, and Liev Schreiber is a strong Johnson, though more for his affectations than his looks. But Schrieber should have been cast as Nixon and John Cusack should have been outside the studio parking cars. And will we EVER get a JFK that actually looks like JFK? Is it that hard to find someone who can do it? Let’s get Chris Pine in a make-up chair and get it done, Hollywood, jeez.

In BET casting news, Nelsan Ellis is the second best Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve seen (and he could really rival the first - Jeffrey Wright - with a better wig), while Terrence Howard’s mumbling ass appears in a completely unnecessary subplot that goes nowhere. Don’t cry for him though: he’s got plenty of company on the editing floor. Like a number of characters who were so interesting they had to be cut out so that the filmmakers could still call the film The Butler. I at least hope there’s footage on the editing room floor because if the characters in this film were all written the way they more or less appear, Danny Strong needs to stop writing and go back to acting in bad feel-good movies.

A final word on casting, because thinking about the sheer number of wasted characters in this film makes my head hurt: like many directors, Daniels likes to work with a handful of actors over and over. What I can’t figure out is why his crew consists of Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey and Cuba Gooding Jr. Cuba, I understand; he can actually act. But Kravitz mostly stands around looking sleepy, a veritable avatar of the phrase “sleepwalking through a role”; and Carey is in the film a whopping two minutes with maybe one speaking line. They could have saved themselves all kinds of money by hiring any of the extras in the back to do what she did here. My point is, if you’re gonna’ have a crew, at least have a crew of actors. The only reason they don’t spoil the movie is because the writing does that job for them, and they’re hardly on the screen anyway.

The main problem is, of course, the writing. The film lightly bills itself as a black Forrest Gump, with our stalwart Everyman bouncing from experience to experience with world events and dignitaries. The problem is that the character this happens to most in the film isn’t the butler, but his politically viral son Louis, played by the no-joke-in-any-other-film David Oyelowo, sporting the uncanny ability to look every age between 18 and 65 if you make him up right. His character unrealistically appears Zelig-style in almost every major moment of the civil rights movement: he’s on one of the iconic Freedom Riders bus that catches a bomb, ends up on national television after being ousted from a diner sit-in, shows up in a hotel room with Martin Luther King, Jr., and enjoys the finer points of speech-making at an Oakland site of the Black Panthers. This guy sees way more action than the character of his father, who is mostly resigned to serving drinks to five ill-cast versions of the eight presidents he actually served, who barely appear onscreen anyway.

Look: Forrest Gump is the penultimate Almighty Janitor film. Zelig wore the crown proudly for eleven years before everybody’s favorite accidentalist burst onto the screen. Any film that even remotely attempts to straddle eras and historical figures with a single character will be compared to Gump until someone figures out how to top it. The Butler wisely opts out of attempting to unseat the king. It has not, however, stopped them from billing it that way, which is in part why I’m being so hard on it. I have seen Forrest Gump. You, sir, are no Forrest Gump.

Blame it on the kid.

The outlandish circumstances we enjoy in Forrest Gump are able to be enjoyed because Forrest’s story isn’t supposed to be real on any level. It’s a complete fantasy that happens to intersect with actual moments and people in history. The Butler, by contrast, is supposed to be grounded in reality, and because we aren’t familiar enough with Eugene Allen’s story to ascertain how much of this is supposed to be real, we assume it’s at least trying to give us something resembling the truth in more than concept. In short, the expectation bubble is completely different, and we want a story that feels like it belongs in the bubble presented. Unfortunately, every time the magical transporting son of the butler appears at key moments of the front lines of the civil rights movement (in a clear attempt to educate rather than humanize or explore, mind you...yawn), we are knocked out of the bubble. Of course, humanizing people in stories isn’t Daniels’ strength...he prefers to go for the jugular, to shock an audience into awareness. Here it does grave disservice to what impact the movie might have had if it were simply told honestly and better. Focusing on any one of those moments in history could have made the point that needed to be made about the relationship between the son and the father, and by trimming down the number of Where in the World Is Black Power vignettes more time could have been spent expanding and maturing the characters and the story overall. Of course, it’s hard to make a case that the butler would have had much to do with these moments specifically in real life, but that’s why, once you decide you’re going to fictionalize it all anyway, you hire a better screenwriter than Danny Strong. I would have settled for a more Remains of the Day approach to this story than the mish mash of After School Specials I was subjected to in this film.

The Butler is a case of a film that means well, but is doing too much to get any one of the parts right. Is it worth seeing? I think so, though it depends on how much you want to spend on a film that’s flawed to high heaven and having an answer when white people stop you in stores to ask you if you saw it for the next month. And seriously: did we need another so-so film about black servants, no matter how genuine their story might be? That’s a lot of time and money on a story you mostly fictionalized anyway. I mean, “The Help” isn’t even cold to white people yet.


Shit My SlamMaster Says #106

Open mic is not a right; freedom of speech is a right.
Open mics are afforded opportunities.

Shit My SlamMaster Says #105

You nap between wins.
Last night I released a chapbook of poems digitally online, entitled Last One Given. It is notable less for its free price tag and more for the time in which it took me to write the work therein: two days. (The book lists it as three days but that's a technicality of time more than effort.)

This isn't the first time I've done it. In fact, I seem to be slowing down.

In 2010 I did a 30/1 exercise, composing thirty poems in one day for National Poetry Month (and because I wanted to see if I could). I took the experiment a step further and used a different poetry form for each poem. You can see that effort here: http://scottwoods.livejournal.com/354671.html

I played with other long poems (boy, DID I) and deadline exercises after that but the most notable one until yesterday was 2012's chapbook entitled Autumn, which was my first digital-only collection and was written in one day as well.It took me longer to write fewer poems than it did in the same amount of time, even though the form restrictions were far fewer. You can see Autumn here.

Which brings us to yesterday's release, which was written in two days, had zero form restrictions (though I did write a couple of forms into it, I did not REQUIRE myself to do so at the onset), and yielded the same number of poems.

I love these experiments. They generate a lot of poems at once, good or bad, and any real poet will tell you that you need both to be successful. I'm a marathon runner: I started sprinting, ran out of breath, learned how to run. Now just keep heading toward the next finish line. You tack seven 24-hour readings on top of that pile and that's some heavy poetry lifting.

And I can't wait to see what happens next.


*** This article is loaded with so many spoilers you're going to need a doctor's note to read it. ***
You have been warned. Don't blame me because you can't stop yourself from reading pretty fonts.
Last chance...

Okay, I'm going in.

While the recent airing of the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones is being touted by many as the most stunning two minutes of television ever produced, I'd like to point out just a handful of other times when America lost its collective shit during a cool TV show, not so much to take anything away from GoT, but to add perspective and cut down on hyperbole...by adding my own. In no order:

Read more...Collapse )


Shit My SlamMaster Says #104

"Innovation" does not mean "new to me."

What Poetry Features Cost: An Addendum

After the polemic I posted the other day about paying poets I have received requests for a follow-up in some areas, specifically what costs a poet might accrue to fulfill feature requests. In the interest of retaining your interest I will keep this particular follow-up short by comparison. National Poetry Month is coming, and we all have poems to write, yes? I preface this commentary by stating that exceptions exist, and that these statements should in no way be construed as being immutable or non-negotiable. Each case is its own. I provide the following merely as a starting point for future discussions, which too often digress and burn out before they do much good because they have to start from scratch every time they occur.

So let’s say you get asked to do a 20-30 minute feature at a reading that starts at 8:00 PM that’s two hours away, to which you will drive your own car. (While this may sound like a very specific sample, all of these factors are relevant to the math needed to answer the question, and fairly common as feature requests go.)

First, you’re not JUST being asked to do a 20-30 minute feature; you’re being asked to attend the show around your feature as well. This shouldn’t be read as having to endure some kind of gauntlet. I love watching other people’s shows. It’s just an observation that whatever value a poet’s appearance may be has to consider that they aren’t just coming from the other side of town like everybody else on the open mic, and that they can’t just up and leave when they’re done. You’re on the hook for a 2-3 hour show no matter how long your feature is. This isn’t a cost in the traditional sense – it’s not money out of your pocket unless you’re missing out on a money making opportunity to be there. It might be time you would have spent on the couch anyway. Whatever. It is, however, time, and time is as big a deal for many people as money. Ask their families. In any event the score here is:


So far so good. Well, if you’re living in an era in which free teleportation exists, that is.

There’s the 8:00 start time to consider which, if you’re driving in, might mean you need to take off at least an hour from work that day, if not more. No matter what you make per hour or whether or not your job is “paying” for the time (PTO, vacation leave, etc.), that’s time and money out of your pocket. If you make $13 an hour, that prep time cost you $13 or an hour of freedom. If your feature doesn’t even pay $13, the poet is already in the hole before they even get in the car.

POET TAB: $0 + X = X
Wherein X = what you make per hour at your job. So if X is $13 = $13

Drive time is a gimme. Two hours anywhere is about 300 miles round-trip. And guess what: the cost of gas isn’t going down. If it takes $40 to fill your tank and you spend about 3/4th of a tank to get to and from a gig two hours away, you’ve spent $30 in travel.

POET TAB: $0 + $13 + $30 = $43

That’s the BASE MINIMUM of what it cost a poet to get to you from two hours away. Kind of cheap, huh?

Mind you #1: That number does not include things like wear and tear to their vehicle (which, according to AAA, would add about $175 to this tab), what it cost to produce merch, provisions while on the road, parking fees, any environmental or psychic costs, or WHAT YOUR NAME OR YOUR ART IS ACTUALLY WORTH. This is what it cost the WORST POET EVER to get to a feature, let alone someone you actually like, respect or put on a flyer in an attempt to entice an audience. If you don’t or can’t pay a feature from out of town $50 just to cover their costs they may as well be the cat who gets up in your open mic and craps on the stage every week reading Kmart ads in a death metal voice between bouts of being able to afford his prescription meds.

Mind you #2: This isn’t what it cost for 20-minutes of a poet’s time…this is what it cost for EIGHT HOURS of a poet’s time (1 hour of work off, 2 hours on the road, 2-3 hours at a show, 2 hours back on the road). If you went to your job and they told you that you had to work for 8 hours (no lunch!) and that you wouldn't be paid at the end of the day, Django Unchained would suddenly start to seem very autobiographical.
Mind you #3: $50 was the going rate for a coffee house feature ten years ago, back when gas was $1.50 on a bad day. If you got lucky and found gas DOUBLE that today you better drive to that station before they realize their sign is wrong. So honestly? The going rate for an out of town feature needs to start higher than it did at the turn of the century.
Of course, many of your gigs aren’t two hours away. If the gig is, say, 8 hours away your costs explode. A day off of work is going to cost you $104, you’re going to spend $70-80 in gas getting there, tolls and parking will run you from $10-40 or worse, then you have to spend $70-80 in gas coming home. You might consider going in to work the next day even though you’ll be dead on your feet just to save on your PTO/vacation time, or just to make that day’s nut. Bottom line? That trip is going to cost you $254 - $304. I won’t even do the bus/plane math here.

In conclusion, the point of all of this information is not to suggest that every gig must pay back what it cost. Again, that is a personal and professional decision that should be weighed on a case-by-case basis. Some gigs can’t pay, and some cats don’t mind that.* Just because you can’t pay doesn’t mean you can’t ask. But let’s be clear: talking about money for art isn’t about being, as one booker leveled against me, “about the money.” What this is about is framing artistic value in concrete live-your-life terms, and how paying your features honors that value.

* For myself, I allot a certain number of free gigs per quarter within a certain distance, and that allotment changes from year to year or season to season, depending on what I’ve got going on.

10 Observations on Paying Poets

National Poetry Month is coming and poetry requests are in the air…or rather, free poetry requests are in the air. While I have written elsewhere on the mind-boggling and pioneering concept of paying for the performances and work of poets like any other artist, it remains a necessary observation to make now and then.

No one can stop you from asking a poet if they will come feature at your event without compensation, nor am I suggesting that there aren’t times when a freebie isn’t warranted if it can be negotiated, say, for charity or fundraising or as a favor.

That said, there are lots of reasons why you generally shouldn’t.

For instance, I don’t believe I’ve met the poet who believes that no other poet should try to make a living off of their art. Despite this observation, I have met plenty of people who don’t think they should be the one that contributes directly to that reality in any concrete way.

How to ask: Lead with what you are offering.

Do not lead with a date to see if a poet is free. Forget that it is unprofessional; you put the poet in the unnecessarily awkward position of having to ask if the trip is worth the considerable effort they are likely to spend to get to and perform for whatever audience you have. A lot of poets clam up when put in this position and don’t ask about money, make the trip, do the gig and then leave with nothing for their trouble, cursing all the way home…all things that could have been negotiated by simply putting what you have to offer on the table. What the poet offers is clear; what you offer is not.

I do free gigs sometimes, sure. I allot for that in my mission, budget and needs. But don’t make me the bad guy for asking. Every hour I take off of work to go do a gig is an hour I don’t get to use for vacations or when I’m sick. I know how much an hour of day job work pays, and what it cost. If you can’t at least match that, I’m losing out on the deal.

If you intend to pay out of the door but can’t guarantee what that amount might be, that should be made clear up front. Don’t hook a poet for nothing, then make it “better” by giving them something at the end of the night. It will be appreciated, but if this is how you handle all of your features anyway, just say so and let them make an informed decision. Why risk being turned down flat when you had every intention of paying?

I don't need to be paid for every gig. I need to be properly informed of the important details up front so that I can make a decision that benefits all parties and doesn't waste anyone's time.

If you can send a team of poets to a regional competition or the National Poetry Slam or on a field trip to a show in another city, you can carve out $50 for an out of town poet. Hell, $50 was the going rate over a decade ago. If you aren’t/can’t pay that in 2013, you’re already under the fucking jail.

If you charge admission but don’t pay a dollar to a performer who is headlined on your press, that is wrong.

You can afford gas money. If you cannot afford gas money, you should spend more time figuring out how to do so instead of figuring out how to fill every week on your calendar with a free poet.

When economies tank the arts are the first thing to suffer. Art is the thing that audiences can trim from their budgets. Even when economies are fat, arts struggle for attention and support. You do no one any favors by committing them to gigs that pay nothing but potentially cost everything. A parking ticket, moving violation, getting towed, or sudden repair can send a traveling poet’s resources right down the toilet. Don’t compound that by being cheap.

Be honest about what a feature is actually bringing to your show in real dividends. You may discover that having a featured reader isn’t making or breaking why people come to your show as opposed to sitting on the couch. Take some time to determine if this is how you should be spending your time and resources. You may discover (as I did) that by creating a better show in other ways enhances the experience for your audience, and costs you little or nothing to implement.

Allowing a poet to sell merchandise is not payment. It is what you were supposed to do anyway.

Networking is not payment. We live in the age of the internet. Networking is happening when we’re asleep, if you have any following at all. Do not sell access to your coffeehouse clutch as “networking,” not unless your audience has A&R reps from publishing houses in it.

When I ask someone to perform for free at, say, the annual poetry slam at the Columbus Arts Festival, THAT is payment vis-à-vis exposure and networking. I’m going to put you in a primo spot under the best conditions that can be negotiated, and where the whole city potentially gets to see what you do and all you had to do was show up. Many festivals work this way because they know that exposure – real exposure – can be a boon to artists. Your coffee shop reading is not a festival.

Time versus pay.
I confront this matter differently than a lot of poets. I break out my costs based on what you want me to do and by how much time you want me to commit to it. So there is no free workshop followed by a free feature followed by the free “opportunity” to MC a portion of your show at the end of the night. I can’t speak for other poets, but I spend a lot of time and energy developing really strong workshops, poems and MC skills. It is wrong to give away that set of resources with any regularity and then wake up every day complaining about how much you hate your day job.

There are plenty of poets who are more than happy to perform for nothing, or for the experience. While they don’t care that they didn’t get paid, I do not believe they should have to work for free.

You don’t get to dictate how much another artist’s dues should cost unless they ask you to.

None of this is about ego or anger or reputation. What it’s about is the cost of gas, wear and tear, vacation time usage, driving while black, getting towed, parking costs, taxi fares, airport security hassles, and getting back merch costs. Nowhere in this essay have I mentioned how a poet’s reputation, experience or quality of work should change the rubric of paying for what you get. That is because if you can’t agree (not “can’t do”, but “don’t believe in”) on the basic principle of paying for an artist’s work then it doesn’t matter who that artist is…you’re wrong.

Shit My SlamMaster Says #103

Some people don't need to become better poets. They need to become better people. 

Shit My SlamMaster Says #102

We need to differentiate between when I am insulting you and when you just don't like what I'm saying.

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