Thursday, March 15, 2007

Betty in the Balcony ... bitchin'!

I was so excited at the prospect of viewing this upcoming documentary by one of the great documentarians of our times; filmmaker Ken Burns. Maybe my expectations were simply too high -- after all, I've been pleased and eventually bored out of my wits by both his "Civil War" and "Jazz," and more recently by a repeat telecast of "Baseball." I keep forgetting how excruciatingly slowww-ly his work unfolds and of how frustratingly maudlin it sometimes becomes in the telling. Forget all that. I was open and willing to adjust my sails and join him for another saga of American life. After all, this was one I knew a little about ... this time I'd have some means of comparison with others ... something of importance to me, personally.

However ...

At the very outset Burns appeared on stage before the curtain to announce that he had quite deliberately chosen to tell the story of World War II from the standpoint of four American cities; Burlington, Connecticutt; Mobile, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; and Sacramento, California. Until we arrived at the theater that evening I had no idea why the all-important San Francisco Bay Area had been bypassed for Sacramento since we were surrounded by points of embarkation; the Alameda Naval Air Station; the Oakland Army Base; Oak Knoll Naval Hospital; four Kaiser Permanente shipyards in Richmond; Oakland's Moore's Shipyard and Hunter's Point in San Francisco; Marinship in Marin County; the Letterman Hospital and the Presidio at the edge of the Golden Gate; Port Chicago's arsenal; Lawrence Laboratories where the atom bomb had been developed; Camp Stoneman in nearby Pittsburg; and ultimately the creation of the United Nations just across the Bay in San Francisco only a few years later. All that, plus all manner and means of war-making enterprises and the amassing of man- and womanpower to "do the work" in numbers previously unheard of in all of history. Why then Sacramento?

As if in anticipation of an often-asked question from his pre-screening audiences -- in his first spoken sentences to the sold-out house he said, "We chose Sacramento in order to tell the story of the Japanese who were living in that area and who were interned for the duration of the War; and in some instances fought and died in our armed forces in segregated battalions." There it was. The great filmmaker had gone for the low-hanging fruit, and ignored the story that brought greater socio-political change to the nation than any period since the Civil War of the mid-last century.

He stated quite frankly that he had deliberately chosen to tell the Japanese story over the telling of the African American experience in order to relate the stories through its effects upon a series of individual American families. I felt my heart sink ... but that was only the beginning:

As we watched the footage (fairly long film clips of the 14-hour segments) unfold, I watched in a quiet rage as he pictured from the air -- a long shot of a Japanese internment camp (Manzanar?) to the music of Duke Ellington's "In my solitude ..." as the sound track! Later in another segment showing a village in the Phillipines, and from another shot from the air comes the voice of Billie Holiday singing, "... every time it rains it rains, pennies from heaven." How could this be?

I have no idea how much black music was used (as "American" music, of course) in the telling of this history -- expropriated for the telling of the stories of others -- while the black experiences had been intentionally set aside.

I sat in that balcony feeling marginalized in much the way I'd felt marginalized at twenty as I participated in "The War" from the sidelines in a Jim Crow union hall a few miles away from the building of the great ships. What irony! Was I to give credit for Burns' having captured the period so accurately that those feelings of disaffection returned, authentically, as a part of my truth?

Was there no awareness -- not even in the mind of this talented present-day young documentarian, that the great Duke Ellington and the legendary Billie Holiday could not stay in the hotels where they might be allowed to play as they traveled through the south and beyond in those years? Did he not know that even these now revered historic figures of the music world were consigned to the back of the bus, could not enter the front door of most restaurants, and had to use separate restrooms and find "colored" doctors in times of need while traveling? How could he have been so unknowing as to usurp their music for the telling of the stories of others without understanding that the phantom pain for those of us who lived those years might be reawakened by his insensitivity?

But of course he knew. How could he not after having produced "The Civil War," "Jazz," "Baseball" or even "Mark Twain"? Burns knew but choose to ignore in favor of telling the (also compelling) story of the Japanese-Americans. His right, of course, but in so doing he missed what may have been the crucible of our times -- the time when the baseline was created against which we now can measure the nation's socio-political evolution of the last half-century.

Did he not know that -- within four years after the great explosion at Port Chicago where so many young lives were lost, and largely because of that tragic event combined with the outstanding but unrecognized wartime performance of the Tuskeegee Airman in the skies over Europe -- President Harry Truman brought an end to racial segregation in the armed forces by proclamation and started the country on a decades-long course of incremental change? Was Burns not aware that the seeds of dramatic social change were sown in those years -- seeds that led to the great Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties 20 years hence -- that opened the doors to the social movements that would bring new energy to the struggle for women's rights; gay rights; and that brought about restitution for the wrongly-interned Japanese-Americans, and even today -- to the review of immigration policies of a new group of freedom-seeking peoples from outside our borders? Could he not have known that -- rising from the World War II experience and the resulting social changes introduced through the black experience on both the battlefield and the home front -- life began to change for us all?

All the way home I kept reminding myself that I was having feelings that were inappropriate to the occasion. After all, Ken Burns had created an epic 14-hour series that was about "The War," and not about "The Home Front." His series was about death and destruction and displacement and more death and destruction -- in the way of earlier works about D-Day and the Landing at Omaha Beach and the Bombing of Dresden -- and my responses were emotional and unfair. I was seeing this cherubic filmmaker suddenly as overly pious and a bit precious with his little-boy-British-haircut and prep school blazer and I was being critical in ways that I'd regret tomorrow as unnecessarily narrow and cruel.

But -- most of all -- I was again feeling that unfinished -- awful -- unrequited need for that apology. Understanding. Attention, maybe! And most of all, some sense that in some way someone will notice the staggering and debilitating on-going agony of the black youth of our times and make the connections with times that predicted their tragedy by ignoring the societally-inflicted wounds of the past they have no way to remember; except when the documentarians, the filmmakers, begin to tell their stories through the telling of the heroic and sacrificial stories of their parents and grandparents -- and tell them honestly, comprehensively with full disclosure -- as a major force in American history. Or, to forever consign those stories to insignificance by the simple act of omitting them from the record.

How dare he!

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