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Archive for January, 2007

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You Should Watch:‘American Gangster’

Despite the somewhat sensationalistic aspects of the commercials and the website (take the ‘How Gangster Are You?’ Quiz…), as well as the in-print tendency to call it “BET’s controversial new series”, BET’s ‘American Gangster’ is not the trashy, tabloid crime show it might look like. The most impressive part of the show may be that it could be trashy and still get me and millions of others to watch but is instead, a very smart series. It is in the style of A & E’s ‘American Justice’ or ‘Notorious’ but with a smarter point of view that wavers between reverie and disdain while being ethically concerned. The show is wise enough not to take an extreme stance that treats these criminals like animals. Instead, it tries to show them as realistically as possible. It doesn’t always succeed but that is part of the show’s appeal. As I watched a few episodes, I got the feeling that each episode had a distinctly different attitude and style. I found this chat transcript with executive producer Nelson George, where he says that “each show had its own set of writers”. That’s a smart move because it makes the show less predictable from week-to-week and exposes viewers to more than one point of view. It makes the series, when taken as a whole, a lot more complicated and contradictory. For example, the show’s position towards drug-dealing can be mixed-up. Fat Cat Nichols’ adding to the destruction of his neighborhood through crack sales is addressed, but in a conventional “give the bad-stuff a few minutes” way. However, the effect on Nichols’ family is made palpable by interviews with his incarcerated son and younger son who never got caught up in it all. In contrast, the Nicky Barnes episode seems very critical. I can’t help but wonder if Barnes is taken to task because he was ultimately “a snitch” and because he sold heroin which is idiotically perceived as “worse” than selling crack. The episode about ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross focuses less on Ross’ life and more on the bigger picture, you know, CIA conspiracies, crack being placed in the black community, all the good stuff. In that episode, just by seeing home video footage of Ross in regular clothes, bouncing around his neighborhood like Mac Dre, you get a sense of how insignificant he really was compared to the drug trade, “the drug war,” and the CIA.

If the show does sensationalize or celebrate these gangsters even as it shows their downfall, that’s positive too. For too long, there’s been a ridiculous racial divide in true-crime writing, where the mafia is called “organized crime” while Nicky Barnes is still referred to as a “drug kingpin” or drug dealer. Mafia members are never called “extortionists” or “murderers”. Just equating these black criminals, just calling them “gangsters” instead of “gangstas” is a good move towards making people’s perceptions more balanced. And balance is what makes the show incredibly honest and realistic. It never devolves into making these dealers completely victims of society or poverty but does not shy away from the economic conditions that made them think dealing was a good way out. If you read that transcript of Nelson George (who has always been a balanced, realistic writer), he’s incredibly sober about Tookie Williams, saying he doesn’t think he should have won a Nobel prize and doesn’t think he should have been spared the death penalty. In the ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross episode, there’s plenty of evidence that Ross really was totally fucked-over in the end, but the show reminds us that he wouldn’t have been fucked-over had he not decided on a life of crime and it says that ‘Sesame Street’-simple message in a way that never feels preachy. The show is just really well-done. Aesthetically, it all fits together in a way that isn’t corny or melodramatic. Ving Rhames’ narration serves its purpose, the interviews are well-done and the show is well-edited. The most impressive production aspect of the show may be all the amazing old footage they intercut with interviews. This amazing, old Super-8 footage of late 60s Harlem, what often looks like personal home video, or disturbing footage of twitching junkies and crack casualties. Where did they find all of this? There aren’t a lot of good black filmmakers that get support (Spike Lee doesn’t count), but the existence of ‘American Gangster’, reminds me of Stanley Nelson’s excellent ‘Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple’, another film with a sober but sympathetic outlook. Sixteen million people tuned-in to watch ‘American Gangster’ while ‘Jonestown…’ played in one theater in my whole state for two weeks; let’s hope BET or somebody notices the audience for this well-made show and gives some others opportunities to make something good.

-Episodes of ‘American Gangster’ premiere on BET Tuesdays at 10pm.

Written by Brandon

January 3rd, 2007 at 7:23 am

Posted in American Gangster, BET

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Suggestion for a Mix CD (with instructions): How To Enjoy Rap Music If You’re a N00b
1. Wisdom Body – Ghostface (from ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx)
2. Seven by Seven (Single Version) – Hawkwind ( from ‘In Search of Space’ Reissue)
3. I Luv It – Young Jeezy (from ‘The Inspiration’)
4. Reunion – Slum Village ft. J-Dilla (from ‘Detroit Deli’)
5. Whitecaps Of White Noise I – Tim Hecker (from ‘Harmony In Ultraviolet)
6. Trill – Clipse (from ‘Hell Hath No Fury) Remove the last two seconds of the track.
7. Interlude – J-Dilla (from ‘Ruff Draft EP’)
8. Beta – Franco Battiato (from ‘Pollution’) Remove first 2 minutes and 06 seconds of the track
9. Guess Who’s Back – Scarface ft. Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel Keep piano interlude that plays up to ‘My Block
10. Return Of The Super Ape – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (from ‘Return Of The Super Ape’)
11. Planet Caravan – Black Sabbath (from ‘Paranoid’)
12. Celestina – Tim Hecker (from ‘Mirages’)
13. Deja Vu – Nas (from ‘Unreleased Demos’ floating around file-sharing programs)
14. Fall Breaks And Back To Winter – Jim O’Rourke (from ‘Smiling Pets’)
15. Da Introduction – Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (from ‘E. 1999 Eternal’)
16. Sequence 2 – Fabio Frizzi (from ‘Zombie/Zombi 2 OST’)
17. What We Do – Freeway ft. Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel (from ‘Philadelphia Freeway’)

Happy New Year!

Written by Brandon

January 1st, 2007 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Lists, mix CD