• Theatre Review: Yellowman


    With Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer-nominated tale, Yellowman, local director Weyni Mengesha adds to an already impressive list of works showcasing the powerful voices of black female playwrights featured on Toronto’s vibrant theatre scene. Showing until November 14th at the Berkley Street Theatre, the play is a co-production of Nightwood Theatre and Obsidian Theatre. It is also part of Nightwwod Theatre’s ongoing “4x4 Festival: An Off-Road Event of Women Directors.”

    To mark its 30th anniversary season, Nightwood Theatre pooled from an inspiring repertoire of plays by contemporary women playwrights. Of course, Toronto’s Weyni Mengesha is no stranger to exploring the black female experience on stage. The award-winning director/dramaturge and Soul Pepper Academy grad is well-known for her impressive directorial work with da kink in my hair (TheatrePasse Muraille/Mirvish Productions/Hackey London), blood.claat (Theatre Passe Muraille/New York Hip Hop Theatre Festival), The Taxi Project (Pen Canada), Blink (Soulpepper/Luminato), and A Raisin in the Sun (Soulpepper Theatre/Theatre Calgary).

    Yelloman, written by actress, poet and playwright Dael Orlandersmith, is a story about the internal ravages of black-on-black racism and it’s all-too-real external manifestations. It takes place in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region among the Gullah-Geechee people.

    The two-character play features Alma (played by Ordena – ‘da kink in my hair and Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God), a dark-skinned woman who was raised by her uneducated mother, Odelia. Her mother’s ingrained self-hatred casts a venomous shadow over Alma’s self-worth and identity as a black woman. Born of a union between a light-skinned father and her dark-skinned mother Odelia, Alma feels abandoned by her father for being too dark and reviled by her mother for being a shade lighter than her. The other character, Eugene (played by Dean Marshall – Save My Lost Nigga Soul and DaVinci’s Inquest) is a light-skinned man born of the union between a dark-skinned father and light-skinned mother. Eugene also experiences a tense and confrontational parental relationship with his dark-skinned father. Eugene’s father’s inward-turned racial hatred manifests itself in the overt resentment of his son’s light complexion.

    Alma and Eugene find comfort in each other as they both struggle to break from these suffocating legacies of generational internal racism. Despite the prejudices of their parents and community, Alma and Eugene grow from childhood friends to forming a strong bond of love.

    The play is very monologue-heavy but the ability of the actors to convincingly play various characters and age ranges allows the story to move along smoothly.

    Through its raw and honest language, Yellowman leaves few stones unturned in the exploration of the soul-shattering legacies of shadism inherited from slavery. The experience leaves the audience both touched and wiser about the possibilities of the undaunted spirit.

    DATES: Until November 14, 2009

    SHOW TIMES: Mon - Sat at 8:00 p.m., Wed 1:30 pm, Sat at 2:00 p.m.

    TICKETS: Single Tickets: $20 - $45, Mondays: PWYC, Previews: $25, Passholders save over 50% on tickets

    LOCATION: Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street

    Available by calling (416) 955-0101 or online at http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/

  • The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble Keeps Toronto Dancing


    As Toronto is still abuzz from last week-end’s mesmerising performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre marking their 50th anniversary, dance Immersion keeps us on our dancing toes with their upcoming showcase presentation of the acclaimed Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. In its 38th year, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble is one of the top Black dance companies in the United-States.

    CPRD [Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble] will pay homage to the works of the legendary choreographers Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) and Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) at Harboufront’s Enwave Theatre between May 29th - 31st, 2008. In addition, Artistic Director Cleo Parker Robinson will be in residence following the Showcase presentation for the week of June 2 - 8 to conduct workshops in CLEODANCE - a method that deals not only with the technique of a dancer but their heart, mind and spirit. The workshops will take place at the National Ballet School.

    AfroToronto.com had the opportunity to recently speak with both Cleo Parker Robinson, directly from Denver, and with dance Immersion’s Artistic Director, Vivine Scarlett.

    Cleo Parker Robinson told us that she was looking forward to coming back to Toronto for the second time to perform. CPRD first performed in Toronto last year when the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference (IABD) was in town. Organized for the first time outside the U.S. by dance Immersion, whose mandate is to support and showcase dancers and dances of the African Diaspora, last year’s IABD was a great opportunity to bring in, quoting Vivine Scarlett, “a lot of international professional artists – which infused a lot of things into the community - dance and otherwise. Cleo Parker Robinson was really well received so we decided to bring her back.”

    We get a great sense of Cleo Parker Robinson’s truly community-focused approach to dance when she talks to us about her dance master class which she will teach at the National Ballet School for the week of June 2nd-8th:

    “You have to experience it. I called it Cleo Dance because it is a combination of all of the great teachers that I’ve had and the wonderful experiences... It will happen because of who comes. The way that class is shaped is based upon who is present. If there are musicians, then the musicians have a role. If there are poets, they have a role.... I learned to be, I guess you should say, really flexible and pliable. I mould the experience to the vibration of the people who are present....  I think teachers can be very boring.”

    She humorously recounts how she would walk into one of her own classes and ask the students present: “who is the teacher?” They would say “I don’t know”. “They walked into the class not knowing who the teacher was but they definitely knew who the teacher was when they left. When they do a Clio Dance they are privy to know not only who the teacher is but... they know who they are.” she adds.

    This approach and philosophy definitely fits within dance Immersion’s belief that “what needs to happen for the dance artists’ growth is inspiration, connections with other artists” as Vivine Scarlett explains.

    In Cleo Parker Robinson’s own life, dance entered her world in just such a communal fashion. She grew up in Denver, Colorado and got her introduction to performing arts and dance in a theatre where her father was the janitor.

    “What I learned early is if you’re exposed to the arts, you can have an inspiration. I want to do that. You’ve got to be inspired.”

    By the tender age of fifteen, Cleo Parker Robinson got a job teaching dance at a neighbourhood youth program. Robinson recounts her amazing story:

    “I was paid to teach dance very young.... I learned to drive at 16 and I was running around teaching dance. I loved children. But I had another teacher who, at that time, taught at the University of Colorado... she said I would like you to take over y classes at the university. I’ll be back in a week. She didn’t come back in a week and when she did come back, she said: “Cleo, those classes are yours.” So I continued to teach.... sort of circumstantial by they become your destiny.”

    Growing up during the time of segregation, the product of a bi-racial marriage, she found that dance was one thing that brought all races together; particularly in her small community in Denver. “You would find Black, whites, Chicanos and Asians and Native Americans coming together through their love of music. And then of course when you have music you’ve got dance. They loved to dance. You couldn’t keep me from dancing.”

    Cleo Parker Robinson’s study of dance as an art-form was highly influenced by the work of Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham. She would see them on television and was intensely aware that these were special cultural moments. Sharing those eye-opening experiences, she says:

    “I loved the stories that related to the African-American experience because I didn’t get to see [much of that]. So I longed to know more about... our community and about the culture. I knew that there weren’t enough of those storytellers.”

    Katherine Dunham was a modern dance pioneer who is known for blending classical movement with African and Caribbean rhythms. She was known as the Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance. Dunham was also a cultural anthropologist who traveled to the West Indies and elsewhere to study indigenous dances and their African roots. She helped bring a vital African-American dimension to modern dance. Dance legend Alvin Ailey credited her with influencing his technique and teaching.

    Cleo Parker Robinson will pay tribute to her two great mentors next week at the Enwave theatre with performances of Passionate Spirit – which features several works by Dunham. Alvin Ailey will also be remembered with the sensual and jazzy Escapades.

    “When I moved to New York when I was 19, I fell in love with Alvin Ailey. Not only Alvin Ailey and his company, but I fell in love with his school. Oh my god, the people and the world are here... speaking all these languages. And I said that’s the kind of environment I want to create.”

    Robinson also explains how her dance company’s direction was shaped: “One of the things that was important to me was to get to the Black community and change the attitude about dance. ... In order to do that, we had to deal with stereotypes.... Culturally we didn’t have Black men who danced.... [it’s been often seen] as a waste of time... a taboo. So dealing with those kinds of issues probably motivated me more. It made me determined to change that attitude.”

    Dance Immersion’s Artistic Director, Vivine Scarlett echoes Robinson’s sentiments when she speaks of her continued commitment to providing dance workshops to the community in the Jane & Finch area. She marvels at how, after proving their dedication, they have now been able to get Caribbean fathers to join in on dance and drumming sessions.

    But there can perhaps be no greater inspiration for anyone than the story of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble dancer Marceline Freeman. Now blind, she has been with the company for 36 years and will be performing in the Toronto shows next week. Describing her, Cleo Parker Robinson says that “she brings a great sense of integrity to the arts that young people who are coming to the arts need to have.... [a] sense of devotion or purpose.”

    dance Immersion presents the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble

    May 29 - May 31, 2008

    Harbourfront Centre''s Enwave Theatre, 235 Queen''s Quay West

    Performances: Thursday - Saturday at 8pm; Friday and Saturday matinees at 1pm

    Evening Prices: $30; Students & seniors $25; Groups of 10+ - $20/person

    Matinee Prices: $20; Groups of 10+ - $10/person

    Box Office: 416-973-4000                 Info: danceimmersion.ca OR  416-203-0666

    Artistic Director Cleo Parker Robinson will be in residence following the Showcase presentation for the week of June 2 - 8 to conduct workshops in CLEODANCE - a method that deals not only with the technique of a dancer but their heart, mind and spirit. The workshops will take place at the National Ballet School.

  • Wise.Woman: An Interview with Rebecca Fisseha


    How far would you go to find yourself? This is the question that Ethiopian-born playwright Rebecca Fisseha asks us to explore in her first full-length play and main stage production, Wise.Woman, now showing at Toronto’s Theatre Centre (1087 Queen W). The play, which opened on February 20th, comes to a close this coming week-end with three more days of presentations.

    Rebecca Fisseha is an emerging playwright, and York University graduate, who honed her writing skills as a member of current’s rAiz’n the sun training ensemble. She originally submitted Wise Woman of Abyssinia to rock.paper.sistahz III 2004. Other works featured as workshop productions with b current, Obsidian and the SummerWorks and Crosscurrents festivals are: February, The Exhibition of Love, Leaving Home, The Product and Daughter’s Last Supper.

    Wise.Woman tells the story of a westernized young Ethiopian woman, Saba, who goes back to her ancestral land to marry her childhood sweetheart, Solomon. The play also explores the ancient tale of Queen of Sheba (Queen Mak’da)’s visit to the land of Judah. We thus find the main character, played by Cara Ricketts, assuming both the modern and ancient roles of Saba and Queen Mak’da.

    AfroToronto.com recently had the opportunity to interview Rebecca Fisseha about her play:

    AT: The play talks about a journey of self-discovery and cultural reawakening. This is very relevant for multi-cultural Canadian youth. What has the response been so-far in workshops and the current production from Ethiopian and other youth?

    RF: I believe they are very happy to see a show that references stories, locales and expressions that are familiar to them either because they grew up in that environment or know it second hand from their parents or extended family. Seeing live theatre on stage by people who for the most part look and sound like them has also been refreshing. They appreciate the scale and look of the show as well as the message of self-reliance that it communicates. I hope that we will have more opportunities to perform for school and community groups in the future so that we can get more detailed feedback from the youth.

    AT: What did that journey in writing Wise.Woman bring to you personally?

    RF: It allowed me to comprehend one aspect of my cultural heritage in a way that I probably wouldn't have had it not been for the time and thought that went into writing the play. Now that I have completed it, I feel brave enough to apply the same interpretive twist to the many other traditions, stories, myths and legends that I have grown up with and find out what they mean to me personally. With Wise.Woman, I came to see the story of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba not only as the nation-founding legend it has always been presented as, but as the story of one woman who chose to go her own way -"into her own country"- and by doing so ensured her immortal place in history.

    AT: How did the play evolve from the initial conception through the fleshing out of the plot and ideas with a dramaturge and/or producer?

    RF: It evolved over approximately four years, with a lot of gaps in between where I wasn't necessarily writing or rewriting or researching or workshopping the script with actors and a dramaturge. I like to consider the gaps in between the times of activity as "simmering", because that  is when I processed, most often subconsciously, all the work that I had done on the script. The initial story was always the King Solomon and Queen of Sheba story. Out of that emerged the figure of a couple of tourists, a man and a woman. The play as it is today emerged out of continued exploration of the worlds of those two pairs of people, their humanity, their search for belonging and what I as a writer had to say about them from where I stand. My dramaturge and director ahdri zhina mandiela was instrumental in helping me articulate what I, Rebecca, had to say about this piece of history that I was dramatizing and juxtaposing with a modern story. Without that, the play would have rang hollow, it would have been purely presentational.

    AT: What impact do you hope the play will have on those who see it?

    RF: The repeated response so far has been that people have never seen anything quite like this show before. The mixture of old and new worlds, the creative use of chorus members to create setting and mood, the use of live singing and the blending of modern dialogue with ancient heightened text - a lot of it inspired by the Song of Songs - has created and I hope will continue to create a feeling of having been teleported to another place and time for those who see it. It is also an opportunity for audiences to experience a culture that is not often showcased on the stage, that of Ethiopia. As a bonus we have traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony on Sundays, so if nothing else people will walk away with a little organic East African caffeine running through their veins!

    AT: Where do you see the world of theatre going in Toronto with respect to diverse voices both on stage and behind the stage?

    RF: I expect that the future will be more of the present. We will see even more of what we are beginning to see in terms of diversity. However, it has also been said by those who have been at it longer than I that things move in cycles, so that a period of increased diversity will be followed by its opposite and so forth. So while I can''t predict with any certainty either way, it is in my interest to hope for the best. I look forward to the day when diversity becomes the norm as opposed to an exception that has to be highlighted every rare time that it makes an appearance.

    AT: A few words about the cast members?

    RF: The truly wonderful aspect of the cast of six and chorus of nine members is the multiplicity of cultural backgrounds that they represent. The group as a whole is a very accurate picture of the idea of Canada: people who originate from nearly every continent and call this place home for their own individual reasons. I really doubt that such a collection of individuals has ever graced a stage in Toronto theatre history. As well, they contribute quite a wide range of performance experience, from members who have several Stratford seasons under their belt to those who have recently begun their performance training under b current's rAiz'n training ensemble for emerging artists.

    Wise.Woman runs until March 8, 2009 at The Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen Street West (Queen & Dovercourt) on Friday and Saturday 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 6pm (weekday Matinees also available for Schools). Tickets are $15 for students & artworkers and $20 for adults, general. Tickets can be purchased online atwww.artsboxoffice.ca.

    For group sales, the teacher preview, and school sales call 416 533 1500 or emailThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  • Spence Gallery: Exploring the Diasporic Canvas


    Spence Gallery is a trendy art space, located in Mirvish Village, where Toronto art lovers can get a taste of contemporary expression from artists of Caribbean, Latin-American and African backgrounds.

    The gallery’s founder, Joan Spence, sought to fill a void within the city’s vibrant art galleries landscape. “I have this sort of mission” she told AfroToronto.com. While not an artist herself, she is a consummate art lover who wants to encourage “people to make art more central in their lives.” Being of Afro-Caribbean origin herself, she particularly hopes to encourage people from Toronto’s black community to embrace art more. People need to realize that they can actually own art and take it home.

    In a city so multicultural as Toronto, Spence wanted to make a space available for displaying good art originating from different cultures. Her gallery, which opened in July 2005, has been a vibrant hub for showcasing and promoting multi-cultural artists.

    Joan Spence promotes the work of close to 30 artists. With such a large roster, and running her gallery on a part-time basis, she isn’t currently looking for new artists. She says it’s akin to having 30 employees. Spence has established a wide array of contacts through the many shows she takes part in annually both in Canada and the United-States.

    While some of her artists garner a lot in interest in the United-States given the generally heightened welcoming of the arts south of the border, she has no plans of abandoning Toronto.

    A stroll though Spence Gallery will offer visitors a varied array of figurative art, portraiture, urban landscapes, as well as eye-catching mixed media pieces.

    Currently showing at Spence Gallery, until April 5th, is “Island Views”. It’s a show featuring three artists from three different Caribbean islands. Rosslyn Berot-Burns (Trinidad), Julio Ferrer (Cuba), Tamara Natalie Madden (Jamaica) take us along on their artistic journeys back to their former homeland. The exhibition helps us to appreciate and understand both the uniqueness and similarities of these Caribbean islands.

    SPENCE GALLERY  is located at 600 Markham (Bathurst & Bloor). For further information, please contact: Joan Spence, Director – 416 795 2787


  • Theatre Review -- Who knew grannie: a dub aria

    Who knew grannie
    Andrea Scott, Joseph Jomo Pierre, Ordena, Miranda Edwards and Marcel Stewart perform a scene from the Obsidian Theatre Company/Factory Theatre World Premiere of ahdri zhina mandiela’s who knew grannie: a dub aria playing March 13 – April 4, 2010 in the Factory Mainspace Theatre, Toronto. Nicola Betts Photography.

    Obsidian Theatre Company fittingly closes its landmark 10th anniversary season with the uplifting play, written and directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, who knew grannie: a dub aria. Currently playing at Factory Theatre until April 4th, who knew grannie recounts the tale of four cousins who reunite to reminisce and pay tribute to their beloved grandmother who has passed away.

    Through effective uses of familiar Caribbean sounds, rhythm and lights, the audience is transported along on the wings of the proverbial sankofa bird into the cherished childhood memories of these characters.

    Following the tradition of Jamaican dub poetry, who knew grannie: a dub aria brings onto the stage the power of the human voice and the agency of the African drum beat to recount a story of love, hope and family bonds.

    Pioneered in the late 1960s and 1970s Jamaican music scene, dubs were originally created by manipulating tracks of original music to create new mixes through the use of improvisation. Dub poetry grew out of that, through spoken word poets such as Oku Onuora, to introduce the performance of Caribbean oral tradition over reggae rhythms. A dub aria is, in essence, a further derivation of this tradition, now found in theatre, where the reggae music is replaced by human voices and percussion.

    In who knew grannie: a dub aria, we are introduced to the voices of five powerful characters portrayed wonderfully by: Miranda Edwards (Toronto the Good, The Madonna Painter) as likklebit, Ordena (The Real McCoy; ‘da kink in my hair; Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God) as grannie, Joseph Jomo Pierre (Born Ready; Pusha-Man; Hip-Hop Who Stole the Show) as tyetye, Andrea Scott (For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf; Omnium Gatherum; Kindness) as vilma and Marcel Stewart (Toronto the Good; Theatre of the Film Noir; MacBeth) as kris.

    Regardless of its format, a story is always best told by drawing the audience in through familiar references and personal connections. Regardless on one’s cultural background, it’s hard to leave the theatre without reflecting back on one’s own relationship with a family elder.


    who knew grannie: a dub ariais 80 minutes in length, with no intermission, and plays Tuesday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Factory Mainspace Theatre.

    Single tickets run $15 - $35 (discounts for previews, seniors, students or theatre artists as well as groups of ten or more) and may be purchased online at www.factorytheatre.ca 24 hours a day, or by calling (416) 504-9971 or by visiting the Factory Theatre Box Office in person Tuesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. - 7 p.m., at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide Street), Toronto. In addition, 3–play subscriptions, Pay-What-You-Can Sunday and a limited number of $10 RUSH tickets (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) are available.


  • Raven Dauda Talks About Doubt and Getting Intimate Again

    PicRaven Dauda

    Raven Dauda has been dazzling Toronto’s theatre circuit since the original stage production of Da Kink In My Hair at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2003. The actress, named in Now Magazine’s top ten theatre artists in 2008, has an impressive resume spanning television, the stage and film. She could be seen as early as 1997 playing a waitress in Wesley Snipe’s thriller, Murder at 1600. On the small screen, she has appeared in the fondly remembered Soul Food, amongst others, and has more recently appeared in a few episodes of Da Kink In My Hair on Global.

    Currently, Raven Dauda can be seen on stage in the CanStage production of the award-winning play by John Patrick Shanley entitled Doubt, A Parable. The play runs until May 30th at the Bluma Appel theatre (27 Front East). Originally premiered in New York city’s Manhattan Theatre Club in 2004, Doubt is set in 1964 and tells the story of a priest suspected of abuse at a school where he teaches in the Bronx.

    Dauda plays the role of Mrs Muller, the mother of the child caught in the middle of the abuse probe. Donald Muller is the only African-American student in the school and Mrs Muller desperately wants, almost at all cost, to see her son graduate from the school.

    Donald previously had problems at a public school. He also suffers from daily psychological abuse at home from his father.

    The story is set at the dawn of the Civil Rights era and Donald’s mother is adamant that this private Catholic school is her son’s ticket to a better life. When she is called to the school by Sister Aloysius (played by Seanna McKenna) to be told of the latter’s suspicions that her son was being sexually molested by Father Flynn (played by David Storch), Mrs Muller seems unwilling to confront the problem.

    Speaking to AfroToronto.com recently, Raven Dauda talked about her character’s motivations and moral dilemmas. “Basically my child needs to graduate from this school or else his future is in great jeopardy” says Dauda. In a chilling scene in the play, Ms Muller puts on mental blinders and even suggests that her son may have invited the priest’s sexual advances because of what she perceives as his homosexual tendencies.

    “People would think that her choices are not the best [and that] she is an unfit mother.... But really she’s looking at the bigger picture. She’s had such a hard life; her whole family has. She sort of like [is willing to accept] short term suffering for long term gain. It’s not the most ideal of situations and she totally understands that but life will still be a lot worse if her son doesn’t graduate....

    Mrs Muller is a fighter so she makes the best of every situation. And so that’s what she’s instilled in her son. I try to convince the sister that he’ll be okay. I’ve taught him how to take care of himself. And it maybe it’s not all bad. I may not agree with my son’s choices and who he is but I love him.”

    The play leaves the audience to decide whether or not the priest is guilty of the abuse and the motivations of Mrs Muller are left to debate. The controversy certainly leaves a lot more to be delved into. But perhaps that’s perhaps another play.

    This is a theme that can be found in the immigrant experience where the “us against them” mentality is prevalent. Having to prove yourself and work so much harder, perhaps at questionable costs. “Mrs Muller doesn’t want to rock the boat any more. Her hands are so tied by her circumstances that she really wants her son to just make it through” adds Dauda.

    Doubt, A Parable
    is one of two plays in which Raven Dauda graces the stage on the current CanStage season. She will be back in her critically acclaimed role of Esther Mills in Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel between Feb. 8th and Mar. 6, 2010, also at the Bluma Appel theatre.

    For the CanStage upcoming production of Intimate Apparel, Dauda will be reunited with Director Philip Akin. Speaking to AfroToronto.com about revisiting the play, she says:

    “The first time through I didn’t really know what to expect. It was my first time headlining a play like that. I’ve gotten leads in plays before but this was like running around and not having a minute to breathe. So I made the strongest choices I could in such a limited time and I’m looking forward to going back because now I’ll be able to breathe a bit more in the character.”

    Raven Dauda is really excited about revisiting this play. She adds that while she looks forward to lightly digging deeper into her character, “a lot of it is going to be the same because if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”


    DOUBT, A PARABLE by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Marti Maraden (Canadian Stage). At the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Runs to May 30, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$90, limited rush and Mon pwyc. 416-368-3110, canstage.com.

  • Child of the Sun

    An interview with Toronto spoken word artist heronJones

    Recently, local spoken word poet, activist, publisher and emcee heronJones officially added the title of author to his already impressive resume. His new book, I AM a Child of the SUN, was launched recently at a soulful event at Cervejaria restaurant on College Street. His flair for the dramatic and oratorical showmanship was evident throughout the night, but particularly poignant when, projecting his deep voice from the back of the room, he made a surprise entrance that seems to have caught event the event host off guard. On stage, he was joined by a drummer, and also occasionally by sultry singer Andrea Henry, to complement his mind-provoking poetic renditions.

    AfroToronto.com had the chance to talk to heronJones recently about his new book and where things are headed for him.

    I sensed a lot of deep introspection behind many of his poems and asked heronJones what inspires him to write poetry. “A lot of my inspiration comes from research that I do and the people that I deal with on a regular basis. … Usually the things that I take in go through me. They go through me like a filter and then they come out in my creative way.”

    Expanding on this topic of self-introspection, I ask heronJones why he chose to use a picture of himself as a child for his book cover. “I used to have a lot of anger as a child” he responds. In fact, the Toronto-native interestingly points out the he seems to share that experience with many people born in the Caribbean. Their childhood pictures often exude a sense of anger. “I think these kids have an idea that there’s something going wrong in the world. It’s not right and they can feel it. They can sense it. So that’s one of the reasons why I chose that picture.”

    Having come into the world in the area of Jane & Finch, and having spent his formative years in Brampton where he still resides, I ask heronJones how he sees this city’s spoken word scene’s evolution and overall direction over the years. He answers: “I think the scene’s been growing very rapidly over the past couple of years. There’s a lot of great artists. Not everyone is ready to perform but there are a lot of people that I meet on a regular basis who like poetry, who are singers or whatever else -- more bedroom artists. So we definitely have a lot of talent in this city. It’s just that I think the one thing that’s lacking is our network. We really don’t have a solid industry. I see we’re going in the right direction.” He definitely sees some light at the end of the tunnel. He sees the likes of Dwayne Morgan, Dbi Young and those who are currently at the forefront of the Toronto spoken word scene as being the ones with the mandate to lay the groundwork to continue to grow and build the industry for younger people coming up.

    Recalling his own early days as an evolving poet, heronJones says that he wrote from a very young age. “I used to write short stories and rap lyrics. So kind of from writing rhymes, it manifested over the years to spoken word poetry.” He had found a way to express myself and grew more and more confident as the years went by. Jones joined the spoken word circuit in the year 2000. So what is your true love, I ask him, slams or open mics? “I really love slams. I love slams just because of the competitive aspect of it. Just like any sports event, it’s got to be high intensity. I love to compete. I used to play basketball and now I use that energy I used in playing basketball and pour it into slam poetry. That’s where I get to compete. But Open mics still have their place and I still have a love for that because that’s where I started. I started doing open mics before I started doing any slams. It still has an intimate place in my heart.”

    So what’s next for the newly minted author heronJones? Sounds like he’s just getting started. He is currently in the midst of preparing a tour which should take him to as many Canadian and American cities as possible. Having performed in New York and Detroit, among others, in the past, he looks forward to his upcoming tour taking him to those places again and also to Philadelphia. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Philly” he says. He would also love to be able to perform in L.A. and Las Vegas.

    This exciting period has been long in the making for heronJones. Having been in the spoken word circuit for the past six years, which have also seen the publishing of three CDs, and the creation of a vital web-resource for Toronto’s spoken word scene with his website www.poeticsoul.ca, heronJones says that his new book I AM a Child of the SUN has “been a baby just getting ready to be born.”

    After three years in existence, his website, www.poeticsoul.ca has likewise continued to evolve. As heronJones points out: “First the vision (for the website) was to showcase or highlight the work of poet artists from the Toronto area. To let the audience know that there is a spoken word scene.” The site keeps visitors informed about poetry events around the city. Speaking of the site’s evolution over the years, Jones continues: “Now we’ve become more of a literary journal where we publish the work of upcoming authors, short stories, poetry, ballads and lyrics. … We’ve even put together a couple of contests where we’ve offered a prize of $500 to the best poem.” Through www.poeticsoul.ca, heronJones looks to put together a full publishing company that will focus on spoken word artists and providing a forum for mainly young black artists.

    Jones doesn’t plan on resting on his laurels following the publication of his first book. He is currently at work on several other books! “The main thing right now is preparing for the tour. But I’ve been very busy. I’ve got 4 or 5 books ready to go.” One of his upcoming book projects, due to come out in 2007, is the chronicling of the “R.O.M. Eleven.” He will document the brave actions of Toronto civil rights pioneers and elders who took on the Royal Ontario Museum in 1990 in protest of their racist “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibition. He’s also got some non-fiction stuff in the works dealing with religion from a secular perspective -- tackling the concept of exemplifying one’s “Christ within” by living faith everyday.

    You can find heronJones’ book, I AM a Child of the SUN, at A Different Booklist and Knowledge Bookstore. It is also available online at www.poeticsoul.ca. Watch for it soon too on Amazon.


  • Copper Woman: An Interview with Afua Cooper


    Fresh from her still unfinished cross-Canada book tour for her much-acclaimed The Hanging of Angélique, the beloved Toronto-based professor of history and dub poet Afua Cooper recently stopped by the Arbour Room of UofT’s Hart House to chat with AfroToronto.com. It was the day of the World Cup match between England and Sweden. Very conscious of her people’s history and its tortured relationship with England, Dr Cooper made it clear amongst the room’s over-capacity crowd of England supporters that she wished that Her Majesty’s men get beat by the Swedes. The three lions kept roaring on that day but, as we sat down to talk about her new book of poetry, Copper Woman, it was evident that Afua Cooper’s sense of history never leaves her.

    She tells AfroToronto.com:“My poetry voice is a different voice and distinct voice from my scholarly or academic work. It is different. I find as an individual, a creative person, that I have many voices. It’s not just two or one. As a poet, there are many voices that come through me.”

    In one of her poems from Copper Woman, she tells us about Phillis Wheatley, the first Black person in North America to write a book. She gives voice to her struggle as a frightened eight-year-old girl lost in the new world where the names of her ancestors no longer meant anything. Afua Cooper also uses the power of poetic verses in “Negro Cemeteries” to pay homage to the souls buried in Old Durham Road Negro Pioneer Cemetery near Princeville, Ontario and other places in Canada. While doing her academic research in history, Dr Cooper says that poetry is the one thing that always relaxes her. It’s a form of expression that she always comes back to. Her poems from Copper Woman were written over a ten-year period. It was constantly in the works alongside her academic historiography work. But as she acknowledges: “I find though that I can’t do both at the same time..... If I’m immersed in a particular piece of writing or a particular genre, I have to deal with that. … I might do both things the same week but not at the same time.”

    Nonetheless, Professor Cooper wished she had more liberty within the confines of the university system’s rigid academic disciplinary boundaries to engage her students with her history-inspired poetry. “I don’t teach poetry at all. I teach history. Here, you know, there are these disciplinary boundaries. If you’re in history, you’re in history. If you’re in sociology, you’re in sociology. If you’re in English literature, you stay there. … That’s kind of how they work.” Ideally, however, Afua Cooper would love to work in a more ecumenical environment where genuine cross-disciplinary studies are welcome. “So if you have a course like the African diaspora, that’s a great course for interdisciplinary stuff right? There’s literature, political science, and history and art, music. That’s something I’d like to do but I’d have to establish my own college” as she bemoans.

    So where did the title of her new book of poetry, Copper Woman, come from? Afua Cooper tells Afrotoronto.com that the title comes from her upbringing in Jamaica, where she was surrounded by older women around her who wore copper bracelets. She recounts: “As a little girl, I was always fascinated by these women wearing tons of copper bounds around their arms. Also [copper is] the metal of the goddess of love throughout the world. Copper is associated with Venus and with Oshun the Nigerian/Caribbean love goddess.”  Copper invokes many things for Afua Cooper. “In terms of felling, it invokes love, my skin colour, the skin colour of Black people in general, it invokes red for passion and, death and life and blood and all those things.”

    The theme of blood and continuity of heritage is a common theme found amongst a vibrant group of Toronto-based dub poets which Afua Cooper belongs to called the Dub Poets Collective. Founded in 2003, the organization is dedicated to promoting dub poetry as a vital cultural practice. The DPC members include: Lilian Allen, Afua Cooper, D’bi Young, Chet Singh, Clifton Joseph, Klyde Broox and Sankofa Juba. For the book launch event of Copper Woman, held on June 22 nd at the Lula Lounge, Afua Cooper, felt that it was important to have her fellow members of Toronto’s spoken word community be part of her book-launch. “We don’t do things by ourselves. … This is about sharing and this is about a celebration. All these poets are great poets” as Dr Cooper relates. The event was hosted by Clifton Jospeh and featured poets heronJones, Strong, Mel White, Peculiar I and drummer Greg Roy. The on-stage poetry was beautifully accompanied by live music by the Dub Trinity band. Afua Cooper, like all dub poets, has always had a history of performing with drums and music. “ It’s not music and poetry, it’s a mélange. It is both. The music expands the poetry.”

    Dr Cooper’s entire life has been shaped by dub poetry. From spending years around Jamaican dub poetry pioneers as a teenager, to becoming immersed in Toronto’s poetry scene in the 1980s, dub poetry is a central part of both her artistic and political souls. “It was a natural thing for me because you see, dub poetry in Jamaica came out of reggae music culture. That’s the culture it came out of. Which is political. It deals with a lot of politics and socio-economic issues. There’s no way from that. But of course dub poetry covers life, it covers everything. You will find a political sensibility in dub poetry which you probably will not find in other poetry streams.  The whole matter of social justice is at the heart of dub poetry” says Afua Cooper.


  • Our Home and Slave Land?

    Dr. Afua Cooper investigates the roots of slavery in Canada

    "How do we unearth the Black past -- one rooted in slavery? How do we recover the story of Angélique that lies buried in obscurity? The transcripts of her trial present themselves as the surest means to do so.... I make the bold claim that Angélique''s trial transcript constitutes the first slave narrative in North America."
    - Afua Cooper. From the Epilogue to The Hanging of Angélique

    During the course of Afua Cooper''s book launch for The Hanging of Angélique (HarperCollins), at a buzzing and jam-packed Gladstone Hotel two weeks ago today, George Elliott Clarke, in his usual passion-filled vocal delivery, praised Dr. Cooper for her kind of "guerilla scholarship" which she describes above. As Prof. Clarke introduced fellow UofT professor Afua Cooper to the amassed anticipating crowd, he took pleasure in reminding everyone that she was recently listed by Essence magazine as one of the 25 women who are shaping the world. The Hanging of Angélique is indeed a seminal work which will take its place as the authoritative treatise on the much-downplayed period of slavery in colonial-era Canada.

    The very concept of "slavery" associated with Canadian history customarily brings out a wide-ranging array of reactions. From outright denial, utter shock, ridicule, and even the apologetic, and may I add strange, characterization of Canada''s involvement in this terrible scourge of human history as a "mild" or "good" form of slavery. Canadians like to think of themselves as somehow "morally above" the inhumane slavery-tainted history and legacy of our neighbours to the south. After all, wasn''t Canada code-named "Heaven" by the African-American slaves of the Underground Railroad? Canada was the final stop. The land of freedom where they could experience their full humanity.

    Afua Cooper

    But Professor Afua Cooper challenges us to look deeper. Reminding her detractors that "denial is not going to help”, Cooper asks us to look beyond and before the Underground Railroad and confront the real history of Canada''s colonial times. “This is not a history that is inaccessible. The documents are there" as she points out to the audience at the Gladstone Hotel. When Dr. Cooper set out to write her book on the life and epic trial of Portuguese-born slave Marie-Joseph Angélique, she initially used her own resources to access the primary materials and was committed enough to her "guerilla scholarship" to learn French -- since the original court documents were in French.

    Who was Marie-Joseph Angélique? And what was this trial about? On Saturday, April 10, 1734, Montreal burned to the ground. All fingers pointed to a 29 year-old Portuguese-born slave-woman accused of torching the home of her widower-mistress, Madame Thérèse de Couagne de Francheville, out of malice and revenge. The fire spread and resulted in the fiery decimation of 46 buildings. The city was devastated.

    Born in 1705, Marie-Joseph Angélique was sold into slavery in 1725 to a wealthy Montreal-based fur merchant by the name of François Poulin de Francheville. It is known that Angélique had three children, probably from her white master using her as a "breeder". Her children died very young however. As Dr. Cooper outlines: "The reproductive story of enslaved Black women shows that slavery was as much a system of sexual bondage as it was one of racial bondage.... Black women were vulnerable to an experienced all kinds of brutality."

    The later arrival in the Francheville household of former French soldier and indentured labourer, Claude Thibault, brought some hope to Angélique. They supported each other''s common goal to flee from Canada and return to France and Portugal. The two became lovers. Threatened by this growing alliance, the widow of the now dead Sieur Francheville, Thérèse de Francheville, was all-too-aware that she needed to keep them apart. "Committed partnerships between Black enslaved labourers and White contract servants spelt doom for the elite class" as Cooper writes. "If these workers could put aside their "racial differences" and see clearly their common economic and social oppression, and move to overcome that oppression, a veritable revolution could occur" she goes on to argue. This poignant analysis illuminates the perhaps uniquely Canadian reality of slavery. Those who withhold the flawed argument that Canada only had "indentured servants" and not "slaves" per ser, fail to take into account this most basic racial dynamic.

    Claude Thibault, once he regained his freedom, as White, male, and French, could always find ways to integrate society. On the other hand, Angélique, or the other 1,200 slaves who lived in New France (Quebec city and Montreal) at the time, had no such options. Marie-Joseph Angélique understood this reality. Not only was Thibault a White male but, as a former soldier, he would be familiar with the surrounding terrain once it was time to flee. "So, even if Angélique was in love with the Frenchman, she had other practical reasons for entering into an affair with him" argues Afua Cooper. The "love" theory has been preeminent in discussions of the Marie-Joseph Angélique story. The two did attempt to escape in 1734 after Madame Francheville tried to sell Angélique to a Quebec government official. But they were soon caught. Angélique was returned to the Francheville estate and Thibault was sent to jail. When Thibault was released from jail a couple of months later, he came back for Angélique. But two days later, on April 10th 1734, fire broke out at the Francheville estate. The fire spread to burn half of Montreal. Thibault ran away an was never seen again. But Angélique was rounded up by mobs of angry Montrealers and was later tried and executed.

    In The Hanging of Angélique, Dr. Afua Cooper offers a very different portrayal of Angélique, that is much more revolutionary, than what is found in previous generally accepted works. The main reference thus far has been Quebecois historian Marcel Trudel book''s L''Esclavage au Canada Français (Slavery in French Canada) which came out in 1960. While expressing her gratitude to Marcel Trudel for his groundbreaking scholarship on slavery in Canada, Afua Cooper points out the following in her book:

    "While most contemporary and modern commentators agree that Angélique did set the fire, they disagree as to her motive. However, the accepted wisdom is that the enslaved woman set the fire because she wanted to run away with her White lover, Claude Thibault. The "in love with Thibault" thesis has gained some currency because of Marcel Trudel, the acknowledged authority on slavery in New France.... By emphasising love as Angélique''s primary motive, these writers not only rob her of the agency that she exhibited in her quest for liberty, they also diminish the violence inherent in slavery."


    This is one of the most powerful central ideas espoused in The Hanging of Angélique, and perhaps the book''s lasting legacy for the future. The reclaiming of the humanity and strength of Marie-Joseph Angélique. She was sentenced to death by hanging. After leaving her to hang for two hours, her body was burned and her ashes scattered about the four winds. But thanks to Afua Cooper, those winds are becoming winds of change into our undestanding of Canada''s own history of slavery. As George Elliott Clarke pointed out to Cooper at the book launch, withouth taking anything away from her scholarship and thorough historiography, it is evident that her own experience as a Black woman has informed her understanding of the life of Angélique. To quote Afua Cooper herself: "She [Angélique] was a Black woman. She was enslaved. I wasn’t enslaved; I haven’t had that experience. … But I come from that tradition."


  • This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 18, 2011)

    UNKNOWN and I AM NUMBER FOUR vie for top spot at the box-office this weekend.

    Also opening are smaller films LEMMY and SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS.



    I AM NUMBER FOUR (USA 2011) ***1/2

    I AM NUMBER FOUR, directed by D.J. Caruso (SISTURBIA and EAGLE EYE) is based on the young adult science fiction novel by Pittacus Lore.  It is easy to see why.

    The film caters totally to the young adult market with topical issues like bullying, keeping cool and romantic jealousy blended into an action sci-fi flick that moves as fast as any video game.  Directed by Caruso who has proved his mettle as making action flicks based on previous material (like DISTURBIA mimicking REAR WINDOW), the film actually succeeds.  It is TWILIGHT, SPIDERMAN, MEAN BOYS (male version of MEAN GIRLS) and RUNNING ON EMPTY done right and adapted for the youth market.  And the two leads are the hottest sex objects to be seen on screen this year!

    The romanticism is familiar to TWILIGHT.  In this case, we have two ladies vying for the interest of FOUR.  The running from one city to another and the need to settle down for love is right out of RUNNING ON EMPTY.  The learning by FOUR of harnessing his supers is copied right out of SPIDERMAN.  But those be older films and most audiences would have forgotten about them.

    I AM NUMBER FOUR begins with NUMBER THREE being eliminated.  What happened to numero uno and duo?  Caruso spares the audience that, as what happened to the first two has been seen in the film’s trailer.  The story is a tale of surviving alien children on the planet earth trying to blend in with normal human beings.  The children are being hunted down to be killed by Mogadorians dressed in black cloaks with bad nose etiquette.  Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) has moved with his guardian (Timothy Olyphant) to Ohio where in school he falls for Sarah (Diana Agron).

    The best thing about the film is not really the action but the teen routines and problems depicted in the story – real events that teens can relate to.  What really works well, for example is the introduction a nerdy bullied kid named Sam (Callan McAuliffe).  Sam’s father has disappeared and it turns out that the disappearance is linked to Number Four’s demise.  Sam becomes Four’s reluctant side-kick and the two kick butt.  Majorly!

    The film ends predictably with the likely possibility of a sequel.  Judging from this film, a sequel will definitely be a good idea.  The audience have met Number Four and Six, and there are more to come to battle the Mogadorians.

    LEMMY (USA 2010) ***

    Directed by Wes Orshoski and Greg Olliver

    When the film opens, the voiceover and several talking heads praise Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead for all that he is worth and more.  For many who have never heard of Lemmy (including this reviewer), all this seems strange.  Of course one hopes to find out more from this documentary what made Lemmy so great.

    But the question why the world or rather his fans find him great is clearly a one-sided thing.  The answer is in his music.  If one finds his music great, that one would find this man just as great though he could commit a multitude of sins which he does – from womanizing, poor work ethics, strange hobbies (collecting Nazi paraphernalia), heavy drugs (crystal meth) and many others.  So, great man or asshole, at least Lemmy was never violent.

    LEMMY is about rock icon Lemmy Kilmister, the singer/bassist/songwriter for Motorhead, the British trio that’s credited with putting heavy metal on the map.  The film includes plenty of footage displaying Lemmy’s talent in this field.  As the only original member, Lemmy has been the band’s driving force since its inception 35 years ago, making music that’s influenced everyone from Metallica to The Damned to Anthrax.  Interviewed are members of Metallica and the Damned as well as other celebrities like Billy Bob Thornton, Alice Cooper, Ozzie Osbourne and Joan Jett.

    But the most interesting thing about the doc is Lemmy’s personal life.  His relationship to his son is particularly poignant for a man who has little time for family.  His drug habits and bad behaviour are also intriguing though most of these are only heard from the mouths of those interviewed rather than seen first hand.

    But one can tell that it is the directors’ first film.  Though thorough in covering all aspects of the subject’s life, the film contains little dramatization or sensationalism which may be a good thing.  But one downside, is that the film’s impact is compromised.  Lemmy is also not that articulate a talker (slurring and mumbling his words half the time) and less footage should have him talking.

    The filmed concert segments are satisfactorily shot – and contain more verbal praises of Lemmy’s music than anything else.

    If the aim of the directors is to show the connection between Lemmy, his music and his fans, then the film succeeds.  Other than that, the documentary will just be an account of a person one would care little about.  If one would not mind spending some money and two hours in a dark room for this purpose, then this film is for you!


    UNKNOWN (USA 2011) ****
    Directed by Jaune Collet-Serra

    UNKNOWN rides on the success of Liam Neeson’s TAKEN.  Though both films contain well executed action segments, TAKEN is more a suspense thriller – the kind churned out by Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact several scenes play homage to the Master (see below).

    Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology conference.  A car accident occurs and Martin wakes up after several days in a coma.  He finds his wife does not recognise him and that another man (Aidan Quinn) has adopted his identity.  The mystery deepens and he begins to question his sanity until he finds the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) who aids him get his identity back again.

    The film plays like a ghost story in the first third and it is easy to see why as director Collet-Sera did well with his ORPHANS ghost film.  The solution starts unravelling only after the second half – satisfactory and credibly.  At the same time, the film shifts from mystery mode to action flick.  The action sequences are well executed and exciting enough.  Continuity and editing is above par and the audience can follow the action, as evident in the extended car chase sequence where a thud chases after the escaping duo.

    The camera work is impressive and one can see, foe example the facial expressions of the actors when the vehicles plunge into the cold river waters during the accident.

    The supporting role of the ex-German spy who helps Martin played by Bruno Ganz is the film’s most interesting character.  There are exciting suspense set piece (the dismantling of the bomb) and a few good surprises in the film (the bomb goes off) as well.

    As for suspense, director Collet-Serra puts in his two cents worth of Hitchcock nods.  There is the scene of mass evacuation from the hotel (the fire evacuation scene in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN), the full blown typical Hitchcock climax (hotel explosion) and a famous long one-to-one fight (here between Neeson and a thug) like in TORN CURTAIN in which Hitchcock wanted to make a point on how difficult it is to kill another human being without a weapon.  Even the blond Diane Kruger looks like Eva Marie Saint in NORTH BY NOTHWEST and the scene with her and Neeson walking by a train at the Berlin railway central station is reminiscent of a similar scene with Cary Grant and Saint waling by a stationary train.  The loss identity of Martin Harris works as an antithesis of the Richard Thornhill character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

    UNKNOWN is a satisfying suspense thriller that works well by adopting what works from past films of the same genre.  The topical issues (the environment) also help in making the film more relevant.

    SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS (Canada 2010) **
    Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly

    Police Officer Walter (Peter Stormare) has a questionable past history of violence, not really revealed in the film.  Living in a Mennonite farming town, he tries his best to remove the past and be a gentle being.  But he is put to the test when he believes the new boyfriend (Stephen Eric McIntre) of his old fling, Rita (Jill Hennessy) is responsible for a murder.

    The trouble with this film is that the audience find t difficult to root for a hero with no balls, and worst that writer/director Donnelly refuses to endow him with positive character traits.  A story like this has been done before, most memorably in David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.  It would be more satisfying to see Walter pushed to the limit and exhibit his violent nature again.  Instead he is beaten up and the audience forced to listen to hymns all the way throughout the film.

    The least the audience is offered the non-commercial alternative (though more boring) story of a man trying to hide from his past.


    Best Film Opening This Week: Unknown
    Best Films Playing: The Social Network/The Illusionist/True Grit/Another Year
    Best Family: Tangled
    Best Documentary: Inside Job
    Best Foreign: Incendies
    Avoid: From Prada to Nada, The Dilemma, The Rite

  • Interview with Stacie Upchurch: former candidate of The Apprentice 2

    Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Stacie Jones Upchurch grew up in Colorado.It is important to note that Upchurch hasn’t just relied on her beauty to “make it”.  She attended both Emory and Mercer Universities in Atlanta where she received, respectively, her B.A. in Marketing and her M.B.A. At twenty, while attending college, she set up a marketing company that employed a staff of seventeen.  She ran several businesses in Atlanta before settling in New York City, poised to achieve her modeling, acting and business goals.  

    In this respect, Modeling on the runways of New York City, acting on daytime television, running her own Subway franchise, starring on Donald Trump’s “Apprentice,” (season 2)  represents just a few of Stacie J.’s accomplishments.

    Aforementioned Stacie Upchurch is an ambitious and a brilliant woman.  She became a candidate for the second season of the TV reality show The Apprentice.Over one million people apply each year to participate on this show. Upchurch was among the eighteen highly qualified and successful applicants.  All candidates of The Apprenticewere subjected to a series of interviews, auditions and intense competition with other aspiring corporate executives.  Over forty million people watch The Apprentice each week.  It has become one of the most successful programs in television history, and has received at least four Emmy nominations.

    Stacie Upchurch started modeling in college when Manhattan Model Search came to Atlanta looking for new talent. Out of 5,000 people, Mrs.  Upchurch was one of two finalists chosen by Elite NY, and soon Stacie started working in Miami. She then modeled in Europe and Africa, and subsequently returned home to Atlanta to finish graduate school and pursue business interests. Stacie Upchurch was also a professional model with Ford Model Management based in New York City.After selling her interest in her first restaurant, Stacie Upchurch resumed her modeling career and went to New York to pursue other business endeavors.

    Settling in Harlem, Stacie J. and her family decided to open a Subway Sandwich Shop franchise. Their business, located in Harlem across from former President Bill Clinton’s office on 125th Street, allows the youth to gain valuable experience which will serve them in the future.After living there for a few months, Mrs.  Upchurch recognized and seized a great opportunity to create jobs, provide healthy food alternative and take advantage of an emerging market within her community.

    Stacie Upchurch has also launched a jewelry and accessories line available at Icing by Claire''s stores nationwide. The line, available in 200 stores, includes rings, belly chains, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, sunglasses, handbags, and belts.  Icing by Claire''s, a division of Claire''s Stores Inc., is an accessories store for women age 17 to 27.

    It is important to mention that Mrs. Upchurch has an interest in other domains.  In this regard, she made her acting debut in the film “The Scorned” (a 2005 horror movie). It was the first movie comprised entirely of people from previous reality television series. The movie was filmed during the E! behind-the-scenes reality show “Kill Reality”; Upchurch played the role of Trish.  She also acted in many American soap operas such as As The World Turns, One Life To Liveand so on.  Throughout her career, Upchurch has made the cover of several magazines, including Lucirefrom New Zealand.  She has also been a guest on popular programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show.

    Now, Stacie J. is a full-time mom to her 2-year daughter Riley Lynn and an insurance professional for Unique Underwriter, the fastest-growing national Independent Marketing Organization that focuses exclusively on mortgage protection insurance, and on generating top-quality mortgage protection insurance leads for our agents. She currently manages approximately 30 agents in NY/NJ, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami.  Our columnist had the pleasure to speak to her last November.  Stacie Upchurch was located in New York during the interview.  By Patricia Turnier, Columnist of www.afrotoronto.com and Editress-in-Chief of Mega Diversities.


    Patricia Turnier, LL.M. talks to Stacie Upchurch, M.B.A.:

    P.T.  Who inspired you when you were younger to become successful?  In other words, did you have a mentor?

    S.U. While I was in college in Atlanta, I had a mentor when I was 17 named Michael Child. He was a very prominent businessman and is still in Georgia. I learned a lot from him and I will always be grateful. He owned a small medical company with four employees, including me. This experience allowed me to learn how to run a small business. Michael Child took me under his wing.  He taught me about accounting, customer services, contracts, profit margins, marketing, in other words everything concerning entrepreneurial skills. The knowledge that I got from him will serve me for life.  Michael Child is still one of my biggest mentors.

    It is important to mention that for a long time I had an interest in commerce. Since I was 14, I had small businesses in Colorado. I owned a business at one time with my younger sister.  I was always doing something related to business. I knew for a long time that I had the entrepreneurial spirit. I would like to add that my mother always encouraged me to do my best in every road I chose. She told me to never settle for mediocrity.

    P.T.  Can you elaborate more about the small businesses you had with your younger sister when you were 14?

    S.U. I can tell you about one of the businesses that I owned in Colorado with my younger sister and that I loved.  We used to ski in the mountains. We had to take a train before. We realised that the passengers were thirsty and hungry. So, the night before the ski trip, we used to make candies which were called more specifically rock candy, baked in the stove, with different flavours. We sold them with Pepsi products and so on. That was huge at the time in Colorado. The kids and their families loved what we sold.  We did this every week. We sold the same products in schools also. In addition to all this, I had a babysitting service. I always worked in high school. So, for a very long time I had an entrepreneurial spirit.

    P.T.  In 2005, you were a candidate for the second season of the Apprentice.  What did you learn from this experience?

    S.U. The candidates and I were in a very competitive setting. We were from different backgrounds but we had in common a type A personality. Some of the contestants had an entrepreneurial background, but the majority came from Ivy League universities and were doing well in their respected fields. The contestants were accustomed to winning; none of us expected to lose [Laughs].

    My Apprentice experience made me realise even more that when I was in college I wasn’t a member from any sororities or affiliations. Being an entrepreneur, I always call the shots and made the decisions since I was at the head of my organisations. Most of the business people that I know didn’t even have a sorority experience. I never was in a big corporate setting. I ran my own businesses and I dealt more often with individuals such as my assistants. When you are in The Apprentice, you end up in a team setting and it didn’t help in my case that I didn’t have a sorority experience.  I would have had more tools to deal with different type of personalities if I participated in sororities, but at the time I wasn’t attracted to female group gatherings.  I felt for instance that if I needed to organise a fundraising, I could do it on my own.  I am not used to relying on other people so The Apprentice was an adaptation for me.

    On the show there were two aspects to consider:  1) everything which had to do with being part of a sorority clique, 2) the business part of the contest where you have to do the task.  In other words, there is a subjective part (power relations, group dynamics…) and a more objective part to consider in the entire process.  In this respect, as a contestant it is important to find a way to navigate toward all of this. In the Apprentice, it is a prime necessity to play overall as a team and it can be the same thing in other corporate settings.  I was great for the part of doing the tasks.  However, with my independent personality it created an incompatibility of characters with the other female candidates and I didn’t do small talk with them.  So, to sum up, I am more an independent woman than a team player.  I realise that in business one is not always judged on merit and performance. This is what I learned about myself throughout my experience in The Apprentice.

    P.T.  Do you think it is a myth or a reality that to make it in a high level position in corporate America, a female needs to adopt male standards?

    S.U. Well, my background is not corporate America. So, I can only speak conceptually about that and I am going to base my opinion on what I heard from my friends who worked at that level. I know that they have to play the game.  They need to find a balance between being a team player and a hard worker.  Overall, the majority of people at the head of companies are male. There are many factors to consider about how a female can rise to the top of corporate America. She often has to work long hours, put their family aside.  Some have to wait to start to create a family. Getting to the top is attainable, but it is not easy. If the females have mates, their partners need to be very understanding.

    In some cases, females in corporate America have to display male characteristics: working long hours, not having kids. In other words, some feel that they have to be hard-core. In some milieus, they think they need to do this to be taken seriously. Others even believe that they have to be authoritative. However, it is possible to command respect without adopting those traits. I also believe that in some cases the reverse of the medal is true. I mean using male standards can help some females to get to the top of corporate America. It plays an important part in the culture of this realm.  Maybe one day this situation will change, but alas for now adopting male standards is part of the culture.

    P.T.  What advice do you have for young visible minorities to enter and to break the glass ceiling in corporate America?

    S.U. I think it begins with education. You should equip yourself with the highest level of education possible. Unfortunately, overall we still live in a world which discriminates against females and people of colour. So, being highly educated and well cultured are the best deterrents to discrimination. If you can go to Harvard, do it. If you are able to obtain a Master’s or a PhD, go for it.  You have to be equipped to shatter the glass ceiling. You need to be prepared. It is important also to be passionate about what you are doing and work hard. Eventually, people will recognise that and they won’t be able to stop you from breaking the glass ceiling. For me, to get to the Apprentice after competing against over a million people I had to set myself apart by being among the most prepared academically besides my entrepreneurial experience.  It has been like that with everything I have done.

    P.T.  What advice do you have for employees who are in a cutthroat work environment?

    S.U. [Silence] My first inclination would be to say that in this kind of situation, an individual is not shrewd if he chooses to be quiet.  You have to be diligent, a hard worker and find a balance to see how to navigate in a cutthroat environment.  You are entitled to make a living, at the same time you have to find a way to make sure that this kind of difficult situation won’t be detrimental to your mental health.  It is important to show integrity and honesty consistently because this will always prevail.  At the same time, you have to make sure that nobody will step on you by behaving in a cutthroat way.

    Human resources or other authorities such as unions have to ensure that you will be in a supportive work environment.  They have the responsibility to create and maintain a stress-free working atmosphere for their workers by using psychological approaches.

    P.T.  As an entrepreneur, do you have some advice for someone who wants to start his own business?

    S.U.It is helpful to find a mentor. It is important also to not take no for an answer. You can find someone who has a similar enterprise that you want to build and offer to work for free (through an internship program for instance) even as a learning experience for six months to a year. At the end of this process, you will get referrals. The training experience will also allow you to see if you will want to pursue a career in your realm. You have to be sure of what you want. There are people for example who can dissuade you from opening a Subway Franchise because in their minds there are already a lot of them. In fact, whatever the type of company you want to open (a computer store and so on) you will always find negative people who won’t encourage you. It is important to not be influenced by that and avoid those individuals. However, before opening a business there are guidelines to follow. You have to know your market by studying it. You have to be aware of who are your competitors and analyse how you can bring something to the table, etc.  If you want longevity in the business sphere, you have to be passionate because you will be less discouraged with the future hurdles that may arise.

    P.T.  You like to explore other avenues such as acting.  How was your experience as an actress in the horror movie The Scorned in 2005? Are you interested to do other movies?  If so, what would be your ideal role to play and why?

    S.U. I modelled for about 12 years when I was younger and acting was a natural progression of modelling.  The Scornedis an experience that came to me after being on The Apprentice.  I would like to add that I have already been in many American soap operas (All My Children, One Life To Live, As The World Turns, etc) for about 10 years.  It is important to note that for now my acting career is on hold because my priority is my daughter.  Also, to prosper as an actress you have to move to L.A. and the reality is that I live in NY.  It is a very hard business and when you are starting, you have unstable income. I can’t allow this because I have my responsibility as a parent. When I was 21, I was acting and I didn’t move to L.A. even if I had the right agents. In retrospect, it means that maybe I didn’t want this bad enough.  However, it is still in me and I would be interested in accepting projects in the future when my child will be older. For now, my focus is my daughter.  She started to do modelling jobs and I am training her to be an actress. My daughter will do anything she wants, become a physician, etc. The world is open to her. For me, maybe in two years I will get back into acting.

    To get back to your question, my experience with The Scornedwas great. I played against Jonny Fairplay who played my boyfriend. I had to go into my character, to different places within myself.  Acting is about pretending, becoming someone else and being able to bring out the character. That was a challenge and a great experience. I had fun on the set. It was a reality show and a reality movie.  We all lived together. Sometimes it was crazy because there was some fighting inside the house.  It was like being in The Apprentice again [Laughs]. To sum up, it was a nice experience and I would like one day to do more acting.

    About your last sub-question, my ideal role in a movie would be to play a James Bond girl in the future. That would be great. They have the best roles with one of the hottest men [Laughs]. It would be also interesting to play a super heroine in a movie like Angelina Jolie did.  If I were approached for roles like that I would be definitely up for it.

    P.T.  You have been modelling since you were a kid.  Do you have any advice for girls who want to become successful fashion models?  Also, how can they avoid the traps in this realm?

    S.U. It is possible to pay people which will help them build careers as future models (such as agents and so on).  To be more precise, I am referring to fashion consultants.  They have to be experienced, and it is important to do your research to learn which models were launched by them.  Every parent thinks that their child should be a model which is not very realistic.  So, it is important to get an opinion from top fashion consultants.  There are so many people who want to become models and some have to be honest with themselves.  In addition, there are all kinds of models.  So, you have to think if you want to be a catalogue model, a high fashion model and so on.  Rule number 1:  you have to be at least 5’9, under 120 pounds to make it big.  You need to have a look.

    People also have to be careful with hidden costs before signing a contract.  It is always good to verify everything with an attorney.  You have to do your research and seek well-known agencies (with excellent reputation) that proved themselves in the past by promoting the careers of others.  In other words, look for an agency with an impressive body of work. The criteria to consider are:  how long they have been established, who are the models they launched, etc.  You have to choose an agency that works best for you.

    A good agency supports the girls, especially the youngest ones.  I have been involved with Ford and Elite agencies for over 10 years in NY, Miami, Chicago, L.A.  Every week, those agencies have open calls.  You can walk in, show your portfolio.  They will tell you if you have what it takes.  If so, they will pay for additional pictures.  You don’t have to pay a photographer or join a class to get pictures.  A lot of companies will charge 2000$ and more to train you to become a model.  At the end of the day, they take your money and won’t place you with any agency.  You have to be very careful with this.  Getting an agent is the first step, so going to open calls is important.  You can also find a mentor, someone who has experience in this realm.  It can be someone like me for instance or somebody else with whom you feel comfortable to guide your career.  Watch out also for specific events.  For instance, annually in Florida there is a model season from January to April where every model in the world is in South Beach, Miami.  You can look in your own town where there are opportunities for modelling.

    The parents have to be involved with under-aged girls to support them in every step.  There is a lot of competition and a cadre is required.  I would like to add that it is important not to limit yourself to one country.  It is a necessity to make French, English, Italian magazines and so on if you want an international career.  Serious agencies such as Ford send models to Europe where they can do fashion shows and work for magazines. The fashion companies pay the staying of the models abroad for a certain period.  It is a must to go in other countries to obtain longevity in this realm.  So, this criterion is imperative when choosing the agency that you want to work for.

    P.T.  Do you believe in the maxim:  “Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness?”

    S.U. Yes, definitely.  You have to be prepared when opportunities arise.  Luck is an interesting word.  I was prepared when I had the opportunity to be involved in The Apprentice.  I went to top universities, I had my business since I was a teenager.  For a long period of time, I was involved in commerce.  When I applied, I knew how to audition.  In the past, I had many years of auditioning so, I was definitely prepared.  In this respect, when the opportunity presents itself you know how to deal with it.  People say well, Stacie you were lucky to be on the show.  I don’t agree with this statement.

    P.T.  You made your luck.

    S.U.Exactly.  I was there at the right time and I was prepared.  So, I believe that luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.  It is an interesting interpretation.  Most of the time, opportunities favour the bold, the active and the prepared.  I believe that you make your luck with hard work.  You cannot rest on your laurels.  When life gives you opportunities you have to give it your all.

    I like also this adage from Albert Camus:  “An achievement is a bondage.  It obliges one to a higher achievement.”  In addition, Victor Hugo said “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.”  I strongly believe in this maxim.

    P.T.  You said in the past to the media that you consider that you have a social responsibility toward the African-American community.  Can you elaborate on that?

    S.U. Sure.  First of all, I am an African-American female who has been catapulted in the media through shows such as The Apprentice.  In this respect, I became visible.  I am no longer just Stacie Jones Upchurch.  I became someone that people can look up to.  Being the second black female who ended up in The Apprentice, I feel a responsibility toward the black youth and also to other young minorities.  I value the need to get an education, to have integrity, to go after your dreams and your passions, to become entrepreneurs as a way to build wealth in our community.  I feel a social responsibility and I want to use my status to help African-Americans to achieve their goals.

    I am doing my part by employing young African-American kids (from 16 to 19) for my business.  It gives them experience and focus to go forward in life.  I also encourage them to pursue their education and always look for opportunities which can lead them to a higher level.

    P.T.  The African-American community has over 913 billion dollars purchasing power per year, according to Humphreys[1] but only circa 3% of it stays annually in the Black community.  As an expert who holds an M.B.A., what are the necessary measures which can correct this situation?

    S.U.Wow, this is a deep question. I am going to try to give a synthesised answer.African-American people really need to start to own businesses and buy the products within their community.  They can learn a lot from the Asian community.  Asians come to America, they live in the same homes.  They work in Subways for instance and put all their money together.  They will buy from their community and live within their community.

    P.T.  I think your example about the Asian community is very interesting.  The Asians are self-sufficient.  Right now, in the U.S. among everybody they are the only group that has an unemployment rate of circa 7% which is below the national unemployment rate.

    S.U. Definitely.  It is sad to say that unemployment for African-Americans has surpassed 16 percent.  Blacks in America need to learn how to trust more one another and to have a more collective awareness which can build wealth in the community.  We have to heal from our heavy history.  We need to trust one another more.  There are popular beliefs which have been instilled historically in the African-American community which do not serve us and we have to find a way to get rid of that.  I believe Atlanta is a great example that we should follow.  It is there that I learned how to be an entrepreneur.  I went to Emory University which is not an historically black university but outside of this institution I saw a lot of African-American people.  Circa 67% of Atlanta’s population are African-American.  We find many black-owned businesses and opportunities for Blacks in this city.  We see huge houses owned by the African-American community.  For me, it is concrete proof that we can develop our entrepreneurial abilities and that we are able to support our businesses.  So, the Black community can learn a lot from Atlanta.

    According to a study conducted for the Magazine Publishers of America[2], African- Americans are avid consumers.  African-American teens spend more on average than WASP teens on many products, including clothes, video-game hardware, computer software, etc.  Those teens are particularly loyal to their favourite brands.  They also have a lot of influence, purchasing items from cereal to cell phones.  So, we have to look deeper into this and see how our money can stay more in our community and benefit us as a whole.  Another thing which can create a richer black community is to buy less on credit and save more for the future, find other ways to economise, such as not spending money on material possessions which have no long-term value.  About clothes for instance, there are ways to look stunning without spending a lot of money.  Our people need to know that there is good debt (such as student loans, business loans, mortgages) and there is bad debt (for instance, credit cards with often high interest rates which can take years to pay off).  To conclude, I would say that the government can set up enterprise zones with tax breaks to favour the creation of small businesses.

    P.T.  I would like to say that for a long time, I have been fascinated by the story of Madam C.J. Walker who became the first self-made female millionaire in America.  So, this is concrete proof that there is a way for African-Americans to build a stronger economy.  They have their resources.

    P.T.   My next question is where would you like to be on a personal and professional level ten years from now?

    S.U.When you have a daughter, things change.  So, ten years from now I would like to see her in a great private school, excelling, doing well.  When I was younger, I was talented in different areas and I wish that the same things will happen to my daughter.  I want to help her discover herself and see what she’s really good at (math, tennis, acting, modelling…) and encourage her.  I want my daughter to be happy and choose her own path.  My focus is not on me anymore.  But, if I have to find a goal for myself the main thing for me is to be more stable and strengthen my entrepreneurial career.  I have a life insurance company (which offers mortgage protection) since 2007.  I would like to become a multimillionaire.  This would allow me to give everything that my daughter will need (go to the best universities…) and it would offer me protection if in the future I have health problems which would prevent me from working, for instance.  It gives more freedom when you don’t have to think about essential expenses.  About myself, right now I am single but I hope that I will be eventually married.  I would like to have more stability in my personal life.

    P.T.  To finish, do you have a message for our readers?

    S.U. Without risks there are no rewards in my book.  Go for what you are passionate about and do not settle.  Do not let anyone stop you and don’t take no for an answer.  Also, hard work is the key to success.  Always try to surpass yourself and attain high goals.

    P.T.  Thanks for this great interview, Mrs.  Upchurch.  It was a real pleasure to speak to you!

    [1] Source:  Jeffrey M.  Humphreys, The Multicultural Economy 2008(Athens, GA:  Selig Center for Economic Growth, University of Georgia, 2008), 14; See Table 1

    [2] Source:  Magazine Publishers of America, “African-American/Black Market Profile” New York, 2008

  • Exclusive interview with Chris Jasper, former member of the Isley Brothers

    Chris Jasper (born Christopher H. Jasper, Cincinnati, Ohio) has been involved in music since his childhood.  At age seven his mother noticed that he was a gifted musician and could play Motown’s songs by ear on his piano;  she encouraged him to take piano lessons.  The Isley Brothers[1] and Chris Jasper grew up on the same block in their native Cincinnati.  In 1959, the group scored their first big hit, ''Shout,''[2] (a soul single that reflected the call-and-response style of gospel music and the vocal style of the group) and their second big hit “Twist and Shout” later covered by the Beatles in 1962[3].  More hits followed such as ''This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)'' with Motown Records in 1966, produced by the Dozier&Holland team.

    In 1969, the Isleys got a manufacturing and distribution (custom label) deal with Buddah Records and later with CBS Records in 1973.  That same year, Jasper became an integral member of both The Isley Brothers and later Isley-Jasper-Isley. Jasper''s first appearance on an Isley Brothers album was 1969''s It''s your Thing.  This funk-flavored single became a major success in the summer of 1969.  Between 1969 and 1971 other great funk successes were released with Jasper’s contribution, such as “Work to do” and “Get into Something”.  His keyboard and Moog synthesizer work became a primary ingredient of The Isley Brothers sound of the 1970s and 1980s.  This period was the gold and platinum years of the group from the “3+3”[4] (1973) to “Go All The Way” (1980) albums.  These CDs mixed soul with elements of folk rock and funk rock.  On the “3+3” album, Chris Jasper co-wrote with Ernie Isley “That Lady” which became a hit reaching number six on the Hot 100 and number fourteen in the UK.  Their follow-up song, “What It Comes Down To” was a top five R&B hit.    “Live It up”[5] (1974) and “The heat is on” (1975) delivered social messages regarding problems that African-American were encountering.  During this time, Jasper had an opportunity to work with synthesizer pioneer Malcolm Cecil, who was a key influence for Stevie Wonder on his album, ''Music of My Mind''.  It is important to add that these were the years when The Isley Brothers were a self-produced and self-contained major recording act.  Chris Jasper contributed to the writing and production of the group’s music during this period, including great love songs such as “For The Love of You Pts.  1&2” and  “Between the Sheets”. The group later released other hits like “Harvest for the World” and “Fight the Power Pts.  1&2” (the latter was co-written by Chris Jasper and Ernie Isley, also produced by Chris Jasper).  Fourteen years later, this song became another success when a more militant rap version was recorded by the group Public Enemy.  “Between the sheets” a classic funk song released in 1983 was later sampled by Notorious B.I.G. with “Big Poppa”.

    In this respect, the classically-trained background (from the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City) of Jasper with an expertise on the keyboards with Moog synthesizers are the foundations of the legendary “Isley Brothers Sound”.  Thus, Jasper is a classically trained musician and composer.   In addition to his education at Juilliard, he received a degree in music composition from C.W. Post, Long Island University, New York, where he studied with the jazz pianist and composer, Billy Taylor.  Jasper also earned a J.D. at Concord University (School of Law).

    In 1984, Jasper and the younger Isleys (Marvin[6] and Ernie Isley) left The Isley Brothers to form the splinter group Isley-Jasper-Isley. Their first release was ''Broadway''s closer to Sunset Boulevard'' (including the popular track on U.K. soul radio ''Can''t Get Over Losing You'').  Chris Jasper brought his special sound and musical talents to the new group.  Jasper sang lead vocals on the group''s biggest hit, "Caravan of Love” (1985) which was covered later by English recording group, the Housemartins, an international number 1 pop hit.  “Caravan” was also used in commercials as part of a Dodge Caravan advertising campaign.  The final Isley / Jasper / Isley album was ‘Different Drummer’. Jasper received the CEBA Award for Excellence for a Miller Brewing Company commercial that featured “Brother to Brother” from the final Isley/Jasper/Isley album ‘Different Drummer’.    The group separated in 1987.  Jasper and Ernie Isley went on to solo careers.  Jasper''s solo career spawned the #3 R&B hit, "Super Bad", in 1988.  This single topped the urban charts. Chris Jasper pursued his songwriting and produced his own R&B/Gospel music, as well as other artists, for his independent record label (that he founded) Gold City Records (www.goldcitymusic.com).

    Thus, Jasper is a successful solo artist and album producer, recording a number of his own solo CDs, and producing artists, for his New York based record label, Gold City Records, distributed by CBS Records.  Moreover, Jasper has produced, performed and written music for other artists, including Liz Hogue''s debut album “Vicious & Fresh” and "Make It Last" for Chaka Khan''s C.K. album. Many recording artists covered and sampled Chris Jasper’s music:  Whitney Houston, Jay-Z, Fantasia, Will Smith, Aaliyah, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Natalie Cole, just to name a few.  Jasper is an eclectic artist who has contributed to many genres such as R&B, Jazz and Soul.  After becoming a born-again Christian, Chris Jasper released a succession of gospel albums. 1995''s ''Deep Inside'' marked Chris Jasper''s return to R&B/pop music, with a good cover of Marvin Gaye''s ''What''s Going On''.

    In January 1992, Jasper was inducted (by Little Richard), along with the rest of The Isley Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The work of The Isley Brothers has spanned over six decades and has significantly influenced popular music.  It is important to note that The Isley Brothers is the only group in history to chart in six decades.  Their music is timeless.  The group received two Grammy Awards respectively in 1970 and 1999.  Their music has been part of ten movie soundtracks such as Friday, Wedding Crashers and Boys Don’t Cry.

    Jasper’s latest CD “Everything I Do” was released on June 2010 and is dedicated to his wife Margie Jasper.  Chris Jasper sounds like Marvin Gaye in the song “Don’t Take Your Love Away” from his latest CD.  The entire album has a nice funky beat as listeners will discover.

    In conclusion, throughout the years, many of the compositions for The Isley Brothers, which involved Chris'' songwriting input, have been sampled / covered by a wide range of artists from Ice Cube to Aaliyah. The series of U.S. hits (of the Isley Brothers) from the ‘50s to the ‘90s and their musical diversity (gospel, doo-wop, R&B, soul, funk, rock and roll and disco) have been a major influence on the music industry.  Chris Jasper placed himself at the avant-garde (with his independent thinking) by using the keyboard before it became a trend.  Jasper has made a significant contribution on the music scene with the synthesizer which defined in a major way the sound of the 80s.  He looked after the music and the lyrics of most of The Isley Brothers’ recordings while he was a member of the group.  On a personal level, Jasper resides in New York with his wife of 28 years, Margie Jasper, an attorney and writer, and their three sons, Michael, Nick and Christopher.  Interview conducted by the columnist of Afro Toronto Patricia Turnier and the Editress-in-Chief of Mega Diversities in January 2011.

    Patricia Turnier talks to Chris Jasper:

    P.T.  Which artists did you admire during your childhood and did you have a mentor?

    C.J.I had a few artists that I admired growing up…Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. I liked their styles of singing and their phrasing.  I guess that’s a big influence on the way I sing today.  I didn’t have a mentor for popular music but for classical music, that would have been Professor Gibbs of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. I started studying piano with Professor Gibbs at the age of 7 and continued until I was about 14. He was a classically trained pianist and introduced me to many composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Debussy.  I was most influenced by Debussy. I was intrigued by the chord structures that he used and his melodies.  I used those elements in the music I wrote when I was with The Isley Brothers which I think gave their music a different sound from everyone else. I still use those elements in the music I continue to write, in particular the ballads.

    P.T.  What did you learn from your experience at the prestigious Juilliard school?

    C.J.One thing that stands out is that I learned how to compose different types of music which included atonal music; before this genre was completely foreign to me. It required some getting used to, but since I was a composition major, it was something I did and found out the different uses for it. It wouldn’t be useful in popular music; however, in motion picture scores, atonal music had already been employed. In that sense, it broadened my musical horizons.

    P.T.  Should young people have a classical background to obtain longevity and success as artists?

    C.J.I think classical training is important because it broadens a musician’s knowledge of musical structure, musical history, music theory and analysis, which is important because the more you know about music, the more you can produce. As far as longevity is concerned, that

    depends upon the success of the projects, the artist’s talent level and their determination to succeed.

    P.T.  When you joined The Isley Brothers in the ‘60s, you were a pioneer as a synthesizer musician.  How did you know at the time that this instrument would have such an impact on the music scene, especially Funk which evolved from Soul music and incorporated psychedelic elements?

    C.J.The first time I was introduced to the synthesizer was at Juilliard. The professor I had at the time was not using it to compose popular music.  However, as I heard some of the songs that the synthesizer could create, I realized that the instrument had a vast capability of producing sounds that would be accepted in the popular genre.

    Also, at about the same time, I was introduced to the synthesizer, another pioneer by the name of Stevie Wonder, had recorded an album entitled “Music of My Mind” which validated my idea that synthesizers could be used in popular music very effectively. After that, I began to use synthesizers in many of my compositions such as “Highways of My Life”, “Lover’s Eve”, “For the Love of You”, “Fight the Power”, “Live it Up”, “The Heat is On”, “Caravan of Love”, and the list goes on and on.

    P.T.  It is rare in popular music to see females playing an instrument in groups or solo.  In the ‘80s, we started to see more of them like The Go-Go’s, Klymaxx, Sheila E., The Bangles, etc.  How do you explain the lack of female musicians in popular songs?

    C.J.When I was coming up, there weren’t that many women playing instruments, especially those instruments that comprised the rhythm section such as drums, bass, and guitar. It may be just a personal choice because those instruments are physically demanding. 

    P.T.  About your latest album “Everything I do”, what message do you want people to take away from it?

    C.J.I guess the main message I would want people to take from it is the message in the title song…that is, the relationship between a husband and wife is very important. Like the Bible says, “husbands love your wives as Christ loves the church and gave Himself for it”, which the lyrics of the song try to convey…”Everything I do, revolves around you.” Also, my last album, “With Love”, was all love songs, so, I wanted to put out an album that showed my other musical side which is the funk side.

    P.T.  It is seldom that artists sing about the importance of education.  Can you talk about your song Superbad which covers this theme on your latest album?

    C.J.“Superbad” was written to encourage young people to focus on education rather than what they may see and hear out on the street. It is even truer today than when I wrote the song in 1987. It seems that education is more accessible now but for some reason many young people are not choosing to take advantage of it.  I don’t believe, just like the song says, that you can be “cool” without being educated. And the line in the song says “Education really makes me cool, the word’s out, that I’m number one in school” and I hope that young people will embrace more this message.

    P.T.  You have been involved in the music business for decades.  In the past, very few African-American artists owned and controlled the production of their music.  What is your assessment as an artist and jurist on this issue for today?  Do you think that some riders and solutions are required?

    C.J.I believe it is important for an artist to control the production of their music; if they are capable as a producer. It is important for an artist to be as versatile as possible, to be an artist, to be a songwriter, and to be a producer. If they can do those things, they will be able to control the total production of their music and also have ownership of their copyrights.  Ownership is important because the owner of the copyrights is the person who controls the exploitation of the music and also controls the income streams. If it is not possible for one person to do all of those things, they should strive to do the most that they can. However, this goes back to what I was saying before about learning as much as possible and not just entering the business to be a performer. Many artists today do not grasp the importance of training and education.  This situation puts them at a disadvantage.

    P.T.  Do you think that music has been integrated longer than people?

    C.J.In America, the arts sort of reflected what was going on in society.  However, in some of the big bands of the 20s, 30s and 40s, you had integrated bands and even later.  For instance, America had the interracial group Sly & Family Stone (of the late 1960s) which had a similar soul funk sound like The Isley Brothers.  This is an example of integration in music which started decades ago.  It included Blacks, Whites and women as well as men who had national visibility in the 60s and 70s.

    The music industry, however, was segregated in the past.  So, I guess you can say on one hand, musicians played together, but the music was marketed to different audiences (Black America/White America).  Even during the 50s, 60s and 70s, there were pop stations that played primarily white artists, and the R&B stations played primarily black artists.  The charts reflected that and it was more difficult to cross over. This situation has changed a lot now and it is more about the music than the artist’s race or nationality. So, within the world of musicians, there was some integration before it was made known to the public.

    P.T.  You wrote in the past for high caliber artists such as Chaka Khan.  Are you planning in the future to pen for others?

    C.J.If the right opportunity presents itself, that is something I would consider. We have also developed a pretty substantial catalogue of music for our publishing company and I would like to place some of that music with the right artist. However, right now I am focusing on the projects  I have released on my Gold City label, including my son Michael’s CD, “Addictive,” a dance, pop, techno CD which we co-produced.

    P.T.  Throughout your career, what was your favorite CD to make and why?

    C.J.I think my favorite CD was “Caravan of Love” with Marvin and Ernie Isley when we formed “Isley-Jasper-Isley.” It was a kind of turning point in my life.  This song has such a universal and timeless message.  It is the first song which I sang lead and it went number 1.  It also became an international hit, especially after the English group, the Housemartins covered it.

    P.T.  How did you feel in 1992 when you were inducted along with the rest of The Isley Brothers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

    C.J.To be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a great honor. It  was recognition by the industry of all of the things that were accomplished by the group. 

    P.T.  Can the fans expect a comeback in the future with the entire living former Isley Brothers?

    C.J.As you know, there are some members that are no longer with us.  O’Kelley Isley passed away in 1986 and Marvin recently left us last June.  Right now, there is no longer a group performing as The Isley Brothers.  Ronald and Ernie are solo artists and Rudolph has retired.  In this respect, it would not be easy to have everybody for a reunion.

    P.T.  Few people in the music business are able to maintain a marriage for 28 years.  What is your secret?

    C.J.Number one is that I have a wonderful wife. It is not often that you find a perfect match. I have been fortunate enough and blessed to find that perfect match. If there is a secret, it is that we have a relationship where it just feels natural to be together all the time…friends, lovers and business partners. 

    P.T.  Do you have some advice to give to people who want to be in the music business and who wish to find balance in their personal lives?

    C.J.I tell aspiring artists that, first of all, your personal life is more important. Who you are as a person, your values, your integrity as a person…it’s more important than anything else and that should carry over into your career. 

    P.T.  Do you have a message for young people who want to be in the music industry?

    C.J.You have to be wise, educated and of course talented.  It is important also to be honest with yourself about your talent. If you maintain your integrity and good judgment, you are less likely to get caught up in the hype and traps that some aspiring artists fall into.  To finish, a classical training helps because it makes you less vulnerable to just become the new flavor of the month.

    P.T.  Thanks for this great interview, it was an honor to interview you Mr.  Jasper!



    Superbad (Gold City 1987)

    Time bomb (Gold City 1989)

    Praise the Eternal (Gold City 1992)

    Deep Inside (Gold City 1995)

    Faithful And True (Gold City 2001)

    With Love (Gold City 2003)

    Amazing Love (Gold City 2005)

    Invincible (Gold City 2007)

    Everything I Do (Gold City 2010)

    Official Web site of Gold City Records, Inc.:  www.goldcitymusic.com

    [1] The group’s members:  O’Kelly Isley (who died in 1986) was a member from 1954 to 1986, Rudolph Isley from 1954 to 1989, Ronald Isley, alias Mr.  Biggs (a member since 1954 who is now a solo artist), Vernon Isley (who died in 1955) from 1954 to 1955, Chris Jasper from 1969 to 1984, Ernie Isley 1969-1984 and during the 90s (now he has a solo career), Marvin Isley (who died in 2010) from 1969 to 1984 and from 1991 to 1997.

    [2] This song was covered by The Beatles during their developing careers

    [3] The Isley Brothers under pressure from Wand Records released vapid rewrites of “Twist and Shout” (like “Surf and Shout”) until they founded their own label, T-Neck in 1964.  This record company captured the early guitar innovations of Jimi Hendrix, then named Jimmy James (he was homeless at the time and was discovered by O’Kelly Isley) who collaborated with The Isley Brothers during the mid-1960s.  The Isley Brothers made history by becoming the firstgroup to form their own label.  At the time, the few black recording artists who followed this path were Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and later Curtis Mayfield.

    [4] This CD sold over one million copies

    [5] This CD also sold over one million copies

    [6] Above-mentioned, Marvin Isley died on June 6th 2010 at Seasons Hospice of Weiss Memorial Hospital (Illinois) following complications with diabetes.

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 11, 2011)

    The Spanish/Mexican BIUTIFUL finally gets its opening in Toronto this week.  Also opening are JUST GO WITH IT by Adam Sandler and the action flick THE EAGLE.

    BIUTIFUL (Spain/Mexico 2010) ***

    Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

    Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has never failed to intrigue audiences with his films.  His best film AMORES PERROS was an over energetic, cinematic display of razzle dazzle bringing tying in different stories with the simple theme of bitches (perros).  His 21 GRAMS and BABEL played with narrative as does his latest BIUTIFUL but alas BIUTIFUL is nothing more than a masked melodrama. Alejandro González Iñárritu does Almodovar but not as well!

    BIUTIFUL is no easy watch.  Watching a man dying of cancer who is spending the remaining days of his life trying to get sorted while killing a group of Chinese workers accidentally and f***ing his family up even more would hardly be classified as popular Hollywood-type entertainment.  But the dreamy snow white segments at the start and end of the film is the only scenes offering hope at the film’s hero, Uxbal (Javier Bardem from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and JABON JAMBON).

    This is a story of a relatively good man, Uxbal in free fall of destruction. On the road to redemption, darkness lights his way. Connected with the afterlife, Uxbal is a tragic hero and father of two who''s sensing the danger of death. He struggles with a tainted reality and a fate that works against him in order to forgive, for love.

    Uxbal deals with his whoring and drinking abusive wife and unworkable work conditions.  Tensions flair, But one feels that all these difficulties are just added for a little spice in the story.  There are too many scenes of Uxbal feeling sorry for himself and feeling sad and hopeless.  And why?  Because the script pours down one misfortune after another upon this character.  The only way out is love, love that Uxbal has to show towards his children, others and even his abusive wife.  Yes, the audience gets the picture already.

    Most of the action takes place in a crowded Spanish town.  BIUTIFUL is the way the people there pronounce the word beautiful.

    But with flaws and all, BIUTILFUL made it to the short list for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.  See it for its haunting and electronic music and sounds, Bardem’s muted yet intense performance compared to Maricel Alvarez’s over-the-top acting and the impressive dark gloomy cinematography.

    THE EAGLE (USA/UK 2011) **
    Directed by Kevin Macdonald

    THE EAGLE, an overly serious actioner insistent of playing it straight, sees one Roman centurian by the name of Marcus Aquila (the hunky Channing Tatum) travelling to the north of Britain in the 140 AD. for the dual propose of retrieving ‘the eagle’ a victory Roman artifact and finding out the truth of his father apparently killed there.

    Based on the 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” and directed by Brit Kevin Macdonald who has come up with a few really good films in the past like THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and TOUCHING THE VOID, THE EAGLE despite having great and super stunning cinematography fails to engage as an action adventure.  The Ninth is the name of the father’s legion that disappeared.  Partly due to wrong emphasis on the script by Jeremy Brock, lack of focus and bad acting on the part of Tatum and lackluster action sequences, THE EAGLE is a forgettable adventure that could have worked better as a journey or road trip.

    The best thing about THE EAGLE is the bleak but crisp cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle of the Scottish highlands.  Hadrian’s Wall which was built in the past to separate Scotland (then called Caledonia) is seen here in all its past ‘glory’.  When the two, Marcus and his slave, Esca (BILLY ELLIOT’s Jamie Bell) travel past the wall, the film soars with the vast picturesque glens and mountains while the two ride their wild horses. The mist, fog and rain aid in creating atmosphere of fear and menace.

    But when the film settles into the story, it encounters major problems.  It is hardly credible that the slave Esca would sacrifice his tribe (given that he is also one of the tribe’s princes) and family to protect Marcus, his master.  No doubt Marcus did save his life in the early part of the film, but the Romans did also slay Esca’s immediate family.  And Esca is risking his life in the process.  But Bell is a much better actor than Tatum, and it shows whenever the two share a scene together.

    For the other party of the movie, with Marcus and Esca’s tribe fighting for the eagle, it looks as if two teams of boys are playing a game of capturing a prize.  The artifact is just a symbol and it looks as if it is time for the two teams to grow up.

    When THE EAGLE ends, Esca is set free as salve and it then shows that the film could have worked as an adventure centering on the master and slave as primary characters in a different kind of movie.  THE EAGLE ends up as a forgettable mediocre period actioner that is as dramatic as it is exciting.

    Directed by Angel Garcia

    Midway during the movie, I was wondering why a Latino remake of the Jane Austen English classic “Sense and Sensibility”?  A character on the bus in one scene gives the answer as she questions, Nora the lead character: “You live in L.A. and you cannot speak Spanish?  The assumption that the large Latino demographic will go watch this film that has already done horrendous box-office returns since its opening on January the 28th is a grave mistake.

    Two spoiled sisters who have been left penniless after their father''s sudden death are forced to move in with their estranged aunt in East Los Angeles.  The trouble with Nora (Camilla Bella) And Mary (Alexa Vega) is that director Garcia portrays them as so spoiled with no redeeming qualities that the audience would rather the two remain broke learning life lessons than marrying back rich into high society.  Enter the over nice looking grooms that fall in love with these two for no apparent reason but their outward appearance.  Is all Hollywood this way?  Needless to say, Nora the one who wishes to remain single gets hooked up first!  Not that anyone cares.

    The second half of the film gets incredibly boring and the film teeters towards the known ending.  The film is not funny either.  Even if you had not read the Jane Austen book, any one could guess the film’s ending on a story of nonsense and insensibilities.

    JUST GO WITH IT (USA 2011) **
    Directed by Dennis Dugan

    In the new Adam Sandler comedy,In Just Go With It, a plastic surgeon, romancing a much younger schoolteacher, enlists his loyal assistant to pretend to be his soon to be ex-wife, in...  a plastic surgeon, Danny (Sandler) romancing a much younger schoolteacher, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker) enlists his loyal assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) to pretend to be his soon to be ex-wife, in order to cover up a careless lie. When more lies backfire, the assistant''s kids become involved, and everyone heads off for a weekend in Hawaii that will change all their lives.

    If this plot sounds familiar, the story is based on the script by I.A.L. Diamond of the 1969 film CACTUS FLOWER where a dentist has his nurse pretend to be his wife in order for him to marry the much younger Toni.  Toni has believed all the time along that he would not marry her as he was married with kids.  As far as JUST GO WITH IT goes, it is not the best Sandler comedy.  In fact, it is often short on laughs and many of the laughs or comedic setups fall flat.  Worst still, if you want to compare Ingrid Bergman to Jennifer Aniston and even worse that Brooklyn Decker be compared to the bubbly Goldie Hawn who won the Oscar for her role in CACTUS FLOWER.

    JUST GO WITH IT is clearly short on ideas and originality.  The only time it picks up is when Katherine meets her college nemesis played over-the-top by Nicole Kidman as the bitchiest friend you want to get rid off.  Other than that, the romantic comedy, the bonding with the kids, the sexual innuendo and the shit jokes (Guy sleeping in the bathroom sticks his hand in the toilet bowl while the boy comes in to take a crap) are more boring and unimaginative than ever before.  A few jokes do generate laugh out loud laughs (most uttered by Sandler under his breath) but these are few and far between.  No new songs are written for the film and old hits are lazily copied into the soundtrack for different parts of the film.

    Sandler appears to be going through the motions with the romance and though Decker is a clear #10 in looks and beauty, her acting and character are close to the zero mark. The kids are annoying, but not nearly as annoying as Danny’s brother, Eddie played by Nick Swardson.  Aniston sleep walks through another romantic comedy role.

    The biggest flaw in the movie is the lazy script that does not bother to answer the important question why Danny does not tell Palmer the truth in the beginning.  CACTUS FLOWER had a good reason but JUST GO WITH IT has none.  But all would be forgiven if his Dugan/Sandler film (their 6th pairing) was hilarious but JUST GO WITH IT is just also not funny enough.  Sandler fans might just have to let it go with this one.

    MODRA (Canada 2010) ***
    Directed Ingrid Veninger

    Writer/director/film producer Ingrid Veninger (born in Slovakia and raised in Canada) made a name for herself by directing her son in the minimalist budget ONLY a few years back.

    In the more ambitious MODRA, Veninger takes her daughter as a subject as she examines adolescent love while travelling to visit relatives in the small town of MODRA, in Slovakia.  Lina (Hallie Switzer) has just been dumped by her boyfriend and reluctantly takes Leca (Alexander Gammal) instead on a week’s trip to Modra.  Leca falls for Lina but standoffish Lina only invited Leca as a replacement.  Worse is that all the relatives assume the two to be a couple.

    MODRA is an extremely moving, honest and heartfelt film about self discovery and youth set in the quaint yet incredibly beautiful Modra.  The two learn from experience as well as from the words of Lina’s experienced grandmother who only speaks Czech.  Both Switzer and Gammal bring a certain innocence and refreshness to their roles.  But the film is more about life than a romantic comedy!

    What this simple well-made film has is oodles and oodles of charm!  Almost impossible to dislike!  Voted as one of the top 10 Canadian films this year!

    Best Bets of the Week!

    Best Film Opening This Week: Biutiful
    Best Films Playing: The Social Network/The Illusionist/True Grit/Another Year
    Best Family: Tangled
    Best Documentary: Inside Job
    Best Foreign: Incendies
    Avoid: From Prada to Nada


    Ousmane Sembène

    February 5 – 13

    Often referred to as “the father of African cinema,” Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembène was an outspoken opponent of both the former colonial powers and the corrupt, cruel and archaic aspects of his own people’s culture – a complex double critique that made his work vital and controversial for more than four decades.

    For complete schedule, ticket pricing and venue, chek the cinematheque ontario website at:


    Recommended are CAMP DE THIAROYE (*****) and MOOLADE(*****).

    Below find capsule reviews of three films to be screened:

    Moolade (Senegal/France 2004) ***** Top 10
    Directed by Ousmane Sembene
    MOOLADE (set in a remote Burkina Faso village in Africa) is the word uttered by a strong willed woman, Colle (Fatouma Coulibaly) that calls for the magical protection of 4 girls about to be purified by genital cutting.  Colle has lost 2 daughters from the ritual and is intent on protecting the 4 girls.  Her only surviving daughter whom she had protected as well is angry as she is not allowed to be married without purification by the elders.  The daughter has her eye on the son of an elder returning from studies in France.  Sembene tells his story like a colourful fairy tale (indeed the African village is colourful with green, yellow, red buildings with the habitants donning bright apparel) with an evil ruler and an evil practice that must be stopped so that everyone can live happily ever after.  But tradition, pride and stupidity need by overcome.  Colle is the female knight in shining armour to do the task and what a knight she is.  She would have you cheering (WASA! WASA!) by the end of the film if not in tears admiring her courage.  This is a film about the triumph of the human spirit and director Sembene has crafted one of the best films ever to come out of the African continent.


    La Noire de (Black Woman) (France/Senegal 1966) ****
    Directed by Ousmane Sembene
    The first film by an African director to receive attention and acclaim worldwide, Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature focuses on Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman who is invited to move to France to work as a nanny for a wealthy couple. She work initially for the couple in Dakkar where she is comfortable looking after their three children.  But when she moves to France with the prospect of a better life, Diouna’s excitement soon gives way to disillusionment as the couple begins to take advantage of her, forcing her to work as a common servant. As it becomes increasingly clear that their mistreatment is linked to her race, Diouana falls into despair. A thought-provoking exploration of racism and the legacy of colonialism, La Noire de. . . opened the door to the West for such acclaimed African filmmakers as Souleymane Cissé, Djibril Diop Mambety and Haile Gerima.
    Thus husband is more sympathetic towards her but does little while the mistress shouts at Diouana constantly while complaining how lazy she is..Diouana finally refuses to eat, work and completely breaks down.  Director Sembene captures the depressing plight of a human being caught by loneliness and desperation.  If only Diouana could communicate in French to her employers or be stronger to take control of things!  This simple yet unorgettable

    Xala (Senegal/France 1974) ***
    Directed by Ousmane Sembene
    The film opens with a voiceover over-praising Senegal’s independence from France with scenes of the White ousted from the parliament building while the sons of the land now rule their own people.  But such words are only an indication that the takeover is not going to be as smooth as expected and something is going to go dreadfully wrong.  Written and directed by Sembene, the story of XALA turns to one official, Aboucader Beye, known by the title “El Hadji,” who takes advantage of some of that money to marry his third wife, to the sorrow and chagrin of his first two wives and the resentment of his nationalist daughter. But he discovers on his wedding night that he has been struck with a XALA a curse of impotence. El Hadji goes to comic lengths to find the cause and remove the xala, resulting in a scathing satirical ending.  Sembene’s film is dead serious in the sense that all the characters are serious about their status quo, so much so that everything seems hilarious from an outside observer.  The music, atmosphere and mood of the city are all captured and displayed with all the exoticism of a tourist visiting Senegal for the first time.  The film is even funnier when one sits back and contemplates the events that have occurred.

  • ... the Right Thing to Do

    The Canadian Film Centre kicked off  their  Black History Month celebrations with an enriching evening with award-winning Writer/Director, Spike Lee. Spike is currently on a book promo tour for his latest endeavour, Spike Lee: Do The Right Thing.  The book celebrates the 20th anniversary of Do the Right thing''s film debut and provides an insiders view to the making of the seminal movie.

    Throughout the evening Spike's unapologetic banter reminded us why he's one of Hollywood's vanguards. Fearlessness and passion have always been hallmarks of his work but throughout this discussion it became apparent that what makes his films legendary are the poignancy and timelessness of  the themes encapsulated in each.  Do the right thing,is arguably his most celebrated film, one which solidified his career not only as a filmmaker but as a gifted story-teller. Its mark on filmmaking is undeniable. America's views on race and youth culture were all showcased in a manner deceptively simple and devastatingly honest. So, it was only fitting that on a night chosen to celebrate this breakthrough film, Spike felt inclined to speak candidly on the role of music in his films, the role his family has played in his projects and Hollywood''s double standards.

    The event's format served as a retrospective on his work, with Canadian Director, Clement Virgo moderating. Using clips from some of Spike's most famous films as a jumping off point to discuss his methodologies as a filmmaker, Virgo started the evening with a scene from Do the right thing.

    Spike readily admitted that he chose music not as a background motif but to serve as a character that we the audience could identify with. Who among us hasn't heard Chuck D's  distinctive hook in Fight the Power, and not instantly thought of Do the right thing?

    Spike also revealed that the use of the “floating effect”in Do the right thing and Malcolm X was a deliberate  effort to animate a character's thought process. But, the most  revealing discussion surrounded the film Crooklyn. Though his father jazz musician, Bill Lee, had worked on the musical score for a number of his films, Crooklyna story about an african-american family set in the 60s and 70s, was a Lee family collaboration in full. The screenplay was written by his sister, Joie Lee and brother Cinque Lee, and according to Spike was semi-autobiographical. The four kids are coming of age in an urban city and dealing with the vulnerability that comes with the loss of a parent, a theme that hit  close to home in Spike's case.

    The idea of vulnerability was also brought up in discussion on Hollywood's double standards when it comes to artistic expression. Not reticence in sharing his opinion, Spike candidly recalled how he was offered the directorial job on Michael Jackson''s “They don''t care about us” video and the painful backlash Michael faced because of the History album''s controversial themes. In his response to questions on Michael''s artistry, Spike argued that artistic license in the film industry and the music industry has not been evenly judged, consequently leaving artist like Michael heavily penalized for their creativity, while white counterparts rarely are given such reprimands for pushing boundaries. It was an interesting point of discussion, one which further highlighted Spike's willingness to go where many others fear to tread because, in his world, it’s the right thing to do. Do the right thingis loved universally for the raw honesty in Spike's storytelling and in an ever changing world and film industry it’s refreshing to see that he hasn't.

  • Ousmane Sembène: In the Face of History

     Perfectly fitting for Black History Month, TIFFBell Lightbox will present starting tomorrow, Saturday, February 5th, 2011 until Sunday, February 13th, Ousmane Sembène: In the Face of History -- a cinematic retrospective featuring the late Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007). Often referred to as “the father of African cinema,” Sembène was a true pioneer of African cinema.

    Both a writer and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène was acutely aware that cinema was a much more potent tool to foster political change and mass awareness in Africa than the written word. He was not content to simply have a following among the tiny cultural elite who were adepts of his books. A man of the people himself from a humble background, he worked as a factory labourer and docker in post-war France following his service in the French colonial army in World War II. Active in the trade union movement, he became sympathetic to the discourse of Marxists while never adhering himself to any political party

    After returning to Senegal in 1960, he more than ever felt that becoming a filmmaker would be the most effective way to affect real change -- particularly given the high level of illiteracy in his homeland. Several of his films were in fact film adaptations of his earlier novels and short stories. At the age of 40, he returned to Europe to learn the art of cinematography at the Gorki Studios in Moscow.

    He produced his first feature film, La Noire de … (Black Girl), in 1966. It was the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director.


    AfroToronto.com recently had the opportunity to discuss the work and legacy of Ousmane Sembène with Carleton University Assistant Professor of Film Studies Aboubakar Sanogo. Professor Sanogo will be present at Totonto’s TIFF Lightbox for a free lecture on Saturday, February 5th at 5pm.

    Professor Sanogo pointed out to us that La Noire de... (Black Girl) is a visionary film which came 40 years before its time.

    The film tells the story of a hopeful, young and beautiful Senegalese servant, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who arrives in the picturesque French Riviera town of Antibes to work for a French colonial couple. Back in Senegal, she had been hired to take care of the couple’s children. But when she arrived in France, her hopes of finding a better life in Europe were dashed. She soon realized that she was not being given the freedom to go outside and was increasingly treated as nothing more than a servant.

    Professor Aboubakar Sanogo believes that the film is very relevant to modern Africa because many of the continent’s youth dream of leaving Africa to live what they perceive would be a better life in Europe. “While Sembène portrayed what was at the time individual journeys of immigration, today we are faced with a massive exodus out of Africa” Sanago says. “There is a kind dynamic focusing on both current events and an anticipated future in much of Sembène’s work” he adds.

    Another Ousmane Sembène film which is very relevant to the current situation of Africans and their relationship with Europe is 1987’sCamp de Thiaroye.


    Camp de Thiaroye is a historical fiction based on the real events surrounding the Thiaroye transit camp massacre in 1944. The film tells the story of West African colonial troops who are stationed in a transition and repatriation camp after fighting France’s war in the trenches of World War II Europe. Sembène brings to light the heroic exploits of these unsung heroes of the Great War and how they were discarded, lied to and mistreated after their useful service in the war effort.

    Sembène was definitely a political filmmaker. He did not shy away from admiting to that. According to Ousmane Sembène, cinema has a political role in society. The Socratic city could not in good conscience be left entirely in the hands of the rulers. Cinema has to play a role in maintaining democracy by offering a critical voice which is accessible to the masses of the people.

    “The film was censored in France for a very long time”Aboubakar Sanogo tells AfroToronto.com. “It came out in France maybe 8 or 10 years after its official release.... Even when he was making the film, French military helicopters were circling above the set. … The French have invested a lot of money in African cinema; even in some of Sembène’s films. But forCamp de Thiaroye,they did not invest a penny. It’s not devoid of meaning.  We know why. Because, as you know, the history is problematic. The truth is that France could never have come out of World War II as they did without Africa. … The French have denied this fact for a long time.”

    Professor Sanogo goes on to point out that having this discussion through Sembène’s film is important because it’s at the heart of today’s immigration debate in France. African youth have a difficult time coming to terms with their exclusion from French society in terms or jobs and social mobility given Africa’s contribution to French society.

    Films likeCamp de Thiaroye and the more recent Indigènes by Rachid Bouchareb, which tells the similar story of North African French colonial forces in World War II, serve as important agents of social change. 

    Speaking of this vision of the role of film in society as expressed byOusmane Sembène, ProfessorAboubakar Sanogo says:

    “This idea is present in the minds of all African filmmakers. Ousmane Sembène is a great ghost [laughs] who will haunt African cinema for generations in one way or the other. Whether they are Marxists or not, African filmmakers somehow now have this nagging worry and anxiety. They ask themselves how they can, through their films, help to shape Africa. This is a direct consequence of Ousmane Sembène”.

    Promotion note:If you buy a ticket to any Ousmane Sembene screening, you will receive a free ticket to the In Person event with Aboubakar Sanogo on Feb 5th.

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 4, 2011)

    Extreme action fans should be pleased with the James Cameron produced SANCTUM, an underwater cave thriller which should be seen in IMAX 3D, no less.

    Drama of another kind opens in the form of OLIVER SHERMAN, a Canadian psychological drama/thriller, the best film opening this week!

    BIRDWATCHERS (Brazil 2009) ***

    Directed by Marco Bechis

    BIRDWATCHERS is a realistic drama on Indian rights in Brazil.  It is also the age old story of conflict between natives and the landowners.

    But do not expect any elaborate over-wrought drama like Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (Nouvecento) with overacting by stars like Burt Lancaster and Robert De Niro.  The actors in the case of BIRDWATCHERS are real Guarani Indians, and though all the actors are non-professional director Bechis did train them in the acting profession prior to filming.

    The story is simple and the film’s aim is clear.  The film begins with tourists boating down a river running though one of Brazil’s famous rainforests.  They see Guarani natives on shore – in paint and the women topless, holding weapons like ancient arrows.  The camera moves back later to reveal the natives receiving wages (though they complain is not what they had promised) to act out their roles.  Both funny and sad at the same time, this is the dilemma of the Guarani.  They have lost their land and thus their ability to hunt for food.  They have to work for outsiders for insufficient funds.  Sadder still are two suicides revealed early in the film.

    The result is the leader Nadio (Ambrosio Vilhava) to protest by taking his tribe to squat on its ancestral land, now owned by a wealthy farmer.  This causes problems and director Bechis brings his film to a disturbing climax.  Instructions of how the audience can donate to help the Guarani are flashed on the screen.  Though important, the tactic sort of reduces the impact of the film.

    Bechis’ film feels like a documentary as his film charts the daily routines and troubles f the Guarani though the players are actors.  The authenticity is aided by the haunting music composed by Domenico Zipoli, an Italian Jesuit who worked with the Guarani in the early 1700s.

    OLIVER SHERMAN (Canada 2010) ***1/2

    Directed by Ryan Redford

    Director Ryan Redford’s first feature based on a short story “Veterans” by Rachel Ingalls has already won a number of awards for Best Canadian First Feature.  And the film isn’t half bad.  Meticulously plotted, well performed and going against normal thriller conventions, OLIVER SHERMAN emerges as an effective, believable psychological thriller with genuine menace.

    OLIVER SHERMAN (Garret Dillahunt), seven years after being shot in the head on the battlefield, Sherman Oliver (Garret Dillahunt, DEADWOOD) is still trying to pull his life back together.   The name comes about from the identity he was mistaken for in the hospital.  When he shows up unannounced and unexpected at the small town home of Franklin (Donal Logue) the soldier who saved his life, he is taken into the peace-time life Franklin shares with his wife, Irene (Molly Parker) and their two young children.  Though Sherman is clearly not "right in the head" Franklin feels bound by compassion and duty to try and do well by his fellow vet.

    The first sign that Sherman is not all there comes with the spew of profanities he utters after a little mishap.  Other than that, he appears normal, except that he outlives his welcome and much to Irene’s chagrin, Sherman appears to be staying for good.  As the film progresses, Sherman’s temper appears uncontrollable (spitting at a barking dog) and when jealousy sets in, the safety of Franklin’s family is threatened.  Sherman’s intimidation scene with Irene is taut with tension and extremely well written and acted.

    Director Redford’s film excludes graphic violence. One key murder scene is shown off screen.  Because much is left to the mind, the audience is never sure what can or will happen next.  Redford often teases with shots of Sherman’s knife, particularly in the film’s most suspenseful segment when Sherman reaches for it as he approaches Franklin.  The fact that nothing much is really mentioned of the type of trauma resulting from the head would makes the film even more suspenseful.  Sherman’s behavior is entirely unpredictable.  And as Irene says in one of the film’s scene: “Sherman, you are not a stupid person.”

    Dillahunt, a big chubby but still sexy is impressive in his role of the character with contradictions.  But actor Donal Logue fares best as the man unsure of whether to aid a fellow soldier like himself who has not found it easy to get life settled again or to take his wife’s side.  Logue is so good in his role that the audience really cares for his character.

    Redford’s tension builds brilliantly till the final scene when Sherman finally breaks down.  Not to reveal the ending, what occurs is totally believable and follows the mood and atmosphere so well created in Redford’s first film.  Ryan Redford is definitely a talent to be reckoned with!

    DER RAUBER (THE ROBBER) (Austria/Germany 2010) ***
    Directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

    DER RAUBER (THE ROBBER), from the novel by Martin Prinz and based on a true story tells the biography of Johann Rettenberger, a marathon athlete who developed robbing banks as a hobby.

    Written by Heisenberg himself, this is a no-nonsense tale told from the point of view from an outsider who oddly judges not and has little sympathy for his protagonist.  The protagonist (the robber) who goes by the name of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) moves along like a machine with running as the only thing in life that motivates him.  Heisenberg does not attempt to have his audience feel sorry for Johann.  Johann murders and strikes without guilt or emotion, so that when the police hunt him down, the audience is not really on the side of Johann.

    THE ROBBER therefore feels like a strange movie, with the lead functioning like a machine gone out of control.  The only time the audience sympathize with him is when he is not allowed to be alone.  And even then, when his parole officer gets on his case, the officer is struck dead, quite a blow for someone trying to do his job with some good intent.

    Actor Andreas Lust is thoroughly believable as the running animal, sexy yet threatening, especially to his girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz) who betrays him at one point.

    The intriguing fact about this movie is the question who or what is to blame for the current state of events.  Is it the correctional system or is it just this subject that is f***ed up.  But director Heisenberg is always reluctant to provide any answers, so much so that one wonders if this is deliberate or not.  Background information on Johann is alsoomitted (his childhood; family; education etc.), with the result that the audience has difficulty identifying with a character they know little about.

    Still, THE ROBBER is a fascinating study on a human machine fixed on running and running alone.  If only more information would be provided for a better conclusion.

    SANCTUM (USA 2011) ***

    Directed by Alister Grierson

    SANCTUM has the good fortune of having James Cameron’s name on the producer list.  Like many films screened on IMAX that take audiences into outer space, the cold Arctic or the underwater seas, SANCTUM is a film that contains shots of some of the world’s most amazing natural occurrences like underwater caves and rainforests.  Combined with fictional action, SANCTUM should provide fans of extreme action, the wet dream they have been waiting for.

    The film is set in Papua New Guinea where an underwater cave diving team experiences a life-threatening crisis during an expedition to the unexplored and least accessible cave system in the world.  The team includes a father Frank (Richard Roxburgh) in an estranged relationship with his diver son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield).  As a storm approaches the entrance is sealed and the team has to follow underground streams to where they meet the ocean to escape.  A map is shown to the audience prior, so that the journey makes sense.  There are no monsters or humanoid creatures here.  The elements of nature are sufficient to provide enough menace for this film.  The film is based on the real near death experience of a similar diving incident of co-writer Andrew Wight.  The beginning credits boast the film inspired by a true story.

    For an action flick, director Grierson’s film does not compromise in terms of blood, gore and terror.  The result is a very intense film (take for example the scene where a diver’s face gets caught in the pulley holding her up from an underwater cliff) with hardly any pauses to catch ones breath.  Alfred Hitchcock said that non action pauses where nothing happens are necessary in a suspense film and it is clear when viewing this film that he is right.  The audience is uptight for long periods so that the uneasiness spoils the entertainment factor.

    The film uses the Cameron developed Fusion Camera system with the result that the film looks great on screen.  The underwater shots are well lit and the images crisp and clear.

    Action, suspense and thrills from close calls replace story.  When father and son argue, the dialogue gets a bit corny.  A few funny lines like the father calling himself a heartless bastard elevate the tension and provide a bit of much needed humour.  Also, the script cannot resists lines like: “What can possibly go wrong diving in caves?”

    For ultimate extreme action fans, SANCTUM does not disappoint.  And SANCTUM should definitely be seen in all the glory of IMAX and 3D, no question about it.

    THE TIME THAT REMAINS (UK/Belg/It/France 2009) ***

    Directed by Elia Suleiman

    The film flashes the year1948 at the start with events following.  As the events unravel, it becomes clear that writer/director Elia Suleiman’s film is a personal tale infused with his unique sense of storytelling, one consisting of insightful vignettes many overflowing with deadpan humour.

    The film begins in 1948 with the Israeli armed forces invading Palestine.  Many Palestinians remain in the ountry living as a minority and earning the nickname ‘Israeli-Arabs’.

    The Palestinian Israel conflict is a tired, well worn topic covered in too many films already.  But Suleiman’s film is a breath of fresh air owing to the approach he has taken to his film.

    It is interesting to note that the American presence is notably missing in the film.  The only two rare references appear as two fine moments in the film when a schoolboy is chided by his principal for saying that America is Imperialist and for making another comment.  “You can’t say these things,” reprimands the principle.

    Also sad and critical is the scene where the major hands the key of the city over to the hands of the Israeli soldiers.  The segment is done in tongue in cheek with the major rolling his eyes while promises are made.  But the violence is also displayed as a woman is suddenly shot by soldiers after vocally protesting in the street.  But life goes on as the film traces a family continually having supper daily as if nothing has changed.

    Suleiman’s refreshing film has gone on to deservedly win quite the few festival awards including the prized nomination for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.


    Best Film Opening This Week: Oliver Sherman
    Best Films Playing: The Social Network/The Illusionist/True Grit/Another Year
    Best Family: Tangled
    Best Documentary: Inside Job
    Best Foreign: Incendies
    Avoid: The Dilemma, No Strings Attached

  • Spike Lee: For the love of film and music

    Last week, as part of the TD-sponsored Then and Now: A celebration of Black History Month series of cultural events, Toronto welcomed acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee. This conversation, moderated by Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo and presented by the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) examined Spike Lee’s body of work and his masterful use of music to evoke emotions in his films. The packed event held at Cineplex Odeon’s Varsity Theatre was a fitting launch to our city’s Black History Month celebrations.

    There perhaps is no better example of Lee’s powerful repeated use of music as a central character than Public Enemy’s epic anthem “Fight The Power” from his defining 1989 film, Do the Right Thing.

    The Anthem

    As part if the evening format’s combination of conversation and short film clips, Clement Virgo played Do The Right Thing’s title credits intro sequence featuring Rosie Perez dancing to “Fight the Power”.


    One of the most powerful things about music is that it can carry with it emotions and slices of life in a time capsule. Particular songs have the ability to transport us years in the past -- right back into the smells, textures and aura of defining times gone by.

    On a personal level, I was taken back to 1989 Bronx, New York. To Fordham Road, in particular, where I spent all my summers growing up in an eclectic Black and Hispanic neighbourhood so reminiscent of a classic Spike Lee joint.

    That summer, this song played everywhere. It was unmistakably present in any of the $10 audio cassette mixtapes my cousins and I bought at the corner of Fordham Road and Webster Avenue -- along with classic tracks from Biz Markie, Boogie Down Productions, EU and Eric B. & Rakim.

    As Spike Lee rightly pointed out: “Every summer in New York there's one song that''s an anthem, that you can hear come out of people's houses, cars. … We shot the film in the summer of '88 and (the movie) was coming out the summer of '89 so we wanted this song to be the anthem of 1989. And we wanted the song to reflect what the film was about. So right away it had to be Public Enemy."

    In what proved to be just one of a few interesting little-known facts about his musical collaborations, Spike Lee revealed that Public Enemy’s Chuck D had originally come to him with a different song but Lee felt it wasn’t the one.

    "I said, 'You've got to come back and give me something better'," Lee said to laughs from the audience. His instinct was definitely right. 'Do the Right Thing without ''Fight the Power'' is a different movie” added Spike Lee.

    Music as a separate character and a family affair

    Spike Lee has often discussed how music had always been a part of his home growing up. His father, Bill Lee, wrote the scores of many of his films including She''s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues. A renowned musician, his father collaborated with many of music’s luminaries such as Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Aretha Franklin and Peter Paul & Mary. "That's him on 'Puff the Magic Dragon,'' Lee said laughing.

    The Lee family having moved to New York from Georgia when Spike was a small child, the influence of southern jazz musicians was strong in the Lee household. Spike recounts how the great names of New Orleans jazz such as the Marsalis clan were fixtures around their neighbourhood in New York.

    One of those New Orleans musicians who moved to New York to make a name in jazz and became acquainted with Spike Lee was Terrance Blanchard. As Blanchard told NPR:

    “I’d been hired in several of Spike’s earlier projects, Skool Days and Do the Right Thing. Just as a session player and when we were doing Mo’ Better Blues Spike heard me play something on the piano and asked if he could use it. And we recorded it just as a solo trumpet piece and then he asked if I could write a string arrangement for him and I did. And Spike came over and said you have a talent for this and you have a future in the film business. … And he called me to do Jungle Fever and we’ve been working together ever since.”

    Spike Lee recounted that same story with Terrence Blanchard from the set of Mo’ Better Blues at the event last week. In particular, he spoke of how Blanchard’s music was instrumental to the score of his film Malcolm X.

    “Spike always views his music as a separate character – a whole other piece to the puzzle. And he’s always paid a lot of respect to the music; not only mine but the incidental music as well” Blanchard also said to NPR.

    Other musicians Spike Lee has worked with include the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Lee shared with the amazed crowd the interesting story behind how he got to work with Michael Jackson on his “They Don't Care About Us" video for the late King of Pop’s History album. He told the same story to Time Magazine:

    “Can I tell you a quick story? Michael Jackson called me up and said, 'Spike, I want to meet you, I'm coming to New York.' I said, 'Well where you want to meet?' He says, 'I want to come to your house.' I live in Brooklyn! He wants to come to my house! So, Michael Jackson came to my house in Brooklyn, New York — this was when I was living in Fort Greene. And he said, I want you to direct a video for me. My new album''s coming out, pick a song. So we listened to all the songs and I picked 'Stranger in Moscow.' And he said, I don't want you to do that one. And I said, 'Michael, just tell me which one you want me to do! Why ask me to pick one?' And he laughed and he said he wanted me to do 'They Don't Care About Us.' That's how it happened.”

    The controversies

    Of course, no conversation evening with Spike Lee would be complete without touching on some of the controversies which have followed his work throughout his career. Spike’s films have touched many hot buttons such as Black-on-Black skin colour prejudice, interracial relationships, race relations and religion.

    Long before Chris Rock talked about Black women’s conflicting relationship with their hair, Spike Lee exposed the good hair/bad hair and light skin/dark skin existential crisis in his 1988 film Skool Days.

    His 1991 film Jung Fever blew the lid open on the sexual stereotypes and cross/inter-community prejudice surrounding interracial relationships.

    It’s indeed an undeniable fact that Spike Lee’s films have redefined the role and reach of cinema to foster contemporary social debate and foster political change through popular culture.

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 28, 2011)

    Good crop of films opening this week.  The Illusionist and Incendies are two French films that hit the mark.

    THE COMPANY MEN (USA 2010) ****
    Directed by John Wells

    THJE COMPANY MEN centers on a year in the life of three men trying to survive a round of corporate downsizing at a major company - and how that affects them, their families, and their communities.

    The film is actually much better than it sounds.  For one, the film is very personal.  The three men are played by Ben Affleck as Bobby Walker, the main character laid off, followed Chris Cooper playing Bobby’s boss and Tommy Lee Jones playing the company owner’s number one man (Tommy Lee Jones), two older employees who eventually get the axe.

    For a film that deals with hopelessness and despair and that takes a somewhat predictable route, Wells’ film is extremely compelling.  (John Wells has directed TV episodes of ER and SHAMELESS).  For one, his script is filled with zingers, whether at the board room or at the ‘up’ meetings that help discouraged ex-employees raise their spirits.  The one scene where Bobby and a friend cheer enthusiastically: “I have faith, I have enthusiasm, I will succeed”, is both laugh-out loud hilarious because of both its over-the-top irony and sarcasm.

    The film’s production values are impressive from the corporate staircase where an assistant trots down to announce to Bobby that he had arrived the wrong day for the interview to the immaculate outfitting of the high executives of GTX, the company that the three work for.

    Just like family and friends are all that are left when one loses all, Wells makes sure the message is ingrained in the film.  The best scene has Bobby comfort his son who is unaware that his father had lost his job and just mad because of his fear of the parents breaking up.

    THE COMPNAY OF MEN is a serious drama with a script full of uplifting zingers that the film does not have a gloomy feel.  The actors are more than superb especially Kevin Costner as Bobby’s smart-talking but well meaning brother-in-law.

    I have to admit I enjoyed Well’s THE COMPANY MEN more than I ought to, particularly as I had work at a private college for 21 years before being laid off.  And hired back occasionally to teach the odd course and paid adjunct salary with zero benefits.  The frustration, anger and hopelessness are all captured in the movie – even though the type of job is different.  When Bush comes to shove, it is always the individual and the loved ones that count the most.

    Wells’ film takes the familiar course and one can tell that the film will eventually have a happy ending with the protagonist getting another job, though a slightly lower level one.  The script contains sufficient diversions, plot twists and clichés but one cannot help but feel for human beings who haven given up everything for their companies but who get nothing when companies lay them off.  Many have been there and if you have not – thank your lucky stars!

    INCENDIES (Canada /France 2010) ****
    Directed by Denis Villeneuve

    As proved in his visually stunning MAELSTROM and UN 32 AOUT SUR TERRE, director Villeneuve has outdone himself by adapting the acclaimed play by Wajdi  Mouawad to the big screen.

    The sands and barren hills in Middle East as well as the reflection from the dirty pools of the city’s buildings never looked so inviting.  The story here concerns siblings Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Polulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) searching for their father and brother whom they had never met, as requested by their deceased mother.  They discover more than a hidden can of worms.  It turns out that mother was an activist, who was raped and tortured in prison.

    Villeneuve makes an incredible tale believable and humanistic holding back sentiment and clichés.  Though based on a ply, the film never looks it as Villeneuve has taken his film out into the open.

    Compelling, entertaining and beautiful all at the same time.  This film was voted the Best Canadian feature at TIFF and by the Toronto Film Critics Association.

    L’ILLUSIONNISTE (UK 2010) ***** Top 10

    Directed by Sylvain Chomet

    In animator Sylvain Chomet’s previous feature LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE, he made several references to Jacques Tati’s films.  His homage is complete in L’ILLUSIONNISTE, which he shot, based on an original script by the late Tati.

    The lead character is an out-of-date magician, Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) who travels anywhere he can find work.  This leads him to Edinburgh, where he meets a young Alice who tags along, believing the magic to be real.  Alice loses her innocence and comes of age as Tatischeff finally reveals to her that the magic is fake.

    Chomet’s animation is amazing, from the film’s muted colours, atmosphere and look, down to the mannerisms of the animated Tatischeff, so similar to the real Tati.  The film’s final moments when Tatischeff happens into a theatre screening MON ONCLE, one of Tati’s films is genius and Chomet brings reality and fantasy together in this timeless tale.

    Just as in the Tati films, L’ILLUSIONNISTE is in French and English but requires no subtitles to understand.  And Chomet’s comedy (the biting ferocious rabbit, the drunk Scotsman) is just as funny.  The best animated film of the year – hands down!


    Directed by Ivan Reitman

    Hot on the heels of the 2011 worst films (COUNTRY STRONG, SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE DILEMMA) to avoid comes the Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman (what was she thinking?  She must have been f***ed up from THE BLACK SWAN).  At least one expects this one to be bad.  And director Ivan Reitman (hits I LOVE YOU, MAN and DAVE with flops FATHER’S DAY, EVOLUTION) delivers what is expected!

    Has Hollywood run out of ideas for romantic comedies.  Well, I would not exactly call the premise of this film an idea.  In this comedy, Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are life-long friends who almost ruin everything by having sex one morning. In order... In this so-called comedy, Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) are life-long friends who almost ruin everything by having sex one morning. In order to protect their friendship, they make a pact to keep their relationship strictly "no strings attached." "No strings" means no jealousy, no expectations, no fighting, no flowers, no baby voices. It means they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever public place they want, as long as they don''t fall in love. Needless to say, they fall in love by the end of the movie.  By the way, the movie does go on and on and on to almost a full 2 hours – as if the audience is expecting a twist or surprise ending.  No such luck!

    The film begins with the Emma and Adam meeting at a party and becoming friends. The flashback is 15 years before the present.  The film then moves 5 years before and then a year before.  There are no real connections of the three time periods except for the fact that the two met.  As can be observed, the film is all over the place, even chronologically.  It seems Reitman is reaching for floating straws to prevent his comedy from drowning.

    The film’s sub plots and comedic setups (father and son birthday dinner) are barely connected and least of all funny.  Emma’s little sister steals her mother’s boyfriend as Adam’s father (an embarrassing Kevin Kline) steals his ex-girlfriend.  At least the film should be original enough not to repeat unfunny parts that do not work.

    One small plus for the movie though.  The first sex scene between Kutcher and Portman is quite hot. Everything else is the pits!  At one point during an argument, Adam retorts: “I don’t know what to say?”  The audience can only echo those same words about NO STRINGS ATTACHED.

    THE WAY BACK (USA 2010) ***
    Directed by Peter Weir

    THE WAY BACK is an escape drama about a group of prisoners who escape the Gulag during World War II and walked across Siberia and the Himalayas to freedom in India.  Indeed, it is a long walk home based in the memoir by Slawomir Rawicz.  Director Weir’s admirable film is a long trek at 133 minutes and moves on endlessly with the escape at times.

    For a film with this theme, one expects more emotional involvement but the film leaves one rather empty.  The cinematography, particularly of the harsh natural barren lands of both snow and desert is more than impressive.  For the human characters, the 7 escapees are roughly sketched and their interaction minimal at most.

    Weir (who has made better films likes his early Australian films GALLIPOLI, THE LAST WAVE, PICNIC AT HANGNG ROCK and THE TRUMAN SHOW, WITNESS for Hollywood) appears to be going through the motion at times for this film.  At the start, Polish inmate Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is interrogated by Russian authorities involving his spying in a clichéd segment in which he declares himself innocent and that his wife had been tortured to testify against him.  What follows are typical prison scenes where he meets an assortment of other prisoners, 6 of them who will eventually escape with him during a snowstorm.

    Of the supporting case, Ed Harris is not half bad as the grumbling American Mr. Smith.  Colin Farrell, playing a violent Russian gangster is more entertaining than credible so one should not complain.  Sturgess carries the lead role well though the script leaves his character rather unsympathetic.

    Weir’s film goes on endlessly, particularly for the fact that the escape does take forever.  The escapees after making it across Siberia then have to make another long journey across the Himalayas.  All the walking, complaining and sore feet and bodies are hard to take.  Of course, a few characters die on the way, and given respectable burials.  The best thing about the film is the cinematography both of the hot desert and the cold icelands.

    Weir claims the story to be one of fiction.  It has been revealed that writer Rawicz was actually a free man during the escape and the story based on another Polish prisoner’s escape.  The sight of the green hillsides of India where the escapees finally see is as welcome for the audience in the film finally coming to an end.  Though not a bad film, THE WAY BACK is a difficult film to watch.


    Best Film Opening This Week: The Illusionist
    Best Films Playing: The Social Network/The Illusionist/True Grit/Another Year
    Best Family: Tangled
    Best Documentary: Inside Job
    Best Foreign: Incendies
    Avoid: The Dilemma

  • Ruined: An interview with Yanna McIntosh

    Ruined, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize award-winning play, is the latest work by acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage to make its way to Toronto. This production by Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre is currently running at Berkley Street Theatre until February 12, 2011.

    Set in a present-day small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruined takes us into a war-ravaged world where difficult choices in the face of often agonizing alternatives must be made every day. The play follows Mama Nadi, an industrious woman running a bar and brothel on the outskirts of the rain forest where a bloody civil way is being waged.

    Mama Nadi’s war-profiteering establishment acts as temporary shelter from the chaos and bullets heard flying outside. Miners and rebel soldiers seek refuge in Mama Nadi’s neutral grounds to enjoy a good beer and find solace with Mama Nadi’s girls who seductively dance for them, sit on their laps and take them to the back rooms for the right price.

    Although the soldiers are required to leave their guns at the door, it’s evident that the war is still being waged upon the bodies of these young women who serve as an equally raw and brutal battleground.

    These ruined young women who have been raped and mutilated before seeking refuge with Mama Nadi have made a heart-wrenching choice. Their own sense of survival and self-preservation itself becomes a currency traded at the crossroads of terror and relative safety.

    AfroToronto.com recently had the opportunity to talk with accomplished thespian Yanna McIntosh, who plays the role of Mama Nadi. We asked her how she felt her character reconciles with her dual role as a protector and exploiter. She replies:

    “I don’t know if you do reconcile it.... I mean I think you’re absolutely right, she is a protector. She is pro woman. At the same time that she is an exploiter. She’s living off them. Her business is running a bar, keeping the soldiers happy. And one of the ways to keep the soldiers happy is to give them girls to come in and be with. I don’t think she really reconciles it even for herself. I keep asking myself, what would Mama Nadi be or do if she had been born somewhere else, in another environment.”

    McIntosh goes on to say that we all have to survive and the way we survive is to work. Some of us open a nice salon, become a lawyer or teacher. “We have five choices in life. And we’re going to take the best of those five choices. And you know, being in this environment... the girls around her would rather be with her any day. Because out there is so much worse. Even in their home, they are taken without regard. At least here, there’s a transaction. There’s a negotiation” she adds.

    Salima, played by Sophia Walker, is one of the girls in Mama Nadi’s brothel who has to make this choice. A country girl with little schooling, Salima was married with a child when she was raped by a soldier. Her baby was killed in the ordeal and she was held captive by the rebels for several months. After she was freed, she returned to her family and village but she was shunned. She was accused of bringing this misery onto herself. They did not want to be associated with her shame.

    Salima was eventually brought to Mama Nadi’s brothel after having been picked up on the road by Christian (played by Sterling Jarvis) who was himself dropping off his niece, Sophie.

    “It’s a safe place for them” says Yanna McIntosh. “Along the road, they’re just going to be abused, they’re going to be raped again. They could be killed. They’ll starve. But at least here they’ll get some food. Yes, they will have to sell themselves to keep food in their mouth and a roof over their head but that’s better than life on the road.”

    The plays’ director, Obsidian Theatre’s Philip Akin, says: “This story has hit me deep inside and no matter what, I needed to bring this play to the stage. This is a play of survivors. Not victims.”


    www.obsidian-theatre.com or www.nightwoodtheatre.net

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 14, 2011)

    Two comedies THE DILEMMA and THE GREEN HORNET compete for top spot at the box-office this weekend.

    Smaller films opening include NOSTAGIA FOR THE LIGHT, LONDON RIVER and a special screening of ARMY OF CRIME.

    ANOTHER YEAR (UK 2010) ****
    Directed by Mike Leigh

    Mike Leigh (HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, SECRETS AND LIES, LIFE IS SWEET) latest humanistic tale tells the story largely of a happily married couple and a friend in the course of a year, told in 4 segments titled spring, summer, autumn and fall.

    The couple is Tom and Gerry (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), getting on in years.  Their daily chores and interaction with friends show them to be secure, stable and loving.  The film’s best line from Tom: “You are gorgeous and perfect!” to his wife after she complains of her middle age spread shows without doubt his love for his wife.  Their friend, Mary (Lesley Manville), on the other hand, is a little neurotic and everything seems to go wrong with her attempts at bettering her life.  The new car she purchases is a constant headache and when she starts taking an interest in Tom and Gerry’s son, disaster is on its way.  Mary is the exact opposite of the HAPPY-GO-LUCKY Sally Hawkins character, Leigh created in his last film.

    Though there is no real story or conclusion to the tale of Leigh’s characters, his keen sense of observation of the raw emotions of his characters is extremely intriguing and moving, resulting in an excellent heart-felt drama aided by the excellent performances of his actors all round.

    ANOTHER YEAR has made many critics list of top 10 films of the year!  The film could also be called UNHAPPY-GO-LUCKY as it is the opposite of Leigh’s HAPPY-GO-LUCKY last year!

    L’ARMEE DU CRIME (ARMY OF CRIME) (France 2009) ***
    Directed by Robert Guediguian

    French war drama ARMY OF CRIME deals with the French resistance fighters nicknamed by the Germans as the army of crime to discourage their acts.  The film is based on a story by Serge Le Peron who co-write the script with director Guediguian.

    But this army, formed of Red Spaniards, Armenians, Hungarians and Polish Jews are at times an army of crime, lashing out without plan or purpose. Still, director Guediguian, who has mainly directed smaller personal dramas has a affinity for his characters.  It takes half the film’s length before this army is formed.  But he creates an effective atmosphere of danger, desperation and fear of Jews living under the Germans growing in power.  He elicits the best performances from his younger cast (Robinson Stevenin) as well as French veterans such as Jean-Pierre Darroussin as the sly inspector and his wife Ariane Ascaride as a Jew sympathizer.

    No group comes out the winner in the end – even the Germans have their ‘innocent’ casualties, but Guediguian’s film is moving and believable in the way how war and survival affects the kindest souls.  The film contains a few very graphic torture scenes, including one in which a blow torch is taken to the body.

    The film opened with generally positive critical reviews but fared badly at the box-office, which explains the reason it took so long to get here.  But the film is definitely worth a look!

    Sunday January 23, 2011
    SilverCity Richmond Hill, 8725 Yonge Street (Yonge and Hwy 7)
    Tea – 4:00pm | Film – 5:00pm
    Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling, 416-599- 8433
    Or online through the TJFF website, http://www.tjff.com
    Tickets are also available at the door (subject to availability) $15

    THE DILEMMA (USA 2011) *

    Directed by Ron Howard

    The premise of this Ron Howard comedy is the dilemma a best friend faces when he sees his best friend’s wife fooling around – to tell or not to tell.  As Hollywood is well known to be short on ideas for films, this silly premise was extended to a full blown comedy starring a host of comedians that basically embarrass themselves rather than entertain an audience.

    Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) are good friends and partners in an auto design firm. They are pursuing a project to make their firm famous. Ronny sees Nick''s wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) kissing another man (Channing Tatum). Ronny seeks out answers and has to figure out how to tell Nick about what he saw while working with him to complete their critical presentation.  (Does anyone care?)

    The original trailer received complaints about a gay joke used negatively.  This joke was retained in the film.  But what is unforgivable (and therefore me giving the film a ‘one star’ rating) is Vaughn’s toast speech where he makes and really offensive sexual remark about an offspring from sex with a second cousin.

    So what is wrong with this film besides the fact that it isn’t funny and that it is offensive?  Firstly, all the comedic setups do not ring many laughs.  These include a group therapy session where everyone exposes their secrets; company meetings involving Queen Latifah making crude sexual innuendo; a couples 40th anniversary celebration; a long speech about honesty and other assorted desperate failures.  To keep the narrative flowing, the script adds in a number of boring subplots, one involving the non-commitment of Ronny to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly) and the worst involving the design of a super car before the deadline approaches.  Nobody cares for the characters, events or deadline.

    Vaughn is less funny here than in his previous movies as is Kevin James.  Surprisingly the female leads (Connelly and Ryder are especially good) fare much better which really says that the comedy in the film does not work.  Winona looks really sexy in this movie whereas James looks way below average.  So, the script calling for these two to be a loving couple is hardly credible.  Vaughn should shed a few pounds as well, looking mismatched for the slim Connelly.  The scene in which Winona French kisses Tatum is really hot!

    Ron Howard is a director not particularly known for comedy safe for PARENTHOOD.  The best of his humour is likely derived from his role as Richie in HAPPY DAYS.

    But the greatest flaw in the script is the fact that Ronny keeps the secret from Beth.  There is absolutely no logic in him not telling her except to have them argue at the film’s end to provide the couple some conflict before a happy romantic ending.

    At least there is no dilemma on whether to see the film or not.  Avoid it and all will be good!  See it and suffer tremendously!


    THE GREEN HORNET (USA 2011) ***
    Directed by Michel Gondry

    Comedy or pure action superhero flick?  THE GREEN HORNET is more comedy than action.  Cult filmmaker, Kevin Smith was initially hired to write and direct this film before French director Michel Gondry (HUMAN NATURE, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) took over.   Smith wrote quite the few pages before detaching himself off the project, but the first 15 minutes of THE GREEN HORNET are the most hilarious and most entertaining of the entire movie.  It all starts when THE GREEN HORNET, the boy is chided by has father (Tom Wilkinson) ripping apart the head of the son’s action hero figure.  Then there is the confrontation of words (Tarrantino style) between two crime bosses (Christoph Waltz and Edward Furlong).

    The first 15 minutes reminds one of the sharp, edgy and biting humour of Kevin Smith’s best movie DOGMA.  Many lines make no sense (like Chudovski’s attire being described to be like a disco Santa’s), but the laughs forgive all the other flaws of the movie.  But the movie isn’t half bad. THE GREEN HORNET is hilarious enough (though many jokes do not work or are overdone, like the running misfired joke of giving the sidekick, Kato a superhero name), with inventive gadgets, super charged cars and excitingly executed action sequences.

    The story centres on Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), the son of wealthy newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), is a ne''er do well playboy who inherits a media empire after his father dies. One day, he meets an employee named Kato (Jay Chou), who is more than he appears. They become crimefighters, taking on the identity of the Green Hornet. With the help of his new sexy secretary, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), Britt discovers that Russian criminal Benjamin Chudnofsky (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) controls the city''s criminal underworld. Meanwhile, Chudnofsky, paranoid that he is losing his edge as a crime boss, has united all of the gangs of the city and seeks the Green Hornet, believing him to be a direct threat to his elaborate grand plan.

    Rogen shed some 30 pounds to play the action hero.  He looks acceptable, though still a little pudgy, which allows Kato to shine in the limelight, as the script intends.  The script pays a nod to Bruce Lee (the original Kato in the TV series with a sketch of the late Lee seen in the movie).  Jay Chou holds up well as Kato stealing many scenes from Rogen.  Rogen who co-wrote the script, gives himself many funny lines, but many get tedious as in many of the other films Rogen is in.  Rogen is best when he allows his sidekick or partner to outshine him (as he allowed James Fracno top billing in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.

    Michel Gondry’s THE GREEN HORNET has enough style and unexpectations that should entertain the most seasoned action hero audience.  And the 3D effects are not bad either!

    LONDON RIVER (UK 2009) **

    Directed by Rachid Bouchareb

    Set in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, Rachid Bouchareb’s LONDON RIVER is a poignant drama about a Christian (Brenda Blethyn) and
    a Muslim (Sotigui Kouyaté) who cross paths while searching for their
    20something children who are students in the city – and missing.

    For a director who made the very effective and dramatic DAYS OF GLORY, LONDON RIVER, is by contrast a rather uneventful affair.  The two leads mainly scout around trying to find out what happened to their respective daughter and son.  It does not help that the film is predictable and it does not take a genius to guess that the two knew each other and were lovers.  It is clear that Bouchareb wishes to make the statement that Muslim and Christian should work and live together but making them a couple is a bit unbelievable.

    The audience tends to feel and favour Elisabeth (Blethyn) more than the oterh as the other acts a bit weird and behaves in a way to foreign.  Whe the truth is finally revealed by Bourchareb and the film comes to a logical conclusion still feels a bit of a letdown as no major issues have been resolved.

    NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT (France/Gem/Chile 2009) ***
    Directed by Patricio Guzman

    NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT is a very thoughtful, lyrical, insightful and timeless documentary set in the driest place on the planet where humidity is at its lowest.  At seen on the map on screen, the only brown colour on the map belongs to the Atacama Desert in Chile where an old German telescope is located.

    As the narration goes o, director Guzman brings together several distance topics – all tied together with the human element of hope.  NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT is thus enlightening for both its information and its lifting of the human spirit.  Guzman shows the desert to provide an exemplary climate for the work of archaeologists, as the dryness prevents rotting and mummifies specimens intact. It is from here that Guzmán explores the importance to Chile of the persistence of memory.

    Near the astronomers’ telescopes, which detect the oldest light in the universe, a group of women sift through the sand searching for any evidence of their loved ones. Hidden in the desert floors are the bones and body parts of the “disappeared” – remnants of the crimes of Pinochet’s dictatorship. By juxtaposing the quest of the astronomers with that of the grieving but determined women, Guzmán’s intimate and insightful documentary forces us to ask why, in a country where people are trying to determine what happened millions of light years ago, is there so much resistance to confronting the turmoil of the past forty years? Similarly, why is there so little discourse on the exploitative treatment of the country’s indigenous peoples that dates back centuries?

    Guzman personalizes his film with an interview of Valentina, the daughter of disappeared parents who was brought up by her grandparents from the age of one. She enlightens us with the profound and comforting notion that we, like the disappeared, are all essentially star dust.

    Beautiful (a few scenes is filled with Guzman’s colorful stardust) and poetic, NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT is rare thoughtful documentary that inspires hope.

    1900 (Novecento) (Italy/France W Germany 1976) ****
    Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

    Bertolucci’s flawed overlong 4-hour plus long epic should be seen for its outrageousness and unforgettable elements.

    The film chronicles two men. Olmo and Alfredo (Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro) born on the same day at the turn of the century, one to a rich landowner and the other the illegitimate son of a farm labourer.  As the padre (Burt Lancaster) screams at the same time he kicks his hunchbacked servant, “There is no difference in men when they are born”, the film goes on to document the class struggle under the rise of Italian fascism as the two men grow up.

    The first half of the film has the two as boys and ends with the poor one off to war while the rich is bribed to stay out of the war.  The film finally ends on the Day of Liberation under socialism when the farm labourers have their day.  And revenge!

    A lot of screaming is in the movie as over-the-top acting (particularly by Burt Lancaster and Donald Sutherland as the sadistic murderous foreman) and unforgettable sex scenes (a threesome in which Depardieu’s hand is placed on De Niro’s coc* to give him a hand job.  All this is good and obviously entertaining, but it undermines the seriousness of the subject matter.  Taboo subjects as child abuse and under-aged sex are treated as normal proceedings in the farm.

    The result is a vastly entertaining and watchable epic that still gets its message across in its own weird way.

    Screening at TIFF LIGHTBOX 17th Jan Sunday and again later this week.  Check www.cinemathequeontario.ca for showtimes.

    Best Film Opening This Week: Another Year
    Best Films Playing: The Social Network/The Fighter/True Grit/Another Year
    Best Family: Tangled
    Best Documentary: Inside Job
    Best Foreign: - 1900

    Avoid: The Dilemma

    Best re-issue: Bertolucci’s 1900 at Bell Lightbox

Search Site

Latest on Instagram

Find a Job

Join Our Mailing List

Copyright © 2005 - 2017 Culture Shox Media Inc. All rights reserved unless otherwise stated.

Privacy Policy

DMC Firewall is a Joomla Security extension!