By Peter Keough
Reviews of the cogent and well-crafted The Big Payback, the comprehensive if conventional Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space, and No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, which expertly balances whimsy and gravity, though the version of the film shown by PBS has been heavily censored.
Most Americans, certainly white Americans, might find themselves agreeing with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell when it comes to the government compensating Black Americans for slavery. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom [sic] none of us currently living is responsible is a good idea,” he says in a clip from Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow’s cogent and well-crafted The Big Payback. Likewise with Republican Representative Jim Jordan who says, “Everybody knows how evil slavery was…. But this is not what we want to be passing.”
Jordan is referring to H.R. 40, a bill introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers in 1989 that would establish a commission looking into the possibility of reparations. It has languished in Congress ever since. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) has taken up the cause, and a highlight of the film is when the bill comes up for a vote for a “markup,” a small but crucial step toward an actual vote for passage.
Jackson Lee dismisses the Republican objections as weak and fallacious, pointing out that the evil was not just the responsibility of a generation, but of a nation, that the descendants of those who benefited from it continue to do so, and the descendants of those who endured it still suffer from its consequences. The century and a half of atrocities and iniquities that followed the so-called end of slavery — the reign, as Jackson Lee puts it, of “racial terror and Black public execution,” from the lynchings of the Jim Crow era up to the murder of George Floyd — are compressed into montages of images that are as horrifying as they are familiar.
Meanwhile, in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons — taking a cue perhaps from the late former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill’s mantra that “all politics is local” — is pushing Resolution 126-R-19, which would devote funds to local reparations for Black residents of the city. If passed it would be the first such legislation of any kind ever and a potential model for other cities (hello Boston? Cambridge?) to follow.
In the film Alexander and Dow expertly balance the local and the national, the historical and the present day, as well as differing points of view. They also show the murky process of how laws are made, and the even murkier process of how they are implemented. As for H.R. 40, it never got beyond the markup stage, and with the Republicans in charge of the House is not likely to progress any time soon.
The Big Payback can be streamed on the PBS Independent Lens website.
The story of Cudjo Lewis makes a powerful case for reparations. As recorded in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 oral history Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” Lewis, like his fellow former slaves, found himself free after the Civil War but bereft of any means of supporting himself and his family. He asked his erstwhile owner if he would give them some of his land — after all, they had toiled on it for years for nothing. Indignant, the slave-owner told them in effect that he was not about to compound his loss by giving property to the “property” — his slaves — that had already been taken from him. (Hurston’s book would not come out until 2018; publishers insisted that she cut the dialect but she refused.)
The outcome of Cudjo Lewis’s struggle is the subject of Margaret Brown’s Oscar shortlisted Descendant. Tracy Heather Strain’s comprehensive if conventional Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space tells the story of how the author of the book also had to fight to survive and achieve independence.
Raised in Eatonville, Florida (one of the first all-Black towns incorporated in the United States), doted on by her mother, and surrounded by an arts-loving community, Hurston had an idyllic childhood. She especially enjoyed hanging out at the general store listening to the townspeople spin tales and pass on gossip, and from this she developed an interest in and an ear for folklore, dialect, and local culture.
But after her mother died her father remarried, and Hurston, barely a teenager, was left pretty much on her own. Nonetheless, she persevered and graduated from high school at 27 (she claimed to be 10 years younger), earned an associate degree at Howard University, and began studying anthropology under the progressive “father of modern anthropology” Franz Boas at Barnard College of Columbia University.
Boas and the philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason supported Hurston in her research endeavors, but, as the film points out, they differed at times with her methods. Hurston found the traditional “objectivity” of the discipline limiting. She felt she was inescapably a part of what she studied and so had to include herself in some way. She also employed some of the techniques of fiction in her reporting. These elements of her approach combined in the creation of her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It got good reviews — but not from such Black male literary figures as Richard Wright, who wrote that the novel had “no theme, no message, no thought” and that it relied on “the minstrel technique that makes ‘white folks’ laugh.” In part because of such dismissive attitudes, the film suggests, the book didn’t sell.
Hurston would die poor and in obscurity in 1960 at 69. In 1975 Alice Walker was shocked to discover that this profoundly important artist had been buried in an untended, unmarked grave. Walker had a headstone placed there inscribed with the epitaph “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH.”
Some aspects of Hurston’s life might have deserved more attention in the film — her marriages perhaps, and her problematic relationships with contemporaries such as Langston Hughes. But overall it is a lucid mix of archival footage, readings from Hurston’s works, talking head experts, film shot by Hurston herself during her research expeditions to the South and the Caribbean, and delightful recordings of the writer/anthropologist singing some of the folk songs she discovered.
Zora Neale Hurston: Claiming a Space can be streamed on the PBS American Experience website.
Like Hurston, the five veteran queer comic book artists in Vivian Kleiman’s No Straight Lines sought self-realization in their work. They include Rupert Kinnard, a gay Black man who earned the respect of his peers growing up in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s because he was the kid who was really good at drawing Batman, the Fantastic Four (his favorite), and the Hulk. He was also enamored of Muhammad Ali because of his insuperable brashness in the face of white disapproval. Ali’s example made him realize with some anger that all the characters he was drawing were white. So he decided to create one that was more like himself — the Brown Bomber, a laid back, caped and masked, somewhat nerdy type who became in 1977 the first queer Black serialized character in comics.
Meanwhile, around the same time, Mary Wings, a young gay woman, felt alone, isolated, and despised. She turned to the counterculture and underground comics but soon found the misogynist images by artists like R. Crumb “disturbing … and an example of why feminists would want to make their own.” She was pleased to come across a copy of Wimmen’s Comix in a local bookstore, but was disappointed by its superficial treatment of the lesbian experience. So in 1973 she decided to see if she could do better. The result, Come Out Comix, is, according to the film “the first known lesbian comic book by an out lesbian,” and is considered a milestone in the genre.
In 1980 Alison Bechdel saw the first issue of Gay Comix, a groundbreaking anthology of LGBTQ+ comic book artists, and it was transformative. “The thought that I could draw about my own queer life was very revolutionary for me,” she says. It inspired her to create Dykes to Watch Out For, a syndicated weekly comic strip that ran from 1983 to 2008 and was compiled into several anthologies. For a while she was able to make a living from her art, but in the 2000s, for various reasons, outlets dried up. She was told that the only sector in the industry that was still viable was the graphic novel. “I thought, well I’ve always wanted to tell this story about my family…”
That story became the autobiographical, sui generis graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. To Bechdel’s astonishment it was a critical success and a bestseller. Time magazine named it one of the 10 best books of 2006. Then it was adapted into a hit musical in 2015 and won five Tony Awards including “Best Musical.”
Along with Howard Cruse (Wendel, Stuck Rubber Baby, as well as editor of Gay Comix) and Jennifer Camper (Rude Girls and Dangerous Women), these trailblazers went from sometimes raunchy and transgressive single panels to (in some cases) mainstream successes and became role models for future generations of queer cartoonists. In briskly relating this microcosm of LGBTQ+ and pop culture history Kleiman expertly balances whimsy and gravity while wittily incorporating comic book conventions and graphics into her style.
Unfortunately the version of the film shown by PBS has been heavily censored, with offending words and cartoon body parts blurred or blotted out — sometimes by LGBTQ+ rainbow bands. According to the film’s publicist, FCC regulations would not permit indiscretions such as expletives or sketches of a bare ass or other body parts to be broadcast. I was provided with a statement explaining PBS’s Independent Lens policy regarding this censorship but was only permitted to use it for background purposes and not for attribution.
No Straight Lines premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on January 23. The film will also be available to stream on the PBS App.
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).