Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Independent filmmakers deliver what Hollywood often doesn't: Movies as Art

 
(To the right, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talks about challenges to directors at a recent gathering of film lovers in Memphis)

OXFORD, Miss. – The scene might have come out of a Nicholas Ray movie. The famous Hollywood director, his best work, “Rebel Without A Cause”, “In A Lonely Place”, “Johnny Guitar”, years behind him, sits alone in his Madrid bar at midnight, a half-empty bottle in front of him, eyeing the half that’s left.

Maybe he’s thinking of that conversation with the great, low-budget filmmaker Luis Buñuel a couple years back. “You’re the only (director) who does what he wants,” Ray told him. “What is your secret?”

“I ask for less than fifty thousand dollars per film,” Buñuel responded, suggesting Ray try the same. “You’re a famous director. Why not try an experiment? … See for yourself how much freer you are.”

(Nicholas Ray)

Ray shook his head. “If I did that in Hollywood … I’d never make another movie.”

Nicholas Ray’s “glorious failure” to break free of Hollywood’s chains of gold and become “the avant-garde, independent moviemaker” he always wanted to be—eloquently described in Patrick McGilligan’s 2011 biography—provides a glimpse into Hollywood today, where the typical movie costs from $20 million to $80 million to make, while high-end pictures reach $300 million or more.

No wonder studios and directors are looking beyond Hollywood to places like Mississippi and Louisiana to make movies. And even more important than in Nicholas Ray’s day is the role of independent filmmakers in preserving movies as an art form, not simply an industry H.L. Mencken once blasted as “too rich to have any room for genuine artists (and) too much under the heel of the … gorillas who own them.”

Folks in Jackson, Miss., got a chance to enjoy the art of independent filmmaking March 31-April 3 at the Crossroads Film Festival. It’s one of at least 15 film festivals that take place in the state throughout the year.

I got my own chance in February here at the Oxford Film Festival, where I feasted on narrative shorts like “Three Fingers”, the account of a female war veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and full-length pictures like “Texas Heart”, the cast of which included Mississippi actors Johnny McPhail, Susan McPhail, and Clarksdale, Miss., Mayor Bill Luckett.

This coming November, the “Indie Memphis” film festival in Memphis, Tenn., kicks into gear. John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it “arguably the region’s top film festival.”

Like neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi is increasingly a place where films are made and talent is sought. From the feature film “Gentleman from Mississippi” in 1914 to 1950s classics “Baby Doll”, “Raintree County”, and “This Property is Condemned” to more recent films such as “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Black Snake Moan”, the state has always had a cinematic lure.

Actor, producer, writer and director Johnny Remo, whose 2016 movie “Saved by Grace” was filmed in Canton, said filming in Mississippi beats filming in California. “I cannot say enough how amazing the people were. Everybody waves. … In California once, we were filming and the guy next door started mowing his lawn. It took $500 to get him to stop.”

(From left to right, director Johnny Remo and Ward Emling and  Nina Parikh, both of the Mississippi Film Office)

Ward Emling of the Mississippi Film Office agreed. “The communities of Mississippi are unbelievable. They make my job easy. A movie anywhere in Mississippi is going to be well-liked, treated fairly.”

Mississippi and its local communities benefit when the cameras roll here, whether they’re big studio Hollywood cameras or those of independent filmmakers.

“Forty nine cents on a dollar is what the state spends on film,” Luckett said during a panel discussion in Oxford on “Producing Films in Mississippi”. “We’re the best in the country as to what that dollar spent brings back.”

Emling said the 2001 hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was filmed in 11 counties in central Mississippi. “We’re competing on locations” as well as with other incentives to filmmakers, he said.

At a recent “Shoot & Splice” event at the Crosstown Arts Center in Memphis, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talked about the challenge to the director in making a film that does indeed qualify as art. It’s important, he said, to be “a student of life. You need to understand what’s important and a priority. … We need to see humanity on the screen conveying honesty.”

The reason is “people can detect dishonesty like this,” the Memphis-based director said with a snap of his fingers. “What is the emotional spine? A drive that is not easily changed?”

Craig Brewer, a Memphis native and noted director of successful films such as “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”, was in the audience and added that the director should ask of characters, “Where are they in their lives?”

(To the right, "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer in Memphis)

Later in an interview, Brewer told me that big budget films can be art just like smaller budget films. “What’s important (is) to have a solid point of view.”

During a trip to Hollywood some years back, I made a stop at one of my favorite restaurants, the Musso & Frank Grill, which has been serving dishes like corned beef and cabbage, homemade chicken pot pie, and potato pancakes to its movie star clientele since 1919. My waiter pointed out the table where Mississippi writer William Faulkner liked to dine.

Tales of Faulkner in Hollywood are some of that city’s best. He left Yoknapatawpha to make some money in Tinsel Town in the 1940s, and he had some notable successes. The hard-boiled novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides tells of rooming with Faulkner, his heavy-duty drinking, his impenetrable silences, Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward the great author.

Movie mogul Jack Warner once “boasted that he had the best writer in the world for `peanuts’,” Bezzerides recalled. Faulkner “had contempt” for movie work, and when Bezzerides once pressed him to get busier on a screenplay, responded, “`Shucks, Buzz, it ain’t nuthin’ but a movin’ picture.’”

The old man might have a better attitude if he were alive today. I can see him now at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, banging away at his script, having a helluva time, and making some real art in the process.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"It sure is dark in Mississippi," my friend said back in 2011. "It's about to get a lot darker," I replied.

(To the right, the Mississippi state Capitol, where the Legislature meets and where state Rep. Steve Holland gave his speech)

"Unbelievable! Apparently it is your mission (to) destroy this government!" cried my good friend, Mississippi House Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, in a fiery speech before the state House of Representatives recently.

What he lamented was the systematic destruction of state government in Mississippi by a Republican "super majority" and Republican governor who just signed into law a "North Carolina"-style discrimination-is-okay bill. The destruction didn't begin with that bill, however. It has been going on ever since Republicans took over, and it has led to seriously underfunded schools and mental health facilities, roads and highways and bridges in desperate need of repair, absolutely gutted workers' compensation protection, yet millions in state taxpayer subsidies to major corporations.

And here is my prediction of all this in a November 2011 column that ran in Mississippi newspapers:

By JOE ATKINS

OXFORD – It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.

“It sure is dark in Mississippi,” one of them said, repeating an observation I’ve heard many times. “Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness.”

Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. “It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi.”

Anyone disagree? With its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.

Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?

It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here? People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.

“They have been tasting this blood for many years,” says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. “You are going to see `personhood’ through statute. You’ll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre.”

Holland’s own party, of course, is in shambles--divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.

“Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised.”

Old-style populism like Holland’s, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else—seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he’s not legislating. “If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this `big, ole, fat government,’ I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt,” Holland says.

Hmmm. Maybe. The “revolt of the rednecks” that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.

It’s not that Republicans simply won’t spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.

As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the “personhood” initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.

Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.

In fact, while we’re at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.

What did he do to change any of this?

I’ll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Students protest working conditions and anti-unionism at Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi


(Students protest Nissan's anti-union policies in Canton, Miss., Saturday, April 2)

CANTON, Miss. - Students and activists marched past the front door of the main office of Nissan’s mile-long plant here Saturday chanting a modern-day version of Florence Reese’s Great Depression-era labor anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

“Which side are you on?” began the call-and-response by students from the University of Mississippi, Tougaloo College, and Jackson State University. “On the people’s side!” they shouted.

The rally by 30 or more students and veteran activists aimed to bring attention to poor working conditions within the 5,000-plus employee plant, which has resisted a decade-long unionization effort by the United Auto Workers and a growing grassroots organization of workers, ministers, civil rights-era veterans, and college students.

“Students have always been the cornerstone of any movement,” said Michelle Wheatley, a senior at Tougaloo College. “We ask students to take a stand. To have Ole Miss here means a lot.”

Prior to the Saturday rally, pro-labor student activists came primarily from historically black colleges and universities like Tougaloo College and Jackson State University, both in the Jackson, Miss., area. On Saturday, a half-dozen or more students from the state’s flagship university, the University of Mississippi, joined them. An estimated 80 percent of Nissan’s workers in Canton are African American.

“We stand against corporate tyranny!” University of Mississippi freshman Jaz Brisack told the group.

(To the right, University of Mississippi students join Saturday's protest)

“When you have a company that’s exploiting its workers, that company needs to be held accountable,” said Buka Okoye, who heads the NAACP chapter at the University of Mississippi. “When we speak against oppression, we speak against exploitation in general.”

“The labor movement is not dead! Unions are not dead!” said Dominique Scott, who heads Local 121 of Students Against Social Injustice at the University of Mississippi. “It’s important that we students acknowledge the power that we have and be in solidarity with workers.”

Former Mississippi Rep. Jim Evans, also a veteran labor organizer, said student solidarity with workers is very important. Nissan needs to “live up to its promises” and make good on taxpayers’ huge investment in bringing the company to Mississippi by allowing workers “to have respect and a voice at work,” Evans said.

Sources say that a union vote at the Canton plant is likely to take place within the next three months.

Although Nissan workers earn comparatively good wages for Mississippi workers, they have complained of harassment and poor medical treatment of workers injured on the job, the hiring of temporary workers (estimated at up to 50 percent of the workforce) at lower pay and minimal benefits, and punitive actions against those who express pro-union sympathies. Workers and activists say that the company showed employees at the Canton plant an anti-union video as recently as last month.

United Students Against Sweatshops, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Young Democrats of America, and students activists and organizers with the national AFL-CIO in Washington were among the groups organizing the rally, the latest in a series of events in Canton and around the world challenging Nissan’s anti-union policies in the U.S. South.

A UAW delegation left for Paris, France, Saturday to meet with French parliamentary members about Nissan’s anti-union stand in Mississippi. Nissan workers are represented by unions at company plants around the world. Yet the company has joined other foreign-owned automobile manufacturers in resisting unions in the U.S. South. The French government owns nearly a fifth of the shares in Nissan stock with double-voting rights and thus has significant power to influence company actions.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Students and activists to protest Nissan's anti-union policies April 2; a union vote at the plant is expected within the next three months

 
(Nissan's plant in Canton, Mississippi)

Students and activists in Mississippi and around the country will gather in front of the mile-long Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., April 2 to protest working conditions within the plant and demand the company allow a fair union election.

United Students Against Sweatshops, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Young Democrats of America, and students activists and organizers with the national AFL-CIO in Washington are among the groups organizing the rally, the latest in a series of events in Canton and around the world challenging Nissan’s anti-union policies in the U.S. South.

The United Auto Workers has had a presence in Canton since 2005 and worked with community leaders to build a coalition that began with only a couple dozen local residents but which today can produce hundreds at pro-union rallies.

Workers at the 6,000-employee plant--built with the aid of a $363 million Mississippi taxpayer subsidy-- have complained of multiple worksite issues, including poor medical treatment of workers injured on the job, the hiring of temporary workers at lower pay and minimal benefits, and harassment of those who express pro-union sympathies. Proclaiming that “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights”, the campaign has tapped into a still-resilient and passionate civil rights community in Mississippi—most of the Canton workforce is black--including ministers from a wide range of denominations and students from historically black colleges and universities in the area. The UAW, recognizing the modern-day reality that major labor campaigns have to be global, has brought activists, students and workers in from as far away as Brazil to show international solidarity.

Sources say that a union vote at the Canton plant is likely to take place within the next three months.

The UAW doesn’t want to lose another major vote like it has in the past with Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee, and with Volkswagen in Chattanooga. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn helped scuttle the vote in Smyrna in 2001 with his day-before-the-election threats to workers, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, did much the same in Chattanooga in 2014.

The UAW got a big boost in December when the skilled trades workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voted to join the union. However, even at a plant where the company says loudly it is neutral toward a union, workers have complained of a fear among Volkswagen’s Tennessee workers that their pro-union sympathies could eventually cost them their jobs.

Nissan workers are represented by unions at company plants around the world. Yet the company has joined other foreign-owned automobile manufacturers in resisting unions in the U.S. South.

The South remains a tough battleground for organized labor. However, Facing South, the flagship Web magazine of the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, reported earlier this year that union membership in the South grew from 2.2 million in 2014 to 2.4 million at the end of 2015, or from 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent of the workforce. Eight of the South’s 13 states saw increases, including Mississippi.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Marco Rubio's top finance guy is the "Vulture" who soaked Argentina for $4.65 billion


Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has tapped as his national finance chairman the “Vulture” who put the squeeze on Argentina for a $4.65 billion payback on his $50 million investment, according to investigative journalist Greg Palast, The Guardian, and other press reports.

 Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, known as “The Vulture”, is set to become Rubio’s top money guy in a campaign that may reach its demise soon if the Florida senator can’t win the primary in his native state.

Singer, long a huge supporter of Rubio’s campaign, has been criticized around the world for his aggressive wheeling and dealing, both on Wall Street and in political circles, including his financial backing of neo-liberal Mauricio Macri’s rise to the presidency in Argentina.

Macri came into office vowing to respond to Argentina’s indebtedness to international lenders, which has led to major financial crises in the South American country. According to reports, Singer was able to score a $4.65 billion payment from Argentina out of a $50 million investment in old Argentine bonds.

Labor South--and a big thanks to one of this blog's most loyal followers and best labor friends, Lew Smith, for helping the blog stay on top of this issue--has been following the situation in Argentina since last November, when voters went to the polls to choose between the Perónist Daniel Scioli and Macri for president.

Macri won the election, ending 12 years of pro-worker, neo-Perónist rule. Now just months later, people are in the streets demonstrating against the resumption of neo-liberal “austerity” principles that helped ruin the Argentine economy in 2001 and which are still wreaking havoc in Greece and other European economies. It’s the same old free-trade-at-all-costs, corporate-worshipping philosophy that further enriches the rich at the expense of working people.

According to labor leaders in Argentina, Macri has overseen a 500 percent hike in electricity rates and a 10-to-15 percent decline in wage purchasing power. Some 40,000 public and private workers have been fired or seen their jobs discontinued since Macri took over in December.

Half of the 22,500 now-jobless workers in the private sector had construction jobs.

Macri, former mayor of Buenos Aires, has vowed to restructure the nation’s finances to meet its indebtedness to international lenders, and, of course, the neo-liberal mantra for meeting such goals calls for reduced government programs and, in turn, reduced worker wages and benefits as well as resistance to the unions that try to protect those wages and benefits.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The ghosts of the Old Populists are groaning at the South's failure to support Bernie Sanders

 
(A Populist campaign poster featuring Tom Watson of Georgia)

The ghosts of the old Populists of the late 19th century South let loose a long, communal groan Tuesday as neo-liberal Democrat Hillary Clinton claimed a strong majority of black Southern voters and thus the South in the Super Tuesday primaries. The victory came despite a record and Clintonian legacy of little support of issues important to blacks or the working class.

Clinton defeated her rival, populist Bernie Sanders, in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, while Sanders’ lone victory in the greater South was in border state Oklahoma. Right-wing populist Republican Donald Trump also scored big in the South Tuesday.

Sanders’ poor showing in the South brings to mind the fate of the most important third party movement in U.S. history, the Populist Party of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which itself grew out of earlier uprisings such as the Farmers Alliance and the Grange Movement against East Coast corporate hegemony and the so-called “Bourbon” Democrats of the South.

Just as Sanders has decried the fixed system that has Wall Street controlling not only the economy but also the nation’s corporate-financed politics, the Populists railed against railroads, absentee landlords, and other moneyed interests. Just a few decades after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia called for unity among black and white farmers and factory workers to take back the country from the 1 percent that controlled it in those days.

“You are kept apart that you may be fleeced of your earnings,” Watson wrote in 1892. “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”

(A 1908 cover to Tom Watson's Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine)

As historian C. Vann Woodward noted in his biography of the Georgia populist, “Tom Watson was perhaps the first native white Southern leader of importance to treat the Negro’s aspirations with the seriousness that human strivings deserve.”

Watson, who like Bernie Sanders in 2016 called his movement “a revolution”, fought against the convict lease system that affected countless black prisoners, called for free schools for blacks, prevented the attempted lynching of a black preacher by organizing a small army of Populists to defend him. An Augusta, Ga., newspaper subsequently charged Watson with preaching “anarchy and communism.”

The Populists, also known as the People’s Party, succeeded in electing five U.S. senators, 10 U.S. representatives, three governors, and 1,500 state legislators in the 1892 elections. The party took over both houses of the North Carolina legislature two years later.

The rise of populism so frightened the Bourbon Democrats that they began a concerted and ultimately successful effort to take control of the black vote.  “Bribery and intimidation, the stuffing of ballot boxes, the falsification of election returns” were among their tactics, according to historian John D. Hicks.  “The planters sometimes herded their employees to the polls and voted them in droves for the Democratic ticket.”

After 1896, the Populist uprising was on the wane, co-opted by the Democratic Party and, in part, self-destructed by distractions such as the call for a silver-based currency. It wasn’t long before Jim Crow took over the South, and the black vote disappeared.

Watson became so bitter by the turn of the century that he emerged as one of the most notorious and foul-mouthed racists in all of Southern demagoguery, championing the lynching of blacks just as he once had fought against it. His conversion from racial unifier to venom-spouting bigot is one of the tragedies of Southern history.

The Super Tuesday primary elections in the South this week certainly are far removed in important ways from the sad story of the Populists. Black voters in the South stayed loyal to Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons, but it doesn't appear bribery and intimidation were among them. Furthermore, many prominent black intellectuals, such as Bill Fletcher Jr. and Spike Lee, have come out in strong support for Sanders.

However, the Democratic Party of Clintonian-style “Third Way”, Republican-apeing, corporate-financed, pro-Wall Street neo-liberalism and the Southerner-dominated flagship organization, the Democratic Leadership Council, that once guided it aren’t all that far removed from the Bourbon Democrats of yesteryear.

That’s why the Bernie Sanders campaign has been and remains so important, not only to African Americans, the working class as a whole, and the nation, but also to the Democratic Party, which needs to re-discover its soul.

Friday, February 19, 2016

What Eva Perón would say to Mauricio Macri's anti-worker politices in Argentina today


(To the right, Eva and Juan Perón)

Eva Perón described the challenge facing her fellow Argentinians more than sixty years ago in ways that could still apply today. “What is happening to our people is a drama, an authentic and extraordinary drama for the ownership of life,” wrote the nearly mythic wife of Argentine leader Juan Perón in her posthumously published book Mi mensaje (My Message), “ … of happiness … of the pure and simple well-being that my people have been dreaming about since the beginning of history.”

Later in her book, she declares, “All the people have to do is decide that we are the masters of our own destiny.”

Labor South has been following the unfolding “drama” in Argentina since last November, when voters went to the polls to choose between the Perónist Daniel Scioli and the neo-liberal Mauricio Macri for president. Twelve years of Kirchnerismo—the pro-worker, neo-Perónism of the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina—were coming to an end, and the election was key to the future of Argentina.

Macri won the election, and now just three months later, people are in the streets demonstrating against the resumption of neo-liberal “austerity” principles that helped ruin the Argentine economy in 2001 and which are still wreaking havoc in Greece and other European economies. It’s the same old free-trade-at-all-costs, corporate-worshipping philosophy that further enriches the rich at the expense of working people.

According to labor leaders in Argentina, Macri has overseen a 500 percent hike in electricity rates and a 10-to-15 percent decline in wage purchasing power. Some 40,000 public and private workers have been fired or seen their jobs discontinued since Macri took over in December.

Half of the 22,500 now-jobless workers in the private sector had construction jobs.

Macri has even cracked down on demonstrations as seen with a recent police confrontation with young demonstrators in Bajo Flores. Reports say 11 were injured, including young children.

Macri, former mayor of Buenos Aires, has vowed to restructure the nation’s finances to meet its indebtedness to international lenders, and, of course, the neo-liberal mantra for meeting such goals calls for reduced government programs and, in turn, reduced worker wages and benefits as well as resistance to the unions that try to protect those wages and benefits.

The pro-worker spirit within the complex legacy of Perónism is still alive and well in Argentina, however. Most of the country’s governors as well as majorities in both houses of its Congress are not in Macri’s camp or that of his so-called “Cambiemos” (“Let’s Change”) coalition. More importantly, Perónism still lives in the streets of Buenos Aires and the country as a whole.

“Perón taught us that the people’s happiness comes first, that a country cannot be made great if its people are not comfortable,” Eva Perón wrote so many years ago.

Those words still live, just as the spirits of Eva and her husband also do.