There’s a lot of concerts I never got a chance to see Prince, Michael Jackson, Teena Marie (my mom raised me on R&B if you can’t tell already). Their music and influence still carry in their name and we remember their story fondly. Luckily some legends I did have a chance to see, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez were the biggest names. I got my photo, of course, asked my question, bought whatever book was being sold, and skipped back to my college campus as they flew to the next stop of their literary tour. I remember being so grateful that they were still here and had the ears of the world to impart their wisdom and lessons. However, the older I got the more legends I learned about and their stories were not as known, and their contributions are hidden under the guise of “legends.” I’m here to tell you: Some of those legends are still here and they deserve more than a thank you. The Last Poets and Abiodun Oyewole are some of those legends.
Upon moving to New York in 2015, I was dropped into a hip-hop Master Class of hip-hop history. I worked for a public figure well-versed in the subject and I was being schooled by family and friends who still had the history of hip-hop on their shoulders. The Last Poets were introduced to me as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, the bridge that brought a revolution, spoken word, African culture, in the same group. I expected that this would be another legendary group that I would only get to read about or see in a crowded stadium. Imagine my surprise when I was able to meet one of the original members in 2016, Abiodun Oyewole. He was still traveling the world and doing the work he did when he first became a member of Last Poets, and a weekly open house to all poets and artists to share their work in his Harlem home. If only y’all knew the stories he had, and I know I only heard .1% of it. I imagined myself back in an auditorium listening to Nikki Giovanni, as I sat in his living room and he imparted his wisdom about poetry, history, love, and art in the crowded room. It was great to be so close, but it occurred to me, this room is nowhere big enough for the number of people and ears that needed to hear him. The Last Poets are even in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Here I was, looking at one of the first steps in hip-hop and some people outside of this room didn’t know his name or the group’s contribution. That didn’t sit well with me.
Netflix’s documentary, Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell further confirmed my discomfort. The documentary states indirectly that Abiodun’s poem, When the Revolution Comes, performed by The Last Poets was the inspiration for Party and Bullshit, the hit that sparked Biggie’s career, and yet when I look online, all I see are curt accounts of his dismissed court case "chasing" to receive credit for the words he wrote that were remixed, sample, and resampled. For some reason, I do not think this would happen to other legends and I was appalled to see the indifference regarding him and the historical group. I was furious. I was furious that the passion of the artist and the harsh reality of capitalism rarely mix and probably play a part in how proper credit got lost in the business. The silence around his voice and the timely “thank you’s” when it was convenient left a bad taste in my mouth. This piece of history seems to have been forgotten by some and it doesn’t make sense to me. I have so many questions for the hip-hop artists who were inspired by The Last Poets and don’t even know it.
The Last Poets and all the other legends I have yet to learn about deserve their flowers not just a thank you and quick edits on a documentary. Flowers mean financial compensation for their contribution to history; flowers mean a seat the table that they put their heart and souls into building for the next generation; yes, it means museum space; yes, it means supporting, promoting, and providing opportunities for them to share the work that they’re still creating; yes, it means speaking about the deals made and not made back in the day that lead to the artist’s silence in the business; yes it means archiving their stories, lessons, and lives. Anything less than this is disrespectful and negligent. The hip-hop community knows better and should do better. As I left the open house, having heard stories of elders and youth in the same room in a symphony, I decided to spend more time appreciating and putting my energy towards the legends that mass media don’t mention until Black History Month. Want to join me? Start with The Last Poets and Abiodun Oyewole.
Since Amanda Gorman's performance on Inauguration Day, it is nice to see the world acknowledge spoken word, poetry’s power, and organizations like Urban Word, Youth Speaks, and Get Lit who dedicate their energy and funding to keeping that power alive in young people. As a poet and performer, it is like seeing a good friend at the party enjoying themselves when you haven’t seen them in a long time. Spoken-word, as an art form, now has a national platform and it is finally receiving flowers. Its connection to healing and liberation is being shown. With that said: Educators, policymakers, journalists, and community organizers who have spoken word on your mind these days, I have one request: Please take this time to listen and take advantage of teaching artists in your community.
When I say take advantage of teaching artists, I mean pay them more, I mean to hire more of them, I mean listen to them, I mean treat them like a vital part of your educational community and not an elective side dish that you might be in the mood for sometimes. As a teaching artist myself, I too have the battle scars and the championship belts of doing my best to get spoken word in the classroom. Sometimes it felt like I was pushing on a heavy door just to have the opportunity to defend art education’s case. Poetry gave me a voice as a young Black girl when I didn’t know that I had one. Spoken word and performing reminded me that my voice was valuable and could be put to use for my liberation. As an educator, I have a mission to give that gift back to students who may need the reminder of how much their voice means to the world. But once I pushed the door open and got the chance to do that work as a teaching artist, I was either a ghost or a hologram. The teachers didn’t see me, the principal might know of me, and in the community, I was a blip on the schedule. The collaboration was rare from exhausted teachers who had their heavy door to push to get their job done and afterschool programs that were already stretched thin as it is. Systematically, I get it. Education has much healing and re-prioritizing to do. But now, in 2021, there is nothing but time to imagine a new possibility and have the courage to make some changes. Teaching artists can help.
After some years of going to empty classrooms where they forgot I was teaching and seeing teachers enter after-school classrooms loudly and disrupting the learning that was still happening, I had to take a stand, so I decided to go back to school to get my master’s degree. I was tired of being seen as the “little teaching artist” who likes to perform, a disposable moment. During my time in graduate school, I sought out teaching opportunities that valued me as an educator and artist holistically. I demanded to know the principal’s name, the security guards, the teacher’s struggles and goals, the student’s lives, and their desired milestones. This was not easy, but it could be easier if organizations and educational districts opened their ears and hearts to arts education as you did when Amanda Gorman took to the podium on January 20th. That is when I decided to write an autoethnography for my thesis on my experience as a teaching artist, the systematic challenges we all face, and the ways we can address them in our communities.
Teaching artists are not only poets and painters who need a job. We are passionate pioneers who will do whatever it takes to allow students to experience art in the classroom. We have ideas that go beyond being a blip on the schedule and we can help if you listen and hear us. Spoken word’s power is not new, it’s eons old and if you are truly inspired then please invest in the voices, artists, and organizations available in your district, on your block, in your network, because we’ve been telling the truth for a long time and it has never been a secret. Given everything that this past year brought us and taught us, I ask that educators, district leaders, policymakers, journalists, and community organizers be courageous in implementing change that gives spoken word and other art forms a more permanent home in education, classrooms, learning spaces and healing spaces. Turn your admiration into sustainable change so that this inspiration doesn’t become a fleeting feeling… Teaching artists are a great place to start.
I will never forget the first time I really ate with my hands— like truly ate with my hands.
I was a first year staying with a new friend from college and her family in new york, and her cousin presented us with fish and couscous on a platter to share. I’d been there for a few days and saw her family share a meal, so I thought it was pretty straight forward. 🥘
However, after a few bites, her cousin returned and asked my friend in Fulani if I didn’t like the food. My friend translated and I said yes of course I do! My friend told me that it didnt look like it because my bites were so small. Her cousin then sat next to me and with her hands slowly showed me how to gather a bite and eat with my hands. Her hands were so sure of themselves grabbing all the flavors without hesitation. There was a technique to it, a form to your hands that allows you to fit all the food you want in one bite. After she gathered the bite in front of me, she smiled, as if to say: that is how you eat. 🥘
It was more than just a lesson in how to eat with my hands. It was a lesson in abundance, in family, in community, as we all ate from the same plate and filled ourselves up. I will never forget it. It was such a loving act to teach me something that I know my ancestors did without a problem. What else are my ancestors want to teach me? I’m so grateful for who I am and where I come from. I love our people. 🖤
When I sat down to watch Project Power, I was mostly interested in supporting my boyfriend’s family friend, Dominique Fishback, who was one of the stars. From the trailer, I expected a jampacked, and super-powered adventure but I got so much more than that. What I did not expect were the themes of power and pride for Blackness that were clear and unapologetic throughout. I admit that, given all the mass trauma surrounding race and state-sanctioned murder and the revolutionary response to it, I am constantly claiming and affirming my power, humanity, and right to live, love, and fight in my everyday life as a Black woman. So yes, if I see a predominantly Black cast in a movie called Project Power and I am seeing Black people be powerful, I am claiming Black Power and basking in it. For me, this movie was nothing less than a personification of Black power, how it manifests, and how futile it is to try to steal (read: colonize) it.
Black women are innately powerful. We know this. We knew this. In Project Power we see it in Art’s daughter, Tracy, to heal and Dominique Fishback’s character, Robin, who doesn’t use any of the mass-produced power drug to do the powerful and heroic acts she did. I loved seeing two Black women utilizing different types of power. Like Tracy, we are powerful spiritually and ancestrally. The gifts that we have as Black women is deeply rooted in history and our experience to thrive and survive. And like Robin, just being and seeking ourselves is an act power!
But of course, in life, I am reminded that it is a little more complicated than that… Our power becomes token or slogan for the Black women’s lot in life: “She is powerful! She has to be powerful, look how she perseveres against the odds! We love you Black women!” This sentiment, often blasted on social media, is now falling flat, given the rate at which we’ve been killed protecting our children, sleeping, driving, living. Our power is not simply a response to white supremacy and colonialism. We are innately powerful. Period. And that power can manifest as joy, rage, action, inaction, rest, sexiness, or otherwise. It is nice to see our power explored in action and connected to nature as it was in Project Power.
I was so pissed but not surprised when I saw the white woman as the mastermind behind the project to steal Art’s Daughter’s gift and mass produce it for the masses. I won’t spoil that rage for you, you can see that scene for yourself. And again, maybe my lens is shaded by the tone of times, but I see another example of how our power, resources, and essence are often sought after ravenously without remorse. Africa’s natural resources, our culture, the way we talk, dress, how we cook, how we look are all seemingly up for grabs to be mass produced for the rest. However, we all know this effort will always fall short of the real thing. No one wins in colonialism. We all lose, whether they think so or not. But in Project Power, we see clearly what losing could look like for colonizers and it is soooooooo satisfying!
I will allow myself this interpretation of Project Power because it’s very possible with the ongoing call for racial justice on the macro and micro level that I simply needed to see Black women be great, Black men embrace their power, and white supremacy turn to ash. In my defense, the themes throughout, as they pertain to Blackness and our constant fight against bias and harmful systems was strong. As the credits rolled, I felt empowered. Especially considering Domonique Fishback, who from what my boyfriend has told me, has never not used her power. and Chika who contributed to the music that really brought the message home. It might not be the message you needed, but it certainly was the message I got.
drive.google.com/drive/folders/1ik1Z3A3n-ab3bRBQZplRoEP68-Y0dcxx?usp=sharingI caught on by the fifth day of not being able to fall asleep until after 3am that something was going on. After weeks of conversations with peers and friends about the recent protest and sharing resources to support the movement and the families of those murdered by police, I needed time. I couldn’t stand another viral video of racists abusing, manipulating, and killing innocent people, so I decided to take a break from social media. That is when it started: The crying for seconds at a time, the lack of appetite, not wanting to get dressed, the irritability, fear, rage, and sadness all making an appearance in tiny spurts throughout the weekend. I’ve felt this feeling before one morning in college. It wasn’t until I crawled downstairs to the dining hall later that night, that someone told me that I was experiencing a trauma response that was expressing itself in my body. I had no idea and just stood there as the reality washed over me.
Here we are.
We cannot, in this crucial moment in history, afford to forget to honor the weight of what we’re experiencing and address it. We actually don’t have a choice in the matter, as I didn’t have a choice, no matter how much Sleepy Time tea I drank, to actually rest and fall asleep. As soon as we take that moment to sit in silence, clean our homes, or contemplate how to pick up the pieces and move forward, the weight will come over us and we will feel all the feelings we didn’t have time to feel. They will show up in various ways and places in our bodies and we will need a response, a language, a way to comfort ourselves and our spirit so we don’t take this trauma into the next chapter we’re all being prepared for. But first we have to acknowledge and accept what we are going through is traumatic.
It wasn’t until I made space between me and the world that I realized that New York City’s experience of the pandemic was vastly different than what others went through. I felt the need to understand and embrace that weight so I could let it go and actually get some rest. New York being named the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US meant that one day I went into work nervous and left a few hours later the same way not knowing when I was going to come back and riding on a train full of potential coronavirus carriers. Every cough was a warning. It didn't seem long before nearly a thousand people were dying from the virus every day. And that was just the morning news, and then the morning news was over and the day was supposed to continue. One of my friends made it into that count one morning, yet work kept coming and I still needed to eat, shower, get groceries, and check in on family three thousand miles away to make sure they're safe. Eventually, there were too many deaths for the hospitals, funeral homes, and morgues, so bodies piled up in trucks, some refrigerated, some not. COVID-19 showed up in grocery stores and mailrooms, while essential workers and frontline workers were dying either by the virus or their own hand. Empty streets in the day and the ambulance sirens that ran through the night became a reminder that things were not normal and they never will be again. The USS Comfort arrived, big and mighty behind morning briefings. Days and days of questions and new information contradicting the old information we were leaning on to feel safe. My world kept getting smaller and smaller with bigger unknowns and more desperate prayers. We all went through a version of this.
This is trauma.
Now, 100 days after New York’s first coronavirus case, I am feeling the weight of the pandemic along with the tsunami of racism, unrest, viral videos and comments, and federal and local reminder of America’s pastime passion: racism. A new level of hopelessness, powerlessness, and rage comes into play now, as the death toll announcements change in tone and become debatable. I am now called to the streets while taking into consideration a virus that is disproportionately killing Black and brown people. More videos and comments are shared depicting murder, abuse, blood, and violence by police officers. Again, work is essential and walking to the grocery store is still needed, but the target on my back is now illuminated and I am afraid for my life. They really want to kill us all. More victims come to the forefront from all walks of Black life. The covert strategies by police and that powers that claim to be become overt and boisterous. Every conversation I have with a white person is on pins and needles, as I find out where they stand. The community erupts in all directions wanting to meet, grieve, organize, destroy, and rebuild towards something better. All the while, some of us are grieving alone and trying to protect our humanity all in the same moment. And still, the job hunt continues or we try to keep the one we have. We continue to pray and meditate on the light that awaits us on the other side but we are so tired at the same time.
This is trauma.
2020 will require revolutionary, multi-dimensional, multi-generational healing, as we take time to shower, cry, disconnect/reconnect, or just get through the day or night, we might welcome the beginning of this process and the reality of the trauma will settle in and make itself known in our bodies. We will be called to respond to it in the best way that works for us and this will not be easy. For some of us, the loss is closer than we can imagine. But we do not have to do this alone. Especially for Black people who are fighting for their lives on multiple fronts, the healing to keep our work sustainable might not be as loud as the call to act and the humanitarian crimes against us. I want to make the call to heal louder than the pain we know all too well.
In order to help us consider and begin this healing process, I created a folder where the community to gather some FREE resources/exercises in order to empower us to take control of our healing, as we define, redefine, and find power in it to keep going, fighting, loving, and thriving. This revolutionary healing process is going to require us to be honest, uncomfortable, and willing to do the work to experience the beauty of what is on the other side of this spiritual and global shift. I believe that is what some of us are here to do. If you would like to add to the resources below or dive into this topic more, please reach out to me via email with your resource, exercise, thoughts, and ideas.
I’ve been looking at my website and blog page like that corner of your room that has unfolded clothes and the mail on the desk you still need to go through. You know you need to address it, fold the clothes, go through the mail but ugh, maybe it’s tomorrow’s problem.
Between a pandemic, an awkward graduation and birthday season, and the disreagrd of Black bodies in a socially distant society… I am supposed to trust the same system with my life and health, while they blatantly disregard Black humanity? When I look at my website, I haven’t found the right order of words to express or share my experience. Where does one start? Do I start with the complex inspiration I've found when the whole world is on pause and I now have the audacity and space to look forward to a better future? Do I start with the daily news briefings that answer some questions, but continue to leave the big ones unanswered? Do I start with my reluctance of the ebb and flow of fear and confusion minute to minute, trying to find opportunity within the uncertainty, while simultaneously counting my blessings? All the while… white nationalists storming capitol buildings with automatic weapons and assaulting police officers. Where does one find a word amongst all this?
Then God gave us the Verzuz battle with Jill Scott Erykah Badu. As many expressed, this 2-hour long Instagram Live event was something I didn’t know I needed. I didn’t know how tightened my spirit was. It didn’t take long for me to not only witness the love that exists and persists between Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, but also tap into my own greatness, Blackness, and inner inspiration to create. As they traded hit for hit and played table tennis with love and compliments, I was put at ease because that is not only who they are, it is who we are. Black women. I was reminded that, at the core of our being is not only resistance and resilience, but also love. That is how we get through. That is what I saw between these talented women and in the comments. It was a celebration of love and there was space enough for all of us, even though there is not a lot of space for any of us in many ways these days.
Lesson learned: Abundance is in us. Abundance is us. Abundance is in our creation, as Jill Scott said, it is mandatory. Abundance is in our connections, be it years or days, during a pandemic to see and connect to a kind spirit is a blessing. Abundance is in our history the way that we have been able to tell our own story, despite the fraudulent spin offs, and have it reach generation to generation.
Amongst the tragedy, fear, and trauma in our lives, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu were able to give us an unapologetic musical meditation on what we still have amongst this pandemic and global shift we are in. But what will never shift or faulter is the beauty, love, grace, and shine that Black women have. Thank you, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu for the reminder. Now my words flow, my smile, grows, and I’m reminded what I am here to do and how I can share it with others.
My roommate just read me for filth… and I have to share it with others because it hit hard but uplifted me that much more…
Back in the day I needed to know the future to move forward. It was imperative that I prepare for every scenario so that nothing would surprise, devastate, disappoint, or kill me. I remember in the fourth grade going to ZodiacGirlz.com on the school computer and clicking on the crystal ball feature that would answer all my questions and tell me my future. It was reassuring to know that so-and-so liked me and we were going to get married one day! Now, at 26 years old, having just finished my Master’s thesis and jumping into a new year with new and unknown opportunities… I wish I was that little girl again who could lean on that crystal ball.
I was expressing this to my roommate recently. I told her how frustrated I was and ready to move on to the next stage in my life, pushing past all these unknowns. Now that I have closed the graduate school chapter and began my 6th year living in New York City, it was time for the next thing. Time to make more money, new job, publish books (did I say more money?), financial freedom, spiritual awakenings, succeed, succeed, SUCCEED! My roommate had one word for me:
Not my favorite word because it usually means one of two things: Sit and wait or work in faith and I need practice in both…
My roommate shared her experience of what it was like to stay present and grounded in patience, while going through her own transitions. She described how she remained at the same frequency no matter the circumstances because she knew that the change she wanted to happen was going to take time. She accepted that it was going to take time to get to where she wanted to be so saw no reason in rushing each step. I didn’t like it, but she was right.
I had to ask myself later, considering the year I had and the transitions ahead, why do I feel the need to rush? After some meditation, I found that I was attacking the future in order to keep myself from embodying the much-needed silence that comes with transitioning into new blessings. I had to remind myself that the future is friendly and the crystal ball I leaned on as little girl is now much bigger and way more reliable. Her name is God.
Transitions take time, reflection, action, and most of all patience, whether I like it or not. It is my choice to accept that. I imagine I'll enjoy 2020 much more if I accept that transitions are sacred ellipsis in our journeys that deserve to be nurtured and acknowledged with grace, peace, and joy. That is my hope and this my time to practice it. So, I offer this epiphany to you if you’re also diving into 2020 with questions, transitions, and ambitions for what’s ahead. You got this, no matter the pace.
Admittedly, I’ve never seen the original Dolemite film or knew about Rudy Ray Moore’s story, so when Dolemite Is My Name was released on Netflix, I wasn’t very motivated to see it. I wouldn’t appreciate all the intricate connections to the original film or Rudy Ray Moore’s story. I had no idea how connected I would be, as an artist also dedicated to her mission. We all have been Rudy Ray Moore chasing our Dolemite dreams at some point. The film articulated that process powerfully, as well as tell the story of the making of a classic Blacksploitation film. However, this movie did everything but exploit Black talent, power, friendship, and determination.
This movie met me in my artistic truth. Eddie Murphy—maybe because he knows the feeling—depicted the hunger that many creators have when they want to be great. Not every artist wants to be famous but every artist wants to get as close and intimate with their passion as possible. Dolemite Is My Name was that story. Yes, Moore was driven and determined to see his name everywhere and, in the end, he succeeded. But the movie reveals the bumpy road that’s guaranteed when you answer your calling. Rejection after rejection after rejection. Disappointment, discouragement, and doubt. You don’t know when it ends in success or which door will open, but we artist keep going anyway. This process is real for us. We may be good at what we do but we are not always sure of what we do. We may have the idea but not the funds or information to execute. Sometimes we give up like Moore did at one point and sometimes we make it through that phase to get up again. It’s a working artist’s constant dilemma and privilege.
The montage of shows and movies Moore went to in hopes to fine tune his material reminded me of another artist reality: If you want to be great in your craft you need to interact with others in your craft. Moore was at show after show, learning, becoming inspired (maybe borrowing material?), which propelled him into next steps. This can be the hardest part. Be it school, work, family, or all of the above, it is not always easy to get to each open mic, jam session, or gallery. Soon, we may feel completely out of touch and we start to contemplate a comeback. Dolemite is a reminder to continue to seek that inspiration in your artistic community, and if you don’t have one, find them.
I was shocked that I was expecting the movie to turn to tragedy at some point, not knowing the story. Every scene that Moore and his friends got a win, I was waiting for the loss, the monumental setback, the betrayal. I was apprehensive. When the movie was over and heart-breaking trauma did not ensue, it made me wonder how common it is for Black films to be riddled with trauma and pain. This was a refreshing take on Black life that was real without rose colored glasses or pain covered eye masks.
FRIENDSHIP. We got to see friendship among Black people! Friendship and support this sweet are hard to find on the big screen sometimes. When we’re not being over sexualized or brought back to the slave era yet again, rarely are we seeing untainted friendship. In the beginning of the movie, when Moore pitched the idea of Dolemite, his friends roasted him for being a has-been and he stormed out. It was not a second later that Jimmy, played by Mike Epps, was in the parking lot with him to apologize, support, and listen to Moore’s frustration with having nothing after having it all. I was shocked. Black men supporting each other and being vulnerable. Yes, this exists in real life. It’s nice to see it broadcast unapologetically like this. The friendship between Moore and Lady Reed was also heartwarming, genuine, and long-lasting. Lady Reed became a part of the larger group of friends that remained steadfast to the end. Friendship was huge theme and is an important reality in an artist’s life. I love being able to talk to musicians, singers, painters, and filmmakers about their craft (see Candid Convos) and get the opportunity to receive that love and support and have the privilege to give it back in return.
Lastly, Dolemite Is My Name is hilarious! Wesley Snipes was a riot, especially because the Wesley Snipes I know and imagine is not all smiles or silliness but swards and guns. Another artistic reality: We got to lighten up. One thing all my mentors have in common is telling me to slow down and not lose my mind over something that is supposed to bring me joy. Like other young people, we have time and deadlines for our artistic process, success, or growth. Rarely are these deadlines met and most of the time it’s a good thing that our lives unfolded the way they did or opportunities presented themselves at the right time, not our time. As I finish my Masters and close a chapter of my life to open another, I get to honor the many realities that come with artistic creation. Some realities are harder than others but Rudy Ray Moore’s story is a reminder to keep that passion alive and to follow it though, whether we know what it looks like or not.
P.S. 100% of the time we don’t know what it looks like and that’s okay.
When I heard that Joker was premiering at the Venice Film Festival, I was shocked. DC movies, as of late, have not been as appealing and enjoyable to me as an average movie goer. I found the writing to be forced at times and the story arc falling all over the place. The Dark Knight, however, remains an all-time favorite, mostly because of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. I always claimed that Ledger’s interpretation would always be my favorite. But after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker, I’m finding it hard to pick a favorite, as both of them highlight intriguing parts of the comic book character in captivating ways. I was interested to see the movie with a more critical lens and heightened expectations after I heard the rave reviews, although some told me to expect more of the same: pretty good acting, underwhelming story... I wanted to see for myself. When the credits rolled after the film, the two names I kept repeating out loud were Todd Phillips, writer and director, and Joaquin Phoenix. It might be the writer in me, but it felt like I was behind the scenes hearing the director’s vision while it was coming to life on screen; as if I heard Phillips’ and Phoenix’s conversations on set. Below are few of the many decisions that caught my eye, making this movie one that I won’t easily forget.
Cello, cello, and more cellos. As a lover of string instruments, I know a cello when I hear one and cello is the perfect instrument to articulate the Joker’s depth and heaviness. It seemed to be the main score of the movie, the cello’s bellowing growl made an appearance at key moments of the Joker’s downward spiral and haunting acceptance of his true nature. The score filled the silent moments with ominous certainty, making you want to lean back in your seat to gain space from the inevitable: he was only going to get worst. Joker’s voice was another decision that added to the complex auditory experience. Phoenix’s voice remained innocent, soft, and light, even in anger. I believe it forced viewers to see the human underneath the sickness and provided a complicated juxtaposition to his actions. But it was his horrifying weight loss that sent me over the edge. It’s nice to see Joaquin Phoenix in post-production interviews looking healthy.
As someone who does not know DC comics and the many origins of the Joker in detail, I was surprised at how much I supported for the Joker’s redemption. In this movie you see first-hand the Joker’s demise, as he tries to get better and join the “normal” world saying, “I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.” It seemed like he was really trying! But Phillips and his team wanted you to sit in his defeat in silence. Viewers experienced his failure and desperation intimately just long enough so that by the time he decides to embrace his madness, take control, and cease compromising, you’re super excited for him, almost happy! There was one violent scene in particular that my boyfriend and I didn’t even flinch at because, yeah, that guy deserved it after what he did to Author Fleck. The movie played on a delicate balance of redemption and madness. You awaited the Joker’s self-realization, but you don’t feel prepared for what is going to come as a consequence of that. And I will tell you now that you’re not going to be prepared.
It is no secret that the Joker is crazy. But how the movie navigates the topic of mental illness resonates with a somber reality in today’s America. The Joker speaks explicitly on mental illness and the resentment he has for those who chose not to see that struggle or refuse to understand him. In one scene, he expressed his frustration in giving the world kindness, joy, and laughter but receiving nothing but disrespect and erasure in return. This is not just the complaints of crazy villains in movies, but anyone who’s met this unforgiving world with kindness only to receive nothing or worst based on their mental illness knows how that can feel. The first thing that came to mind at that scene was the many suicides and violent acts completed by those trying to live with a mental illness but being met with silence or shame (I’m talking about mental illness here not white privilege used in court to justify hate crimes). It was a worthy theme and a timely one. How easy it is to record, make fun, or stigmatize those who’s mental illness is spilling on the streets in the eyes of the homeless or the weirdo at school. The Joker is an extreme reminder that those people, like all people, have breaking points. But it seems only when it is too late that mental health becomes a topic of discussion (insert every school shooting in the last year).
The only other thing I heard about the Joker before going to see it was that there were heightened police presence at certain theaters on opening night, after authorities learned of some chatter on the dark web from inspired individuals. I don’t know DC Comic characters (or any comics for that matter) very well, but I’m not sure if there is another super hero or villain that inspires such a response in the real world. There is something about the Joker that disturbs but also stirs people. I had to shower that film off of me when I got home, because it was so potent with the disturbing reality of humanity’s capacity for darkness. The Joker is fiction but the themes are made real by Todd Phillips, his team, and Joaquin Phoenix.
Tayllor Johnson currently resides in New York City where she has begun her journey into Poet. Passion. Period. In between those learning moments, she sometimes has just enough time to jot a few lines...