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Arts & Culture » Television

Looking at race on the lavender tube

by Victoria A. Brownworth

CNN's black gay reporter and commentator Don Lemon on his show <i>CNN Tonight.</i> Photo: Courtesy CNN
CNN's black gay reporter and commentator Don Lemon on his show CNN Tonight. Photo: Courtesy CNN  

This is shaping up to be the hottest summer on record, and the political landscape being splayed out on both the evening news and the morning news programs is just as hot. Race is the Big Story in America right now, and TV is at the locus. For once it cannot avert its gaze.

The shocking death of Sandra Bland and the video released on July 22 by the Texas Department of Public Safety have raised yet more questions about how law enforcement treats black women and men in custody. Watching the video of Bland's arrest, one can easily see how State Trooper Brian Encinia gets annoyed with Bland and exerts his power over her. There is no reason for him to arrest her. He creates the reason.

And now Sandra Bland is dead. An alleged suicide. A six-foot-tall, 175-lb. woman, according to police booking documents, who somehow managed to hang herself, with a totally clean ligature mark and no shattered hyoid bone, with a trash-can liner.

Looking at the CNN video of the jail cell, actually a dorm cell meant to hold five women and much like a scene out of Orange Is the New Black, one wonders how long Bland was supposed to stay there without being arraigned. She was being held on "suspicion of assaulting an officer," a felony. And a Kafkaesque charge, since Bland never did assault Encinia. It was he who dragged her from her car, he who body-slammed her as seen in the cell-phone video taken of the arrest by a bystander and kneeled on her back, much the way the McKinney, Texas police officer Eric Casebolt did with a teenaged girl in June. Casebolt was suspended.

It's instructive to compare the video of Bland's arrest and the McKinney incident. White men getting angry with black "girls" who are noncompliant with white male authority. How many times have we experienced that in our own community? This writer has experienced it in the gayborhood in Philadelphia, Greenwich Village in NYC, and the Mission District in SF. We know we and our lesbian friends aren't the only ones. 

This is an issue for the LGBT community because we have often been and continue to be on the rough end of police. Our movement starts with police brutality and harassment. These stories matter for us. They matter especially because when we are subject to police harassment or brutality, it rarely makes the news, just as our housing and health care discrimination, our firings, our homelessness and even our deaths rarely make the news. We aren't on TV. We are the news you're not seeing.

How many times have butch lesbians been harassed in Oakland or in the Mission District? How many times have trans women been harassed on Market Street? How many times have gay men been told they were in the wrong place and to move on? How many times have these events never made even local news? Our stories don't make the news unless one of us is killed, and rarely even then. Ten black trans women have been murdered so far this year in the U.S. Have you heard this story on the news anywhere? Because we haven't, and we are looking.

On July 22, Nigeria's new president Muhammadu Buhari spoke at a joint session of the Senate and House committees on foreign affairs during his four-day state visit to the U.S., which included a photo op meeting with Pres. Obama. That made the national news on every network. Here's what ended up on CNN's cutting-room floor: Buhari was asked in the committee about human rights for lesbians and gay men in Nigeria. It wasn't a question Buhari wanted to address. Buhari said gay sex would remain illegal in Nigeria, and was "abhorrent" to African culture. Did you hear about that on the news? No, you did not. Nigeria has one of the harshest anti-gay laws, bans gay marriage and punishes any same-sex couple who hold a wedding with 14 years in jail, and 10 for anyone else involved in the ceremony, even guests.

Last week during Buhari's visit, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. would "mount sustained pressure on the Nigeria to scrap the 'jail the gays' law." But that never made the news because we don't matter. Black lesbians and gay men matter even less, in the U.S. or out of it.

So the police brutality issue, whether we are white or Asian, black or Latino, is our issue, too. Sandra Bland could have been one of us: a trans woman, a butch lesbian, a gay man. CNN's black gay reporter and commentator Don Lemon got into a fracas with guests on his show CNN Tonight when CNN contributor and former NYPD detective (and straight white man) Harry Houck said, "Sandra Bland would not have died in police custody had she not been arrogant from the very beginning." BET news commentator Marc Lamont Hill countered Houck's assertions and added, "This is a perfect example of how vulnerable black women are in public spaces to law enforcement." Sandra Bland was vulnerable. And now Sandra Bland is dead. We need to know why.

Gay journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has often been at the center of controversy for his exposés. Vargas was the moderator of the Netroots Nation 2015 conference on July 19. When Sandra Bland's name was raised by activists, two of the Democratic presidential contenders, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, proved highly out of touch with marginalized communities. We're pretty sure at some point in the presidential campaign someone will put up a video of Sanders waving his arms and saying querulously, "If you want me to leave, I'll leave" as he tries to shout down #BlackLivesMatter protestors, the three female leaders of which are all queer women. Sanders later stood up three black journalists who were altogether too happy to report that on MSNBC and ABC. Vargas later tweeted that he was not going to silence black women. MSNBC contributor Goldie Taylor replied, "You couldn't if you tried."

Vargas has been addressing race for a long time. On July 22 his much-anticipated documentary White People premiered on MTV and immediately blew up social media. Before the film was over, Vargas had tweeted: "#WhitePeople is now No. 1 on Twitter. Thanks for watching and tweeting, folks." As MTV asks: "What do white Millennials think about whiteness? Jose Antonio Vargas is on a mission to find out." Find out he does, often to wincing and raw reality bites. White People explores whiteness, race, and immigration in what is already a majority non-white California and soon-to-be a majority non-white America, as it follows five young white Americans dealing with racial issues in cities across the country. Vargas engages the Millennials in conversations about their experiencesâ€"and engages as well.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant born in the Philippines and sent by his mother to live in the Bay Area to live with his grandparents when he was 12, Vargas has written for the Philadelphia Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle. Vargas also wrote, produced, and directed the autobiographical 2013 film Documented, which is available online. Vargas came out as gay in high school in 1999 in Mountain View, and came out as undocumented in a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine. White People takes on the concept of white privilege and will be a squirm-fest for most white people to watch. But if you are white and care about the people of color in your life, you should watch. The dialogue it started the night it aired will likely continue as MTV re-plays it over the next few weeks. It's been attacked by many (mostly whites) and lauded by others as opening a kind of Truth and Reconciliation conversation on race for the under-40 set.

 

Exit Jon Stewart

Pres. Obama talked about race on The Daily Show in his last appearance on the show before Jon Stewart leaves on Aug. 6. Obama was funny, as he can be when talking off the cuff, and serious as well. Obama asked Stewart right away if he was crazy leaving before the 2016 presidential election. We'll also be sorry to see him exit. It's hard to remember when Stewart wasn't there with his biting commentary: 16 years, 19 Emmys, countless amazing interviews, so many scathing attacks on politicians, the births of Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Larry Wilmore as major figures who went from being correspondents on Stewart's show to having their own shows.

Colbert takes over for David Letterman in September on CBS, and has been doing some shtick online in the interim. HBO's This Week Tonight with John Oliver is our choice for best politically driven comedy after Stewart. Much as we are interested in seeing what South African comedian Trevor Noah brings to The Daily Show when he slips into Stewart's seat, we were never sure this was going to be a good fit. We hope it works out, but we're pretty sure for the biting political commentary viewers are used to, they may be switching over to HBO and Oliver. We're not sure who will fill the angry political comedy spot on late-night now. Oliver isn't as angry, but Wilmore is. His Nightly Show follows Stewart on Comedy Central, so Wilmore may pick up a larger slice of the audience, and Stewart's exit may prompt Wilmore to pump up the volume.

Network doesn't attempt to compete with cable for late-night edginess, the censors won't allow it. But we've been enjoying both Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, and Jimmy Kimmel still has his moments. What continues to bother us is the whiteness, maleness and straightness of late-night. Chelsea Handler was the only woman in the late-night pantheon, but her show on E! ended last year. She's got a new show coming out on Netflix next year, but Netflix. There are funny women, funny people of color, funny gay men and lesbians. Let's see some at least in the late-night sidekick realm, eh?

Speaking of things that are missing, when the Emmy list came out, we had to ask: why wasn't Empire on the list for best drama series? Why wasn't Terrence Howard on the list for best lead actor? We know everyone loves Mad Men and this was its last season, but did that series really deserve a best drama Emmy nod? We think not. Empire did.

We were pleased, though, to see Tatiana Maslany finally get an Emmy nod for her incredible work on Orphan Black. The perennial heartthrob of every American lesbian plays several characters on the fabulous queerish BBC sci-fi thriller: Sarah, Alison, Cosima, (oh Cosima), Rachel, Krystal, Sarah. Maslany has already won a fistful of other awards for her amazing portrayals, so now we don't have to ask why she wasn't nominated for an Emmy yet again. Alas, we doubt Maslany has a chance against two other favorites in her Lead Actress category, Viola Davis for her role as Dr. Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder, and Taraji P. Henson for her role as Cookie Lyon on Empire. Claire Danes (Homeland ), Robin Wright (House of Cards ) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men ), all wonderful in their respective roles, fill out the category. But our money is on Henson.

Speaking of Emmy winners, Showtime's Masters of Sex is back for a third season and has added The Good Wife alum Josh Charles to its retinue of sexy beasts. Also added to the cast are veteran actor Tate Donovan, Emily Kinney (The Flash) and Julie Ann Emery (Better Call Saul).

Sarah Silverman is back with a big story arc this season, and Alison Janney is reprising her repression as Margaret Scully, for what may be another Emmy-winning performance. Beau Bridges is still playing Barton Scully, her gay husband (still hanging with sexy male prostitutes). Lesbian prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) continues to be one of the show's main characters. Masters of Sex is like the Mad Men of sex at that series' peak. We are looking forward to the gay elements being even more prominent as the third season takes place in 1965 & 66. Can you say Sexual Revolution?

Speaking of lesbians, we have really enjoyed CBS' creepy pseudo-dystopian Zoo, which is perfect for summer, but we weren't thrilled by the lesbian scientist couple being killed off last week. Couldn't Zoo have taken out some of the many many straight people? While the Dr.Zhivago-ish deaths in Antarctica with the couple dead in each others' arms was poignant, we would have preferred to see them alive for the rest of the series.

Speaking of killer endings, the season finale of Fox's Wayward Pines on July 23 was fantastic. This show is like Game of Thrones in the dystopian future. If you missed it this season, the episodes are available on Fox and Hulu. Oscar winner Melissa Leo is a standout in the cast, Matt Dillon was a real surprise and Hope Davis was extraordinary. This show was like Lost meets Hunger Games. There was an interiority to the way the back story was revealed that was truly mesmerizing. If you like your sci-fi grounded in reality, this is definitely one to catch up on.

Finally, our fave moment of the week was Sen. Lindsey Graham on CBS This Morning and CNN calling Donald Trump a "jackass." We're not a fan of Graham's, but his quiet demeanor provided the perfect juxtaposition for his comment, "Run for president. But don't be the world's biggest jackass." So for news you aren't seeing and news you are, for the big cats of Zoo and the small ones of Masters of Sex, for the late-night barbs and the daytime lulz, you know you really must stay tuned.

 

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