Friday, June 29, 2012

Hidden Family Secrets Are Revealed in ‘People Like Us’

FAMILY secrets. We all have them. And so often they come falling out of the booth in the back in the corner in the dark when we least expect them.

Such is the case for Sam (Chris Pine) in the film, "People Like Us," which opens today.

Sam discovers that his father has an “outside child” – Sam’s sister – after the death of the latter. It seems that the old man may have had a crisis of conscious at some point because he leaves the daughter he never publicly acknowledged a pile of cash. It is the responsibility of cash-strapped Sam to ensure that Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) gets it and presumably learns that the father who abandoned her really did love her. It's just that he had made the difficult choice to remain with family No. 1, including his wife, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer in a solid supporting role).

Sam’s errand drives the drama in “People Like Us,” a truly touching film. He does not initially tell Frankie that they are siblings. It’s understandable. These are not easy things to say, especially when one is dealing with the shock of it all. And when money is involved and one needs said money. (See trailer above).

Sam (Chris Pine) and Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) have strong ties in "People Like Us."

Sam is immediately drawn to his sister; he sees their father in her. The two begin spending time together, and Sam learns that he is an uncle to Frankie’s adorable, precocious and rambunctious son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario).

The suspense in “People Like Us” continues to build, though, as Sam eventually has to break some big news to Frankie. It has tearjerker potential.

“People Like Us” is rated PG-13 (for language, some drug use and brief sexuality).

Latest Franchise Rollout Is 'The Amazing Spider-Man'

IT’S summertime and the blockbusters are comin’.

The first out of the gate is the latest iteration of Marvel’s the Spider-Man saga, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It opens on 3 July. No doubt, it will make a gazillion dollars at the box office as the batman saga, “The Dark Knight Rises,” is expected to do in its first weekend later in the month (20 July).

In “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Andrew Garfield replaces Tobey Maguire in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In the new film, Peter is portrayed as a brilliant, awkward Queens high school student who lives with his aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen). Despite his guardians' dissuasion, Peter sets out to uncover clues about the disappearance of his parents, particularly his scientist father. That quest leads him to the scientific lab, Oscorp, where his classmate/crush Gwen (Emma Stone) is an intern. It is also at Oscorp where Peter meets his father’s former research partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). At Oscorp, too, a clandestine search lands Peter in a lab where he has accidental contact with a genetically altered spider, imparting to him the power that transform him into Spider-Man. (See trailer above).

In the end, Peter must save humankind from Dr. Connors. The scientist truly becomes mad after, under pressure from an investor, he injects himself with a serum that transforms him into the Lizard, complete with the regenerative powers that Dr. Connors craves. Increasingly delusional because of high doses of the serum, Dr. Connors decides to unleash it on the whole of New York City and the world. It is left to Spider-Man to stop him, though the superhero's efforts are complicated by NYPD police captain George Lacy (Denis Leary). Capt. Lacy is also Gwen’s father.

Of course, it is all cartoonish, and "The Amazing Spider-Man" is more than two hours long. What saves and makes the film, though, are the special effects, action sequences and fight sequences. All are SPECTACULAR. The IMAX 3D enhances the film immensely. Much of the action looks as if it is unfolding a hair’s breath away. In one scene the definition is so great that the antenna spire atop a building (is that the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building?) appears to be heading straight for the heart. Duck!

“The Amazing Spider-Man” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Old World Modern Charm at Noir New York

Noir offers visitors a comfortable place to dine and unwind after dinner. Photos courtesy of Noir.

CAN Noir New York do what Nikki Beach could not, that is make a real go of it at 151 E. 50th Street?

Since its official opening earlier this month the restaurant and lounge has been attracting its fair share of customers. Of course, this can be put down to the sheer novelty and curiosity about what would come after Nikki Beach. The former certainly fits in to the neighborhood a lot better than the latter, which sought to bring a bit of Miami to New York City. Thanks goes to owner George P. Iordanou (GPI Entertainment) for realizing that Miami wasn’t playing well in this stretch of Manhattan.

Noir is situated in a section of Midtown East (from about the high 40s to the mid 50s and from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue) that is fairly buttoned-down. In other words, it is more on the low-key, conservative side, as it regards drinking and dining. Nearby is the W New York – The Tuscany, Waldorf-Astoria, Saks Fifth Avenue and Smith & Wollensky. This in part explains why Nikki did not do so well. It was loud and bright in a quiet, muted milieu. One could see Nikki drawing in a few curious tourists and commuters who make up most of the area’s population during business hours. But at the end of the day, so to speak, the real people didn’t have quite enough appetite for SoBe (South Beach).

The opening night crowd in the bar area of the 10,000 square foot Noir.

Nikki is a great concept that would be better served, however, along Second Avenue in the 30s or 80s. Or as one gal about town attending the opening remarked, “In Soho where you have all kinds of people coming from everywhere who like that kind of thing." That kind of thing being the Ocean Side vibe, indoor palm trees  and white furniture (but no beds like in Miami and other venues) included.

The differences between Nikki and Noir are like day and night. Whereas Nikki was ostentatiously modern, Noir has many Old World European touches. Yet is doesn't feel dated and stodgy. It isn’t somewhere a young/youngish urban sophisticate would avoid because his or her parents have been patronizing the joint since the ‘40s. At Noir, chocolate is a dominant color. Montreal-based architect Andres Escobar, ( who is largely responsible for the Noir look and who attended the opening, disclosed that the transformation from Nikki took about six months. Chocolate, he relayed, is a color that is associated with comfort and well-being. If that is true, Noir oozes comfort from floor to ceiling, featuring lots of brown with touches of gold.

Access Noir directly from the sidewalk through a bank of floor-to-ceiling glass doors and you are in the bar. On the left is a brown bar with a gold backsplash. The bar is long enough to accommodate nearly a dozen stools. To the right, on the other side of a large, squat beige pillar with a decorative brown ribbon design, are a series of brown booths. Straight ahead is the main dining room. En route to the dining room is a wrought-iron spiral staircase with brown banister and brown-gold marble steps that practically beckons a visitor to the lounge upstairs.

Nikki Beach had a Miami vibe, complete with palm trees.

AE incorporated lots of intimacy into the 10,000 square foot space, it became clear during an impromptu tour by he and his wife, Bela. The dining room, for instance, is separated into three sections. The middle section is furnished with a dozen or so tables. Overhead is a huge crystal chandelier that AE admitted, a little shamefaced, came all the way from China. On either side of the middle section are areas that are taken up by tables and gold high-backed, oval-shaped booths. Ensconced in the back of the dining room is a glass-encased wine cellar. The room is also purposed as a meeting space, complete with a boardroom table and flat screen TV. Once the door is closed the noise level drops to the volume of a hum and it feels like a cocoon.

In the center of the upstairs lounge is a small island populated by three sets of two chairs that are turned in opposite directions. They are situated for optimum conversation and privacy. Placed between each set of chairs is  a bistro table. In a back corner of the lounge separated from the rest of the space by brown beads reaching from the ceiling to near the floor is a circular room with brown leather, cushioned walls. It has the feel of a man's private sitting quarters – an ideal space for a private party.

Amid all of the comfort and privacy of Noir, guests have at their disposal a well-stocked bar on each floor overseen by a beverage director and mixologist, which is de rigueur at such places these days. Part of the deal is handcrafted cocktails, including the eponymous Manhattan en Noir (Rye Whiskey, Italian Vermouth, Port, Grand Marnier, Bitters, Stirred & served with a brandied cherry & an orange twist). In the lounge guests can avail themselves of any of the topshelf liquor on the spirit cart. Also on offer are vodka, gin or rum bowls.

Of course, there is food, too. Another common feature of restaurant and lounges like Noir with upscale pretensions is a celebrity or Michelin-star chef. As the Noir p.r. goes, Jean-Yves Schillinger “combines his classic French techniques with seasonal local ingredients” for the contemporary, reasonably priced American menu he has created.

The Noir bar, with gold backsplash, is a large, inviting space.

Among the treats that J-YS sent out opening night were several Alsatian pizzas, duck foie gras, cod cakes, fried lamb chop and lemon tart. Everything was truly delicious with solid flavor profiles, except the fried lamb chop. It was so heavily breaded the flavor of the lamb was almost imperceptible. This one lapse can be forgiven, however, considering the intense flavor of the duck foie gras (buttery pate with green apple served with French toasted bread). It lingered nicely on the palate, producing a feeling of – well –  comfort and well-being.

Noir has all of the necessary elements to make it where Nikki Beach didn’t. While some of these elements, such as its self-possessed décor may prove too intimidating for some, they won’t ultimately have an adverse effect on the bottomline. Speaking of which, it is advised that Noir add prices to its Web site menu. Not including the prices could unwittingly send the message, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”

That, Noir cannot afford in an anemic economy where even some of the 1 percent and the upper echelons of the 99 percent are pinching pennies.

Visit to learn more about Noir.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Feminism Is Hot Topic in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’

Avery (Virginia Kull), Alice (Beth Dixon) and Catherine (Amy Brenneman) ruminate about feminism in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” Photos by Carol Rosegg.


it just an anomaly when women don’t identify themselves as feminists?

Strong women have appeared throughout history championing their equality and demanding a voice in their lives and their homes. Women’s rights have been and continue to be of serious concern, of course, and it seems like the battle of the sexes has gone on forever.

Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” extended at Playwrights Horizons through 1 July, is a conversation about choices. In it proto-feminism and post-feminism take their seat next to Phyllis Schlafly as three generations of women discuss and analyze the paths they’ve chosen.

The conversation in “Rapture, Blister, Burn” would not be taking place if it weren’t for the progress feminists have made over the last decades.

This herstory is the background for “Rapture, Blister, Burn” in which Gwen (Kellie Overbey), Catherine (Amy Brenneman), Avery (Virginia Kull) and Alice (Beth Dixon) look around to find greater fulfillment.

Catherine (Amy Brenneman) and Don (Lee Tergesen) have vastly different world views in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”

It’s definitely a case of "the grass is greener ... " for Catherine and Gwen. Catherine has carved out a successful career as prominent academic in “Women’s Studies.” Her old grad school roommate, Gwen, left university to support her indolent husband, Don’s (Lee Tergesen), career as a college dean.

The options look to be either career or homemaker, wife or home-wrecker. Gwen would like to exchange her husband for the chance to go back and earn her degree. To her, Catherine’s life seems much more glamorous. Meanwhile, Catherine, along with her mother, Alice, is disenchanted by Catherine’s success and singledom.

Avery is a young woman on the verge of also dropping out of school to join a boyfriend in a career as a reality filmmaker. The issues of feminism seem irrelevant to her, thanks to women like Betty Friedan, who duked it out with Schlafly over the role of women in their relationships with men.

Gwen (Kellie Overbey, left) has taken a path in life that Avery (Virginia Kull) is considering in “Rapture, Blister, Burn.

Catherine’s wry take on life alone is challenged by Don, who is a man who will not grow up. Avery stays above the fray with a wonderfully inquisitive detachment. The actors work off each other in a skillful ensemble.

There is no hectoring or lecturing in “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” which is an amusing and thought-provoking comedy.

Visit to learn more about “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Price Those Ribs, 'Soul Food Junkies'?

At Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, a patron is dining on fried chicken and macoroni and cheese. Photos from "Soul Food Junkies" Facebook page.

USING as his jumping off point the death of his father at the age 63 from pancreatic cancer, Byron Hurt ponders whether other blacks, like his father, are "Soul Food Junkies."

The documentary from the award-winning filmmaker ("I Am A Man: Black Masculinity in America") makes its debut at the American Black Film Festival ( tomorrow.

In the interest of full disclosure, BH and I go way back. In addition to being a filmmaker, he is also an activist, lecture and writer.

In "Soul Food Junkies," he wonders whether such mouthwatering fare as chitlins aka chitterlings, neck bones, pigs’ feet, barbecue ribs, sweet potato pie, macaroni&cheese, black-eyed peas, fried chicken and corn bread is killing black folks. He elicits comments from a host of common folk, experts, activists, politicians and policymakers, including Dick Gregory and Sonia Sanchez, to arrive at an answer.

The Long Island native tracks the history of soul food from West Africa across an ocean to the Caribbean and in what would become the United States, particularly the South. On this trek, he examines how this cuisine morphed from survival food to the delicacy and, potential killer, that it is today. (See trailer below).

BH not only wrote and directed “Soul Food Junkies,” he is the narrator. It is the most deeply personal of his films, which also includes the much lauded “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” He uses powerful images, especially of the foods so many of us love and are familiar with to engage the viewer. At a restaurant, a patron simply explains that spices and seasonings are the essence of soul food. BH makes the grits, eggs and sliced salt pork sandwich that he and his father typically ate at Sunday breakfast, a time over the years when they really connected.

One gentleman evokes myriad memories by simply remarking that fingers are very much involved in eating soul food. Many of us have relatives or ourselves simply cannot enjoy collards and cornbread unless the two are intertwined and eaten by hand. And, of course, chicken was finger-lickin’ good long before the Colonel co-opted the phrase and made billions off of it. The scene of the tailgating special "junk pot" dish (ears of corn, pig ears, pig feet, turkey necks, neck bones, etc. ) at the Jackson State University (Mississippi) football game just takes the cake. “Everything ain’t good for you, in here,” one of the tailgate/chefs quips. “But it’s good to you!”

Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that many black folks (and others) are addicted to the very foods that are responsible for many of their preventable illnesses and for the premature death of loved ones. As DG remarks, "I don’t eat anything that fought, do-dos, pees or squoots.” The comedian-activist famously put the blame solely at the feet of soul food when years ago Phil Donahue asked him why so many black women are overweight. At the time the percentage was closing in on 50 percent. Today, the figure is closer to 75 percent.

But as “Soul Food Junkies” clearly points out, soul food is not the sole culprit in the width of black women’s waistlines or that of men. BH’s father “went from being young and fit to growing nearly twice his size.” Indeed, it takes a village. Preparation plays a role. For the most part, frying is not good. Neither is using old oil or saturating foods with salt and sugar. Many blacks, particularly in urban areas, live in food deserts. These are neighborhoods where fast food, bodegas and other purveyors of nonfresh and unhealthy food predominate. Good supermarkets and grocery stores are almost extinct.

“I go a supermarket in my neighborhood and I've seen vegetables that look like they are having a nervous breakdown,” SS says. She has not been above removing the offending produce from shelves and threatening to phone the media if store personnel threaten to phone the police, she added.

“Soul Food Junkies,” which will have its New York debut on 30 August and will be broadcast on PBS' upcoming season of "Independent Lens, is poignant and at moments laugh-out loud funny. Many love their soul food – loud and proud. Growing numbers have given up the soul food diet or only eat it in moderation, including the gentleman in Louisiana who transformed himself into what his wife terms the energizer bunny.

The film coasts nicely until it starts looking at how core ingredients themselves can be contributors to illness and premature death. BH speaks to various people about processed foods, including children at a private school in Newark, New Jersey. He wisely cites the aforementioned food deserts.

What “Soul Food Junkies” points in the direction of but does not assert emphatically – a very important point that most Americans are not aware of – is that much of the food production in the United States is controlled by a few conglomerates – Big Food – that in the name of obscene profits have poisoned the U.S. food supply with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and GMOs. All are harmful to soil, plants animals and, humans.

The film fails to connect the food supply problem to the weight gain, which causes many of the unpreventable illnesses that plague vast numbers of Americans, blacks in particular. Likewise, it fails to state explicitly that the problem in food supply is the reason we should eat organic or grow our own food, if possible.

Far too many viewers will come away from "Soul Food Junkies" not having fully wrapped their brains around the fact that the very urban farms and urban gardeners about whom BH speaks are doing their own thing, not only because they live in food deserts, but because they understand that so-called fresh produce from Big Food is no good, even in a food oasis like the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Our parents and grandparents, including BH’s father who grew up in Milledgeville, Georgia where BH's uncle has a garden, did not grow up eating the Smithfield pigs and Tyson chickens of today. They did not consume collards and cabbage that had interaction with synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The flour and corn meal that formed the base of their cornbread was not processed. While “Soul Food Junkies” touches on processed foods, it fails to cogently explain why the processed food produced and sold by Big Food is bad for us and shares, as BH asserts, as much blame, if not more, for our health woes as soul food.

Byron Hurt (center) on the set of "Soul Food Junkies."

Indeed, it does not explain, for instance, that processed foods are foods that have been stripped of many of their nutrients and replaced with health- and weight-harmful additives and preservatives like salt and sugar, as well as those products bearing chemical names that most cannot pronounce. These foods are cheaper for Big Food to produce and many can last until the return of Christ. They are also high in fat and calories and, of course, very low in nutrients, thereby producing malnourished overweight people.

These oversights notwithstanding, “Soul Food Junkies” is an engaging, thoughtful film. BH concludes that, done properly, soul food can be good for you as well as good to you. The film deserves the attention of all Americans, not just blacks. It is especially important that blacks view it, however, for the simple reason that the "Food Inc." and "Supersize Me’s" of the world will not resonate as resoundingly. BH wisely couches the discussion of improved eating habits in the language that his audience will hear and likely heed. “Perhaps my pop’s story is your story or the story of someone you love,” he asserts toward the end of “Soul Food Junkies.”

No doubt every American regardless of ethnicity can emphathize, especially since the United States is a nation with a 50 percent obesity rate. BH ends with another hope, that his father’s example “inspires millions of people to take action and move toward a life of health and wellness.”

“Soul Food Junkies” makes a persuasive case for doing so.

Visit to learn more about “Soul Food Junkies.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gascony Whites: Fresh, Soulful. And Light on Wallet.

Michael York as the adventurous D'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers." Photo courtesy of The Movie Scene.


in the '70s when we were kids, my brother and I skipped out to see Richard Lester's “The Three Musketeers,” arguably the best adaptation on film yet.

What a cast: Charlton Heston, Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay and, Michael York as the gangly d'Artagnan, that unruly lad from Gascony. Wild, unconventional – what my great Aunt Jim would call "countrified" – the young gascogne, a daring horseman and fencer, burst on the scene like a breath of fresh air, not unlike the white wines that hail from the same region.

A fresh French white wine that’s not traditional Bordeaux blend? Not everything needs to be haute culture these days. And if truth be told, we all LOVE an excellent value. That's modern-speak for a good cheap drink. Well here it is, folks! Welcome to the white wines of Gascony.

Gascony is a rugged land on the edge of the Pyrennes. Photo from Wikicommons.

Gascony wines had been famous for centuries, but when the ale-loving English controlled the region for all of those years (remember Eleanor of Aquitaine? Speaking of movies, remember Kathryn Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter?” But I digress), the Gascony wines lost ground to their Bordeaux brothers just to the north. But recently, the best-kept secret of regional French wines has begun to make a comeback.

Skeptical? So was I, especially when the bottle was on sale for $4.99. What good can possibly come from a $5 bottle of wine? It's like the 99-cent burger: possibly edible but often barely. I braced for impact as the salesperson assured me that, no – really – it's a great little bottle of wine.

Cote de Gascogne Blanc combines fruitiness and minerality to pleasing effect. Photo courtesy of Woodland Hills Wine Co.

Still skeptical. So in such cases, always have a backup plan: the backup bottle in case the wine should prove to be this side of lethal. But d'Artagnan sprang mightily from the bottle. Light, refreshing, smacking of a touch of Sauvignon Blanc two-stepping with Pinot Grigio, the wine pared perfectly with seafood: not too fruity, not too minerally, not too wimpy. It had its own personality.

And then I started to notice random little bottles of inexpensive Gascony wines popping up from time to time, like a jolly French leprechaun – (would anyone French present clover as a token? Mais non! Bien sûr, it would be a bottle of wine.)

Again, I would pause upon seeing rock-bottom low prices. Again I would buy the Plan B backup bottle. Again, I was consistently surprised by the freshness, crispness, lightness, but soulful quality of these wines. I have a lot of Plan B bottles now. A little slow on the uptake, but it hit me: Galloping Gascony, these wines need their own article! Et voilà.

Gascony is located on the French side of the Spanish Basque region, an area once controlled by the English who did not have a huge appetite for wine. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

The good news is this: The wines are beginning to catch on. The bad news: in some places they have already caught on. That special introductory price for the Domaine des Cassagnoles: all gone. It's now $10. Looking across the Web, many Gascony wines are now in the $10 range but they are wonderful buys for an everyday wine. Buy a case. Believe me, it'll be gone in six months, long before the wine slips past prime.

All of the following are Côte de Gascogne, 2010:

Domaine des Cassagnoles
Colombard, Ugni Blanc & Gros Manseng blend
$10; online sale,, $9

Imagine the wines that predominate in Cognac, but being served up fresh without all that fermentation. That’s Domaine des Cassagnoles’ Cote de Gascogne Blanc. An odd balance of fresh fruitiness (grapefruit and lime), but with a hint of minerality and not a lot of sugar, the wine matches perfectly with saltwater seafood. Scallops, shrimp, nice full pieces of fish – look out! A wonderfully refreshing casual drink.

La Galope is typical of Gascony wines – fresh and refreshing. Photo from K & L Wine Merchants.

La Galope
Sauvignon Blanc blend
$10 online only

Oh those wild unwieldy Gascones! Still waiting for this bottle to come in, but with references to the horseback riding D’Artagnan, how could I not include La GALOPE? Details to follow upon arrival.

Sauvignon Blanc
$11, online,

Take the standard Sauvignon Blanc and add a touch of the sea, the barest hint or whisper of saltiness. That and a nice piece of halibut would go down perfectly: a simple, good, wine for simple hardy fare.

Next up: Funky French Wines, Pt 2: Languedoc-Rousillon

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Myopia of Tony Awards Committee Is Plain to See


fans of theater, Tony season is both exciting and stressful.

Only 35 people make the selections, nominating the plays and musicals that 750 Broadway pros will vote as “Best.” And, really, we should be grateful to the rotating cast of the nominating committee, each of whom serves for an overlapping three-year term. Thanks should also go to the select members of the various theatrical guilds who comprise the voters that they have to make the tough choices for the 2012 American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards. (Visit to see who votes for the Tonys.)

Just as there are no favorites among our children, all theater is special and beloved. Since most of us don’t get a vote, this reviewer can only sit on the sidelines and scold the Tony committee for neglecting some of the worthy work that has graced Broadway stages this season.

Although “Master Class” was named in the Best Revival of a Play category, Tyne Daly was overlooked. Her stellar performance as Maria Callas was scintillating, even in the gossipy so-so Terrence McNally vehicle. TD, known for her populist roles (like the Emmy-winning one in TV’s “Cagney & Lacey”), was in full diva mode in this portrayal. (See review at

Also unjustly ignored was Lydia R. Diamond’s family drama, “Stick Fly.” Perhaps compounding its woes, it did not have a lot of traction with the theater-going public. Its lackluster box office and lack of Tony recognition as a Best Play contender are both a shame. All is not lost, however. Among the fine cast, the wonderful Condola Rashad got a nomination for Best Performance as an Actress in a Featured Role. “Stick Fly” was an imperfect but entertaining play in a lovely production. (See review at and see video above)

Garrett Sorenson and Tyne Daly in “Master Class.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

And not only was David Henry Hwang’s wry “Chinglish” unappreciated by audiences, this well-written, incisive and witty play was totally ignored by the Tony committee. Its bilingual cast had plenty of charm and the production lots of umph.

Now one can only wonder whether Tony voters will overlook the obvious winners among those nominated shows. It’ll all become clear soon enough. The Tony Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. EDT tomorrow on CBS. Red carpet webcasting begins at 6 pm.

Visit to learn more about the “2012 American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards,” nominations, presentations and the “Live! from the Beacon Theatre” show.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gordon Parks Centennial Gala: Lens on a Man & His Time

Gordon Parks on the set of "The Learning Tree" in 1968. Photo by Norman E. Tanis.

TOO few people know Gordon Parks, especially with the rise of Jordin Sparks.

The latter is the pop/R&B phenomenon who set the world abuzz as the winner of the sixth season of “American Idol.” Seventeen at the time, she was the youngest winner of that singing competition until last month when she was supplanted by 10th season winner Scotty McCreery, also 17 but a few months younger at the time of his victory.

The former is a legend, visionary and trailblazer – a renaissance man – who has many and sundry accomplishments. He will be remembered tomorrow evening at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The occasion is a star-studded fundraising gala marking the centennial year of the birth of Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (30 Nov. 1912 – 7 March 2006) into crushing poverty in Jim Crow Kansas.

Alicia Keys will be among the honorees at the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala. Photo by Getty Images.

When speaking about GP to the uninitiated, one doesn’t always know what reference point to cite first in his long and storied career. He came to the notice of Yours Truly through his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons,” a book along with Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” that every black man in America should have in his library.

For others, a GP reference point could be as the director of the first “Shaft.” The film spawned a franchise and, unwittingly, a seedy genre – blaxploitation films. “Shaft” – smooth and suave and in the spirit of James Bond – set a standard that soon plummeted in the hands of unscrupulous sorts who cared more about profiteering than poor portrayals. Of course, GP’s other landmark film is “The Learning Tree.” In making it he became the first black to produce and direct a major Hollywood film.

At the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala at MoMa tomorrow, scores, including honorees and fellow trailblazers Alicia Keys, Annie Leibovitz and Richard Plepler, will remember these and other GP accomplishments. During the evening, Gordon Parks Centennial Scholarships with be presented to those pursuing careers in the arts.

Gordon Parks didn't allow racial barriers to deter him from his dreams. Photo courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

In the '90s, GP journeyed up to Boston from New York for a photography event at Boston University (BU) where he was being honored. No doubt, in referencing the man, most would start with photography. Far more people who don’t know the man know his pictures, particularly the then-controversial “American Gothic” in 1942, a deliberate subversion of Grant Wood's iconic painting. In the photo, Ella Watson is not holding a pitchfork, but a broom and mop, illustrating the sole value of blacks in the United States at the time: to do menial work. GP took "American Gothic" and a series of others during his time as an FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographer.

“American Gothic” is currently playing as part of a slideshow, along with a large-scale photo mural of “Emerging Man.” The latter photo depicts a black man rising up from a concrete abyss, faint lights and an even more obscured landscape in the distance. The man could be GP himself, for the photo captures the very essence of his life. The works are part of New York-based International Center of Photography’s centennial celebration, “Gordon Parks: 100 Years” (through 6 January). More specifically, the photographs are appearing on three large flat screens in the center’s window, along with the mural, on 6th Avenue and 43rd Street for all the world that passes by to see.

Gordon Parks' "American Gothic" is considered his most famous photograph.

But I digress. After the BU presentation, GP deigned to hold court with a few photography students and journalists. I don’t recall the exact question – something along the lines of a recipe for success – but I do recall GP’s response.

The various committees that put together the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala, along with The Gordon Parks Foundation, is a compilation of boldface names or boldface names-in-the-making: Elizabeth Edelman, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Russell Simmons, Karl Lagerfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Iman, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, Serena Tufo and former GP flame Gloria Vanderbilt. GV’s son, Anderson Cooper, is the evening's master of ceremonies.

"Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952" is on display at the International Center of Photography as part of the installation, "Gordon Parks: 100 Years."Photo courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

This group is testimony to GP’s philosophy and thoughtful response to his BU interlocutor, “You’ve got to have a universality about yourself.”

Visit to learn more about the Gordon Parks Centennial Gala, including dinner ticket information; visit to learn more about “Gordon Parks: 100 Years.”
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VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
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