Deets and Geets Newsletter for Late-April / Early-May 2021

Welcome to the Deets and Geets Newsletter He Said, She Said for the late April / early May 2021, broken down by streaming service. Included are all the pop culture happenings and geets that piqued our interests. In Deets: Mortal Kombat, Ajeeb Daastaans, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and The Haunting of Hill House, and Randy Weston’s African Cookbook in Geets.

Be sure to check out the previous newsletters if you’ve missed them and stay close for a new podcast episode coming later this month.

HBO MAX

Mortal Kombat

He said: My skepticism was well founded. This is an introduction for the “real” Mortal Kombat movie. To clarify, most of the earth realm characters have no special skills and no idea of what the Mortal Kombat tournament is until the end of the movie. This intro strategy would have paid off if the focus was on a small number of characters. For example, the coolest and most cogent part of the movie is the first fight scene and encounter between Scorpion and Sub Zero. These characters are from rival ninja clans and have clashing elemental powers—Sub Zero with his ice jutsu and Scorpion with hellish fire and a kunai rope dart. Because the movie began with this rivalry, the plot should have remained focused on it and then built out the universe over a series of movies, kind of like how Iron Man began the MCU. The result, however, was a series of rushed character introductions, failed melodrama, and okay action. For MK fans only.

She said nothing.

NETFLIX

Ajeeb Daastaans

He said: I’m not a big fan of anthology films because the individual pieces always start out promising, but end up being duds. Short films are like short stories in that they are hard to wrap up successfully. Usually the ending feels anticlimactic, rushed, underdeveloped, spurious, or relies too heavily on some Deus Ex Machina device. With that said, the first two films, Manju and Khilauna, respectively, are  anticlimactic and spurious, respectively. To be clear, they aren’t bad, but the endings feel off. The last two films, Geeli Pucchi and Ankahi, are the most gripping of the lot and feel the most complete with respect to story, pacing, acting, and cinematography. I enjoyed this anthology more than Lust Stories and Ghost Stories.

She said: “Ajeeb Daastaans” roughly translates to “Strange Stories” and the first two of the shorts in this Bollywood Netflix anthology are really just that.  Not good-strange or so-bad-it’s-good strange, either; just “wtf” strange in a way that I don’t even care to recollect or describe.

The third story, co-written and directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, is very well made.  It’s groundbreaking in many respects, centering a woman character who is working class, queer, and Dalit, and whose story has been written and directed by Ghaywan, a Dalit filmmaker, and portrayed by an A-list star (albeit not a Dalit one: Konkona Sen Sharma). I read and watched some interviews of Neeraj Ghaywan, and it’s super cool that he thought to bring in a diverse team to weigh in on matters that he couldn’t relate to in his lived experience; and he asked his actors to do homework, such as having Konkona read Yashica Dutt’s “Coming Out As Dalit.” The great care and thought put into this project really shows—it packs a punch through its understatement.

The fourth story about a mother (played by the expressive Shefali Shah) struggling with her daughter’s hearing loss and her husband’s seeming denial of this event is also heart-wrenching and worth a watch.

The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Haunting of Hill House

He said, regarding both: Genuinely creepy! While they aren’t related in story, both series share some of the same cast members and ominous essence, which makes them kind of like American Horror Story in that way. There are jump scares and ghosts, but the real bite comes from the perpetual sense of dread. Definitely a slow burn, but worth the wait. After a few episodes, both shows open up a good deal of character development and storytelling. Think of them as well-crafted, but very long ghost stories.

She said, regarding The Haunting of Bly Manor: This series is haunting, trippy, and tragic at once.  In the first episode, at a pre-wedding celebration, an older lady starts telling the group this series-length suspenseful story set in the 1980s about two orphaned children, their diverse caretakers, and various disturbing encounters at some Bly Manor in England.  Grief and loss are at the core of the horror; the events and haunts are personal and psychological as well as supernatural. It’s a decently chilling and thoughtful series, and it got me interested in checking out its predecessor series with much of the same cast, The Haunting of Hill House.

She said, regarding The Haunting of Hill House: As mentioned in my blurb on The Haunting of Bly Manor, this series has much overlap in cast, and is also a horror-drama (horma?), but the characters and story are different.  This story is about a family of two parents and five kids who briefly live in a haunted house in Massachusetts, the effects of which are long-lasting on everyone in the family.  The ghosts and the protective (or not) walls are sometimes literal and other times metaphorical, and the storytelling hops around through different characters’ perspectives—kind of like a spooky This Is Us.

I must confess, I’m becoming weaker and weaker sauce as I age. Although both of The Haunting series were way more philosophical than spine-tingling, they left me sleepless for a few nights!

GEETS:

African Cookbook

He said: While reading Jazz People by Val Wilmer (no, not Val Kilmer), I was inspired to check out some of the artists she interviewed. One of the artists was jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston. The way he describes his style of piano playing and his new-found (at the time) love of Africa, more specifically Morocco, came through so vividly in the book, I had to check out his discography. I’ll write a proper review of the book at a later time, but can say for now it’s definitely worth the read especially because Valerie is a fantastic writer who does a great job of giving readers insight into artists’ minds and music.

One of my favorite Weston albums is African Cookbook. Something about the expressions and colors Weston and his quintet, African Rhythms, bring forth are a stellar salute to Africa. Make no mistake, this is a jazz album, but the swing is definitely African-influenced.  One can argue that most of the music we listen to today is African-influenced, but there is an undeniable African essence to the compositions. A solid and infectious listen.

My favorite song is the titular track, “African Cookbook,” a fourteen-minute groove. The players are Randy Weston (piano), Henry Texier (bass), Art Taylor (drums), Azzedin Niles Weston (percussion), Reebop Kwaku Baah (percussion).

For more of Weston’s music, check out his website. The image above is the 1972 version of the album, but some of the same songs are present in the longer 1969 version I described.

In Africa I discovered what the true purpose of a musician is. We are historians, and it is our purpose to tell the people the true story of our past, and to extend a better vision of the future —Randy Weston

She said nothing.

Fighting Invisible Enemies Book Review by Super Star Agni

The following book review originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of News from Native California.

In Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions Among Southern California Indians, professor and historian Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot) examines the gradual inclusion of Western medical practices with traditional Native medicine to combat the spread of settler-borne diseases among Indigenous communities of the Mission Indian Agency of Southern California during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

While writings on Southern California Indian medicine existfew contain the amount of integrated Native and Western historical medical research as Fighting. In addition to noting the contributions of Native elders, leaders, and healers, such as Lorey Cachora (Quechan) and Pedro Chino (Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians), Trafzer also chronicles the work of field nurses who served in the region between 1928 and 1948. In addition to providing medical treatment, much of the nurses’ work involved educating families on how to control the spread of diseases. Even as tribal members accepted Western medicine over time, however, use of traditional medicine continued. 

Fighting illustrates that while sickness was a reality for Southern California Indians before European contact, the introduction of Western diseases to the region post-contact marked a devastating flash point. During this time period, many families within the Mission Indian Agency died of infectious disease, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and gastrointestinal disorders. Moreover, settlers eventually destroyed all the Indian economies of Southern California and prevented Indigenous peoples from accessing hunting and gathering grounds. 

“Various aspects of settler colonialism during the nineteenth century had rendered the indigenous population of Southern California vulnerable to starvation, new microorganisms, and the destructive policies of federal, state, and local officials,” Trafzer writes. 

Nearly 30 years in the makingFighting was ultimately made possible by a grant awarded to Trafzer in 2016 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  

“My NEH research grant gave me the time to spend a year focused exclusively on turning my research into a book manuscript…,” Trafzer said in a January 2020 NEH interview. “I am a professor and researcher, and have administrative duties as the Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside, all of which take me away from my project. NEH gave me time to finish a project I had started in the 1990s.” 

Through use of historical maps and photographs, death certificates and death registers found in the National Archives,  reports of Indian Service district medical officers, physicians, and field nurses as well as oral histories conducted with several Southern California Indians communities, Fighting does well to humanize clinical statistics and contextualize changes resulting from the incorporation of Western medicine. It also serves as a reminder in contemporary times of the importance of being in balance not only with nature, but also with one another. 

Deets and Geets Newsletter Mid-April 2021

Welcome to the Deets and Geets Newsletter: He Said, She Said for Mid-April 2021. Check out our quicktakes below on the pop culture happenings that piqued our interests so far this month, broken down by streaming service.

DISNEY+

Soul:

He said: I was hesitant to watch this movie given American animation’s history of racist imagery and because I’m not a huge fan of 3D animation.  That said, I did enjoy Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and realize there aren’t many leading characters of African descent in American animation. Having now seen Soul, I can say I enjoyed the film overall, but would not have finished it if LRK hadn’t watched it with me. Jamie Foxx does a great job in bringing the protagonist, Joe Gardner, to life and the “appreciate life while you can” theme is executed in good measure. I’m not crazy about the exaggerated features of the characters, but the animation and aesthetics of the movie’s universe are very creative. Good for child and adult animation fans.

She Said: I enjoyed this Pixar animation about a jazz musician who finally lands his dream gig, only to have a brush with death and have his soul clamor to get back into his body.  It definitely carries the Pixar touch with creative ways of symbolizing various emotions and philosophical outlooks. Also cool that Pixar made a proper effort to do justice to its first film with an African American protagonist by closely involving consultants including Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Daveed Diggs.

HBO MAX

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

He said: The “Snyder Cut” you may have heard buzzing about the internet last month is the director’s cut of the 2017 Justice League theatrical release. Bigger and noticeably better than the original, we tackled the four-hour film in two nights. LRK usually falls asleep at least once during superhero movies, but this one held her attention, just not enough for her to comment for the newsletter (ha!). Good for Snyder fans (300, Watchmen, Wonder Woman) and those who like their heroes less whimsical. Those who didn’t like the 2017 iteration will most likely not be swayed, but those who did should find the Snyder cut better in storytelling, visuals, and combat.

She said nothing.

NETFLIX

Awaara:

He said: Good, classic ‘fifties Bollywood. Also known internationally as The Vagabond, Awara is a crime drama that features big production and spectacle in black and white. There is a heavy classism theme throughout the movie played to simplistic effect, I imagine, to show how hard it may be to escape the “fate” of your class. With a runtime of over three hours, viewers may need to decide their own interval point. Noir fans will definitely enjoy.

She said: A Raj Kapoor classic!  I must have seen it as a very young child, and it’s funny to watch it now as an adult who can actually understand it, and realize how totally inappropriate it is for children, but how much of a given it was that a family would watch such a film together.  The movie navigates crime, punishment, and cycles of poverty; and challenges a biological determinist view of human nature; as a pregnant woman is tragically wronged and impoverished by her own husband under Ramayan-throwback circumstances, and her predicament is blamed on the proverbial Raavan of the film. The villain of course has his ulterior motive to take tween Raj under his wing – but not before tween Raj meets a little girl Rita, whose photo will be the only thing adorning the walls of his tiny hut of Raj’s house, and who will grow up to be played by the iconic Nargis. The songs are catchy and plentiful, all the feels are there, and though the movie feels too long by today’s standards and has quite a bit of problematic to unpack, the “classic” tag is also (largely for those very reasons!) very well-deserved.

Concrete Cowboy:

He said: I have to be in the mood to deal with the struggle. As a Afro-Native person living in a predominately white suburb, I have to deal with mico- and macro-aggressions every time I step out of the house. Given that, I don’t want to revisit those feelings when trying to relax. LRK recommended we watch Concrete Cowboys and I agreed just because I heard “cowboys,” not knowing the film was about the urban cowboys that have existed in Philadelphia for over a century. I have to admit I was inspired more than depressed, partly because I grew up in the MidWest around horses and the like. Also, since the story is based on real people and some of the actors are portraying versions of themselves, I felt even more inspired. While the story arc is somewhat predictable, knowing it’s based on obscure history makes it shine a bit brighter. Worth an afternoon watch with some beans, bacon, and cornbread—that’s a good country meal for those who didn’t catch the reference.

She said: Idris Elba plays father to Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things fame in this Netflix drama about a young man coming of age through bonding with his father and his community of urban Philadelphia cowboys—in many ways, horses are to him what karate was to Daniel-san, but he also comes to understand them as representative of a culture and community that has gone from being excluded from historical narratives to being threatened by gentrification.  The movie is based on a novel called “Ghetto Cowboy” which is in turn based on the actual Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Some actual members of this riding community act in the movie as versions of themselves, which makes it more interesting. 

The Serpent:

He said: I’ve come to enjoy the episodic format of streaming shows because it gives stories time to breathe—I say that with The Serpent in mind because, yes, it could have been a movie, but there would have been many dropped scenes that ultimately help solidify this mostly true story, which takes place in several countries, over several decades. I say mostly true because the dialogue is imagined. Ajay seems to be the only character who didn’t benefit from the expanded runtime—it’s a fictionalized story, yet they couldn’t throw homeboy a backstory? Anyway, the cinematography and stylistic choices kept me emerged in the mid-70s / early-80s atmosphere and the actors seemed totally at home in their roles. Plus, knowing all of this happened (in essence) makes it that much more compelling. While not the crème de la crème of crime drama / biopic, it’s worth the watch for fans of the genre, though it loses some steam near the end of the series.

She said: I never knew about Charles Sobhraj before watching this eight-episode fictionalized series about this sociopathic Indo-Vietnamese French serial killer who hated hippies. Tahar Rahim does a fine job of sinking into this chilling character, and I was kept engaged throughout the series, which was largely told through the eyes of the real-life Dutch diplomat who persevered to get Charles caught. Although I understand the various constraints in being able to develop characters, I think they ripped off Ajay a bit and he deserved a better fleshing out of his back-story. Overall a good series, if a little dizzying in its non-linear storytelling, that will have you Googling your way into more truths.

Sound of Metal:

He said: Roller coaster of emotions with this one. The plot is simple: Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing. The movie is very effective at bringing the audience into the before- and aftertimes of Ruben’s hearing loss and how it affects his life as a musician and his relationship with girlfriend Lou played by Olivia Cooke. The movie is a definite slow burn, so those expecting high drama or rock performances throughout will be disappointed. Juxtapositions of rough and gentle, loud and quiet, rigid and soft are explored. While I won’t spoil the film, I will say that Riz Ahmed is cast as yet another knucklehead—in all the films I’ve seen him, his characters put themselves in precarious positions and then proceed to double down on bonehead behavior. This includes his roles in Girls and Star Wars!

She said: Riz Ahmed really has a knack for bringing a sympathetic and endearing angle to dudes with self-destructive tendencies and fundamentally shitty outlooks on life.  The acting and writing were solid in this drama about a drummer going through hearing loss, and it was interesting to see the different mindsets and approaches that can be taken under such circumstances.

The Stranger:

He said: Interesting episodic British crime drama. A few good twists, though, the protagonists aren’t exactly likable in the sense that they all have skeletons in their closets and proceed to lie about them until they can’t anymore. I recommend watching at least two episodes to get the essence of the show. The mystery of it all is intriguing and good timepass, but nothing game-changing.

She said: “Ghost” from Marvel Ant-Man fame plays the mysterious “Stranger” who delivers disheartening and sometimes threatening messages to people in this eight-part British drama on Netflix. The show kept me interested in trying to guess what secrets people in this town are keeping and how they are all connected to each other and to this Stranger.

YouTube and Netflix (respectively)

Vir Das Comedy (Ten-on-Ten and Inside Out: A lockdown crowd-work special)

He said: Bottom line is Vir Das is funny. I had seen his stand-up before and thought he was okay, but I had some good chucks with LRK watching these two features. I enjoyed the lockdown special the most out of the two because Das has good comedic timing, allowing him to riff with participants. Ten-on-Ten is only on episode four at the time of this writing, so I’ll reserve judgement until watching the entire series.

She said: I’m kind of wary of cool Indian dude comics, especially after that hideous AIB Roast from a few years ago—but I did enjoy Vir Das’s performances in Delhi Belly and especially in Go Goa Gone, though (lololz)—so I was down to check out Vir’s stand-up upon Super Star Agni’s suggestion. Outside In is Vir Das’s pandemic special on Netflix, where he exchanges banter with his audience over a video call.  I was really impressed with Vir’s ease of making funny conversation on the spot and engaging all his audience. Ten on Ten is apparently still ongoing, comprised of ten separate sets about ten different issues.  I haven’t found any to be profoundly hilarious or anything, but each set is brief and certainly entertaining enough to watch with some chai and brownie.

Deets and Geets Newsletter March 2021

Welcome to the Deets and Geets Newsletter: He Said, She Said for March 2021. Check out our quicktakes below on the pop culture happenings that piqued our interests so far this month, all broken down by streaming service.

APPLE TV+

The Servant

He said: Intriguing first and second seasons with some creepy scenes peppered throughout. Series seems to be winding down—this is not necessarily a bad thing. The show is called The Servant, so figuring out who Leanne is and who exactly she serves is part of the show’s mystique. Once that mystery is solved, however, the show should probably wrap up. That said, I’m looking forward to seeing the coming (cult?) war foreshadowed in the last scene.

She said: I found Season 2 quite underwhelming for a Shyamalan production.  I was expecting some game-changing twist or shocking revelation, but I didn’t see anything that was divergent or unexpected from the groundwork laid in Season 1.  It is described as “psychological horror,” but it turned out to be more of a psychological bore.  I will skip Season 3 if it happens.

DISNEY+

Falcon and the Winter Soldier

He said: We weren’t expecting Disney+’s latest Marvel outing to be more than wall-to-wall action, but the first episode has a good action/drama ratio and sets up a deeper dive into the  titular characters’ lives.  We’re looking forward to next week’s episode and the imminent introduction of Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter aka Agent Peggy Carter’s niece. If you don’t know who any of these people are, get caught up.

She said: Action is not really my genre, and elaborate fighting scenes with different types of flying vehicles, gunfire, fancy stunts, and machines I don’t know names of really bore me. So when Super Star Agni first told me about this show and I knew that both of these characters are closely linked with Captain America, I surmised that I would probably catch some z’s during the first episode and then opt out of the rest.  But aside from that one fancy violent scene, I really enjoyed it!  It’s interesting to see the characters having to lead ordinary lives in the present, with Sam applying for a bank loan with his sister, and Bucky asking someone out on a date.  Obviously, there will be more action-y stuff brought up from their pasts and moving forward as a new Captain America is on the horizon, but there is enough human connection in there to keep me interested.

WandaVision

He said: Marvel expands its fandom tent with this entry. Unique way to draw upon the Wanda / Vision connection from Age of Ultron and Infinity War, and to reveal Wanda’s backstory. Recommended for sitcom fans as well as fans of superhero fare. Wondering if this will lead into a villainous side of Wanda *dun dun dunnnn*

She said: “What is grief if not love persevering?” Oof! WandaVision has Marvel-ously accomplished so many things at once: Meme gold, an interesting plot, an homage to American television over the decades, and an expansion of the characters and plotlines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

HBO MAX

Allen V. Farrow

He said: Good look into the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving his then 7-year-old daughter. Definitely biased against Allen, but the case made against him is compelling. I was never a Woody Allen fan and haven’t seen any of his films all the way through, so being made aware of his pattern of filmmaking—older male mentor figure paired with an eager, impressionable young female—was revealing and a bit off-putting even outside of the Farrow v. Allen case. That said, I think a two-part series would have done as well to make the case.

She said: This four-part documentary about Dylan Farrow’s allegation that her step-father Woody Allen molested her when she was seven years old—and Woody’s aggressive campaign to undermine that allegation by insisting that this whole thing was a story hatched by Dylan’s mother Mia because Mia was jealous that Woody was sleeping with Mia’s other adopted daughter Soon-Yi—is obviously made with belief in Dylan Farrow, and compassion for Mia Farrow. Yes, the facts are presented selectively, but regardless of how many additional facts were left out though, one thing is clear: Woody Allen is disgusting!  OK, I thought so before watching this documentary too, based on creepy comments he has made in interviews, the pervy gaze that comes through on and from behind the screen in his films, and the fact that he slept with the barely-legal stepdaughter of his long-time girlfriend. Still!

The documentary introduces us to the actual text of reports and interviews with family, friends, and people who worked at different levels of the investigation.  Contrary to the public spin which made her out to be some impressionable child with a fantastical story, the texts and interviewed officials confirm that Dylan has been incredibly consistent with the core facts, and indeed showed signs of having been sexually abused. Also, it’s evident that Woody Allen has the type of access and connections in American society and particularly in elite East Coast circles which would basically guarantee his impunity in the (undeniable) event that he did commit a crime.  

I happen to have a pretty low opinion of Woody, just in case that wasn’t obvious.  But, I get that some people love his cinema and his brand, and have a hard time reconciling their fandom with believing that he could be a predator.  They would rather believe that Mia is the crazy b that coached Dylan into inventing this whole thing.  But many truths can coexist, and we need not buy into this weird absolutist phenomenon of having to embrace or reject public figures and everything associated with them, wholesale.  Mia could have been a weirdly controlling and abusive parent, as Moses Farrow, another stepson of hers and Woody’s, has alleged.  Mia could have been jealous of Woody and Soon-Yi.  Woody could be a witty writer and director.  Woody’s cinema could be culturally iconic.  Woody could have truly cared about his adopted children—including Dylan.  Brains are complicated and sometimes deranged and so is patriarchy, and none of these aforementioned possibilities undermine Dylan’s truth.

NETFLIX

Bombay Begums

He said nothing.

She said: Firstly, it is wonderful to see Queen Pooja Bhatt back on screen! She embodies all of the strength, elegance, and confluence of buoyancy and gravitas that one would expect from the woman who lit up the screen decades ago in films ranging from Sadak to Prem Deewane.  

As of this writing, I have just started Episode 5 of Bombay Begums, so I basically still have two more episodes to go.  I won’t give my overall thoughts yet, but my one tip is to watch at least two episodes, if you are on the fence after finishing the first.  I didn’t think the set-up in that first episode did the future ones justice; it leaned in too hard on the girl-boss vibe, and I found the canned liberal feminist precocious tween voice-overs a bit off-putting.  As you keep watching though, the show pulls you in with the complex drama in the lives of these five women, sensitively portrayed by Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amrutha Subhash, Plabita Borthakur, and Aadhya Anand.  They are all constantly having to negotiate with their own bodies, their loved ones, and external pressures—and, they all wield their own hurtful and opportunistic behavior at times.  There are moments of tenderness and levity too; it’s not all misery! 

Series creator Alankrita Shrivastava had also worked on Made In Heaven—if you liked MIH, there is something for you here as well.  Instead of Delhi’s elite though, you get five women from different walks of life converging in Bombay: the aforementioned defiant tween; her resolute CEO step-mom; a small-town twenty-something exploring her newfound freedom only to be shut down by Bombay-style slut-shaming (and worse); a bar dancer-turned-sex worker trying with dreams of starting a factory; and a rising executive conflicted over how much of “it all” she wants to take on.  Pour yourself a steaming cup of chai in a white porcelain mug and give it a watch!

The Umbrella Academy

He said: What I initially thought would be a derivative superhero show turned out to be a fun ride for two seasons so far, even though the time travel / apocalypse tropes are used for both season. I’ve never read the comic book  the show is based on, so I can’t say if they nailed the source material, but the episodic nature of the storytelling works well. It’s more of a show about family and relationships than wearing masks and fighting crime, which I think many shows are doing these days to shake up the superhero genre. Not as violent as Amazon Prime’s The Boys, it dispenses the same gritty humor at times. Looking forward to season three, but I hope time travel and apocalypses aren’t the overarching themes.

She said: Superheroes, time travel, well-choreographed sibling brawls, and a smashing soundtrack – what a fun ride!  Waiting eagerly for Season 3, and especially curious about Vanya Hargreeves on account of Elliot Page’s personal developments; and Ben on account of what we saw at the end of Season 2!

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: Book Review by Super Star Agni

THE INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCE has long been absent from colonial histories, which either dismiss or rationalize the existence of and fallout from European imperialism. With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the American settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience.

AnIPHotUS Cover

The daughter of a Cherokee-Irish mother and a Scots-Irish tenant farmer father, Dunbar-Ortiz embraced her “fragmented” Native heritage and became politically active in California in the 1960s, joining the civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, and Red Power movements, which, she writes, helped her gain the critical perspective presented in the book.

In an intelligent, comprehensible style, Dunbar-Ortiz outlines the culture of European conquest cultivated centuries before would-be settlers crossed the Atlantic. With a Christian, white supremacist zeal that justified colonialism, she writes in the chapter “Sea to Shining Sea,” a militaristic heritage developed in Western Europe during the crusades, that was later brought to the Americas with its policies of destruction and dehumanization.

“The establishment of the missions and presidios…traces the colonization of California’s Indigenous nations. The five-hundred-mile road that connected the missions was called El Camino Real, the Royal Highway. These California Franciscan missions and their founder, Junipero Serra, are extravagantly romanticized by modern California residents and remain popular tourist sites. Very few visitors notice, however, that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post.”

Dunbar-Ortiz explains that not only were warfare and forced removal exercised with the intent to erase Indigenous peoples from the Americas, but effective use of terminology also aided in the conquest of the continent. She illustrates how popular culture perpetuates and justifies the disappearance and conquest of Indigenous peoples through the Columbus Myth, the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the concept of “firsting and lasting” ― which directs the national narrative to speak of civilized Euro-American founders on one hand and “Ishi, the last Indian” on the other ― and popular songs, such as Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes the American founding myth by examining how early Anglo-American literature worked to justify the uprooting and elimination of Native peoples, and why authors, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville remain revered and studied today as national and nationalist writers instead of colonialist.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States challenges readers to rethink the national narrative of Manifest Destiny and ponder how society would be transformed if the reality of U.S. history were to be acknowledged on a wider scale.

In roughly  three hundred pages, spanning more than four hundred years of history, the book offers a new periodization of U.S. history and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of News from Native California.

“One Word: Sawalmem” Documentary Review by Super Star Agni

Released in March 2020, the short documentary One Word: Sawalmem is a reminder to live in reciprocity with the natural world.  

Since its release, Co-directors Michael “Pom” Preston (Winnemem Wintu) and Venuzuelan filmmaker Natasha Deganello Giraudie have held online screenings and conversations about the film and humanity’s role in climate change.

Preston said in a statement he met Giraudie at a conference in Point Reyes, California where she told him about her idea to invite a young indigenous person to direct a film with her and share one word from their ancestral language that changed their life and that humanity could use to rebalance its relationship with the earth.  Preston’s word, “Sawalmem,” came to him instantly. 

“Sawalmem, ‘sacred water,’ is how we’ve always been in relationship with water,” Preston said in a statement. “Coming from Northern California, where water is abundant, the tribe decided it was time to share the meaning of Sawalmem to help change the misconception of water as ‘resource’ to water as sacred life giver,” Preston continued. “As a member of my tribe, I decided to do my part in sharing this with the world, and so I stepped into the adventure of becoming a first-time film director with full authorship and creative authority, with the support of Natasha’s filmmaking experience, and under the guidance of my tribal leadership.” 

Giraudie is the creative director and founder of Micro-Documentaries, LLC, which produced Sawalmem. Micro-Documentaries aims to be on the vanguard of the micro-documentary film genre to advance humanitarian missions, according to its website. As the name implies, a micro-documentary, micro-doc, or mini-doc, is a short non-fiction motion picture that instructs, educates, and/or documents. For readers who find documentaries to be nothing more than tedious info-dumps,  Sawalmem is the antithesis to that stereotype—beautifully shot, heartfelt, and uplifting, yet informative. A true micro-documentary, Sawalmem presents both challenge and opportunity in 18 minutes. 

Preston, son of current Winnemem Wintu tribal chief, Caleen Sisk, is the lead subject and voice of the film. In the opening sequences, he reminisces about his academic years at University of California Berkeley while walking the campus: 

“Spirit doesn’t exist in academic realms for the most part…I was the only one talking about the sacred. I was talking about my home lands in Mount Shasta. I was trying to remind people through academic language of how one relates to ecosystems and how to protect them and why traditional ecological knowledge in the native world is important.” 

For the past 4 years, Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies have held Run4Salmon, a 300-mile prayer journey that follows the historical path of the winter-run Chinook salmon between the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the McCloud River in order to raise awareness of  practices and policies that threaten the waters, fish, and Indigenous ways of life.  

Fiscally sponsored by Robert Redford and the Redford Center, Salwalmem was selected as a finalist in the Tribeca Film Institute short film program and has been selected to screen in nearly two dozen film festivals since its release.

This review was also featured in the Winter 20-21 issue of News from Native California.

Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

The following review appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of News from Native California.

With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Scots-Irish) examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. A recent adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, provides a similar critical lens for middle- and high school students.

Curriculum experts Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza maintain the overall scholarly essence of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States while reformatting its structure to include chapter subheadings, discussion topics, activity prompts, maps, informational text blocks, and bullet points.

These additions serve the modified structure well, providing context and opportunities for critical thinking. For example, in the subchapter titled “Indigenous Peoples of What is Now California,” Reese and Mendoza briefly chronicle Spanish colonization of the state from 1769 to 1823 with a focus on California missions.  The “Did You Know?” section of this subchapter highlights the discrepancy between the sanitized version of California mission material usually taught, versus a more historically accurate approach the Native community pushes schools to teach.

A “Consider This” section in the chapter titled “A Critical Look at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” asks readers to unpack the term ethnic cleansing. A portion of the section reads:

“Bringing a critical lens to words we use is important. Generally speaking, people think of cleansing as a good [sic]; the removal of something bad or dirty. But people are not bad, dirty objects that can be moved or done away with, without regard for their humanity. The term cleansing hides the motives and actions of powerful governments or groups who are deliberately harming many people. What other terms can you think of that might be more accurate?”

In these increasingly divisive times replete with echo chambers and “alternative facts,” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. Even though the title references an “Indigenous Peoples’ History,” the material encourages readers to think, consider, and investigate for themselves in order to come to a well-rounded view of United States history. In this spirit, the closing chapters “For Further Reading” and “Some Books We Recommend” provide readers with respective lists of Indigenous women and Indigenous writers as starting points to address historical inaccuracies and underrepresentation.

As with the original, the adaptation offers a periodization of U.S. history in roughly 230 pages and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.  While the level of analysis in the adapted version is not as academically dense as the original, critical content remains and is presented in an engaging style.

Deets and Geets S3:E5— Indian Matchmaking

LRK and I spent last week watching Netflix’s polarizing hit Indian Matchmaking. Our latest podcast episode runs down our thoughts on Sima Aunty, her matches, and the matchmaking process in general. You can find both an audio-only and enhanced video version at DeetsandGeets.com. Content is also available on our Youtube channel:

If you’ve already binged the show, you might be wondering what happened to the matches afterward. Luckily, Netflix India’s Dolly Singh interviewed most of the cast during the pandemic to catch up:

While no plans for Season Two are on the horizon, Season One is definitely worth a watch if you remotely like dating shows or just need good timepass while sheltering in place.

COPS Show Canceled—Opinion by Super Star Agni

As an 80s kid, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” got me pumped for the high-speed chases, kicked-in doors, and perp tackles that was “Cops.” I was ambivalent about actual police, but the energy of the show was undeniable.

I stopped watching after a few seasons. Could have been the sad cycle of perp choices, the culture of punishment, the schadenfreude—not sure.

Now “Cops” is canceled after 32 seasons. Outrage over police brutality sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor pressured the Paramount Network to axe the show. A&E’s “Live PD,” the spiritual successor to Cops, has also been canceled amid nationwide protests against police brutality and the filmed death of Javier Ambler, who died in police custody after being handcuffed and repeatedly tased even though he did not assault or threaten deputies, according to a death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office.

Offscreen cops might be canceled as well. Some people want to disband police forces all together. Others want to reallocate funds to services and programs that will help marginalized communities, or route some 911 calls to social workers and paramedics instead of involving police, or have officers issue citations for minor infractions instead of defaulting to arrests. The first solution seems precarious, though, not impossible. The others could be effective with the right funding and training. Another proposed solution is to nationalize policing standards, but with over 18,000 police departments in the United States, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be ideal.

Whatever the solution, a social paradigm shift must also occur. The way people of color have been historically treated in this country is evidence enough. Born out of vigilante slave patrols in the South, which gave way to the Jim Crow laws of late 19th and early 20th centuries, policing was only about protecting and serving the social construct of whiteness. That type of culture rarely dismantles itself.

While I’ve never been brutalized by the police, I have been seen as the proverbial “bad boy” for simply existing. For example, I walked into an Oakland convenience store several years back to ask for directions and, upon seeing me at the counter, a police officer asked the store clerk “Was it a brown-skinned man with curly red hair, wearing a black t-shirt?” The clerk looked at me and then scowled in confusion at the cop, “No, it wasn’t him.”  It took a moment to realize what had happened, but my life could have taken a drastic downturn in that moment for no good reason, especially if whatever crime occurred was violent.

Cancelling shows such as “Cops” and “Live PD” may seem like insignificant network maneuvers that won’t reverse generations of problematic imagery and storytelling, but the only way to avoid death by 1000 cuts is to stop the cutting. These shows promote reality, but are basically televised police dramas with editors, producers, and protagonists with veto power.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, however, the public has been given a more brutal version of “Cops.” Hopefully, this version doesn’t take 32 years to get canceled.