Rocky Top: Almost Heaven in Secret Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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“Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club”: Mad Men On Estrogen

The opening episodes of ABC’s new series  Pan Am, and NBC’s The Playboy Club, are cagey attempts to capitalize on the American yen for early 1960’s chic embodied in the critically acclaimed cable tv hit Mad Men. While the two new shows are generally spot on regarding the wardrobe, hairstyles, and decor that marked the era, other details were not granted sufficient attention. The shortcomings include dialogue, character development, and story line.

One area where Mad Men succeeds where imitators fail, is in its accurate representation of period dialogue. Never does a Gen-Y expression slip into the teleplay. Last night alone, the adjective “amazing” was uttered on The Playboy Club. Amazing, (and it’s predecessor, “awesome”) in the context and tone in which it was used during the episode, did not enter the lexicon until The Gilmore Girls hit the small screen, and the boy band Hanson a phenomena. In addition, another Bunny character answered a question with “It’s complicated.” Really?

While The Playboy Club addresses issues such as civil rights and sexual identity (examing the former much earlier than did Mad Men), it suffers from a lethargic, gangster subplot. The Chicago mob story line lacks tension, leaving viewers uncaring. Those seeking an aesthetically hip, cheesecake factory, will find one there.

Which brings us to Pan Am. Okay, these directors also nailed the look, although wide shots of uniformed stewardesses striding through airports are tired ripoffs from the film Catch Me If You Can. One half expects Leo himself to pop up on set any minute. The early ’60’s attitude towards women is a common theme of both series, which one expects to develop further, now that the expository episodes are behind us.

Neither show boasts as many intriguing characters as Mad Men. Both would be well served by better music, background and popular. The quality of the acting is, shall we say, not on a par with that on popular Showtime (The Big C, Dexter, Weeds) or HBO (Hung, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage) series. If it’s not on the page, and the casts are weak, neither bunny tales nor flights of fancy will survive the November sweeps.


Best of the Worst: Greatest Disco Songs Of All Time

Disco was a genre I more tolerated than enjoyed. I never learned to dance to it, it spawned some god awful fashions and films, and marked an artistic (but probably not commerical) low in the careers of bands such as Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire.

That’s Where The Happy People Go – The Trammps

Young Hearts Run Free– Candi Staton

Bad Luck– Teddy Pendergrass

Turn The Beat Around– Vickie Sue Robinson

Rock The Beat– The Hues Corporation

Macho Man– The Village People

If I Can’t Have You– Yvonne Elliman

Off The Wall– Michael Jackson


X Files: Dr. Manning Marable On Minister Malcolm

Here’s an unpublished book review of the late Dr. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Marable’s X Files Combine Theory & History
by Bijan C. Bayne
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
by Dr. Manning Marable
Viking Press $30
487 pp.
In the last several years before his death in April 2011, Columbia University professor Dr. Manning Marable devoted himself to writing the most significant biography of Malcolm X since the early 1990’s. As did author Bruce Perry, who wrote Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America in 1991, Marable sets out to fill the historical and personal gaps apparent in Alex Haley’s 1965 best seller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Whether Marable succeeds, depends both on one’s familiarity with the subject, and opinion regarding areas about which Malcolm was discreet. Marable’s excavation leads him down some paths Perry trod, such as details concerning likely homosexual encounters. Both authors agree that Malcolm embellished his underworld status- Marable believes the exaggeration was a means of making his evolution from criminal to spiritual leader a more cautionary tale for at risk Negroes. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention also offers insight into the family issues that shaped Malcolm’s early life, from the staunch Garveyism of his parents Earl and Louise Little, to his tenuous experience in foster homes. Those who enjoy learning about historical figures such as Malcolm X sometimes look for history classes via  online universities

Malcolm X’s biographers strive to capture their subject’s evolution from aimless boy, to smalltime hustler, to spiritual leader. It is Malcolm’s growth during the latter incarnation, that most intrigues scholars. While Marable proves a diligent researcher, his accounts of Malcolm Little’s street life, imprisonment, and role in the growth of the Nation of Islam (NOI), lack the vivid storytelling of newsman Peter Goldman’s 1979 biography The Death and Life of Malcolm X, and Taylor Branch’s seminal trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1968. Important sections about Malcolm’s zealous prosletyzation that helped the Nation quadruple its ranks between 1955 and 1957, are either absent or impersonal. Marable’s narrative lacks color and dramatic tension, even during milestone moments such as the large Harlem mosque demonstration in 1957 outside a Manhattan police precinct, after the brutal police beating of Fruit of Islam member Hinton X Johnson, and the LAPD shooting of several unarmed Nation of Islam men outside an L.A. mosque in 1962. Never have cacophonous ballrooms, tense burglaries, devout religious conversions, and cold-blooded murder been portrayed so dispassionately. This biography reads as a university press offering, albeit a compelling one.
The author’s strong suit is his political analysis of Minister Malcolm, and examination of the inner strife that developed within the NOI, and the organizations Malcolm organized after his split with Elijah Muhammad. Unlike previous biographies, Malcolm X covers the minister’s involvement in New York activist groups, and appearances at community demonstrations, even before his break with the NOI. Malcolm is credited with presaging French author Frantz Fanon (Black Skins, White Masks, The Wretched of the Earth) in pairing the struggles of America’s Black underclass, with that of colonized Africans, before Fanon’s work was translated and widely read in the U.S. There is also rich detail about Alex Haley’s fits and starts shaping and completing The Autobiography, as the story, and Malcolm’s famous suspension and eventual break from The Nation, were changing the account.
Those steeped in Malcolm lore, or longtime Bostonians, will notice factual errors. Of a young Eugene Walcott (now Minister Louis Farrakhan), Marable wrote “After graduating from Winston Salem-State…” Walcott dropped out of college to marry the then-Betsy Ross. The author’s limited knowledge or research of sports history is evident in his recount of the first Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston championship bout. “Liston, big but slow…”, is an inaccurate description. Liston may not have trained seriously for the underdog Clay, but he was a cat-quick heavyweight for his size and the era. On one page Clay fought Archie Moore “in July 1962”, 55 pages earlier they dueled “On November 15, 1962”. Marable also falters in his accounts concerning NOI cosmology. At one juncture, the organization’s founder, W.D. Fard, is said to describe himself as “Son of Man”, making him divine, which Marable insists is a status Fard never claimed. Forward 30 pages to a passage stating “that Wallace D. Fard Muhammad was God in person” was an essential tenet in NOI teachings. More importantly there are passages surrounding the revelation that Elijah Muhammad fathered children out of wedlock with various young NOI adminsitrative secretaries, where the author says the leader had presented himself as the supreme being to his followers. Muhammad taught that he was Fard’s messenger and apostle, not God himself.
Malcolm X is nevertheless an important study. Marable places Malcolm X within a legacy of Black American outlaws and dissidents, among them Stagger Lee and Tupac Shakur. This is the first biography to provide its degree of detail about Malcolm’s visits to the Middle East and Africa, first in the winter of 1959, and his two 1964 tours. There is more biographical information on the minister’s appointed leaders of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, and Muslim Mosque, Inc. than available elsewhere. In addition, Marable nails the philosophical and socio-economic differences between the two groups. The book examines Malcolm’s rocky marriage to Betty Shabazz, his pining for the beautiful Bostonian Evelyn X Williams (one of the women with whom Elijah Muhammad fathered a child), and his habit of disappearing each time he and Betty had a newborn baby. In the latter years of his life, he may have also had brief affairs with young aides Lynne Shifflet, and Sharon 9X. And perhaps through the benefits of scholarship, and more access to NYPD and FBI files, in addition to knowledge about informants within the NOI and Muslim Mosque, Inc., this work offers one of the most thorough explorations of the plot to assassinate Malcolm. Former New York police officer Gerry Fulcher, who worked in the department’s Bureau of Special Services (BOSS) wiretap investigation of Malcolm and the NOI, grew to respect the Nation’s emphasis on ridding the inner city of the sale and abuse of illegal narcotics, and their strides toward Black owned businesses. “This is a guy we should have been supporting.” says Fulcher, whose supervising officers spouted disdain for “n—- on welfare”.
Because Malcolm X reinvented himself throughout his life, he symbolizes various things to each “beholder”. He has thus been claimed by Pan Africansists, Black Nationalists, Black Panthers, socialists, and members of hip hop communities. As a literary subject, the whole is superior to the sum of his parts.