Category: Hollywood Dream Machine

007: The Spectre of Ayotzinapa

Daniel Craig and Stephanie Sigman wear skull masks in the opening Day of the Dead sequence of "Spectre." Screenshot from the movie's official trailer.

Daniel Craig and Stephanie Sigman wear skull masks in the opening Day of the Dead sequence of "Spectre." Screenshot from the movie's official trailer.

Four minutes of dazzling footage comprises the eye-popping, jaw dropping opening sequence of Spectre, the latest James Bond film. In the first scene, James Bond (played by actor Daniel Craig), is seen walking through a Día de los Muertos procession in Mexico City wearing a skull mask. He sports a Top Hat as befitting a bourgeois Mexican gentleman of the early 1900s. Strolling with 007 is “Bond Girl” Estrella (played by Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman), who wears a painted mask of La Calavera Catrina, an iconic female figure from historic Day of the Dead celebrations.

Stephanie Sigman playing the character of Estrella in "Spectre." MGM promotional photo.

Stephanie Sigman playing the character of Estrella in "Spectre." MGM promotional photo.

The dapper two weave their way through a huge crowd of people dressed as skeletons and carrying giant skeleton puppets; they all make their way to the capital’s main square, the Zócalo. Bond spots the villain Marco Sciarra and a fight ensues. To rescue their boss from Bond, Sciarra’s henchmen land a helicopter in the Zócalo, but when Sciarra hops on, so does 007. A desperate onboard fight takes place as the chopper soars over the modern skyline of Mexico City in a death defying display of flying.

Spectre is a perfect example of film being used to influence public opinion for political reasons. How so? Apparently the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) paid MGM studios millions of dollars for the scene described above; the studio accepted the money in order to bring production costs down. A collaborative effort, the Mexican government wanted positive “spin” to improve its deplorable human rights record, and MGM wanted tax breaks. I will address this government-studio deal in the second half of this essay, but first, some background.

"Spectre" movie poster from MGM. Daniel Craig strikes a classic pose as Agent 007, dressed in a white tuxedo jacket and holding a Walther PPK .380 pistol with a silencer. Can you spot the poster's colossal blunder?

"Spectre" movie poster from MGM. Daniel Craig strikes a classic pose as Agent 007, dressed in a white tuxedo jacket and holding a Walther PPK .380 pistol with a silencer. Can you spot the poster's colossal blunder?

Let us not forget that in the Mexican state of Guerrero, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ Collage were assaulted and kidnapped by the police on the night of September 26, 2014. While in the act of kidnapping the 43, the police shot and killed three bystanders and three other Ayotzinapa students. One of them, the 22-year old Julio César Mondragón, was found dead on the street the next day; his eyes had been gouged out and the skin peeled from his face. Recall that in the official government version of the story, the police turned their 43 captives over to the criminal drug gang Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) to be tortured, killed, and incinerated in a huge bonfire at a garbage dump; their ashes allegedly put in plastic bags and dumped in the San Juan River. Remember that millions of Mexicans marched in the streets to protest these outrages with a slogan that identified the guilty - Fue el estado (”It was the state”).

The production designer for Spectre, Dennis Gassner, told the press that producing and filming the Dia de los Muertos opening sequence was “a magical experience.” He went on to say: “This culture is saying something here. This is a statement about their world and how they want the rest of the world to see it. This is a format that the world can see it in, that’s what all these people are doing. They’re passionate about what they want to do and they want to share it with the world. They want to show people that they should come to Mexico.” [1]

The creative individuals involved in the making of Spectre may talk about the movie’s opening sequence as a “magical experience,” but their eyes are tightly closed to the truth.

Yes, there certainly are those who work to present “how they want the rest of the world to see” Mexico, but in the case of Spectre, it is not the Mexican people but the crooked regime of Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI that plotted and colluded with Hollywood. Mr. Nieto was “elected” president on July 1, 2012 through massive fraud. The PRI bought votes as well as positive press from the country’s dominant TV networks. Even before Mexico’s official election results were in, President Obama called Nieto to congratulate him on his electoral “victory,” and to applaud Mexico’s “free, fair, and transparent election process.” [2]

At the time Mr. Peña Nieto’s most shameful scam was the distribution of pre-paid gift cards for the Soriana supermarket chain; each card was worth 500 pesos ($37.50) and was to be used in purchasing food. Some $8.2 million dollars worth of the cards were distributed. In Mexico City the average worker’s daily wage is just 67 pesos ($5.12). No friend to working people, the World Bank reported that 52.3% of the Mexican people lived in poverty in 2012 when Peña Nieto’s election took place. [3] Right after the fraudulent election, tens of thousands of people swarmed Soriana markets to find their gift cards were not valid, or worth only a few dollars!

Approximately four months after the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43, the Mexican government announced it had “officially” concluded that the students were dead. The phony investigation had been conducted by Jesús Murillo Karam, a functionary of the PRI and President Peña Nieto’s attorney general. At a Jan. 27, 2015 press conference given by Karam, he stated that government “interrogation” of detained suspects provided “legal certainty that the student teachers were killed.” Karam offered no conclusive evidence to back up his claim, but stood firm in avowing that the government findings were the “historic truth.” He repeated that federal forces were in no way involved with the kidnapping. On the heels of Karam’s press conference, President Peña Nieto urged Mexicans to accept the government’s conclusion, saying: “We have to move forward with greater optimism.” The words of Mr. Nieto and his attorney general were utterly worthless.

The day after the government press conference, José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, denounced Karam’s findings, calling the government’s investigations “negligent” and “difficult to trust,” given that confessions are “based on coercion, torture, and irregularities.” Vivanco said the government claim “is not a historical truth, it is an official version.” [4]

Needless to say, the parents, families, and relatives of the missing 43 were infuriated with the administration of Mr. Nieto for closing the case. Taking to the streets to denounce the government’s sham investigations, thousands marched in Mexico City chanting, “¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (They took them alive, we want them alive!)

"Ayotzinapa Catrina, It was the State" - Rexistemx. Papel picado stencil. 2014. The anonymous Mexican art collective Rexistemx (rexiste.org), reworked Posada's Calavera as a stencil to be used in the creation of the traditional folk art of papel picado (cut paper). Aside from adding the text, Posada's work was altered by having the Calavera shedding tears, a reference to a slogan from the Ayotzinapa justice movement, Esta Dolor Llueve Rabia (This Sorrow Rains Rage). The Rexistemx papel picado was seen all over Mexican during Day of the Dead, 2014.

"Ayotzinapa Catrina, It was the State" - Rexistemx. Papel picado stencil. 2014. The anonymous Mexican art collective Rexistemx (rexiste.org), reworked Posada's Calavera as a stencil to be used in the creation of the traditional folk art of papel picado (cut paper). Aside from adding the text, Posada's work was altered by having the Calavera shedding tears, a reference to a slogan from the Ayotzinapa justice movement, "Esta Dolor Llueve Rabia" (This Sorrow Rains Rage). The Rexistemx papel picado was seen all over Mexico during Day of the Dead, 2014.

It is ironic that Spectre opens with a Day of the Dead procession, and that “Bond Girl” Estrella has her face painted as La Calavera Catrina, but the irony is no doubt lost on the film’s producers. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was one of Mexico’s greatest artists and acknowledged as the founder of Mexican printmaking. He was inspired by the aesthetics of the Aztecs, who created skeletonized depictions of supernatural beings in their art. Posada made prints of skeletons dressed as ordinary people, as well as priests, politicians, generals, and oligarchs, offering a mocking social criticism that continues to influence Mexican art and culture.

Around 1910 Posada created the etching Calavera Garbancera (Garbancera Skull). Living under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico was on the verge of revolution.

Posada published his print as a critique of the “Garbanceras,” those people with indigenous blood who renounced their race and culture to pass themselves off as Spanish or French. The etching depicted an indigenous woman as a skeleton, poor and naked, whose fancy European-style hat was her only claim to being European. In 1946 Diego Rivera began painting his mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. An admirer of Posada, Rivera’s mural included a portrait of Posada arm in arm with his Calavera Garbancera dressed in Victorian clothes. Rivera christened his version of the female skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, and the Catrina has today become an iconic image for the Day of the Dead. However, the original critique behind Posada’s print is still pertinent today.

The filming for the opening sequence of Spectre began in Mexico on March 19, 2015. The ten-day film shoot received considerable attention in the mainstream media, but outside of Mexico the press left out the following important fact. On March 21 a group of pro-democracy activists gathered near the film shoot and held up a satiric banner emblazoned with the 007 logo, it read: “Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. Imprison the corrupt EPN gang that governs us.” The EPN abbreviation of course stands for Enrique Peña Nieto. The sign was the creation of the National Human Rights Commission (C.N.D.H.), the non-governmental human rights organization of Mexico that is accredited by the United Nations.

Pro-democracy activists near the filming location of Spectre, hold a banner that reads: "Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa." Photo/Arcelia Maya

Pro-democracy activists near the filming location of "Spectre," hold a banner that reads: "Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa." Photo/Arcelia Maya

One protester told the press: “It is a total irony and mockery of the system of government that the Mexican people would have to ask for help from our misfortunes from the largest representative of world imperialism, James Bond. Since you are here, save us from all the misfortunes of our people because of the corruption and impunity of the government.”

Regarding the comments made by Spectre production designer Mr. Gassner, that the Mexican people were “saying something” about their culture in the film’s Day of the Dead sequence. If you want to know how Mexicanos actually marked Dia de los Muertos in Nov. 2014, consider the following. Thousands of University students in Yucatan, Mexico held a candlelight march that evening to protest the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. Signs were held that read: “In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead.” Similar marches and rituals were held all across Mexico that day involving hundreds of thousands of people.

University students in Yucatan, Mexico hold a candlelight march on Day of the Dead 2014, to protest the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. In the photograph a student holds a sign that reads: "In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead. Enough!" The slogan appeared in various artworks, banners, and graffiti all across Mexico, including on traditional alters and processions associated with Dia de los Muertos. Photo/anonymous.

University students in Yucatan, Mexico hold a candlelight march on Day of the Dead 2014, to protest the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. In the photograph a student holds a sign that reads: "In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead. Enough!" The slogan appeared in various artworks, banners, and graffiti all across Mexico, including on traditional altars and processions associated with Dia de los Muertos. Photo/anonymous.

The details of the hush-hush agreement between the Mexican government and MGM regarding Spectre, and how those secrets became public, reads like a script from a James Bond thriller.

As many readers are probably aware, on November 24, 2014, a hacker or hackers broke into the computer system of Sony Pictures Entertainment, leaving a flashing message on every computer controlled by Sony Pictures. It read: “We’ve obtained all your internal data, including your secrets and top secrets.” The cyber-criminals warned that if their demands were not met, the stolen data would be released to the public. What they supposedly wanted was for Sony to block release of The Interview, a Hollywood comedy directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg about two celebrity American journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

At first Sony put The Interview on hold, but then reversed its decision and screened the film nationwide. The hackers made good on their threat and began to dump some 100 terabytes of sensitive information into the hands of the media, an estimated 38 million files. That info included the scandalous private e-mails and internal communications of top Sony and MGM executives. Sony and the FBI accused the North Korean government of being responsible for the hacking, but that is another story.

What is relevant to this article is that the script for Spectre was stolen in the cyber-attack and released to the media. E-mail exchanges between Sony and MGM officials were also leaked, and they revealed what the executives referred to as the “Mexican Deal.” One of the leaked communications included remarks from the president of MGM’s motion picture group Jonathan Glickman, who wrote the following regarding the deal:

“We are currently facing a budget that is far beyond what we anticipated and are under immense pressure to reduce the number to $250M net of rebates and incentives. This is not about ‘nickel and diming’ the production. As of now, our shooting period is $50M higher than Skyfall and the current gross budget sits in the mid $300Ms, making this one of the most expensive films ever made.”

According to a March 3, 2015 story published by Tax Analysts, the Mexican government proposed a lucrative deal with MGM; they offered to give the studio $20 million dollars worth of tax breaks and other incentives, if the studio allowed the Mexican government to change the cast and make significant alterations to the film’s story. A reading of Sony’s leaked e-mails indicates that the deal went through. In a memo titled, “Elements needed to preserve Mexican deal,” [5] Mr. Glickman listed the specific changes the Mexican government wanted from MGM:

Cast “a known Mexican actress” as Estrella, the Bond girl that appears in the opening sequence whose hotel room is the starting point for Bond’s search for villain Marco Sciarra. MGM gave the part to Mexican-born Stephanie Sigman.

Sciarra, the villainous character and adversary of James Bond at the beginning of the film, could not be a Mexican, or be played by a Mexican. MGM cast the Italian actor Alessandro Cremona to play the assassin, and rewrote the Sciarra character to be Italian.

A cage match duel between Marco Sciarra and Bond needed to be replaced by Bond chasing after Sciarra through a Day of the Dead procession.

Lucia Sciarra, widow of slain gangster Marco Sciarra and the chief villain of the film, also could not be a Mexican, or be played by a Mexican. MGM cast the Italian actress Monica Bellucci to play the Italian nemesis.

“Modern Mexico City buildings” had to appear in the movie’s aerial shots instead of Mexico’s notorious slums. MGM met that demand with the helicopter soaring over the skyline of Mexico City in the movie’s opening scene.

Rather than have Lucia Sciarra order the assassination of a Mexican governor, the victim had to be an international ambassador.

The November 24, 2014, cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment occurred approximately two months after the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43. The leaked documents reveal that MGM was already in the midst of altering Spectre to meet the demands of the Mexican government, that is, before the kidnappings. Be that as it may, the film’s opening scenes in essence serve as a cover for the shameless corruption and contemptible human rights record of Mexico’s government.

Mexico’s drug war has taken the lives of over 100,000 people since 2006, and since President Peña Nieto took office in 2012, an additional 10,000 people have been “disappeared” by drug gangs or state forces. Are they not sometimes one and the same? Most of those cases remain unsolved. There have been 81 cases of human rights activists being disappeared and presumably murdered during Peña Nieto’s administration. Some 41 journalists have been assassinated since 2010, most of them on Mr. Nieto’s watch, bringing even the New York Times to write an Aug. 15, 2015 editorial statement titled, The Murder of Mexico’s Free Press. On the same day, PEN America published a letter signed by over 500 international artists, journalists, writers, and free expression advocates. Addressed to President Peña Nieto, the letter said in part:

“PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), would like to express our indignation regarding the deadly attacks against reporters in your country. An attempt on the life of a journalist is an attack on society’s very right to be informed.”

Suffice it to say, the PEN letter was not signed by anyone associated with the creation of Spectre.

In the present context, with September 26, 2015 marking the one year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa 43 being kidnapped, the premiere of Spectre in theaters November 6th, 2015 serves to whitewash the evil done to the Mexican people. There are plenty of corrupt characters portrayed in Spectre, but none so corrupt as those described in this essay.

Like the MGM poster that leads this article, this early "Spectre" movie poster from MGM shows 007 flaunting a major gun safety rule, keep your finger off the trigger until you have your target in your sights. One would think that Her Majesty's Armed Forces would have taught Bond a thing or two about the safe handling of guns, but it appears the only training he received was from Hollywood.

Like the MGM "Spectre" poster that leads this article, this early version from MGM shows 007 flaunting a major gun safety rule, keep your finger off the trigger until you have your target in your sights. One would think that Her Majesty's Armed Forces would have taught Bond a thing or two about the safe handling of weaponry, but it appears that the only military training he actually received was from Hollywood.

As I was finishing up this article, the results of a six-month long investigation into the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43 were published on Sept. 6, 2015.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS), appointed an independent investigatory body called the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), composed of five human rights experts.

The 560-page report from the GIEI could hardly be more condemnatory of the Peña Nieto administration. Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch called it “an utterly damning indictment of Mexico’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory.”

The GIEI report forcefully rejects the Mexican government’s version of events. The report acknowledges that the students had commandeered four buses to take them to a commemorative event in Mexico City marking the 46th anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It also found that the police and military had tracked the students from the moment they left their school in Ayotzinapa at six pm, to when they were attacked by police after midnight in the city of Iguala, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Police and military units sent communications to their forces on the student’s movements, and those reports were routed to C4, Mexico City’s Control, Command, Communication and Computer intelligence network, the most sophisticated security system in all of Latin America. In other words, federal authorities in Mexico City were monitoring the events from beginning to end in real time.

The GIEI said that when municipal, state, and federal police stopped the buses after midnight, soldiers from the Mexican Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion observed the police assaulting and detaining the students; contradicting the government’s assertion that no federal forces were involved in the kidnapping. The role of the federal police and the army remains unclear, but what is absolutely clear is that neither intervened to stop the shooting and kidnapping of the students. During the GIEI’s investigation, the Peña Nieto administration refused to allow the group to interview Mexican soldiers.

The official government report on the kidnapping mentioned only four buses used by the students, but the GIEI report confirmed through video evidence that the students had commandeered a fifth bus. The GIEI uncovered a still from a security camera at the bus terminal in Iguala where the students seized the bus; the photo not only showed the fifth bus, it showed the student passengers onboard. This photo was never included in the government investigation, though surviving students always maintained that five buses were involved. The government then changed its story, saying the students seized the bus, but due to mechanical failure, returned it to the terminal. When the GIEI asked the government to show them bus number five, they were shown a bus that bore a number of dissimilarities to the one from the security camera photo; leading to the conclusion that the fifth bus is now missing.

The Aztecs believed their war god Huitzilopochtli instructed them to build a city on the spot where they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. In 1325 the nomadic Aztecs saw such a sight on a rocky outcrop in Lake Texcoco; it was there that they founded their city, Tenochtitlan. The iconic graphic version of an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake, first appeared as the coat of arms of the Mexican flag in 1823. An updated version was adopted in 1968. In his poster, artist José Luis Coyotl cleverly transformed the eagle and snake coat of arms into a bloody skull representing forced disappearances in Mexico. In English the words read: "Ayotzinapa, neither forgiven nor forgotten."

The Aztecs believed their war god Huitzilopochtli instructed them to build a city on the spot where they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. In 1325 the nomadic Aztecs saw such a sight on a rocky outcrop in Lake Texcoco; it was there that they founded their city, Tenochtitlan. The iconic graphic version of an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake, first appeared as the coat of arms of the Mexican flag in 1823. An updated version was adopted in 1968. In his poster, artist José Luis Coyotl transformed the eagle and snake coat of arms into a bloody skull representing forced disappearances in Mexico. In English the words read: "Ayotzinapa, neither forgiven nor forgotten."

Most importantly, the GIEI believes that the police attacks on the buses were not meant to stop the students, they were meant to seize the fifth bus, because the students had unknowingly seized a bus that the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel was using to transport heroin to the United States.

What is being described here is an illegal conspiracy between corrupt government authorities and drug cartels in sharing control of Mexico’s profitable heroin trade - with annual profits registering in the billions. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, nearly half of the heroin found in the U.S. in 2014 came from poppies grown in Mexico.

It is a fact that Guerreros Unidos have been shipping heroin to the United States. In Dec. 2014 U.S. federal authorities in Chicago arrested members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel for shipping heroin concealed “in commercial passenger buses that traveled from Mexico to Chicago.” [6]

One must ask why the Peña Nieto regime never investigated the possibility that the Ayotzinapa students paid with their lives for inadvertently interrupting a cartel heroin smuggling operation.

The GIEI report stated there was no evidence to support the government’s story that Guerreros Unidos had incinerated the dead students. The GIEI report noted that at least 500 cords of wood, or 100 tons of tires would have been necessary to create a fire large enough to turn the victims to ashes, but these materials were not available at the garbage dump where the cremation allegedly occurred. Moreover, to incinerate the bodies the fire would have needed to burn for 60 hours, yet the government contends it burned for only 16 hours. The government also claimed that Guerreros Unidos members stayed near the fire to keep it stoked, but the GIEI report stated that a fire large enough to incinerate 43 bodies would have burned to death anyone standing within 900 feet of it. Additionally, the land and vegetation at the dump was not scorched, and there was no evidence of a massive fire.

The GIEI report stated that during its investigation, the Mexican government committed grievous errors, made omissions and false conclusions, obstructed justice, used torture, cover-ups, and threats against surviving students, and ignored and destroyed evidence. For instance, CCTV camera footage made on the evening of the kidnapping had been deleted from government databases. As for the complete C4 records of police and army communications made on Sept. 26th, 2014… not surprisingly, they are “missing.”

It should be remembered that in 2014 President Obama boosted U.S. military aid to Mexico to $15 million a year, and that Mr. Obama continues to approve the bilateral Mérida Initiative with Mexico that funds the Mexican security apparatus to the tune of $2.5 billion Yankee dollars. [7] But the tyranny in Mexico is making an unlikely party nervous. In the aftermath of the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43, while searching for the graves of the presumed dead students, numerous clandestine graves were found in and around Iguala, Mexico. Dozens of civilians were found in those mass graves, but none came from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ Collage. A recently declassified document obtained and published by the National Security Archive, came from U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the Pentagon’s regional military command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The document read in part: “None of the 28 bodies identified thus far are the remains of the students, raising alarming questions about the widespread nature of cartel violence in the region and the level of government complicity.”

On March 22, 2015, thousands of Angelenos joined relatives of the Ayotzinapa 43 in a protest march on the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. In this photo one of the marchers holds the poster, "We Are All Ayotzinapa." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

On March 22, 2015, thousands of Angelenos joined relatives of the Ayotzinapa 43 in a protest march on the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. In this photo one of the marchers holds the poster, "Ayotzinapa Somos Todos" (We Are All Ayotzinapa). Photo & Artwork by Mark Vallen ©

In true reflection of the spirit of José Guadalupe Posada, working class artists in Mexico have been creating astounding posters, beautiful songs, poetry, dance, and theatrical street performances in reaction to the Mexican state’s involvement in the forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43. Without the 300 million dollar budget of Spectre, these artists have created a true people’s art: one that is entirely cognizant of Mexico’s rich cultural and political history; prescient of current events, and used to mobilize the people to make history. None of these things can be said of the Hollywood fantasy-fest that is Spectre.

Standing in solidarity with the Mexican people, I have created my own artworks to draw attention to the Ayotzinapa 43 and the depraved goblins that did them harm. I am most proud of my poster, Ayotzinapa Somos Todos (We Are All Ayotzinapa), a print I am distributing for free in comradeship with the Mexican people’s movement for democracy. It is a humble effort, it is not enough, there is so much to be done. Ominous voices are rising in my homeland, ugly shouts of xenophobia that clamor for mass deportations and an impenetrable wall of steel to divide humanity. Artists must close ranks against such dangerous jargon.

Cinema has always been an art form that easily conveys ideology on the sly, but Spectre seems to have broken new ground when it comes to state generated propaganda. It is unprecedented for an American motion picture studio to have taken large amounts of foreign money in exchange for rewriting a film. The Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.” If one thinks about it for a moment, that entails quite a bit of what we experience in today’s modern society, including our cultural preoccupations. Spectre certainly fits the bill.

The Spectre of Ayotzinapa massacre opened on September 26, 2014 in the verdant hills of Guerrero, Mexico. Despite being panned by the general public, it will likely have a permanent run in Mexico due to its powerful backers. The Spectre film on the other hand is scheduled to open to rave reviews in U.S. theaters on November 6th, 2015.

– // –

SOURCES:

Read the complete, unedited GIEI report in English (.pdf)

Press summations on the GIEI report: Vice News, The Guardian, Reuters, CBCNews, New York Times.

ADDENDUM:

[1] “CS Visits James Bond in Mexico City and Learns How Spectre Begins!” ComingSoon.net/March 27, 2015.

[2] The White House Office of the Press Secretary. “Readout of President Obama’s call to President-elect Peña Nieto of Mexico.” July, 2, 2012.

[3] “Mexico” World Bank website

[4] “HRW: Ayotzinapa is not historical truth.” El Univeral/Jan. 28, 2015. Spanish language edition.

[5] “James Bond’s $20 million reason to love Mexico.” The Telegraph/March 13, 2015.

[6] “Eight Defendants Charged With Distributing Heroin In Chicago Area On Behalf Of Guerrero Unidos Mexican Drug Cartel.” Press Release: Department of Justice. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Northern District of Illinois. December 10, 2014.

[7] “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond.” Congressional Research Service website, (.pdf) May 7, 2015.

Billy Jack

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack." Artist Ermanno created a montage using newspaper photos and stories of the day to form a portrait of the fictional super hero, Billy Jack.

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack." Artist Ermanno created a montage using newspaper photos and stories of the day to form a portrait of the fictional super hero, Billy Jack.

I was 18-years-old when the movie Billy Jack was first shown in U.S. theaters in the year 1971. Tom Laughlin, the man that imagined, wrote, starred in, and independently produced the film, died on Dec. 12, 2013 at 82 years of age. This is a short remembrance of Mr. Laughlin, an appreciation for his swimming against the tide and capturing a certain spirit that most today will deny ever existed. I cannot begin to say how influential Billy Jack was to my generation.

As the Vietnam War continued to rage in 1971, U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty of mass murder for his role in the My Lai massacre; the Pentagon Papers were published in the Washington Post and the New York Times; prisoners took over Attica State Prison in Attica, New York and the government responded by launching a military assault that killed 28 inmates and 9 guards. A massive international campaign demanded the release Angela Davis, then in prison on trumped up charges of kidnapping and murder; over 1,000 Vietnam War veterans threw away their combat medals and ribbons on the Capitol steps in a protest against the war, and the Native American occupation of Alcatraz ended when armed agents of the state forcibly removed the indigenous activists from the island. Of course, there were dozens of earthshaking events that took place in 1971, but the aforementioned sets the stage for an understanding of Billy Jack.

None of the corporate press obituaries written for Mr. Laughlin will tell you this, but Billy Jack was one of the cultural expressions of opposition to illegitimate power that became a hallmark of the rebellious late 1960s and early 1970s. Laughlin’s movie embodied the anger, distrust, and open contempt millions of Americans came to feel towards government.

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1967 film, "Born Losers."

Movie poster for Tom Laughlin's 1967 film, "Born Losers."

The character of Jack can be described as a Green Beret Vietnam War veteran of white and Native American heritage that experienced the horror of war and came home to a deeply divided nation.

Confronted with racial and class oppression on all levels, Jack found his spiritual core by becoming a guardian of the people. The character of Billy Jack first appeared in Laughlin’s 1967 Born Losers, where Jack battled a psychopathic motorcycle gang that had been terrorizing a small California beach town.

Nevertheless, Jack as a character cannot in any way be compared to right-wing vigilante characters like those in Death Wish (Charles Bronson), or Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood). As a Vet, Jack certainly had no relationship to the monosyllabic, muscle-bound, jingoistic Rambo (as played by the monosyllabic, muscle-bound, jingoistic Sylvester Stallone).

The character of Billy Jack really struck a nerve in the 1971 film, where the tale of the battle hardened Vet takes on a decidedly anti-authoritarian direction. In that film Jack rediscovers his Native American roots while living on an Arizona reservation, he takes up the struggle to defend an alternative school and its hippie and indigenous student body from small town bigots, and uses his hapkido martial arts and firearms skills to battle the forces of oppression on his native soil.

The movie more than touched upon pertinent social issues from an egalitarian perspective; racial oppression, corrupt police, the abuse of power, the destruction of the environment, and other pressing concerns, all of which are still very much with us in the present day. The film ends with Jack entering an armed confrontation with law enforcement and their crooked bosses in city government, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. In other words, Billy Jack is not a movie that would be made today.

In the ending scene of the film as Billy Jack is driven off to prison in a column of police cars, while Jack’s young supporters line the road with their clenched fists held high in defiance of authority, the song One Tin Soldier played over the movie’s final moments. The song as recorded by the U.S. rock band Coven put the finishing touches on the movie’s pro-freedom stance and further galvanized the real world antiwar movement; One Tin Soldier hit number 17 on Billboard’s top 100 in 1971.

Laughlin’s 1971 Billy Jack would be followed up in 1974 by The Trial of Billy Jack, and again in 1977 with the last of the series, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. All took the same dissident stance, but I think the 1971 production was by far the most effective and influential. The last film condemned the atomic power industry and its connections to the U.S. government, and Laughlin remained convinced that his film did not receive a general theatrical release because of a government effort to suppress it. But as everyone knows, blacklists were never implemented in Hollywood. Commenting on the film’s portrayal of governmental collusion with corporate powers, Laughlin told Sacramento TV interviewers in 2007, “However corrupt you think Washington and Congress are, you’re not even close.” Nothing has changed since then.

While conservatives may well bemoan Billy Jack as so much whining from Hollywood liberals, Tinsel Town did not exactly roll out the red carpet to Tom Laughlin and his antiwar protagonist. The Billy Jack films were produced independently, and Laughlin used his own money to make them. In the case of the 1971 Billy Jack, its politics caused major studios to reject it, but Warner Bros. finally worked up enough courage to distribute it. However, Warner dragged its feet in promoting the movie and Laughlin had to wage a three year legal battle to regain control of his film. He finally won his lawsuit, and in 1973 rented 1,200 movie theaters across the U.S. for the re-release, a strategy that had never been used previously. While the 1971 Warner distributed release made $6 million, Laughlin’s independent ‘73 re-release eventually made $100 million. Billy Jack remains one of the biggest grossing films in the history of independent filmmaking.

Korean hapkido grandmaster, Bong Soo Han, stands in as Billy Jack. Screen shot from Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack."

Screen shot from Tom Laughlin's 1971 film, "Billy Jack."

Billy Jack would also be the first film to introduce a mass U.S. audience to martial arts, something that forever changed the American understanding of “action” movies. Billy Jack predated the films of the Chinese American martial artist, Bruce Lee.

Tom Laughlin was a student of the Korean martial art, hapkido, and he trained a great deal for the fight scenes in his film.

While Laughlin did his own stunt work in the movie, he called upon the Korean grandmaster, Bong Soo Han (1933-2007), to stand in as Billy Jack to perform the advanced fighting techniques seen in the most electrifying and memorable fight in the movie.

Despite the popularity of the Billy Jack films, critics generally hated them. For instance, Roger Ebert (1942-2013) reviewed Billy Jack by stating, “I’m also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. ‘Billy Jack’ seems to be saying the same thing as ‘Born Losers,’ that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice.” Other bourgeois film critics have referred to the films as “vigilante-themed” (LA Times 12/15/2013). In its obituary for Mr. Laughlin, USA Today made reference to his “big-screen vigilante Billy Jack.”

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word vigilante is that of “a person who is not a police officer but who tries to catch and punish criminals.” In an opening scene from Billy Jack, Jack discovers the town’s corrupt unelected political boss, Mr. Stuart Posner (played by Bert Freed), trespassing onto the reservation with his thugs to hunt and kill wild horses. Jack confronts the armed goons with his own lever action rifle and the following dialog ensues:

Jack: You’re illegally on Indian land.
Posner: I’m sorry about that. I guess we just got caught up in the chase and crossed over without knowing it.
Jack: You’re a liar.
Posner: We got the law here, Billy Jack.
Jack: When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law - just a fight for survival.

The exchange between Jack and Posner does suggest vigilantism, but would it not be more accurate to describe Posner as the vigilante? As the unofficial “leader” of the town, he appointed the judges and the police, so when he said “We got the law here,” he literally meant that he was the law.

Another scene from the Billy Jack film shows hooligans associated to Posner, roughing up Native American students at a local eatery. Billy Jack walks into the establishment just as the racist brutes are dumping white flour on the students in a mocking attempt to make them “white.” Tensely, Jack tells the bullies that he has tried to “be passive and nonviolent,” but when he sees the children he loves so abused by “the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours… I go BERSERK!” Jack then trounces the racists with a series of hapkido punches and kicks, utterly vanquishing them before attending to the stricken kids.

To fully understand that scene, one must know that just eight years earlier on May 28, 1963, multi-racial Civil Rights demonstrators had staged a sit-in to desegregate a “Whites Only” lunch-counter at a Woolworth’s Department Store in Jackson Mississippi. The protestors were viciously assaulted by a gang of white racists, while the police stood by and watched. Those conducting the sit-in were punched with brass knuckles and struck with broken sugar containers. They were burned with cigarettes while the mob poured sugar, ketchup, mustard, and drinks on them. A photo of the unpleasant attack made the national news, outraging decent people everywhere. Tom Laughlin was one of those people.

Tom Laughlin as the character, Billy Jack. Screen shot from Laughlin's 1971 movie, "Billy Jack."

Tom Laughlin as the character, Billy Jack. Screen shot from Laughlin's 1971 movie, "Billy Jack."

All this brings up memories of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964 by African American men wanting to protect their communities from the depredations and terror of the Ku Klux Klan.

A good number of the Deacons were combat veterans of WWII and the Korean War, they armed themselves with legal firearms and patrolled their neighborhoods, guarding against the KKK. The Deacons for Defense and Justice provided security for the non-violent activists of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who were organizing voter registration drives among disenfranchised blacks. Considering that law enforcement, the courts, and various governmental agencies in Louisiana at the time were largely controlled or sympathetic to the KKK and other white supremacist organizations… can you really call the Deacons “vigilantes”?

I am struck by the vast difference between the tone and temperment of the Billy Jack movies, and contemporary movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, films that not only embrace torture and imperial intervention, but were made with the cooperation of the Pentagon and the CIA. Today’s critics have nothing but praise for such films, and would never express their being “disturbed” that “a gun is better than a constitution” when depicting the invasions of foreign countries or holding “enemy combatants” in torture centers. Even the social democratic windbag Michael Moore praised Zero Dark Thirty as a “fantastically-made movie” that should “make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity.” And what barbarities have been halted exactly? Launching war without Congressional approval? Zapping wedding parties with drone missiles?

It should be remembered that in 1968 John Lennon wrote an alternative version of his song Revolution that included the line, “we all want to change the world, but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know you can count me out/in.” Lennon included the word “in” because he was torn over whether violence might actually be used successfully to bring about justice. Tom Laughlin did not share those misgivings, and his anti-hero character of Billy Jack used his open heart, swinging fists, and gun, to fight oppressors and protect the defenseless.

Like many films from the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Billy Jack movies are undoubtedly dated. This is due, not only to the technological changes that have taken place in the world of movie making, but because of the changing perceptions and sensibilities of today’s film makers. Yet, an authentic and deeply felt humanism still emanates from Laughlin’s Billy Jack series, no matter how dated they may appear, which is something no one will honestly be able to say about all of Hollywood’s current action films rolled together.

Laughlin’s films could have been improved with substantial edits to focus the stories and shorten running times, though I say that about most films from the period. Just as postmodernism reduced the visual art world to an uncommunicative, detached, and indifferent state, so too has Hollywood largely forgotten how to tell the human story realistically and sympathetically. Laughlin could at least write a screenplay that expressed real compassion, despite the fact that he was not the most sophisticated or accomplished director. In a 2011 video statement titled What makes the Billy Jack films so unique?, Laughlin admonished Hollywood filmmaking by proclaiming:

“Another thing that made the Billy Jack series so unique, and so box office goldmine, is that you had the super action, the morality, the spirituality… come from both a super hero, Billy Jack, and a super heroine, Jean - who does credible, powerful women’s action, not absurd stuff like shooting two guns while riding backwards on a motorcycle, as Cameron Diaz did in the latest Tom Cruise picture… just absurd stuff.”

Whatever the weaknesses of Tom Laughlin as a director, and there were many, I would prefer his vision over most anything Hollywood offers today.

Remembering Jean Seberg

Publicity still of Jean Seberg. Date and photographer unknown.

Publicity still of Jean Seberg. Date and photographer unknown.

November 13, 2013 marked what would have been the 75th birthday of the American actress, Jean Seberg (1938-1979). Examining Ms. Seberg’s career and how it was throttled is not only instructive, but relevant to our present, especially to creative professionals.

Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg first gained notoriety as an actor in 1957 when at the age of seventeen she played the historic figure Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan.

Critics panned the film, and pilloried the young actress. Some years later Seberg would say of the experience, “I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics.” Little did Seberg know that in the end she would be burned at the stake by the U.S. government.

In 1959 Seberg co-starred with Peter Sellers (1925-1980) in a Cold War comedy from the U.K., The Mouse That Roared. It would be Seberg’s third film. “Mouse” told the story of an imaginary and totally inconsequential European fiefdom, whose government decided that the way to avoid economic collapse was declaring war on the United States, suffer defeat, then accept the conquering nation’s generous foreign aid.

Publicity still of Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg from "The Mouse That Roared." Date and photographer unknown.

Publicity still of Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg from "The Mouse That Roared." Photographer unknown.

Mouse” was a slightly subversive political satire, but ultimately lighthearted, it did however capture the tenor of the times. Wildly popular at the time of its release, it was Sellers’ first starring role in film, and it established him as an international movie star.

I saw this film as a fifteen-year-old and never forgot it. Truth be told, forty-five-years later, I recently watched the film again and it dredged up memories of Ms. Seberg and her sad demise. I felt compelled to write this article.

In 1960 Ms. Seberg would star in Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, a film that not only secured her climb to stardom, but made her an icon of the French “new wave” cinema.

Seberg would come to spend much of her career in France. The rising political ferment taking place around the world no doubt had an effect on Seberg, and an upcoming starring role would put her in contact with an American director once blacklisted by the U.S. government.

In 1964 Seberg starred with Warren Beatty in director Robert Rossen’s Lilith. Rossen (1908-1966) had been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer, best known for films like All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961); but because of his political views Rossen had come under suspicion by an America in the throes of Cold War anti-communist hysteria.

Robert Rossen was first called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951 because he had been a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. from 1937 to 1949, however, he refused to testify. As with others who declined to answer the committee’s questions, Rossen was placed on an industry blacklist, and he was also unable to renew his passport, making overseas work impossible. When Rossen was called before HUAC for a second time in 1953, the inquisition had succeeded in breaking him. He identified 57 colleagues said to be affiliated with the Communist Party U.S.A., an act that destroyed the careers of those so named. HUAC rewarded Rossen for his co-operation by lifting the blacklist against him.

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Bob Willoughby. Seberg was photographed in New York's Central Park, 1956, the day after winning the role of Saint Joan in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan."

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Bob Willoughby. Seberg was photographed in New York's Central Park, 1956, the day after winning the role of Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan."

It is not hard to speculate on how Seberg reacted to the story of Rossen’s blacklisting, though she could never have imagined that much worse lay ahead for her.

An oft told story about the young Seberg was of her joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1953 at the age of 14… the same year Robert Rossen was broken by HUAC. Seberg’s father counseled his daughter not to join the civil rights group, fearing people would think she was a communist, but she mailed in her membership form nevertheless, telling her father she did not care what people thought. Seberg joined the NAACP two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, an act that initiated the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott - a landmark campaign in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The kangaroo courts of HUAC are generally remembered for extreme undemocratic methods, but they signified more than just a total abrogation of first and fifth amendment rights, they were an open assault on art and culture. Some of America’s best actors, writers, and film producers were silenced, blacklisted, and sentenced to prison. For at least a decade scores were barred from working, others never regained their footing. Hollywood was thoroughly purged of all those with “left-wing” views, and motion picture and television output generally became conformist, focusing on shallow, inconsequential, and non-controversial material. One could argue that the entertainment industry, even today, has never fully recovered from the repression.

It should be noted that in 1947, a freshman Republican Congressman from California named Richard M. Nixon accepted a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee. He played an active, if not major role in HUAC, and formed a strong professional relationship with the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI director shared files on American citizens with the Congressman, who became the 37th president of the U.S. in 1968. It would not be long before Nixon and Hoover implemented police state methods to crush dissent in the U.S., with Jean Seberg becoming one of their many victims.

1968 was an explosive year; the Tet offensive in Vietnam began in January as protests against President Johnson escalated in the U.S.; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4; Senator Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and died on June 6. In August the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, Chicago police brutally attacked antiwar demonstrators protesting against the Democratic Party National Convention. In October just prior to the opening of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, government troops and police massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. Along with millions of others, Jean Seberg was no doubt reeling from these events, and she acted upon her outrage.

 Movie poster for Joshua Logan's 1968 musical "Paint Your Wagon," starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.

Movie poster for Joshua Logan's 1969 musical "Paint Your Wagon," starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.

In May 1968 Joshua Logan began filming his big-budget cinematic treatment of the hit Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon. Starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg, the film cost around $20 million to make, which was an extraordinarily large film budget for the time.

Paint Your Wagon was released in 1969, however, the film did not make a return on its investment; much had changed in the world, and the public’s taste for musicals had diminished. The Hollywood production would be one of the era’s final musicals. It was in 1969 that Seberg’s left-wing political leanings came to the attention of the FBI.

In 1968 President Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover gave their attention to quashing America’s new left, unleashing COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program) against dissident political groups and individuals. The objective of COINTELPRO was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” (emphasis mine) opposition political groups. The use of the word “neutralize” is especially chilling here, since it was concurrently used by the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam (1965-1972). In that operation U.S. special forces “neutralized” suspected Viet Cong civilian sympathizers by way of capture, torture, and assassination; the operation killed some 26,369 alleged communists before the program ended in 1972.

Previously, in 1967 COINTELPRO was let loose upon “Black Nationalist Hate Groups,” targeting groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Black Panther Party (BPP). The FBI had conducted surveillance on Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference since 1958, but under COINTELPRO their actions against King were intensified. On March 3, 1968, J. Edgar Hoover sent a directive to FBI field offices calling for operations to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” Hoover’s memo noted that “King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines.” One month later King was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

COINTELPRO was much more than a surveillance program, it utilized aggressive intimidation, threats, and criminal violence to accomplish its goals of silencing dissident individuals and organizations. Tactics utilized included: breaking into offices to destroy and or steal equipment; planting lies in the press in order to slander targeted persons or groups, distributing counterfeit publications and flyers in the name of targeted groups but with content guaranteed to outrage and alienate; using threatening letters forged by FBI agents to pit groups against each other; false arrest and wrongful imprisonment. This and much more.

The Black Panther Party advocated armed self-defense against racist attack and organized for socialism in the U.S. They created “Survival Programs” to serve the poverty-stricken black community - “pending revolution.” The Panthers set up “People’s Free Medical Clinics” that provided basic care and medical examinations for the needy. They set up free clinics in the black community to check for sickle cell anemia, the blood disorder that affects 1 out of 500 African-American children (something the U.S. government did not do until after 1972).

The Panthers first implemented their “Free Breakfast for Children” program in Oakland in January, 1969, and it soon spread to Panther chapters across the country; by 1970 the Panthers had set up kitchens that daily fed 10,000 school children nutritional meals before they went to school. Again, the U.S. government had no such program at the time, and it was only in 1975 that a national, federally assisted meal program served the nation’s school children. In May 1969 J. Edgar Hoover sent the following memo to FBI offices across the U.S.

“The Breakfast for Children Program (BCP) has been instituted by the BPP in several cities to provide a stable breakfast for ghetto children. The program has met with some success and has resulted in considerable favorable publicity for the BPP. The resulting publicity tends to portray the BPP in a favorable light and clouds the violent nature of the group and its ultimate aim of insurrection. The BCP promotes at least tacit support for the BPP among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

In 1970 Seberg co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and an all star cast in the film, Airport. A huge critical and financial success, the movie initiated the “disaster film” genre, and ended up being nominated for ten Academy Awards (actress Helen Hayes won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Released on March 5, 1970, the melodrama told a tale of unfolding catastrophe involving a commercial passenger jet and a major airport, but for Seberg, a real life tragedy was just around the corner.

Black Panther Party member Charles Bursey serves food to children at the party's "Free Breakfast for Children" program in Oakland, California. Photo by Pirkle Jones © 1969. Courtesy of the Pirkle Jones Foundation - www.pirklejones.com

Black Panther Party member Charles Bursey serves food to children at the party's "Free Breakfast for Children" program in Oakland, California. Photo by Pirkle Jones © 1969. Courtesy of the Pirkle Jones Foundation - www.pirklejones.com

In April of 1970, FBI surveillance revealed that Ms. Seberg had donated $10,500 to the Black Panther Party, with a good portion of the money going to the Panther’s “Free Breakfast for Children” program (adjusted for inflation, Seberg’s donation would be $63,000 today). In April of 1970, Special Agent in Charge of COINTELPRO for the L.A. FBI office, Richard W. Held, wrote to Hoover asking for consent “to publicize the pregnancy of Jean Seberg” as the result of an extramarital affair with a member of the Black Panther Party. The concocted story would then be supplied to “Hollywood ‘Gossip-Columnists’ in the Los Angeles area.” Held proposed that the “publication of Seberg’s plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.”

J. Edgar Hoover approved the operation, but with one stipulation, he advised the L.A. FBI office “to wait approximately two additional months until Seberg’s pregnancy would be obvious to everyone.” Hoover closed his memo with the following: “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP and should be neutralized.”

In April of 1970, the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent this request to FBI headquarters; slander Seberg to "cheapen her image with the general public."

In April of 1970, the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent this request to FBI headquarters; slander Seberg to "cheapen her image with the general public."

Agents at the L.A. FBI office wrote their anonymous letter with its fabricated contents, and surreptitiously delivered it to Los Angeles Times gossip columnist, Joyce Haber. The letter falsely claimed that Seberg was having an affair with Ray “Masai” Hewitt, the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, and furthermore, Seberg was pregnant with Hewitt’s child. At the time of this FBI orchestrated slander Seberg was seven months pregnant and married to the French novelist and film director Romain Gary, her second husband and the actual father of the soon to be delivered baby.

Haber wrote up a snarky weasel worded story for her column based upon the provided “tip.” The Los Angeles Times published Haber’s article on May 19, 1970. Titled Miss A Rates as Expectant Mother, Haber wrote euphemistically. “Let us call her Miss A, because she’s the current ‘A’ topic of chatter among the ‘ins’ of international show business circles. She is beautiful and blonde.” To make sure readers knew who was being skewered, Haber added that “Miss A” had recently “burst forth as the star of a multimillion dollar musical,” referring to Paint Your Wagon. After reminding readers that the target of her scandalmongering was married to “a handsome European” (Gary), Haber wrote that her quarry “was pursuing a number of free-spirited causes, among them the black revolution,” and that “Miss A is expecting.” The story ended with, “Papa’s said to be a rather prominent Black Panther.”

Photo of Ray "Masai" Hewitt, the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party. Date and photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the "It's About Time Black Panther Party Legacy & Alumni" website.

Ray "Masai" Hewitt of the Black Panther Party. Circa 1969. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the "It's About Time Black Panther Party Legacy & Alumni" website - www.itsabouttimebpp.com

The malicious gossip published by the L.A. Times had predictable and injurious results. The lies printed in Haber’s syndicated column were picked up by Newsweek magazine, but unlike the L.A. Times, Newsweek went further by publishing the names of Seberg and Ray “Masai” Hewitt. The lies spread when 100 papers across the U.S. picked up and amplified the falsehoods published in Newsweek. Seberg was distraught over the defamation campaign carried out against her by the so-called free press.

It is difficult for most people to imagine an onslaught of government backed vilification being aimed against them; who would publish your denials? But it was not just character assassination in the media that dismayed her, Seberg told friends of threatening phone calls, break-ins, and being under constant surveillance. Few believed her.

In a 2009 interview with The Times of London, Diego Gary, the son of Seberg and Romain Gary, said his “mother felt persecuted” by the FBI. Gary went on to say that “there were moments when she was very afraid. She hired two bodyguards to protect her because she had received so many threats.” Gary also called to mind that his mother’s friends thought Seberg was “paranoid” because of her  complaints about being spied upon. Nico (1938-1988), the singer perhaps best known for her work with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, was a close friend to Seberg, and said the actress always “pointed out the FBI men who were constantly following her around.”

Seberg started to break down under the relentless pressure of the COINTELPRO operations aimed against her by the FBI. It was most likely psychological trauma over the persecution that caused Seberg to prematurely deliver her baby on August 23, 1970. Tragically the infant died four days later. Seberg arranged a public funeral for her deceased baby girl, Nina Hart Gary. The memorial service was held in Seberg’s hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. In an act of open contempt towards the FBI and the sycophantic press, Seberg had her child laid out in an open casket so that the world could see the allegations made against her were not true.

"Jean Seberg" - Photograph by Carlo Bavagnoli, 1963. Seberg is pictured in an extravagant hat designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

"Jean Seberg" - Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli, 1963. Seberg is pictured in an extravagant hat designed by Yves Saint Laurent.

After the FBI smeared Seberg as a dangerous radical, it appears an unofficial Hollywood blacklist was launched against her. After playing a lead part in Airport, she was not offered any substantial roles in American films; she never again appeared in an American movie.

She resumed her film career in Paris, and in 1974 co-starred with Kirk Douglas in the British made film, Cat and Mouse (alternate title: Mousey). In spite of regular film work in Europe, Seberg never got over the loss of her daughter, persecution by the U.S. government, and defamation in the U.S. mass media.

Suffering from incapacitating depression, she began taking sedatives and drank heavily. Seberg disappeared on August 30, 1979. Ten days later she was found near her Paris apartment, sitting in her car, dead from an apparent overdose of barbiturates at 40-years old. However, the police grew increasingly suspicious that suicide was the cause of death.

Though divorced from Seberg since 1970, Romain Gary held a news conference after the police found her body. He would tell those gathered that his ex-wife went into shock after reading the lies published in the press about her, and that she was so upset she immediately went into labor. Gary blamed the FBI campaign of harassment for Seberg’s death. Just days later, on September 14, 1979, the FBI publicly admitted that it had planted lies about the actress in the U.S. press.

On June 22, 1980, French authorities revealed that there were no alcoholic beverage containers found in or around Seberg’s car, but her blood alcohol level was double the amount needed to make an individual comatose and incapable of moving without assistance. Police hypothesized that a person, or persons, were present at the time of Seberg’s death, and so a French court filed charges against “persons unknown” in connection to the actress’ death. Romain Gary would end up committing suicide in Paris on December 2, 1980.

In the aftermath of illegalities committed during the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, the U.S. Senate convened the “United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities” in 1975. Named the “Church Committee” after its chairman, U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-ID), the committee denounced COINTELPRO, stating that: “Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that, the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association.”

In 1980 the Los Angeles Times obtained FBI files on Jean Seberg through the Freedom of Information Act, showing just how extensive FBI operations against Seberg were. Between 1969 and 1972 the FBI monitored Seberg’s bank account, tapped her phone calls, and kept logs on where and when she traveled. They shared intelligence files on Seberg with President Nixon’s domestic affairs chief John D. Ehrlichman as well as Nixon’s attorney general, John J. Mitchell (how the Nixon administration acted on these files is not known). The FBI supplied files on Seberg to U.S. embassies in Paris and Rome, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (at the time the CIA was running “Operation CHAOS,” a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation aimed against the antiwar movement and other U.S. dissidents).

The FBI also provided files on Seberg to military intelligence units belonging to the U.S. Secret Service. Reports to the Secret Service included a photo of Seberg and a letter from J. Edgar Hoover describing the actress as “potentially dangerous.” How the Secret Service responded to the information is not known. In 1970 the FBI placed Seberg on a list of individuals targeted for arrest should there be a national security emergency.

COINTELPRO was said to officially end in April of 1971, and the FBI made known its repudiation of the methods employed during the J. Edgar Hoover era.

The findings of the Church Committee in 1975 and the 1980 release of FBI files to the L.A. Times under the Freedom of Information Act, gave ample evidence of criminality on the part of the U.S. government regarding suppression of dissent in America. I would add that Nixon and Hoover acted against their political enemies in cloak-and-dagger style, with complete and utter secrecy. From the Watergate break-in to COINTELPRO, wire tapping, surreptitious mail opening, break-ins, and other police state tactics were used clandestinely. That notwithstanding, the Nixon administration never publicly claimed that it had the legal right to assassinate U.S. citizens on American soil.

Ms. Seberg’s fate is a cautionary tale when one considers the following. President Obama is running a massive surveillance campaign that spies upon every American and citizens of other countries; Obama has publicly justified this program in the name of “national security.” Obama presides over weekly meetings were he decides who will be placed on a “kill list” for overseas drone strike assassination. U.S. citizens have been placed on that list, and in Yemen on Sept. 2011 Anwar Awlaki became the first U.S. citizen to be killed in such a strike. Moreover, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, has said the president could authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen on American soil if “an extraordinary circumstance” presented itself. All of this is currently being conducted in the open.

My, how different things are today. Thank goodness for “Hope & Change.”

The Third Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival was held in Seberg’s hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. Conducted at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown from November 15 to the 17th, 2013, the three-day event celebrated the life and work of Ms. Seberg with screenings of eight of her films, including the world premiere of Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg, a new documentary on the private life of the actress. Produced by filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle, along with writer and filmmaker Garry McGee, the movie’s premiere was timed to coincide with what would have been Seberg’s 75th birthday. McGee was also the co-author of the recent book, Neutralized: the FBI vs. Jean Seberg, a detailed and well-documented book that examines the FBI’s program to destroy the actress’ career and reputation.

Two symposiums were also part of the festival, one was conducted by Professor Richard Ness of Western Illinois University and dedicated to Seberg’s film work, the other was led by Professor Horace Porter, Chair of African American Studies at the University of Iowa, on the subject of COINTELPRO and Seberg’s support of the Black Panther Party. Ness and Porter both appeared in interview sequences appearing in Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg.

I was born and raised in the City of Los Angeles, it is the metropolis where I live and work, a place with an identity almost completely entwined with the “entertainment industry.” Over the decades countless escapades of mine have taken place - literally and figuratively - beneath the shadow of the world famous HOLLYWOOD sign. But for all of this burg’s presumed open-mindedness, in the city of Los Angeles the 75th birthday of Jean Seberg went entirely unnoticed. No insightful articles from the Los Angeles Times nor memorials from industry publications like Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. No commemorative film screenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the city’s art house movie theaters. Not a peep from the city’s vaunted “progressive” community either, only a deafening silence.

Jean Seberg photographed in 1957 at the age of 19. Photographer unknown.

Seberg photographed in 1957 at the age of 19. Photographer unknown.

One could simply chalk up the indifference towards Seberg as nothing more than historic amnesia, but we are allowed or encouraged to forget certain historic events and individuals, while prodded and stirred to remember others. It all depends on the needs of Big Brother.

Yet, despite the hush from certain quarters, there is renewed interest in the life and work of Seberg, and I hope the musings from this web log will help expand that curiosity. Marshalltown’s Orpheum Theater just premiered Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg. It is the same movie house that hosted the 1957 gala premiere of Saint Joan, the actress’ first movie. All together, Seberg appeared in 37 films in the course of her all too short career; one can only imagine what the actress might have been able to contribute to the world of cinematic art had her career not been so cruelly destroyed.

I encourage readers to contribute to The Jean Seberg Endowment, where donations will be used by the Orpheum Theater to maintain their Jean Seberg memorabilia collection, and to expand programs that help to preserve and advance the legacy of this exceptional American.

Journalism in Wonderland

The artist and his morning paper. "When I first laid eyes upon that horrid Times cover I remembered Oscar Wilde’s shrewd comments about the so-called fourth estate."

The artist and his morning paper. "When I first laid eyes upon that horrid Times cover I remembered Oscar Wilde’s shrewd comments about the so-called fourth estate."

The Los Angeles Times abandoned all pretense of being a serious newspaper guided by high journalistic standards, when on March 5, 2010 the daily ran a full color paid advertisement as its front page rather than headlines and photographs  from the news stories of the day.

It has been confirmed by the Hollywood news publication The Wrap, that the Walt Disney Company paid the Times approximately $700,000 to run a full color ad for the Disney-Tim Burton production of “Alice in Wonderland.”

The deal included not just the front page, but the inside front and back pages as well as the outside back cover of the publication.

Basically the entire newspaper was wrapped in an ad designed to look like an actual front page. A full color banner ad situated at the bottom of the paper’s genuine front page was also part of the deal, as was the incorporation of The Times masthead into the advertisement.

The March 5, 2010 front page of the Los Angeles Times. "Journalism: Down the Rabbit Hole."

The March 5, 2010 front page of the L.A. Times. "Journalism: Down the Rabbit Hole."

The spokesman for The Times, John Conroy, was quoted by The Wrap as saying the newspaper “worked very closely with Disney to come up with an exceptional and distinctive way to help them open Alice in Wonderland. It was designed to create buzz, and to extend the film’s already brilliant marketing campaign.” The New York Times quoted Conroy as saying that “It’s taking a concept that we normally apply to new media and reimaging it to a concept in a newspaper.”

What I find so appalling about the Times-Disney-Burton ad is its composition; it was laid over genuine news stories concerning President Obama’s healthcare “reforms” and his escalating war in Afghanistan. A gaudy photo of a heavily made up Johnnie Depp dressed as the demented Mad Hatter was superimposed over sobering news headings, partly obliterating them with the movie character’s top hat and flaming red hair. The underlying message, whether intentional or not, is clear; never mind those U.S. soldiers who are fighting, killing, and dying in Afghanistan – watch this movie.

"That the newspaper would proudly transform its entire front page into a commercial platform for the promotion of a frothy Hollywood triviality – as the nation fights two wars while in the throes of extreme economic crisis - perfectly illustrates the state of journalism in the United States today."

"The state of journalism in the United States today."

That the newspaper would proudly transform its entire front page into a commercial platform for the promotion of a frothy Hollywood triviality – as the nation fights two wars while in the throes of extreme economic crisis - perfectly illustrates the state of journalism in the United States today. The alternative title to this article might just as well have been, “Journalism: Down the Rabbit Hole.”

Apologists for The Times are quick to mention that the paper is a business like any other, and that a severe recession and changing media landscape justifies any and all schemes to bring in revenue. Why not then replace the paper’s Editorial page with advertisements designed to appear as editorial opinions, or perhaps cease publishing hard news stories altogether in favor of celebrity and human-interest reportage, already a lucrative trend for corporate news outlets. To rationalize The Times’ abject surrender to commercialism misses the point; a news gathering organization that is beholden to advertisers will edit and modify content in order to please those advertisers, it is naïve to think otherwise.

It must be remembered that the Tribune Company, a Chicago based media conglomerate owned by billionaire real estate tycoon Sam Zell, acquired the Times Mirror Company and the Los Angeles Times in June of 2000 for $8.3 billion. The Tribune Company’s annual revenue is approximately $5.73 billion a year, and Mr. Zell’s personal net worth has been estimated to be around $6 billion. The Tribune Company owns 10 newspapers (including the Times and the second largest Spanish language paper in the U.S., Hoy), over 20 television stations (including L.A.’s KTLA), the WGN radio station in Chicago, and a number of other media assets that includes Chicago magazine and the Advocate Weekly Newspapers.

Under Zell’s ownership the Times has suffered massive staff cuts, with more than 300 newsroom personal laid off. The paper’s editor, James E. O’Shea, was fired in 2008 for resisting staff cuts. In 2009 the paper’s “California” section was done away with, eliminating the publication’s long established local news desk. It was then decided to fold local news into the paper’s front section – which was reorganized to de-emphasize national and international news. In a 2008 column for the Washington Post titled, The L.A. Times’s Human Wrecking Ball, journalist Harold Meyerson castigated Zell for being a “visiting Visigoth,” noting that the tycoon thought:

“there was too much coverage of world and national affairs, he told Times writers and editors; readers don’t want that stuff. Last week, the company decreed that its 12 papers would have to cut by 500 the number of pages they devoted every week to news, features and editorials, until the ratio of pages devoted to copy and pages devoted to advertising was a nice, even 1 to 1. At the Times, that would mean eliminating 82 pages a week.

(….) Voluntarily or not, large numbers of highly talented editors and reporters have left. The editorial staff is about two-thirds its size in the late 1990s, with further deep cuts in the offing. A paper that is both an axiom and an ornament of Los Angeles life, that helps set the political, business and artistic agenda for one of America’s two great world metropolises, is being shrunk and, if Zell continues to get his way, dumbed down.”

Observably, the Alice in Wonderland front page ad debacle is the ultimate expression of the dumbing down Meyerson forewarned of, and the Los Angeles Times has thoroughly trivialized and degraded journalism with the stunt. To be fair, the degeneration of the Times is part and parcel of the overall collapse of journalism in the U.S., as corporate news outlets abandon investigative journalism and insightful reporting on national and international affairs, for stories about car chases, the lives of celebrities, puppies, and other deadening inconsequentialities.

There is however another way of looking at the predicament; corporate “journalism” is not at all deteriorating, but fulfilling its mission of obfuscating and distracting. In his 1891 essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, the writer and aesthete Oscar Wilde made an observation regarding the role of journalism that is pertinent to the topic at hand:

What is there behind the leading article but prejudice, stupidity, cant, and twaddle? And when these four are joined together they make a terrible force, and constitute the new authority. In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. This is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody – was it Burke? – called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time, no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three (….) In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever.

One can only imagine the caustic remarks Wilde would send flying at Sam Zell and the other potentates behind today’s 21st century media circus. When I first laid eyes upon that horrid Times cover I remembered Wilde’s shrewd comments about the so-called fourth estate, but I also thought back to an even more trenchant criticism of the press, a photomontage made in 1930 by the German artist John Heartfield, whose works regularly appeared in the pages of the left-wing Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ - Workers’ Illustrated Magazine).

 "Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages!" - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1930. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

"Whoever Reads Bourgeois Newspapers Becomes Blind and Deaf: Away with These Stultifying Bandages!" - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1930. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Heartfield’s image depicted a man whose head was wrapped in the front pages of the two leading German Social Democratic newspapers of the day, Vorwärts (Forwards) and Tempo, the man’s swathed head being made to look like a cabbage. Heartfield placed text over the image that chided the Social Democrats for their centrist politics and accommodationist stance regarding Germany’s ruling class. The mocking caption was a parody of a Prussian patriotic song, “I am Prussian. Do you know my colors?” (which mentions the colors of the German flag), further linking the Social Democrats to the powers that be. Translated from German, Heartfield’s caption ran as follows:

“I am a cabbagehead. Do you know my leaves? I’m nearly out of my mind with worries, but I keep my mouth shut and hope for a savior. I want to be a black-red-and-gold cabbagehead! I don’t want to see anything, or hear anything, or get mixed up in public affairs. And you can take everything, even the shirt on my back, yet, I won’t let the Red press into my home!”

Along the bottom of the photomontage, Heartfield placed the following caption in bold text; “Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf. Away with stultifying bandages!”

Clearly L.A.’s Dominant News Farce

Corporate advertising art and design without a doubt makes up much of the modern urban environment we move through on a daily basis. It has become so omnipresent that people barely notice it - inciting major advertising corporations to dream up new schemes for attention getting in an ever escalating battle over shaping public opinion. As a result, more than a few aggressively offensive and obnoxious visual campaigns have been inflicted upon us. One that comes to mind is the current ad promotion for L.A.’s local television “news” broadcaster, CBS 2 - KCAL 9. Now blanketing Los Angeles are hundreds of illuminated bus shelters and gigantic billboards that read: “CLEARLY- L.A.’s Dominant News Force.”

Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news

[ CLEARLY: L.A.'s Dominant News Force - Poster advertising CBS/KCAL television news. Illuminated bus stop shelter on the streets of Los Angeles. A picture perfect example of the Totalitarian Postmodern aesthetic. ]

That the advertising company behind this jingoistic marketing blitz decided on martial language for its promotion is bad enough, but the ruthless slogan is coupled with a militaristic image that conjures up the brutality of war. No doubt the ad execs responsible for the campaign will stand behind the subterfuge that the image simply represents the CBS/KCAL fleet of helicopters flying over the city against a backdrop of L.A.’s ubiquitous palm trees, but look again, what’s that you see - Vietnam?

Posters for Apocalypse Now and Miss Saigon

[ Left: Movie poster for the film Apocalypse Now, depicting a fleet of army combat helicopters on a "search and destroy" mission over the jungles of Vietnam. Right: Theatrical poster for the musical, Miss Saigon. Someone should tell CBS/KCAL that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. ]

A quick glance at the official theatrical posters for the musical Miss Saigon, and the movie Apocalypse Now, tells you exactly what served as an inspiration for those ad execs behind the CBS/KCAL campaign, but honestly - someone should tell them that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. Or could it be that the CEO’s had the Iraq war in mind when they approved the billboard and bus shelter graphics? Perhaps they hoped that by equating the journalists of CBS/KCAL to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, some of that “support our troops” sentiment might rub off on their broadcast clients. Such an ugly and perverse display of venality coming from the commercial advertising world cannot be discounted.

CLEARLY: The Ugly Reality

[ CLEARLY: The Dominant Force? - US Army Blackhawk helicopters fly over occupied Baghdad, March 2007, in this now widely published photo taken by AFP photographer, Patrick Baz. ]

At any rate, whatever the impetus behind the CBS/KCAL ads might be, they are a picture perfect example of what I like to call, Totalitarian Postmodern, a dangerous aesthetic that threatens and undermines democratic values.

Kanye West’s Truth Hurts

2013 UPDATE: During a séance held by a group of spiritualist friends of mine, we were contacted by the spirit of Abbie Hoffman. It was a shock, especially since we were hoping for an audience with the evanescent form of Frida Kahlo. From the great beyond Hoffman addressed me directly. “Vallen, what’s this about you giving that schmuck Kanye West the Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship!?” I sheepishly offered apologetics to the disembodied spirit hovering above us; “Uh… err… Abbie, I am sorry, I have long been embarrassed by giving West that award.”

The shaggy haired apparition muttered, “Feh!” ya got some chutzpah doin that, ya know. I mean, come on, what has that shlemiel ever done besides fool around with that Kardashian chick?” I told the ghost of Hoffman that I would edit the article, but he interrupted: “Waddaya, a postmodern or sumtin? Look meshugenah, ya can’t alter history like that. Tell ya what, take back the award, Kanye is part of the black petty booshwah, ya dig? He ain’t no rebel.” With that, Hoffman disappeared in a cloud of ectoplasm that reeked of marijuana smoke.

To mollify Hoffman’s spirit, I am retroactively disqualifying Kanye West as a recipient of the prestigious Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award, effective immediately… but my original Sept. 2005 piece of writing shall remain online, and unedited, as a matter of historic record. That article follows.

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On September 2nd, 2005, NBC television broadcast a special one hour telethon designed to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but the scripted telecast went awry when rapper Kanye (KAHN’-yay) West condemned George W. Bush for his racism. I watched A Concert for Hurricane Relief as it was broadcast for the west coast… edited and censored, which was something I didn’t realize until turning to the web for more information on the broadcast. The show featured more than a dozen musicians and a number of super-star actors, who presented information on the tragedy in the US southern gulf states and invited viewers to make donations to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The show began appropriately with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. (both native sons of New Orleans), leading a jazz band that played New Orleans-style Dixieland jazz - the music closely associated with the devastated city.

It was easy to see that the rather somber broadcast was put together quickly on a relatively small budget, with the musicians and stars not being given much time to rehearse. With varying degrees of discomfiture stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Glenn Close, Richard Gere and John Goodman struggled with scripted lines they had most likely never read before. But the stiffness really didn’t matter… it was the victims of Katrina that one and all cared for.

A number of singers performed, but it was Aaron Neville’s rendition of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 that I found especially moving. The song has an eerie resonance today because of its haunting chorus, “they’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.” At that point I couldn’t watch any more… Neville’s performance choked me up and I left the room. Turning to the internet for information about the broadcast, I discovered that Kanye West made an appearance that ruffled some feathers. At first I thought I had missed the controversy by walking out of the room after Neville’s song… but as I read more news reports I realized NBC had censored the time-delayed broadcast for the west coast.

Organizers of the NBC special paired West with comedian Mike Myers for a 90-second segment where the two were supposed to take turns reading a scripted message about the hurricane’s destructive power. Myers opened with his perfunctory reading of the teleprompter, and then it became West’s turn to address the nation. Seemingly nervous, he ignored the teleprompter for some pointed barbs on race and class, succeeding also in connecting the occupation of Iraq with the war at home:

“I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give: and to just imagine if I was down there and those are my people down there.

To anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can - help with the set-up that America’s set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less well off - slow as possible. The Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realized how a lot of the people who could help are at war right now fighting another war. They’ve given them [the National Guard] permission to go down [to New Orleans] and shoot us.”

Kanye West gives it to Bush
Myers looked consternated by West’s remark, but stuck to his teleprompter script. When his “blah blah blah” recitation concluded, West took over and went out in a blaze of glory by saying: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He delivered his bombshell with the unwavering conviction of someone who knew they were playing the role of upsetter. There was a brief awkward moment of silence as West simply stared into the camera and Myers turned several shades whiter. The camera quickly cut away to comedian Chris Tucker. The entire segment was aired live on the East coast on a seven-second tape delay, which enabled West to beat the censors and insert a bit of reality into the corporate media giant’s star-studded extravaganza. The comments were not only broadcast live by NBC, but were also simulcast to tens of millions on MSNBC, CNBC and Pax. NBC completely edited out West’s segment for the taped broadcast aired three hours later on the west coast. Releasing a statement justifying their censorship, NBC said:

“Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.”

I think it’s safe to say it’s not just ‘one person’s opinion’ we’re dealing with here. The majority of New Orleans’ population - which is 80 % African American - is most likely thinking the exact same thing. Moreover, I don’t recall NBC ever apologizing for peddling the Bush administration lies about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, a fabrication used to drag the American people into a war that has to date taken the lives of almost 2,000 US soldiers, squandered over $200 billion dollars, and killed up to 100,000 Iraqis.

Kanye West’s verbal assault was a historic television moment that corporate entities will now go to great lengths to prevent in the future. Live television broadcasts are rare in the extreme, and the world of corporate broadcasting has become so constricted and edited that spontaneous, unsanitized thoughts never get an airing. West’s unrehearsed lambaste - as rambling as it was, must be seen as a brilliant creative intervention. The few sentences he managed to blurt out contained more biting realism than thousands of hours of commercial news stories spoonfed to us on a daily basis. West tore through the media machine’s veneer of respectability and false objectivity, to reveal a thought shared by hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

NBC’s glaring censorship and frenzied attempt to distance itself from West only provided a lesson on the nature of corporate media and its masquerading as a “free press.” It was Marshall McLuhan who wrote, The Medium is the Massage, a book that foretold the power of media and technology in shaping consciousness… and on Sept. 2nd, Kanye West borrowed a page from McLuhan’s manuscript.

West’s rebelliousness and NBC’s reaction, reminds me of another incident where corporate media butted heads with an outspoken nonconformist. In March of 1970, antiwar activist and co-founder of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, was invited to be taped for an appearance on the Merv Griffin show. The longhaired Hoffman showed up at the TV studio wearing a suede jacket with fringe, and after being introduced to the audience and fellow guests, asked Griffin if “anyone would mind if I took off my jacket?” The host naturally said “Go ahead.” The Yippie prankster removed his jacket to reveal a shirt made out of an American flag. The guests were appalled and members of the audience were outraged.

It may be hard to visualize this today, with every self-proclaimed “patriot” wearing an American flag garment of some kind, but back in 1970 it was considered treasonous - especially if such a garment was worn by an anti-Vietnam War protestor. In fact, Hoffman had already been arrested and put on trial for wearing such a shirt.

The mild-mannered Merv Griffin attempted to provoke Hoffman, “How can you claim there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?” What no one knew was that prior to broadcasting the taped segment, CBS executives had made a decision to censor the show. Just before airing the tape, CBS apologized to its audience:

“It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation the network executives have decided to ‘mask out’ all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.”

When the taped show began and Hoffman removed his jacket, the screen suddenly switched to a bright day-glo blue. The host and other guests were shown, but every time the camera moved to Hoffman - the screen went blue. The episode was especially amusing since the host’s lecturing of Hoffman on the lack of censorship in the US was itself conducted against a backdrop of electronic masking. That evening over 88,000 people called the station to protest the censorship, and in the week that followed, stores across the country sold out of shirts bearing flag motifs.

Given that no one else in the mainstream media (or the world of pop culture) has publicly drawn a connection between the tragedy in the Gulf States and the occupation of Iraq, West should be congratulated for his outspokenness. I think it only proper that Kanye West be awarded the Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship.

Indiana Jones Liberates Fallujah

Meanwhile in the pop culture department, the Hollywood Dream machine has joined the war on Iraq. Universal Pictures has announced it will produce No True Glory: Battle for Fallujah starring Harrison Ford. I’m not kidding. The film will be based on the yet unfinished book No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah by former marine and now embedded reporter, Bing West. Harrison Ford, who of course played the ridiculously macho Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark series, gets to play General Jim Mattis, leader of the U.S. assault on Fallujah. The film is slated for release in 2008. It sounds as if Univeral is trying to outdo John Wayne’s 1968 Vietnam war propaganda classic, The Green Berets. If my memory serves me well, the U.S. didn’t win that war.

UPDATE: As of 2013, the film remains unmade.