documentary

Having ‘Juice’ and Being ‘Hard’

In Code of the Streets, Elijah Anderson discusses how poverty, racism, fallout from drugs, and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system in inner cities have resulted in alienation.  The code of the street is a set of informal rules governing interpersonal behavior that act as a framework for obtaining and maintaining respect or “juice.”  The code creates an alternative status system whereby respect is hard won and easily lost.  The presentation of self, such as facial expressions, body language, manner of dress, and word use can signal intentions.  Ignorance of the rules are no excuse; everyone is expected to know the code and behave in the prescribed manner.  

In Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt talks to academics and rappers about representations of masculinity and violence in rap music.  Though the documentary is a bit older (2006), the content is still relevant.  In an interview, rapper Fat Joe talks about how even at music industry events and in night clubs, everyone feels the need to present themselves as “hard.”  Later, rapper Mos Def talks about growing up as a black man you “don’t want nobody taking you for short…but when shit got critical, you can’t be no punk…and you will get tested.”  Hurt also includes discussion of the need for poor men who lack financial power to have control over their bodies and be able to present themselves as deserving of respect.

The Risk podcast, episode 510 “Impulsive,” featured a story called “Judgment Day” by J.J. about his experience coming from inner city poverty, going to college, and returning home to visit.  The storyteller gets in an altercation with a man from the neighborhood and comes very close to killing the man as retaliation for hurting his pride.

Paris Burning and/or Burnt

The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s.  More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume.  The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”

There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston.  The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza.  The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them?  How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?

The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people.  No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited.  Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn.  A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event.  Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.

This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes.  It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.

Hurricane Bureaucracy

We have a lot of negative associations with bureaucracies. They can be alienating, impersonal, and dehumanizing for both workers and those being served by the bureaucracy.  For being ‘rational,’ they can be quite inefficient, with ‘red tape’ and limited effectiveness when flexibility is needed.  Bureaucratic ritualism is when there is such a focus on the rules and regulations to the point of undermining goals and loosing sight of the larger picture.  There can also be a problem of a self perpetuating oligarchy, or the rule of many by few, concentrating power and weakening accountability.      

All of these problems can be seen in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  From local individuals and the Canadian government responding faster than the United States, to the neighboring parish (Louisiana has instead of counties) refusing admittance from New Orleans, there was a bureaucratic breakdown in government.  When trained people from other areas tried to volunteer to help, FEMA had them hand out pamphlets and fliers.

Though it is worth watching in its entirety (parts I&II, parts III & IV), Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts explores the problems between state and federal government bureaucracies from 1:19:02 to 1:42:18.

Columbine Shooting Moral Panic

In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen states moral panic occurs when “…[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”  Moral panics are “extreme social responses to the belief that the moral condition of society is deteriorating at a rapid pace.” 

Three major elements of a moral panic include 1) framing / the role of the media: amplifies and shapes public ideas of deviance, often reinforcing stereotypes, 2) the creation of a folk devil: a target stripped of favorable characteristics, often demonizing certain groups, and 3) policing / the development of new policies to “police the crisis“.

The documentary Bowling for Columbine examines the mass shooting as a catalyst for a moral panic.  The following clip shows some of the elements of a moral panic, primarily the framing and creation of a folk devil, in this case the singer Marilyn Manson.  The policing is hinted at at the beginning of the clip, with calls for school uniforms and use of metal detectors.

Wealthy Homogamy

Homogamy means “like marry like” or that people of a similar background and culture marry one another.  In the documentary Born Rich, Jamie Johnson interviews his wealthy young friends about their lives and relationships.  From 45:12 – 54:55, Johnson focuses on the topics of dating, class, and divorce. 

“Its really weird.  I never really thought about it.  I think its just your compatibility”. 

“They all know each other.  And that is their dating pool.”

“We can get drunk.  We can do lots of drugs.  We can be decadent.  We just don’t have to do it with Joey and Tommy.”

“I think it would probably be weird to bring someone to your homes, to your summer house, or maybe to introduce them to your parents.  Or something like that.  Or just, you know when you introduce them to your parents and their parents are asking about where they live.  You know my parents are so… they live in a world where they might be like “so where do you summer?””