Monday, October 20, 2014

Gary Black Film Festival

“I believe in Gary.  I believe the people are holding on.”  Community organizer Syron Smith

I decided to talk without notes introducing Frederic Cousseau and Blandine Huk’s film “My Name Is Gary,” but wrote out these thoughts beforehand:

Last year I received an email from French filmmakers Frederic Cousseau and Blandine Huk.  They had come across my blog dealing with Gary history and told me of their intention to live in Gary for two months.  They had made documentaries about industrial cities in Poland and the Ukraine and wanted to do something comparable in the United States.  I helped them find a place to stay and, after they arrived, arranged for them to meet such people as Mayor Richard Hatcher, State Senator Earline Rogers, union leaders Alice Bush and Lorenzo Crowell, and people from IUN such as archivist Steve McShane and administration assistant Mary Lee.  I soon got the sense, however, that what they wanted most was to go off on their own and discover people and places for themselves.  Their goal was to have Gary residents talk candidly about their city and to record as many different viewpoints as possible.  Theirs became a labor of love and once, after spending a day in Chicago, they told me that, riding back on the South Shore, they felt like they were coming home.  One of their last interviews was with me, and at the end they asked me to say, “My Name is Gary.”  I thought it rather odd, but after they used that phrase as the title of their film, it made sense.  In fact, I believe that virtually everyone interviewed in the film is proud to say they’re from Gary.  Frederic and Blandine sensed that and through their interviews have captured that pride and the resilience of its people.  So I believe that it is not an exaggeration to call the film a loving a well-balanced tribute to the people of Gary.
above, Karen Toering; below, Erykah Badu

On Friday, day one of the Gary International Black Film Festival, IUN’s 33rd Avenue parking lot was swarming with police, and a Lake County Command Center trailer indicated they were doing another sweep.  I hope it is just an unfortunate coincidence, but if I am uncomfortable, I imagine other attendees will be, too.  Greeting me in Savannah Center were festival director Karen Toering, committee member Toni Simpson, and board chairman Walter Jones, whom Samuel A. Love introduced me to at the Stewart House community garden.  The opening reception was a big success, and I chatted with two others Sam introduced me to while Frederic and Blandine were in town, community organizers Alicia Nunn of ARISE and Kay Abraham of the New GRANT Theater, as well as former Labor Studies teacher Robert Buggs, dressed to the nines.  When Karen lined up to take a photo of us, I joked that Buggs should slouch since he was much taller than I.  A jazz trio, singer, keyboardist, and conga drummer were first-rate, as were the hors d’oevres.  The main event was screening of the Black western, “They Die at Night.” Appearing in the film is singer Erykah Badu, and by 7 pm a large crowd was on hand.

On Saturday I was back to see three short films.  The first, Eli’s Liquor Store, was so realistic I first thought the owner was playing himself.  The others were quite disturbing: “Finding Neptune” dealt with a guy whose compulsion to masturbate while watching porn undermined his relationship with a girlfriend.  “The Gift” was about a woman who caught AIDs from a man and got her revenge by picking up strangers and sleeping with them.  The actress, a 1987 Gary Wirt graduate named Timika now living in Texas, was quite beautiful, as was her mother, currently rehearsing as Lady MacBeth.
Sunday was the premiere of “My Name Is Gary,” and a crowd of more than 100 people was on hand, including Mayor Freeman-Wilson and two of Mayor Hatcher’s daughters.  After festival director Karen Toering made introductions and thanked her staff, I made some remarks about directors Frederick Couseau and Blandine Huk.   The film was awesome (as Georgre Van Til and others remarked), but about 25 minutes into the film the blue ray kept stopping and starting and then stopped entirely.  Once it stopped while showing Samuel Love and me putting Camilo Vergara’s Martin Luther King posters on the front of Four Brothers market, enabling Toni to photograph it.  After a few minutes, it started up again but only for about 15 minutes.  We never got to see the end, but people in the audience, including some who were in the film, shared reminiscences about growing up in Gary and appreciated how “My Name Is Gary” provided historical context.  I promised to obtain a clean copy and show it in its entirety, perhaps at IUN and the Gardner Center in Miller.
photos Toni Trojecka Lane took during the screening of "My Name Is Gary" of Sam and Jimbo
On the way out Wilton Crump of the Spaniels reported that Henry Farag’s second performance at Three Oaks, Michigan, last Friday was so successful the management wants them to work up a Christmas show.  Also in the audience was Jonathyne Briggs, clutching page proofs of his forthcoming book and back from Paris, where he spent two evenings with Frederic and Blandine.  We marveled at some of the symbolism in “My Name Is Gary,” the use of trains, for instance, whose comings and goings once meant good paying jobs for Gary residents but now were only the cause of stalled traffic and pollution.  One person told Blandine of his goal to make it to Chicago while the image of Chicago’s Loop could be seen clearly across Lake Michigan.  Some in the audience thought the film too bleak, but my view is the filmmakers came to Gary expecting to find a ghost town and instead met a whole slew of interesting, vital people proud to be from Gary.

After the show we had dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse with the Hagelbergs, where, having skipped lunch, I devoured a 7-ounce filet.  The day before we celebrated Angie’s birthday at Sage Restaurant, and I brought half my delicious pot roast home. The grandkids were at play practice in East Chicago, but earlier I had seen James bowl a decent series.  Chris Lugo’s grandson Charlie Jones rolled a 213, despite a split in the seventh, ending a string of strikes.
John and Andrew English, Dave and James Lane, Josh, Kevin and Kaden Horn; below, Sat. bowler K.K. with grandpa Kerry Smith and Duke Caminsky

Randy Mark Yager, formerly with a local chapter the Outlaws Motorcycle Gang, got arrested in Mexico and transferred to San Diego after 17 years on the lam.  Indicted in 1997 for robbery, drug trafficking, arson, and conspiring to commit murder, Yager, a Gary native who had lived in Crown Point, fled the country with girlfriend Margie Jelovic, whom he met at Milan’s 51st Tap at 5115 Broadway in Gary, owned by her mother Katie.  Margie, according to the NWI Times died in a car crash while fleeing authorities after Mark was arrested Ironically, it is doubtful she would have been charged with a crime.  The Outlaw Motorcycle Club started in 1935, adapted the skull and cross pistons as their official patch after Marlon Brando wore a similar insignia on his jacket on “The Wild One,” and spawned dozens of chapters in the U.S. and several other countries.  Forty years ago they went to war with the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels.
Yager then and now

Twenty years ago one of my students got involved with the Outlaws.   He and a friend were breaking into summer homes in Cedar Lake; among the things they stole were guns. Outlaw members said they’d help arrange for to sell them to the Black P Stone Nation.  It turned out to be a police bust, and he spent six weeks in jail and received a six-year suspended sentence and probation while two Outlaw gang members with him received the maximum sentence of ten years.

Elsewhere in the news, Governor Pence turned down $80 in federal money for pre-school programs after Tea Party zealots put pressure on him.  Even more horrendous, Darren Vann, a convicted sex offender from Gary, strangled a prostitute to death in a Motel 6 in Hammond and when apprehended, admitted to murdering six other women and led them to bodies located in abandoned homes, of which there are approximately 10,000 in Gary.

Dave had Monday off so he, Tom Wade and I played board games for the first time in ages.  I was two of four, winning Amun Re and Air Lords, barely edging out Dave, who usually wins it, when Tom failed to re-deploy his jumbo jets correctly.  On the final dice roll I needed an 8 or better and got 8 on the nose.

The Bears were so terrible losing to Miami that Jerry Davich wrote: “The game was like looking forward to a hot date and then she gets drunk, gets sick, violently vomits on you and you still have to take her home.”   Al Hamnik of The Times compared rooting for them to being in a bad marriage:
               “You stay together for the kids and because you have a lot invested in the family.
                But secretly, you’re drowning in apathy.
                This isn’t fun any more.
                There are no rewards, no future.
                The negativity is choking you like a harness.”

On the way to IUN I noticed that gasoline prices have dipped below three dollars a gallon.  I thought I’d never see that happen.  Leeann Wright of University Advancement sold me an IUN Homecoming ticket from her.  It comes with a nice Redhawk shirt.  Unfortunately they were out of extra larges, but Leeann said more would soon arrive.  She is very personable and told me she reads my blog.

In “The Judge” Special Prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is from Gary while the small-town attorney supposedly received his law degree from Valparaiso.  Dickham has it in for attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) because of a previous case, where Palmer successfully represented a murderer.  The film got mediocre reviews, but I loved the interaction between Downy and Duvall.

Jonathyne Briggs spoke in Nicole Anslover’s WW II class about France under the Vichy regime and how the French have remembered the German occupation over time.  He mentioned that the American military hanged 29 soldiers, all but four African American for allegedly raping French women even though, in all likelihood, some of the cases were consensual.  Rather than employ a guillotine, the army brought over a hangman from Texas.  Jonathyne was relaxed but erudite (pointing out complexities and ironies).  He cited comparisons between the 1940s and today and occasionally employed slang expressions, such as “up the wazoo.”  Jon also worked in humorous references to his recent sojourn in Paris, including their celebration of its liberation 70 years ago and the fact that the French don’t like spicy food.  He had stayed in a mostly Vietnamese neighborhood, however, where he could enjoy spicy food to his heart’s content.

At VU professor Heath Carter’s for dinner (delicious vegetarian chili) I talked with students about their topics for papers on race-relations in Northwest Indiana, which ranged from the Gary schools to white reaction to Richard Hatcher’s election in 1967.  I suggested to several that they narrow their focus to such possibilities as Gary Roosevelt sports programs in the 1930s or the use of scare tactics in the drive to incorporate Portage as a city.  I enjoyed meeting Heath’s wife and three kids; the family moved to Valpo eight months ago from Chicago.  Also invited was community activist Loie Reiner, who knew Steve McShane and Ron Cohen, and had been active in the anti-nuke Bailly Alliance and the Valparaiso Builders Association, which helped provide housing for black families wishing to move to Valpo.  She and her late husband founded Hilltop Neighborhood House, and she is on its board of directors.  Last May VU awarded Loie an honorary degree.  She noted with pleasure the multi-colored “diversity” ribbon I was wearing.
Loie Reiner with Hilltop Neighborhood House kids
I sent this note to Heath:
“Thanks so much for inviting me to dinner.  I had a great time meeting your family, the legendary Loie Reiner, and seeing your students again.  Here are a couple alternative topic suggestions for, Pat, the Steeler fan who thought he wanted to interview Hatcher's enemies.  If he wants to employ oral history, why not interview the African American young women in his class.   She lives in the Tarrytown area of Gary right next to Black Oak,  where working class whites still live.  By having her tell her life story, they could get to know one another better, an example of race-relations at work.  Or, since he is into football, have him read Dawn Knight's 2007 biography of George Taliaferro ("Taliaferro: Breaking Barriers from the NFL Draft to the Ivory Tower").  An IU All-American and one of the first black pro football players, Taliaferro grew up in Gary.  He describes his neighborhood on the 2600 block of Madison as a melting pot but also observes that schools were segregated.  The student could use Gary city directories to examine the composition of the neighborhood and, by interviewing, if possible, old residents, assess how accurate were Taliaferro's memories were of his youth, and consider how a historian should deal with memory and nostalgia.

Taliaferro's biographer wrote of the working class neighborhood (p.5): ‘It may have been the socioeconomic equality of the people or the fact that those who weren't black were immigrants, sharing similar experiences, having come from Italy, Germany, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and other mainly European countries.  They all got along.  Pig roasts, a part of Serbian culture, became a regular part of life for all of the neighborhood families.  A Serbian family would slowly roast a pig on a big spit, and the rest of the families would bring side dishes.  It didn't matter that the kids were of different races; they were friends.  The kids played together without incident while the adults cooked and talked, often about sports and local athletes.’  Taliaferro recalled that it was ‘the way all towns ought to be.’

Hope to see you soon, Jim”

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