My thoughts this week…

8 September 2020

I was really saddened by the recent death of Chadwick Boseman. He was someone who made a big impact on me.

I went to see Black Panther at the BFI because the director Ryan Coogler was going to be there. I knew of him because of Fruitvale Station and things like that and I thought it would be an interesting thing to see.

It was an amazing event. There were all these costumes there and action figures of the Black Panther and the Falcon and the Prowler and things – all of these Stan Lee, John  Romita and Jack Kirby creations.

I just thought, “Wow, black culture is extraordinary. We take something created by Stan Lee, who is a white dude, and Jack Kirby, who is another white dude, and we absolutely appropriate it and make it something that actually means something in our culture.”

It made me laugh. There were all these people there in Kente cloth and pillbox hats and huge, exotic jewellery – and the black people were even more outrageously dressed!

My friend James Hendrie, who’s an Oscar-winning film director came with me. We sat in this predominantly black audience. None of us had seen Black Panther before.

Why it’s so important to have work that resonates with a specific audience is that from the moment the movie began as they brought Wakanda to life through animation, CGI and the rest, the audience leaned forward in their seats and were fully engaged because it immediately became their story.

It didn’t matter that it was a fantasy. It suddenly became a fresh mythology, newly minted, and I was really, really involved with it and loved the whole experience.

Watching Chadwick Boseman was extraordinary because – and I think somebody said this in his obituary in the paper the other day – he had such gravitas and dignity in the way he spoke: apparently, he had specifically chosen to speak in an un-colonialised voice in the film – he sounded a little like Nelson Mandela.

Michael B Jordan was more like a cross between Malcolm X and Chuck D. So it was Mandela versus Malcolm, and the film was about the tussle between those two intentions.

We adored the film because the predominantly black audience’s reactions to the text were telling, nuanced and joyous.

Comments or jokes about the appropriation of culture, music, or afro-futurism; asides about colonialism or slavery were greeted with tumultuous cheers, roars of laughter or yelling and rounds of applause.

The concept of an un-colonialised African kingdom caught on like wildfire in our audience, and they adored this extraordinarily positive, guilt-free expression of Third World culture.

Throughout, even whilst playing a super dude in a suit, Chadwick Boseman embodied the character with finesse and utter grace. He was beautiful to watch. He was a mammoth and beautiful screen presence, and will be missed. He had much more to offer.

43 years old is just way too young.

Having reached the free bus pass and the free prescriptions age myself, it’s really weird to think of somebody leaving us at that age. Of losing anyone you care about at 43 years of age has to be seen as some kind of tragedy. Devastating.

Once you’ve had the initial feelings of loss, this kind of news can’t help but make us all attempt to seize each day, grab everything about life and squeeze the juice out of it, because you never know how long you’ve got on the clock. We have to take advantage of every single day.

So I’m trying to be more creative, to write more, to engage more, communicate with friends and family more – because you never know…

I found it quite moving that a number of people paid tribute to Chadwick with the ‘arms crossed’ Wakanda gesture. Lewis Hamilton did it on the podium when he won the Grand Prix, as did Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when he scored for Arsenal against Liverpool.

I know its only a movie, but something about the pride and respect generated by this imaginary place and its people resonates with a huge audience of colour in the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement has.

I recently saw the tennis player Naomi Osaka wearing a face mask featuring the names of the victims of police violence written on the front of it. Everyone sees this moment as an opportunity to bear witness, to show solidarity… to say: “I hear you, I feel you, I see you, I mourn with and for you.”

But what’s interesting is that it feels to me like the world is actually becoming truly woke. Everybody’s waking up to what’s going on around them, who you vote for, why you vote for them, what you care about, who’s policing you. All of these are things to be very, very awake about because otherwise we can be swamped by the missteps of a wider society that may or may not be looking out for us.

So it’s good that there are people acknowledging these things, because otherwise we’d be asleep and no one wants to be asleep these days. Bad things happen if you’re asleep. As James Brown said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I think we’re in a peak era of people taking a stand against things like the patriarchy or climate change or cancer or third world issues or mental health issues. People are standing up and saying, “We hear you, we stand with you.” I think that’s a very positive change indeed.

As I said in the last blog, it’s also inspiring that so many young people seem to be taking up the cudgels and are saying, “Wait, this really matters. We’ve got to take a stand here.”

Young people are driving this. The enemy is huge, but young people are not afraid. More power to your elbow…

Other things:

I’ve been writing all the way through lockdown-trying to get something down every day.

I keep a journal and I have been writing it every day. It’s just about everyday things, things I find funny, things I find moving, things I’ve seen. I do it because it keeps my brain ticking over.

I have also been working on various TV ideas and projects.

I’m in a sketch show on BBC Radio 4 at the moment that I’ve co-written with Max Davis and a diverse writing room. I’ve also written a couple of TV ideas, treatments and short stories, and I think it’s been cathartic. I’m finishing things!

Before I had a computer, I never used to finish anything. I used to make lots of lists. It would start off as a list of ideas for a story about a guy who lives in an apartment which is haunted by vampires, and it would finish with “milk, six eggs, newspaper, Job Centre, Phone home…” The idea list never worked properly for me… (p.s. buy fizzy water and carpet stain remover.)

But when I bought a computer and learned how to type (thank you Mavis Beacon), suddenly I was writing things and finishing them. It made me want to be a better writer. That is why I did the BA, the MA and the PhD, because I wanted to be a better writer.

And so now, having done all of those things, the only thing left to do is write – and I love it. I like jamming. I like improvising on the page. I also like the edit. Cutting back text is joyous…

I know, too, that I’ve got to try to work on the way I react to criticism, because I’m sure “Eff off” is not the right response to somebody saying, “Perhaps you need to tweak, Len.”

MY HANDWRITING IS RUBBISH!

I’ve actually just started to take handwriting lessons because my handwriting is appalling. My mate Carlton has this beautiful calligraphic handwriting – he’s this cool looking black brother who writes like a Benedictine Monk.

Carly took lessons and I just thought, “I’m gonna do that too!”

So my missus got me a handwriting tutor for my birthday (thank you, he’s a really good bloke), and I’ve had two sessions with him so far. The mechanics of handwriting are beautiful. There are leading strokes to certain words, there are ascenders and descenders, there are ellipses and half circles, there are italic and copperplate scripts. It’s a beautiful thing, calligraphy.

My hand writing is still shite, however, so I’ve got beef with this guy.

My teacher’s handwriting is exquisite – mine still looks like a spider crawled through some ink and ran over the page several times.

THE VANESSA REDGRAVE MIND WIPE…

I was mind-wiped by Vanessa Redgrave into going to the National Theatre, and it was quite scary.

The arts and heritage industry have just received this £1.5 billion bailout from the government, but times are still incredibly tough in our business.

Vanessa wanted to talk about theatres closing down and freelancers having to go and do other jobs, or go on the dole because they just can’t support themselves.

This pandemic is pernicious. It’s made everybody have to reconsider their lives – everybody in this business, anyway. They have all had to think about their position.

75% of comedy venues are closed. There has been no Edinburgh Festival this year. What are those comedians going to do? How are they going to earn a living?

It’s the same for all the musicians, actors, set designers, choreographers and fight arrangers. What are all these freelance workers in the entertainment industry – which, let’s not forget, in 2018 contributed £1.28 billion to our GDP – going to do if there is no work?

What are they going to do if there’s no financial support for them when they momentarily can’t work? That means their livelihood is at risk and they can’t put food on the table for their families.

So it’s really important that everybody in a position of power thinks carefully about how they can help those people.

It you can figure out a way to get people to go into restaurants by giving them a 50% discount on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, surely there’s a way of creating some kind of ring-fenced cushion for freelance workers in the entertainment industry, behind the scenes and onstage.

There must be some way of supporting those people because otherwise they’re all going to have to leave the industry. I know people who have gone to work in Morrison’s or gone back to teaching, or are doing woodwork or carpentry or working on a building site or driving an Uber or working for Deliveroo, because they just can’t afford to support themselves working in the theatre during the pandemic.

It would be a great loss if when we go back to the new normal, most people just decided not to come back to this business because it’s too big a risk. That’s basically what we talked about the other night at the National Theatre. It was a really productive evening.

It’s such a vital issue. It’s such a huge industry for this country, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of the creativity and inspiration that it provides.

If you close those theatres and those actors can’t work and you’re not protecting the teaching of arts in state schools, there is going to be an immense cultural vacuum. If our kids are not engaging in theatre, that will be an enormous loss.

We must not allow that to happen.

And on that bombshell…!

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