Batman v. Superman: The critics are wrong

BATMAN v SUPERMANMaybe its the number of comics I’ve read. Maybe my understanding of the differences in storytelling between comics and movies is colored by how many variations on these characters I’ve seen — there must have been hundreds — and how many different writers and artists I’ve seen taking on both Batman, Superman, and all their fictional associates. Maybe the fact that I’ve actually read the classic The Dark Knight Returns, and The Death of Superman makes a difference in how I reacted to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It could just be that professional film critics have become so convinced that they know what works best that any story line that confounds their expectations is met with scorn and derision (“I wanted to see Clark doing a news story. They didn’t show that, so this movie is bad!” “What? Lex tricked them into fighting? Preposterous!”). Or maybe they’re just tired of comic book-based movies and want to see them transform into something they aren’t.

Whatever the case, I went into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with pretty low expectations based on critics who found the movie overly dense — “incoherent” one wrote — too dark, and a number of other negative adjectives. Listening to the critics, I really expected to hate this movie. “DC has done it again,” I thought, “taken an idea with potential, burned up three years of development and failed to deliver.” That, however, was before I saw the movie.

After watching it, I can say that while it certainly has its flaws — what film doesn’t these days — Dawn of Justice was certainly not a train wreck. It was not bad at all, purely from a storytelling point of view. The acting was solid all around. The special effects were as good as they ever are in a superhero flick. And it accomplished what it set out to do — apart from wowing the critical masses.

So if you decide to see Dawn of Justice, go in with an open mind. You might find, as I did, that the nattering nabobs got it wrong this time.

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HISTORY IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE STORIES OF BIRMINGHAM’S FOOT SOLDIERS

1-Fullscreen capture 1212016 92210 AMThe civil rights movement in Birmingham changed the course of the law in this country, and much of that change owes directly to the willingness of ordinary people, many of them children, to risk their safety in a bid for freedom. For Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement, I interviewed several of those brave souls, each with their own incredible story.

With such stories floating around can you imagine a whole group of competing news reporters just passing up hundreds of opportunities to regale their readers with tales of heroism, sacrifice and courage? Not just one reporter, but almost all of them, missing opportunities to put a human face on one of the biggest stories of the day.

That’s what happened in Birmingham in 1963. There were hundreds of people, many of them exuberant and on fire for change, who could have told the inside story of what may have been the most extraordinary mass movement in American history, when a seemingly powerless people rose up and risked their necks in resistance to oppression.

And yet, most of those individual stories have gone untold.

That’s why the stories in Birmingham Foot Soldiers were compelling for me to share and why they are worth reading.

Think about the context in which the Civil Rights Movement happened. Imagine waking as a third generation second class citizen. Imagine that your grandparents were slaves, and that the best you can hope for is a lifetime filled with lower wages and scarce opportunity for advancement, inferior school resources, derogatory slurs in the daytime, and random acts of terror at night, some committed with impunity by the very people sworn to protect and serve – the police.

If you could change things – would you?

Birmingham residents by the thousands lived that life and took a bold stand against it. Birmingham Foot Soldiers tells the stories of individuals who fought against institutionalized racism. They came to the Movement from different places, but they were all striving for the same result: freedom.

I learned about the foot soldiers as a reporter at the daily Birmingham Post-Herald, slowly becoming aware of the depth of history still living in the memories of people right in our figurative backyard. I interviewed Fred Shuttlesworth, the firebrand minister who had been the leader of the Birmingham movement. I interviewed James Armstrong — who later became the subject of the award-winning documentary The Barber of Birmingham – then still working in his shop and speaking out about social justice.

I interviewed Lola Hendricks, the former corresponding secretary of the ACMHR, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And I got to talk to her daughter Audrey who, in the 60s, had defied her mother (as many teenagers did) to get into the protests. I also had the privilege of talking to Nettie Flemmons, Annetta Streeter Gary, and Myrna Carter Jackson, who became a principal figure in Birmingham Foot Soldiers.

Many, though not all of those interviews were featured in a series I did with fellow reporter Sara Foss and photographer Chris Jacobs, called “Foot Soldiers.”5-Foot Soldiers images of Birmingham 2013-07-12 069

It was a profound experience, one that would remain with me long after the Post-Herald’s “Foot Soldiers” series, and the Post-Herald itself, had faded into memory. So in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of those pivotal civil rights events were being celebrated in Birmingham, when the editor of History magazine contacted me about submitting something, what I wrote about was that part of the Birmingham Movement called the Children’s Crusade. And weeks later, when the acquisitions editor of History Press contacted me about pitching book ideas, the first thing I thought of was the foot soldiers.

As I worked on the book, I learned that even with what I already knew, there was so much more, so many other facets to the story of those brave souls who had faced down Bull Connor, his fire hoses, his police dogs and every conceivable lockup in Birmingham.

These people created history, but not all of them wanted to be heroes or martyrs. Some had joined the movement, sure enough, for idealistic reasons or because they were fed up with being denied opportunity. Some joined because their friends or family persuaded them to go to movement mass meetings. Some got involved because their friends said, “Hey, let’s cut school and join the march!”

Some were poor, some were middle class. Some were teenagers, some were a bit older. Some were fired up and determined. Others were scared – or soon would be. But they put the mass into the mass movement behind Shuttlesworth, King and the other leaders of the freedom movement. They were the foot soldiers — ordinary citizens who just happened to change the course of the lawin the most powerful country on earth. Some shared their stories with me.

Ultimately, Birmingham Foot Soldiers proved to be an act of uncovering those experiences which still live among us today if only we take the time to listen. It was and remains an act of approaching history – hidden in plain sight — which I was privileged to uncover.


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Posted in 1963, AL, Birmingham, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Civil disobedience, Civil Rights, communications, History, Human Rights, journalism, leadership, news, newspaper, Nick Patterson, protest, stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Their Lives Mattered

As Black History Month approaches, it seems appropriate to remember why I wrote Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices From the Civil Rights Movement. I think this video sums it up nicely:

Posted in 1963, AL, Birmingham, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Books, Civil disobedience, Civil Rights, History, History Press, Human Rights, journalism, news, Nick Patterson, protest | Leave a comment

Waging war on the ignorance of ageism

Someone once told me that I must always wage war on ignorance. As I see it, I’ve been quietly engaged in a cold war on the ignorance of ageism, at least since I turned 50. I have discovered the fact that professionals my age often confront: that many younger hiring managers and perhaps older ones who are nearing retirement, think that over 50 means slowing down, looking only backward, resisting change, leaving the new to younger minds.

How often have the resumes of perfectly qualified, seasoned and still dynamic  professionals been completely ignored just because of age? How often have I, or people just like me, been denied opportunity because of pernicious assumptions that we can’t cut it?

Hard to say, of course. Certain legalities make it unlikely that anyone in a position to make such a decision would ever admit to making it for such discriminatory reasons.

I understand the law and the reality. I understand the assumptions. And I say those who make hiring decisions based on the presumption that a professional of a certain age is necessarily less than one more newly minted, are acting in ignorance, and denying their organizations valuable talent.

So here’s a shot over the bow for all you ageist hiring managers. I’ll make it easy and bullet-point it. Here’s a short list of my accomplishments just since I turned 50.

  • Created a podcast
  • Created a blog
  • Directed a public relations and marketing department for a nonprofit
  • Made videos for a nonprofit and two news organizations
  • Directed social media for a nonprofit
  • Consulted on social media and personal profile presentation for an executive transitioning from one big corporation to another
  • Edited a doctoral dissertation
  • Designed and delivered corporate communications workshops
  • Wrote a book, saw it published, and promoted it through a book tour and speaking engagements
  • Edited someone else’s book
  • Managed the editorial functions of a weekly newspaper
  • Wrote news and feature stories for newspapers, magazines and websites
  • Mentored young journalists
  • Taught journalism to college students
  • Shot photographs for publication
  • Appeared numerous times as a guest on radio news programs
  • As a volunteer, directed local public and media relations for a large organization

And I’m just getting started. More important, I’ll bet I’m not the only professional in my age group who is nowhere near ready to throw in the towel on a productive, active career, unwilling to go gentle into that good night of obsolescence.1-DSCN1759

It’s time that people check in with the new reality: there’s a lot of experienced talent out there, possessed by people like me, who are still aggregating skills and still ready, willing and able to contribute  meaningfully to any organization smart enough to take advantage of it. Ignoring that actually makes no sense at all.

I’ll close on this note: Open your minds to the possibilities. Free yourselves and your corporate strategies from the shackles of ageist ignorance.

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Old humor

Some years ago, I started a blog – a different one than this one. It was called “IroNick,” a title which confused anyone who didn’t know my gmail handle. Anyway, I was looking through the posts and found one from November 20, 2009, complete with fuzzy picture. I hope you enjoy it, at least a little. It was called….

There’s an App for You, Buddy

   I was conversing with the rather brilliant editor[ and now author!] and former girl detective Amy Bickers, when she revealed a great idea: Someone should build an iPhone app for detecting lies. If they can’t build one that works on everybody, they should at least build one that works on people who want to service your car.
   She envisions a world where you can go up to Joe-The-Mechanic-You-Don’t-Really-Know-But-Would-ReallyLike-To-Trust and say something like, “Please speak into the screen of my trend-forward mobile device exactly what you think is wrong with my car.”
   Then, you could look at the screen, and say, something like, “Are you sure? Because, my phone, here, doesn’t seem to believe you.”
   Brilliant idea, which is why, apparently, a few other clever individuals have also come up with it.
   Of course, in the real world, such a device would lead to much longer conversations with Joe, who might not take kindly to the suggestion that your phone doesn’t believe him:
   Joe: “Are you sure your phone has a full charge? ‘Cause I don’t think it’s playing with a full battery.”
   You: “Oh, it’s charged, buddy. And it’s on to you.”
   Joe: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your stupid phone, which, by the way, doesn’t even have the best coverage. Talk about lying…”
   You: “How dare you insult my state-of-the-art device! Why, I’m the envy of all my neighbors who don’t have iPhones, as proven by this Who’s Envying U App –“
   Joe: “Get outta my shop and take your hipster techno-bling with you.”
   You: “I still need to know what’s wrong with my car.”
   Joe: “Maybe there’s an app for that.”
   Joe’s got a point. That would be cool, an app that diagnoses what’s actually wrong with your car. Or an app that tells you which car not to buy in the first place. Or an app that explains how Joe got such a long last name. Or…
   Clearly, things could get out of hand if we start depending on our mobile devices too much, if we turn to our little mechanical boxes instead of using our own intuition and judgement. No, it’s much better to just trust Joe, who will figure out what’s wrong with your car by using his experience, laying his hands upon your vehicle, and hooking it up to a diagnostic computer.
   That’s better, because his mechanical box is bigger than yours.
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How quickly we forget. Or never know.

In the aftermath of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, during a protest over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and all that ensued afterward — and came before — it became strikingly obvious how the protest movement today differs from the Civil Rights Movement which inspired it.

If you don’t believe me, consider what Charles Steele, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said during an NPR interview during the recent Selma to Montgomery March, and shortly after the police shooting. Two of his comments caught my attention.

First, he told NPR’s Melissa Block his reaction after hearing about the police officers being shot:

“The first thing when I heard it early this morning — I turned on the TV, and I mentioned to my wife in the motel here in Montgomery — I said, ‘Baby, that’s a good example of the lack of infrastructure of education — that you can’t leave behind a generation of people without educating them in the civil rights movement.’ They don’t have a civil rights infrastructure in St. Louis or Ferguson or throughout Missouri. And we are saying now let’s take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity of conflict reconciliation and of teaching the nonviolence about Dr. Martin Luther King and the philosophy of the civil rights movement.”

Block’s immediate follow up question was whether there were young people marching “who wouldn’t remember anything about 1965?”

Steele replied, “Most definitely. There are more young people in this march than the elder folks like myself.”

If I interpret Steele’s comments correctly, he seems to see a connection between young people who lack knowledge of some signature aspects of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s — particularly regarding nonviolence — and the shooting of the two officers. Although there have been some people arguing that the shooter wasn’t really a part of the protest, perhaps Steele has a point. That is particularly so, if you consider that whether or not the shooter in this instance was a protester, the demonstrations in Ferguson have several times been marked by violence, rioting, looting and vandalism.

Some will argue that the violence began with the police, and that some outbursts arise naturally from the outrage of seeing a young black man killed in a community which the U.S. Department of Justice has called out for systemic abuses, mistreatment, and discrimination against the African American community by Ferguson’s municipal administration.

But the exact same things were happening in Birmingham in the 1960s, where Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor not only allowed Klansmen into the ranks of police — with consequent and frequent harassment of black citizens — but later used both the police and fire departments in violent efforts to suppress demonstrators. Moreover, in Birmingham, ordinary citizens who favored segregation, as well as members of the Klan or related white supremacist groups, often felt empowered to heap abuse on protesters.

Yet, somehow, demonstrators here in 1963 managed –for the most part — to maintain their adherence to nonviolent protest.

When I was interviewing people for Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices From the Civil Rights Movement, about the 1963 movement here, two things were absolutely clear: there were a lot of young people in the movement back then, but they were relentlessly trained by the leaders of the movement to be nonviolent.

Myrna Carter Jackson relates what was said to her group during a pre-demonstration meeting with King aide Andrew Young:

“We were gathered in the basement and they told us the rules and the regulations. ‘If anybody says anything to you all, spits on you or anything — you couldn’t say a word.’ We had to make that commitment. They said, ‘if you cannot do that, then you cannot demonstrate. There’s other things you can do, but you can’t demonstrate if you can’t take it. Those of you who feel like you can take it, that’s who I need.”

Clifton Casey recalled that “he found himself at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, listening to an orientation from James Bevel before the march. Bevel told them not to carry knives and to be determined not to fight back when confronted.”

Gerald Wren, who proclaimed himself a militant resister of Birmingham’s segregation by law, told me that getting involved in the formal civil rights movement meant fighting any urge towards violent response.

“You had to be able to absorb that spit, or that kick,” Wren said. “You see what I’m saying? The oldest is going to be in the front, and the oldest is going to be in the back; the youngest people gonna be in the middle. But you can’t hit that fella if he spits on you because you got people behind you that are gonna get hurt.

“That’s why they tell you, ‘You got any knives? Leave ’em. Put it in the basket. You can’t be carrying no arms because it’s nonviolent. You don’t want that. Because it’s a nonviolent thing. You can’t stand to get spit on, don’t get in the line. If you can’t get slapped, don’t get in this line.’ So that eliminated a lot of people.”

Terry Collins said that when he went to meetings to get organized for protests, among hundreds of young people from all over Birmingham, “The first thing we heard was the indoctrination about nonviolence, telling us that if we could not be nonviolent, then you couldn’t be in this with us.”

Could knowing about — or being relentlessly drilled in — the scrupulous devotion to nonviolence that gave Birmingham protesters the moral high ground in the eyes of the national and international community make a difference to demonstrators in Ferguson and other communities facing similar issues?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that many young people today lack a great deal of knowledge about the civil rights milestones of preceding generations. That’s even true in Birmingham, where I sometimes try to teach journalism to college students. Several interesting encounters with students in a recent news writing class brought this point home.

Students were working in teams to write stories — they picked their own angles of approach — about race relations. One student, about 20, doing research, ran across an unfamiliar word, and brought her laptop to me to ask what it was.

“Apartheid,” I said.

“What does it mean?” she said.

Working through my shock, I explained a little about the history of racial segregation and oppression in South Africa, which I was just learning is no longer common knowledge among smart young people in 2015.

Later, right after class, I was talking with another student, this time a 20-year-old young woman from Nigeria. Thinking that, unlike her Alabama-born classmate, this young woman would know more about a significant piece of human rights history that happened on her home continent, I asked what she knew about apartheid.

“What?” she said.

“Apartheid,” I said again, trying to enunciate more clearly.

“Spell it,” she asked. I did. She still didn’t know.

I asked her if she knew who Nelson Mandela was. She said, “A freedom fighter.”

“What did he fight against?” I asked.

“Slavery?” she asked.

Again, I tried to explain. But wait, there’s more.

Between the first encounter, and the last, there were two others. First, two students approached, who — despite the intelligence they had both demonstrated in previous classes and assignments — were unsure what the term “race relations” means.

Second, three students who told me they had heard of the movie “Selma” — and planned to interview other college students about what happened in that town — also told me they had no idea that Birmingham used to be segregated, too.

During my five minute sketch of history, one of them — who had an expression of surprise on her face the whole time — said, “I thought that kind of thing only happened in south Alabama.”

So there you have it: a microcosmic study in how easy it is to forget. Or never to know.

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say — sometimes passionately — that it would be best to forget about the past and the painful experiences that emerged from segregation, Jim Crow, apartheid and the like. The evidence suggests that some have indeed forgotten. And some may feel that it’s a sign of progress — that the current generation of young people may not be burdened by the hateful baggage of the past.

But the question raised by Ferguson’s aftermath and other incidents as well, is — is forgetting what came before really the path to peaceful coexistence?

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Rhythm in the head — or notes — of a writer

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One of my feature writing students has had a particular problem this past semester with a piece of writing I assigned, Paul Theroux’s road trip portrait of a decaying slice-of-life in   America: “The Soul of the South,” which appeared in July in Smithsonian Magazine.

The student most recently asked me, rather vaguely- maybe desperately so–  to “explain this sentence construction to me.”

The admittedly run-on sentence she took issue with:

Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.

Here’s what I wrote, for what it’s worth:

Let me take a stab at this, then.

I have said before that there is no single way to express a thought in English. The language is old and complex and convoluted, influenced by and informed by many other languages ( basic Anglo-Saxon and Germanic and Latin and French and who knows how many African and Native American tongues). A writer today, particularly if not limited by a formula specific to the use to which his words are to be put (like basic news reporting, or press release writing, or advertising) has a basically unlimited palette from which to work. He can use poetry forms and considerations like rhythm and meter in his prose, for instance.

A feature writer, like a novelist, is not required to write in a straightforward fashion. He can exhibit as many twists and turns in his pursuit of a point as he likes. The sentence you’re having trouble with above is an example of a writer exercising his literary license to create a long, involved, multifaceted, multi-clausal statement about the disintegration of a piece of Southern society. He has the freedom to do so.

He could just as easily have written it this way:

Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite, its sign still legible; broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands and the Presidential Inn, also collapsed and empty. And there was another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows. Its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” was all the more pathetic for being misspelled.

He also could have written it this way:

Here were broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds — the corpse of a motel, the Elite, its sign still legible; farther down the road the Sands and the Presidential Inn, collapsed and empty. And  there was another place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” all the more pathetic for being misspelled.

What’s my point? I have reworked Theroux’s material two different ways, ways which suited my personal preferences and taste better.Does that make me right and Theroux wrong? No. Both of us used correct English. Both of us spelled words correctly and  exhibited the proper relationships between clauses and subordinate clauses. Both of us made the same point about the scene.

Why did Theroux choose to do it the way he did? Probably something to do with how he took notes as he drove by, or walked along or stood by the scene he described. It might have something to do with the particular rhythm that words created in his head when he was writing. It feels to me like both factors may have been involved.

I say it “feels” that way, because I have had experience with the rhythm of words and with taking rapid stream of consciousness notes to capture a scene. Sometimes there is a beauty the writer can sense in the juxtaposition of words and the flow of their syllables; to Theroux it may have felt like music or creating art. But the beauty may not translate to everybody equally – it is a subjective thing – which is why they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Just as you may have experienced looking at a piece of art hanging in a museum or a gallery and not liked what you looked at (even if others declared it to be great), you may simply not like what Theroux likes in his writing. But having studied and practiced art and writing from both the creative and the practical, more commercial sides, I can both see what he’s doing as valuable, and see how to change it to suit me.

I hope that in time, you won’t be troubled by seeing work you would not have done yourself. You’re not supposed to copy his style or anyone else’s. Writing is an art form, and ultimately the artist controls the brush. That said, if you’re writing for a client, or employer, or a specific audience — which is what journalists do — you do have to stay on the canvas acceptable in the given circumstances. Theroux’s work met the test of his editors and of a substantial number of his readers, which was his intent, I think. The fact that he did  not reach you – and I know this isn’t your first complaint about “Soul of the South” — may not be something which can or must be remedied.

What you should try to do, if you’ll accept a piece of advice, is to understand the basic artistic merit of the work, and accept that there are others who see it without difficulty, even if you don’t. That’s also a useful skill when you visit an art museum, by the way.

Hope that helps.

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