When our world grows bleak, we must dance to the rhythm...
The reason 'Dirty Dancing', 'Footloose', and 'Purple Rain' deserve annual viewing!
Spring's greetings, my fellow opinionated people!
(*) I would like you to know: at this very moment, I am sitting in my favorite sports bar, sipping a beer, and watching professional basketball out of my periphery -- and due to the growing (and for some, paralyzing) fear of the coronavirus, this place is about half as busy as it usually is. Which means easier parking and priority seating, which is totally cool with me. I guess. But it has me thinking: if it comes to me being stuck at home in the near future, whether due to illness or work shutdown, which films would be my Chicken Soup for the Soul, as 'twere? Where might I run to first, to flee the binge-watching of super-TV, and find my happy place buried deep under the rising waters of preoccupation (and lack of work)? Where I landed was a universe filled with rollicking soundtracks and bodies dancing unencumbered...
My name is Orion Bradshaw; I stand before you as a heterosexual white male in my mid-thirties, telling you that Dirty Dancing, Footloose, and Purple Rain should be viewed (at least) once a year! -- and not necessarily in that order; it's dealer's choice. And furthermore, on the first day of the zombie apocalypse (assuming the electricity lasts at least 24 hours), these films are where I will find my solace and joy. More importantly, all three of these films boldly utilize (and advocate for) joyous and potent movement (and equally joyous and/or potent music) as a method of combating systems of inequity and tactics of oppression. If you would, allow me to explain myself further...
DIRTY DANCING (1987):
Combating Classism, or the 99%. In this film, we are transported to the year 1963 -- a time when upper-middle class (and richer) families went to summer camp together. We are introduced to (Jennifer Grey as) Frances (or "Baby", as she's affectionately called by her family --youngest child, much?), who is a young social justice activist in the making. Upon arrival to a lakefront country club resort in the Catskills, she rapidly stumbles upon the sweaty, late-night world of the "dirty dancing" crowd, serving as a sexy underbelly to the more posh and polished world of those who learn the Mambo and the box-step in daylight and at dinnertime. Fairly quickly, we are exposed to a youthful and rebellious world that doesn't dance dirty merely to avoid sleep and hook up, but as a way of blatantly rebelling against a world that treats them as second-class citizens and whose purpose for them is all but fleeting and superficial. This picture-perfect world of escapist respite (much like our very own) is built upon a foundation of Classism. And, as an audience, we go down the rabbit hole with Baby, as she deepens a relationship with the fleet-footed and statuesque dirty dancer bad boy type, Johnny Castle (portrayed by the immortal Patrick Swayze).
Wikipedia defines Classism as: "the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It's the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class." As Baby spends more time with the younger and lower-class individuals at this resort which panders solely to the 1%, and her relationship with Johnny deepens, she quickly realizes that there is much to be learned by this population of "misfits" who dance the night away when the bosses and parents aren't watching. And we learn right along with her. Due to an unforeseen circumstance (which I feel is bravely embraced in this film), Baby and Johnny are forced into the roles of reluctant dance partners, and as they painstakingly prepare for the epic number that will conclude the summer's festivities, we grow more and more entranced by a colorful community on the fringes, whose inhabitants teach us that: friends come to us in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life - accept them and let them in; you should never be shamed when asking for help; people can indeed change; and, dancing (however awkward) is not only sexy, but truly bonds people and fosters community... to name but a few. But perhaps most importantly...
ICONIC. "There are people willing to stand up for other people, no matter what it costs." Thank you, Swayze. Words worth remembering, and embodying, during this trying time.
Combating religious oppression & archaic methodologies. This film "kicks off its Sunday shoes", and tells the story of Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon), a teenager from Chicago who moves to a quaint Utah town where he lives with his mother, aunt, and uncle. Upon befriending a fast-talking country-boy and falling for the local minister's (John Lithgow) daughter, Ren decides he must fight to overturn the town's ban on dancing, which resulted from the efforts of Lithgow's militant minister character a few years back.
The character of Ren is somewhat of a rebel; he drives his beat-up yellow VW Bug just a little too fast, and blasts his music just a little to loud for the local yokels. But he also quickly sees through the facade of safety that an overbearing church presence has cast over his fellow high school students. Due to a car-full of students perishing in a drunk-driving-related car accident a few years back, there is no rock music and NO DANCING allowed within town limits. The math: overexcited and oversexed teenagers = trouble and tragedy. This ban does not, however, address nor discontinue domestic and household abuse, the burning of library books by conservative schoolteachers, or other youth oppression tactics resulting from archaic religious methodologies (e.g. "rock music makes you do drugs and have unprotected sex!"). At the urging of his new girlfriend (who has grown especially stifled and rebellious as a result of her father's decrees), Bacon's character attends a town hall meeting and cites several Bible passages as literary (and religious) evidence of humanity's cellular need to dance as a form of honoring life itself, in all its complex ugliness and beauty. Only after that is the ban reconsidered. "From the oldest of times, people danced for a number of reasons..."
"There is a time for every purpose under Heaven. A time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to mourn... and there is a time to Dance." Bravo, Bacon. You tell 'em. And as we around our beloved globe are being forced into social distancing and self-quarantine, I truly hope that all who read these humble words of mine will find, nay MAKE, time to dance. Like no one is watching. Don't do it for me -- do it for YOU.
...And YES, I am absolutely aware that racial and cultural minority populations are vastly (and sadly) underrepresented in the two aforementioned films. That is why I have saved "the best" (or at least the one I #nerdout over the most) for last! Let's Go Crazy, shall we...
PURPLE RAIN (1984):
Combating epigenetics, or the trauma inherited from our lineage. Not the sins of the father - the trauma of the father. Minneapolis-based rock artist, The Kid, is a prodigy in the city's music community - but is also a polarizing figure because his progressive musical stylings and overt male/ androgynous sexuality fly in the face of modern pop-rock sentiments. The Kid's got massive talent, but he's also got issues: He and his band, The Revolution, have trust problems; the owner of the hot club he plays at doesn't know what to do with him; his rival act and the club's hottest ticket, The Time, are out to screw him over; he begins to fall for a new gal in town, Apollonia, who is a pop star in the making and has her own aspirations of fame... and worst of all, he and his mother are victims of domestic abuse at home. One of the main reasons it's hard for me to rally my peer group to watch this film with me, aside from the oft-corny acting, is the fact that Prince's character perpetuates this trait of abuse in his own romantic relationship, amid moments of great stress. And I get it; these quick-fire moments can be hard to watch. And they make it more difficult to root for the story's "hero." But I find this semi-autobiographical tale to be an effective meditation on what we can inherit, both socially and genetically, from our parents, caregivers, near and distant family, etc. - as well as the steps we [hopefully attempt to] take as individuals to strive toward personal betterment. Perhaps these steps manifest themselves in provocative works of Art, in social or philanthropic Service, in providing Education to various focused populations - and the list goes on.
As Resmaa Menakem states on page 7 of his book (which I highly recommend to ALL my fellow citizens of today), My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, "Trauma is not a flaw or a weakness. It is a highly effective tool of safety and survival. Trauma is also not an event. Trauma is the body’s protective response to an event - or a series of events - that it perceives as potentially dangerous." He proceeds to observe on the following page that, "Whenever someone freaks out suddenly or reacts to a small problem as if it were catastrophe, it’s often a trauma response. Something in the here and now is rekindling old pain or discomfort, and the body tries to address it with the reflexive energy that’s still stuck inside the nervous system."
In a 2014 TIME article, entitled Why Black Women Struggle More With Domestic Violence, Feminista Jones writes, "Racism has a disparate impact on Black people, men especially, who have, for the past six decades, consistently been held to an unemployment rate almost double that of white men. In a society that measures “manhood” primarily by one’s ability to provide, being denied access to the means to provide can cause some men to seek power through dominating women. For some men, the venting of anger turns violent and their partners suffer the greatest blows." In Purple Rain, The Kid's father, Francis L. (who was himself an accomplished musician some time ago, we find out), is a perpetrator of consistent domestic abuse against our protagonist and his mother. In what I consider to be the most visceral acting performance in the whole film, Francis L. (portrayed with the rawest of honesty and volatility by Clarence Williams III) shows us that his behavior comes from somewhere. It did not just magically appear one day. It is "intergenerationally transmitted"; it is a "soul wound" (Menakem, pp. 9-10). We of the established dominant culture in the U.S. tend to conveniently forget that our forefathers brought the ancestors of our Black and African-American brethren across the vast ocean, in heavy chains, over 400 years ago - for the sole purpose of forcing them to build the infrastructure of our economy with their bare hands, their blood, their sweat, their tears, and their very lives. And those human beings, dragged into the meekness of bondage, were never meant to inherit any of it. The study of Epigenetics informs us that, since the early 1600's, the trauma responses to this atrocious aspect of our country's origin have been passed down through the generations. In most cases, the ancestors of these first US American slaves did not inherit the earth that they endlessly toiled over... but in all cases, their descendants inherited some form of unspeakable pain.
With this film, the dramatization of Prince's own story bravely showcases for us that even geniuses can be helplessly at the mercy of generations past. And so, upon hearing the Purple One utter the immortal line, “This song is dedicated to my father”, my waterworks gush forth. It reminds me that my own father, whom I’ve idolized since I can remember, is perhaps my greatest single influence. And it reaffirms for me that I dedicate a prominent part of my life to my ancestors, specifically on my Dad’s side. My paternal lineage includes Robert E. Lee, some of the first Pilgrims to land at Plymouth, and other lesser-known slave-owning colonizers. To them I say, boldly: I see you. I know you did what you thought you had to do to survive. I am grateful to be a part of your flawed and overpowering legacy... but I am choosing to write my own songs, compose my own music, and dance my own way. To make art, to give back, to teach others. The way my Father (and Mother - love ya, Mom!) taught me to. The way Prince taught me to. Taught US too, and still does. The way these three films can still teach us to, if we let them.
(*) = Whew. So yeah, I began writing this article the very hour the NBA began taking steps to shut down/ postpone their season. As a professional basketball fan (Rip City!) what a major TRIP that was to behold; heaps of respect to the NBA execs for making that infinitely difficult, and yet infinitely necessary, call. Anyway, almost two weeks later, I finally finished the article. Time sure flies when your routines are forced to change! I most humbly thank you for taking in my words. Much Love.
And now, enjoy the ever-loving $h*t outta the below bonus material (strengthening the above argument) - one gem for each film!! May they bring you joy. Let's go to WERK...
30 years later, with this exquisitely throwback intro... I can't even.
The most fire track from the Dirty Dancing deluxe anniversary album. YES.
I truly believe the single greatest soundtrack album of ALL time... this, and the original Batman soundtrack (notice a pattern here?). You're welcome. ;) XO.
Further, I encourage you to investigate the cited resources with any newfound free time you may have. See where they take you. We are a community, my people. Learning. Growing. In this thing together...