Sunday, May 22, 2016

Beyoncé, bell hooks, ‘Carmen Jones’, and ‘Carmen: A Hip Hopera’

Deep into the Lemonade syllabus.

Chapter 11, is on Theatre, Film & Documentary.

Listed there is the multi-Academy Award winning 1954 classic Carmen Jones.

This movie has everything. Dorothy Dandridge. Harry Belafonte. Pearl Bailey. Olga James. Diahann Carroll.

But this is a Lemonade syllabus. Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

And I know the Oscars are everything or whatever, but Beyoncé made a Carmen, too.

Now, I love Carmen. When the genders in Carmen are reversed, and it’s a man who faces death unafraid, that person is glorified to the point of deification. Carmen looks her killer in the eye and says fuck you and that shit is so hardcore.

But Beyoncé made a Carmen, too.

bell hooks is amazing, and her criticisms of Beyoncé are well known and widely documented. The responses coming out this week have been amazing. There are now bell hooks/Beyoncé syllabi.

Now, I’m not here to pick a side in that fight. I love both sides too dearly to play favorites and can't do anything but read and listen at a distance so I can better understand both sides.

What I’m here to to do is talk about Beyoncé’s Carmen, because that is MTV movie is one of the few Carmen adaptations I know of where her death serves a different purpose.

Harry Belafonte kills Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger’s 1954 Carmen Jones. José kills Paz Vega’s Carmen. José Lizarrabengoa kills Carmen in 1926. Don José kills 1932 Carmen. 1938 Nazi German Don José kills Carmen in Carmen of Nights in Andalusia. 1938 Fascist Spain’s José Navarro kills Carmen in Carmen, la de Triana. 1945’s Occupied French Don José kills Carmen. I’m not sure if Antonio or Vincenzo kills Italian Carmen in 1962’s Carmen di Trastevere but she is killed. There’s a Western version of Carmen called Man, Pride and Vengeance from 1967 where Don José kills Carmen. Goddard killed Carmen in his 1983 film First Name: Carmen. Carmen must have been in vogue because there was a Spanish version in 1983 and an Italian one in 1984 as well. Paco kills Carmen in the Spanish version, Plácido Domingo as Don José in the Italian. They even made a Carmen on ice called Carmen on Ice where Brian Boitano kills Carmen. Jongikhaya kills 2005 South African Carmen of U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. 2011 Carmen in Carmen’s Kiss... well, you know where this is going.

Now, Don José Navarro’s method of execution varies from Carmen to Carmen. The original novel, on which all this was based, was written by French citizen Prosper Mérimée. He was born in Paris the year Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Yankees and he died in Cannes the year Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury published this landscape of the French seaside town. Mérimée heard the story of Carmen from a woman named María Manuela Kirkpatrick who grew up in Málaga where the early stages of industrial revolution were taking off and she would probably have come into contact with the masses of women seeking employment in the boom town. She eventually married Napoleon III and created his only son. Her descendents are still Dukes and Counts and Marquises today.
Prosper Mérimée died here
Mérimée has Carmen killed with a knife, and implies that Don José will be executed. Rather than dramatizing the execution, as he had done with Carmen, Mérimée lapses into a long treatise on Romani people which his editor called “suspect” (translation: total bullshit). But Don José almost always kills Carmen.

There are some exceptions.

In 1948, American The Loves of Carmen Don José does not kill Carmen but rather Carmen's husband. Weirdly, Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 Carmen lives because Darn Hosiery’s knife is fake and they were just putting on a show for the camera (which they demonstrate by breaking the fourth wall as the film ends).

And then there’s Beyoncé’s Carmen.

Carmen: A Hip Hopera.

Produced by MTV Films. It’s available on multiple platforms to rent or purchase.

Beyoncé’s Carmen dies, but her lover does not kill her.
Beyoncé as Carmen

Usually, if Carmen lives, then Don José dies instead.

However, even though the story usually doesn’t depict his death it’s strongly suggested or straight up said that Don José will be executed for Carmen’s murder.

Carmen is a story that strongly punishes a woman’s independent sexuality, but, and this is a testament to its logevity, the woman, Carmen, is so defiant in the face of death that she becomes heroic. Her lover, or his rival (in some versions), is a bumbling tool who can’t hold a flower in his hand without crushing it as a twin result of his ambition in a hostile militarized organization and his adherence to hierarchical relationships of domination and submission.

In Beyoncé’s Carmen, Don José is Police Sgt. Derek Hill (played by Mekhi Phifer) and his rival is the corrupt Lieutenant Miller (played by Mos Def ***Aside, you know what’s weird. On the wikipedia page for Carmen: A Hip Hopera, someone took the time to update Reagan Gomez’s name and add her married name, but Mos Def’s name had not been updated to Yasiin Bey, so I logged into Wikipedia and changed that, Aside over***).

Rah Digga and Joy Bryant as Nikki and Rasheeda
Lieutenant Miller kills Carmen while shooting at Sgt. Derek Hill because Hill is aware of Miller’s corruption. Hill kills Miller in retaliation, but is charged with Carmen’s murder as well.

Beyoncé’s Carmen is an exploration of a corrupt police force which glances against Carmen’s life as a hustler. In most other versions, it is Don José/Sgt. Derek Miller turns out to be an abusive asshole who murders his partner when she leaves him. Tale as old as time, and an always current affair.

Hollywood Shuffle, Meteor Man, and B*A*P*S director Robert Townsend did the MTV version. The script was by Michael Elliot, who wrote Like Mike, Brown Sugar, and Just Wright. The cast is just insane. Jermaine Dupri, Joy Bryant, Da Brat.
Da Brat

Da Brat.

Do you know how many movies Da Brat is in?


Kazaam. The Shaq movie where he's a genie. Or djinn. Or الجن.

Oh, also Glitter. A badass movie that I have never seen but now want to called Civil Brand where a group of Black women take over a prison.

But to get back to Carmen: A Hip Hopera.

Most versions of Carmen manage to capture the horror of a lover drawing more and more inward until they are a trap from which you must escape or be killed and despite that horrible fate awaiting her, Carmen always goes with her head high and fighting all the way.
Da Brat in Glitter

Beyoncé’s Carmen does that.

And then she manages to criticize a police force that corrupts police as they go up the chain of command (Lt. Miller) and how it is tied to toxic masculinity because Sgt. Hill’s behavior puts her at risk as much if not more than himself. Considering that he survives this story, it is absolutely the case that a man’s adherence to rigid masculinity channels the violence that exists in women’s lives at all times.

That’s how amazing Beyoncé is, she sprinkles her tragedy with some crsip institutional analysis.

Now if only Carmen and Don José could survive the story. The tragedy could be that Don José gets a one bedroom in the industrial district and his internet access gets cut off when he violates the Hillary Clinton Online Gender and Sexuality Discrimination Protection Act of 2017 for posting imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist cisheteropatriarchal hate speech comments on makeup tutorial YouTube videos.

Carmen of course goes on to be the heavyweight champion of the world in all fighting based sports where her record is unbroken and her technique invariable. She simply stands in the center of any ring and falls in love with her opponent until they wither into dust.

Blue Ivy can be in that version.

But it goes a bit deeper than that. Because in the original Carmen, Carmen and Don José initially bond over (what Don José thinks is) their shared Basque status.

Remember María Manuela Kirkpatrick?
María Manuela Kirkpatrick

One year before she was born, in 1793 the French began a campaign of terror to destroy the Basque identity, destroying communities and scattering families across the country. It was the beginning of what was to be almost a century of warfare in the region and continued under Franco to the modern era, ending with his reign in 1975. Not that the issue is definitely settled. Tensions continue in France to this day.

When Carmen’s killer is her lover, she faces her death. In Beyoncé’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, it is the system of corrupt police that literally shoots Carmen in the back because she is standing between the system of authority and the threat of that system’s irredeemable corruption.

Having said that, I sit down to watch Carmen: A Hip Hopera for maybe the first time (I am suspicious that I have seen it, but maybe not the whole thing, definitely parts).

And the corrupt police element begins immediately, with Lt. Miller planting drugs he received along with money as a bribe on a child he then arrests.

For further proof, Miller then hits on Caela (Reagan Gomez-Preston) right in front of Hill despite their being engaged. Then the two men whip their dicks out and slap each other for a few minutes (although I may have dozed off and dreamed that ***Aside, where is Beyoncé already?***)

Oh, here she is in the literal next shot. Or rather, her shoes are. Then a cut of Fred Williamson reacting to them. Then the whole room, including Lt. Miller, reacting to them. Back to the shoes. Back to Fred. Then in a slow pan, there is revealed Beyoncé as Carmen. In a sequined red cocktail dress that is slit up the left thigh to the top of the rectus femoris and with décolletage plunging to her navel.

She wears a red rose in her hair and the first words anyone says to her are “baby.”

A woman immediately gets possessive.

And Carmen, who has yet to speak, breaks out in song. A duet with Miller where he propositions her and she shoots him down by flirting with Hill.

Caela, to whom he is betrothed, does not take it lightly.

Caela intersects with another aspect of Carmen often discussed in history and criticism of the work. The character isn’t in the original story, but appears in the Bizet opera as Micaëla (and most subsequent adaptations that also depend on it for inspiration). There are two themes present in almost all adaptations along with Caela as an indicator of the non-Carmen path for Don José. Carmen Jones has one of my favorite incarnations of Micaëla. Her name is Cindy Lou. If your name is Cindy Lou, and you’re into dudes. Expect to be cheated on.

In all versions of Carmen, the narrative inherently sets up the ethnic minority woman, Carmen, as an oversexualized ‘Jezebel’ in contrast to the constant, propriotous, constancy of Cindy Lou/Micaëla.

Cindy Lou Caela follows the story, always trailing Don José as the life he could still have if he would just settle down and stop chasing after Carmen.

Carmen has no Cindy Lou, in any version of the story. Sure, there are always a pool of lovers vying for Carmen’s affections, but there is no normal life ever available to her. In the original, because she is a gypsy. In Beyoncé’s Carmen, because she is a Black woman in America. Instead, she has mysticism.

Almost every version of Carmen, including the original include an element of superstition, possibly because the story stems from an itinerant Romani person that may have actually existed with multiple income streams include fortune telling, but more likely because the French author was racist dickbag (Seriously, the last part of Carmen is just the author sounding off on the “patholigical immorality” of the Roma).

In that sense, and this is very often the case, all versions of Carmen function end up revealing more about white/colonizer fantasies about colonized women than perhaps was intended by the author. Anne Thériault recently wrote that men love metaphors because they think they are “smart and sneaky, even when they are in fact neither of those things.”

In that sense, Carmen: A Hip Hopera and Carmen Jones are also about the limits placed on Black women in American entertainment at different periods of colonization.

Dorothy Dandridge used the success of Carmen Jones to come out of the closet about her then taboo relationship with Ukrainian director Otto Preminger one year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dandridge later said it was Preminger’s advice about turning down a supporting role in The King And I that led to a slowdown in her career.

Beyonce’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera came out in May of 2001, less than six months before the September 11th attacks in NY and D.C.

Both the 1950s and the 2000s were periods of intense crackdowns on domestic civil liberties but also a period of both expansion and transparency to the atrocities being carried out by U.S. forces overseas. Not to mention the ever escalating and expanding wars.

And then here we are in 2016 with Lemonade, 15 years after Carmen: A Hip Hopera and in the past two years there have been major uprisings in U.S. cities all over the nation but in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, etc.

Fifteen years after Carmen Jones it was 1969, and U.S. cities had been burning for at least four years with similarly public actions taken in response to escalating police violence.

Dorothy Dandrige didn’t live to see that, though.

She died at the age of 42 in 1965.

One month after the Watts Uprising.


While bell hooks is overly critical of Beyonce, Lemonade ultimately concludes with a theme found in much of hooks’s work. Healing.

The world of Carmen is a disordered world. What little family anyone has is ultimately inconsequential, and the random characters that come together form small, temporary familial units that live and expire by their functionality.

That more than anything is indicative of it’s patriarchy, colonial/capitalist, hyper-masculine white origins.

Lemonade, with its themes of healing through spirituality, family, connectivity, community, reveal its creator as the intensely competent Black woman.

Because Beyonce is amazing all on her own (which she acknowledges when she sings “We gon’ live a good life” about the possibility of ditching her husband and absconding with their babies), but she surrounded herself with a team of equally competent people to create something greater than any of of their individual parts that also unites and connects a broad audience by telling a narrative both sad and bittersweet and full of pain.

And yet, as mainstream as can be, Beyonce always performs success with half a step out of line with a white America that could not be more critical. When Carmen Jones was on television, Britney Spears and the American Idol were making big screen, full court press marketing Hollywood movies.


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