Monthly Archives: July 2017

Black is an invisible colour

I used to say I like every kind of music except Country. That was until my good friend Steve Abel made me sit down and listen to ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’, recorded live at the infamous prison. I was an instant fan.

So when “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic, was released in 2005 I was eager to see it. I thought it was a great movie, with some brilliant scenes, like the one where Ma and Pa Carter see off Cash’s dealer with shotguns as he quits cold turkey. They seemed to epitomise the best of White Southern Christian Decency, in contrast to the usual treatment we see of Southern hypocrisy, malice and racist cruelty.

The romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter was of course the main thread of the movie. It winds around his protracted wooing of her and ends with a caption celebrating their 35 year partnership on and off stage after she finally agrees to marry him. His first wife Vivian is portrayed as a woman just never suited to be his wife and who drove him away with her bitterness, jealousy and resentment. I remember idly wondering what she was really like, and whether this was a fair portrayal of her character, as the story moved back to his great love for June.

Watching the movie for a second time the other day I was again swept up in what a nasty, bitter woman Vivian was, even as another part of my mind again questioned the representation. In the garden with my wife the following day, we began deconstructing the movie as we worked. As we talked through different elements of the plot, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Later I decided to google Vivian Cash. I found a review of her book ‘I Walked the Line’, written after the film came out. Not surprisingly it gave a very different story to the film, suggesting that their marriage had been very happy until June stole John away. What WAS surprising, though, was when I looked at photos of Vivian. Turns out that she was a black woman.

john and vivian cash 1jonny and vivian cash 3

You’d never know from reading any of the articles about her.

You’d certainly never know from watching the movie, where she is played by Ginnifer Goodwin.

ginnifer goodwin

In fact the only thing I found in my admittedly brief search that referenced her ethnicity was a newspaper headline from when he was busted for drugs that says “ARREST EXPOSES JOHNNY CASH’S NEGRO WIFE”. Presumably exposes her for the sin of being black in the USA.

Interestingly, in contrast to the newspaper article from the time, the film shows him leaving court alone and coming home to her censorious displeasure. It is shortly after this arrest that the chronology of the film shows them separating.

johhnycash

I’d noticed before that there are almost no black people in the film. Two shoe shiners are the sum total are far as I remember. I imagine the director, James Mangold, justifies this by saying that there are no black characters who are important to the story. That is if you don’t include his first wife.

Suddenly the treatment of Vivian makes complete sense. In the world of American Country music, of course the black woman is the villain of the story – even when her husband leaves her and her four daughters for another woman. June and John are considered one of the most iconic couples in country music history, and no black woman is going to undermine that narrative. Her character has to be destroyed. But even that is not enough. Her very identity is robbed from her, made invisible by whitewash.

They say that black is not a colour, it is the absence of light. That certainly seems to be true in Hollywood.

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Youth Offending in the Eastern Bay

I heard some really interesting news on Wednesday. I was representing the District Council at a meeting of the Youth Offending Team, and the Police Youth Aid Officer was talking about offending rates in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

To give some quick background, the Youth Offending Team is a monthly forum where different agencies working with young people can get together and share what they are up to. Not everyone can make each month of course, but we had people from Oranga Tamariki, REAP, Voyagers, Tūwharetoa Ki Kawerau Hauora, Manna Support, Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea and others. It was a really interesting and informative meeting that covered a lot of ground.

One of the things I almost always hear in these kinds of forums are cases of really successful schemes that got funded for a pilot, proved their effectiveness and then struggle for enough on-going funding to work properly. This time it was REAP’s Manaaki Programme, designed to support kids to stay in school. Being disconnected from school can be a real blow to some young people as it can disconnect them from friends, adult support and opportunities. It was great to see different agencies offering advice about where pūtea could be found to support this important initiative.

I was also pleased to hear about a mobile playgroup that is starting up and will be focussed on Awatapu to start. Lots of comments made at the Awatapu community day a few weeks ago highlighted the need for more facilities for childrens, so this should provide a useful service in the area.

But the really interesting news for me came when Tom Brooks started talking about offending rates. Apparently youth offending rates across the country are sinking rapidly, except among young Māori. Youth offending by Māori is going up across the country – but in the Eastern Bay it is going down. Similarly the high teenage pregnancy rates in Kawerau and Opōtiki have plummeted. This is a great story and one that I have not heard before.

“What has caused that?” I asked. In reply I was told that the police are being less precious and are taking a more responsive approach through Problem Oriented Policing (look it up). I heard about the police working with iwi, such as through the Hui-ā-Whānau that Tūhoe is championing. I heard about agencies working with the whole family, including siblings, rather than just focussing on “problem” children. I heard about less reliance on courts to solve problems. Most of all I heard about the community looking for its own solutions and coming up with the goods.

To me this was a reminder that we live in a really resilient, grounded and innovative community here in the Eastern Bay, and that we have a lot going on that other areas on the country can learn from. It was great to be part of the YOT and I look forward to more.

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Risk and Responsibility – some thoughts on Matatā

A couple of weeks ago I voted against a Whakatāne District Council decision to try to force Matatā residents in the Awatarariki fanhead from their homes. I was the sole voice against, but to me it was a step too far.

The issue goes back to 2005, when a debris flow destroyed 27 homes and put the future of the township into question. Many residents were opposed to leaving then and the WDC spent millions exploring engineering solutions to safeguard the town. In 2012 it came to the conclusion that protecting residents against another debris flow is practically impossible.

Since then the focus has been on moving people out of the danger zone. The WDC has been working on a ‘voluntary retreat’ package intended to buy out affected residents at a fair price, if we can get Central Government and the Regional Council to chip in. Most residents have indicated that they are willing to at least entertain the idea, but a small number are adamant that they do not want to leave. They just want to be left alone. It is these people that the vote was aimed at.

Because of the risk of loss of life when the next debris flow happens, the WDC wants to change its own District Plan to stop any new building in the danger zone. It does not have the power, however, to move the people already living there. Only the Bay of Plenty Regional Council can do that, with a change to the Regional Water and Land Plan.

WDC has been asking BOPRC to do that at the same time as the changes to the District Plan. Both councils have legal obligations to minimise risk and this is seen as a way for them to do that. The BOPRC, however, seems unwilling or unable to make a decision either way. Because of this, the District Council is looking at making a private plan change to the Regional Plan. If it goes through, people in the danger zone will have to leave their homes.

I can’t help wondering what level of force the council will be prepared to use to make this happen.

To be clear – I support a District Plan change to stop any new building in the danger zone. I support a voluntary retreat package – although I am very worried about the cost. It will be a big bill that will benefit a small number of people and our rates bills are already high.

But I do not support evicting people from their homes because we think they are at risk. People make lawful choices every day to do far more dangerous things than living in Matatā. As long as people are fully informed, I do not believe it is the role of the Council to decide their risks for them.

I write this not to criticise other councillors, who voted as they did for good reasons: genuine concern for residents, as well as an awareness that councils have a legal responsibility to do everything in their power to mitigate or remove threats to life. But by changing the District Plan, I believe, the WDC has done that.

There is often a tension between the regulation of public safety and people’s right to make choices over their own lives. In going beyond its own area of responsibility in this instance, I believe that the WDC has tipped the balance too far.

Published in the Whakatane Beacon 11/7/17

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