Monday, March 30, 2015

Too Much TV: BLACK SAILS (2014-present)

The title sequence is an allegory of the pirate's race with death. We see an elaborate faux-ivory figurehead detailed with scenes of seamanship, love, violence and skeletons. The sequence closes with a skeleton army charging a pirate army while a skeleton races a pirate up a mast to seize a flag. This skeleton business is Black Sails' sole concession to the Pirates of the Caribbean audience, while the show itself proves decisively that a pirate tale doesn't need those films' fantastic trappings to hold an audience.

Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine and bankrolled by Michael Bay in a way that redeems a lot in his past, Black Sails combines two dominant pop-culture tropes: the revisionist fairy tale and the prequel. Robert Louis Stevenson might object to his novel Treasure Island being called a fairy tale, but as a canonical "children's story" it's just about that. Stevenson's Long John Silver was the archetypal pirate for generations; as interpreted on film by Wallace Beery and Robert Newton, he's arrrrrh image and voice of piracy to this day. Black Sails' initial hook is its promise of an "origin" story for Silver. Its Silver (Luke Arnold) is a handsome, healthy, clever and charismatic young schemer, at least a generation younger than the one-legged 50 year old Long John of the novel. If the payoff of other prequel shows presumably is a hero putting on his costume or simply beginning his career, the presumed payoff of Black Sails was Silver losing his leg, and it came last weekend during the finale for the second season, with a third already in production. I read through Treasure Island last week to prepare for this review, however, and the story of Silver's amputation on TV differs from what the character tells Jim Hawkins in the novel. In the book Long John says he lost the leg to a broadside during a sea battle. On TV the leg is amputated after it was broken during torture as Silver resists condemning most of his shipmates to death. This is not poor memory or scholarship on the writers' part but their further establishing that Black Sails is really an alternate reality from that of Stevenson's story.

The genius of the show is its mashup of Stevenson's characters, historical pirates, and original characters. Along with Silver, the first group includes Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), later the drunken, dying seaman of Treasure Island's opening chapters and, most importantly, the infamous Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), the show's real main character, who is long dead by the time the novel begins. The historical characters include the pirate captains Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) and Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Rackham's more famous protege Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). The original characters include Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who controls trade (i.e. fencing) in the pirate stronghold of Nassau; her former lover Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a favored prostitute turned rival; and Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes), an upper-class woman whose influence over Flint is a first-season mystery resolved through flashbacks during the second season. Of this last group, Max may cross into another category; because she's a "woman of color," many Treasure Island readers expect that she'll end up as the novel's unseen, business-savvy wife of John Silver the Bristol tavern keeper. Another theory is that she may end up in the historical category; currently involved in a menage-a-trois with Rackham and Bonny, she might take up the role of their real-life cross-dressing cohort Mary Read. This volatility is part of the fun of the show. The mix of real, canonical and original characters means that Black Sails needn't be bound by history or literature.

That being said, the main storyline for the first two seasons has been the pursuit of what we presume to be the treasure of the novel's island. On the show it's the gold of the Spanish treasure galleon Urca de Lima, the shipwreck of which is based loosely on real events. While the race for the loot occasionally returns to the forefront, it's often little more than a MacGuffin in the background of the main action: the threeway rivalry, to put it at a minimum, of Flint, Vane and Guthrie for dominance in Nassau, and the shared struggle to keep Nassau effectively independent of British control. Each of the three main players, meanwhile, must struggle to keep his or her own house in order. As Stevenson knew, the pirate world was a kind of democracy, and often a messy kind that required leaders to be both forceful and flexible to maintain the loyalty of their crews. Much of the first season was taken up with the negotiation of a personal alliance of Flint and Silver (Flint's quartermaster in the novel's backstory) on which Flint's continued captaincy depended. By now Vane has fallen and risen again a few times over, while Eleanor Guthrie has been toppled from her perch, with only a third-season promo clip as proof that she'll even remain on the show, creating a vacuum for Max to take over. Guthrie has taken Flint's or Vane's side as it's suited her interests, and the two captains have gone from fighting to the death to Vane rescuing Flint from execution in last weekend's episode, after Vane's men had seized Flint's ship by force and clapped Flint's crew in irons. Alliances shift like the winds on this show, and while not every shift is equally convincing, the adaptability required of the pirates and their facilitators is plausible enough.

Black Sails works on several levels at once. It's one of the best action shows on TV, with the last episode's escape of Flint and Vane from a Charleston deathtrap and the pirates' destruction of the Carolina city the latest proof. It'll also satisfy anyone's appetite for intrigue, as almost all the characters, even the most barbaric like Vane, maneuver with pragmatic intelligence. It passes another crucial test for modern TV by being one of the shows that Goes There, and being a premium-cable show, it can go further out than broadcast of basic-cable shows. If there's a CW stereotype, there's also a Starz stereotype (established by the channel's Spartacus series) of nudity, extreme violence and f-bombs in ancient settings (see also Da Vinci's Demons). Black Sails transcends the stereotype with a tragic sensibility. Flint, the monster of legend in Treasure Island, here has a utopian dream of Nassau as a truly free country whose outcast citizenry can pursue their dreams without answering to King or Parliament. By the end of the second season that dream has been dashed several times over, apparently setting the stage for Flint's devolution to legendary evil (if not also the legendary dissipation described in the novel). There's a broader romantic utopianism to modern perceptions of the pirate age that idealizes not only the democracy of crews but also a more liberal sexuality and a most-likely overrated blurring of gender roles. Black Sails caters to this in its several storylines of female empowerment, from Eleanor's struggles to shrug off her father's influence to Max's rise from the lowest levels of prostitution to Anne Bonny's fight to define herself as something more than a vicious appendage to Jack Rackham. It's probably no accident that all three characters are bisexual, but it's more daring of the show to make Flint bi as well, even if Da Vinci's Demons had been there already. Even in Stevenson's time, for all that he portrays all pirates but Silver as hopeless drunks, the fantasy of piracy was a dream of freedom, but even as Black Sails indulges that dream it's ever mindful of the inexorable shadow of empire lengthening toward Nassau, while foreknowledge of Treasure Island only enhances the sense that everything we see is doomed.

A rich ensemble of actors puts it all over. The nearest thing to a weak link is Hannah New as Guthrie, if only because the writers often try to hard to make a badass out of her with cuss words when she can't be a warrior badass like Anne. When you're not tempted to start a drinking game around her f-bombs New is actually pretty good. As Silver, Luke Arnold lives up to the Treasure Island pirates' memory of the young Long John as an articulate, charismatic mastermind. As Flint, Toby Stephens retains an air of mystery (along with the tragedy) over the course of a slow burn, though most of the why of the captain's reputed career of atrocity has been established by now. For me, the most impressive cast member is Zach McGowan, who manages with his eyes and gestures and sheer animal physicality a near-miraculous feat of investing Charles Vane with compelling personality despite an almost totally inexpressive face and voice. I was stunned to learn that Vane had never been a character in a pirate movie before, while Blackbeard and Kidd and Morgan had been done time and time again. This histories I've been reading while watching the show give Vane, Rackham et al an epic quality that Black Sails more than lives up to. The visuals live up to the acting, with the latest episode hitting a new peak with a panoramic climax: a dying villain watches helplessly, as if witnessing the wrath of God, as his dream falls to pieces all around him, while his violated victim, a corpse abused by a mob, appears to look on damningly. That's the best thing I've seen on TV so far this season, and for now Black Sails is the best show I watch.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the Big Screen: TIMBUKTU (2014)

Here is a film that might make you want to punch a Muslim, except that its subject is the oppression by Muslims of Muslims, and the director, Abderrahman Sissako, is Muslim himself. What we have instead is what Islamophobes have clamored for: a denunciation by a Muslim of the excesses of Islamism. Timbuktu might end up disappointing hard-core Islamophobes, however, since Sissako makes it fairly clear that those excesses are fueled by selective, self-serving readings of Islamic scripture rather than by something essential to Islam itself. Sissako is also wise enough to remember that Islamism is not an intrusion on otherwise peaceful, innocent communities, since one of the central conflicts in his story has nothing to do with religion or anyone's interpretation of it. Most importantly, he's enough of an artist as a director to make his story pictorially memorable, assuring it of a lasting impact.

Sissako is Mauritanian but his subject is Mali, where the title city is located. In Timbuktu the 21st century exists alongside timeless folkways. Satellite dishes crown the roofs of mud-brick buildings of perhaps incalculable age; nomads communicate with cellphones; a favorite cow is named GPS. To this place the jihadis came with all their absurd chickenshit laws, announced with megaphones in as many languages as the intruders know. Many of the occupiers don't know the local languages, making interpreters essential while highlighting a mutual incomprehension that a common faith can't overcome. In one case a commander requires an underling to inform him in English of what he sees at a crime scene. Yet these strangers claim a religious entitlement to tell the natives how to live. Women have to wear socks and gloves in the marketplace. The idea is so ridiculous and insulting to one of the female fishmongers ("We were brought up in honor and didn't have to wear gloves!") that she's willing to be arrested because she's sick and tired of the jihadi bullshit. Soccer and all sports are banned, even though some of the jihadis are football fans. One moment of comic relief comes when we overhear them talking about how many times somebody won or lost in the last few years. Almost certainly an unspoiled audience will assume they're talking about armies in war, but they're really debating the superiority of French and Spanish soccer teams. A fan of Spain accuses the French of bribing Brazil to throw the 1998 World Cup final; I wonder how he'd explain last year's semifinal. In any event, after a ball is confiscated, local sportsmen console themselves with a pantomime game, though when the hardcore jihadis ride by they revert to innocent calisthenics. Music is also forbidden by these totalitarian puritans, though one of them questions whether they should break in on someone singing praises to God. There's less hesitation when they find a mixed gathering with a woman singing secular lyrics while a man plays guitar. For this they're flogged, the woman defiantly singing the same song until the pain is too great. At least they didn't commit adultery. The penalty for that is stoning, and the jihadis ain't playing. No ducking or dodging for the guilty here; they're buried up to their necks and the rest is just target practice.

From a distance, from his tent, the herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto) watches with concern as his nomad neighbors start to move away. He wants to stay, however, even though a jihadi commander is making suspicious visits to his wife and daughter when he's away. He's more concerned with Amadou, a cranky fisherman (who wears western clothes, for what that's worth) who begrudges Kidane's cattle drinking at the lake because he's afraid they'll foul his nets. His fears aren't unfounded, and when the beloved GPS wanders into his nets he kills the cow with a spear. Little does Amadou realize that he's brought a spear to a gunfight, though from all appearances the weapon Kidane brings to their confrontation goes off accidentally during their damp scuffle. Their conflict has had nothing to do with jihad until now, when the jihadis have to act as judges in the case. They set a blood money fine (in kind) that's more than Kidane is able or willing to pay. All that leaves to be decided is whether he'll see his family one more time....

Timbuktu is a photogenic location -- some of the architecture will remind movie buffs of Ousmane Sembene's classic Moolaade -- and Sissako films his story is a classically artful style. He makes brilliant use of the widescreen frame in a way that can only be appreciated on the big screen. Kidane has crossed a shallow lake to confront Amadou. After the gun goes off, he lays in the water awhile in shock, then springs back to life to assure himself that he is alive. Sissako cuts to a wide shot that encompasses both shores as Kidane staggers back to his side. We might almost miss Amadou stirring and lurching upright in the other direction. From this godlike distance we see Amadou struggle for the shore and fail as Kidane plows ahead without a look back. The moment has some of the same cold grandeur of the drowning scene in Under the Skin. At other points you wonder whether Sissako is quoting other filmmakers. The opening scene of jihadis in a jeep chasing a deer, opening with the deer, might remind you of Ran or Hatari!, while genre fans, at least, are tempted to see any shot of a ball bouncing ominously as an homage to Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill. The director is enough his own man, however, that none of this looks fannish or blatant.

During that opening scene, one of the jihadi deer hunters tells the others not to shoot, but to tire the animal. If there's anything blatant about the scene, it's not any embedded homage but the thematic premonition. Apart from Kidane's storyline, Timbuktu is mainly about the wearing down of resistance through relentless petty regulation. That angry fishmonger ends up wearing gloves after all, and no one really scores a victory over the jihadis except the local madwoman, whose apparent immunity to the new dress code seems to confirm the old pulp chestnut about Muslims fearing to harm the insane.Then again, selectivity and hypocrisy characterize these jihadis. Practically the first order we hear is that smoking is forbidden, yet one of the leaders, the man paying suspicious attention to Kidane's wife, while needing an interpreter to talk to her, goes into the desert to sneak a few drags, only to be told by his driver that everyone knows of his habit, but no one apparently cares. The most damning case of selective rules involves an Anglophone jihadi (Nigerian, I presume?) courting a local girl. The girl's mother turns him down because she barely knows the man, despite his warning that he'll take the girl "in a bad way." The next day, we learn that he grabbed the girl and had his commander marry them. When a local qadi (for want of a more accurate term) protests, the commander first asks why anyone would complain about getting the guy for a son-in-law ("He's perfect!"), then quotes scripture commanding that righteous fighters like this guy should be given brides. One gets a feeling the qadi knows Islam better than the commander does, but the man with the power decides what religion requires. These jihadis claim to be all about religion, but Sissako seems to know better. People who wonder what's the matter with Islam probably should take his word for it. Timbuktu may not be the best of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film -- it lost to Ida here while sweeping the year's French film awards -- but it would have deserved to win if a win meant more Americans would see it. If any 2014 film needs to be seen by more people, this may be it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

MARDAANI (2014): "This is India!"

Female empowerment, Indian style. Here's a 2014 release that has a Seventiesish vibe in its pulp action and righteous indignation. Rani Mukerji stars as a Mumbai supercop for whom the war against human trafficking gets personal when a street urchin she'd befriended gets swept into the vile trade. Officer Shivani plows through official inertia to wage war on "Walt" (Tahir Raj Bhasin), the trafficking kingpin. With Shivani Indian heroines catch up to their western counterparts. She can outrun a motorcycle, though admittedly it's going slow on a sidewalk. She can get out of seemingly unbreakable bonds. Her adventures remind me of American pulp fiction or "golden age" comics. Some of the plot devices are so old that even within the film characters comment on how unlikely it is in the 21st century for a street criminal to have all his clothes hand-tailored, so that Shivani can track him by checking the tag on his shirt. There's even a climactic fight scene in which she throws her gun away so she can prove a point to Walt's erstwhile captives by beating the crap out of him with her bare hands. It's all quite corny and the plight of Shivani's involuntarily tarted up little protege (Priyanka Sharma) is milked for all its melodramatic pathos, but director Pradeep Sarkar plows ahead with such guileless enthusiasm that much can be forgiven. You can't help enjoying an early scene in which Shivani bitch-slaps some jerk whom I take to be a Hindu nationalist for vandalizing a shop that dared hold a Valentine's Day sale. He's India's answer to the Klan or the Daesh, though only a vandal, and he deserves what he gets from our heroine.

While bigots get beaten down for comedy relief, Mardaani taps something darker in Indian society at its climax. Shivani has defeated Walt and in the process has exposed a powerful politician whose kink is raping prostitutes. She has challenged Walt to hand-to-hand combat, as mentioned above, and humiliated him. But he doesn't care and isn't worried. "This is India," he reminds her, and that means his political and business connections will see to it that he serves little if any time. Her answer? Yes, this is India, but that means she doesn't necessarily have to arrest him to get him off the streets. Is she going to murder him, then? No, but they are: the girls he's tortured and exploited. Technically it won't be murder. Since this is India, the law there says it isn't murder is someone is killed in a demonstration involving a certain number of people or more. There just happens to be a quorum present, so as Shivani discreetly walks away the film's upbeat girl-power theme song plays over a lynching, the death of a thousand kicks from high-heeled shoes.

Mardaani's over-the-top final act alone makes the film worth seeing for fans of global pop cinema. Mukerji brings badass authority to her lead performance, and that's all the film really needs. I haven't watched as much Indian cinema as I probably should have by now, so I don't know how extraordinary or transgressive such a female role would be there. But it certainly can't hurt anywhere for people to see women kicking ass on the big screen. Just maybe it might make some men think twice before acting out their fantasies.

Monday, March 23, 2015

That's all I'm taking from you....

Gregory Walcott died last weekend at the age of 87. He reached the height of his career in the 1970s with a solid run of character-actor parts, particularly in films by Clint Eastwood but also in Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express. As far as I know Walcott was the only man to be directed by both Spielberg and Ed Wood -- and he acted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic as well -- but we all know what he'll be remembered for. He was the rare actor who crossed paths with Wood on his way up and that early work for the World's Worst Director might have been forgotten amid a solid Seventies filmography had not Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space been elevated from obscurity at the end of the decade, after Wood's own death. Anyway, here's that blast from the past as uploaded to YouTube by docretro9000, and it really is a special moment.

Sometimes you feel like Dudley Manlove's Eros is speaking for you, as only he could, and sometimes you want to answer the whole smug judgmental world the way Walcott does. Maybe it is true that because of his stupidity, all must be destroyed, but if Plan 9 teaches us anything, it's that everyone is stupid, including those who judge us, and that those who judge will be judged in turn. Manlove and Walcott are two sides of the same coin, and all you can buy with it is self-destruction. Whatever side he's on, Gregory Walcott will keep on fighting.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

DVR Diary: LADY WITH A SWORD (Feng Fei Fei, 1971)

Kao Pao Shu was a veteran Shaw Bros. actress who moved behind the camera to make her directorial debut with Feng Fei Fei. So is it because she was a woman that this is one of the more tearjerking martial arts pictures? Hard to say, since a man, the prolific I Kuang, wrote the screenplay. But I still wonder whether the prevailing unhappiness of the picture reflects a feminine touch. Lots of martial arts films end unhappily, but usually that's because all the characters are dead. There are plenty of survivors at the end of Lady With a Sword, by comparison, but they're all very unhappy. It's hard to blame them, though.

I wonder whether writer or director saw the American western Last Train From Gun Hill. In that picture Kirk Douglas destroys his old friendship with Anthony Quinn because he, a lawman, has to take Quinn's son to prison. Feng Fei Fei escalates the emotional stakes of the basic situation to an almost unbearable level. The title character (Lily Ho) goes into action when her young nephew staggers into the family compound to report that his mother, Fei Fei's sister, has been raped and murdered. She learns that the culprit (James Nam) is the scion of a family, the Jins, who've long been friends with hers. Worse, he is her childhood friend and the man everyone considers her destined husband. He's fallen under bad influences, egged on by his retainers, one of whom calls in his brother, a formidable bandit with a small arsenal of weapons, to protect his master. The brother is a bigger villain than anyone; he murdered Fei Fei's brother-in-law and seeks to exploit the deteriorating situation, with his younger brother's help, to destroy both families. Meanwhile, the Jin family is coming apart at the seams. Dad (Li Peng-Fei) is ready to wash his hands of his wayward boy or hand him to Fei Fei, but Mom (Ching Lin), whom Dad blames for spoiling the boy, is protective to a fault. She's the Anthony Quinn character in this story, and pretty much the woman who wears the sword in the Jin household. When Fei Fei manages to strongarm Jin Lian Bai out of the compound to deliver him to the magistrate, the mother pursues with the untrustworthy retainers in tow, and they see a golden opportunity to escalate the feud between Jin and Feng....

Novice director Kao makes impressive use of a small town set in early fight scenes when Fei Fei and her nephew (Yuen Man Meng) are a team. Fighting with Lian Bai's buddies, Fei Fei fends off several attackers at one end of town while the kid struggles to escape another in a restaurant and stable. Commanding overhead shots sweep across town establishing the good guys' relative positions as they battle for their lives. The nephew has a story arc that might trouble western viewers. There's almost always an element of slapstick to the little guy with the silly tuft of hair on top as he falls on his face repeatedly trying to dismount his horse. Some of his escapes in the fight scene I mentioned are silly, including teeter-totter gags that were old before talkies. He meets cute with a young girl on a caravan, but any hope of a happy future is dashed when Lian Bai kills him during an escape attempt. Some people may be uncomfortable with such a traumatized child being used for comedy relief only to get brutally killed -- the film ends with Fei Fei weeping over his corpse -- but I suspect most people around the world are more ready to laugh or weep on short notice over the vicissitudes of life. The overall sadness of the picture may well reflect a more humane spirit in this particular director; Kuang wrote so much that it's hard to credit him with any singluar sensibility. Another director might have ended the picture with the deaths of the evil brothers; in a charming touch Fei Fei's mom and dad both ride to her rescue, while Lian Bai's dad doesn't buy the brothers' attempt to blame everything on the Fengs. Many martial arts films end with that sort of violent catharsis (see Lady Assassin in particular). Kao seems more interested in the emotional consequences for the survivors. If that's a personal touch then more power to her.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: CENTRAL PARK (1932)

Audiences today would almost certainly feel gypped by a feature film that ran under an hour, but Warner Bros. actually boasted of how much action they crammed into 57 minutes directed by John G. Adolfi, who usually directed George Arliss vehicles and died the year following Central Park's release. This is a Depression picture so our hero and heroine are poor. Rick (Wallace Ford) and Dot (Joan Blondell) bond while eyeballing lunch wagon cuisine they can't afford. When Rick gets into an unprovoked fight with the lunch man, Dot steals a sandwich and later shares it with her new friend. Rick later lands a temporary job washing police motorcycles while Dot gets embroiled in a criminal scheme to hijack the proceeds of a charity beauty contest. More of a dummy than Blondell usually plays, Dot is persuaded that the crooks are actually detectives carrying out a sting operation. Meanwhile, Officer Charlie (Guy Kibbee), who steered Rick to that job, struggles to conceal his failing eyesight from his superiors. It shouldn't be that big of a deal since his beat is little more than the Central Park Zoo, but when an escaped lunatic with a lion fixation sneaks in, he's too far away for Charlie to make him out clearly. Instead, the old man waves him through, mistaking him for a buddy, and the loon lets a lion out of his cage and gets the keeper mauled. The lion has an adventure of his own, getting locked inside a taxi cab for a good chunk of the picture, then let loose to run amok at a high-society party. It looks like bad comedy when he comes in through the kitchen and frightens a room full of acrobatic Negro cooks, but the white folks on the dance floor are just as terrified for what that's worth. Meanwhile, poor Charlie is suspended for his negligence and incapacity, but redeems himself in the pursuit of those beauty-contest bandits. He and Nick join forces to stop Nick Sarno (the reliably sinister Harold Huber), but it costs Charlie a rock to the head and a bullet in the vitals, and those things add up when you're an old man. So Charlie gets a sentimental exit as a reinstated officer in good standing and the poor boy gets the poor girl and you wish them luck. It's a studio film of course but it opens with an impressive aerial shot of the actual park that conveys its vastness quite nicely. Bookend montages of joggers, horseback riders, etc. tell us all this mayhem was just another day or so in the park. Like Big City Blues it portrays the big city as the land of exhilarating chaos where the possibility of anything happening nearly makes up for the lack of steady opportunity in those dark days. It's brevity helps put across the whirlwind nature of events and keeps you from thinking too long about how corny much of it is. And most likely you got a second feature wherever you saw it (if not at the Fox) or at least a cartoon and a newsreel. Central Park is a trifling item in the Warner Bros. canon but unlike many trifles today it has a proper sense of proportion.

Monday, March 16, 2015

REAL PULP FICTION: Arthur Leo Zagat's "Thunder Tomorrow," ARGOSY, March 16, 1940

We resume our survey of pulp magazine fiction with a sequel to one of the most popular and controversial stories of 1939. Arthur Leo Zagat's "Tomorrow" imagined the coming of age of an isolated band of American refugee children who had survived a devastating invasion of the country, but had reverted to primitive simplicity and virtue. Sequels that year made clear that America had fallen to the "Asafrics," an unholy coalition of black and yellow men, in an apocalyptic race war. At least one Argosy letter writer called Zagat out for the racism of his premise, his heroic "Bunch" being lily-white. "Thunder Tomorrow," the first sequel to appear in several months, hints that Zagat took that criticism to heart. His effort to duck the racism charge is fascinating for an apparent sincerity that's partially undermined by a racism of less malignant but perhaps more intractable sort.

By the time of this newest story, the Bunch, led by Dikar (born Dick Carr) has joined forces with some of the underground resistance that had developed despite all odds, and with colonies of "beast men" who are, for all intents and purposes, white trash. The Asafrics announce that all Americans must make a fresh loyalty pledge of face deportation to the wastelands of Africa and Asia. To boost American morale, the resistance decides that the small army coalescing near the Bunch's mountain in downstate New York must score some sort of symbolic victory. Their target is the old military academy at West Point, now used as an Afrasic base. Dikar's early attempt to scout the site goes bad quickly and he's imprisoned inside the fortress. Captured by two black soldiers, presumably native Africans (described by the resistance as "the best soldiers in the world"), Dikar is turned over to a jailer. He notices that the jailer "was brown-faced, not black like the other Asafrics." Readers familiar with pulp dialects would quickly notice that the "brown" jailer talks differently from the "black" soldiers.

'Washton,' the Asafric with Dikar said, 'this one fellah special prisoner for Colonel Wangsing. Something happen to him, all our skin get flogged off. Unstan?'
'Yassuh, Sahgent,' Washton answered, his eyes gleaming white in the dimness as he goggled at Dikar, 'Ah unnerstands. You wan' him put in a cell by hisself?'

The Asafrics talk in something like standard pulp pidgin English, while Washton talks in something pulp readers would recognize as American negro dialect. Zagat is ready to answer a question at least some readers must have asked since his series started: what happened to the American blacks? His answer, in this case at least, is that African Americans are among the resistance's most effective inside men. Washton -- born Benjamin Franklin George Washington -- surprises Dikar by arranging for his escape from West Point. He surprises our hero even more by identifying himself as Agent X-18 of the resistance's Secret Net of operatives. Dikar either doesn't remember seeing, or has never seen, an authentic African American. He can't comprehend why an "Asafric soldier" would help the Americans. Washton explains:

'Dat's the beauty paht of it. See, w'en de Asafrics fust came, dey figgered us cullud people would want to jine up wid dem against de whites, and dey sent out word we'd be welcom. Dey foun' out dey figgered wrong.

'Dey foun' out we wuz Americans fust an' cullud after. But dah wuz some of us got de notion dat we cud mebbe fight 'em better from de inside, so we did jine up.

'But suppose they found you out?' [Dikar asks]

'Dem what dey fin's out,' Washton said, 'takes a long time to die, but dem what dey don't jus' keep on wukkin. Lots uh de sabotage dat's been happenin is de wuk of cullud men.'

Washton has accumulated detailed knowledge of the West Point defenses in the forlorn hope that it would be of use to a real resistance army. Learning that a real army is actually on the way, his response is "Glory be to the Lawd!" To our eyes, Zagat is working at cross purposes. Washton is clearly meant to prove that neither Zagat nor his story is racist, yet this resistance hero talks like Amos or Andy. Dialect is more problematic now than it was 75 years ago. Today we perceive a stigma of inferiority when Zagat may simply have felt an artistic imperative to write black speech as he thought he'd heard it. There's no excuse, however, when Dikar temporarily leaves Washton alone in the forest on their way to the resistance camp, and our black patriot says, "It's awful dahk, heah, an' it's just come to me dat dey says dese heah woods is ha'nted." Really, Arthur Leo Zagat? Washton has been risking his life spying in the belly of the beast, not to mention breaking Dikar out, but because he's a Negro he's skeered of ghosts?

The point Zagat wants to make with Washton is a welcome one, but the way he writes this black hero (who predictably enough sacrifices his life for Dikar before this installment ends) tends to remind me that even D. W. Griffith had good blacks in The Birth of a Nation. They were the ones who stayed loyal to their old massas and defended them from the depredations of the carpetbaggers and the more vicious blacks. Zagat actually deserves more credit for emphasizing that infiltration was African Americans' own idea, but he'd deserve more still if he could imagine free blacks as ongoing protagonists in his epic rather than the faithful retainer type that Washton unfortunately resembles. Washton's heroic intervention alone doesn't change the essentially racial nature of the Asafric war against the U.S., but to be fair Zagat has several more episodes of the "Tomorrow" series to go in which to refine if not redeem his vision of American resistance.