Episode 413: S.A. Cosby, Tananarive Due, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles

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utility pole in the evening in Goochland, Virginia
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Shawn Cosby talks about his provocative and propulsive crime novel, “Razorblade Tears.” Also, author Tananarive Due revisits her debut horror novel, “The Between.” And we explore the work of filmmakers Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles.

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  • Author S. A. Cosby takes the American crime novel in new directions

    Novelist Shawn Cosby knows how to tell a story. And while tales of crime and punishment are his specialty, how he has emerged as an important voice in contemporary American literature has a plot just as enthralling.

    Cosby’s latest crime novel, “Razorblade Tears,” is a carefully-crafted, fast-paced story of revenge and redemption set in the American South. It’s the story of a Black father named Ike Randolph and a white father named Buddy Lee Jenkins. They’re ex-cons grieving the losses of their gay sons who were married to each other. After their sons are brutally murdered, Randolph and Jenkins reluctantly team up to solve the crime.

    Cosby seems to specialize in stories populated by overlooked characters like the ones in “Razorblade Tears,” but his work hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has drawn plaudits in the literary world and fielded inquiries from Hollywood bigshots. Walter Mosley, renowned as one of America’s greatest crime fiction writers, said, “S.A. Cosby reinvents the American crime novel.”

    Does Cosby agree with that assessment?

    “No, not at all,” he told WPR’s “BETA.” “And I’m incredibly humbled and moved by Walter saying that. In my estimation, he reinvented the great American crime novel when he created (his character, private investigator) Easy Rawlins.”

    But is it possible that Cosby re-reinvented the American crime novel?

    “I think there’s a very small part of me, that is egotistical, that would love to take credit for that,” he said.

    Cosby said he has written and continues to write “about people that are in some ways invisible in the modern light — the rural Black community.”

    “And so if anything, I kind of try to shine a light on that. But as far as reinventing the great American crime novel, I am far too much of a Southern Baptist to take that title,” he said.

    Despite his modesty, Cosby has definitely taken a different path with his novels in terms of writing about everyday men who are often ex-cons. His characters often have flaws and some of them are trying to redeem themselves.

    On talking about the South

    Another big difference between Cosby’s crime novels and others is that his are set in the South.

    “I think there is this idea, especially among literary circles, that the South is the sole providence of neo-Confederate apologists and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “You know, I like to say that every scrap of land that a good, old boy waving a Confederate flag walks upon, somebody who looks like me bled, died and fought for that land. And so they don’t get to define what the South is with the new South or the old South.”

    Cosby said he thinks there aren’t a lot of Black writers tackling this because talking about the South, either in the past of the present, is difficult.

    “It’s hard. It hurts. It’s painful,” he said. “You know, I live in a small town where (within) about 100 feet from the courthouse, the building that you go to achieve a redress of grievances, there’s a huge statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers. You know and I know what kind of message that’s trying to send.”

    Cosby said he is committed to doing the work.

    I think I’m hardheaded enough that I feel like there are stories and there are tales that need to be told here that I think can only be told here. And so that’s what I try to do with my work,” he said.

    The novel’s two protagonists, Randolph and Jenkins, are men who with a horrible past. They’re ex-cons who have made mistakes in their lives. Despite the characters’ similarities, they are very different.

    “Ike is an African American man who has achieved a sliver of the American middle-class dream,” Cosby explained. “He owns his own business. He owns his own home, which is very important. I don’t think people realize how important it is to own your own house, and he’s trying to live the straight and narrow life.”

    On the other hand, Jenkins is a white Southerner and a functioning alcoholic.

    “He’s someone who is struggling despite the fact that he has certain privileges that Ike doesn’t,” Cosby said. “And I think for Buddy Lee, it’s hard for him to sometimes discern that privilege does not mean success. Those are two different things you can have. Privileges still be unsuccessful. And so what brings them together, unfortunately, is the death of their respective sons who were married to each other.”

    Cosby said the events depicted in the book prove pivotal in bringing these characters together.

    “And so these two sons are killed at the beginning of the book, and both Ike and Buddy Lee were not accepting of their son’s identity and who they were as gay men,” he said.

    In an effort to seek justice for their sons, “these two men of violence resort to what they know best: to get revenge for their sons,” Cosby said. “But also, I think, achieve a bit of redemption for the way they treated those boys and in trying to do better by them in death than they did in life.”

    On capturing complex characters

    Both Randolph and Jenkins are multidimensional characters. How was Cosby able to create such complicated characters?

    “I grew up around men who are in some ways trapped by an antiquated idea of masculinity and what it means to be a man and what it means to be quote-unquote tough and whatever that looks like,” Cosby said. “And I think these men that I grew up around who aren’t bad men, if you ask them, you know, they aren’t men that would kick a dog or be cruel to a baby. But they’re also men that are very narrow-minded in their ideals and their beliefs.”

    He said these characters allowed him to examine observations he made of Southern life.

    “I think for me, growing up, I had to learn to respect those men for what they brought to my life as a young boy, but also learn to disseminate a different type of viewpoint. Because what I learned is that, you know, my personal definition of masculinity does not have to correlate with yours or anybody else’s, and someone else’s definition of masculinity doesn’t diminish mine.”

    Cosby said many books have explored some of these themes, but stories in the South have a unique blend of factors that underpin Southern culture.

    “I feel like Southern fiction has a very specific distinction,” he said. “This foundation is the holy trinity of race, sex and class. And you could throw religion in that class definition because religion definitely is a part of that class discussion. But those are the things that define the South in a different way than any other region in America. There is class struggle in the Northeast as class struggle in the Midwest, but I don’t believe there is that super close proximity to the blood and the horror of 400 years of slavery that exist in the South.”

    For Cosby, those facets have informed his worldview.

    “I went to elementary school at a school that was named after Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. And so there is this sense in the South that these ghosts that haunt us,” he said. “We’ve got to confront them daily, whether we want to or not.”

    On addressing sex, class and race in the South

    So how did Cosby go about weaving this holy trinity of race, class and sex into “Razorblade Tears”?

    Cosby wanted to show characters like Jenkins and Randolph at different levels on the social hierarchy.

    “Buddy Lee is probably going to fare better in an interaction with the police or an interaction with a white shop owner than Ike would, even though Ike is the financially and sociologically more successful of the two. And so that’s talking about the class distinction because class distinction in the South is very apparent,” he said.

    Cosby said he also wanted to explore sex in the book.

    “If you would ask Ike or Buddy Lee, were they homophobic? They would say,’No.’ I’m not saying that, but they would think that because they’ve never beaten up a gay man or woman,” Cosby said. “And so they would think they’re not, but they are. And that comes from a narrow-minded view, a misunderstanding of sexuality and what it is and what it means.”

    On getting Hollywood’s attention

    Such is the power of Cosby’s work that it has attracted attention from Hollywood.

    Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his production team have acquired the film rights to “Razorblade Tears.”

    “I think that was probably the most surreal moment in my writing career,” Cosby said. “I am this country fellow from a small Southern town, a college dropout. And I was on a Zoom meeting talking to Jerry Bruckheimer as he sat in front of his in a reflexive concave window that overlooks Malibu and looking so tanned, fresh and the epitome of Southern California. And here I am in my little office that looks like I just moved in.”

    Despite the good fortune, Cosby isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s currently working on a new novel, tentatively titled “All the Sinners Bleed.” It takes place in a small Southern town and the protagonist is the town’s first Black sheriff. On the one-year anniversary of his election, there is a school shooting, and it leads the sheriff to discover that there is a trio of serial killers who have been using his town as a dumping ground. Two of the killers are done away with during the school shooting. However, one is still out there, and he’s angry that his partners have been taken from him.

    “And so, this sheriff has to solve this mystery while also dealing with a far-right contingent in his town who wants to hold a parade to celebrate the Confederate statue,” Cosby explains. “He’s also dealing with some secrets from his own past, his former time as an FBI agent.”

    This new story, like Cosby’s past works, continues to explore Southern life, people and culture.

    “So there’s a lot of talk about race, class and sex and religion and all the things that make Southern fiction great. You know, my usual lighthearted fare,” he said with a laugh.

  • Tananarive Due on being a pioneer of Black horror

    When Tananarive Due was growing up, one of her favorite authors was horror maestro Stephen King. When she would share this fact to her creative writing classes at Northwestern and the University of Leeds, she would earn herself a fair share of side glances.

    “When I mentioned to my class that my favorite writers were Toni Morrison and Stephen King, when I mentioned Stephen King’s name, I could just see from the looks on their faces that maybe I shouldn’t say that,” Due recalls.

    It wasn’t until years later while working as a reporter for the Miami Herald that she would find the inspiration to return to her passion for writing horror. Due was assigned to interview Anne Rice, author of the famed “Lestat” series of vampire novels.

    Due tells WPR’s “BETA” that in her research for the interview, she stumbled across a lot of criticism lambasting Rice for wasting her writing talents on low brow fare. Tananarive posed this question to Rice herself to get her thoughts.

    “She literally just laughed, and she said, ‘That used to bother me, but my books are taught in universities.’ And she went on to explain how when you write about the supernatural, you can write about these big themes like love and death and life,” said Due.

    Almost literally after the interview, Due said she set out to write her first novel, “The Between,” which she would finish about nine months later.

    “I would get up early and write. I would stay up late writing, sometimes scaring myself because the book has a lot of nightmares and dream sequences, and it’s very preoccupied with death, as was I,” she said. “So, you know, I was scaring myself, but that was the idea. Just this the idea of waking up between different realities.”

    Inspired by the drastic wreckage of her hometown Miami by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, “The Between” finds the protagonist Hilton having his reality blurred into something unrecognizable.

    “Mile after mile after mile, my hometown of Miami, where I grew up, it’s almost unrecognizable, especially where my parents lived, where my grandmother lived, my aunt lived,” Due said. “It was the most horrific experience. So, that was sort of the idea of the alternate reality. What if you wake up in a world that’s very different from the one you went to sleep in?

    Due said she primarily wrote “The Between” for herself and used an outside screenwriting contest as a deadline. She said she followed the old adage of writing what you know, so the novel focuses on a Black family in the suburbs, something she said was unique to horror.

    “I embraced a Black protagonist because I had started writing white male characters primarily. And so ‘The Between’ was let me write what you know, like what people say. And it was a Black family in the suburbs. I had never read that book before,” Due said.

    “There must have been some sort of way I wanted to address an African-American experience in the story, not just because the characters were Black, but because the antagonist is taking the form of a white supremacist. And even though I don’t think it was entirely conscious, there must have been, I think, something about the state of being in alternate realities that spoke to a Black American experience in my mind,” Due continued.

    “The Between” was released in 1995 and became a pioneering text in the budding genre of Black horror. Even though the concept of Black horror dates as far back as W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet,” Due said that the genre mainly toiled in the background when she released the book.

    It wasn’t until Jordan Peele’s 2017 Oscar-winning horror film “Get Out” was released where the genre transcended into the mainstream.

    “Black horror, to me, is horror that has a Black protagonist with agency in this story,” said Due. “Someone you would recognize is making decisions rather than being just a trope, which is what you find in a lot of, say, cinematic horror, where Black characters were relegated to these very trope roles as just the sacrificial Negro. We call it the spiritual guide, the magical Negro. It’s moving beyond tropes to show Black characters and their full humanity.

    Like Rice before her, Due’s work is now the basis for a university setting. She teaches the incredibly popular course, “Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic” at the University of California, Los Angeles. As the course title indicates, much of her curriculum centers around Peele’s “Get Out.” The director himself often makes cameos in her class.

    “I’ll say I did a little sketch with Jordan Peele,” Due laughed as she recounted the story of distracting her class with the film while Peele snuck into the last row of the lecture hall.

    “I said, ‘OK, what do you think the director is trying to say about the coveting of Black bodies?’ Jordan Peele raise his hand and stood up and said, ‘Oh, I have a question.’ And then he started walking slowly to the front of the class, and as realization grew, let me tell you, that class went wild,” Due said.

    Due’s work extends beyond her classroom. She was the executive producer for the groundbreaking documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror,” and “The Between” itself is in talks for an upcoming adaptation. More of her work is being optioned as well.

    “I’ve never had so many projects in development at the same time, and I think that speaks to how finally, it looks like Hollywood is open to diversifying its storytelling and inviting new people to the table,” said Due.

    Due said that as long as horror is craved, Black horror will continue to have a foothold in the genre because she argues that the one thing all horror fans crave is an original idea of terror.

    “I’m a big believer in finding the universal through the specific. I think the specific social, political family histories of African-Americans, even if racism isn’t the monster, can inform the story in a way that will just feel different. So, a horror reader who’s read like a whole bunch of traditional Eurocentric horror can pick up a Black horror novel and find a new way to be scared,” she said.

  • Cult filmmakers Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles used seminal films to transform the industry

    In an age when Hollywood’s studio system placed severe limits on who controlled what happened on and off camera, two Black filmmakers — Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles — broke down the creative and racial barriers and begat a new vision of filmmaking’s future. Their seminal movies of the 1970s made them founding fathers of the independent film movement.

    Ian Haydn Smith, the author of “Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know,” says that Parks and Van Peebles overcame a lot to see their ideas presented on movie screens.

    Haydn Smith said that Parks achieved much in the field of photography even before he began his filmmaking career. Parks’ work is testament to his stature as one of the great visual artists of the century.

    “Gordon Parks is one of the 20th century photography greats,” Haydn Smith said on WPR’s “BETA.”

    Parks was born to a poor family in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1922. In 1942, he joined the Farm Security Administration, which would propel his photographic work.

    “This is the organization that wanted to document the truly damaging impact not just of the (Great) Depression, but also the dust storms that plagued a lot of rural America in the early 1930s,” Haydn Smith said. “And along with other great photographers, such as Walker Evans and the wonderful Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks went out into this world to document life.”

    Gordon Parks at Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963.
    Photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks at The March on Washington in 1963. National Archives (CC BY)

    Parks focused his camera and attention on the African American experience.

    “There’s this really, really great Dee Rees film that was produced by Netflix a couple of years ago called ‘Mudbound,’” Haydn Smith said. “And it stars Carey Mulligan. It’s about two families — one white, one Black. Both of them are in a pitiful state in the postwar period. This is looking at the ’40s and ’50s in America.”

    Haydn Smith said Parks’ images highlight the challenges that existed specifically for Black farmers.

    “But as bad as the situation for the white farmers was, it was always so much worse for the African American farmers,” he said. “And Gordon Parks photos, he never loses a sense of humanity. There’s a formal beauty to his work, and he really is a truly extraordinary photographer. But it’s the emotion and the level of empathy that he brings to his subjects that makes him a true great.”

    Eventually, Parks’ interests shifted toward filmmaking. He was involved in various Hollywood productions in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. In 1971, Parks directed his best known film: “Shaft.”

    “And that was one of the two films that really launched the blaxploitation genre as it’s now known, which were films that placed front and center Black characters,” Haydn Smith explained. “Not always positive representations of Black characters, but certainly trying, as Oscar Micheaux had done many years before, trying to offer a different representation of African American life.”

    The film, about a Black private detective navigating a gritty city rife with vice, holds a special place in popular culture even though some aspects of the movie might be viewed as dated or ill-conceived by modern audiences.

    “Probably today, it occasionally looks a little bit creaky as a piece of filmmaking. But I think the reason it has lasted is really (singer-songwriter) Isaac Hayes’ score and the theme song. It’s just stunning,” Haydn Smith said.

    While “Shaft” might be Parks’ best known film, Smith urges those who are curious to look elsewhere in his filmography for great examples of what he brings to cinema.

    “I would argue that if you’re going to look at Gordon Parks as a filmmaker, I think ‘The Learning Tree‘ is definitely worth looking at. He made a film about the blues singer Leadbelly in 1976 called ‘Leadbelly’ and I think they’re really, really great films,” he said.

    Haydn Smith said Parks wasn’t the only Black filmmaker who blazed a trail in cinema during those years.

    “To look at Gordon Parks at this moment in time in the 1970s, and particularly in terms of … blaxploitation, you’ve also got to look at Melvin Van Peebles,” he said. “This is another great renaissance man of African American culture writer/musician as Gordon Parks also was. He was inspired by the New Wave because he went over and lived in Paris for a while. And it was while he was there that he wrote a novel (“La Permission”) which then became his first film, ‘The Story of a Three-Day Pass.‘”

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    Smith said the film got Van Peebles noticed in the film industry.

    “That got the attention of Hollywood, even though he couldn’t get Hollywood’s attention when he was actually based in Hollywood,” Haydn Smith said. “He was invited to go over and make a film, which he did in 1970. He made ‘Watermelon Man,’ which is about white guy who one day wakes up and realizes he’s Black. He realizes the inequalities of society through that experience.”

    But Van Peebles’ best known work came in the early ’70s.

    “It was in 1971 when he directed ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’ that he really, really became incredibly well-known,” Haydn Smith said.

    The movie, which documents a Black man’s odyssey through Southern California as he eludes police after being wrongly accused of a crime, was controversial then and remains so today. That said, the film’s release was a noteworthy achievement unto itself.

    “I think politically, the thing about ‘Sweet Sweetback’ is that it was an entirely independent film,” Haydn Smith said. “It wasn’t financed by Hollywood. There was no compromise whatsoever. It was about a Black man rebelling against racism and against white America in the late ’60s, early ’70s. And it is really, full-on, it’s incredibly uncompromising. It’s got an amazing score by Earth, Wind & Fire.”

    Smith said the movie’s content is still the subject of debate.

    “And I think this is it is an incredibly potent film. I know there have been some discussions more recently over sexual politics, that’s certainly problematic in the film. But I think as a political statement, it is an incredibly powerful film,” he said.

    Underlining the film’s importance and Van Peebles’ influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers, his son latter gained fame as an actor and director.

    “And Melvin Van Peebles’ son, Mario Van Peebles, who would go on himself to become an actor and also a director, probably most famous with ‘New Jack City’ in the early 1990s,” Haydn Smith said.

    That influence would lead the son to honor his father on celluloid.

    “He would actually make a film in 2003 called ‘Baadasssss!’ in which he plays his father making ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song,’” Smith said.

    According to Haydn Smith, Parks and Van Peebles set a standard by proving that a Black director can create a movie that reaches people. Their films also served as a wake-up call for Hollywood, demonstrating that film studios weren’t making movies for the very large audience of African American filmgoers.

    Haydn Smith said they presaged a shift that happened in the mid-1980s with Spike Lee’s feature debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” and then followed by the release of his second, landmark film, “Do the Right Thing,” and followed later still by John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.”

    “I think what I love about Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles … is they represent directors who are trying to push for a different kind of filmmaking and a different kind of representation, a very positive representation,” Haydn Smith said.

    The writer said these breakthroughs will only begat more change, leading to new voices and ideas long overlooked in mainstream cinema.

    “What I think would be really amazing over the course of the next decade or two is that a net is going to get wider and we’re going to see so many more interesting directors from so many different backgrounds coming and working in cult cinema, but, hopefully, also working at the heart of mainstream cinema,” he said.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • S. A. Cosby Guest
  • Tananarive Due Guest
  • Ian Hadyn Smith Guest

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