My ‘Wicked’ past 

Call me sentimental, man, but the 2017 National Touring production of “Wicked,” starring Jessica Vosk as Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda the Good Witch, made me cry because it reminded me of the time and people who left handprints on my heart, helping me most to grow.

You see, “Wicked,” the Tony Award-winning musical written by Stephen Schwatz and Winnie Holzman based on Gregory Maguire’s rewriting of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” was the anthem to my high school career. “For Good” was my high school class song. And my best friends literally sang “Loathing” and “Popular” in my ear since we were 13-year-old freshmen daring to defy gravity.

I’ve never seen the musical before, but my best friends were the Elphabas of my high school: smart, courageous, outspoken and different. (We all were in a way.) And perhaps that’s what united us. The fact that we were different.

I was never as brave as Elphaba or Glinda. As the child of immigrants with a funny sounding name, I’ve spent most of my pre-teen years trying to be invisible. But like Glinda at the Oz Dust Ball Room, they reached out, asking me to join their lunch table and included me. And that means the world when you’re young. It was brilliant.

They gave me my voice, and ignited my passions. We sang in streets and hallways; explored New York City, Disney and Cedar Point like they were the Emerald City; and listened to burned CDs of the original cast recording of the “Wicked” soundtrack even after it was scratched and skipping from overuse.

Together we were unlimited. Flying. Soaring. As we traded notes, books and secrets under stars.


I wish everyone finds a friendship like Elphaba and Glinda’s — people who change you for the good. I know I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for them.


My month in movies theatres

You’ve probably been noticing that I’ve been writing a lot more recently. I was inspired by Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times last month — where she saw 12 movies in 12 different NYC theaters in a span of 48 hours — and decided to try my own version of the social experiment.

My own personal goal: See as many of the 2015 Academy Award-nominated films in different Western New York theaters while spending as little money as possible. With those paramenters in mind, I gave myself a month. Here are the results:

feb 17:10 p.m.: 2015 Oscar-nominated live action shorts at the DIPSON EASTERN HILLS CINEMA 3 (Williamsville, N.Y.)

I’ve always felt at home in indie theaters (Cinemapolis was one of my favorite haunts when I lived in Ithaca, N.Y.) and the Eastern Hills Dipson is one of my favorites. Just off the I-90 East and a few blocks from the Regal Transit Center Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Eastern Hills Dipson has always felt welcoming in its familiarity. Perhaps it’s the comforting pastel-green walls or their array of intelligent and intriguing films, which includes this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts. Or perhaps I enjoy how empty the Eastern Hills Mall usually is, giving me cover in the darkness. It certainly wasn’t empty Sunday night. The slush-filled parking lot was packed with cars and there was even a queue to buy tickets.

With my student ID, $7.50 granted me passage to five foreign films that may made me laugh, cry and think. “Parvaneh” made me feel contemplative; “Butter Lamp” made me feel reflective; “The Phone Call” was sad; “Aya” was perplexing; and “Boogaloo and Graham” made me feel happy and nostalgic. That’s the power of cinema, well-worth the cost.

feb 31:50 p.m.: “Boyhood” at the DIPSON MCKINLEY MALL 6 (Hamburg, N.Y.)

The McKinley Mall Dipson is a little hard to find if you don’t know exactly where to look. It’s located at the McKinley Mall plaza — right off the Mile Strip Road/Blasdell/Orchard Park exit off the I-90 West. That’s the easy part. The theatre isn’t connected to the mall, but located all the way in the back (yes, past the J.C. Penney’s and Sears). Its marquee sign is missing a couple of its letters and its selection is a little old, but this theatre does have a parking lot. It also happens to offer some of the cheapest prices in Western New York. $2 granted me access to Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated time capsule, “Boyhood,” a film that transported me to my childhood and made me re-examine things from an adult’s perspective. Oh, so, this is what parenting sort-of feels like.

feb 7 1:30 p.m.: “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” at the NORTH PARK ART CINEMA (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Photo Credit: Qina Liu

Photo Credit: Qina Liu

Located on Hertel Avenue just past North Park Street, the gorgeous North Park Art Cinema fits in well with the Buffalo revival. The 1920s-era theatre was just restored last year. The result: a work of art. A red, white, blue and yellow marquee protrudes in front of the building, reminding you of the streets of the theatre district in New York City. Across the street, sits a Spot Coffee and (if you’re lucky) the unmistakable bright green of a Lloyd’s Taco truck. The only downside is that it’s hard to find parking — especially on a Saturday afternoon. I ended up finding parking a block away on one of the side streets and had a lovely walk over the unshoveled sidewalks.

Inside, $5 transported me to Asia, where I learned “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” directed and co-written by Isao Takahata. The theatre itself was fit for a princess. It’s elegant with red walls, high ceilings, and heavy wooden doors. The centerpiece, though, is its celestial domed ceiling — beautifully painted with horses, carriages and angels. In my jeans, sweatshirt and winter coat, I felt underdressed.

feb 1012:35 p.m.: “Birdman” at the REGAL TRANSIT CENTER STADIUM & IMAX (Williamsville, N.Y.)

This is where I went for midnight premieres of “The Hobbit,” “Skyfall,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Ender’s Game,” and other big blockbusters. You can get lost in new dimensions when staring at the Regal Transit’s incredibly large IMAX screen. It’s so big that it’s hard to look at the full picture without sitting in the back rows.

Photo Credit: Qina Liu

Photo Credit: Qina Liu

The theatre itself is very modern, resembling a space ship. The 3D IMAX theatre towers over the red Regal marquee. It’s lobby is bathed in neon lines: red, yellow, purple. There’s even an air hockey table in the corner. This is the type of place I think of when I picture a stereotypical movie theatre.

So it was interesting to experience theatre at the movies. “Birdman,” after all, is a movie about a play, and director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu transcends definitions. While movies can be pricey these days (it’s close to $20 bucks for an IMAX screening), they’re still much cheaper than a Broadway ticket. Yet Michael Keaton’s phenomenal in “Birdman,” displaying himself nakedly (both literally and figuratively) on the stage. My cost to see his performance: $5.

feb167:40 p.m.: “Still Alice” at the DIPSON AMHERST THEATRE (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Photo Credit Qina Liu

Photo Credit Qina Liu

The Amherst Dipson sits across from UB South campus next to a McDonald’s (here, student tickets cost $7.50). It’s a cozy theatre that has a selection of Tazo tea at their snack stand. You can just sink into their plushy lounge seats in their lobby, staring at the beautiful painted mural on their wall. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Charlie Chaplain greet you when you walk in. Their likeness emerge from a painted film strip and projector. Meanwhile, their portraits hang in the bathrooms. Marlon Brando leans against a tree. A motorcycle is about a foot away. James Dean is staring off into space with the collar of his peacoat flipped up. “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today,” the quote reads below him.  That’s how Julianne Moore’s character in “Still Alice” lived. She desperately tried to hold onto her dreams as her memories were disappearing to Alzheimers:

“I am not suffering,” she says in the film. “I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once. So, ‘live in the moment’ I tell myself. It’s really all I can do, live in the moment. And not beat myself up too much… and not beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing.”

feb1711:55 p.m.: “Selma” at the REGAL ELMWOOD CENTER 16 (Buffalo, N.Y.)

The Elmwood Regal looks exactly the same as the Transit Regal. The only thing they’re missing is the Transit’s big IMAX tower (but they do offer 3D screenings). Of course, there’s nothing like Oscar season to drive up box office movie sales. “Selma” ticket sales rose 200 percent after they got the Oscar nomination. There was a line when I went to buy my ticket ($5). The people in front of me braved the cold Buffalo weather to go see “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” But the spacious theatre for “Selma” was also packed. I wondered what they thought as they watched the on-screen battle between David Oyelowo’s MLK and Tom Wilkinson’s LJB. Was this how they remembered this part of history? How many of them lived through the the march from Selma to Washington and saw the massacre on their black and white TV screens firsthand? While “Selma” ended with the inevitable signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fight felt unfinished.

feb194 p.m.: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” at the FOUR SEASONS CINEMA (Niagara Falls, N.Y.)

Although the Four Seasons Cinema in Niagara Falls, N.Y., sounds like a hotel, it is a museum, filled with the history of classic Hollywood. A Big Lots and other factory stores hide it from view, but you can see remnants of its former glory. Housing six theaters, the cinema’s halls are like Hollywood’s walk of stars. The oak walls are adorned with iconic posters of old-time movies and its stars: Orson Welles “Citizen Kane,” “The Wizard of Oz,” the Marx brothers in “Duck Soup,” Humphrey Bogart in “Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca”; Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind”; and Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird and the Tasmanian Devil. Next to them rest black and white portraits of Shirley Temple, Aubrey Hepburn as well as a shrine dedicated to Marilyn Monroe. This is part of its charm. The theatre may look a little old and its floor tiles may yellow with age, but these stars will be stay forever young on the silver screen. Perhaps someday, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games” franchise will join them.

Four Seasons Cinema

Photo Credit Qina Liu

9 p.m.: “Whiplash” at the AURORA THEATRE (East Aurora, N.Y.)

Aurora Theatre

Photo Credit Qina Liu

Against the -6°F Buffalo temperatures (which froze Niagara Falls), the Aurora Theatre’s marquee sign was a bright blinking beacon — like a lighthouse calling all who were lost. Tickets here cost $8 (they’re slightly cheaper for seniors) and with one, you can enter this 1925-era theatre.

The theatre’s gorgeous, with heavy mahogany doors and two indoor concession stands. There’s one stage with a theatre that can seat 650 people.

What we got was a concert, conducted by director Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller were the main artists, performing an 107-minute duet called “Whiplash.” There were no intermissions within this concert, but when the music finally stopped, they got a standing ovation.


4 p.m.: “McFarland, USA” at the AMC MAPLE RIDGE 8 (Amherst, N.Y.)

I’m not used to being asked if I have a preference for where I want to sit when buying my movie ticket ($5.99), but that’s what makes the local AMC unique. This theatre also contains red plushy recliner loveseats, which makes you feel like you’re at home. Of course, I was far from home. “McFarland, USA” director Niki Caro takes you to the poor mostly-Hispanic California town of McFarland, daring us to dream bigger.

7:30 p.m.: “Wild” at the MOVIELAND 8 THEATRES (Cheektowaga, N.Y.)

The projectors at the Movieland 8 theatre don’t always work. (Full disclosure, I tried to see “The Wolf of Wall Street” here last year and the film quit without getting past the first 20 minutes. “Unbroken” also wasn’t working when I stopped here to see it earlier this month.) But despite that and the older movie selection, the movie prices here are cheap (ranging from $2-$4). It’s one of the reasons I come here. Thursday night, I got lost in the deserts and woods with Reese Witherspoon, who starred as author Cheryl Strayed in the memoir-to-movie “Wild.” She reminded me of how empowering it can be to be out on your own — whether it’s to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or to see 14 movies in theatres within a month.

‘Parvaneh’ bridges the east and west

If you’ve been reading or listening to any of the analysis on the Charlie Hebdo shootings last month, you’ve come to realize it’s a very complicated and complex issue. The Kouachi brothers believed they were “defenders of the prophet” Muhammed, a reasoning they used to justify their actions against the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine.

“If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him,” Cherif Kouachi told French reporter Igor Sahiri. “We don’t kill women. We are not like you. You are the ones killing women and children in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t us. We have an honor code in Islam.”

Kouachi’s warped worldview of Islam shows the immense schism between the East and West. Through our Western lens, hijabs and burkas are signs of oppression from men who want to cover up their women; however, some Muslim women may see head scarves as a sign of liberation, allowing men to see and hear them for what they say and think rather than what they look like.

Similarly, we see “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry for free speech while they see the same mantra as an attack on their religious beliefs. “Je suis Charlie” means that “I am Charlie” — that we stand with Charlie Hebdo. Most of us see Charlie Hebdo as a metaphor, supporting what Charlie Hebdo represents rather than the controversial content they publish. But if we’re the Peter Quills of the world, speaking in symbolism and metaphors, the radical jihadists are like the vengeful Draxes in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — questioning why he would want to put his finger on an enemy’s throat.

With all the negative press garnered by radical Islamist terrorists (from the Kouachi brothers to the Tsarnaevzs), it’s easy to forget that these world views don’t represent those of all Muslims. After all, jihadists are to Muslims as the Westboro Baptists are to Christians. Yet these Eastern cultures feel esoteric in our Western eyes.

Iranian-Swiss film director and screenwriter Talkhon Hamzavi reminds us that it’s possible to reach beyond the curtain of cultural misunderstandings. Her “universal mixtape” is the refreshing 25-minute Oscar-nominated short, “Parvaneh.” The film is about a young Afghani refuge in Switzerland.

When we first meet Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani), she’s talking to her mother on a pay phone. Her father’s hospitalized in Afghanistan and she promises to send money. So begins her trip from the cold and snowy Swiss apps (which looks like a scene from “Fargo”) to the bustling and equally hostile city of Zürich. When the Western Union bank refuses to send her money because she’s under 18, Parvaneh enlists and eventually bonds with a tough-looking blond (Cheryl Graf) with dyed pink hair, ripped leggings and a black leather jacket. 

Parvaneh’s coming-of-age excursion is a short story rather than a novel, following the footsteps of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” Filmed by Stefan Dux and edited by Hannes Rüttimann, “Parvaneh” conveys how vulnerable and lonely a girl can feel. Each shot highlights Parvaneh’s isolation: eating alone in the dining hall, refusing unwanted advances from men, walking along the expansive snowy backdrop with just a backpack and some drab-colored clothing.

When a sales girl approaches Parvaneh in a Zürich cosmetic shop, it’s startling. It feels as if we’ve spent a lifetime traveling with Parvaneh in silence that we, too, feel foreign in a cosmopolitan city.

Hamzavi’s unique short film allows us to re-examine how we see things. Through Parvaneh’s eyes, what we find familiar seems foreign. Yet this hajj is one we all should take. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, showing us the East and West isn’t that far apart after all.

“Parvaneh” was written and directed by Talkhon Hamzavi. The film was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film. 

Hurray for the Riff Raff: singing against the grain

“Like an old sad song/ you heard it all before,” sings 28-year-old Bronx native Alynda Lee Segarra. That’s certainly true about Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s single “The Body Electric.”

The song’s beautifully simple repeating melody reinforces it’s haunting lyrics — allusions to the murder of 14-year-old African American Delia Green.

We’ve heard this sad song sung as ballads from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan; however, Hurray for the Riff Raff retelling (like Maurice Ogden’s famous poem “The Hangman”) questions the injustice and encourages political discourse.

Perhaps that’s what NPR‘s Ann Powers gravitated toward when she declared Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric” as the “political folk song of the year.” 

The song certainly has a hook. “Said you’re gonna shoot me down/ put my body in the river,” Segarra sings over the strumming of a guitar. The mysterious pronouns immediately places us into the murder-mystery (which might also explain the success of “This American Life’s” immensely popular podcast, “Serial”).

Or perhaps protests just fire us up. The Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions brought millions to the streets all across America. Meanwhile, “The Hanging Tree,” the political rebellion song penned by Suzanne Collins, scored by The Lumineers’ Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz, and sung by Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” movie, was played more than 2 million times and downloaded more than 200,000 times within the first full week of its release. 

Segarra and her New Orleans-based band does what the narrator of “The Hangman” failed to do. Her voice cries out against the atrocities — from the murder of Delia Green to the death of Trayvon Martin. The only questions is: will you do the same?

You can donate to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Body Electric Fund here:

Money collected will be donated to The Trayvon Martin Foundation, the Third Wave Fund and other charities. 

Food for thought: commercializing ‘The Hunger Games’

I saw the 74th Hunger Games tributes on victory tour more than a year and a half ago.

The context: I was one of the 400 Capitol fans camped outside Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, awaiting tickets into the black carpet event and premiere screening of gamemaker Gary Ross’ much-anticipated “Hunger Games.”

This was my view of “The Hunger Games” black carpet premiere on March 12, 2012. Photos taken by Qina Liu.

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Like the people watching the 74th annual hunger games — a gladiator-style/survivor tournament where two dozen children fight to the death — on television in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, I was incredibly moved by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from district 12, a poor mining town near the outskirts of Panem.

But most of all, I appreciated Collins’ critique of reality and how that played out with the release of each movie.

For those not familiar with the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” echoes the lessons of George Orwell and “ad man” Edward Bernays. Like history has shown us again and again, the wealthy elite few control the uneducated masses. Whereas Orwell (and Machiavelli) showed us how this was done through fear, Bernays showed us how it’s possible to “engineer consent” through love and want. (i.e. The star-crossed lover storyline between district 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta is the sugar that makes Collins’ didactic messages easier to swallow.)

The tragic televised deaths of children serve as a fearful reminder of the government’s control. But they’re also a distraction from society’s problems: the games serve as entertainment, the tributes as celebrities.

“Your job is to be a distraction,” someone tells Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine of the franchise, in the second movie.

And you can’t escape “The Hunger Games” universe or its commercialization.

Every TV network and late night talk show host covering “The Hunger Games” premiere had their own Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) or Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — decked out in designer outfits, echoing Effie’s favorite motto (“Let the games be ever in your favor”) or Caesar’s conversational interview style.

“Team Peeta or Team Gale?” said every reporter, asking which of Katniss’ lovers the fans adored more.

Meanwhile, People Magazine runs glossy pictures and stories of each tribute (and the actor playing him or her). Hot Topic hangs displays of Hunger Game T-shirts and posters; Covergirl has a new Hunger Games-inspired makeup line.

Perhaps most telling is a scene in Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (released in theaters Nov. 22).

Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is sitting with his granddaughter, who has her hair pulled back into a Katniss-style braid (much like most of the female audience members watching the movie premiere in theaters).

“When did you start wearing it like that?” Snow asks.

“Everyone wears it like that, Grandpa,” she answers.

This emulation isn’t necessarily bad. After all, imagine where the world would be if there were more reluctant revolutionary heroes like Katniss Everdeen.

But “The Hunger Games” are a distraction from some of the world’s bigger problems. Whereas almost one in four people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to buy food, the first book-turned-movie opened with a record-breaking $155 million in U.S. box offices; the second film, “Catching Fire,” made $161 million during opening weekend, promising to be one of the highest grossing films this November.

And how much food can you buy for $161 million?

That’s 273.7 million pounds of bananas, 25.76 million pounds of coffee, 37.03 million Big Macs, 225.4 million pounds of rice, 249.55 million pounds of potatoes, 48.3 million pounds of ground beef, 1.0948 billion eggs or 128.8 million cans of beers in the U.S..

Think of that the next time you see a Mockingjay pin.

Next Stop… ‘Fruitvale Station’: a discussion on race and equality 50 years since MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

Fifty years ago on the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. announced his dream to the world: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Fifty years later, that world is still a dream.

According to an August Pew Research poll, 49 percent of Americans say “a lot more” needs to be done toward racial equality.

The study shows that in 2010, black men were incarcerated six times as often as white men and in 2011, median white households made roughly $27,000 more than black ones. Blacks are three times as likely to be living in poverty. And the July unemployment rate for blacks (12.6 percent) is double of that for whites (6.6 percent).

Compared to data collected from a sample of children born more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into legislation, these revelations aren’t surprising. After all, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy reform group, one in 10 black males in their 30s are in prison.

Meanwhile, sociologist Dr. Becky Pettit’s study, “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” of high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 shows that:

  • 68 percent of blacks, compared with 28 percent of whites, had been incarcerated at some point by 2009.
  • In 2009, 37 percent of blacks, compared with 12 percent of whites, were imprisoned.
  • More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs.
  • Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service.
  • Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.
  • And by the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent.

This is the world we see — one where Florida’s “stand your ground” laws protected a light-skinned Hispanic  from charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter after he shot a black teen in early 2012 and didn’t protect a black woman who felt like she was in physical danger from her abusive husband.

And it’s the one we see in “Fruitvale Station,” Ryan Coogler’s empathetic debut feature-length film based on the death of Oscar Grant III, a black 22-year-old shot by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer.

Through Coogler’s script and direction and Rachel Morrison’s camera lens, we follow Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) over the course of 24 hours, watching his “pursuit of happyness.”

But unlike Chris Gardner‘s story (about a hardworking and homeless entrepreneur/stockbroker), “Fruitvale Station” is without its Hollywood flourishes. While Oscar may strive to provide for his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) and daughter (Ariana Neal), he spent time behind the walls of the San Francisco Penitentiary. Instead of selling expensive medical equipment like Gardner did, Oscar dealt marijuana.

“Do you want me to sell dope?” Oscar, who worked at a local food market, asked his former boss after he refused to rehire him.

Certainly this illustrates the cyclical nature of one’s socioeconomic status. Unable to find a socially acceptable minimum wage job, Oscar resorts to selling drugs — which could put him back behind prison bars. Is this really the “pursuit of happiness?”

How do you answer your daughter when she asks you, “Why do you love taking your vacations more than you love being with me?”

As uncomfortable as this reality is, “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t shy away from another self-evident truth: we’re still judged by the color of our skin.

We see this when a white woman looks away nervously when a black man in jeans and a hoodie approaches her in the supermarket. We see this when police officers pull aside unarmed black men from a BART train, shooting and killing one of them.

You can’t help but think: is this what Trayvon Martin felt like when he was followed by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012?

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told police. “These assholes, they always get away.” Trayvon, a black teen wearing jeans and a dark hoodie, made him uncomfortable, he said.

Even President Obama isn’t a stranger to this racial profiling: “There are very few African American men in this country who’ve never had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars… There are a very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking in an elevator and having a woman clutch her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often,” he said, admitting that some of these incidents occurred to him.

While Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who shot Oscar, was convicted for involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced for two years in prison, and the Trayvon Martin case renewed momentum toward the End Racial Profiling Act, that’s not enough.

It’s not enough when new North Carolina voting laws requiring photo identification, making it harder for blacks to vote. It’s not enough when state laws require a jury to acquit a man who shot and killed someone. It’s not enough until every man is not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

That’s the world Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of 50 years ago. And sadly, those words are as relevant today as they were on Aug. 28, 1963.

Echoing the words of Dr. King, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Words to remember, but also words worth fighting for — that self-evident and elusive truth: equality. Will dreams ever come true?

Summer drive-ins and why they still matter

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

Taken at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, N.Y.

It was called the Nightly Double because it cost 25 cents for a double feature. They played two movies every night, and four on the weekends. That’s where Ponyboy Curtis and his gang of greasers would drink and pick up girls in S.E. Hinton’s 1967 coming-of-age novel, The Outsiders. And that’s where I first read about drive-ins.

Growing up in the 1990s, my generation found drive-ins as relics from another era, seen in books or films. Danny Zuko (John Travolta) sings about Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John) at a drive-in in the 1978 musical movie, Grease. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) drive the DeLorean directly into a drive-in theatre screen to travel from 1955 to 1885 in Back to the Future 3. Both those movies were released before I was born, and the spotlight on drive-ins seems as prehistoric as the films featuring them.

Back in the day, Whiz Auto Products Company sales manager Richard Hollingshead Jr. came up with the novelty for drive-ins — a place where the family can watch movies in the comfort of their car — and in doing so, he changed the movie-going experience. In the 1930s, children went to matinees during the day and adults attended film screenings at night. The problem with this model was that this made the film-going experience a hassle for families; in order to go to a film, Mom and Dad would have to dress up and hire a babysitter.

As Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association told Smithsonian magazine, “His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theatre seats. So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.”

Since Hollingshead Jr. aimed a 1928 Kodak film projector at a white bed sheet hung between two trees in his Riverton, N.J., backyard, drive-ins have grown.

The first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, N.J. Hollingshead Jr. charged 25 cents per person to watch the British comedy Wives Beware. The next year, three drive-in theatres opened up in Pennsylvania, Texas and California. By 1958, the height of the drive-in era, more than 4,000 drive-ins thrived across the United States.

Unfortunately, drive-ins have been dwindling year by year. Today, only 357 drive-in theatres exist throughout Puerto Rico and the 50 states. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming do not even have one drive-in.

Since the 1970s, drive-ins were replaced by housing complexes and shopping malls. The demise of drive-ins is partly due to costs to maintain.

“It’s a fun business, but it’s very difficult, because you have a six-month business and 12 months of expenses,” Steve Valentine, the former owner of the Buffalo Drive-In, told The New York Times. The Buffalo Drive-In closed in 2007.

Meanwhile, the comfort of watching movies in cars is replaced by the comfort of watching films at home. After all, why should you catch a double feature at a drive-in when you can watch unlimited movies and TV on Netflix for $7.99 a month — relatively the same price as a double feature?

If money were the only deciding factor, Netflix, Hulu and other online streaming sites would be the better deal, but drive-in theatres offer an irreplaceable social experience.

Just last summer, I was sitting in the backseat of my friend’s parked and fogged up Toyota Camry. We were catching the premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman at the Transit Drive-In when an unexpected movie montage started to play. It started with clips and quotes from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and ended with the words, “Rachel, will you marry me?”

Now would that proposal been the same on a tiny laptop screen in the comfort of one’s home? Well, for one, it would be missing the honking cars and the collective cheers that followed. Rachel’s proposal wouldn’t have had the same audience (even if most of them were sitting in fogged up cars with the windshield wipers on).

Watching a film at a drive-in theatre is like going to a tailgate without the alcohol. The shared amenities include food, friends and a parking lot full of entertainment. Perhaps watching a DVD on a flat screen TV in your home or a movie in one of AMC’s plushy new recliners would be more comfortable than sitting outside under a canopy of summer mosquitoes, but drive-in theatres are as appealing as going to an outdoor game.

While the movies are the reason you’re out here, it doesn’t matter what happens on that screen (I’ve sat through some pretty bad double features at drive-ins). What matters are the kan jam games, the miniature golf — the friends and family who surround you and the time you spend with them.

Hollingshead Jr. may have started drive-in theatres to foster family-friendly movie-viewing experiences, but that’s not what keeps them going. Unlike movie theatres, you never go to drive-ins alone. The novelty rests in how many people you can pile in your van, how many drinks and snacks you can fit in your coolers and the half-circle of folding chairs taking up two full parking spaces. They’re about dressing up in your cloaks and wands for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and trading that in for your masks and capes for the premiere of the latest summer superhero blockbuster. And let’s not forget the best part; summer’s only getting started…

Author’s Note: I wrote this at the beginning of summer, but didn’t get around to posting it until now…

OWS: Change I Believe In

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It didn’t look like much on Nov. 25 — ten days since Mayor Bloomberg ordered the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment. After hearing the media hype about months of protests and police brutality, the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park paled in comparison.

“It’s like a spectator sport,” my friend Shelby Mis said.

The protesters were like animals in a zoo, caged behind metal bars, the smell of pot clinging to their clothes. People carrying shopping bags and reveling from Black Friday sales were pointing and snapping photos of protesters’ signs:  “We’re the 99 percent!” “Exercise your rights!” “Hey 1 percent, suck it!” “Democracy not plutocracy!” “You can’t pepper spray ideas!”

Despite these initial impressions, I soon learned that the Occupy Wall Street movement was about standing up for your beliefs and raising your voice.

“If you’re going to stay here, you’ll have to move,” said a NYPD officer, pushing the crowd to try to clear the sidewalks.

“How do you feel about all this?” a woman interrupted, gesturing at the motley crew assembled in Zuccotti Park.

“This is nonsense,” the officer said, shaking his head in disapproval.

Those who dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement have clearly not talked to the protesters.

“It’s a lot different than what I thought it would be,” said Henry Gong, a teacher at Penn State who was visiting family in New York City during Thanksgiving break. “I thought people were agitating for no reason, but they all seem to have different purposes — something like a clearing house of protestors.”

“I noticed that a lot of people here still work, but they’re here supporting a lot of other people,” said Henry’s wife, Pat.

This included Paul Armstrong, a 48-year-old white union ironworker from Los Angeles who has been involved in the movement.

“I’ve been upset with the direction America was going for about 10 to 15 years now, so I had to get involved,” he said. “This might be the most important thing I got involved with in my life.”

Armstrong had gotten involved in the Occupy movement purely by chance. He was stationed in New York City for a job since Sept. 17. While the project got postponed, Armstrong was admiring the architecture at the World Trade Center when he discovered the grassroots movement starting in Zuccotti Park. It was Sept. 20 — day three since the Occupy Wall Street movement started — and for some reason, the movement spoke to him, occupying his purpose and heart.

Since then, Armstrong has picked up a sign and hardhat to do battle in the front lines of Broadway Street in Zuccotti Park. In big, bold, black lettering, the sign reads, “I’m union, I vote, I work, I pay taxes, I’m pissed, so I’m here!”

“I make it a point to stand out there on the front line to show mainstream America that it’s not just a bunch of pot-smoking hippies out here,” Armstrong said. “It’s everyday Americans that are just disgusted out of where America is falling.”

Armstrong has two sons, and says it’s because of them and the younger generation that he stands in Zuccotti Park every day.

“I’m doing this for you,” he told me after I told him I was a college student.

Armstrong doesn’t think it’s fair that the younger generation will never see pensions, or that the new retirement age will be 70, so he stands in Zuccotti Park — his fingers frozen from holding up his sign — even after working 10 hours a day.

Imaraw Johnson, a black 17-year-old high school senior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., is also protesting for our generation. Her cause: to illustrate the disparity at her public high school.

For a school with about 4,000 students, Edward R. Murrow High School has a 42 to one student to teacher ratio, and most high school students stay in school for six to seven years. Johnson protests all day — staying up until 1 a.m. to finish her homework — because she thinks something is wrong with a system where school budget cuts have eliminated summer schooling — effectively reducing many students from graduating and pursuing their dreams.

“Instead of accepting things as they are, we can change things,” Johnson said.

As young as the Occupy movement is, social justice and a cry for social change is not new. Former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and the Tea Party evoked these sentiments with the slogan, “I’m mad as hell” — a catchphrase on every orange campaign sign on every Republican Tea Party supporter’s lawn last election season. Meanwhile, President Barrack Obama cried for change with his motto, “Change we can believe in.” Going further back into history, anti-Vietnam War protesters, suffragettes, abolitionists, and American founding fathers also practiced civil disobedience.

“If you look at the abolitionists,” said Kelly Dietz, a politics professor at Ithaca College, “if you look at the liberal revolutions that overthrew absolutists rule, that was by breaking the law and throwing old structures in their face and rejecting them.”

Like the Occupy movement, Dietz said the other movements also started small and incoherent.

“Given all the different folks and ideas that are bubbling up from the Occupy movement — there’s liberalism, there’s anarchism, there’s socialism — you’re not going to come out with a coherent strategy,” she said.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Occupy movement has garnered such widespread exposure has shown that change is already happening.

“We’ve never had big changes without people getting into the streets,” she said. “What’s really coming out of it is that people are feeling empowered to critique, feeling the power to challenge and even the mainstream media is feeling empowered to raise issues of inequality.”

That empowerment is the reason I am writing this article. Justice is found in the good Samaritans, the Mother Theresas, Ghandis and Martin Lurther King Jrs. of the world. More importantly, justice is found in everyday people, striving to achieve the impossible by holding up signs. Perhaps if I write, someone will see my billboard for justice and join the 99 percent. Perhaps, like the protesters, I, too, can inspire change.

Closing a chapter: A last look at Potter midnight madness

It all began more than a decade and a half ago when J.K. Rowling penned and released “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” scribbling the blueprints on napkins in cafes. Then 10 years ago, the first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” made it on the silver screen, and every boy and girl Muggle grew up knowing the name of Daniel Radcliffe — whose name became synonymous with his silver-screen persona, “the-boy-who-lived.”

Outside The Elephant House in Edinburgh, U.K

As a kid who grew up with Potter and Rowling’s books, I looked forward to spending sticky, humid summers with the Dursleys, if only to read about and return to Hogwarts and that world of magic and wizardry. Yet years of waiting for book releases and midnight movie showings — seven books and eight movies later — that wait if finally over and many fans like me are closing a chapter to their childhoods.After watching director David Yate’s second film installment of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at midnight with millions of fans across the country and around world last night, one realizes the love and investment one truly has for these actors and characters. This includes shedding tears for Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and his pensive memories, cheering for Neville Longbottom’s stance (Matthew Lewis) and the Hogwarts professors’ stronghold, appreciating Luna Lovegood’s quirkiness (Evanna Lynch), sympathizing with Lucius (Jason Issacs), Narcissius (Helen McCrory) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and cringing every time a favorite character died as a casualty of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry Potter’s final face-off.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” takes off from where the film’s November release ended and is truly J.K. Rowling’s end game, winning the love and hearts of many dedicated fans dressed in black graduation gowns, round-framed glasses and diagonally striped green, red, yellow or blue ties — a modern Muggle’s wizarding wardrobe. Watching the death toll of characters as well as how seamlessly clues and puzzle pieces fit together, one comes to realize that Rowling is as sneaky as a Slytherin, as witty as a Ravenclaw, as kind a Hufflepuff and as brave as a Gryffindor. For her to share her gift of storytelling with the world is a real treasure — and just like how Potter and the gang parted with their offspring in the epilogue at King’s Cross and Platform 9 and 3/4 19 years later — it’s a treasure that fans and their offspring will enjoy for years to come in books, movies and Pottermore.

Click here for a related post on Part 1 of the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” adventure.

Why should we care about celebrities?

When Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to spend 90 days in jail this summer, it coincided with news of the BP oil leakage stopping as well as the decision for the appointment of Buffalo’s new police commissioner.


Qina Liu

Her sobs in the courtroom — claiming, “It wasn’t a vacation” — filled local half-hour news segments on WGRZ Channel 2 On Your Side and WIVB Channel 4. Yet while I understand why news of Lohan’s arrest may be covered on TMZ, I do not understand why news networks were also covering her episodes with authority — especially since her arrest does not affect anyone from Buffalo, N.Y.

However, information and interest in Lohan’s arrest should not be surprising. As Jill Neimark of Psychology Today wrote in a May 1, 1995 article, “Whether it’s a hero-turned-murderer or a rock star committing suicide, the media brings us together in a global society.” She argues that we put celebrities such as Lohan in the limelight so that we can collectively criticize them — we put them down to feel better about ourselves.

“Though fractured into bits of gossip, celebrities, of course, still bring us real meaning,” Neimark writes. Neimark claims that Paris Hilton’s reality television show, “The Simple Life,” may simply give our lives meaning, and that Lohan’s escapades serve their purpose as entertainment.

While Neimark’s comments may validate why Lohan appears in on local news channels — and why people are interested in watching — using bad celebrity press is demeaning, especially when there is real news to be told. Don’t people deserve to know about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf or about the cholera outbreak in Haiti? Don’t people deserve to learn about real news? Why is our culture so focused on celebrity and not politics or government? Don’t people understand that politics matter — that legislation and opinion affect what one can and cannot do?

Amy Henderson, a historian in the Smithsonian Institution, wrote that people used to value “military heroes” and “eminent statesmen.” People used to look up to people who actually mattered — and perhaps talked about and covered things that actually mattered too. While I am not saying that Lohan does not matter, she certainly matters a whole lot less next to the BP oil spill disaster.

Although Lohan’s claim-to-fame in The Parent Trap and Mean Girls make her a modern celebrity, and she may have been good at what she does, it is overshadowed by the coverage of the press. Her flops of recent movies, such as I Know Who Killed Me, and her stints in jail do not help her image either. In fact, her DWI arrests and her crying incident make her more laughable than credible.

But it is not Lohan’s fault. Perhaps her childhood stardom put her on the media radar in the first place. Still, as Henderson describes, the modern celebrity is “celebrated not for achievement, but simply for ‘well-knowness.’” This explains how a character like “Snooki” has ever entered American households, and why people return to the Jersey Shore. But don’t you see something wrong with that picture?

Should Lindsay Lohan be more famous — or infamous — than the crooks on Wall Street or than those responsible for the oil disaster in the Gulf?

It saddens me that ten years after the U.S. war with Afghanistan began, nobody can name how many soldiers died for our nation in either Iraq or Afghanistan. At the same time, however, everyone knows that Jon and Kate had eight kids, and that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the Ken and Barbie of the celebrity generation. Everyone knows about Lohan’s misadventures in and out of jail and rehab, but we do not know offhand that according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty count, there were 4,427 and counting fatalities in Iraq and 1,380 similar cases in Afghanistan.

However, I am not here to underscore the importance of celebrity culture and its ability to make a societal impact. I applaud Sean Penn — and not just his ability as an actor — for camping in Haiti and trying to help a good cause. I was happy to see him report to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about the conditions in Haiti this summer, and I am pleased that he corresponded with The New York Times about what it was like on the island after Hurricane Tomas swept the country. I am glad that Lady Gaga voiced her opinion about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. At the same time, I am just asking society to be more mindful of important political and social issues.   

While I will be the first to admit that I found Lohan’s breakdown laughable, I do not understand why mainstream media will highlight Lohan, especially when more time and energy could be devoted to disasters such as the Indonesia tsunami which killed at least 113 people and left 502 missing, or solving the problems exposed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The BP oil spill, called the “worst in U.S. history” by organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, caused a lasting ecological effect and will affect the area for years. Travis Walter Donovan of the Huffington Post compiled a list of seven long-term effects of the gulf oil spill, which is continuing to affect factors such as tourism and the seafood industry and the economy along the Gulf coast. As for talk of Lohan’s jail time — it will only last until the next time Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift at the VMA awards or until Janet Jackson flashes her cleavage at the Superbowl.

But do both events really merit the same amount of back-to-back coverage? After all, media reflects a society, and if all we care about is which celebrities are doing drugs, sex and booze, what does that say about us as a culture?

Lohan, although a celebrity, does not deserve to fill the shoes of the 24-hour news cycles of the mainstream media. After all, if issues in the press were not overshadowed by Lindsay’s jail time, perhaps these issues will last longer than 24 hours.

Qina Liu is an Ithaca College journalism major from Buffalo, N.Y.