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Best of Cincinnati for December 6, 2005
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Arts Beat

The New Negro Vogue

Asked if Hollywood studios practice a quota for black actors, Don Cheadle answers with a matter-of-fact "yes." He knows from experience.

Cheadle earned acclaim for his performance of heroic hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, the hit film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide and how 1,300 people avoided slaughter. But he says he earned the role only after proven stars Denzel Washington and Will Smith passed on the film.

Cheadle hopes Hollywood powerbrokers will up the color quota from two to three, although the veteran character actor will have to battle colleague Jaime Foxx for that third black-leading-man slot.

Cheadle has good reason to complain, but the standout memory from our recent interview is one of celebration. Despite the Hollywood quota, he sees a New Black Renaissance sweeping the U.S., if not the world, rivaling the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Cheadle points to the popularity of Hip Hop and Rap music and Slam poetry as proof positive that this is a good time to be a black artist in America. Politicians in Washington might be committed to have and have-not policies that fall across racial lines, but art and culture will ultimately have their say.

One leader in Cheadle's Renaissance Army is poet and singer Saul Williams, 33. His arts resume includes music, acting in films like the independent drama Slam and books of poetry, but Williams refers to himself in simple terms. He is a poet, no different, he says, from Sylvia Plath, who also read her works aloud.

The Harlem Renaissance became a chapter in the history books after its demise in the grip of the Great Depression. But Williams and his fellow Slam poets continue the Harlem legacy of black artists crossing the color barrier.

Back then, singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and poets Claude McKay and Countee Cullen reminded America that blacks were more than rural and uneducated laborers. They were also urbane, educated and articulate.

Bold proof of the New Black Renaissance is found in filmmaker Paul Devlin's 1998 documentary Slam Nation, a high-energy story that shows Williams' rise at open-mic poetry nights at New York City's Nuyorican Poets Café and his participation along with 100 other spoken word artists at the National Poetry Slam in Portland, Ore.

Slam Nation was little seen upon its initial release, but its new DVD from Docurama shows how open-mic poetry has crossed over into mainstream culture much like Jazz and Hip Hop. It's also become a worldwide phenomenon.

"What is most interesting to me about the whole spoken word movement is how multi-cultural and multi-ethnic it is," Williams said recently. "Poetry is the place gay kids choose to come out of the closet. It's the place where abused women choose to speak up. It's far from being just a black thing, and the same is true for Hip Hop."

A pop culture phenomenon has a limited life. A renaissance has the strength to make a lasting impact as long as the artists remain working or pass the torch to new believers.

Williams looks at the big picture of Slam poetry -- a throwback to his philosophy studies at Morehouse University. He sees Slam poets as the harbingers of political change, the forces for economic and social good.

"Any time you have a renaissance or shift in cultural consciousness, the first thing you see is a resurgence in the popularity of poetry," he says. "The beat poetry era ushered in the hippie movement. The black power poetry era ushered in the black power movement. The Harlem Renaissance slowly ushered in the Civil Rights era. It's all connected. Poetry is usually the first thing that blows up again when people are starting to think differently about themselves and about their society."

Art is the means for political activism. That's the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and the message of Williams and the rest of the Slam Nation poets.

The glory days are now, and they're getting brighter. Just listen to the words.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)

E-mail Steve Ramos

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