Comp II literature courses are simple courses with short and long stories, plays and poetry. The most compelling of all stories are those where the protagonist and antagonist are one in the same.
Rarely does television bring the raw elements of fiction literature onto the screen, but tonight HBO did with its “Nightingale” premiere, a story by Frederick Mensch a writer described by The Atlantic as an “unknown.”
“Nightingale” is a story about what happens when God fails and in the past, authors Richard Wright and Flannery O’Connor were masters at those tales. They were also masters at pointing out how society can be so corrupt and wrong because it of its orthodox cling to Christianity–so much so that it societally and culturally fails and marginalizes others who then descend into madness.
By the end of “Nightingale”, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself rooting for Peter Snowden, the army veteran, supermarket store clerk “nightingale” to uncomplicate matters and kill himself.
“Nightingale” is compelling, memorable, gothic horror, modern drama, and at times supremely sardonic. It’s intelligent with loud, like booming loud, so loud it’s screaming, yet unspoken conversations like the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policies, the difficulty of Christianity and Christians and subsequent uncompromising ideas on sinners and homosexuality.
This intelligent flick is a refreshing surprise coming from HBO, a station with seven or eight satellite channels that premieres really silly movies almost every Saturday night.
And the title is so appropriate–the nightingale bird has a beautiful song just like the story’s main character Peter Snowden. How can anyone be angry at a gay guy who’s not allowed to be gay because loyalty to his devouring mom won’t let him? Peter Snowden has masked his sexuality for presumably 18 years, perhaps, in attempt to appease his mother and conform to her to Christian “values”, but in the process he’s grown into a certifiable monster.
“Nightingale’s” anti-hero, Peter Snowden, has no redeeming virtues, except perhaps that he has hidden his true sexual identity and the resulting angry, bitter resentment that drips from his lips are understandable, believable, and for one moment, likable.
Still, Peter Snowden, is a bad man with a dark secret, Oedipal anger, and serious desire. He has a violent temper—he killed his mom. He suffers manically from unrequited love and absolute loneliness. I rooted for “Nightingale’s” anti-hero antagonist/protagonist to kill himself because given Peter Snowden’s situation and circumstance, suicide seemed the character’s best option.
On its own, “Nightingale” is crazy disturbing like a Jeffrey Dahmer flick. But accolades go to David Oyelowo because the movie is a one man film. That’s not terribly unusual in literature or the stage, but on screen, a one man play is something new.
Last month, April 25, Ava DuVernay sat with an audience at the Smithsonian in Washington DC to discuss “Selma”. DuVernay was asked why she chose African actors rather than black American actors for the leading roles of Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. DuVernay said although discussions like that are dangerous, she also said she went with the best trained actors.
And while DuVernay’s explanation is (I feel) certainly inarguable, her choice of Oyelowo and Ejogo as lead actors in a film on Black America’s most beloved leader, is a true nod to Africa and black America’s African roots and our undeniable, royal, African identity as we make our way here in the United States as black citizens denied privilege, rights and financial freedom because we are inherently African.
Homosexuality and hiding is a large and loud conversation in “Nightingale”. The plot alone is thrilling and awesome, and “Nightingale” is far from a race story. But it’s pretty hard to ignore that Oyelowo stars as a black guy with a crush on a white guy. Oyelowo’s character Peter Snowden straightens his rich Afro into a greasy crepe paper mess as he anticipates a Friday date night with his old friend, a noticeably white guy Edward whose picture appears when Peter Snowden’s cell phone rings.
It’s the little things.
For years, the more radical of black American civil rights advocates have opposed the idea that gay civil rights and black civil rights are one in the same because black folks can’t hide their race, while gay folks can hide their sexual identities. “Nightingale” is a full examination of the effects of religion, race and sexuality on the black male and the resulting violence that erupts when all of three of those issues go unresolved and without reconciliation.
Or, when black men are asked to hide and suppress their emotions and feelings because it doesn’t fit in with what society deems acceptable. (By the way, this was the topic of the April 25th convo where DuVernay spoke at the Smithsonian during the time of the Baltimore race riots after the murder of Freddy Gray).
Theater and lit teachers all over should love this work currently running on HBO because it’s reading while watching–and that kind of education is rare in entertainment.