Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'


If we judge the new “Star Wars” movie strictly within the context of the franchise, we’d give it a score that’s higher than the one we’d assign if critiquing the film on its merits.
As part of the franchise, it was pretty good, mostly because of the appealing “Star Wars” aesthetic, Adam Driver’s performance as the troubled villain Kylo Ren, and Daisy Ridley’s turn as the new hero.
But if we set aside for a moment the history, the baggage, all that we know and like and hate about the first two trilogies, and consider “The Force Awakens” independently, we should probably admit that the movie was, well, just OK.
This is probably because director J.J. Abrams was caught between two rocks and two hard places. He had to appease die-hard fans and appeal to the new generation of moviegoers. And he had to adhere adequately to the general plot and interstellar environment established by the first six films, yet introduce enough new elements to ensure audiences didn’t merely experience a lot of déjà vu.
In a sense, then, it was a no-win situation.
When the first of the “Star Wars” movies appeared in 1977, it thrilled audiences precisely because it was so revolutionary. The 1970s was, in certain ways, a terrific decade for Hollywood, which produced a slew of gritty and exciting films such as “Taxi Driver, “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men.”
When the Jedi knights, Darth Vader and that cowboy Han Solo burst onto the screen, audiences suddenly were confronted with a new kind of very old storytelling, a space opera, a grand myth. Everything about the experience was thrilling, and we didn’t mind that the dialogue sometimes could be cheesy or the alien creatures a bit goofy. The epic adventure provided an unusual and enthralling form of escapism from recession, gas shortages, Middle East conflict and Cold War animosity. Never mind our earthly troubles; we could lose ourselves in the intense drama of this galaxy far, far away.
But Abrams’ “Star Wars” comes after we’ve become accustomed to huge Hollywood blockbusters selling escapism and special effects. We’ve seen all the Marvel movies and disaster flicks and Star Trek remakes. Big ships and exploding Death Stars cannot impress us the way they once did.
The only other option for the filmmaker, then, is to scrap the archetypes (reluctant hero, brilliant pilot, turncoat, evil villain in the service of a master, wise mentor) and old plot formulas (hero’s journey, good vs. evil) and go for something fresh, a more invigorating kind of storytelling. But that would mean to abandon what “Star Wars” fans love.
And it would threaten to topple a multi-faceted enterprise at just the moment Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm. Well, that’s not an option. So we get, in the end, a movie that plays it safe, that necessarily keeps within its commercial boundaries. While the craft is evident, there is really no art involved to speak of.
And therefore no goosebumps. No chills. No accelerated pulse rate. We know what will happen long before it does. We know that young Rey will embrace her destiny, that the masked Kylo Ren is someone’s son and still has a sliver of light in him, that one of the characters will play the role of the sacrificial lamb, that the battle will be won and the new Death Star will be destroyed but that the war will rage on.
We know that, to keep us hooked and ready to buy tickets to episodes VIII and IX, certain key questions purposefully will be left unanswered, such as Rey’s and Finn’s parentage, the manner in which Kylo Ren’s redemption will be realized, the mystery of the dismembered map and why C-3PO has one red arm.
So be it. Yet these mysteries fail to engage our curiosity as intensely as they might, perhaps because we know they will eventually be resolved in predictable ways. After all, there is a formula with which to comply.
“The Force Awakens” hews closely to the first of the movies, “A New Hope,” with many of the same proto-characters and much the same narrative arc. Whereas the older film was rough around its edges because of the intensive manual labor involved in making it, this movie is slick. Too slick. The action unfolds in a rush, and the glitches and inconsistencies are few. The pace struck me as a little off: each plot development follows logically and quickly from the previous one. Rey learns to fly the mechanically compromised Millennium Falcon (which conveniently starts right up after years of disuse) with ease. Han Solo turns up at just the right moment. The planetary system housing the Resistance is obliterated unceremoniously. The only moment someone feels a disturbance in the Force is… well, I won’t give it away.
Suffice it to say that it’s all too pat. And it fails to provide us with a glimpse of the characters’ inner turmoil. We see angst and stress on their faces, but we know little of their emotional lives.
“Search your feelings,” Darth Vader told Luke Skywalker, a plea repeated in various forms throughout the first six films. Feelings were important. They determined to which side of the Force one gravitated. They could be harnessed for good or exploited for evil. One could, within limits, shape one’s destiny.
In the new movie, feelings take a back seat to action. Destiny seems imperturbable. And we don’t wonder whether or how Rey might be corrupted.
Of course it’s impossible to employ a standard myth narrative, such as the hero’s journey, and throw in a twist — say, kill the hero, or cause her to fail. So Abrams is stuck with the predictable and inevitable. He’s also stuck with an already-defined space adventure milieu, so he can’t change that up either.
Finally, he’s stuck with a commercial obligation that takes precedence over everything else. Failure, Disney mandates, is not an option.
What we’re given, then, is an adequate if ultimately unimpressive Hollywood rendering of a favorite movie realm. It succeeds in transporting us to this far away galaxy of long ago, but it doesn’t grab us by the throat like Darth Vader and fling us about with any force.

December 23, 2015

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Flirting with Disaster

April 20, 2014


If you've been to the movies lately, surely you've noticed all the havoc. The common denominator of destruction is more widely employed than ever.
Dystopia and decimation surely are not new to visual entertainment; I grew up fascinated by the old Japanese version of "Godzilla," for example. And sci-fi or superhero epics are hardly a recent phenomenon. But you have to admit that we are living in times that tend to emphasize not just adventure, but the drama of annihilation.
There are several reasons, including commercial concerns and technological advances that make intensified special effects possible. But I propose something else is at work here. Hollywood, it seems to me, is tapping into very real fears, exploiting audiences' preoccupations with actual bad news that just keeps piling up. 

Read the whole essay here: 

Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures/AP

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vertamae: A Profile

June 2011


Standing at the window of her bungalow not far from where the Coosawhatchie drains into the Broad River, she contemplates the marsh.
Across the way is Beaufort County. Today, Interstate 95 takes travelers north, but in slavery days, blacks only had the Underground Railroad.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, who lives on a former rice plantation, looks out across the marsh and imagines the workers who once threw down their rice threshers in exhaustion and disgust, escaping their fate with nothing but the tattered clothes on the backs, wading through the creek beds, hiding in the tall grass and praying that what awaited them was a friendly soul who could direct them to a Railroad weigh station.
Grosvenor imagines the spirits of those slaves lingering in the creeks and the path they forged to a better life. The past is the present. The present is ancient. The ancient is always new.

When she was born at home near Fairfax, S.C, she weighed three pounds and was called Verta Mae Smart. She was a twin, smaller than her brother, but stronger. Her parents Frank and Clara Smart placed her in a shoebox and kept her by the oven. She survived. Her brother did not.
But there was no proof of her birth.
Years later, when she returned to South Carolina and wanted to renew her passport, she contacted the authorities to request a copy of her birth certificate.
“I’m sorry, we have no one with that name on record,” the clerk told her.
“You mean I don’t exist?” she said.
She does not know her age, at least not with certainty. “It depends on how old I feel when I get up,” she says. She knows only the month and day she entered the world: April 4. Ask her for her proper name, she will cite several. Virter. Verta Kali Smart. Mae. Verta Mae. Vertamae. Space Goddess. Obedella.

Having no birth date has been liberating. In the 1960s and 70s, Grosvenor was living in the East Village of New York City. Part of the city’s black intelligentsia, she frequented jazz clubs and acted in the theater.
For a few years she was a Space Goddess in Sun Ra’s Solar Myth Science Arkestra. She was tall and thin, elegant and proud. She designed the clothes. She danced and sang. She read his poetry as the cosmic musical philosopher played free improvisation. She invented the “space walk,” a precursor to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
When the band went to the south of France for a jazz festival, it drew attention.
“Where did you find these people?” someone asked the psychedelic Sun Ra.
“I just thought them up,” came the reply.
Vertamae Smart Grosvenor was born without any record of the event, and she was just thought up.

When she was around 8 years old, her family migrated north, taking their Geechee ways with them. Verta Smart came of age in Philadelphia. As she aged she grew.
Tall and skinny and interested in the theater, she was teased by the other children. She slouched. She mused about being weird and unwanted.
As a teenager, she would hang out at a coffee shop. Someone told her to check out a young woman playing music at a hotel across the street. Nina Simone, not yet famous, was performing at various venues in Philadelphia after the Curtis Institute of Music declined to admit her. Nina Simone and Verta Smart became friends. Many years later, on July 26, 2003, three months after the famed troubadour died, Grosvenor offered a tribute at the memorial service in New York City.
At 18, Verta Smart read about the Beat Generation, about their non-conformist ways, love of literature, embrace of life and determination to explore the world. If she were a “bohemian” she would be accepted, she thought.
So she took a boat to Europe, alone, uncertain what she would find.

In Paris, the Beats were finding a freedom of the mind they were missing in the U.S. Verta Smart, too, wanted freedom.
She found the Beat Hotel on the Left Bank. She found a colony of expat artists and writers — the Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell, the American writer Jonathan Kozol, the French painter Lucien Fleury. She would marry one of them, the artist Robert Grosvenor.
Photographer Harold Chapman was staying at the rundown hotel at No. 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he took pictures of Verta Kali Smart and the others, including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.
In Paris, she began to write. She made her own clothes. She prepared simple, delicious meals based on the heritage she kept safe within her.
She found herself.

After a couple of years, she returned to the U.S. and settled in New York City. Kali was born in 1962; three years later Chandra arrived.
The 1960s was a heady time for Grosvenor. She became active in the theater, realizing a childhood dream, and even made it to Broadway. Verta Smart played Big Pearl in a production of “Mandingo,” a play that ran for just eight performances before closing. Dennis Hopper played Hammond Maxwell.
She had studied acting at the Hedgerow Theatre in Philadelphia under Jasper Deeter and now, in New York, getting a chance to apply her skills.
In 1966, Louis Gossett secured a grant from the Office of Equal Opportunity, and a group of actors, including Grosvenor, mounted a series of improvisations in Tompkins Square. Her two daughters, Kali and Chandra ran around the neighborhood rounding up the spectators.

When she was in New York she frequented the jazz clubs with poet A.B. Spellman. She brushed up on the Black Power movement. She organized dinner parties. She threw a fundraiser fish-fry for SNCC in its waning years.
She met the Bahamian-American actor Calvin Lockhart — “one of the loves of my life.” He was handsome, elegant, talented, sociable, temperamental.
He took Grosvenor to meet Muhammad Ali at the boxer’s Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania. He took her to England so he might appear respectable before the Royal Shakespeare Company, which wanted him to become the first black actor-in-residence.
When Kali was 5, she started writing poems. Three years later, the photographer Joan Halifax decided the poems should be paired with pictures and published. In 1970, Doubleday agreed. Kali’s book led the publisher to her mother’s work, and that same year, “Vibration Cooking” was released. It made her famous.

By the early 1980s, Grosvenor was living in Washington, D.C., and contributing stories and commentary to National Public Radio. She reported on the threatened Gullah-Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands. She reported on the cultural significance of food. She reported on the expatriate experiences of African Americans in Paris.
Her stories were gorgeously told, rich in characters and dimension and unlike most of radio’s offerings, her colleagues said. Her cooking show “Seasonings” won a James Beard award. Her renown led to a television show, part of The Americas’ Family Kitchen series produced in Chicago, called “Vertamae Cooks.”
In 1998, the University of New Hampshire granted Grosvenor an honorary doctorate and promised to send her a chair. She assumed they meant some kind of desk ornament. But it was a real chair, displaying an inscription: “Doctor of Humane Letters.”
Soon after the chair arrived, her 10-year-old grandson Oscar asked, “Grandma, is there such a thing as inhumane letters?”

On the occasion of writer James Baldwin’s 60th birthday in 1984, Grosvenor arranged an interview. Baldwin told her to meet him at his house on West 71st St. at 2 p.m.
When she arrived, Baldwin was not there. Then she remembered his reputation for being late, sometimes very late. She waited and waited.
That evening, Baldwin’s mother Emma prepared the guest room and cooked up something for dinner. Eventually, the writer returned home, wearing white pants and a navy blazer, looking dapper.
“We talked about what we’d talk about the next morning,” Grosvenor says.
Three years later, she was an honorary pallbearer at Baldwin’s funeral, joining the immense gathering at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in New York City.

In the street one day, when the family was living in Washington, D.C., granddaughter Charlotte put Grosvenor on notice.
“See you later in the week,” she said. “See you Wednesday.”
This took Grosvenor by surprise. “Oh? Why?”
“I signed you up.”
Charlotte’s 4th grade class was inviting people of interest to visit with students and talk about their lives.
“And Grandma, can you bring a pan of rice?”
So Grosvenor woke up early and prepared a pan of rice, struggling to get the hot dish into a cab and to the school.
The children gobbled it up, listening to Grosvenor explain its African origins and its cultivation along the tidal rivers of South Carolina.
One asked, “Do you know how to make peas and rice?”
Another described the rice dish he ate in Jamaica. Another mentioned the rice she ate in the Dominican Republic. They all knew about rice, and Grosvenor was struck by the way different cultures share certain essential elements.

In late 2009, Grosvenor was socializing with friends when she began to slur her words and lose consciousness.
She was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered she had had an aneurysm in the brain.
She spent two weeks in the hospital after her operation, then more weeks in rehab.
Grandson Oscar jokingly explained the situation this way: “They had to operate on grandma’s brain; they took it out, rinsed it off and put it back.”
Well, it was something like that, more or less, Grosvenor says, thinking back over her remarkable life.

*  *  *


Sue Goodwin met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor 17 years ago when Goodwin was working on the Hothouse Project, part of National Public Radio’s cultural programming.
“The goal was to develop new shows that highlighted diversity,” she said.
A friendship quickly blossomed. Grosvenor became an NPR correspondent, contributing various reports and commentary beginning in the early 1980s.
“I looked to her as someone who just had a genius for understanding the nuance and all the complexities of culture in this country,” Goodwin said. “This is always something I’ve wanted to understand better. I just felt every time I talked with Verta I learned something new. I just attached myself to her.”
Every conversation was enlightening.
“She was always thinking, and everything she said came with a lot of thought and insight. She was really unique, and she didn’t back off. So a lot of how I understand American culture ... comes from her.”
Goodwin noted that her friend’s embrace of cuisine was her way of exploring a large cultural inheritance, one that has profoundly influenced life in the U.S.
“Not many preceded her in using food as a lens,” Goodwin said. “You know the saying, there’s a universe in a grain of sand? That’s what she did with food. You saw the (entirety) of America’s history with race through food.”

Sue Goodwin is producer of NPR”s “Talk of the Nation.”



The poet and jazz afficionado A.B. Spellman met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the early 1960s, not long after Grosvenor returned from Paris and settled in New York City’s East Village.
It was “a fairly big scene” in Alphabet City in those days, a tight community of musicians, artists, poets and others, Spellman said. “So it was easy to meet people. We had lots of mutual friends.”
Spellman, Grosvenor and their friends frequented jazz clubs and gathered for parties and events.
“Most of this was before (black) nationalism took hold, so it was fairly integrated,” Spellman said.
Grosvenor was by far the best cook among this group of artists, he said, and people often partook of her down-home dishes. She was often called, simply, “Mae.”
“I have memories of her coming home in her moonbeam outfit, telling stories about Sun Ra,” Spellman said, referring to Grosvenor’s three-year stint in the jazz musician’s band. “And she was the first person I knew to have a real interest in the lives of servants.” That interest would be channeled into a book titled “Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap,” published by Doubleday in 1972.
“She was a real original in a whole scene of originals,” Spellman said.

A.B. Spellman is a poet, music historian and former administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts.



Karen Spellman met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the late 1960s, when her future husband A.B. Spellman moved to Atlanta to help the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was its research director, and soon became A.B.’s love interest.
Grosvenor was good friends with A.B. and came to Atlanta with her daughter Chandra “to put a viewing on me,” Karen Spellman said. “She was the spy from the Lower East Side,” checking out the new woman in A.B.’s life.
Spellman knew of her new friend’s reputation for cooking. When the hostess began preparing collard greens, Grosvenor interrupted.
“Verta came into the kitchen and said, ‘Girl, give me those greens.’” Then she started wrapping them a certain way and cutting them a certain way and preparing them a certain way. Her way.
“It was like a religious ceremony for her,” Spellman said, a chance to pay respect to her elders. “She always quotes her references, and her references were people in her life, people in her family. So she showed me how to prepare the greens, and I’ve been doing it that way ever since.”
When “Vibration Cooking” was published in 1970, it made Grosvenor famous. Spellman remembered basketball star Walt Frasier of the New York Knicks walking out onto the court before a game carrying the book.

Karen Spellman is an event organizer and former member of SNCC.

October  29, 2014


Sometimes the simplest of encounters have the most profound, life-changing ramifications.
In 1972, Julie Dash, an aspiring filmmaker with Lowcountry roots, came across a very strange book in New York City, where she was a student, called “Vibration Cooking or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”
Geechee girl?
“Oh my God, I wonder what my grandmother would say if she saw this book,” Dash thought.
This Geechee business wasn’t really spoken about in the 1970s, a period of economic distress, social unrest and urban transformation.
Dash knew her father’s family was from Charleston, and her mother’s family was from Union. The Dashes summered in the Holy City, and Julie Dash was intimately familiar with its landscape. She knew about her relative Julian Dash, the Charleston saxophone player who worked with Erskine Hawkins and Buck Clayton and co-wrote the hit “Tuxedo Junction.”
But this Geechee thing, now that needed to be explored.
Reading “Vibration Cooking,” Dash was astounded, she said. Its author, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, was asserting her identity proudly, celebrating “soul food” and connecting the dots between cuisine and culture.
It set Dash on a life course.
During the 1980s, the filmmaker did her research and worked on a story she would eventually, finally shoot in 1989, on St. Helena Island. The movie was called “Daughters of the Dust.” And when it got its general theatrical release in 1992 (after winning awards at the Sundance Film Festival), it was the first time for a black female filmmaker.
The movie tells the story of three generations of Gullah-Geechee women who, in 1902, prepare to leave the Sea Islands and make the great migration north. The language is Gullah, and it’s presented with no subtitles, leaving the viewer to infer what he doesn’t quite understand. The effect is visual poetry.
But to achieve it, Dash needed help. She hired Smart-Grosvenor as a language and food consultant, and cast her as the Hair Braider.
And when Dash wrote the book “Daughters of the Dust,” which continued the story started in the movie, she hired Smart-Grosvenor to vet the text and translate the dialogue into Gullah.
At first, Dash was intimidated by the idea of working with this larger-than-life woman.
“She’s so powerful, she has this presence,” Dash said of her first encounter with the writer-cook. “I was quaking; I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”
On the set, Smart-Grosvenor was “so helpful, so sweet, so giving,” Dash said. “We became fast friends.”
Now, all these years later, much has changed. Smart-Grosvenor is little-known to all but some food insiders. Many of her peers, the expats and artists of the 1960s and 1970s, are gone. And Smart-Grosvenor herself, now 76, has been living until recently in a remote, marshside neighborhood near Beaufort and coping with health issues.
But certain things don’t change, and one of them is Dash’s determination and creative vision. Thanks to a $75,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant received by the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center and a strategic partnership between Avery and Dash, the time has come for the director to make her next film. It will be a documentary called “The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl.”

The reasons for making the documentary are compelling, Dash said. Smart-Grosvenor took part in five different cultural movements: Beat Literature, Black Power, Black Arts, Black Cinema and the culinary revolution.
She lived in the Beat Hotel in Paris for a couple of years starting in 1959; she settled into New York’s Lower East Side and threw dinner parties for the city’s artists, actors and activists; she worked as a theater actress; she designed costumes for, and sang backup in, Sun Ra’s Solar-Myth Arkestra; she appeared in not only “Daughters of the Dust” but Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved”; she produced essays and reports for National Public Radio; she starred in TV cooking shows; and, of course, she wrote cookbooks.
It’s possible that, during her Sun Ra days, she invented the modern iteration of the moon walk, made famous by Michael Jackson. She called it the space walk, according to the book “The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspective on Black Popular Culture,” edited by Tony Bolden. (The dance move has been traced back to the Reconstruction period, according to Bolden).
That rich life now is coursing through Smart-Grosvenor’s memories.
“I’m working on a new book,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to call it. I’m glad I kept a lot of the papers. What I’m trying to do is write it in a real storytelling way.”
So, for example, she will include the story about a recent birthday party she attended for her 100-year-old cousin, whom she hadn’t seen for about 30 years.
“It was the best birthday party I’ve ever been to,” she said. There she was, among extended family unmoved by her presence or fame. “I see this woman prancing toward me. She’s yelling, ‘Oh my God, look at you! You look just like Sing (Smart-Grosvenor’s mother)!’ ” And then the woman turns to the other guests to exclaim, “That’s her, the one who wrote that book!”
When Smart-Grosvenor shares her memories and her stories, she always casts her family — daughters Kali and Chandra, and their children — as the central characters. Never mind that she’s recounting her friendships with singer Nina Simone, poet Maya Angelou or trumpeter Hugh Masekela, her encounters with Nelson Mandela or her New York City political activism; she refuses to place herself in the leading role.
These experiences as a pathbreaker and innovator are downplayed. Smart-Grosvenor thinks of herself first and foremost as a mother and grandmother, as a vessel of knowledge and love and light that has no significance unless it’s shared with others. These days, she’s more a repository of love and memory, a collector of the human experience, a raconteur, than a celebrity who makes a gift of herself.

She’s living now in Ridgeland, but her daughter Kali Grosvenor hopes to move her mom to Charleston soon.
“She’s used to the city life,” Kali Grosvenor said. Born in rural South Carolina, Smart-Grosvenor came of age in Philadelphia and Paris, settled in New York City and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for National Public Radio. She’ll do better in an urban environment with its bevy of interesting people and places, Kalie Grosvensor said. And she’ll be closer to sources of health care.
Kali’s earliest solid memory is of 1968, that pivotal year in American history, she said. Her mother was getting ready for another of her famous dinner parties, this time to mark her own birthday, April 4. It was generally not allowed, but for some reason 8-year-old Kali was watching TV.
The program was interrupted and the news anchor made the announcement that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
“I thought that he was my mom’s friend,” Kali said. “I thought she knew Malcolm X. Everything was mixed up. That was the year that I realized there are people that we didn’t personally know.”
But only a few. Smart-Grosvenor hosted just about everybody: artists, politicians, neighborhood leaders, theater and film actors.
She participated in the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program, cooking and distributing meals to community centers. She fought to keep the public schools open during the 1968 strike, a confrontation inflamed by changing demographics.
“We were always having something to do with causes,” Kali Grosvenor said. “I thought it was just what people did. That was year I realized that we were different.”
Smart-Grosvenor raised her two daughters to be curious, open-minded seekers of truth, Kali said.
They learned respect for other people’s views, even as their own crystallized.
Her mother was a very involved parent, “but not like a PTA mom,” Kali said. “As a matter of fact, we didn’t have to go to school every day, as long as we were doing our work. There were other things to learn.”
Those other things included exposure to a wide world of ideas and opinions, made manifest around the dining room table.
“She did this great thing, through food,” Kali Grosvenor said. “She has this talent for bringing people together. In my home there were always the most interesting people of the time. They would come to my home and eat.” It was an informal salon. “Everybody showed up at our house, I think because the food was so good and the company was so good.”
Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Broadway press agent Irene Gandy. Political activist H. Rap Brown. Poet Maya Angelou. Singer Nina Simone. And many, many more.
Smart-Grosvenor would cook and cook. She knew individual food profiles, who ate what, who avoided certain ingredients.
“She’d plan these great menus effortlessly to accommodate all the different guests,” Kali Grosvenor said. “She used to make this great ground-nut stew. Stuffed zucchini. I thought everybody was eating like that.”
And she was no over-protective parent. When the opportunity arose for Kali to attend a children’s camp in Cuba, just nine years after the U.S. imposed its embargo, Smart-Grosvenor sent her off with a gentle push. Kali was 10.
“It’s not just a conversation with her,” Kali said. “She’s in the game. She’s not an observer, she’s not a critic. She’s really living. She has some kind of higher way that she thinks.”

Perhaps her most important public contribution, though, is the way in which she used food to express cultural identity. Her first book, “Vibration Cooking” (as much a memoir as a cookbook, pithy and provocative in its knowing use of vernacular, its tall tales and name-dropping and its profound mix of heritage and originality) is cited as a watershed moment in publishing, one that abolished overnight the stereotype of the black woman cook.
Before “Vibration Cooking,” the “mammy-cook” was an overweight, buffoonish caricature, a turbaned “Aunt Jemima,” a voodoo practitioner, a simpleminded tyrant or a happy-go-lucky simpleton whose delicious cooking was the result of luck or nature, not talent.
Smart-Grosvenor changed all that, according to Rafia Zafar, a professor of literature at Washington University in St. Louis and a consultant on Dash’s documentary.
“It was my interest in food that led me to Vertamae,” Zafar said. “It wasn’t my interest in the Black Arts Movement or literature.” Though it turned out that Smart-Grosvenor had an impact on both.
“Vibration Cooking” has become a cult object, and has the dubious honor of being the most stolen cookbook, Zafar said. “It’s one of those cookbooks that walks.” And it makes the connection between continents and regions, referencing Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and North America.
In some ways, Smart-Grosvenor recalls the folklorist-writer Zora Neale Hurston, Zafar said. Once, while visiting the Deep South during the Jim Crow period, Hurston was introduced by her white friend and fellow writer Fanny Hurst as a visiting dignitary from Africa so that she might eat in the local restaurants.
A similar hoax was employed by Smart-Grosvenor who, while visiting London in 1959, was passed off as Princess Verta, daughter of a nonexistent Chief Kuku Kukoi Tabanguila, fooling a curious reporter who published an erroneous story.
“She was playing with the whole idea of an exotic black person,” Zafar said, toying with the guilt-ridden imperialist. “She was more than happy to trip them up.”
She also showed that race was performable, “something that can be enacted,” Zafar said. “It’s interesting that there were two independent-minded, literary black women who pulled the same trick.”
The kitchen was a domain fraught with racial implications, and Smart-Grosvenor turned it upside down, Zafar said. The culinary activist had no white employer, no air of servitude, no humiliated ego. The kitchen was not a retreat; it was a canvas for expression a hearth around which all would gather.
“Vertamae was writing about cooking in civil rights terms, in the context of social relations,” Zafar said. She was one of the women that everybody of her era knew, one of the women at the center of things, but who is less known today.
Thankfully, she produced “Vibration Cooking” and those NPR essays. And now Dash’s documentary will shine a light on Smart-Grosvenor and her contributions, the way she used heritage and memory and knowledge “to raise the social status (of blacks) and achieve a greater level of civil rights.”

The film, produced by Rachel Watanabe-Batton in partnership with the Avery Research Center, began as an idea bantied about by Avery director Patricia Lessane, artist Jonathan Green, restaurateur Alouette Smalls and Dash.
Lessane said she was especially moved by Smart-Grosvenor’s relationship to the talented and temperamental actor Calvin Lockhart during the 1970s. Tentatively, Lessane asked Smart-Grosvenor about the nature of that relationship.
“Calvin and I were each other’s everything,” came the nostalgic reply.
The documentary film is the natural next step in creating a lasting record of an important life, Lessane said.
Watanabe-Batton is attracted to the unusual nature of Smart-Grosvenor’s story. A portrait of a strong-willed, dark-skinned, tall and gangly Gullah-Geechee world traveler is not something you encounter every day, she said.
“Yet those kinds of images are very important,” especially to young people who are not considered part of the dominant class. They shatter stereotypes and teach valuable lessons. “It’s important to be able to see yourself out in the world,” Watanabe-Batton said.
Besides, Smart-Grosvenor occupied a central position in American counter-culture, and telling her story is a good way to cover a lot of ground.
“Everything leads back to her,” she said.