Donte Clark and Reyna Amaya star as Marcus and Nina, two North Oakland residents battling gentrification, in 'The North Pole.' (Danny Telles/Courtesy Movement Generation)
As the wave of people exited the Grand Lake Theater on Thursday night, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with former Black Panther Leader and current educator Ericka Huggins. Huggins, easily five inches taller than me, leaned in to hear me as I asked what she thought about the premiere we'd just seen of the satirical web series, The North Pole.
Without hesitation, she responded, "I didn't think about it, I felt it.”
Ericka, I feel you.
From the moment I walked into the lobby, all the feelings were felt. I felt childhood memories of watching Jurassic Park in that same theatre when I was 9 and running out mid-movie, scared of the huge dinosaurs. I felt the beauty of the present moment, surrounded by former co-workers, longtime friends, and people I don't really know -- but we're “Facebook friends.” I saw people that owe me $5, as well as people that I owe my career to. I felt at home.
Nothing carries feelings like music, and The North Pole’s soundtrack is no exception. I was dancing in my seat when Mistah Fab's hyphy-era classic "N.E.W. Oakland" played, and I was nodding in approval when the storyline graciously intertwined Netta Brielle's profound quote at the start of her song "3xKrazy”: "Nah, but I'm from here, from here."
That’s part of why this web series works. It's a valid comedic portrayal of what I know to be Oakland culture, weaved into a dramatic narrative that explores issues beyond the Bay Area.
It also serves as an important lesson for Hollywood — that it's not enough to feature the culture of a people. Give light to the culture keepers; show the actual people! In The North Pole, there are cameos by Ericka Huggins, Mistah Fab, W. Kamau Bell and many others. I was excited to see well-known poet and longtime friend Jazz Hudson's appearance as a character who represents the “rare native,” shown donning a headwrap and big glasses, and comically analyzed by another character as "living off the land and Mac Dre mixtapes."
In a later scene, my mentor and respected community elder Arnold Perkins was shown at the family reunion, drinking dark liquor and cracking jokes about masturbation. It made me feel a tad bit uneasy that a guy I know as a former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee member, who grew to be the head of the Alameda County Health Department, would be depicted as a dirty joke teller -- but it felt good to see him the mix.
Once I was hooked by the music and cameos, the show's storyline and writing sold me. The names of each episode are that of a nature show, as if you're getting a glimpse into a certain habitat. The narrative arc connects gentrification and global warming, and a host of other issues (sexism, racism), which might seem like a stretch at first. Actually, if you've ever seen Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer, I think this is what he was trying to do: connect all the issues of the time, all at the same time.
But unlike Spike, producer Josh Healey and director Yvan Iturriaga get it to work. Though there are some overly dramatic interactions, and a couple of awkward moments or jokes that don't really land, the overall message gets out.
That message is an important one: global warming and gentrification are byproducts of the same mindset. "Infinite expansion in a finite world," as one character puts it, has led to the displacement of black folks from inner cities and polar bears from the North Pole alike. And because of that mindset, you now have a diaspora of African Americans who’ve been pushed out of their "urban habitats" and spread across suburban areas like Antioch and Stockton; you also have changes in Arctic migration patterns resulting in the phenomenon of polar bears mating with grizzly bears.
It’s a heavy lift, a big concept, a lot to show, and a lot of feelings to deal with.
I feel like people are going to question why a white guy who was raised in Washington, D.C. can produce something about the Town. I feel like people are going to question why they didn’t see anything about homicides or robberies, and only a shot or two of a homeless person. I feel like people are going to question if polar bears are really mating with grizzly bears. (I looked it up, and it’s true: the Pizzly Bear is a real thing.)
But that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provoke thought. It’s supposed to show societal issues and spawn conversation that will ultimately guide us toward solutions. It’s supposed to make us feel.
And prior to Ericka Huggins telling me that she felt the show, I felt it too. I just didn’t know how to put it into words... until now.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland, and a weekly columnist for KQED Arts. Find him on Twitter here.