Sun 17 Feb 2013
Actress Meryl Streep is reported to have said, “It was the greatest night of my life.” A bit of how that night in November 2011 looked can now be seen thanks to The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine a week ago put online a 22-minute documentary, Lil’ Buck Goes to China, which was directed by Ole Schell, who grew up in Bolinas and now lives in Manhattan.
Ole’s documentary follows Lil’ Buck, a street dancer from Memphis where he had briefly been a gang member, as he travels from storm-sewer gates along the Los Angeles River to the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square. Ms. Streep and the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma appear in supporting roles.
All this is extremely convoluted, so please pay close attention.
Ole Schell, the son of highly accomplished parents, has begun racking up his own accomplishments. In 2010, his full-length documentary on the exploitation of fashion models, Picture Me, debuted in theaters on both side of the Atlantic.
Ole, 38, is the son of Ilka Hartmann of Bolinas. Ilka is a native of Germany, who as a small girl during World War II barely survived the fire bombing of Hamburg. She came to the United States in 1964. Ilka has taught classes on the Holocaust and on German literature at Sonoma State University, but she is best known for her documentary photographs of the Black Panthers, the anti-War Movement, the United Farm Workers, the 1969-71 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, and other social causes.
Ole’s father is China scholar Orville Schell of Berkeley, where he formerly was dean of the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously a resident of Bolinas, he authored The Town that Fought to Save Itself (with photos by his then-wife Ilka) and was once a partner with rancher Bill Niman, raising cattle and hogs in a humane and environmentally sound fashion. He is currently Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
The subject of Ole’s film could not be more unlikely. Lil’ Buck performs a Memphis version of hip-hop known as jookin’. The dance style originated in the late 1980s, says Ole, but it never caught on in the rest of the country. In jookin’, the top of the dancer’s body remains stiff while the legs are fluid, moving almost like water, Ole explains.
Performing along with Lil’ Buck at the National Performing Arts Center in Beijing, Meryl Streep recites a Chinese poem in English accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. Although of Chinese descent, Ma was born in France and moved to New York with his family when he was five. The concert was part of a Forum on Arts and Culture organized by the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, of which Ole’s father is director.
Lil’ Buck jookin’ beside the Los Angeles River at the beginning of the film.
In Ole’s documentary, Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley says that some of his friends in Memphis have been incarcerated; some still are; some have been killed by police and some others in shootouts. In escaping from street life, Lil’ Buck says, he told himself, “I got this gift [as a dancer], and I gotta do something with it.” So he did and eventually studied classical ballet.
A former principal dancer with the New York Ballet, Damian Woetzel, took Lil’ Buck under his wing, and during a party in Los Angeles, Woetzel introduced him to Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma playing the cello, Lil’ Buck then danced to Saint-Saens’ The Swan. The performance was videoed, and millions later watched it on YouTube.
By coincidence, the concert in Beijing was organized by the Chinese musician Wu Tong and by Ma. The cellest — because of his experience playing with Lil’ Buck a year earlier — quickly agreed when the suggestion was made to include the street dancer in the concert, Ole said. During the concert, Lil’ Buck again dances as Ma performs The Swan and then performs an impromptu dance during Ma’s final number.
Ole films an interview with Lil’ Buck, who says of his dance style, “I get motivation and inspiration watching water and seeing how smooth it is.”
Dancing at Tiananmen Square. “I’m the only black person in a hundred-mile radius,” he says with a laugh.
Like the woman at left with her camera, many Chinese citizens were surprised and amused by Lil’ Buck’s impromptu dances. One couple is so intrigued they take turns posing for photos with him. He so delights one street vendor that she begins dancing beside him. Lil’ Buck’s public dancing encountered no problems except when he danced too close to the late Mao Zedong’s turf at Tiananmen Square and guards hustled him away, Ole told me.
Jookin’ at the Great Wall of China. On the drive there, Lil’ Buck comments to Ole, “I understand this Wall of China is an old-ass wall. I don’t know anything [about it] other than that.”
Lil’ Buck says none of his friends or relatives has ever been to the Great Wall — or Asia, for that matter. In fact, he adds, he is the first person in his family to ever leave the United States.
World politics are clearly not Lil’ Buck’s cup of tea. “What do you know about communism?” Ole asks him at one point. “Communism?” replies Lil’ Buck. “China’s a communist country,” Ole says. “So I’ve heard,” is Lil’ Buck’s only response.
You can watch Lil’ Buck Goes to China by clicking here. Or you can see the documentary, as well as an interview with Ole about making the movie, by clicking here. The film has already been shown at the Oldenburg Film Fest in Germany and the New Orleans Timecode Film Festival.
Lil’ Buck, meanwhile, has now spent six months touring the world with the singer Madonna and has appeared in magazines and on billboards as part of a Gap stores advertising campaign. The Wall Street Journal is currently preparing a story about him, and on Thursday, Feb. 21, he will be on the Colbert Report.