Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

Protest in Art on the Art of Protest

There is one scene in Congressman John Lewis’s March trilogy of graphic novels that encapsulates in just a few panels the heights of which he and his team (coauthor Andrew Aydin, and letterer and illustrator Nate Powell) are capable. It’s at the beginning of Book 3, the scene set with a pair of short heels clicking down a church hallway, marked by a tiny “clik clik clik” across the page’s panels. The woman who belongs to the heels busts into a bathroom, marked by a bigger “BOOM” within the panel’s frames. The girls are framed in black as they are caught in the act of skipping Sunday school and told to hurry along. The woman clik clik cliks away to her Sunday school class, where she opens the door with a “creaak”. She reports to the mother of one of the girls in a whisper over the teacher reading Jesus’s admonition to love one’s enemies. And then another “BOOM”, this one enormous, breaks through frames and word bubbles, even disrupting the art at the end of the page.

March’s creators are doing nothing new by breaking the medium’s conventions to make an emotional impact, nor are they innovating in the format with their use of onomatopoeia and font size to transport the reader to the story’s setting. But rare is the marriage of all of a page’s elements so devastating. The depicted1963 bombing of a Birmingham church is infamous in civil rights history, and I knew what was coming as I read it. Yet when I reached the sequence’s end, at the image of a child’s shoe in the hand of an adult, I was in tears.

This one scene in March is heart-wrenching and masterful, but March is brilliant through and through and not just in its set pieces. Those set pieces provide the emotional structure of the series, but it’s the smaller scenes that solidify the series’ themes. The trilogy is an easy read, but it is not simply a chronicle of all the civil rights movement’s big moments. Rather, Lewis and his team spend much of this memoir detailing the many strategies and disagreements of the movement’s organizers. The line that Lewis and Aydin draw from the decisions he and his compatriots made to the decisions lawmakers made are a powerful argument that protest works.

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There are similar scenes of strategizing in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s 2014 movie about the march from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capitol, Montgomery. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) chose Selma specifically because their very presence there was likely to incite police brutality. We watch this play out on screen multiple times: black people lining up outside a courthouse to vote getting pushed to the ground, black people marching across a public bridge being chased like animals by cops on horseback while tear gas rains down, white people getting beaten to a pulp for associating with the black protesters, black people getting shot by cops without provocation.

Dr. King and his compatriots spend time in Selma discussing how best to implement their plan, and we see plenty of conflict between them regarding the timing of the protests, who should even be allowed to participate, and even what exactly to protest first. The protests’ leaders spend an entire scene arguing what injustice is most urgent to address, and none of them agree. After all, should they start by protesting the courts refusing to register black people to vote unless they can name all of Alabama’s county judges, the voucher system that requires prospective voters to find someone already registered to vouch for them, or the businesses that will fire or not hire black people who are bold enough to register?

We have a lot of movies about fighting racism written from a white perspective, designed in full to encourage empathy and action in white people. These movies are noble in intent if usually misguided in their execution, downplaying the role of black people in their own emancipation. Selma is that rare movie that is told by black people and is about black people working for black people. The making of Selma was not burdened by anybody’s white guilt, and therefore is far more clear-eyed about where the injustices are.

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Selma is also historical. Much was made of DuVernay’s incomplete portrayal of President Johnson. But little was made of the movie’s re-creation of the band of people around Dr. King or of DuVernay’s painstaking attention to the details of the protests and the resulting brutality. These things happened, and we’ve never seen the like of them onscreen before. Selma is a powerful argument that protest is a moral necessity.

March and Selma together present a picture of a black culture that figured out how to fight injustice on its own. This was in direct opposition to a white world that pretends to be for justice but is too often a willing accomplice in injustice’s crimes. The graphic novel and the movie are companions. They complement each other in their historical details and in how effective they are in arousing righteous anger and heartbreak.

The movie 13th deserves recognition beside those two. DuVernay’s new Netflix documentary is different in form and function from March and Selma, but it is their cousin in theme. 13th draws a line through history from slavery to today’s mass incarceration, finding guilty the phrase written into the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” The documentary makes a compelling argument, using historical archive footage and a bipartisan conglomeration of talking heads, that the prison system functions as today’s slavery, imprisoning black people at a far greater rate than other races to the profit of politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen alike.

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The line DuVernay draws is unambiguously straight. She squarely places the blame on rich white people who want to stay rich and get richer. I can understand the skepticism I occasionally hear in the face of overwhelming evidence that racism still exists, because nice white people often aren’t around overt racism in their daily lives and feel threatened and blamed when macro views like 13th’s find that white people are often the villains. But we have too many examples throughout history that powerful people do anything to keep their power. Is it really that hard to believe that governments and institutions would embrace racist policies to achieve this?

There’s a scene in 13th that unapologetically places President Donald Trump in this context. Over a montage of racist acts by Trump supporters against protesters and similar images from America’s Jim Crow past (including beatings, lynchings, and verbal abuse), DuVernay plays many of Trump’s statements against other races. The effect is eerie, finding the connection between the language the president uses and racist violence. It isn’t a big jump to make, and it is a heartbreaking that we still need the act of protesting.

Selma, March, and 13th aren’t telling us anything new, though a lot of what I learned from them was new to me. If we were once convinced that we lived in a “post-race” world, these three works of art are a harsh reminder that the “post-race” world never existed. When I hear people decry protesters or question the legitimacy of protests, I want to grab them and shake them and show them one of these pieces of culture. We need March to remember that protest is effective. We need Selma to remember that protest is a deeply moral act. And we need 13th to remember that protest is still necessary after all.

Moonlight Is Something More

Moonlight Is Something More

Moonlight is at once exactly the movie you expect and something more. The trailer sets up a coming-of-age story about a young man discovering his identity and his sexuality while growing up in the ghettos of Miami. I didn’t say the young man is black, because it’s worth pointing out this characteristic on its own. It’s worth noting that every character in the movie is black, and yet none of them ever talk about being black, which is how you know this isn’t a Hollywood movie. It’s worth observing that the man who wrote and directed this movie, along with much of its crew, is black, yet they have made a movie in which blackness is not a condition of uniqueness that needs to be examined, but the norm.

Anyway, Moonlight is exactly the movie you expect, because it is indeed a coming-of-age story about a young black man, Chiron, in the ghetto of Miami. We meet him as a boy, played by Alex Hibbert. We watch him befriend a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). We watch him get bullied by the other boys at school, one of whom, Kevin, tries to be his friend. We watch him discover that his mother (Naomie Harris) does drugs.

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We meet Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in the next act in high school. He’s still bullied, and his mother’s addiction to crack has worsened. Juan is out of the picture, though he still gets help from Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), when his mom kicks him out of the house for a night. He has his first sexual experience. Chiron is still friends with Kevin, but he may be his only friend, and Kevin is involved in an incident that leads to Chiron having to leave Miami.

The last act follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) about a decade later in his adult life. He’s hardened at this point, and buff, far from the skinny kid we saw in the second act. He lives in Atlanta now, but gets a call from Kevin looking to catch up. Much of this act is a conversation between the two of them in a diner back in Miami.

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It’s hard to convey in writing what Moonlight does to you while you’re watching it. I’m hardly qualified to discuss the movie’s sociological implications, but I can point out that movies like this, that focus on the lives of black people without reducing them to their race, are few and far between. I live in a white, privileged world, so much of this movie is very foreign to me.

But writer-director Barry Jenkins’s camera takes its time with these characters, forcing you to see them clearly. There are a lot of close-ups, removing any barriers between you and them. We see several scenes from directly behind a character, sliding us into their perspective. This is a slow movie, but any faster and you wouldn’t know these people, you wouldn’t see them.

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Moonlight is something more than the movie you expect. We’ve seen most of these characters in other movies, but in Moonlight they are no longer tropes or stereotypes. Nor are they the opposite of their tropes, meant to surprise you with how progressively they’ve been written. Mahershala Ali doesn’t play Juan as a “drug dealer- but with a heart of gold!” He’s a person with complicated feelings about what he does, trapped in a world both of his making and not of his making. Chiron’s three actors don’t play him as “a young black man- but gay!” Chiron’s sexuality matters as he struggles to figure out who he is, but the movie is deft at making the point that his identity is bigger than that.

This is a must-see movie because it will be up for Oscars, yes, but I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks these actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

(h/t One Perfect Shot for the gif)

I Liked La La Land (I’m So, So Sorry)

I Liked La La Land (I’m So, So Sorry)

I have an apology to make, in several parts, from the deepest reaches of my heart. I hope you’ll hear me out and forgive me for my sins.

First, I want to apologize for enjoying La La Land. I am sorry that I liked it. I saw the raves and foolishly thought that I was supposed to like it, when I should have known that a backlash would soon follow. I never should have allowed myself to have emotions, and if I was going to have emotions, I definitely shouldn’t have let a musical about love and dreaming stir them up. Musicals are only worth praising when they are dour and cynical- I know this. Inspiring musical numbers, epic dance scenes, a moving score…I will never again allow these things to work their way into my heart.

And how could I have let people like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone convince me their performances were among the best of the year? Everyone knows being a charismatic, likeable movie star is the easiest thing to do in the world- that’s why there are so many movie stars right now. I embraced them, it was wrong, and I’ve learned from my mistakes.

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Secondly, I want to apologize for wasting my attention on a movie that stars only white people. There are a lot of people of color populating the movie in supporting roles and as extras, but I forgot that they don’t matter. I allowed myself to be tricked into thinking that a movie with white stars and a diverse supporting cast could also contribute to the progressive cause. What was I thinking?

I’ve broken the cardinal rule of awards season, which (as you well know) is that you can only love one movie and one movie only. I’ve used up all my love on La La Land, and now have no love to give movies like Moonlight or Hidden Figures. When I watch those movies, I’ll have to suppress my appreciation for their diverse casts and storylines, because I decided to like the movie with white people instead. Oh that the awards season rules were different! But I’m a rule follower, so it’s too late for me.

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Thirdly, I want to apologize for even writing about La La Land at all. I can’t believe I spent almost an hour focusing my attention on a mainstream blockbuster when there are indie movies that nobody is talking about out there, because those are the only movies worth talking about. I need to remember (I’m always forgetting, always) that art isn’t worth talking about unless it is completed rejected by the populace.

And gee, I should have realized that La La Land wouldn’t merit attention, since it’s the most unoriginal thing in theaters right now. You’d think I’d be tired of movie musicals written directly for the screen featuring absurdist dance numbers and original music, since Enchanted was released just 10 years ago. If Hollywood produces another one in 2027, you can bet I’ll be sure to ignore the hell out of it.

In conclusion, I’m sorry I thought La La Land was the best movie I’ve seen from 2016 so far. In the future, I will be sure to keep my emotions in check, to only watch movies that aren’t about white people, and to only watch movies made for less than $1,000. I want to do right by you, my loyal reader, so I will make every effort to like only the movies that please everyone. Please forgive me.

The Classics: Minority Report (2002)

The Classics: Minority Report (2002)

In Hollywood, you can barely wave a clapperboard without hitting a Steven Spielberg movie, a movie made by one of his protégés, or a movie that was influenced by his themes or his style. He has countless classics, beloved all over the world. He could have rested on his laurels, but he continues to innovate new filmmaking techniques and to tell new stories.

Most great directors would already have their canon set forty years into their career, but the early 2000s saw a restless Spielberg working tirelessly on a triptych of ambitious stories: Kubrick’s unfinished A.I.; the Frank Abagnale, Jr. biopic, Catch Me If You Can; and an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, Minority Report. Catch Me If You Can was the most conventional of the three, and A.I. the biggest undertaking. But it’s Minority Report that resonates the most now, and not just because it was so prescient about coming technological advances.

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Much was made at the time and has been made since of Spielberg’s decision to form a think tank of futurists for pre-production brainstorming about what the movie’s 2054 world would look like. And what they came up with was certainly predictive: driverless cars, virtual reality, touch screens with poor interfaces, personal targeting in advertising, facial recognition, etc. Minority Report doesn’t feel like science fiction as much as an impressive look into our near future.

But more impressive was what the filmmakers got right about how these technologies would be used. The world of Minority Report is a world consumed by its technological advances. Not only is technology ubiquitous (a fact that probably feels true no matter what era it is), but it is the battleground for all power struggles. In the wake of the Russian hacks on our country’s election and Anthony Weiner’s laptop being confiscated by the FBI, nothing feels more real in Minority Report than the power struggle over who gets to control the pre-crime technology. Under the pretense of making the world a better place, the pre-crime technology is instead used to seize or to maintain power.

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The effectiveness of the quality of the technology in Minority Report is echoed in the effortlessness of everything else. We’ve seen Steven Spielberg make sci-fi epics that don’t quite work all the way through (A.I., for example, or, in keeping with the Tom Cruise theme, War of the Worlds). But in the case of Minority Report, everything is flawless, from the presentation of the exposition (the opening scene that sets up the concept of pre-crime is awesome) to the meticulously choreographed action sequences (you’ll never find a more clever action scene than when Cruise’s John Anderton ends up in a ready-made getaway car at a factory).

While the legacy of Minority Report has largely been a reputation as the most realistic science fiction movie of our time, it is this overall quality that makes it a classic now and that will help it endure in the long run. Even the performances are superlative. Tom Cruise, following his run at being a serious actor from Jerry Maguire to Vanilla Sky, gives his best starring performance. He’s matched by a creepy and beautiful turn from Samantha Morton, a strong villain in Max von Sydow, and Colin Farrell’s breakout role as Anderton’s would-be rival.

At the time, Minority Report probably felt like a change of pace for Spielberg, following the heaviness of Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. But in hindsight, Minority Report fits right in with Spielberg classics like Close Encounters, E.T., and even Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s always had a knack for breathtaking action set pieces swirling around a core of humanity. In the end, Minority Report is just another great Spielberg movie.

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Top Albums You Won’t Find On 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I try to collect the five best albums that didn’t end up on any critics’ top ten lists. If you find one of these albums on a critic’s top ten list, please don’t sue me.

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Alicia Keys, Here: This seemed somewhat lost in the critical shuffle of 2016’s double Knowles whammy of Lemonade and A Seat at the Table, even though the only thing Here has in common with those two records is that the woman who made it is black. Here definitely takes a more conventional approach, but is just as vital and immediate. This is the best, most personal work Keys has ever released.

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LUH, Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing: WU LYF burned bright while it lasted, but that band’s frontman, Ellery James Roberts, started a new chapter last year with his girlfriend, Ebony Hoorn, in their new band LUH (Lost Under Heaven). Roberts still has his irresistible rasp, but this time the synths filling out his songs have heart. Someone get a teen movie for this band to soundtrack.

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Mutual Benefit, Skip a Sinking Stone: Where LUH does bombast with aplomb, Mutual Benefit owns subtlety. Carefully filled exactly to the rim with soul, Jordan Lee’s second full album as Mutual Benefit is more assured than his first. Beauty doesn’t have to be delicate, but Skip’s appeal is rooted in Lee’s precise quietude.

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Tedashii, This Time Around EP: T-Dot has been around long enough for us to know what to expect from him. But This Time Around finds a new home for Tedashii with some of the most fun music he’s released yet. “Jumped Out the Whip” and “I’m Good” are not only bangers, but they’re also Tedashii at his most relaxed, which is a mode I hope he uses more of on his next full-length.

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Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits: I don’t know a lot about jazz, but I know I really like this neo-jazz trend that Kendrick Lamar launched into the mainstream with To Pimp a Butterfly. One of Lamar’s collaborators on that record, Terrace Martin, released a beautiful collection of jazz funk this year that was mostly passed over. Pop music critics probably didn’t really know what to do with this mix of instrumentals and soul-inflected grooves, but I do: play it over and over again.

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2016’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I try to collect the three best movies that didn’t end up on any critics’ top ten lists. If you find one of these movies on a critic’s top ten list, please sue me.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A lot of critics aren’t drawn to or moved by blockbusters, because big-budget studio movies don’t tend to exhibit a lot of nuance or originality, so that may explain Fantastic Beasts‘ absence on critics’ top ten lists. But even though Fantastic Beasts is a spinoff of the 8-movie, blockbuster Harry Potter series, Beasts managed to find both nuance and originality in a 1920s setting and a story that deals with being an outsider. The characters are made rich by winsome performances against a backdrop of truly magical visuals, which is hopefully a formula the filmmakers follow in the sequels.

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Microbe & Gasoline: This little-seen gem is the most normal movie Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) has ever made. It’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about two young friends who road trip across France in a house-car, which is a car that looks like a house- you know, to fool the cops. Semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories can sometimes be unbearable, but Microbe & Gasoline has real insight into why we pick our friends when we’re kids and into the counterintuitive desire not to fit in.

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Under the Sun: Much more should be made of this documentary about North Korea, made up of footage from the propaganda film the filmmakers were hired to make and from what happened between takes when they left the cameras rolling. We see how the scenes meant to praise the country and its ruler are meticulously staged to the point that in one scene the children involved end up crying under the pressure. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the authoritarian nation, one we have to assume won’t happen again, though if the North Korean government was inept enough for this to happen once…

The Classics: OK Computer by Radiohead

The Classics: OK Computer by Radiohead

Beginning a series on the classic albums from 1997 with a record that could realistically fit into the conversation about the best album ever released may seem a little obvious, or a little too easy. Radiohead have received enough plaudits. They were, for a time, the biggest band in the world. They may be the last rock group to transcend their industry. The music business isn’t dead yet, but mainstream rock bands most certainly are, and Radiohead were the best of the last of them. Or maybe the last of the best of them. Or just the last of them.

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And that’s a fine narrative, especially as Radiohead released one of the few rock records of the last few years that was able to capture even a hint of the zeitgeist. May’s A Moon Shaped Pool was an album that everyone had to comment on, which is a testament to the value that Thom Yorke and his band still hold among the tastemakers. But that necessitates the belief that there was ever a monoculture to begin with. It’s easy in hindsight to assume there was one before the Internet was omnipresent, but there were always pockets of counterculture that weren’t covered by the mainstream trades.

Radiohead, who sounded like a fairly conventional alt-rock band when they broke out with The Bends in 1995, are the best argument against the existence of a monoculture both then and now. The Bends was an easy record to like, because it sounded of a piece with a dominant genre at the time. Their follow-up in 1997, OK Computer, was a harder sell, because at that time the album sounded like nothing else.

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That’s an easy fact to forget now, after everyone from Coldplay to Kanye has mimicked their sound. Indeed, the minor-key, anti-catharsis melodies on OK Computer were a new kind of rock music. They were creating new guitar landscapes on otherworldly songs like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and reinventing old ones on songs like “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from an alternate dimension.

It’s tempting to pigeonhole their brand of abstract introspection as depressed, white-boy music. But this isn’t the math-rock of Muse or the empty pop rock of Keane. The syncopation on “Electioneering” begs retrospective comparisons to a Run the Jewels beat. And the crunch of the guitars and the disruption of the drumbeat are the same kind of subversive as anything from Yeezus. Indeed, while it’s a softer, even warmer, record, OK Computer’s rebellious themes fit easily alongside any of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘90s albums.

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It’s strange now to look back and think of the ‘90s as a prosperous time, yet a time that birthed music known for its angst. OK Computer is no different in this respect. The quarter-life crisis is in full swing on OK Computer, and it reveals a certain amount of privilege on the part of Radiohead’s songwriters. The band would go on to make politically conscious music (Hail to the Thief) and even to address their own vaulted economic status (Amnesiac’s “Dollars & Cents”). But OK Computer is frozen in a self-centered youth. And that may make it all the more relatable.

Radiohead defied conventions that were in place before OK Computer and, in retrospect, upend the norms that have fallen into place since. Kid A is seen as their revolutionary, experimental record, and it deserves that reputation as a genreless monolith. But OK Computer played in rock’s own backyard, and still managed to break down the fences and become something totally different.