If I Ran the 2017 Grammys

If I Ran the 2017 Grammys

I’ll always be the first to complain about the Grammy Awards, but the nominees for this year’s show…aren’t that bad? They do have Views up for Album of the Year, so they still suck.

A few ground rules:

1) I’ll give the real nominees with my prediction for the winner in bold. Then I’ll give you who I would have nominated, with my choice for the best in that group in bold.

2) We all know the October 1st, 2016-September 30th, 2017 qualifying dates are stupid, but we’re going to keep them in the interest of chaos. I can’t fix everything about the Grammys. So no Alicia Keys, but Adele’s 25 (from 2015, but released after October 1st, 2015) is fair game.

3) For the four major awards (Album, Record, Song, New Artist), I’m realistic. Drive-By Truckers and Terrace Martin made two of my favorite albums in the qualifying year, but they would never be nominated for Album of the Year. However, Chance the Rapper and Justin Bieber also released albums I loved, and they’re plausible options for Album of the Year. But when it comes to the genre awards, anything goes- hence, artists like Parker Millsap, Tedashii, and PUP getting nods over more popular acts in their respective categories.

4) Genre boundaries are fuzzy- Relient K’s album could really fit into pop or rock, Angel Olsen and Mitski could easily be considered rock instead of alternative, NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot are unabashedly Christian bands that make rock music, etc. So I went with my gut. I don’t have your gut, so if you disagree with me on whether or not Justin Bieber belongs in the pop or R&B category, sorry.

5) Forget the 5-nominee limit! Sometimes the Grammys do this; a genre will have enough contenders that they’ll fit 6 nominees into one category because of a tie. I’ve often wondered why more award shows don’t open categories a bit more. If there are enough albums that truly deserve to be in the conversation, why not include them and draw more attention to more great music? Let’s have a little anarchy! Except in the 4 main categories, which will continue to have the rigid 5-nominee rule, because too much anarchy is a bad thing.

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Album of the Year

Real nominees: 25, Adele
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Views, Drake
Purpose, Justin Bieber
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

My nominees: Lemonade, Beyoncé
Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
Purpose, Justin Bieber
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

grammys03Last year I had 3 albums in common with the Recording Academy. This year I have 4, which is either encouraging or disheartening, I haven’t decided which. Personally, I’d give the award to Chance; Coloring Book is the most fun I’ve had with music for as long as I can remember. But after Beyoncé lost to Beck 2 years ago, and considering she’s never won this award (and the last artist of color to win it was 9 years ago and it was Herbie freaking Hancock), it’s hard to imagine this going to anyone but her. Adele is the other frontrunner, and though she has been an unstoppable force in the industry this decade, 25 wasn’t quite the runaway hit that 21 was. Sturgill Simpson could be the dark horse. He seems to be the old guard’s representative here, which I’m sure he would find ludicrous.

It’s fun to see Bieber’s album honored with this nomination, since I felt like I enjoyed this album more than a lot of people did, but maybe the Recording Academy is recognizing his year-long domination of the charts. The inclusion of Views here is probably a similar recognition of all the hit singles on the album, even though everything on that record that’s not a single is pretty much drivel. I’d prefer to recognize the best rock record of the year, Car Seat Headrest’s breakout Teens of Denial, which is both emblematic of where rock is right now as well as its deconstruction.

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Record of the Year

Real nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Formation”, Beyoncé
“7 Years”, Lukas Graham
“Work (feat. Drake)”, Rihanna
“Stressed Out”, Twenty One Pilots

My nominees: “Formation”, Beyoncé
“No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”, Chance the Rapper (nominated for Best Rap Song)
“Ultralight Beam (feat. Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin & The-Dream)”, Kanye West (nominated for Best Rap Song)
“Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”, Rae Sremmurd
“Work (feat. Drake)”, Rihanna

Kanye West Yeezy Season 3 - RunwayI’ve got no problem with “Hello” in this category, I just thought its songwriting was its best asset, so I put it in the Song of the Year category. “Formation” and “Work” were world-beaters this year, so they totally belong. The inclusion of Lukas Graham and Twenty One Pilots is laughable and shows just why the Grammys are out of touch. They think Graham and Twenty One Pilots belong in the same category as Adele and Beyoncé, as if history won’t remember Twenty One Pilots as a less talented Maroon 5 and Graham as a less talented Shawn Mendes.

How did “Black Beatles” not make it on this list? It was the sleeper hit of the year, both virally and on the charts. And the fact that nothing from Coloring Book was singled out is preposterous, though maybe the Academy isn’t ready to embrace a mixtape. So I picked the mixtape’s best single, the joyous “No Problem”. But no song’s production or performance was as perfect as “Ultralight Beam”, which was an open door into hip-hop’s gospel nirvana.

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Song of the Year

Real nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Formation”, Beyoncé
“Love Yourself”, Justin Bieber
“7 Years”, Lukas Graham
“I Took a Pill in Ibiza”, Mike Posner

My nominees: “Hello”, Adele
“Fill in the Blank”, Car Seat Headrest
“Love Yourself”, Justin Bieber
“Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, Justin Timberlake (nominated for Best Song Written for Visual Media)
“Vice”, Miranda Lambert (nominated for Best Country Song)

grammys07Lukas Graham is back in this category, and I’m still not sure why. Mike Posner makes his first appearance, and I’m not sure why. “Formation” is a great song, and deserving of all kinds of attention, but I think the steak-eaters of the Academy are probably going to stick with “Hello” for this one too. It would have been nice for a rock song or an Americana song to get a nod here, so why not “Fill in the Blank” or “Vice”? And how did the earworm of the year, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, get no recognition aside from a nomination related to its video? However, I’ve got a soft spot for Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, a mean, mean song that’s impossible to forget.

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Best New Artist

Real nominees: Anderson .Paak
The Chainsmokers
Chance the Rapper
Kelsea Ballerini
Maren Morris

My nominees: Anderson .Paak
Car Seat Headrest
LUH
Maren Morris
Margo Price

grammys09How nice to see Anderson .Paak and Maren Morris get some Academy love. They’re two artists that released two of the best albums in their respective genres. And they’re actually new! That’s nice in this category. Speaking of which, Chance the Rapper is not new. But he’ll probably win on star power alone. Clearly the Academy isn’t on the Car Seat Headrest train, but if they had been, they’d belong here for sure. God forbid the Chainsmokers win this, even if “Closer” was one of the top-charting songs of the year. We don’t need to encourage all the bad DJ duos in this world. A better option would have been LUH, a boyfriend-girlfriend duo that defy categorization. Not sure who Kelsea Ballerini is, but good for her. I would’ve thrown some love Margo Price’s way, since she was Americana’s other breakout artist.

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Best Alternative Album

Real nominees: 22, a Million, Bon Iver
Blackstar, David Bowie
The Hope Six Demolition Project, PJ Harvey
Post Pop Depression, Iggy Pop
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead

My nominees: My Woman, Angel Olsen
22, a Million, Bon Iver
Blackstar, David Bowie
Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing, LUH
Puberty 2, Mitski
A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
Light upon the Lake, Whitney

grammys11I think everyone knows Bowie is winning this category for his final album, if only because everyone is so sad that he’s gone. Blackstar is a great album, but Radiohead’s and Bon Iver’s albums are more impressive. PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop are probably in this race on reputation alone, since you’d hardly place their albums among their best. I can’t understand why the Grammys don’t use this category to celebrate up-and-coming artists like Angel Olsen or Mitski, instead of legacy acts not in need of the attention. LUH and Whitney are a couple of new acts that also deserve attention, though their nominations would have been a pipe dream.

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Best Americana/Country Album

Real nominees: Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
Ripcord, Keith Urban
Full Circle, Loretta Lynn
HERO, Maren Morris
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

My nominees: Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
American Band, Drive-By Truckers
HERO, Maren Morris
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Margo Price
The Very Last Day, Parker Millsap,
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

grammys13The Academy has gotten better and better about recognizing the best in country music. The fact that Sturgill Simpson is nominated for Album of the Year is not only awesome, but a sure sign that he will win this category. Maren Morris and Brandy Clark are deserving nominees. Loretta Lynn is a legend, but Full Circle is a covers album of songs she release years ago, so maybe the Academy could have spread the love a little bit? Drive-By Truckers have  never been nominated, AND they’re a legacy act- wake up, Grammys! Margo Price and Parker Millsap are newcomers worthy of some love for their strong efforts.

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Best Christian Album

Real nominees: Poets & Saints, All Sons & Daughters
American Prodigal, Crowder
Love Remains, Hillary Scott & the Scott Family
Youth Revival [Live], Hillsong Young & Free
Be One, Natalie Grant

My nominees: The Burning Edge of Dawn, Andrew Peterson
American Prodigal, Crowder
Floodplain, Sara Groves

grammys15Yeesh. This wasn’t as bad a year for Christian music as my low number of nominees makes it seem. You could easily make the argument that NEEDTOBREATHE’s, Relient K’s, and Switchfoot’s albums belong here, but I’d argue those albums are less overtly Christian and fit more easily into other genres. Andrew Peterson has been a favorite for a while, and Crowder’s second solo album is just as satisfying as his first. But Sara Groves, who has somehow never even been nominated for a Grammy, released the strongest album in this group in both theme and quality. As far as the actual award? I have no faith that the Academy will actually listen to any of these albums, so let’s assume they give it to Hillary Scott by virtue of her membership in Lady Antebellum, which is a Grammy favorite for some reason.

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Best Pop Album

Real nominees: 25, Adele
Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
Confident, Demi Lovato
Purpose, Justin Bieber
This Is Acting, Sia

My nominees: I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, The 1975
25, Adele
Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
Purpose, Justin Bieber
Made in the A.M., One Direction
Air for Free, Relient K

grammys17Not a lot of discrepancies between my nominees and the Academy’s. Can’t argue with the inclusion of Adele, Ariana Grande, or Justin Bieber, though I prefer Bieber’s album of faux-mature soul to Adele’s album of legitimately mature torch songs. Sia and Demi Lovato are fine, but where’s the love for One Direction, who keep churning out great big albums of unabashed boy band music? I wouldn’t expect the Academy to recognize Relient K in this category, though Air for Free is a return to pop-punk form for the classic pop punks. And I love the adolescent ambition of The 1975’s I like it…, which is long and naïve and wonderful.

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Best R&B/Urban Contemporary Album

Real nominees: Malibu, Anderson .Paak
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Ology, Gallant
We Are King, KING
ANTI, Rihanna

My nominees: Malibu, Anderson .Paak
Lemonade, Beyoncé
Freetown Sound, Blood Orange
The Glory Album, Christon Gray
Blonde, Frank Ocean
Unbreakable, Janet Jackson
Love & Hate, Michael Kiwanuka
ANTI, Rihanna
A Seat at the Table, Solange
Velvet Portraits, Terrace Martin (nominated for Best R&B Album)

grammys19Last year’s most stacked category was Americana/Country, but R&B/Urban Contemporary is the clear frontrunner here. Auntie Yoncé will no doubt win here, and she should, but Rihanna and Anderson .Paak may have won in slightly lesser years. KING and Gallant are fine, but Solange deserved recognition here with an album that may be even better than her sister’s. Terrace Martin is nominated in a different category, which was a pleasant surprise, since his Velvet Portraits was one of the most underrated albums of the year. Strangely, Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable (which holds up to her peak) went largely unnoticed. Michael Kiwanuka and Blood Orange would have been more left-field choices, but both of their albums were protest masterpieces. And I’d like to give Christon Gray some love. A lot of Christian R&B is formal or confined to a gospel style, but Gray makes beautiful soul music that would fit in with much of trap soul, catching Christian R&B up to modern times.

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Best Rap Album

Real nominees: Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
And the Anonymous Nobody, De La Soul
Major Key, DJ Khaled
Views, Drake
The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
Blank Face LP, ScHoolboy Q

My nominees: Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper
A Good Night in the Ghetto, Kamaiyah
The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
This Time Around, Tedashii
Jeffery, Young Thug

grammys21Somehow the Academy thinks Drake’s Views is worthy of recognition over Coloring Book, since they gave Drake the Album of the Year nod, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll win Best Rap Album. Any of my nominees are twice the album Views is. Tedashii’s EP, This Time Around, is a fourth of Views’s runtime, and is still twice the album Views is. Young Thug’s best release to date, Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape, and West’s mishmash of a record are all more worthy of recognition than Views. But the most worthy of them all, the sign o’ the times, the songs in the key of life, the thriller of the year, was Chance’s Coloring Book.

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Best Rock Album

Real nominees: California, Blink-182
Tell Me I’m Pretty, Cage the Elephant
Magma, Gojira
Death of a Bachelor, Panic! at the Disco
Weezer, Weezer

My nominees: The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, Beach Slang
Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest
H A R D L O V E, NEEDTOBREATHE
Cardinal, Pinegrove
The Dream Is Over, PUP
Where the Light Shines Through, Switchfoot

grammys23No wonder people think rock is dead. You could do worse in 2017 than a lineup of nominees that includes Blink-182, Cage the Elephant, Panic! at the Disco, and Weezer, but you could also not nominate a lineup that sounds like it’s from 10 years ago. And the inclusion of French heavy metal band Gojira is baffling, but at least it’s interesting. Let’s assume Weezer wins the actual award, since the album was a return to what Weezer does best: power pop hooks.

You can tell the Academy doesn’t listen to current rock music, because the year’s best rock band, Car Seat Headrest, didn’t make the cut. People who actually listen to rock music were talking about them all year, as well as breakout bands like Beach Slang, Pinegrove, and PUP. I included 2 of Christian rock’s stalwarts, NEEDTOBREATHE and Switchfoot, because they continue to defy the odds and release great music years into their careers.

With Patriots Day, What You See Is What You Get

With Patriots Day, What You See Is What You Get

Peter Berg’s new thing is directing movies about ordinary men (well…Mark Wahlberg, at least) caught in disaster. It’s a good look for him. He broke out in ’04 with Friday Night Lights, a movie that was every bit as rooted in realism and Steadicam as the TV show would be. There were some forays into science fiction with Hancock (2008) and Battleship (2012), which were less than successful. But now, with the triptych of Lone Survivor (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016), and Patriots Day (2016), he seems to have found a niche.

I haven’t seen Deepwater Horizon yet, and I hear good things. But of his movies I have seen, Patriots Day is Berg’s best yet. Nuance still isn’t his strong point. But straightforward ness isn’t a sin, especially in the service of a story that needs no frills.

Fulfilling his destiny to play the most Bostonian man alive, Wahlberg headlines the film as a regular cop, recovering from a knee injury he accrued on the job. He is a part of the police contingent at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and he ends up being near the finish line when the bombs go off. This scene is harrowing, a masterpiece of disaster sequence editing. The preceding scenes are well-done as well, building the tension as we get to know several of the key players, including a couple who will both lose legs in the explosions, a security cop at a local university whose role is unclear at first, and the two brothers responsible for the bombs.

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What follows that initial scene of devastation is a fairly direct retelling of the ensuing manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers (Tamerlan is played by Themo Melikidze, Dzokhar is played by Alex Wolff). There are two interesting scenes that hint at things beneath the surface of this mostly surface-level movie. One scene involves the Tsarnaevs in the car they steal from Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) while they still have him held hostage inside. They end up talking about the 9/11 attacks, and the Tsarnaevs tell Meng it was an inside job, that the U.S. government orchestrated it to make Americans hate Muslims. It’s a fascinating scene and a sobering reminder of the role fake news and alternative facts play in radicalization. And that’s not just in Islam.

The other scene takes place at the warehouse where the FBI sets up the investigation’s headquarters. Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist), has been brought in for questioning, but someone from a different agency barges in and takes control of the interrogation. They send in a woman in a hijab (Khandi Alexander) who begins using Russell’s own faith against her and tells her candidly and threateningly that she has no rights. In a movie that lionizes law enforcement it’s a reminder that not everything is always above board.

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I was worried going into Patriots Day about how Berg would handle his depiction of the Tsarnaev brothers. He directed a movie in 2007 called The Kingdom in which Muslims were nameless, faceless villains, and the voracity with which the audience cheered at their deaths was uncomfortable. The Tsarnaev brothers are of course still shown as villains, rightly, but they’re also human beings with anxieties and disagreements and interests in pop culture. If you prefer your Muslim terrorists only as monsters, then you’re ignoring some basic things about human nature and helping to alienate an entire culture in your heart.

Patriots Day is similar to 2006’s United 93 in its celebration of American heroism and shaky camera action, though Patriots arguably leans a little too much on more unnecessary Hollywood conventions than United, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders being present at too many key events. But like United 93, Patriots Day is effective without being exploitative, honoring the heroes and victims of the event with an honest, realistic portrayal.

Not Much Hidden About Hidden Figures

Not Much Hidden About Hidden Figures

There’s something to be said for movies that get the job done. No flashy camerawork, no dream sequences, little to no subtext. Not every movie needs to be Moonlight or La La Land. Sometimes you just need to see an untold story told well.

Hidden Figures does just that. Following three black women (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer) working for NASA in the 1960s, Hidden Figures does just about everything you would want from a period movie like this. We get a comprehensive view of the racism they faced both in the workplace and outside of it. The white people involved are not excused, but they do get opportunities to redeem themselves in the movie’s plot, which seems unrealistic. But clean period movies like this often lack nuance, and that’s okay. The story of these women overcoming the institutional and personal racism directed at them to achieve far more than anyone expected of them is enough. Nuance is for other movies.

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Octavia Spencer gives the best performance of the three, but that’s really just because her character was written with the most range. She has to bite her tongue in the face of white ignorance more than the other two, and we see more of Spencer taking initiative behind the scenes. Henson has the most emotional scenes, one in which she loses control in front of her white coworkers and chastises them for how they’ve treated her, and one in which she is proposed to by a good man (Mahershala Ali). She nails both of them. Monáe, who, like Ali, is having a breakout year, is sassy and quietly strong, which nicely complements her maternal performance in Moonlight.

My personal preferences have me disappointed in retrospect that Hidden Figures was a little too well tied up at the end. Surely these women didn’t live happily ever after. But I can appreciate the beauty of a pure, Hollywood movie starring three black women that hits all the expected emotional moments. It’s enjoyable in a way that more artsy movies cannot be. If I want nuance, I’ll go watch Moonlight again. If I want pure entertainment, I’ll put on Hidden Figures.

The Classics: 25th Hour (2002)

The Classics: 25th Hour (2002)

The phrase “Trump’s America” seems to be in vogue among thinkpiece writers right now, and that couldn’t bother me more. It implies that just because Mr. Trump won the election and is our president, that the country is now his. So writers are finding tiny reflections of him everywhere in the culture or telling you how to survive or how to have a conversation “in Trump’s America”. It’s a pithy phrase, and an annoying one. So allow me to use it in one post and one post only.

While re-watching 25th Hour for my series on the classic movies from 2002, I came upon one of the movie’s famous scenes and thought instantly, “This is Trump’s America.” If you’re not familiar with 25th Hour (and you’re probably not- it made only $13 million), the movie follows Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before he goes to prison for drug charges. It’s directed by Spike Lee, and it’s a beautiful movie about New York and America hurtling toward an uncertain future.

Monty is having lunch with his father (Brian Cox), who owns a bar, to confirm that he will drive Monty to the prison the next day. At one point, he goes to the bathroom, and while there, he has this exchange with himself in the mirror. Heads up: lots of f-words here, and probably some offensive things said about other races. That’s the point.

So I watched that scene, and immediately thought, “This is Trump’s America.” And it really felt true, at first. Monty is angry, and he turns his anger on everybody in the city, reducing people to their tribes or their surface-level labels. He lashes out at his friends for their faults and their flaws. He curses his girlfriend for simply being suspicious.

But don’t let anyone tell you that this xenophobia and irrational anger is “Trump’s America”. Instead, look to the last 15 seconds, when Monty turns the “f*ck you” onto himself. In that moment, he takes responsibility for what he did, instead of turning the blame onto everyone else. He finally directs his anger at the one person that deserves it.

I hope that you don’t place your hope in America. There are greater things, eternal things. But we can hope things for America. I hope that America emulates those last 15 seconds and takes responsibility for the ways that it has screwed up. And I hope President Trump finds out that is his America.

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

The Classics: Buena Vista Social Club (1997) by Buena Vista Social Club

Albums this rich with meaning should not be this easy to listen to. Buena Vista Social Club, a genre-defying record from Cuba released 20 years ago, is old-fashioned and beautiful. It is also, for many, the only picture they have of Cuban music and culture, which many saw as problematic. Buena Vista presented an image of free-wheeling, roaring-twenties, cha-cha clubs, with big-band, mambo jazz groups leading their parishioners in dances celebrating their culture. The album (and the corresponding Wim Wenders documentary) basically ignored 40 years of history.

But the album’s presentation at the time should not detract from the transcendent joy underneath the surface of every song. And while the way foreigners may have distorted Cuban history with how the album was marketed, this was the first time many of these musicians were heard outside of the Cuba. For much of Cuba’s tortured history, artists were oppressed and suppressed like the rest of the country’s people. Buena Vista took older, classic Cuban musicians (like Ibrahim Ferrer and Omar Portuondo) and combined them with the talents of younger, hustling artists. The result is an image, frozen in amber, of Cuba breaking free.

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)