There are few platforms bigger than Oscar night. Will A-list actors use it to talk Trump?
WHEN EMMA STONE, DENZEL WASHINGTON, Ryan Gosling and the rest of this year’s Academy Award nominees get ready for the big night, they will reckon with the perennial questions that have faced every Oscar nominee for time immemorial: what to wear, who to bring as a date, who to thank if they win.
But this year, there will be a potentially vexing new question as well: what, if anything, to say about Donald Trump.
If last year’s awards season chatter was dominated by the roiling #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the elephant in the room this year has been the ascent to the presidency of a man whose candidacy few in Hollywood supported and whose victory even fewer saw coming.
At every turn — on red carpets and late-night talk-show couches, at film festivals, premieres and awards shows, on social media platforms and in protest rallies — many across the liberal-leaning industry are wrestling with how to speak publicly about a president they may bitterly oppose and a political landscape that seems to have radically changed overnight.
“If you’re in the radius of the earthquake, you absorb the shock of it and then you try to orient yourself and figure out what this new world looks like,” actor and director Ben Affleck, who supported Hillary Clinton, told The Times last month. “I definitely went through that with the Trump election. I was surprised. I thought she was going to win like everybody else. Everyone was totally wrong and you go, ‘How does that happen?’”
Some in Hollywood have embraced the chance to stake out full-throated opposition to Trump, establishing a new beachhead in the latest flare-up of the culture wars that had largely quieted during the Obama years. That Trump drew fire for his comments on women and minorities throughout the campaign has, for many, changed the calculus of celebrity activism, making speaking out a moral imperative.
But sharing one’s political opinions while, say, accepting a gold-plated statue has always been tricky business under the best circumstances. (Ask Vanessa Redgrave. Or Marlon Brando, who famously sent Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place in 1973.) And in this climate of rancor and deep division, it can reap an especially fierce blowback.
While some feel compelled to use their public platform as a means of political resistance, no matter the potential consequences to their career, others believe it can be counterproductive, reinforcing the notion that Hollywood lives in its own self-satisfied bubble.
Last Sunday, after millions marched in protests around the world — including stars such as Scarlett Johansson, America Ferrera, Janelle Monae and Madonna — Trump amplified this notion, tweeting “Celebs hurt cause badly.”
It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f--- up.
The fact that Trump is himself, in many ways, a creature of the entertainment industry, able to leverage his own celebrity and skills as a showman, makes him that much more formidable an adversary.
There are those, such as filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who believe that the best way to resist the new president is to simply concentrate on creating work that reflects their own values.
“I refuse to spend the next four years living in that man’s head,” DuVernay told The Times recently at an event in Los Angeles celebrating her Oscar-nominated documentary about race and the criminal justice system, “13th.”
“One day it’s Meryl Streep, the next it’s [Rep.] John Lewis,” said the filmmaker, who also directed the 2014 civil rights drama “Selma.” “If I spend my time focusing on that spectacle of distraction, it will diminish me. What I need to do is to live fully, move forward and make the art that I want to make.”
Not that that will stop awards show hosts from going after Trump — for them, the president is simply too big and juicy a target to resist. Jimmy Fallon called out Trump recently at the Golden Globes, and Jimmy Kimmel, this year’s Oscar host, laid into him when he hosted the Emmys in September, blaming “The Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett for helping launch Trump. (“Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one,” Kimmel quipped.)
But it’s one thing for a late-night talk show host or comedian to go after Trump and quite another for A-list actors to openly wear their politics on their sleeves.
“The country is pretty divided down the line, so you’re going to run the risk of there being a public outcry if you’re in a campaign for anything, whether it’s dogcatcher or an Oscar,” said one publicist who has worked on numerous Oscar campaigns and declined to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue. “A lot of these people want to avoid controversy of any kind in the press. If you’re asked what you think about the current political situation, you’ve got to weigh what it means in Hollywood versus what it means in the rest of the country.”
That divide was starkly revealed earlier this month when Streep took the stage at the Golden Globes ceremony to deliver an impassioned speech decrying what she called Trump’s tendency to “bully others.” Though Streep’s words were met with cheers from the crowd in attendance — not to mention many viewers watching at home — numerous conservative commentators and supporters of Trump quickly dismissed the actress as an out-of-touch Hollywood elitist.
The next day, Trump himself blasted Streep on Twitter as “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “a Hillary flunky who lost big.”
On the flip side, Nicole Kidman drew fire recently when, in a recent BBC interview about her new movie “Lion,” she said of Trump: “He’s now elected and we, as a country, need to support whoever’s the president because that’s what the country’s based on.” After her comments sparked outrage among some on the left, Kidman clarified in a subsequent interview that she had been simply “trying to stress that I believe in democracy and the American Constitution.”
For public-relations reps responsible for helping celebrities nurture and maintain their images, advising clients on how to navigate the minefield of this new political reality can be difficult.
“It’s a personal decision,” one publicist said of stars expressing their views on Trump. “But would I recommend it? Of course not. At this point, with social media being as venomous as it is and trolls being who they are, I don’t think you can basically be safe with your opinions anymore. It’s a dangerous time. … Even Meryl Streep and George Clooney want to work. They don’t want to be considered liabilities.”
Actress Zoe Saldana told an Agence France-Presse interviewer earlier this month she believes that Hollywood unwittingly helped to elect Trump by alienating a large swath of Americans. “We got cocky and became arrogant and we also became bullies,” she said. “We were trying to single out a man for all these things he was doing wrong ... and that created empathy in a big group of people in America that felt bad for him and that are believing in his promises.”
Director Peter Berg, who helmed the recent ripped-from-the-headlines films “Deepwater Horizon” and “Patriots Day,” argues that Hollywood is too often out of touch with the type of people who supported Trump who, broadly speaking, live in what the industry considers flyover country.
“‘American Sniper’ made almost $400 million — do you think anyone saw that coming? A movie about an extremely conservative Republican Navy SEAL who kept a record of how many Taliban he killed?” Berg said in an interview with The Times last month, referencing director Clint Eastwood’s runaway 2014 hit.
That said, Berg said he personally makes an effort to steer clear of overt politics in his work and outside of it. “I accept that Trump won the presidency and I’m going to deal with it, and I would have accepted if Hillary won,” he said. “Guys that I know, we’re too busy working to get involved in this. We’re making stuff. I’ve got work to do.”
Some minority actors and filmmakers in particular lament that they are asked to address questions of race and politics disproportionately compared with their white counterparts — especially this year, as Trump’s rise has heightened tensions around issues of diversity and discrimination.
“Fences” star Viola Davis said that because the film, which is adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, has an almost entirely African American cast, people often try to make race its central subject as opposed to broader issues of family dynamics and working-class struggle that the film explores.
While Davis doesn’t shy away from talking about politics, she argues that those larger conversations often become problematic when they’re reduced to sound bites or hashtags.
“I’m just not a political statement,” Davis said. “I’m messy too. I fall short all the time. I’m a human being. And a lot of times I feel that’s the best message I can put out there.”
For her part, DuVernay hasn’t done many interviews to promote “13th,” believing that the documentary speaks for itself. She wants people to have their own conversations about the film, unfiltered as much as possible by her personal political views.
“Take it for what it is,” DuVernay said. “I said my piece, and now I’m going to keep on living and keep on trying to survive in an environment that is so toxic. Everyone has to find their way forward. I’m not saying that my way is anyone else’s way. My way is going to be telling stories that amplify the parts of humanity that I think we should be celebrating and saluting.”
Though in the past he has been one of the industry’s most outspoken liberal voices, Affleck said he personally has lost some of his appetite for politics. “I’ve grown leery of being involved in politics too much,” he said. “I’ve found that it’s kind of a sleazy game, mostly about raising money. I’ve come away feeling more depressed about the world than when I got involved to begin with.”
Still, as Hollywood tries to figure out its place in the new Trumpian era, he said it’s important to stay engaged, whatever form that engagement takes.
“You have to have a good relationship with the audience,” he said. “You have to be mindful of the audience. As a filmmaker, you don’t want to be out of touch with what’s going on in the world. That’s actually the worst thing that can happen to you.”
The fact is, as the Women’s March last weekend made clear, resistance to Trump has become something of a crusade for many on the left.
And while it remains to be seen how politically charged this year’s Oscars ceremony will become, there are few platforms bigger than the Academy Awards stage from which to send a message.
One thing seems safe to predict: Come Oscar night, if “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda — a best song nominee for the film “Moana” — has the chance to share his political point of view with an audience of millions, he’s not throwing away his shot.
Is Hollywood out of touch with American values? Join Mary McNamara, Marc Bernardin, Lorraine Ali and Justin Chang
A decade after protesting Bush’s election, Conor Oberst wonders what Trump means for art
THE DAY AFTER THE 2016 ELECTION, Conor Oberst called his old friend Michael Stipe from R.E.M. for condolence.
“He’s someone I look up to as a voice of reason,” Oberst said. “He was torn up about it all, but good to talk to. He said that now’s the time to find more resolve than ever to donate to Planned Parenthood and all the institutions that we’re going to have to rely on.”
The two had performed, with Bruce Springsteen, on the Vote for Change tour in 2004, hoping to rally support for John Kerry’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign. That was the last time the singer-songwriter felt so despondent about American politics. Until November, that is.
“I think this [election] is worse. But I felt more freaked out in ’04. Maybe because I was younger and less cynical.”
— Conor Oberst
“I think this [election] is worse,” Oberst said of the election of Donald Trump as president. “But I felt more freaked out in ’04. Maybe because I was younger and less cynical.”
People like to joke that at least the protest music will be good in the Trump era. Right now, though, it’s hard to imagine that anyone much feels like dancing. But for fans around the 36-year-old Oberst’s age, listening to his older music now can stir up those same feelings of being young, outraged and despondent about politics. His new music might be even more harrowing.
Bright Eyes’ 2005 album “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” was lauded for its ten 10 songs of immaculate, articulate folk-rock that will probably stand as Oberst’s lasting achievement. It had moments of shuddering fury, but for many fans, it brought a quiet dignity to what felt like total helplessness in the face of an election loss. They were afraid that that the Iraq war would never end, that gay marriage was impossible, that America had re-elected (by an even greater margin than before) a president who to many seemed like a distillation of America’s darkest tendencies.
I went go to see Oberst last month at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown. He played a few solo dates to support his new album, “Ruminations,” which has earned comparisons to Springsteen’s “Nebraska” for being a minimalist, almost demo-quality recording that nonetheless captures a bleak mood of its own. It’s spare and harrowing in a way we haven’t heard from Oberst since he was a quivery 19-year-old, spinning gothic folk tales from his frigid corner of the Midwest.
But mostly, I went to that show because Oberst’s voice had walked me through my last bout of dark thoughts after a presidential election, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I needed it again.
Oberst had one of the few good protest songs of the George W. Bush era. I still remember seeing him Oberst perform “When the President Talks to God” in an outsize cowboy hat on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” in an outsize cowboy hat, and thinking that somewhere, an FBI file was being hastily assembled.
“At the time, we felt like we had to do something,” Obsert said. “I was nervous when we did the [stage] blocking, and started to freak out. I was just wearing a hoodie, and I thought, ‘No, I need a cowboy suit, something to hide inside where if you were just flipping through the channels in the South, you’d think, “Hmm, he looks like a nice lad.” ’ ”
But even in protest, his music at the time of “Wide Awake” was graceful. It was richer and more personal than much more overtly protest music usually rarely is. It wasn’t just railing at bad policy; it was ten 10 vignettes of feeling utterly lost and packing up and moving to a place where you felt more wanted.
For me, that was L.A. For Oberst, it was New York. and To this day, few records better capture the transcendence and loneliness that comes from being young and packing up and starting anew. Flasks on the subway after dark; protest marches that did nothing but meant everything; a dawning of how big and terrifying the world was, but also how rare and valuable your refuges were in the midst of it all.'ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.”
Music is unique because it can get behind enemy lines and affect people. Some kid in Utah can get his hands on a Clash record and be introduced to whole new ideas, and that’s still a powerful thing.
— Conor Oberst
“Music is unique because it can get behind enemy lines and affect people,” Oberst said. “Some kid in Utah can get his hands on a Clash record and be introduced to whole new ideas, and that’s still a powerful thing.”
At the Koreatown show, hearing Oberst’s voice singing “Lua” again, in the dead silence in of an actual sanctuary, was both a great comfort and almost a cruel joke. All that work of the last eight years to make the world more just, and now we’re back right back here again.
I don’t know what the new era of protest music will sound like. I know it will be black, it will be Latino, it will be Muslim and indigenous and it will be done by women and members of the LGBT community. These are the people with much to lose in Trump’s America, and they should be listened to with moral authority now.
The best artists making protest music today — Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar — use the personal to catalyze the political. Insisting on the validity of your life and emotions in the face of it is an act of bravery.
“I don’t know what Trump means for art,” Oberst said, “but art does thrive in adversarial times, so hopefully, people will continue that.”
Stumbling out of that church after the show, I was reminded by Oberst’s performance, I was reminded that protest music isn’t necessarily about affecting change or fixing things. Making music at all can be an act of defiance, if just to say that you existed and felt this way at one a specific time, in spite of every reason to despair and stay quiet.
“Go listen to ‘The Future’ by Leonard Cohen,” Oberst said. “It sums up the dark side of my perspective and it pretty much envisions Trump’s America: ‘Give me crack and anal ... sex, take the only tree that’s left… I’ve seen the future, brother. It is murder.”
Art, celebrity and how Standing Rock will shape protest in the Trump years
EARLY IN APRIL, a time when the frigid North Dakota plain is still quilted with snow, several dozen Native American men and women set out on horseback for a 25-mile ceremonial ride from the Standing Rock Sioux tribal headquarters in Fort Yates to the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers.
There they set up a small encampment of tepees on a site known by Native Americans as Sacred Stone. The camp was a protest against an encroaching crude oil channel, the Dakota Access pipeline, whose placement underneath the Missouri River threatened a key waterway and Sioux burial grounds.
At that moment, it might have strained the imagination to believe that nine months later, the camp would not only still be active but that it also would have become a full-fledged cultural touchstone.
Standing Rock has galvanized thousands of Native people from all over the continent — along with thousands of non-Native supporters. It has introduced phrases such as “mni wiconi” (Lakota for “water is life”) into the popular parlance. And it succeeded, at least for the short term, in its mission — to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to block a permit for the pipeline.
No matter what ultimately happens with the pipeline, Standing Rock has also demonstrated the vital role of culture in protest and the direction that protest might take in the future over other issues.
At its core, the Standing Rock protest has been a Native American one, with Native iconography, language, ritual and architecture. But beyond Native communities, it’s also a cultural encounter that has provided fresh ways of thinking about everything from the contours of the landscape to the nature of protest.
Standing Rock, says Nato Thompson, artistic director at the New York-based arts nonprofit Creative Time, “represents an important kind of learning curve.”
Recent social movements in the U.S., such as the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s and the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011, championed issues of economic inequity that are still part of the national conversation. But these movements were far less adept at contending with the ethnic and racial issues that intersected with that concern.
Coming on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, Standing Rock has been different, says Thompson. “There was a profound wrestling with race and culture as it applies to class,” he says.
And that could inform the types of protest actions we see in the coming months and years.
“The dominant social movement is going to be a pushback against the [Donald] Trump administration,” Thompson says. “It will be extremely galvanizing across a broad spectrum. So I think the issues of Standing Rock — centered around prayer, around humility, around landedness — could be part of a larger movement across America.”
Since summer, a cross-section of cultural figures, from painters to photographers to musicians to actors, have been involved in Standing Rock — as activists, supporters and artists.
Artist Guadalupe Rosales, known for creating the Chicano youth archive “Veteranas and Rucas” (currently on view at Los Angeles’ Vincent Price Art Museum), ferried winter supplies to North Dakota in her truck. Melissa Govea, of the Los Angeles collective Ni Santas, helped fabricate protest signs at an art tent in one of the camps. The punk/hip-hop L.A. band Aztlan Underground played a concert at the Red Warrior camp over Thanksgiving as a way of lifting morale.
Actress Shailene Woodley has supported Standing Rock since August, through public appearances and by making a number of trips to the area to participate in some of the actions. In October, Woodley made headlines when she was arrested with more than two dozen other people during an attempt to blockade the pipeline route. This was the moment many beyond the Native and protest communities first became aware of Standing Rock.
Artists in the U.S. can play a marginal role in political life, so their gestures are often treated sensationally or skeptically by the press. (Sample headline: “Shailene Woodley Knows She’s Not Saving the World.”) But this type of involvement is hardly new.
Actress Jane Fonda, who has a lifetime of activism under her belt, has publicly supported the #defundDAPL (Defund the Dakota Access pipeline) cause on social media, has donated shelters and bison meat to camp kitchens and flew to North Dakota in late November to help serve Thanksgiving meals. In December, she withdrew her funds from Wells Fargo as an expression of public protest, since the bank has invested in the pipeline project.
“Throughout history, actors have stood up to power,” Fonda told The Times at a December Standing Rock event held at the Depart Foundation, an arts space in West Hollywood. “Artists in general, through their writing, through their plays, through their acting, through their art — it’s very natural for artists to be standing with Standing Rock.”
At its core, the Standing Rock protest has been a Native American one, with Native iconography, language, ritual and architecture.
More significantly, artists of all races and ethnicities were on hand to take part in an unprecedented cultural event — a large gathering of Native Americans that required non-Natives to adapt to the Native way of doing things.
“It’s a whole different reality out there,” says Andrea Bowers, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work has explored issues of solidarity and protest. “It’s a different set of rules. It’s based on Native prayer and spirituality, and there’s a different hierarchy of power, so it’s necessary to just step back and be in service.”
Susanna Battin, another Los Angeles-based artist, whose work often engages issues of water and landscape, had a similar experience during her November visit.
“The media coverage has been about the conflict and confrontation,” she says. “But this was a historic cultural moment — the collaboration, the listening, the breaking down of colonial misconceptions, the style of leadership that we in middle class white America just haven’t experienced.”
Outsiders, in fact, were given an information packet that outlined the ground rules when they arrived. Among these: “Follow indigenous leadership,” “understand this moment in the context of settler colonialism,” “never attend a ceremony without being expressly invited.”
“This is our culture,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger, a New Mexico-based artist who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation and has participated in the protests since they began. “This is why we say this is not a protest, why we are ‘water protectors.’ We’re not just in protest of a pipeline. What we are trying to do is maintain a cultural practice.
“Our original bible, that comes down from on high, it is the land. We tell stories about magical characters that are bound to the landscape. Why is that stone red? There is a story. So where everyone else sees a pipeline and ‘progress,’ what we see is someone going through our bible and editing things without any care, ripping a line straight through that story.”
The Native-focused culture of Standing Rock is part of what drew hundreds of indigenous people from all over.
“That was the motivator for me to go,” says Raven Chacon, an Albuquerque-based artist who is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation — and part of the contemporary arts collective Postcommodity. “What you saw was truly a global community, but with the majority of them being American Indian people. That was something I’d never seen in my life.”
Standing Rock has been transformative for non-Natives too.
Doug McLean is a longtime environmental activist and photographer who went to Standing Rock on numerous occasions in the summer and fall.
“When I worked at Greenpeace,” he says, “there was the concept that it was founded on which was the Quaker principle of bearing witness. The best journalists and the best artists are the ones who get the most out of the way and are simply a lens.”
Bearing witness is exactly what many of the artists at Standing Rock have done — and it is already filtering into their work.
Luger created dozens of mirrored shields from Masonite and reflective vinyl that were as much protective devices for frontline protestors as they were bright works of sculpture. Bowers took pictures around camp; Battin, of the industrial pipeline architecture penetrating agricultural fields. Chacon, who was inspired by Standing Rock’s sonic qualities, recorded audio of one of the prayer-filled actions.
“What you saw was truly a global community, but with the majority of them being American Indian people. That was something I’d never seen in my life.”
— Raven Chacon, artist
“All of the women in the camp walked onto the bridge, which has been a site of contention,” he says. “About a thousand women walked up there in complete silence. So I was able to capture the sound of a thousand people being completely silent. The only sound you could hear was drones. It was surreal.”
How exactly some of these elements will work their way into art, and, ultimately, the larger culture, remains to be seen. But as with Occupy, which helped inspire a wave of artist-activist movements, some of which are still active, Standing Rock is set to have a cultural butterfly effect.
Molly Larkey is a Los Angeles sculptor who went to Standing Rock over Thanksgiving weekend. During her journey, she collaborated with photographer Jen Rosenstein to create a record of the myriad individuals who attended the protest.
“I’m really interested in that what Standing Rock did was show how things can be different, how culture could be different,” she says. “I’m really interested in how we organize our money, how we can create different kinds of economies.
“It can be things that happen in small ways too. How we relate to each other, for example. At camp, you were encouraged to slow down, be receptive, listen. It reminded you how important those things are.”
“I don’t know anyone whose life wasn’t changed by being there,” says Joel Garcia, co-director of the Boyle Heights arts nonprofit Self-Help Graphics, who traveled to Standing Rock over Thanksgiving with a group of Chicano artists, many of whom observe indigenous traditions as part of their Mexican heritage. “It recalibrates things for sure.”
Bowers, who was at Standing Rock when a group of U.S. military veterans arrived in support of the protest, was moved by the nature of group dynamics motivated by respect.
“To see Native and white vets get into arguments, then have them talk it out, and in the end, I’d see them hug each other — saying, ‘You’re here, you are family now,’ ” she says. “It’s not the way we do things. This was a respect to culture and the process embodied that — everything embodied that.”
Run the Jewels talk about writing their latest album with the ‘world crumbling around us’
IN EARLY DECEMBER, while Killer Mike waited in a Hollywood rehearsal space for El-P, his musical partner in the acclaimed rap duo Run the Jewels, the subject of politics and movies came up.
Killer Mike (born Mike Render), who in 2016 channeled his thoughtfully blistering verses on race and class into action by endorsing and campaigning with Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primaries, had just seen a trailer for the forthcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
He was worried, he said, that the franchise had become “sanitized.”
“It’s like they depoliticized them,” said Killer Mike, contrasting the reboot series with the allegorical first “Apes” films of the late 1960s and ’70s.
“What made movies at that point great — and TV probably until about the early ’80s — was that it was so provocative,” Killer Mike said. “ ‘All in the Family’ was good because it was provocative. I remember ‘The Jeffersons’ episode with the Klansman — George saves his life and he was like, ‘You should have just let me die.’ ”
Seeing that episode as a kid required that Killer Mike, now 41, “think it through and grow out of your own little bigotry — and still have a good time.”
A similar duality marks “Run the Jewels 3,” Killer Mike and El-P’s decidedly nonsanitized third album, which was surprise-released on Dec. 24. “RTJ3,” a notably dark record with the occasional ray of light, was written and recorded with the divisive presidential campaign as the backdrop, and as both lost close friends.
Tapping at his phone while camped out on a couch, Killer Mike pulled up the “Apes” trailer. As grim theme music played, a menacingly deep-voiced character said, “I did not start this war. I offered you peace. I showed you mercy. But now you’re here to finish us off.”
His eyes lighted up with excitement. “I’m going to one of those fancy movies to see this... where you can buy dinner.”
El-P, his hair still wet from a shower, rolled into the room, casually dropped a joint on the coffee table as he sat down and started talking about writing and recording “Run the Jewels 3” during what Killer Mike called “tumultuous times.”
The dilemma across 2016 lay in how much politics to include in a creative project that began as a way for a pair of middle-aged solo artists to blow off steam and have fun making rap music together.
El-P (Jaime Meline), who didn’t campaign for anyone but supported his partner’s Sanders stumping, acknowledged their competing reflexes: “You see people wanting [artists] to say something when no one is — and then you see people being exhausted by people saying something.”
Mixed into the mess, he added with a cuss, was “having our own ideas of the type of records we would love to make if none of that … was there.” The result, said El-P, were tracks on the album “written almost in despite of the the world crumbling around us.”
“To borrow a phrase from a television show, ‘Winter’s coming,’ ” said Killer Mike. “I felt like that making this entire record. I felt a darkness.”
As with the first two albums, “RTJ3” mixes Killer Mike’s searing insights, from the perspective of a black Atlantan with a cadence to match his acuity, with El-P’s beat production and razor-witted, eloquent couplets as a white Brooklynite whose work as a rapper and producer has earned him underground respect and acclaim.
Across its discography, the team hasn’t avoided hard questions about race, law enforcement and politics — nor have the two shied away from exploring the deeply personal and their love of the kind of hip-hop revelry that defines their favorite albums.
As they started writing in December 2015, El-P said the two didn’t discuss overarching themes or decide to devote themselves to making a political record. Most important, he said, was documenting “the temperament of the last couple of years for us and being friends. Being in it and being affected by the world around us.”
It may be hard to see the playfulness and fun amid the darkness, he added, but that’s a huge part of what they want out of their work. So is “how we are with each other, no matter what’s going on,” El-P said. “We’re still smoking weed and cracking jokes and hanging out with each other and enjoying each other’s company. And that is the foundation of the record.”
But that was apparently easier said than done, because “Run the Jewels 3” opens with a Killer Mike-rapped indictment.
I was campaigning with what I felt like was a good man for good reasons and ... I saw good people doing atrocious things to sabotage that.
— Killer Mike on campaigning for Bernie Sanders
Torn between competing instincts from verse one, Mike sets “Down” in a room with two things before him. “Ballot or bullet, you better use one,” Mike raps as he name-checks three different amendments to the Constitution: “One time for the freedom of speeches / Two time for the right to hold heaters / Just skip to the fifth with the cops in the house / Close your mouth and pray to your Jesus.”
Stumping for Sanders, Killer Mike said, made him increasingly disillusioned as the year wore on.
“This country is going … mad. Let’s just be honest. I was campaigning with what I felt like was a good man for good reasons — and in the middle of that I saw good people doing atrocious things to sabotage that. And that really ... with me,” he said.
“I said a line in there, ‘I’ve seen the devil working behind the curtain and came back with some evidence,’ ” Killer Mike said, quoting a line from the song “2100.” “I saw what the DNC [Democratic National Committee] did, and it affected me in a way that I couldn’t make this record and not be darker on parts — because I felt more cynical.”
In “Talk to Me,” Killer Mike recounts his experience on the campaign trail by name-checking the Arabic word for Satan while seeming to critique Donald Trump: “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.”
For his part, El-P has “Jaws” on his brain, but he seems to be talking not just about the shark but also America when he raps, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, boys — you’re in trouble.”
On the album-closing “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters,” he spits judgment on politicians: “Can’t contain the disdain for y'all demons / You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible / And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical.”
Across the hundreds of couplets, “RTJ3” references online surveillance, the police state, Chicago gangland and a power structure that earns profits despite the poverty surrounding them. “Good day from the house of the haunted — get a job, get a house, get a coffin,” El-P raps on “Don’t Get Captured.” “Don’t stray from the path, remain where you at — that maximizes our profit.”
That track begins a three-song suite that pocks the album with grimness, as though a new reality were sinking in. A sample from “The Twilight Zone” opens “Thieves”: “This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one.”
Asked about the darkness, El-P seemed torn. “Certainly, there are points,” he said, but “it doesn’t stay and it’ll never be the foundation of who we are.” Rather, he stressed that the primary goal remained “to just make raw … dope records and see where we can push each other and where our styles intertwine.”
Playfulness, in fact, abounds. In “Call Ticketron,” El-P revels in wordplay as he reassures Run the Jewels listeners that the “last two pirates alive are still yargin’ ” — but are living in a future where “the hovercraft’s cool but the air’s so putrid.”
“Everybody Stay Calm” features the rapper referencing “Willie Wonka”: “Oompa-Loompas, I’ll shoot a tune at ya medullas/ I’m cool as a rule but I’ll scalp a ruler.” El-P even wades into the 2016 meme centered on the spelling of the children’s series “Berenstain Bears.”
The result is a work that reconciles competing reflexes with an approach that El-P described as “a swagger, or way to perceive yourself, in the face of authority and in the face of the majority of the people. A way to have personal power based on an ethos and not based on your position in society.”
Eyeing the joint on the table, Killer Mike suggested taking a smoke break, and the two stood to make their way outside.
But first, El-P had one more thing to say: “If I see a king walking through the streets in all his regalia, I know that if I spit on him, all of the clothes and all the power doesn’t mean a … thing, because in that moment, me and him are the same. Am I right for doing it? I don’t ... know. But I’ll talk about the instinct.”
Obama left the NEA vulnerable. Could Sylvester Stallone save it?
WHEN A COLLEAGUE SHARED a British tabloid report that Donald Trump was considering appointing a certain Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone as head of the National Endowment for the Arts we rolled our eyes, speechless.
Stallone has since said he would decline any offer for the top arts spot from Trump. Yet — and I can’t believe I am saying this — Sly Stallone may not have been such a bad idea for the NEA after all.
How fundamentally the world has turned in 2017.
Four years ago, when there was still hope that President Obama might turn out to be an arts leader, I had proposed that for his second term he eliminate the NEA altogether and instead create a Cabinet level department of culture, putting us on par with the rest of the world’s civilized countries. I further suggested as candidates the two most probing, visionary and persuasive artists and public intellectuals I could think of: the director Peter Sellars and Bard College President Leon Botstein.
There are many in Congress who would gladly eliminate the NEA to save an infinitesimal fraction of the federal budget (less than four-one hundredths of 1%, to be exact), replacing the NEA with nada.
There are many in Congress who would gladly eliminate the NEA to save an infinitesimal fraction of the federal budget (less than four-one hundredths of 1%, to be exact), replacing the NEA with nada. What the agency needs now more than vision is a fighter. A little star power wouldn’t hurt, either. Could Rocky save it?
Obama never promised to be an arts president. What candidate does? (Bernie Sanders did, but he is the only major one in recent memory). Still, there were indications early on that the Obama White House would prove to be a second Camelot, following the example of the arts-embracing Kennedys.
The mood for Obama’s first swearing in was classily set by classical musicians in 2009. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriella Montero warmed up the dignitaries with John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts,” written for the occasion. As with so much in Washington, a phony controversy ensued when it was learned that the quartet instrument-synced, but it was simply too cold to offer “Simple Gifts,” which required nimble fingers on strings and keys. That may have also been the start of giving Obama cold fingers when it came to the arts.
Even so, for their new home the Obamas borrowed from the National Gallery the most sophisticated art that had graced White House walls since Camelot. The first family occasionally showed up at the Kennedy Center or museums. The first lady hosted afternoon gatherings of musicians from different disciplines. We were told that the president was a reader of poetry.
The most promising sign of all was Obama’s unpretentious grace in the company of artists. He said the right things. We took it for granted that he supported the arts and understood their importance for the betterment of society. The vast majority of artists in America felt that Obama was on their side.
So we coasted. The president had to pick his fights, and the NEA, it turned out, was never to be one of them. In 2009, another phony controversy occurred when the far-right website Breitbart News reported that a spokesperson for the Obama administration had reputedly tried to politically influence artists. That pales next to President Reagan personally phoning up theater critic Dan Sullivan at The Times in 1981 to ask that he prop up Reagan’s old Hollywood pal Buddy Ebsen, whose new musical was a flop.
Ultimately, Obama appointed as NEA heads Broadway producer Rocco Landesman in his first term and arts executive Jane Chu in his second. Both proved personable promoters of the arts and the agency, treating their posts more as caretakers rather than visionaries. I used to regularly see a representative from the NEA at the Los Angeles Philharmonic during previous administrations when something particularly novel was presented. No more.
Still, the agency appeared to mean well. Its minuscule budget, always under $150 million a year, got divvied up to museums, performing arts groups, local education agencies and community projects as best it could. Landesman and Chu spent much of their time as arts activists, drumming up business.
But let’s get real. France’s federal arts budget rose last year to more than $4 billion! That’s $575 per person for the arts, as opposed to 45 cents per person in our country.
What this ultimately means is that while Obama valuably helped the mood of the arts in America, he did less for the arts infrastructure. He displayed considerably greater interest in pop culture and sports than in arts advocacy. He handed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to but a handful of noted and deserving artists — including architect Frank Gehry, painter Jasper Johns and Ma — whereas he picked a significantly larger number of Hollywood stars.
Mood, nonetheless, matters, and the vast majority of American artists are now worried about a Trump administration. We’ve heard the reports of the transition team struggling to find willing performers for the inauguration. According to Itay Hod of the Wrap, the Trump team has gone so far as offering ambassadorships to agents who can lasso a star, all to little avail. Operatic crooner Andrea Bocelli backed out, but the 16-year-old operatic crooner wannabe, Jackie Evancho, seems to be in. The Rockettes and Mormon Tabernacle Choir (minus members who are opting out or quitting in protest) thus far fill the insipid bill.
Meanwhile, artists who became complacent under Obama no longer are. President Lyndon Johnson did not decide against running for a second term because of a painting; Richard Nixon (who happened to support the NEA) did not resign as president offended by a symphony. But protest artists the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Robert Crumb and many others created a national temperament that helped change governments.
Antagonize the artists, and it may seem as though the world’s turning in 2017 will, in fact, be back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Realism or cliche? Hollywood struggles to get the working class right
THE WORKING MAN IS BATTERED and bruised, celebrated and misunderstood. He is stoic and brash. He counts his hours and logs his years. He is the best and worst of us, as willing to walk into a coal mine as onto a battlefield. He endures until he breaks or accepts that the promises of manhood glimmered brighter when he was a boy.
The question now is how will Hollywood depict this working man — and working woman — in a culturally divisive era? What are the new narratives in a changing economy and racial strains driven by identity politics? Donald Trump’s election has refocused attention, much like the fall of the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s, on disillusioned and bitter parts of the country shaken by financial decline, foreign competition and addiction.
The Democratic Party, once the bastion of labor, has been accused of paying less attention to the white working class and focusing more on minorities and youth. Film and television creators are said to be too liberal and out of touch with the values and concerns of the heartland.
Yet as far removed as Hollywood seems from blue-collar realities, movies have for generations played on all manner of working men and women, taking us from steel mills to fishing trawlers, from textile plants to grocery check-out lines, and from one hard-pressed town to the next. Such portrayals cast the working class — from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Harlan County, USA” — as indivisible from the success and failure of the American dream.
I grew up in a blue collar sentiment, but so often these people are stereotyped and mythologized in film. They come across as cliché.
— Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” director
A number of movies have rendered insightful glimpses of working class and rural America that have risen above region and economic status to encompass the universal. These films have realized that stories — mainly about white, non-college-educated men and women — can veer as easily into stereotype and generalization as movies featuring minorities, transgenders and rock n’ roll bands. Even the best intentioned blue-collar tales can slip from sparse realism into stock masculinity and false redemption.
One of this year’s most evocative movies, “Hell or High Water,” follows two brothers, Toby and Tanner, across a West Texas landscape of foreclosures and ruin after the 2008 recession. The film has the style of an old western. But it is very much about how today’s capitalism is indifferent to families — at least 60% of Americans don’t have college educations — whose shrinking paychecks and diminished options leave them desperate amid fallow fields, pump jacks and frontier justice.
“I think the western is about people in harsh places trying to tame an unfriendly wilderness,” Chris Pine, who played Toby, told The Times. “Because life is defined by struggle, it’s kind of a perfect microcosmic experience to explore that. ‘Here we are, struggling.’ It’s about people persevering and persevering and persevering.”
Director David Mackenzie said the movie “felt to me like a snapshot of a nation.”
The trials, chores, joys, challenges, demons and dangers of the working class have been viewed through many prisms: Marlon Brando standing up to dockworker corruption in “On the Waterfront,” Sally Field fighting for a textile union in “Norma Rae,” Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken leaving the steel plants of Pittsburgh to fight in Vietnam in “The Deer Hunter,” a labor leader demanding rights for migrant workers in “Cesar Chavez,” George Clooney and his doomed crew chasing fish in the North Atlantic in “The Perfect Storm,” coal miners rising against Pinkertons in bloody battles played out in John Sayles’ “Matewan” and this year’s “Paterson,” featuring Adam Driver as a poet-bus driver.
Such movies have an elegiac dignity at their core, respecting a man or woman’s honor and pride through the lens of their daily toil. A rigorous work ethic has long been one of the nation’s defining traits, deified not only in film but also in literature and music. Much of Bruce Springsteen’s playlist ruminates on accepting the working life with forbearance or escaping it with fuel-injected defiance. And on this plane, notably in movies, the working man is cast against the shadow of coal tipples, smokestacks, blast furnaces or other emblems of industry to suggest his ultimate fate is controlled by others.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the working class and the working man,” said director Kenneth Lonergan, whose “Manchester by the Sea” tells of the lives of a janitor and a fisherman. “But it’s all general. What are they talking about? A lot of people are out there fixing things. There’s a certain amount of sentimentalization when you get to movies.”
The film “Winter’s Bone,” which in large measure introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world, slips into a sliver of the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri, where crime, clan and retribution trammel over a harsh, if beautiful, land that offers little prosperity. The working men and women here have turned into drug dealers and enforcers whose codes and moralities are challenged by Ree Dolly (Lawrence), a girl trying to save her home and family from the havoc caused by her methamphetamine-cooking father.
We’re a town of 14,000. Lost 1,200 jobs to Mexico in the last three years....That’s a brutal punch. The people I talked to just wanted to shake things up.
— Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” author
Based on the novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell, the film, directed by Debra Granik, is a dark glimpse at an often unnoticed part of the country. Like movies set in Appalachia or the Rust Belt, the story has a palpable sense of place and isolation. Woodrell, who lives in the Missouri region where his family has had roots since 1838, said in a recent interview that “the reason I stayed here so long is that I can walk two blocks and there’s the cemetery where my family is buried. A lot of resonance.”
He knows a number of people who voted for Trump. “We’re a town of 14,000. Lost 1,200 jobs to Mexico in the last three years that literally went to Mexico. That’s a brutal punch,” he said. “The people I talked to just wanted to shake things up. I’m a Democrat but I’m kind of nostalgic for the old Democrats who cared for the working class.”
Woodrell’s novels seek recesses both moral and geographical. They navigate sin, fallibility and the grays that make a life, adding force and richness to regional tales that echo far beyond their boundaries. “When any aspect of life gets focused on, it’d be really easy to make something grotesque if you focus on a narrow slice of it,” he said. “It’s not Mayberry and it’s not all ‘Winter’s Bone’... You try to make it human, respecting characters and taking them seriously. Show it from their point of view, not mine.”
The men in Scott Cooper’s evocatively photographed “Out of the Furnace” are forsaken and hard, living in Braddock, Pa., a steam-streaked steel town of crumbling houses, rail yards, dim taverns and the bones of an industry that once was. Two brothers — Russell (Christian Bale), a mill worker, and Rodney (Casey Affleck), a damaged Iraq war vet — live amid scoured ambitions that turn violent when Rodney takes up street fighting for money. These are men pushed to the brink by circumstance; a shrinking, battered family in a town of ghosts.
“You have to live there to know these people,” said Cooper, who was raised at the edge of the coal fields in Abingdon, Va. “I grew up in a blue collar sentiment but so often these people are stereotyped and mythologized in film. They come across as cliché.” He added that the suspicion and disillusionment in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and other regions “come from an ideological and cultural isolation from the rest of America. These are a group of people who see themselves as outsiders but they were really the backbone of America, especially in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. But lost jobs have led to lost pride and vices.”
Those vices have led to years of heroin and prescription drug addiction, early graves and a bitterness toward the government, which many blame for wage stagnation and jobs wiped out by foreign competition. It was this sense of desperation that drew many working class voters to Trump, a rich man who may not be one of them but who has vowed to rattle the establishment. For many, promises had been denied for too long in lands forgotten between New York and Los Angeles. As the working class continues to be redefined by automation and shifting demographics, it is this reality that Washington and Hollywood will be wrestling with for years to come.
“I wanted to treat it as honestly as I could,” Cooper said of his film. “The American dream is dead and it is not really coming back.”
On Twitter: @JeffreyLAT
“Manchester By The Sea” director Kenneth Lonergan talks about collaborating with Casey Affleck on the film, comparing him to a Columbo-like detective who investigates scenes.
Rally white men. Demean women. Mock the impact of misogyny. How will Gamergate values play out in Trump’s America?
SEE IF THIS CAMPAIGN TACTIC sounds familiar: Rally white men who feel the world is changing too fast, leverage racial bias for the cause, and demean women along the way.
The strategy belonged to a radical corner of the gaming world that may have provided the winning playbook for the campaign that won the presidential election.
“Gamergate” is the term now used to describe the movement in which Internet trolls attacked high-profile people in the game industry if they attempted to change — or even speak out about — the misogynistic themes of video games. They are the gaming world’s radical right, and they’re fighting back against what they see as the onslaught of politically correct culture.
Now at least one of the people who provided a platform for the movement is headed for the White House.
Stephen K. Bannon oversaw the far-right Breitbart News, which published numerous articles about Gamergate, before becoming Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive. One report, from 2014, carried this headline: “Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart.” Today, Bannon is Trump’s pick for White House chief strategist and senior counselor.
The trajectories of Trump and Gamergate could be practically charted by the same graph — guys (for the most part) that a significant portion of the country didn’t take seriously pandered to humanity’s most base instincts and won. Entertainment and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. The president-elect, for instance, regularly tweets about “Saturday Night Live,” and nearly caused a culture war over “Hamilton.”
Entertainment and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. The president-elect, for instance, regularly tweets about ‘Saturday Night Live,' and nearly caused a culture war over ‘Hamilton.’
Bannon once spoke favorably of Darth Vader, seemingly comparing himself to the “Star Wars” villain. Spoken like a strategist, or like someone pandering to his fans?
As Paul Booth, an associate professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who studies fan culture, put it: “You can look at the political race as a fan event.”
The term “Gamergate” emerged as a hashtag in mid-August 2014. It described the attacks, particularly on women in the gaming world, by trolls and eventually their de-facto leader Milo Yiannopoulos, who became Gamergate’s Breitbart champion.
The writer electrified his base in much the same way as did the Donald Trump campaign, arguing that the mainstream media and those with progressive thoughts simply failed to understand real gamers. “GamerGate,” he wrote, “has exposed both the feminist campaigners and even some gaming journalists as completely out of touch with the very reasons people play games.”
A sort of “drain the swamp” for the digitally connected.
Female game designers and journalists who spoke out about a more inclusive future for the medium were harassed on social media with threats of physical attacks, rape and death. Their emails were leaked (sound familiar?), and some saw details about their personal lives published online.
“Lock her up,” Trump supporters shouted about Hillary Clinton.
“I hope you die,” Gamergate champions tweeted at Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent cultural critic who critiques games from a feminist perspective.
One developer, Jennifer Hepler, author of “Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level-Cap,” told The Times that she went so far as to install bulletproof glass on her windows after a lengthy online campaign against her. She was singled out for the inclusion of LGBT-friendly characters in a sword-and-sorcery game.
Gamergate advocates argued that gaming journalists were corrupt and were colluding to bring a politically correct makeover to the medium (read: take away our digital guns, treat women as something more than sex objects and cast someone — anyone — other than a white male as the lead protagonist).
Yiannopoulos, who has been banned from Twitter over allegations that he coordinated the sexist and racist harassment of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones, galvanized his believers by claiming that gaming had come under attack by an “army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners.”
Those who bought into his words targeted their ire at female critics who sought to intellectualize the medium. Ultimately, they were only bringing to light gaming’s more regrettable traits: that it has long pandered to a male-focused, gun-obsessed community where women were damsels more often than heroes.
Even Nintendo’s mobile title “Super Mario Run,” the biggest game of this winter, perpetuates the myth that women are to be rescued rather than kick butt.
The biggest, most visible games are still largely created by men for boys. Gamergate ultimately was driven by nostalgia and fear of change.
“Keep politics out of games,” was Gamergate proponents’ rallying cry, but they may as well have been saying, “Make games great again.”
There’s evidence that major developers are listening to their broader audience rather than being bullied by Gamergate, as recent titles such as “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” “Watch Dogs 2” and “Dishonored 2” have touched on mature themes with a wide variety of characters.
Yet Gamergate brings to the fore some uncomfortable facts. The International Game Developers Assn. recently pegged the game industry at about 80% male, and while some surveys note that the game-playing community is close to a 50-50 male-female split, game consoles and gaming computers are still predominantly used by the male gamer.
Geoffrey Zatkin, co-founder of gaming consultancy Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, noted at a gaming event last March that North American gamers in 2015 leaned male 55% to 45%. But on home video game consoles, that number jumps to 60% male. On PCs, it’s even more heavily male at 64%.
For much of the last decade, the biggest game franchises — “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” among them — were driven by guns and disparaging views of women and minorities. And unlike the Republican Party, the game industry has done this without lobbying money.
It may as well have been content unwittingly aimed directly at the so-called alt-right community, the loosely defined movement made up of social media-savvy white nationalists that has also attracted neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and misogynists.
Once again, there is a connection to Gamergate.
“The people who promoted Gamergate said they were concerned about journalism ethics,” read a post on PressThink, a site maintained by New York University professor Jay Rosen. “As a professor of journalism with a social media bent, I felt obligated to examine their claims. When I did I discovered nasty troll behavior with a hard edge of misogyny.”
Of course, Gamergaters were simply amplifying the content directed toward them — the rape jokes of “Grand Theft Auto,” the gun-fetishism of nearly every other game and a fantasy vision of the world ruled almost exclusively by white men.
So Hollywood isn’t out of touch with the real — make that conservative — America, after all. The entertainment powerhouses behind the world’s biggest games have directly targeted it. And now the rest of the country — the majority of voters behind the popular vote, if you will — can’t press the jump button to avoid it.
Exploiting fear of Muslims? The far right has nothing on liberal Hollywood
LONG BEFORE DONALD TRUMP campaigned on the promise of banning Muslims from entering the U.S. or creating a registry for those who already live here, there was a master fear monger who made the president-elect’s divisive rhetoric seem like child’s play.
It capitalized upon the terror of 9/11 by portraying most Muslims (even those who are American) as terrorists, cast a suspicious eye toward anyone who looked remotely like Sallah from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and pretty much ensured that Westerners would know Islam through only the prism of suicide bombings, religious extremism and oppressed women in burkas.
When it comes to exploiting fear of the other for personal gain, the far right has nothing on liberal Hollywood.
Television producers, writers, actors and network execs — many of whom have openly criticized ultra-conservative politicians for their intolerant views — have done more to popularize Islamophobia over the last 15 years than all of Trump’s campaign proclamations.
“There has never been liberal Hollywood when it comes to the portrayal of Muslims on TV,” says professor and author Jack Shaheen, who’s been researching the subject since the mid 1970s and served as a cultural consultant on films such as “Three Kings” and “Syriana.” “They’ve reinforced the idea that many Americans now have — that all Muslims are terrorists. They knew they could get away with it because no one was going to protest. They’ve been playing to the balcony, and in doing so, they’ve been getting the ratings.”
That dynamic grew exponentially following the 9/11 attacks: While President George W. Bush delivered dozens of speeches about how ours was not a war against Islam but “a campaign against evil,” network television was busy putting the finishing touches on the series that came to embody TV’s narrative about our war against evil Islam.
Eight weeks after the attacks, Fox released “24,” a series steeped in scheming, swarthy Muslims and the heroic efforts of a very non-swarthy Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).The series outlasted both of Bush’s terms and spawned an army of like-minded shows.
The next phase in television terrorism drama included Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” which arrived with the tagline “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists,” and “Homeland,” where the mere act of a man praying toward Mecca signaled foreboding events. And with a title like “Tyrant,” it was clear that FX’s drama about an American Arab family was no “Cosby Show.”
Even network TV’s good Muslims like Sayid on “Lost” or twins *Nimah and Raina of “Quantico” are defined by a connection to Saddam’s Republican Guard or terror groups.
“It’s like the LGBT community 30 years ago,” says Sue Obeidi, director of the civil rights advocacy group the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Hollywood bureau. “Every time there was a gay character on TV or in film, the story line would be about AIDS. Almost all Muslim story lines up to now are connected to terror. Even if they end up being a good person, it’s often discovered under a cloud of suspicion.”
There is no doubt that homegrown terror attacks in the U.S. — from San Bernardino to Orlando — have helped bolster arguments that art is only reflecting reality. But as University of North Carolina professor Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, Duke University professor and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, wrote in a 2015 research paper, “Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”
Television of late has been trying to adjust to a changing world by developing more diverse narratives and investing in more projects by creators and writers of color, including Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”), Kenya Barris (“blackish”) and Nahnatchka Khan (“Fresh Off the Boat”). But despite the number of shows that have Islamic terror elements in their plots — from “Madam Secretary” to “CSI” — Muslims behind the camera are still rare.
There has never been liberal Hollywood when it comes to the portrayal of Muslims on TV.
— Jack Shaheen, professor and author
That lack of representation was glaringly evident in the fifth season of “Homeland,” when graffiti that read “‘Homeland’ is racist” in Arabic made it into a scene. Artists hired to decorate the wall of the fictional Syrian refugee camp slipped the words in, and there was no one else on set with enough knowledge of the Arab world to catch their subversive message.
“Hollywood is not necessarily biased toward a particular political view, but it is biased toward what does and doesn’t make money,” says author Reza Aslan, who recently co-created an ABC pilot for a comedy about an American Muslim family in the age of Trump. “Since 9/11, the market wanted these almost comic book characterizations of Muslims as the bad guy. But that market has dried up. It’s not interesting anymore. They want different narratives about Muslims and Middle Easterners, and networks are looking for ways to do that.”
Characters who arrived during the seemingly endless presidential campaign of the last year and a half have definitely signaled a shift.
In HBO’s critically lauded “The Night Of,” we met Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), an average college student accused of a crime that had nothing to do with terrorism; his journey through the legal system highlighted an institutional prejudice.
Government can protect our rights as citizens, or maybe with Trump it won’t, but it’s really TV and film that changes the way people feel about one another.
— Sue Obeidi, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Hollywood bureau
Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None,” depicts him as a struggling actor who finds himself in all sorts of painfully normal situations — bad dates, flubbed job interviews, disappointing his immigrant parents — situations far too commonplace for TV’s Muslims before him. “If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?” Ansari said, explaining why he created the show.
Yet in an unforeseen twist, Trump’s election has potentially accelerated the interest in more nuanced story lines involving actors like Ansari.
“Right after the election — I’m talking the day or two days after — we had people in the industry reach out to us: the USA Network, Amazon, Hulu, a major network,” says civil rights advocate Obeidi. “They have directives from their networks to watch for Islamophobic tones. Not that the studios were giving directives for Islamophobic story lines before, but now they’re saying, ‘We need consultants because our studio wants to be careful of certain red lines.’ That’s all new.”
The recent presidential election is such an extraordinary moment in American history, says Aslan, that there’s a new drive among the network and studio executives he’s met with to create a counter narrative to Trump’s.
“They want to make a statement about American ideals and the people who make this country what it is, whether that is focusing on minority groups, African American, Muslims, Jews, or whether it’s just simply presenting a different side of the American story,” Aslan says. “But I can say with absolute confidence the industry has been galvanized by this election.”
And whether you believe it or not, television is the frontline of shaping public perception. Even when it comes to depicting the oh-so-mysterious Muslim.
“It’s pop culture that’s going to change opinions about how people feel about one another,” says Obeidi. “Government can protect our rights as citizens — or maybe now with Trump it won’t — but it’s really TV and film that changes the way people feel about one another.”
On Twitter: @LorraineAli
FOR THE RECORD
*In an earlier version of this story, the “Quantico” character Alex was described as Muslim. The character is not Muslim. The series characters Raina and Nimah are Muslim.
‘The Middle’ offers something rare on TV, a candid look at the anxiety of a working family
IN FALL 2009, BARELY A YEAR into the Great Recession, two new family sitcoms aired back-to-back on Wednesday nights: “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”
Filmed in a quasi-mockumentary style, “Modern Family” followed three affluent, interrelated families in suburban Los Angeles, including a gay couple with an adopted daughter from Vietnam. Praised for its diversity, it was instantly anointed the best new sitcom on television, became a ratings smash for ABC and has been nominated for 77 Emmys.
At least superficially, “The Middle” was less groundbreaking. Created by DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler, it centered on the Hecks, an intentionally unremarkable lower-middle-class family living in the small town of Orson, Ind., proud home of the world’s largest polyurethane cow.
Dad Mike (Neil Flynn) is a taciturn quarry manager who later launches a diaper business. Mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton) sells cars — or tries to — before studying to become a dental hygienist. They have three kids who aren’t particularly bright, cool or attractive, epitomized by middle child Sue (played by the exceptional Eden Sher), whose most distinctive trait is her insistence on never giving up, despite being pretty bad at most things she tries.
The series revolves around the Hecks’ near-constant efforts to fix various broken appliances and put (sometimes recently expired) food on the table. It may not have shifted public opinion on same-sex marriage, but in its unassuming way, “The Middle” has been every bit as revelatory as “Modern Family.” Over eight seasons, it has portrayed the economic anxieties of working families with a candor rarely glimpsed on American broadcast television, which has aspiration encoded in its DNA.
Though several of ABC’s family sitcoms deal with class more fleetingly, ‘The Middle' is arguably the only long-running comedy on broadcast television that puts the subject front and center.
Though several of ABC’s family sitcoms deal with class more fleetingly, “The Middle” is arguably the only long-running comedy on broadcast television that puts the subject front and center. That it also happens to be set in “one of those places you fly over on your way from somewhere to somewhere else,” as Frankie says in the pilot’s opening narration, rather than a cosmopolitan city or well-heeled suburb, makes it a double rarity.
And though “The Middle” is a pleasantly apolitical show, it happens to portray the kind of working-class, Rust Belt voters who in real life helped propel Donald Trump to victory in November. (It also stars Heaton, one of Hollywood’s more prominent conservatives.)
If, as conventional wisdom dictates, the Washington establishment has ignored this demographic for too long, then so has Hollywood — especially television, which has made enormous strides in representations of race and sexuality but still portrays bourgeois, upper-middle-class coastal dwellers as the default norm.
Heline and Heisler began developing the idea for “The Middle” about a decade ago, around the time they were writing “Lipstick Jungle,” a “Sex and the City”-esque dramedy about high-powered New York City women.
As native Midwesterners turned Angelenos, Heline and Heisler longed to do a show about the world in which they grew up, where “when something goes wrong, your neighbor brings you a casserole,” Heline recalled in a recent interview.
After a number of delays, “The Middle” made it to air at a time when virtually everyone in America was feeling the pinch financially. “I think in some ways it helped our show,” Heline said, “because it felt more relevant.”
In the show’s early days, ABC would occasionally give notes along the lines of “try not to make it too depressing,” but Heline and Heisler, who grew up in the Midwest in circumstances similar to the Hecks’, were determined to treat these people with honor.
Refreshingly, “The Middle” neither venerates the Hecks as “real Americans,” nor ridicules them as flyover rubes.
“The Middle” even looks different from most sitcoms. Instead of tasteful Pottery Barn throw pillows and gleaming stainless-steel kitchens, the Hecks’ house is furnished haphazardly, cluttered with neglected piles of mail and laundry. Marie Kondo would most definitely not approve.
While no one would ever mistake “The Middle” for John Steinbeck, its willingness to acknowledge the constant precariousness of the Hecks’ finances makes it quietly revolutionary.
In a standout Season 2 episode called “The Big Chill,” Mike gives Frankie the silent treatment after she accidentally spends $200 on a tube of eye cream and eats up their household budget.
“I’m not mad that you made a mistake. I’m mad because we can’t afford to make a mistake,” Mike eventually explains to his wife. “You think I like it ... that at this point in our lives, we have to have four jobs just to stay poor?”
Now in its eighth season, a time when many long-running sitcoms resort to Cousin Oliver-esque gimmicks in a desperate bid to keep things fresh, “The Middle” continues to find new ways for the Hecks to just barely get by.
In a recent episode, Sue discovers she isn’t enrolled at college because her family failed to file her financial aid paperwork in time. Mike sells his diaper business in order to pay her tuition.
Heline and Heisler cut their teeth on “Roseanne,” TV’s last great blue-collar hit. The experience taught them that authenticity could be funny. “When we created ‘The Middle,’ that’s what we wanted to go back to,” Heline said. “We felt like the networks had abandoned that.”
With a few exceptions — most notably, the work of producer Norman Lear in the 1970s — American television has always been squeamish about acknowledging class because it “goes against the notion of the American dream,” says Anthony Harkins, a professor at Western Kentucky University whose research focuses on pop culture depictions of Middle America. “It doesn’t put you in a buying mood.”
The booming ‘80s ushered in an obsession with yuppies and one-percenters, in shows such as “Dynasty,” “Thirtysomething” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” “The Cosby Show” broke new racial barriers, but money was rarely a concern for the Huxtables.
Then came “Roseanne,” which premiered during the waning days of the Reagan administration in fall 1988. The sitcom about a brash Illinois factory worker, her underemployed husband and their unruly children was one of the top-rated shows on television for most of its nine-season run.
Astonishingly, however, it was never even nominated for a comedy series Emmy. (Then, as now, Television Academy voters preferred shows about affluent urbanites, such as “Murphy Brown” and “Frasier.”)
In the two decades since “Roseanne” went off the air, there have been other shows set in small-town, blue-collar America. But they have tended to be niche shows along the lines of “Friday Night Lights” or “Raising Hope,” championed by critics and other “coastal elites” but ignored by the rest of the country.
“The Middle” has never been a Nielsen blockbuster, but it has been a steady performer for ABC. It now runs almost even with “Modern Family” in the ratings and is regularly cited as one of TV’s most underrated shows. If the TV Academy remains immune to its charms, Heline and Heisler maintain a very Midwestern attitude.
“We’re not the type to demand attention,” Heline said. “We’ll just keep our head down and keep doing what we do.”
These films capture the real world’s ambivalence to women in power
EARLY ON IN THE GERMAN comedy “Toni Erdmann,” Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), a consultant for a Romanian oil giant called Dacoil, goes out with her clients for drinks. When asked about her work, she mentions her role overseeing the company’s imminent outsourcing plan — a faux pas that rattles Dacoil’s chief executive, who peevishly corrects her in front of everyone.
By this point in the evening, the CEO has already assigned Ines the humiliating task of taking his wife out shopping the next day. A few days later, Ines will give a presentation to the board that will result in her being interrupted, misinterpreted and shut down by her clients as well as other members of her team — nearly all of whom, it scarcely needs to be said, are men.
Did I mention that “Toni Erdmann” is a comedy?
Indeed it is, but for all its uproarious antics, it’s a comedy grounded thoroughly and specifically in the real world. There is nothing particularly funny or far-fetched about the boorishness and condescension with which Ines and her few female co-workers are treated by their male colleagues. The writer-director Maren Ade has the wit — but also the complete seriousness — to treat Dacoil as a microcosm of 21st century globalized capitalism, one that carries the common scourge of workplace sexism in an unusually toxic, concentrated form.
Ines, in other words, is not alone. Nor is she the only female professional on movie screens this season forced to confront all manner of male misbehavior in her place of business. A quick survey of the field would include Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), the Parisian executive whose sexual assault serves as the impetus for the French movie “Elle,” and Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), the ruthless Washington, D.C., lobbyist who takes on the gun industry in “Miss Sloane.”
A trailer for “Hidden Figures,” starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.
The list would also include several real-life women, among them Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), the NASA mathematicians whose hard-earned contributions to 1960s space travel are measured and recognized in “Hidden Figures.” A much less uplifting go-getter drama plays out in “Christine,” which recounts the personal and professional despair that led a Florida news reporter named Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) to fatally shoot herself during a 1974 live broadcast.
But perhaps no fictionalized biography, however skillfully done, could possibly compete with the dramatic example provided by recent history. Had Hillary Clinton won the U.S. presidential election, it would have been tempting, and easy, to position these movies in a long-overdue parallel narrative of female triumph over a pervasive double standard. But if anything, the themes that unite these pictures feel all the more pointed and resonant in the wake of Clinton’s defeat.
Had Hillary Clinton won the election, it would have been tempting to position these movies in a long-overdue parallel narrative of female triumph.
I can already sense indignant emails being drafted in response from those inclined to attribute that defeat to the candidate’s moral lapses and strategic blunders rather than, say, a culture of ingrained misogyny. To reopen that debate here would, I’m sure, be enormously productive. But it would almost certainly miss the point of what Clinton, whatever her flaws or virtues as a candidate, came to represent culturally and the iconic stature that she achieved as the first woman to come within spitting distance of the most important job in the country.
None of these cinematic heroines and antiheroines is a direct Clinton analogue, though several of them exhibit the same qualities at work — intelligence, ambition, calculation — that have made Clinton so simultaneously revered and reviled in the public eye. And the movies themselves, perhaps acknowledging the ambivalence that even advanced societies can feel toward the women in power, largely resist the temptation to turn their characters into easy figures of sympathy or identification.
Certainly no movie in the past year so gleefully subverted the notion of empowerment as “Elle,” or turned the already fraught minefield of gender politics into such dangerously uncertain terrain. In Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge thriller, Michèle is the chief executive of a video-game company that she runs with her friend Anna (Anne Consigny). The presence of two women overseeing a mostly male staff, churning out violently sexualized fantasies for teenage boys, is hardly incidental to the movie’s inquiry.
WATCH: Justin Chang reviews 'Elle’ directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, and Anne Consigny. Video by Jason H. Neubert.
Michèle’s top designer treats her with open contempt, suggesting that, given her publishing background, she lacks the qualifications to make important creative decisions about game play. (Michèle sarcastically responds that she and Anna must be “bitches who got lucky.”) Later, an office prankster distributes a video clip showing an animated version of Michèle being assaulted from behind by some many-tentacled Lovecraftian demon — a symbolic reenactment of the violation that sets the movie in motion.
Michèle takes all these indignities in stride. She seems to have achieved her power not by striking fear into her employees — in the manner of, say, Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” — but rather by projecting an air of utter indifference to what they think of her. She’s methodical, efficient and a master of the poker face. One of the most enthralling aspects of “Elle” is the way Michèle responds to her attacker; even her displays of fear and fury might well be the skillful ploys of a practiced problem solver. She troubleshoots her way to revenge.
Elizabeth Sloane, by contrast, leaves very little to chance, as we learn from her elaborate machinations to get a gun-control bill passed in “Miss Sloane.” “Lobbying is about foresight,” she says, and the pleasure of the movie lies in guessing exactly how Elizabeth, though very much in the underdog position, will manage to maintain the upper hand. At the very least, she doesn’t have to contend with the disrespect of her colleagues and rivals; she may be widely loathed, but she’s also acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with.
Elizabeth is so ruthlessly drawn that at times she suggests a near-caricature of empowered femininity. Viciously eloquent and disdainful of emotional niceties, she’s all hard edges where most men prefer soft curves. (She robotically outsources her sex life to a hired escort.) Some might take umbrage at the way “Miss Sloane” seems to equate female strength with a deadening of warmth and emotion. But the movie is shrewd enough to offer a compelling counterexample in the form of Elizabeth’s associate Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an equally passionate crusader who, as badly she too wants to win, refuses to sell out her own humanity.
“Elle,” “Miss Sloane” and “Toni Erdmann” all take a jaundiced view of gender relations in the contemporary workplace. Although set during a more distant, restrictive period, Theodore Melfi’s polished and effective crowd-pleaser “Hidden Figures” offers a considerably more uplifting experience, treating the injustices of the civil rights era as the building blocks of Hollywood uplift.
Katherine, Dorothy and Mary stick out at NASA not just because they’re women, but because they’re black, and “Hidden Figures” is particularly deft at conveying the struggle of being a minority twice over. This math-based movie itself demonstrates a talent for multiplication. The focus on three women — all of them facing equally Sisyphean struggles at work — allows for a more complex, wide-ranging sense of the obstacles at hand than a more focused telling would have managed.
There is no easy villain here, and the problems of bigotry are shown to be a collective burden. Dorothy’s primary obstacle isn’t a white man but a white woman (Kirsten Dunst) whose refusal to give Dorothy a deserved promotion seems born of her own professional unhappiness. Elsewhere, it’s satisfying to watch as Katherine, wielding her data with masterly assurance, calmly upstages her smug supervisor (Jim Parsons) during a meeting of NASA’s top minds — a meeting that she has to fight her way into, overturning years of pointless, discriminatory protocol.
But the movie also takes pains to applaud the decency of another manager, Al (Kevin Costner), who sees Katherine’s talent and does his part to fight on her behalf. Notably, he acts not because he suddenly grasps that segregation is an abomination, but because he realizes that it’s actively undermining staff productivity. “Hidden Figures” may have a slick Hollywood sheen, but it’s quite shrewd about how sweeping changes on one front — in this case, the ’60s space race and the rise of electronic computing — can precipitate necessary social reforms on another.
Technological winds are also shifting in Antonio Campos’ biographical drama, “Christine,” which offers a smart, subtle critique of the increasing commodification of TV news during the 1970s. It’s a time of growing opportunities for women in broadcast journalism, provided that they fit a particular mold: chipper blonds, juicy human-interest stories, etc. Nearly everything about Christine Chubbuck — her hard, guttural voice, her severe on-camera demeanor and her insistence on doing serious, hard-hitting pieces — represents an affront to this paradigm.
At the same time, “Christine” refuses to treat sexism as a kind of catch-all motive for why Chubbuck pulled the trigger. What makes the movie such a discomfiting experience is that it seems to sympathize with its heroine, acknowledging her intelligence, integrity and work ethic, while remaining unsparingly honest about her very real shortcomings. The other men in the newsroom — the golden-boy anchor (Michael C. Hall) she loves, the ill-tempered boss (Tracy Letts) she keeps clashing with — may complicate her path to success, but in the end, Christine’s greatest obstacle may well be herself.
Nearly all of these stories regard the lot of working women with an understandable degree of pessimism. And yet the mere fact of these movies’ existence, and their willingness to confront their tough realities head-on, is surely cause for optimism. And while the major studios have not been quite as attentive as their specialty-division counterparts to the needs of thinking, grown-up audiences, they found their own ways of subverting the status quo.
In Denis Villeneuve’s accomplished science-fiction drama “Arrival,” Amy Adams plays a linguist who not only is the best in her field, but also possesses a crucial gift of intuition — often described, and dismissed, as a feminine trait — that holds the key to humanity’s survival. Disney’s impressively woke animated fantasy “Zootopia” centers on a bunny rabbit who overcomes the biases against her species and gender to fulfill her dream of becoming a police officer.
Not to be overlooked in the discussion is Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” remake, which cast four funny women (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon) and immediately became a months-long target of misogynist outrage. The ferocity of all that fanboy hatred became the movie’s unavoidable subtext, and perhaps even its text: How dare they send in women to do a man’s job! (They dared — and, in a further skewering of Hollywood formula, they even cast Chris Hemsworth as the office mimbo.)
That the result wasn’t a particularly memorable movie only seemed to further underscore one of its more infuriating lessons, namely that male mediocrity remains acceptable in American society in a way that female mediocrity is not. Less successful as cinema than as provocation, “Ghostbusters” may offer a more fitting metaphor for the present moment than anyone may have expected from a goofy supernatural comedy about four women just trying to get the job done: It’s a marker of progress, but some of us are ready for a milestone.
On Twitter: @JustinCChang
How the movies gave us Donald Trump
FOR BETTER OR WORSE, Donald Trump will become president sooner than you think and the question remains: How did it happen?
Pundits of all stripes have weighed in with speculation about possible reasons: the president-elect’s post-fact skills as a campaigner; FBI Director James Comey’s heavy thumb on the scale; “Manchurian Candidate"-type Russian interference; no-show Democratic voters who didn’t understand that elections are about transference of power and not expressions of “she’s just not right for me” personal preference.
I have a simpler explanation: Hollywood made us do it. Not the celebrities, not the executives, the movies themselves.
For it turns out that the election and the choices it offered voters fit snugly into models the movies have created, archetypes infused so deeply into our culture and our way of thinking that they shape how we view the world, influencing us even if we haven’t seen the films.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that the movies were key in creating the cultural forces that made voting for Donald Trump seem like a fine idea.
Hollywood movies and the dream-factory visions they create are so potent that they’ve influenced elections overseas. In 1989, when Poland held its most significant voting since World War II, the striving Solidarity party used a picture of Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon” with a ballot in his hand and the Solidarity logo on his vest as its central campaign image.
The result was a strong showing for the party and the beginning of the end for Poland’s dominant Communists. That movie-inspired poster, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said, “has become the emblem of the battle we fought together.”
So it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the FBI’s Comey choosing to see himself in the Gary Cooper mold as he contemplated his course of action, a believer in duty and honor insistent on doing the right thing though everyone else in the small town that is Washington, D.C., abandons him.
Because whether we are aware of it or not, we often look to the movies to tell us who we are, to reinforce our actions and provide shortcuts that help us categorize and make sense of an increasingly complex world.
As far as understanding the mood of the voters headed to election day, look no further than Peter Finch’s fed-up newscaster Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 “Network,” encouraging everyone to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
So who were voters in this unhappy mood going to select? On the one hand there was Hillary Clinton, immediately recognizable in Hollywood terms as the nerdy girl, the butt of innumerable jokes, the smart person no one likes who can’t get the respect she deserves.
One example out of many here is Alexander Payne’s “Election” and its prototypical overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a capable student so disliked that a teacher (Matthew Broderick standing in for WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange?) is willing to go to any lengths to derail her.
We often look to the movies to tell us who we are, to reinforce our actions.
On the other hand, Donald Trump’s campaigning skills allowed him to pose, against all reason, as Jimmy Stewart’s crusading Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the hero who stands up against the system, who dares to speak out when others are silent, battling special interests to his last breath. The image was so seductive, and made voting for Trump emotionally appealing in a way Clinton’s candidacy never managed, that a lot of voters felt no need to look any deeper.
One of the 2016 campaign’s most perplexing questions, why revelations of Trump being caught on tape making the crudest possible sexist remarks about women, something that would have killed his candidacy in campaigns past, ultimately made so little difference. Again, the movies have to shoulder part of the blame.
For from “Knocked Up” through “Sausage Party,” we live in an age when Hollywood has been beyond eager to stoke the public’s endless appetite for raunchy comedies. Entire careers have been built out of this, in front of and behind the camera, and though it can be argued that Trump’s remarks took things to another level, the fact remains that those films, viewed as they have been by tens of millions of Americans, in effect normalized that kind of once-unthinkable language and gave people with a mind to excuse it leeway to do so.
If there is one thing that unites many of Trump’s voters it is a desire to “shake things up,” an understandable wish given the mess in Washington, but one that counts on the unspoken presumption, which history flatly and terrifyingly contradicts, that there is in effect a safety net under this country, that there is a limit to how bad things can get under any presidency, no matter how feckless. Viewed in that light, what’s the risk?
Hollywood has promoted this illogical protective idea throughout its history, insisting that this country’s citizens are the good guys, protected by John Wayne and the almighty and destined to always come out on top. The apocalypse, by definition, rains destruction only on other people.
It is not just American films that see things this way, all national cinemas do. You can even see examples in Germany’s World War II movies, in romances like 1942’s Zarah Leander-starring “The Great Love,” perhaps the most successful film of the Nazi era, which exuded brawny confidence that heroic Germans were destined to prevail against any and all enemies. It didn’t quite turn out that way, did it?
So how is all this going to play out in the next four years? What kind of ending will reality provide for a story Hollywood wrote? There’s no knowing for sure but once again, Hollywood provides the best clue, in this case in the person of Bette Davis as tempestuous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve.”
“Fasten your seatbelts,” she famously said. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
On Twitter: @KennethTuran
Don’t be shocked by provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ book deal. It’s just business as usual for the publishing industry
LESS THAN 24 HOURS AFTER Milo Yiannopoulos’ upcoming book was announced, pre-orders for the controversial young conservative’s “Dangerous” propelled it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, knocking the recently deceased Carrie Fisher’s “Princess Diarist” down to No. 2.
“I think he has a much wider fan base than people realize,” said Tom Flannery, Yiannopoulos’ literary agent at AGI Vigliano. Reached by phone in Malibu, Flannery declined to confirm the deal’s dollar amount, but the Hollywood Reporter, which broke the news, reported that Yiannopoulos received $250,000 for the book.
Yiannopoulos, who is tech editor at Brietbart, is a provocateur whose language dovetails with the “alt-right,” although he disputes that classification. He has said “America has a Muslim problem,” called Black Lives Matter activists “extremists,” and suggested that women should stop going online so “I, Donald Trump and the rest of the alpha males will continue to dominate the Internet without feminist whining.”
He found his greatest mainstream fame when he was banned from Twitter following the harassment of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones, who was deluged with sexist and racist tweets sparked in part by Yiannopoulos. Twitter didn’t specify the reason for the ban but noted that it had previously warned Yiannopoulos for violating its terms of service.
The fact that someone with extreme views considered offensive by many people got such a significant book advance shows how the publishing world reflects, and plays to, many of the divides in our culture. Few left-leaning readers realize that within mainstream publishing, conservative books are a booming business.
Conservative books sell at least as well as quote unquote liberal books.
— Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly
Threshold Editions, which will be publishing “Dangerous” in March, is a 10-year-old imprint dedicated to publishing conservative voices. Its peers include Sentinel, Crown Forum, and Broadside Books. Together, they publish a mix of polemics, memoir, reportage and even fiction.
Flannery approached these imprints specifically with Yiannopoulos’ book. “We didn’t go as wide as we normally would just because we understand the controversy Milo was going to bring to the table,” he says. “They all knew who Milo was — all the conservative imprints were interested in talking to him.”
Another thing they have in common is that they’re all imprints of one of the five major publishers: Threshold is part of Simon & Schuster; Sentinel and Crown Forum are part of Penguin Random House; Broadside is an imprint of HarperCollins. They typically do business in New York just like their fellows. Broadside founder Adam Bellow, a son of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, described himself to the New York Times as “a conservative in a liberal industry.”
“Conservative books sell at least as well as quote unquote liberal books,” says Jim Milliot, editorial director of the trade journal Publishers Weekly. To make a space for conservative authors within the industry, major publishers created these imprints with targeted editorial direction. “It was a deliberate move by the publishers to say, ‘We’re going to sell these conservative books in this imprint,’” Milliot says.
But, he notes, “most people don’t buy a book by imprint.”
That proved to be the case when there was blowback over Yiannopoulos’ book deal. As quickly as his fans ordered his book from Amazon and showed their support for him on social media, his critics decried it. And in so doing, many overlooked Threshold Editions, his conservative imprint, and instead targeted parent company Simon & Schuster.
Comedian Sarah Silverman, who has 9.5 million Twitter followers, tweeted, “The guy has freedom of speech but to fund him & give him a platform tells me a LOT about @simonschuster YUCK AND BOO AND GROSS.” Mark Harris, author of the Hollywood history “Five Came Back,” an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, tweeted, “Someone was going to give this … a pile of money. But @simonschuster, it didn’t have to be you.”
Members of the publishing industry, including writers and booksellers, circulated contact information for decisionmakers at Simon & Schuster privately and via Facebook for those wanting to speak out against the publication of “Dangerous.” The Chicago Review of Books, an independent online outlet, announced that it would not review any Simon & Schuster books in 2017. Instead, that space — about 15 reviews — “will be reserved for small and independent presses,” says editor Adam Morgan.
The right to free speech is different from the right to a $250,000 megaphone.
— Adam Morgan, Chicago Review of Books
“From a purely financial standpoint, Simon & Schuster was smart to capitalize on an extremely popular figure,” Morgan told The Times by email. “But from an ethical standpoint, I don’t know how Simon & Schuster editors will sleep at night knowing they normalized hate speech for profit.”
This is an essential tension with the outcry over Yiannopoulos’ deal. Publishing has long made it a practice to stand up for free speech, going to court to battle for books that were banned or deemed obscene, including James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Should Yiannopoulos’ right to free expression be defended equally? Or does what he write in “Dangerous” cross the line from controversial statements into hate speech? Threshold Editions declined to provide a preview of the book, although this is a common practice, so it’s impossible to say.
Simon & Schuster is standing by the book and asked protesters to “withhold judgement.” In a statement to the Associated Press, the publisher noted, “We have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions.”
That’s not entirely the case. In 1990, Simon & Schuster responded to media protests three months before the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” by dropping the book. (The novel was later published by Vintage.)
Those who have objected to Yiannopoulos deal pointed to the size of his advance. “The right to free speech is different from the right to a $250,000 megaphone,” notes Morgan of the Chicago Review.
It is a sizable amount for an unproven author. By contrast, writer Sloane Crosley got just $25,000 for her first book, the essay collection “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” which became a bestseller.
For Threshold to make its money back — to turn a profit on the deal — the publisher would have to sell 50,000 to 100,000 books, insiders estimate. That’s a lot of books, about as many sales as have been clocked by the new oral history of “The Daily Show” and of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel “Moonglow.”
Flannery is confident the book will connect with readers. “I think that Milo really holds a mirror up to what’s happening in America,” he says.
On Twitter, Buzzfeed culture editor Saeed Jones speculated that the Yiannopoulos deal may actually be reflecting biases within publishing itself: “The publishing industry as of this year is 79% white. Being racist is quite profitable.”
It’s possible that both are true. And whether publishing is or isn’t in the business of defending free speech, it is in the business of selling books. As Milliot says of Yiannopoulos, “They wouldn’t have signed him if they didn’t want to sell him.”
Cuba had been unplugged from American culture for generations. What happens now?
CUBA’S ROBERTO GOMEZ HAD a single night free on his first trip to San Francisco, part of a short performance visit in his role as lead guitarist for singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, often referred to as “The Bob Dylan of Cuba,” and “The Poet of Havana.”
Gomez might have chosen to head to any number of clubs, restaurants or other social gathering places in one of the most vibrant and culturally rich cities in the U.S.
Instead, foremost on his mind immediately after the Varela concert performance was his search for a power cord to his laptop computer.
“I just want to go back to my hotel,” Gomez said, “and watch all the music videos we cannot see at home.”
It’s a common cry from Cuban musicians in particular, and artists in general. State-controlled media in the socialist country is heavily censored, and access to the Internet has only begun, leaving Cubans often feeling isolated from the cultural conversations going on in their culture-dominating neighbor to the north.
Indeed, one of the most prized commodities among Cubans is “El Paquete” — The Package, typically a 500-gigabyte memory stick containing downloaded American music, movies and television programs secreted into the country from the U.S. by relatives, friends or cunning entrepreneurs.
Consider it a contemporary expression of the cultural grapevine that has long kept Cuban musicians apprised of what their peers elsewhere in the world are doing.
Cuba’s artists and musicians take pride in forging a cultural scene outside of the direct influence of Hollywood and the kind of hit-making pull that has led countries such as France to impose quotas on American movies and music. But there is still a strong desire for artists and musicians to interact with their counterparts in the U.S. and around the world.
“I come from a generation of musicians that grew up with no access to the Internet whatsoever,” said trumpeter Yelfris Valdés, who left Cuba in 2014 to work in London, where he has played with various world-beat groups as well as his own Dub Afro Electric Jazz ensemble. “Although when I started to learn about jazz music at school, I was fully aware of what was happening with the composers [and] arrangers from around the world.
“Fellow musicians who were already traveling would feed to the rest of us what was going on in the industry,” Valdés said. “Thanks to that information I received as a student, I am now producing a more complex type of music. The more styles of music I can have access to, the richer my own music becomes.”
Which means, despite the stereotype created by the large number of pre-Cuban revolution American cars commonly found in Havana and other cities, Cuban music is hardly stuck in the 1950s.
Along with the traditional son and salsa music that thrives in clubs and theaters around the country, it’s possible these days to find Cuban hip-hop and R&B acts serving up their equivalent to the latest videos by American trend-setters such as Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé or Rihanna.
But it’s a relatively recent development, and Cubans still don’t have ready access to the actual videos, much less live music, from Western pop stars. The Cuban government has a strict filter on media coming into the country.
That is compounded by the political, economic and cultural embargo imposed by the U.S. on Cuba almost 60 years ago, established following Fidel Castro’s history-shifting revolution on Jan. 1, 1959.
Easing of some elements of the embargo under President Obama’s administration has allowed great opportunity for Cuban musicians to visit the U.S. and perform here. Cuba and its music, for instance, will be the focal point internationally at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But many musicians and artists who have welcomed improved relations with the U.S. expressed uncertainty and concern about whether President-elect Donald Trump is more likely to continue opening travel and commerce opportunities or return to more restrictive policies.
As the decades have rolled by, musicians, especially the younger generations, have often struggled to work with their American counterparts, to perform and promote their music to U.S. audiences and to be actively engaged with the most lucrative music market in the world.
“Youth is characterized by the desire to explore and know,” said singer, guitarist, percussionist and educator Jesus Bello. “Most of the young musicians wish to work abroad not only to obtain better pay for their work, but for the exchange with other musicians.”
The reverse is equally true: Americans and other musicians outside Cuba are frequently compelled to visit to learn more about the country’s music and musicians.
“It’s a great, rich place of music— there are so many styles,” Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger said following his band’s first performance in Cuba in March, a free show that drew a massive crowd estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 people. “I have no pretense of understanding where it’s all coming from. Music historians must love it, because there is so much richness in one fairly small place.”
A major step toward bringing Cuban music to the outside world came in 1997, when American roots musicians Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold visited Havana. They spearheaded the Buena Vista Social Club project, a recording and companion documentary (by German filmmaker Wim Wenders) that spotlighted a coterie of veteran Cuban musicians performing the infectious music that’s lived and breathed within the country, but was previously little exposed in the U.S.
“There’s a world of music down there,” said singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who recently led a contingent of international oceanographic scientists to Cuba to study the relatively pristine ocean around the island. During that trip, he arranged for them to be exposed to the music of Varela, for whom Browne has become something of a cheerleader in the U.S., along with other Varela admirers among the rock music community including Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt.
“We’re isolated from Cuba, rather than Cuba being isolated from the world,” Browne told The Times recently. “We are the ones that have isolated ourselves from this incredibly rich musical culture. For all of the attempts at isolation, Cuban music has still had an incredible influence in the U.S. It’s influenced jazz, it’s influenced a lot of our music over the years. But we don’t know the most contemporary stuff” because of the embargo.
Bello agrees that the embargo has resulted in misconceptions and ignorance among Americans about the deep well of Cuban music.
“Silence and isolation between our ways of life have made many [American] people imagine Cuba in a very different way than it is,” Bello said, a situation that increased travel opportunities has begun to change. “I think it is very good for people to see the different ways and musical programs we have in Cuba, from the academies and the theaters to the most authentic manifestations that have been transmitted orally from generation to generation, such as peasant music, rumba and the tunes of African saints, changüí, nengón, parrandas, etc.”
One of the more dramatic results of the recent easing of relations is the April release of “Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” the first major Hollywood film to be shot in Cuba since before the revolution.
Cuban music purveyors as well as rank-and-file fans also point to the watershed moment in March when the Stones performed, although non-Cubans who attended that show noted that most in the audience seemed familiar with the group only in the most general way, and sang along en masse only with one song: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
“Just 3½ years ago things were totally different,” said Nancy Covey, who booked concerts at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now runs a music-focused tour company. “The first time I went, I didn’t have any communication with the outside world; they didn’t either and they were desperate to know what was going on in the States.
“It used to be that all they had [in terms of American recordings] was really old, battered vinyl you’d find at flea markets,” she said. “It reminded me a lot of the old Soviet Union. Even in the last year it has changed so much — they’re starting to get iPhones and have access to the Internet.
“I can’t imagine that the influx of American music and culture is not going to be a huge game changer,” she said. “They’re hungry for it, and here it comes — but they don’t get that they might lose a whole lot of what they have.”
That crystallizes a fear expressed often in Cuba: that a full lifting of the embargo, should it occur, may unleash what Cuban architectural historian Miguel Coyula called “a tsunami” of cultural and economic changes that could overwhelm his country.
“The government here is reactive, not proactive,” Coyula told an American visitor in November. “They will wait until it happens and then try to figure out how to respond.”
Cuban musicians say their motives for coming to the U.S. are closely scrutinized by both governments because of fears on both sides that once here, they would try to remain.
Bello, who lives in Santa Clara, about 170 miles east of Havana, is planning a U.S. visit in the spring to work with a group of musicians in New Jersey interested in learning more about the traditional Cuban music styles in which he is fluent.
But he faces challenges, not only in receiving travel visas for himself and others he wants to bring along, but also in arranging funding for the trip and securing venues for stateside performances that could help offset the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodations in the U.S.
“In general, few people come to Cuba wanting to know about our work,” Bello said recently. “It is important for us and for those who don’t know Cuba. I am looking forward to the possibility to share my work [in the U.S.]. Even after the roads that were opened by the Buena Vista Social Club, it is still not anything easy.”
Bello faces the double-edged struggle of passing on Cuban music traditions to younger players, many of whom would rather leave Cuba and try to pursue careers in the U.S., Europe or elsewhere.
Cuban universities still focus on training musicians in European-rooted classical traditions, and Bello is pushing to get Cuban academics to acknowledge and accept traditional Cuban music performance as part of the curriculum at the university level.
His son, Jose Manuel Bello, has been brought up with the traditional son and has formed a band consisting of other players in their early 20s, helping fulfill his father’s wish to keep the traditions strong with Cuban youth.
“I always stress to the young people with whom I work that the path within the music Is infinite,” Bello said. “Each one must find the course that best suits him and exploit his talent as much as the opportunities and his talent will allow it.”
Along that line, Varela band guitarist Gomez noted that he’d been well-trained in classical guitar techniques in his years at Cuban universities. But he had to seek out and study with a private teacher to learn the nuances of the rock guitarists he wanted to emulate, players including British musician Richard Thompson, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler — a different vocabulary he brings to bear in working with Varela.
American drummer Michael Jerome, a member of Thompson’s band, visited Cuba in 2013 and soaked up what he could of the distinctive rhythms of Cuban music, even arranging for individual lessons with Cuban percussionists while he was there. He takes a largely positive outlook at the prospect of cultural walls coming down between the U.S. and Cuba.
“I do think Cubans will appreciate more access to American music and we’ll see a lot more evidence of that influence reflected in the coming years,” he said. “I don’t think Cubans will lose any uniqueness or identity. If anything it will be strengthen by the fear of losing it, and/or the love and uniqueness of sharing it. It’s like nothing else and is desired because of it.”
LGBT characters now permeate some of Hollywood’s best work. But the community is bracing for backlash
THE YEAR 2016 WAS PERHAPS the strongest yet for Hollywood depictions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They’re not just comic relief anymore.
Consider Rutina Wesley’s bisexual Nova on OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” Erica Ash’s lesbian M-Chuck on Starz’s LeBron James-produced “Survivor’s Remorse,” the transgender fashion models of Oxygen’s reality show “Strut,” and the boy-to-man protagonist Chiron, who grapples with his sexuality in Barry Jenkins’ Golden Globe-nominated “Moonlight.” These are just a few of the LGBT characters populating some of the best films and TV shows Hollywood has to offer.
But producer, writer and director Patrik-Ian Polk, one of many LGBT people in the industry, is uncertain how the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will affect Hollywood and the recent increase in more varied representations of — and opportunities for — the LGBT community.
“Sometimes in the wake of great progress comes great backlash,” Polk says.
With Inauguration Day coming ever closer, a mantra has risen from the private conversations of LGBT Hollywood: “Keep pushing.”
“Hollywood has been talking the talk really well lately about diversity and inclusion,” says Polk, who is known for creating the groundbreaking LGBT series “Noah’s Arc” on the Logo TV network and is now a writer on BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” starring Gabrielle Union. “We see all of these gains, but we can’t get complacent. There’s a certain amount of snapback we’re experiencing right now. I think the response to the snapback has to be even stronger.”
We’re not going back to ‘Leave It to Beaver’ because Donald Trump is in the White House.
— Patrik-Ian Polk, producer, writer and director
Despite Trump saying he would be “better for the gay community” than Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign, many in Hollywood’s LGBT community worry that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has a history of anti-gay positions, including signing the much-derided (and later amended) bill that many experts said would have given businesses the legal right to discriminate against LGBT customers. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, put forward by Trump to join the president-elect’s Cabinet as U.N. ambassador, also opposes marriage equality. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, voted against expanding hate crimes prevention legislation for LGBT people (signed into law by President Obama in 2009). And Ben Carson, housing and urban development secretary nominee, once compared homosexuality to bestiality and incest.
Writer-activist Michelangelo Signorile expressed the feelings of many in the LGBT community when he wrote of the “potentially devastating” consequences of the new administration in a Boston Globe op-ed titled “Trump’s Cabinet: A Who’s Who of Homophobia.”
Concerns that the world of politics might interfere with that of Tinseltown aren’t rooted in an unspeakable fear of the unknown, but in historical moments. The McCarthy era gave rise to the Hollywood blacklist, denying employment to industry professionals because they were, or were accused of being, communist sympathizers. Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s, hundreds of primarily screenwriters, but also actors, directors and producers, were deemed “un-American” and found themselves jobless — a move supported institutionally by industry executives, the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the Screen Actors Guild.
Most in Hollywood think that the idea of a new blacklist is far-fetched, but some are suggesting vigilance.
“We’re going to be looking to our superiors to defend our right to tell our stories,” says Zackary Drucker, a producer on Amazon’s “Transparent” who is transgender.
“I think the work we’re doing will be more important than ever, and we have to do it with higher volume and greater presence,” she says. “We must be unwavering in our conviction to tell our stories.”
Trump’s election has already begun to have its effect on pop culture. A few weeks after the votes were counted, ABC Entertainment Group President Channing Dungey told an industry summit in London that she felt the network hasn’t “paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.” Some read her statement as a potential signal that the network, whose Shondaland series have led the way in recent years for television diversity, might be rethinking its inclusion efforts. But in a phone interview with The Times, Dungey clarifies her words.
“There is a vast group of Americans who don’t necessarily feel like their voices have been heard or that they have been represented,” she says, noting that the network has already “spent a lot of time thinking of diversity and inclusion” through the lenses of race and ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. “The one area we have not spent a lot of time thinking about it is from an economic perspective.”
And though the term “everyday Americans,” like “working class,” has most recently been used to describe a section of the population that might oppose the very diversity ABC has presented in its shows, Dungey says she “was referring to people who are working hard to make ends meet,” like those clipping coupons to save money. She believes the network can do a better job to represent those voices, particularly in its drama series. But she insists that this in no way means a regression is on the horizon.
“The whole point here is not for us to change what we have been doing but to be a little bit broader in our definition and really look at economic difference in a way we haven’t done so recently,” she says.
One show that demonstrates the network’s commitment to diversity, and particularly that of LGBT voices, is the miniseries “When We Rise.” From Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black, the show’s seven episodes retell the gay rights movement in the United States, beginning with the 1969 Stonewall Riots. It’s a story never more important than now, says Black, who is gay.
“I would give anything in the world for it to be less topical,” he says, “but, unfortunately, not just in the United States, but around the world, we’re experiencing a moment of backlash to diversity.”
That backlash has shown itself in the comments online about the “When We Rise” trailer released in November. Alexandra Grey, a transgender actress in two of the series’ episodes, has seen her fair share of anti-LGBT criticism, but now the antagonism is worse, she says.
“They’re getting more vocal about what they really don’t like when we should be talking about equality and pushing further to have more LGBT people’s stories told,” she says. “I think the election is bringing out people’s true colors more. They feel like it’s OK.”
Still, Black hopes the show will “serve as inspiration to this generation of activists and artists to fight back” against such sentiment.
And fight back is exactly what LGBT Hollywood will do, Drucker says, “creating culture as a counterpoint to an undertow of conservatism, which when you distill it is a rejection of modernism, of us and the momentum we’ve gained.”
“We have a responsibility to create our democracy and the culture we want to live in,” she adds. “We can’t relinquish our rights before they’re taken away.”
The resounding belief is that the historic progress the community has seen in recent years cannot be reversed. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Polk says.
“If anything, we need to push that envelope even further and let these people know that it is not a game,” he says. “Because what Hollywood does best when it’s doing its best is reflect real-life situations, and real-life situations are messy, feature LGBT people and people having abortions.”
He adds: “We’re not going back to ‘Leave It to Beaver’ because Donald Trump is in the White House.”
Tina Mabry, writer-director of “Mississippi Damned” and “Queen Sugar,” says she is committed as a lesbian “now more than ever to do work that explores people like me.” To others, she says: “You cannot go back into fear.”
“Now is your Stonewall moment.”
At last, ‘This Is Us’ captures the simmering rage of a successful black man in white America
WHEN DONALD TRUMP WON the 2016 presidential election, the responses — especially from those who voted for Hillary Clinton, double-especially from those white men who voted Democrat — ran the gamut, from shock to awe to fear before landing, eventually, on anger.
They began railing about injustice to anyone who would listen. “How could this happen? How could forces unseen [to them] and unfelt [again, to them] result in such catastrophe?”
Occasionally, those flummoxed white men would turn to a black friend and say, “Do you believe this?”
At which point the black friend, if they were feeling particularly honest, would say, “Welcome.”
Welcome to the nebulous emotional state that is simultaneously helpless and furious. Welcome to feeling the vast sociopolitical forces arrayed against you while still possessing the desire to just make it through the day. That world-weariness was the source of a skit from the first post-election episode of “Saturday Night Live,” in which host Dave Chappelle and special guest Chris Rock were tickled by the white outrage at Trump’s victory.
But that simmering rage, too long the nagging ache from shouldering the tonnage of the black experience, has never been fully painted on American TV screens until Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us.”
Randall, abandoned by his father at a firehouse, is adopted by a white couple after one of their triplets doesn’t survive childbirth. He grows up to become an upwardly mobile black man working and living in the kind of New York suburb where you imagine all the houses have manicured vines growing on them. He’s got a black wife and black children and he wears a suit to work and has a corner office where he trades on the futures market. (I think — there was an entire episode about how no one knows exactly what he does or how he does it.)
In those ways he is no different from other black professionals we’ve seen on screen since “The Cosby Show” debuted in 1984. He’s Blair Underwood’s Jonathan Rollins from “L.A. Law” in 1987. He’s James Avery’s Uncle Phil from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Except Randall is angry. Foundationally angry. Angry at the hundreds of micro-aggressions a successful black man navigating a predominantly white world has to absorb on a daily basis.
And for the first time, on television, we are registering the weight of that anger. Because Brown, with a wounded righteousness, shows it to us.
“Because I grew up in a white house you think I don’t live in a black man’s world,” Brown’s Randall says to his father, William (played by the hauntingly evocative Ron Cephas Jones), while they shop in a high-end clothes store. “The one where that salesman there has been eyeballing us ever since we came in here. Or where that security guard has moved just a little off his mark so he can keep us in his sight. And where they’ll definitely ask for an ID with my credit card when I go to pay, even though they haven’t asked for anybody else’s. Plus a million things every day that I have to choose to let go. Just so I’m not pissed off all the time. Like I did on the street this morning. Like I have done every day of my life.”
Unlike Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson, whose righteous anger was played for laughs; or every “angry black man” who pops up in a doctor-lawyer-cop drama simply to be the thing that needs fixing by the show’s hero squad; or even Laurence Fishburne’s well-meaning, often-drunk grandfather on “black-ish,” who registers the scars of a life whose edges weren’t defined by him — Randall is a time bomb who regularly resets himself by swallowing his rage.
That he doesn’t explode is a miracle of the everyday variety.
(It’s worth noting that August Wilson’s “Fences,” currently in theaters in a production directed by and starring Denzel Washington, also paints a picture of black rage, but there its source is progress passing one by — a dream long past being deferred.)
The presidential election showed us a great number of things, but none more illuminating than the idea that America is “one nation, under God” is nothing more than an idea for many. A myth. A story told to children to help cement the dream of a better tomorrow and a world that wanted them — all of them — in it.
The election showed us that there was another America — an America that responded to Trump’s stump speeches and campaign promises of an America that could only be great if “we” began registering, isolating and walling off those things “we” didn’t like. An America that preferred “alt-right” to “white nationalist” and even if they didn’t answer the door when the KKK came hawking their affiliation, they maybe didn’t throw away the literature, either.
It was an America that seemed — if one uses the meteoric rise in hate crimes after Nov. 8 as a barometer — to equate “political correctness” with “empathy.”
What makes “This Is Us” such a remarkable achievement is that it’s a show that wades into this America with this portrayal of black masculinity. More than that, it’s not a streaming show (like the routinely challenging “Transparent”) or a prestige cable outing (like carnally adventurous “Masters of Sex”). It’s a broadcast drama. It, by definition, has to appeal to a broad audience. And it does.
“This Is Us” is the story of the 2016-17 TV season. With its time-shifting, tear-jerking narratives that deal not only with race but with body image, fame and family loyalty and betrayals, the series is an unmitigated hit. It is not simply playing to the “coastal elites” — “This Is Us” is playing to everyone, everywhere. And some of that everyone are people who insist that all lives matter.
Maybe they are showing up to “This Is Us” for the vapidity of Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) or the monomania of Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) — Randall’s adopted siblings. Maybe they’re tuning in because they love the handlebar mustaches of the flashback-to-the-1970s story lines.
Doesn’t matter. Because what they are getting is an exploration of barely contained fury. They are getting a tutorial in what it’s like to be the target of the slings and arrows of genetic whimsy — the at-once bad luck and glorious burden of being born black and brilliant in white America.
For the first time, we are seeing the struggle of the assimilated man.
The enduring fight to not succumb to a death of a thousand high-fives.
The notion of a liberal agenda in Hollywood is absurd
THERE WAS A LOT OF SOUL-SEARCHING in the weeks following Donald Trump’s election, especially among those who fill our various screens with news and entertainment.
Accusations of elitism and bias among the news media quickly spilled over to Hollywood.
Long considered a bastion of pathological progressiveness and wanton liberalism (Remember the blacklist? The one not starring James Spader?), film and television were accused of obsessing too much about things like transgender rights and how many black actors got Oscar nominations and not enough worrying about the concerns of “real Americans”: Rust Belt unemployment, devotion to guns, fear of porous borders, disillusionment with government, feelings of personal alienation and a general sense of a world run amok.
How, many wondered, could the creators and arbiters of popular culture have been so out of step with the viewers and moviegoers they serve?
The answer is they weren’t and aren’t. Because there is no notion more thoroughly absurd than that of Hollywood’s liberal agenda.
The real elitism of film and television — we like to watch people who seem richer than they should be.
Although many members of the entertainment industry espouse, often publicly, a left-leaning political slant, Hollywood is still dominated by white men who prefer to make movies and television shows that revolve around other white men — men beset by feelings of alienation, who often wield guns, who fight (or represent) corrupt government, and generally attempt to survive and/or save a world run amok.
Across galaxies, through the centuries, in every genre imaginable.
For every film that does not revolve around such a lead character, there are 78 others that do, just as for every series that features a transgender character, there are 8,000 that do not.
In representing the actual demographics of “real” America, television has done a slightly better job than film. But it’s still a mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight world fighting forces that range from the daily stress of family life to armed rebellion against encroachment by aliens, zombies and fascists both historical and imaginary.
Hollywood is still dominated by white men who prefer to make movies and television shows that revolve around other white men.
As for being pathologically progressive, well, nostalgia hasn’t been this big a seller since “The Wonder Years.” The big screen is littered with franchises of years past, while on television, the success of “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” sparked an arms race of time machines — back, back we went like companions in “Doctor Who,” checking in with the Vikings, the Wars of the Roses, George Washington’s spies, the Tudors, the Windsors, the ’60s, the ’70s, even, god help us, the ’80s. In every era, the oppression of certain groups — nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians — was duly noted but really not the point.
The point was the pleasure of revisiting who we once were, presumably before things got crazy, and watching how change, whether it’s the invention of the compass or desegregation, always freaks everyone out.
That, and all the groovy stuff.
So anyone who argues that, with the exception of “Duck Dynasty,” the creators of film and television have ignored the declared interests of Trump supporters has clearly not been watching.
Just for the record, the good folks of “Duck Dynasty” were one-percenters even before the show got made.
And that is the real elitism of film and television — we mostly like to watch people who seem richer than they should be.
Being as American as an invention can be, Hollywood doesn’t like to deal with class, except in stories about the British. America likes to pretend it is a classless yet perpetually upwardly mobile society — look, Ma, no aristocracy! Just a bunch of educated landowners! And Hollywood is happy to help, from both sides of the fence. Billions are harvested from so-called populist entertainment and celebrity is the local version of royalty.
But entertainment has always been a class issue because it always costs money, the kind known as “discretionary.” Folks with no discretionary income must entertain themselves; the rest of us pay.
Not always that much — just as Shakespeare’s Globe had the groundlings, early American cinema had the peanut gallery, where folks who were unable to afford the theater could immerse themselves in other worlds brought to flickering life. Cowboys and gangsters and society dames, cops and robbers and Charlie Chaplin, all immediately accessible in the ultimate democracy of black and white.
Radio, meanwhile, had put a tireless storyteller into every living room, and it was only a matter of time before the two art forms begat a third: television, which both symbolized, and further messed with, America’s complicated relationship with wealth and poverty and all the demographics in between.
Movies were for the masses, but television, at least in the beginning, was for the chosen few. Like indoor plumbing, electric lighting and the automobile, the television became an instant, and ongoing, symbol of class ascendance. Families that could afford a television, and all its subsequent iterations, inspired the envy of their neighbors; the windows of appliance stores drew crowds.
The set and increasingly what appeared on its screen were windows on a world of aspiration.
Because as TVs became more ubiquitous, the programming, and the advertising that supported it, grew more upscale — to attract the moneyed audience, yes, but also to support the general post-war mythology of suburban serenity. On “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy,” couples still lived in tiny apartments and bickered about who spent what. But at the Cleaver house, mother June did housework in pearls and heels. And Donna Reed figured out how to fire her housekeeper.
Even more than film, television mirrored America’s fickle relationship with its own economics, which swung repeatedly between reality and desire. Norman Lear grounded us with the limitations of education, race and single motherhood; writers like Earl Hamner with “The Waltons” and Jason Katims with “Friday Night Lights” reminded us that not everyone lived in a city; shows like “Taxi” and “Laverne and Shirley” organized their days around work rather than hijinks.
But increasingly, the dance with poverty or unemployment that kept even “Bewitched’s” Samantha Stevens on her toes when the boss was due for dinner gave way to a warmer and hazier notion of work, and money, as either a calling (all those doctor and cop shows) or simply wallpaper. “Thirtysomething” took a lot of flak for the touchy-feely adulthood experienced by its cast, but in the years since, pretty much everyone who is not a detective, surgeon or lawyer is a college-educated professional who works only when it’s narratively convenient.
Stories that could have been about class injustice — “Breaking Bad,” “Shameless,” “Nurse Jackie” — were instead about other, more personal things. “Modern Family” became a critical hit despite being so un-modern that, in early seasons, each wing of the family had a single (male) breadwinner, and even “The Middle,” which is one of the few series in which the characters are truly working class, keeps everyone healthy and satisfied, albeit ruefully, with their lot in life.
Meanwhile, the business model of both TV and film redefined the term populist. At cineplexes renovated to resemble home theaters and keep “communal” to a minimum, there are no cheap seats; taking a family of four to the movies can cost $60, and that’s with no popcorn or drinks,
The cost of television, meanwhile, doesn’t stop with the set, available in an ever-widening array of sizes, rays and definitions; now cable bundles and streaming services are part of the monthly cost of living, for those who can afford them.
It’s no wonder film and television shy away from directly addressing class. Who wants to think too much about money when they’re sipping on an $8 soda? Or trying to get through the DVR queue they pay $150 a month for and can never seem to watch?
In this world it makes some sort of sense to consider Hollywood elitist, just as it makes some sort of sense to consider the millionaires of “Duck Dynasty” “real folk” and a billionaire reality host the presidential candidate for real people.
But that’s got nothing to do with liberalism, conservatives or politics of any variety. That’s just the good old magic of Hollywood.
On Twitter: @marymacTV
John Scalzi’s 10-point plan for getting creative work done in the age of Trump
IT’S NOT A GREAT SECRET that Donald Trump and his incoming administration are not hugely beloved by America’s creative class — the difficulty Trump is having in finding performers for his inauguration is only the most obvious manifestation of this. What’s probably less known is that Trump election put a number of creative people into mental tailspin. Not only for the fact of his election, but for what his policies mean for creatives: The possible disappearance of the Affordable Care Act, through which many creative people were able to secure health insurance, is just the tip of the iceberg for many.
People who don’t make their living through creative endeavors often suppose turbulent times make for great art, but the truth is that for many artists, being worried or anxious or depressed steals away the ability to create. The new reality of Trump’s America means a lot of creatives have to readjust — find a new balance to get back to creating.
How to do that, if you are creative person knocked for a loop by the election? Here are some of the things I’ve done, and that other writers and creatives are telling me they are doing.
1. Acknowledge it’s bad, and other facts of life. There’s no avoiding it: On Jan. 20, there’s an administration coming into office that fills a lot of creative people with despair. If you’re one of those people, don’t run from that fact or try to shove it down to some part of your brain where you don’t have to think about it, because denial won’t change the fact.
At the same time, recognize that no matter who is in power, you still have work and create, and, especially if your creative work is some significant part of your income, you have to get on with it to eat and pay bills and pamper your pets. It’s all right to acknowledge that day-to-day life exists, even in the face of existential crisis. Indeed, if you’re taking care of your day-to-day, you’re usually in a better position to deal with everything else.
2. Figure out your bandwidth. Some people can engage in the world, including social media, and all its bad news, and still get their work done. Some people need to remove themselves almost completely. Most creative people live somewhere in between. Ask yourself how much space your brain needs for creative work, and how much distance it needs from the outside world to do it. Don’t rationalize it or try to compensate for it; err on the side of you. If reading the news and your friends’ posts on Facebook and Twitter makes it hard for you to give brain cycles to your creative side, face it, acknowledge it and plan accordingly. And don’t feel bad about it.
3. Disconnect (temporarily). Especially now, it might be useful for a “hard reset”: taking a week (or two! Or more!) away from most news and social media in order to give your brain the equivalent of a few deep, cleansing breaths and the ability to switch focus away from the outside world and back into your internal creative life.
It’s often hard to do this — social media in particular is specifically designed to make you feel like if you’re not constantly attached to it then you’re missing something important. But here’s the thing: Even if it were true (which it usually is not), there are millions of other people out there to deal with it while you take a week off from the world to get your head right. Let them.
4. Create creative space daily. When I’m writing a novel, I find that my best creative time is the first thing in the morning. My brain is fresher, I feel more inventive, and my brain is not cluttered up with the news of the day. So I get up and get to the day’s writing work, and get to my daily quota (which for me is 2,000 words, or four hours of writing, whichever comes first) before going on the Internet, checking my email and social media accounts, or diving into news sites.
When are you most creative? Find that time and then create (and guard) that time in your daily routine. Disconnect the phone, turn off the TV, disconnect the Internet and dive in to your work.
5. Reconnect (judiciously). When you go back to the news of the world, and to social media, it’s perfectly all right to ask yourself: Is this making me happy? Is it giving me useful information? Is it inspiring me to engage in the world or does it make me want to run from it?
If it’s not helping you, let it go. Unfollow that Facebook friend passing along fake news, and block those fake news sites outright. Mute that person on Twitter who is apparently always angry. Evaluate the news sources you read and keep the ones that offer news accurately and truthfully (spin is spin, even if it’s spin you like). Design your media intake to be useful, truthful and less stressful.
6. Do other things that make you happy. News and social media expand to fill the space you allot to them. Last year, I realized I was spending so much time watching my friends freak out on Twitter and Facebook that I read fewer books and spent less time with my other hobbies. This year, I’m intentionally carving out space to read, to play music, and to enjoy the movies and TV shows I haven’t caught up on. Likewise:
7. Connect with friends and community. The weekend after the election, when I and most creative people I knew felt especially low, I went to a wedding of friends, with other friends in attendance. For those several hours we laughed and joked and enjoyed life and remembered that even in dispiriting times, when it’s easy to curl up into a defensive ball or to shut people out, your friends and community will do a lot to see you through. They will inspire you creative. They will plan with you politically. And they don’t mind your goofy dance moves (or if they do, they’ll let it slide anyway).
8. Give help when you can. Many creative folks have made protesting and resisting a priority for the new year. But you find you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to engage with the world and still be creative, there are still things you can do to protest and to help others. Among the simplest: Give money to organizations that are looking out for the people most at risk under the new administration. Do likewise for people you know in need. We’re in an era where “pay it forward” is an especially evocative phrase.
9. Get help if you need it. Everything above is a coping mechanism designed to help you stay creative and engaged in a challenging time. But you know what? Sometimes articles with lists aren’t enough. Sometimes depression and anxiety don’t go away with helpful tips. There’s no shame in acknowledging depression and anxiety as real things that benefit from treatment. And in many cases, treating them can clear a path to becoming creative again. Get help; it’ll help.
10. Remember: Your work matters. There are people who rationalize that the next few years will be great for art, in the way that Margaret Thatcher’s rule was great for music in the UK in the ’80s. I don’t think much of that argument — there’s always great art, in every political climate — but I do think it’s true that people will need art and the creative people who make it. Your work will matter to someone; it will help them get through. But only if you make it in the first place. Take care of yourself, then get to work.
John Scalzi, a Los Angeles Times critic at large, is a Hugo award-winning novelist.