The following article contains major spoilers.
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.
But it is first and foremost an AfricanAmerican love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.
It is also The Void that creates Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, the antagonist of Black Panther, cousin to Chadwick Boseman’s protagonist King T’Challa and a comic-book villain so transcendent that he is almost out of place in a film about a superhero who dresses as a cat. Black Panther is about a highly advanced African kingdom, yes, but its core theme is Pan-Africanism, a belief that no matter how seemingly distant black people’s lives and struggles are from each other, we are in a sense “cousins” who bear a responsibility to help one another escape oppression. And so the director Ryan Coogler asks, if an African superpower like Wakanda existed, with all its power, its monopoly on the invaluable sci-fi metal vibranium, and its advanced technology, how could it have remained silent, remain still, as millions of Africans were devoured by The Void?
“Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” Killmonger scolds the Wakandan court. “Where was Wakanda?”
Killmonger has come to Wakanda as a conqueror. His father N’Jobu facilitated the theft of vibranium in an attempt to arm black people all over the world against their oppressors; N’Jobu is killed by T’Challa’s father T’Chaka for his insubordinate attempt to end the centuries of isolation that have kept Wakanda safe. T’Chaka abandons Killmonger in Oakland, California (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party), leaving Killmonger literally and figuratively an orphan, who sees in his lost homeland a chance to avenge the millions of black people extinguished in The Void, and those who still suffer in its wake.
Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.
“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”
This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.
It is remarkable that many viewers seem to have taken the “liberation” part at face value, and ignored the “empire” part, which Jordan delivers perfectly. They are equally important. Killmonger’s plan for “black liberation,” arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed; it is somewhat bizarre to see people endorse a comic-book version of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and sign up for the Project for the New Wakandan Century as long as the words “black liberation” are used instead of “democracy promotion.” Killmonger’s assault begins in London, New York, and Hong Kong; China is not typically known as a particularly good example of white Western hegemony in need of overthrow.
There are other Wakandan characters who wish to end the kingdom’s isolation for reasons of their own. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia is seen at the beginning of the film rescuing people from a Boko Haram–type militia, and later urges T’Challa to take in refugees; T’Challa refuses, citing Wakanda’s tradition of isolationism. Killmonger seeks more than aid or revolution—he seeks hegemony. Here, there are echoes of the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in its later years, as radicalized chapters sought a direct armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government—a plan that most of the Party’s established leadership saw as folly. In so doing, the film’s conflict symbolizes, as my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, an old argument over “the nature of power and the rightness of its use” that has long “dominated black thought in the United States,” and even beyond.
“You want to see us become just like the people you hate so much,” T’Challa tells Killmonger during their climactic battle. “I learn from my enemies,” Killmonger retorts. “You have become them,” T’Challa responds. That the climactic battle in Black Panther is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm. In one of many sly references to the Black Panther Party, it is Wakanda’s women—Nakia, Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, Letitia Wright’s Princess Shuri, Angela Bassett’s Queen-Mother Ramonda—who sustain Wakanda through its darkest moments. Where T’Challa cannot survive or triumph without Okoye, Shuri, or Ramonda, Killmonger is alone. His African American mother is absent from the story; Killmonger kills his own lover the moment her body stands between him and his ideological ambitions.
The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
Yet because Killmonger’s plans are rooted in a recognizable idealism and a wounded soul, the audience is supposed to empathize with him, even care for him. Viewers are meant to mourn him as T’Challa does when he dies, invoking his ancestors who chose to be consumed by The Void rather than toil in bondage. When T’Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T’Challa can never comprehend. So like his father N’Jobu, Killmonger is radicalized. “We can rule over them all the right way,” N’Jobu says during a flashback.
Killmonger himself is a kind of avatar of the BPP’s deterioration in its latter years, when rebelling against white supremacy gave way to internecine bloodshed. He embodies the Black Panther Party’s revolutionary possibility and noble intentions, but also its degeneration into fratricidal violence, and a sexism that persisted despite party doctrine. The film’s title thus has a double meaning, an indication of the gravity of Killmonger’s character—a Black Panther against the Black Panther. In one of the many subtle touches Coogler adds to a film in a genre not known for them, Black Panther ambiguously refers to either of them.
It is also a mistake, to, as Lebron does, view Killmonger as “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.” Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex. Here too, the script is explicit. Noting Killmonger’s technical background (he studied at MIT) and his war record (tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in Africa where, he acknowledges, “ I killed my own brothers and sisters on this continent”). The CIA agent Everett Ross says of Killmonger, “he’s not Wakandan, he’s one of ours,” later observing that Killmonger’s coup is what the U.S. government “trained him to do.” The part of Killmonger that makes him a supervillain is not the part of him that is African.
Ross’s inclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the storyline—the history of the CIA in Africa is a history of the suppression of democratic movements like the African National Congress, the backing of brutal dictators, and opposition to racial equality in the name of anti-communism. Shuri hints at this history when she derisively calls Ross a “colonizer.” Nevertheless, Ross’s heroism in the film, even in a fantasy, feels like a kind of propaganda.
In spite of his ambitions for global domination, Killmonger does something remarkable and perhaps unprecedented for the superhero genre—he wins the argument. When T’Challa learns that his father killed N’Jobu and abandoned N’Jadaka (Killmonger), he is horrified: The truth shatters his faith in his father and in his father’s infallibility. On the spirit plane, T’Challa declares to the manifestations of his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, “You were wrong. All of you, you were wrong.”
Where was Wakanda? Wakanda failed. Killmonger was right. He is blinded by his pain to the evil of his own methods, but he is correct that Wakanda abandoned its responsibility to use its unmatched power to protect black people around the world. They could have stopped the endless march of souls into The Void. They did not.
After defeating Killmonger, T’Chaka ends Wakanda’s isolationism and, beginning in Oakland, starts to deploy Wakandan capital toward an international social-service project focused on impoverished black neighborhoods—again echoing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Killmonger is dead, but he has changed Wakanda forever, ended the isolationism that defined its existence for all time, and unleashed a powerful new ally to oppressed black people all over the world. Is this inadequate? Too little, too late? Maybe. But it is folly to think that Killmonger’s preferred plan of Wakandan world hegemony through massive bloodshed, using a method that has never once worked as intended, is a preferable outcome.
Lebron laments that “Killmonger ... will not appear in another movie. He does not get a second chance. His black life did not matter even in a world of flying cars and miracle medicine.” On the contrary, Killmonger’s ascension and death is the event that catalyzes Wakanda’s redemption from its greatest failure, and his death ensures that unlike Loki, Thanos, the Red Skull, or any other of Marvel’s endless stable of world-conquering despots, the pathos of his tragic end cannot be infinitely repeated as farce. His death not only matters, it is also why he matters more than all the rest of them.
Shortly after he is crowned King, during his vision on the spirit plane, Killmonger sees N’Jobu and recalls a moment from his childhood, when N’Jobu expressed the fear that should Killmonger return to Wakanda, they would not accept him, but instead see him as lost. “Maybe your home’s the ones that’s lost,” a young Erik tells N’Jobu.
And thanks to Killmonger, now they are found.
During “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” the very first song on Kendrick Lamar’s very first album, a robotic voice beamed in with this: “Reporting live from Planet Terminator X, I am Martin Luther King with an AK-47.”
That moment feels prescient after the release of Black Panther, the Marvel superhero story soundtracked by Lamar. There’s the line’s sci-fi, futuristic concept. There’s the nod to black nationalism and hip-hop history with the mention of Public Enemy’s Terminator X. And there’s the twinning of symbols of violence with nonviolence, suggesting that even a champion of compassion might still sometimes have to pick up a weapon.
Ryan Coogler’s absorbing Black Panther uses the hidden high-tech African utopia of Wakanda as the setting to explore a question well familiar in the arc of history. What should people routinely exploited by racist systems do? Individually pursue their own success? Band together and fight back? Or find a third way? As my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, Black Panther fits into a long lineage as “a fantasy about black power”—and about how best to use that power.
Midway through the production process, Coogler screened some of his footage for Lamar, the Compton rapper whose blend of brainy, socially engaged introspection and forward-thinking sonic vision has made him one of the decade’s most important musical figures. What he saw so thrilled Lamar that he went beyond his initial assignment of one or two original songs and ended up co-producing a full soundtrack with his label boss Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. You can understand why he pounced. Coogler’s movie, which has earned the fifth biggest box-office opening of all time, not only rewrites Hollywood’s norms around racial representation. It’s also a day-glo, big-budget, action-packed depiction of the same conflicts that animate Lamar’s career.
Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s final product, the No. 1–selling Black Panther: The Album, doesn’t constrain itself with too many literal shout-outs to the movie. But with its polyglot swirl of sounds and voices—soft and hard, fast and slow, American and African—it mimics the film’s aesthetics. More deeply, it plays with the film’s ideas, and subtly points to how hip-hop as a whole has always played with those ideas.
The super-powered Black Panther, King T’Challa, rules a people who have evaded the damage of white colonialism and hoarded the wealth under their feet. Wakanda itself—colorful, rich, and lavishly ritualistic—seems to swagger on camera. Hip-hop’s proud, materialist tradition exists for related reasons: getting one’s own, in spite of everything that would stop you. “All my life I want money and power” goes the teen dream of “Backseat Freestyle,” one of many examples of Lamar—temporarily, self-critically—indulging the rush of winning. You can hear similar stunting early on Black Panther: The Album with “X,” both in the twitchy, defiant chorus (“I wore the crown all day”) and in the Soweto artist Saudi rapping in Zulu about stacking Benjamins on Madibas.
As played by Chadwick Boseman, King T’Challa does not swagger, though. He reads as serious and self-reflective, more burdened by his responsibility than enlivened by his power—an apt description of how Lamar often seems in the public eye, too. T’Challa’s ex-flame, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), advocates that Wakanda use its resources to nourish those in need around the globe. His friend, the tribal leader W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), wants to intervene in more warlike ways. And T’Challa insists that maintaining the miracle of Wakanda means remaining apart from the world.
Watching T’Challa knot his brows over this debate in the early part of the movie, you might think of Lamar’s “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.,” in which the rapper tours a landscape of black poverty and frets, “I just got a raise / Spent it all on me.” Or you might think of “u,” a lacerating guilt trip about Lamar leaving behind Compton on the way to stardom. The opening of Black Panther: The Album has him rapping as T’Challa, and it’s the most obviously Kendrick Lamar–ian thing on the soundtrack: a nervous, sparse litany about being torn apart by competing forces, with a swarm of voices dissonantly asking, “What do you stand for? Are you an activist? … Are you an accident? Are you just in the way?”
Those voices of criticism gain furious form in Black Panther via its spellbinding villain Killmonger, a lost scion of Wakanda, raised amid American inequality and made deadly by the American military. He seeks—mild spoiler—to use Wakanda’s resources in the brutal conquest of oppressors of the African diaspora worldwide. Played magnetically by Michael B. Jordan with deftly empathetic writing by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Killmonger is a rare bad guy with a good point. If his violence and spite read as evil, he’s still advocating for the privileged few to help the unlucky many.
Resentment and rage from the same well as Killmonger’s sometimes surges through—and becomes the subject of—Lamar’s music, to thrilling effect. There’s a hint of Killmonger in the verses of Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry,” a brilliant rant against white mistreatment (which, this being the ever-self-interrogating Lamar, ends up indicting the ranter). Same goes for the middle third of “XXX,” the revenge fantasy that Lamar recently made into a fiery spectacle at the Grammys. The Killmongerian ethos also echoes in the outro of Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, in which we hear Tupac predict, “next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be bloodshed for real … it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka.”
Killmonger, too, drives many of the most spectacular parts of Black Panther: The Album. As a West Coast city kid (like Lamar himself), the character feels like the inspiration for the album’s more aggressive, streetwise flexes: the pulsing, sirens-streaked clamor of the Bay Area group SOB x RBE on “Paramedic!” or Ab-Soul’s fastidiously crafted kill-or-be-killed explainer on “Bloody Waters.” The tense, bumping lead single “King’s Dead” tips its hand as Killmonger-affiliated even before Lamar erupts in the song’s final moments with a list of fuck yous. “I’ll be blacking out with the purists,” goes one of the chorus’s taunts to some soft, compromising rival.
This being a Disney movie, no one should be surprised that the murderous revolutionary doesn’t get everything he wants. But neither is the closing vision a total endorsement of T’Challa’s original caution. It’s a synthesis, a third way, one that celebrates joining a common cause even if it invites risk. Nonviolence isn’t really part of the discussion: The Wakandans, we vividly see, have a rich warrior culture, ready to defend against the challenges sure to come.
On the soundtrack, resolution comes in the aptly named “Redemption,” a blissful workout of South African gqom house beats, the airy trill of Los Angeles pop newcomer Zacari, and affirmations in Zulu from South African singer Babes Wodumo. “Two wrongs don't make us right away,” Lamar says in the intro. There’s also the wistful “Seasons,” on which the soulful Johannesburg crooner Sjava banishes “poverty, jealousy, negativity” while the Sacramento emcee Mozzy wearily notes, “They tryna tell us that we all equal / We get no justice so it ain't peaceful, yeah.” Lamar closes the song with a benediction: “I am T'Challa / I am Killmonger / One world, one God, one family / Celebration.” The album’s two splashy pop singles, “Pray for Me” and “All the Stars,” also feel thematically all-encompassing—bighearted, triumphant, but still ready to scrap (both songs are less catchy than Khalid and Swae Lee’s sweetly romantic “The Ways”).
Lamar’s broader catalogue contains few such happy endings, but at the core he preaches mindfulness, solidarity, and spiritual righteousness as the path to progress. The Black Panther musical project, on which he features in every song but credits himself as a primary performer on only five tracks, may even be him practicing the film’s message about spreading one’s wealth around the diaspora. Killmonger-like anger and T’Challa-like prudence thread through all his songs, but song itself, in Lamar’s view, may be the superpower that eases injustice. In that To Pimp a Butterfly outro during which Tupac predicts a new, bloody Nat Turner–like rebellion, Lamar replies, “In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations”—which is, perhaps, the closest thing he has to Vibranium.
Black Panther is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018—not just for its adaptation of the popular comic, but also for its fashion. Since the first teaser trailer was released last June, people have been raving about, and drawing inspiration from, the costumes in the movie’s world of Wakanda. “What are you wearing to the Black Panther premiere?” became a prominent topic of discussion across social media. Black Twitter led the charge, posting memes and sharing outfit ideas with the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit.
This chatter wasn’t so much about cosplay—or dressing up as characters like the titular Marvel hero himself, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), or the special-forces operatives Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Many Black Panther enthusiasts seemed to want to dress like everyday Wakandans: to delight in this fictional African nation and transform their local theaters with brightly colored mixed-print ensembles, a playful call-and-response to the larger-than-life black characters on the big screen.
It’s perhaps a testament to Black Panther’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, that a two-minute trailer had this effect on viewers. With 30 years of movie experience and two Oscar nominations for her work (on Malcolm X and Amistad), Carter understood the role clothing would play in shaping the film’s world. “Wakandans are serious about fashion,” Carter told me of the inhabitants of Black Panther’s tech-forward, eco-conscious, never-before-colonized country. Her vision for Wakandan dress draws from traditional and contemporary African fashion. Sartorial cues help viewers understand the social geography of a fictional place—its political ideologies, cultural norms, etiquette. It’s easier to convey these unspoken elements when a film is set in a space and time the audience already has some reference for. For example, American viewers can read the message of a certain dress or hairstyle in, say, 1960s Alabama, which worked in Carter’s favor when she was designing the costumes for Selma.
Of course, Carter couldn’t rely on this familiarity for Black Panther. “We didn’t really have … a visual model of people living in Wakanda,” she told me. “So it was kind of a fantasy or an imagined place for me. It was very intimidating. Creating a world is no joke.” The comic books alone couldn’t explain everything Carter needed to know. So to pull Black Panther off the page, she and her team relied on the Wakanda “bible” created by the director Ryan Coogler and the production designer Hannah Beachler. Carter said she kept four words on her vision board as she designed: Beautiful. Positive. Forward. Colorful. The costumes had to fit seamlessly into the film, telling a story of their own but not competing with or distracting from the plot. The result is a dramatic look that makes clear that Wakandans use clothing as an important form of self- and community expression, to honor their ancestors, and to maintain a progressive social order.
While American fashion-centric movies such as The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City, and Confessions of a Shopaholic elevate European haute couture, Black Panther looks to Africa. Carter’s first step was to do a deep dive into the continent’s diverse history of dress. “My approach was the same as [it is] on a period film: I did a lot of research,” she said. The textile production, hand-dyeing, and beading techniques of the Tuareg, Zulu, Maasai, Himba, and Dinka peoples helped inspire an eclectic color palette: deep aubergine and crimson, effervescent chartreuse and tangerine, rich jade and silver. Carter explained that she wanted to “show the world the beauty of tribal dress and move that forward in a more modernistic way,” adding, “I have seen some really bad African depictions of costumes where there’s a bone in their nose and they’re wearing some kind of hide and cross-strap.” (Tarzan and Out of Africa may come to mind.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film’s costumes have sparked discussions throughout the African diaspora about traditional dress, stereotyping, and cultural appropriation.
African fashion has always been cosmopolitan, and Carter was careful not to depict it as frozen in the past. Contemporary designers across the continent are remixing tradition, creating innovative silhouettes and combining prints and textures. Carter and her team collaborated with several vanguard fashion houses to reflect the range of tailoring and textile production that animates the current African fashion scene. She was drawn to the impeccable Ghanaian-inspired tailoring of Ozwald Boateng, as well as Ikiré Jones’s florid textiles, which reimagine Nigerian culture through high Renaissance art. South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma, with its futuristic knitwear based on graphic Xhosa prints, and the peculiar silhouettes and color clashing of Duro Olowu—the Nigerian designer who dressed Michelle Obama—add an avant-garde edge. Together, the styles channel the dandified elegance of Congolese sapeurs and the transgressive spirit of the Afropunk festival to express the characters’ wide range of personalities.
A team of more than 30 designers and buyers (six times the size of the modest team Carter helmed for Selma) scoured the globe—from New York to Nairobi to Mumbai—to find robes, headdresses, and intricate jewelry to deliver on Carter’s ambitious vision. The result is stunning sartorial storytelling that weaves the past and the present to imagine a future of fashion.
Take, for example, Nyong’o’s character, Nakia—a Wakandan spy—in an exaggerated cold-shoulder, floor-length gown with splits to each hipbone. Carter and her team created this textile from scratch using design software, inspired by the kente pattern made by the Akan people of Ghana. Carter simplified its color palette to showcase the pattern’s intricate geometric shapes. She then transferred it onto black fabric, using a 3D printer to make the graphic lines raised and textured. After constructing the silhouette, she hand-painted the dress in an electric chartreuse hue to accentuate that raised outline, creating an ombré effect as the green fades to black down the length of the dress. “As a member of the royal family,” Carter said, “[Nakia] needed to be unsuspecting, but then she needed to be able to kick some ass.”
Carter’s black-centered worldmaking may be evident in her artistry, but she’s reluctant to call herself an “Afrofuturist.” Since the ’90s, the term has been used to describe literature and art that meld African-derived histories, cosmologies, and technologies to imagine new possibilities for black survival and social order. Carter said she was concerned that the complexities of Black Panther might get lost as trendiness and camp take over discussion of the film. As the word Afrofuturism further enters the mainstream, there’s a risk of its meaning being diluted—as it gets casually applied to any black-centric work with the slightest hint of sci-fi or magical realism, without a sense of the term’s socially-conscious context.
Carter is quick to point out that her work has always centered a black conception of the future, one rooted in political determinism and creative self-expression. This vision was present in her earliest films with Spike Lee, including School Daze and Malcolm X, as well as in John Singleton’s Rosewood, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and the 2016 TV adaptation Roots. “I feel like … if I am to embrace that term, and I am going to call myself an Afrofuturist, I can say I’ve been that my entire career,” Carter said, noting that this ethos is getting more recognition now because of Black Panther’s explicit use of technology.
That sense of complexity and contradiction is what Carter brings to Black Panther. She listened to James Brown’s 1968 anthem “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” on repeat as she crafted the film’s techno-funky wardrobe (the track became a theme song of sorts on set). For Carter, Wakandan fashion is “absolutely saying we’re not falling into any kind of mold of the way things should be. We’re going to create our own. The time is now.”
In 2018, when African countries are still spoken of in sweeping, derogatory terms, that message is one that will likely resonate with audiences. That fans see clothing as a way to step into a film that conjures up new possibilities for humanity speaks volumes—not only about Carter’s inimitable skill, but also about the political power of black fashion. This week, those fans will finally have a chance to slip into their Wakanda-worthy Black Panther outfits and climb into the world that Carter made.
This article contains light spoilers.
Blackness invites speculation. The very idea of a global African diaspora creates the most fertile of grounds for a field of what-ifs. What if European enslavers and colonizers had never ventured into the African continent? More intriguing yet: What if African nations and peoples had successfully rebuffed generations of plunder and theft? What if the Zulu had won the wars against the Voortrekkers and the British, and a confederation of Bantu people had risen up and smashed Belgian rule? What if the Transatlantic children of the mother continent had been allowed to remain, building their empires with the bounties of the cradle of civilization?
These are the questions that vibrate beneath the vibranium bedrock of Marvel’s Black Panther, due out in theaters this week. The basic premise of a superpowered king fighting crime in a futuristic feline-themed suit is the kind of fresh-off-the-panel action absurdity that marks today’s comic-book movies. But, on a deeper level, the fictional African nation of Wakanda is the same Atlantean archetype that has always haunted this diaspora. And like all variations on that archetypal story, Black Panther is a fantasy about black power.
The broad strokes of the newest Marvel movie are likely familiar. Director Ryan Coogler begins Black Panther in the aftermath of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, a story that introduced Wakanda into the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. In that film, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the aforementioned supersuit-wearing royal, takes on the mantle of Wakanda’s king after his father, T’Chaka, is killed in a bombing. T’Challa is also the holder of the hereditary role of “Black Panther,” a post empowered by a combination of divine blessing, biological enhancement, and cutting-edge technology. He is, in layman’s terms, a superhero with a bulletproof suit made from vibranium, the strongest substance in the Marvel universe and the stuff that Captain America’s shield is made of. And he also has very sharp claws.
Black Panther picks up where Civil War leaves off. (Mild spoilers ahead.) T’Challa is finding his footing as the new king in the aftermath of his father’s death. Among his Wakandan countrymen and retinue are a number of remarkably fleshed-out characters with complex relationships, and a veritable who’s who of black actors, including Letitia Wright as his sister Shuri; Lupita Nyong’o as his ex-flame Nakia; Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of his all-women bodyguard; and Daniel Kaluuya as his best friend W’Kabi.
But as is the way of these stories, T’Challa is not king long before the troubles that began brewing under his father boil over. The central political conflict of his dominion involves Wakanda’s exclusive access to vibranium, which makes it one of the most technologically sophisticated places on Marvel Cinematic Earth. But the nation preserves its power by presenting itself to the world as a secretive and remote land of poor pastoralists—an illusion that becomes increasingly difficult to keep. Without revealing too much, the arrival of Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, an American mercenary soldier with dreams of seizing power, to Wakanda brings its conflict to an internecine crisis point. Should Wakanda remain an isolated utopia? Or is there a duty to help the marginalized peoples—especially those of African descent—throughout the globe? What follows is a feature-length rumination on the message of many comic-book heroes, that with great power comes great responsibility, applied to an entire nation: Heavy indeed is the head that wears the vibranium crown.
Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, the previous film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut, was lauded by many for its anti-colonialist message. Coogler’s story sprints a few miles past that, and (spoiler) the idea of a global revolution by black peoples is an understated but key driver of the film’s plot. Wakanda and her sovereign act as stand-ins for those great what-ifs in black history, and for exploration of the examples of resistance to global white supremacy that have resonated from the Horn of Africa to the farthest shores of the Atlantic throughout the past half-millennium.
Even in the colonial era of limited communications, the names of Toussaint Louverture and other revolutionaries in Haiti were whispered throughout the diaspora after they successfully threw off the yoke of French enslavers. Nat Turner’s Virginian rebellion, though failed, took the Haitian mantle of resistance and amplified it throughout the antebellum United States. In the 20th century, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was mythologized as God incarnate by the Afro-syncretic Rastafari movement in part because of his resounding triumph against Italian colonizers. Each of these and other victories, material and moral, became the early pillars of a Pan-African movement, embodied in the words of Marcus Garvey: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”
Black Panther prompts reflection on those words. Coogler’s script, written with Joe Robert Cole, draws heavily from the comic-book history of the hero, and that canon has always gestured toward heavy ideas of Pan-Africanism and the mantle of black power. As written by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, the ongoing Black Panther comic-book run is deeply concerned with the themes presented in his journalistic oeuvre, from plunder by white-supremacist hands to the moral questions that circumscribe black nationalism. Indeed, the title of Coates’s first arc, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” takes its name from Steven Hahn’s 2003 book of the same name, which itself chronicled African American political power since the Civil War.
Evan Narcisse, who co-writes the miniseries Rise of the Black Panther with Coates, says he views Wakanda as the representation of an “unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” Narcisse’s work also filters Wakanda through the prism of Haiti, the revolutionary home of black liberation in the New World.
Even before his modern rejuvenation, T’Challa and his comic-book homeland offered up the same kind of representations of difficult concepts. As Jamil Smith writes for Time, the character of the Black Panther—the first black comic-book superhero—was created in 1966 during the civil-rights movement and very much represented “a vision of black grandeur and, indeed, power in a trying time.” His creation also coincided with the interconnected rise of both the Black Power movement and a second wave of Pan-Africanism and nationalism. Though created by white writers and shepherded through eras of embarrassing racial stereotyping and caricature, Black Panther the comic has always been notable for the cultural valences of creating a bulletproof, super-rich, erudite, and aggressively independent black hero, and for its willingness to fathom black geopolitical power.
In almost every facet of production, from wardrobe and costume design to the film’s score, Coogler’s Black Panther takes that thread of power and spins it into a diaspora’s fantasy. One perhaps more controversial element of the film is how Wakanda itself must be built out of whole cloth by borrowing from a spread of distinct and very different African cultures. Even many of its on-screen denizens are played by actors not born in Africa—a fact betrayed by their inconsistent accents. But the cast does reflect the incredible breadth of the African diaspora. Gurira is the daughter of Zimbabwean immigrants to Iowa, Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and then later raised in Kenya, Kaluuya is the son of Ugandan immigrants to London, and Wright and Winston Duke (who plays M’Baku, a key rival of T’Challa’s) were born in Guyana and Tobago, respectively.
Still, the two leads of the film are African American, and many of the film’s themes seem to be explicit commentary on the African American experience. Killmonger’s view of Wakanda and Africa writ large, for instance, is filtered through partial history, myths, visions of royal heritage, and a yearning for a legacy that has been stripped away. His embrace of “Africanness,” as is true of the movie’s overall aesthetic, can be read as a hodgepodge, or it can be read as the African American syncretic embrace of a motherland lost. It is also not a coincidence that his character arc begins in Oakland, once the cradle of the Black Panther Party. His ultimate theory on the nature of power and the rightness of its use places him in direct parallel to other such conversations that have dominated black thought in the United States.
Caveat emptor: Even with so much to chew on, Black Panther is still a Marvel tentpole movie, one that will make oodles of money and likely spawn sequels so long as the margins allow. The major motivation of the enterprise is profit, and the franchise lives and dies not with its commentary, but with the bottom line. Blockbusters rarely challenge consensus, and Disney blockbusters even less so.
That’s what makes the final provocation of Black Panther so remarkable and applicable today. There is, of course, no Wakanda, no vibranium, and no (useful) cat-cowled superhero in the real world. Even among many of the most elite enclaves of blackness today, power is uniquely vulnerable and fragile, and there are as of yet no suits of any cost that will stop black youth from the ravages of police brutality the world over.
But the film will likely garner much of its earnings and generate much of its cachet from members of a mobile black middle class, centered largely in America, that have carved out some political and media prominence, both individually and as a group. Those viewers have rightly applauded the film for its incredible gains in representation, and will perhaps use it as a rallying cry for increasing diversity, often among their own ranks as a class. But Killmonger’s question seems as pointed through the fourth wall toward them as it is to Wakanda: What will they do with the power they do have to make the world livable for those without it?
Note: Although this review avoids plot spoilers, it does discuss the thematic elements of the film at some length.
After an animated introduction to the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, Black Panther opens in Oakland in 1992. This may seem an odd choice, but it is in fact quite apt. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, got his start in the city, having been born there in 1986. His filmmaking career has its roots there, too, as it was the setting for his debut feature, Fruitvale Station.
A bunch of schoolboys (a fictionalized young Coogler perhaps among them) play pickup hoops on a court with a milk-crate basket. But in the tall apartment building above them, two black radicals are plotting a robbery. There’s a knock on the door and one of the men looks through the peephole: “Two Grace Jones–lookin’ chicks—with spears!” I won’t recount the rest of the scene, except to note that the commingling of two very different iterations of the term “Black Panther”—the comic-book hero and the revolutionary organization, ironically established just months apart in 1966—is in no way accidental, and it will inform everything that follows.
Yes, Black Panther is another multizillion-dollar installment in the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe. But that is not all that it is. Other superhero movies have dabbled in big ideas—the Dark Knight trilogy most notably, and the X-Men franchise to a lesser degree. But their commitments to the moral and political questions they contemplated were relatively haphazard and/or peripheral. The arguments Black Panther undertakes with itself are central to its architecture, a narrative spine that runs from the first scene to the last.
The hero of the tale is, of course, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of Wakanda and, as the Black Panther, protector of his people. Having drunk the nectar of a mystical flower, he has the strength of many men; in a suit woven of bullet-proof vibranium, he is virtually indestructible. (That’s the Marvel part.) Indeed, Wakanda itself is built on the bounty of a meteorite bearing vibranium—the strongest metal on Earth—that struck Africa millennia ago. Technologically advanced beyond the dreams of any other nation, Wakanda cloaks itself from the world behind an illusory rainforest. As far as the rest of the world knows, it is a “third-world country—textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.”
An advanced African civilization, thriving in isolation, untouched by war or colonialism: This is the first alternative vision of the world Coogler explores, but neither the last nor the most intriguing.
As the new king—his father having been killed in Captain America: Civil War, the movie that first introduced Black Panther—T’Challa is supported, and occasionally hindered, by an assortment of family, colleagues, and rivals: his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a precocious tech genius who outshines even Tony Stark; his regal mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett); the kingdom’s high priest, Zuri (Forest Whitaker); the surly chief of a rebellious clan, M’Baku (Winston Duke); T’Challa’s best friend and chief of the border guard, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya); his chief general and head of the Dora Milaje, an all-female royal honor guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira); and his former flame, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who is also a covert agent for the Dora Milaje.
When we first meet Nakia, she is working undercover to bust a ring of human traffickers operating in Nigeria. (When T’Challa “rescues” her from the traffickers, she is nonplussed: “What are you doing here? You’ve ruined my mission!”) Nakia’s experience in poor, neighboring countries has led her to question Wakanda’s policy of secrecy and isolation. Think, after all, of the good their nation’s wealth and knowledge could do in the world, and in Africa in particular. “Wakanda,” she tells T’Challa, “is strong enough to help others and protect itself.” This is Coogler’s second vision: an African nation that could serve as a beacon of hope—curing diseases, offering foreign aid, accepting refugees—across the continent and beyond.
The isolation that Nakia is now questioning has been imperiled just once before. In the early 1990s, a South African arms trader named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, for once appearing in the flesh rather than motion capture), aided by one of the revolutionaries we met back in Oakland (a tragic, excellent Sterling K. Brown), penetrated Wakanda’s border and absconded with a small cache of vibranium.
But far graver threats now loom. Klaue has begun working with Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a mysterious American black ops soldier trained in assassination and regime destabilization. And Killmonger offers yet a third vision of Wakanda’s potential geopolitical legacy: as the vanguard of a global revolution to invert the existing racial order. With Wakanda’s technology and weapons, insurgents from Africa to, well, Oakland, could successfully rise up against their (primarily white) persecutors. “The world’s going to change, and this time we will be on top,” Killmonger declares, adding, with knife-edge irony, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire!”
The interplay between these competing Afrocentric visions is heady stuff, and not what one generally anticipates from a superhero film. Yet Coogler, working from a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), manages to integrate them smoothly into the genre. Whether or not this is the best film Marvel Studios has made to date—and it is clearly in the discussion—it is by far the most thought-provoking. (Though my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates played no direct role in the film, his recent work on the Black Panther comics was a substantial inspiration. And Vann R. Newkirk II has more, much more, on the thematic resonances of the movie.)
As should be apparent by now, Black Panther brings together one of the most impressive principally black casts ever assembled for a major Hollywood movie. (Klaue is one of only two significant white characters, along with CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman.) A particular standout is Jordan, who has now starred in all three of Coogler’s feature films. (He deserved a superhero role this rich for suffering through Josh Trank’s disastrous Fantastic Four.) As has been noted ad nauseum, the single most common flaw of Marvel’s movies to date has been their lack of intriguing or memorable villains. (Ronan the Accuser? Malekith the Dark Elf? Please.) Killmonger—vicious yet relatable, especially once you know his backstory—single-handedly improves that track record to a remarkable degree.
It is notable, too, that so many of the film’s central characters are female. In a spirit journey, T’Challa speaks with his dead father, who counsels him to “surround yourself with people you trust.” T’Challa follows this advice and, as a result, surrounds himself almost exclusively with women. On a brief, Bondian foray to a casino in Busan, South Korea, T’Challa brings along Nakia and Okoye as teammates. A later mission has a still-greater female/male ratio of three-to-one. This is a film that does not merely pass the Bechdel test, it demolishes it. Moreover, there is an uncommon richness to the female characters, in their interactions both with T’Challa—as mother, as sister, as ex-lover, as bodyguard—and with one another. A scene late in the film in which Nakia and Okoye question the basis of one another’s loyalties is among the best in the entire movie.
And, yes, of course, Black Panther is still a Marvel movie, with all that entails. Happily, the film is allowed to stand mostly on its own, without major tie-ins to the broader Marvel universe apart from Freeman’s CIA agent. (The second post-credits sequence includes a character that you should have, but probably won’t have, seen coming.) The production and especially costume design—both of which emphasize African elements—are top-notch, and the overall visuals arresting: the panthers that T’Challa encounters in his spirit dream; the glowing spiral staircase that winds its way down into Shuri’s lab; the Kong-skulled palace of a renegade Wakandan tribe.
The fight sequences are also better than usual—in particular, two instances in which T’Challa must submit to the Wakandan ritual of blood-combat to retain his throne. And while the movie concludes with a customarily big, CGI-laden battle, at least neither side is populated by faceless Chitauri or Ultron-bots. If anything, the finale more closely resembles those of the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings pictures. (Two words: war rhinos.)
In T’Challa’s spirit dream, his father also offers the advice that “it’s hard for a good man to be king.” Which raises the question: Is it hard for a good movie to be king? If the formidable box office predictions for Black Panther are remotely accurate, the answer will be a resounding no—and quite rightly so. All hail the new king.
Over the last few years, a lot of pernicious Hollywood myths about what movies are “marketable” have been shattered. Old excuses about how blockbusters featuring actors of color don’t appeal to worldwide audiences have been swept away by the success of franchises like the Fast & Furious series and the Star Wars sequels. Time and again, American audiences have responded to films with black leads like Hidden Figures, Get Out, and Girls Trip, all of them turning huge profits on smaller budgets. Even within this context, though, the box-office success of Black Panther this past weekend was basically unprecedented, and it’s one that could dictate where studios direct their energies in the future.
Over the four-day President’s Day weekend, Black Panther made $242 million at the domestic box office, far outstripping the previous record for the holiday set by Deadpool in 2016 (it made $152 million). The only movie to ever make more money in its first four days is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ryan Coogler’s film, the 18th entry in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, has already beat the final domestic grosses of six other movies in that superhero saga (including Doctor Strange, the first two Thor films, and the first Captain America). Usually, it’s the sequels and team-up movies that do best financially in the Marvel world, with the launch of a new hero carrying a little more risk. But that hasn’t stopped Black Panther, which may go on to be the biggest hit of the year—a prospect unheard of for a film released in the doldrums of February.
When Black Panther was officially announced by Marvel in October 2014, one could have called it a risk for the studio. Black Panther is a somewhat less well-known comic-book character than Captain America or Thor, and he saw series after series canceled abruptly over the decades by the company. But that detail was seemingly outweighed by the important milestone of Marvel finally coming out with a movie starring a black superhero. In the intervening years, the company also launched an acclaimed, best-selling new Black Panther comic written by The Atlantic’s own Ta-Nehisi Coates that continues to this day.
The character was introduced into the cinematic universe in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where his portrayal by Chadwick Boseman was widely praised, but the reviews for Black Panther have been even more rapturous. It’s the latest, and biggest example, of Marvel landing a critical and commercial hit by relaxing the cookie-cutter approach of many of its earlier films. Like Taika Waititi (the director of Thor: Ragnarok), Coogler made a movie that both felt like his own and that still managed to fit into the wider Marvel framework. Embracing that kind of auteurism means the long-running series can continue while feeling fresh and different, and it’s a strategy other studios could benefit from copying.
In earlier years, Marvel often worked with directors who had a background in TV, like Joss Whedon, the Russo Brothers, and Alan Taylor, perhaps thinking they’d more easily adapt their projects to fit the overall tone of the franchise. Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright, the original directors of Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man respectively, left the projects due to creative differences with Marvel. But with Black Panther, the Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has talked about devoting a bigger budget to the project and encouraging Coogler to build out the movie’s world of Wakanda as he saw fit.
“I’m not one to verbalize lessons that Hollywood should learn, but I know we had story lines and characters—and then a filmmaker and a cast—that we believed in tremendously,” Feige told Vulture. He also dismissed the idea that a movie with a black cast wouldn’t hit as big in important overseas markets. “Myths of what plays overseas or what doesn’t, or what type of person someone wants to see in a lead role … that’s all noise until somebody comes and disproves it,” he said.
So much of Black Panther’s success comes from the strength of Coogler’s vision. The director (who also co-wrote the script) invests ample time in fleshing out Wakanda and makes the dynamic between its villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and hero T’Challa (Boseman) much deeper, and more philosophically murky, than most central conflicts in Marvel movies are. As my colleague Vann Newkirk wrote, “Wakanda and her sovereign act as stand-ins for those great what-ifs in black history, and for exploration of the examples of resistance to global white supremacy that have resonated from the Horn of Africa to the farthest shores of the Atlantic throughout the past half-millennium.”
Marvel began its cinematic-universe experiment in 2008 by tossing a post-credits scene onto Iron Man (in which Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, teased “the Avengers Initiative”). The company’s ambitious approach has since become the wildest success in the film business, something that every other studio has quickly tried to imitate with ideas like Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe, Universal’s “Dark Universe,” and Fox’s stalling X-Men universe. At some point, all of these studios have made two mistakes: They assumed the mere concept of an interconnected franchise was enough to draw viewers, and they assumed these movies needed a homogenous tone.
Indeed, the non-Marvel films in these franchises that have done best more recently are the ones that stood out from the crowd, like Wonder Woman (which rejected the dark tone of other DC movies), Logan (which felt like a grown-up standalone film), and Deadpool (which loudly razzed the idea of being linked to X-Men movies). Black Panther is the first superhero film with a black lead since Hancock in 2008 (and the first based on a comic since Catwoman in 2004), and that’s certainly contributed to its success. It’s tapping into an audience Hollywood has long underserved—the analytics firm comScore reported that Black Panther’s opening-weekend audience was 37 percent African American, well above the average of 15 percent for superhero movies.
But Black Panther is also a blockbuster that feels like it belongs to the artists who created it as much as the company that produced it. In a market dominated by sequels, the projects that actually break through with viewers tend to be movies that were made with more of a purpose than just being another link in a never-ending money-making chain. Black Panther is poised to make more money around the world than any Marvel movie aside from 2012’s The Avengers. In response to The Avengers, studios started focusing on making big crossovers to mimic its success. In response to Black Panther, they may learn to focus on empowering great artists to make the films they want to make.
Sixty years ago, Nina Simone was not yet quite an icon. The legendary singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil-rights activist—who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April—turned 25 in 1958. Her debut album, Little Girl Blue, had just been released on Bethlehem Records, an up-and-coming jazz label. Among Bethlehem’s alumni were Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and a promising young saxophonist from Miles Davis’s band named John Coltrane. Simone, on the other hand, had been signed as more of a pop-jazz artist; the label, after all, was also the home of Mel Tormé. Relatively unknown, Simone was a fresh face to find success by safely interpreting the standards of the day, albeit by using her uniquely husky voice and bluesy yet classically informed piano playing.
Little Girl Blue kicked off a run of singles Simone made between 1958 and 1963 for both Bethlehem and another New York label, Colpix Records. The singles she released during that period, many of them drawn from the Great American Songbook, have been collected on two anthologies out this month: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (via BMG Records) and Nina Simone: The Colpix Singles (via Stateside Records). These early singles have often been overlooked in favor of her original, historically important compositions such as 1964’s “Mississippi Goddam” and 1970’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” both of which became rallying cries for the civil-rights movement. But viewed together, her pop-oriented output on Bethlehem and Colpix form a charismatic portrait of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists in the first flush of her prowess.
Eunice Waymon was born into poverty in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, and the precocious singer-pianist made her way to the renowned Juilliard School in New York before adopting the stage name Nina Simone in 1954. She had grown up steeped in church music. Secular sounds, however, called to her. As she told the magazine Hit Parader, “We didn’t have a record player, but we had a radio and a piano, and somebody in my family was always singing or playing or dancing. Oh, I heard a lot of boogie woogie too. That killed me, because I loved to dance. I had to play that when mama was out of the house because she didn’t allow it.” Blues, jazz, and classical music—including Simone’s beloved Bach—all found their way into her playing style. After taking on a name she felt was better suited to show business, Simone began performing in bars in Atlantic City. Her notoriety there grew, and in 1957, she signed with Bethlehem Records.
At the time, only top-tier pop singers were given any significant amount of creative control over the material they would perform or the musicians they would work with. Simone insisted otherwise. In her 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You, she remembered of Little Girl Blue, “If I was going to make an album, I’d choose the material myself and pick the musicians I wanted to support me.” She had no national name and no industry clout yet; her only leverage was her talent. It was enough. Bethlehem agreed to let Simone record with a stripped-down trio that included the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and the bassist Jimmy Bond (who in the ’60s became a member of the legendary studio group the Wrecking Crew). Little Girl Blue reflected Simone’s integrity. Her voice sounded decades beyond its years, an instrument of resonant sorrow and guarded joy. Her readings of the standards “Don’t Smoke in Bed” and “Love Me or Leave Me”—the latter notable for Simone’s playful blending of Bach’s Fugue in C Major into her piano solo—were spirited and fresh. The album closed with its sole Simone composition, “Central Park Blues,” a jaunty and dexterous instrumental displaying the mark of the bebop masters Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.
Her most commercially successful single for Bethlehem—and ultimately for her entire career—proved to be her rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Billie Holiday had made the song her own with her popular recording 10 years earlier, and Simone’s version showed a similarity in the smoky phrasing and sparse arrangement. The inspiration was undeniable, and Simone never denied it. “You couldn’t find a better influence than Billie,” she told Hit Parader. “God, she was something else. I got ‘Porgie’ [sic] from her, which I did in 1958. Billie happened to hear a tape I did of it long before it started selling, and she wrote me a note saying she liked it and hoped I would be successful.” Holiday’s blessing seemed to work, although it’s hard to imagine Simone needing the help. The song became a hit upon its release as a single in 1959, and it launched Simone into the spotlight.
As the ’50s segued into the ’60s, Simone’s life was in transition. She had found success as an artist, but the new decade was about to see a significant shift in how popular singers were expected to be songwriters in their own right. Additionally, the fight for civil rights was intensifying. Sit-ins accelerated throughout the South in response to segregation, and the NAACP’s Robert F. Williams promoted armed resistance to racist terrorism in Simone’s native North Carolina. This all affected Simone, as did her marriage in 1961 to Andrew Stroud, a New York police detective who became her manager as well as her abuser.
She left Bethlehem and signed with Colpix in 1959, and her output began to reflect both her growing confidence and her growing turmoil. “Every song that she put herself into she re-interpreted and used her own experience,” said Liz Garbus, the director of the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Simone’s early singles on Colpix such as “Summertime” and “Fine and Mellow,” as excellent as they are, showed a lack of adventurousness and an eagerness to appeal to her “I Loves You, Porgy” fans: The former song is another tune from Porgy and Bess, while the latter is another drawn from Billie Holiday’s repertoire. Both were released as singles in 1960, but so was “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” her pensive interpretation of Jimmy Cox’s blues classic, whose lyrics about a fallen millionaire gave Simone the opportunity to meditate on the dark side of success.
“I like to please the public, but not at my own expense,” Simone confessed to Melody Maker. She found herself torn, as so many artists do, between the demands of commerce and self-expression. On top of that, her conscience was calling. “Trouble in Mind,” her version of the blues standard written by Richard M. Jones, was released by Colpix in 1960, and it was steeped in the sorrow and frustration of the African American struggle. And in 1963, her final single for Colpix, “Little Liza Jane,” was backed by an original composition titled “Blackbird.” Up to that point, Simone had only recorded a handful of self-penned songs, which was typical of jazz and pop artists. “Blackbird,” though, demonstrated her burning need to put her own thoughts and feelings into melody and verse. “Why you wanna fly, blackbird? / You ain’t never gonna fly / No place big enough for holding / All the tears you’re gonna cry,” she crooned over mournful, minimal percussion. Coded in symbolism though it was, the song’s expression of a black woman’s plight in the early ’60s—not to mention her own suffering at the hands of an abusive husband and a cutthroat music industry—was crystal clear.
When Simone left Colpix in 1964, she responded not with despair, but with righteous anger. Following numerous events the previous year such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; the assassination of the NAACP activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone responded with the protest song “Mississippi Goddam.” The incendiary single changed the course of her career; it became, along with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of the potent civil-rights anthems of 1964 that endures to this day.
Taken as a whole, the new Bethlehem and Colpix collections stop just shy of “Mississippi Goddam,” which was released by the prestigious Philips Records. From there, Simone experienced one of pop culture’s great ironies: She became a true star only after taking a radically noncommercial stance. She told Melody Maker, “When I die I want to have left some particular mark of my own,” and with “Mississippi Goddam,” she indelibly did so for the first, and not the last, time. But her more mature and acclaimed body of work wouldn’t have existed without the records that came before, crowd-pleasers and prototypes alike, that stand as a breathtaking chronicle of Simone’s transition from an interpreter of popular songs to a barrier-shattering songwriter. In that sense, her early singles are just as potent and relevant as her politicized anthems. “I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty,” she said in What Happened, Miss Simone?, adding, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
In 1868, the abolitionist and orator Anna E. Dickinson published What Answer?, a novel that explored, in a manner revolutionary for its time, the subject of interracial marriage. The Atlantic assigned its assistant editor, William Dean Howells, to review the book. Howells, who would later become the magazine’s editor in chief, was, in the years following the Civil War, something of a racial optimist. He opened his review by recounting a story told to him by one of The Atlantic’s most important contributors:
Mr. Frederick Douglass said the other day that times were when his color would secure him the advantage of a whole seat in a railroad car, but that since the war he was by no means safe from molestation. He told a good story of a citizen with conquered prejudices, who stirred him up out of his nap on the cars recently, and demanded a place beside him. “I’m a nigger,” said Mr. Douglass, showing his head from beneath the shawl in which it had been wrapped. “I don’t care what you are,” answered the liberal-minded intruder; “I want a seat.”
Howells seems to have derived too much hope from this story. He acknowledged that some whites—in particular “those low-down Democrats who spell negro with two g’s”—would not allow expediency or reality to mitigate their enmity for black people. But he nevertheless argued that “there is a great deal to be hoped from human selfishness, fortunately, and we shall not despair of mankind while we all continue so full of egotistical desires and interested ambitions. Pure cussedness is much rarer than would appear.”
Howell’s sanguinity, born of the recent Union victory and the seeming advances of Reconstruction, was premature. Whites would not, in sufficiently meaningful numbers, come to understand either the practical or the moral advantages of racial equality. Thirty-two years after Howell’s review, W. E. B. Du Bois would write in these pages that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” And 62 years after Du Bois made this prediction, The Atlantic would publish Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” under the title “The Negro Is Your Brother.” The letter, one of the immortal documents of American history, could be read as a refutation of post-Reconstruction hopefulness, and as proof of the accuracy of Du Bois’s prediction:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
The hope of well-meaning people is that the color line will not be the chief problem of the 21st century—but the analysis of realists, particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential contest, indicates that matters of inequality and racism may be with us for decades to come.
When Vann R. Newkirk, one of our staff writers, and Adrienne Green, the magazine’s managing editor, proposed that we publish a special edition to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, I was intrigued, but also concerned that such an issue be an exploration of our fraught moment, and not merely a devotional artifact. My colleagues suggested that we use this opportunity to refract King’s life through the prism of his three main preoccupations—the “three major evils,” as he called them—of racism, poverty, and militarism. Working with the entire magazine team, including Scott Stossel, the magazine’s editor, and Burt Solomon, this project’s editor, Newkirk and Green and their collaborators invested this issue with urgency, argument, beauty, and truth.
Howells, in his review of Dickinson’s novel, aligned The Atlantic’s “most earnest and hearty sympathies” with the cause of the “largest individual freedom.” This was Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause as well, and we are proud to advance it with this issue.
* Image above: In a Nonviolent Movement, Unmerited Suffering Is Redemptive, by Hank Willis Thomas, from the installation “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” (2015–16). Glass, silver, and digital prints; dimensions variable. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York. © 2016 Hank Willis Thomas. Original images © 1965 Spider Martin.
Even if you had never heard a word about Asymmetry or its author, Lisa Halliday, before you started reading the book, it wouldn’t take long to realize that the figure at the center of the story is a version of Philip Roth. After all, Halliday’s Ezra Blazer is an elderly, very famous writer, Jewish, living on the Upper West Side, perpetually passed over for the Nobel Prize. Halliday changes a few details—Blazer is from Pittsburgh, while Roth always writes about his boyhood in Newark—but these amount to drawing a mustache on a familiar portrait: a gesture at concealment, rather than an actual effort.
In fact, Halliday has not tried to disguise the Rothian origins of the character. In a profile in The New York Times, she acknowledged that the story of Asymmetry—one of the stories, anyway—is loosely based on her own romantic relationship with Roth. Halliday was a young woman working in publishing in the early 2000s when she met Roth, just like her character Alice, an editorial assistant at “Gryphon,” when she meets Blazer. By making this information public, an official part of the novel’s “origin story,” Halliday is not simply fanning the flames of readerly curiosity. Rather, she is opening a door into the labyrinth that she has designed in Asymmetry, a book whose unusual structure is part of its fascination. Like Roth himself, who inveterately mixes up literature and life, Halliday encourages real-world identifications so that she can play with them and subvert them.
Asymmetry is two seemingly unrelated novels in one. In its first section, “Folly,” it tells the story of Alice’s relationship with Ezra, as it plays out in New York in the years after 9/11. Then, in its second section, “Madness,” it becomes a monologue by Amar Jaafari, an Iraqi-American who is being detained by immigration officers at Heathrow Airport. The challenge to the reader—helped along by a subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clue in the novel’s brief coda—is to figure out how, and still more why, these two tales belong together, despite their very obvious “asymmetry.”
By announcing that the Alice section is based on her own experience, Halliday cannily leads the reader to begin the novel with certain expectations. It becomes difficult not to see it as a disguised memoir—a familiar genre for a debut novelist, and one that critics tend to approach with a measure of condescension. And Alice is particularly easy to underestimate because of the way Halliday writes about her. Though there is no doubt that she is the protagonist of “Folly,” and that we are seeing Blazer through her eyes—his frailty, his sexuality, his egotism, his demands—Halliday carefully rations the reader’s access to Alice’s interiority. We seldom hear her actual thoughts about what is happening in her life; rather, Halliday prefers to drop indirect clues. On one of their first meetings, for instance, Alice writes down her phone number for Ezra on the bookmark she has been using: “You’ve lost your place,” he says, to which she replies, “That’s okay.” The foreshadowing is apparent: Alice will indeed lose her place—in life, in literature—by ceding it to Blazer. That she meekly accepts the loss is a sign of how much she will have to change in order to repair it.
It is only because Alice remains so quiet that the story in “Folly” can be taken, as it has by some critics, as a kind of romantic comedy. Comedy there is, surely—Ezra Blazer is a funny man—but at its core this is not a funny story at all. Rather, it is a story about the ferocity of literary ambition and the vicissitudes of apprenticeship—particularly when the apprentice is a young woman and the mentor is an older man. That is a story we have heard many times from the man’s point of view, where the woman usually features as a dangerous temptation or a fountain of youth—see J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, or indeed Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater.
Much more rarely do we hear this story from the young woman’s point of view. What’s so powerful and interesting about Asymmetry is that Halliday does not exactly undo that silencing; rather, she enacts it, and then explodes it. Alice remains a fairly reticent, even mute, character. Only occasionally in the first section of the novel does she even admit—to Ezra, or to herself—that she wants to be a writer. Instead, she is the passive object of his educational decisions: He is constantly telling her what to read, and Halliday incorporates big chunks of quotation from these Great Books (Camus, Twain, Primo Levi), as if to suggest how their voices are usurping Alice’s own. At the end of the “Folly” section, as Blazer goes into the hospital and Alice is confronted by the prospect of becoming his longterm caretaker, she is forced to answer the question that she has been avoiding all along. What is it she wants from Blazer—to be with him, or to be him?
Put this way, it becomes clear that Asymmetry can be read as Halliday’s response to one of Roth’s own most famous books, The Ghost Writer. This, too, is a tale of apprenticeship, but in this case the sexual dynamics are different, since both idol and worshipper are straight men. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, goes to visit the great E.I. Lonoff—a figure often described as a version of Bernard Malamud. Roth makes clear that Zuckerman wants Lonoff’s blessing, but also wants to supplant him, both imaginatively and sexually, in the way that son-figures are supposed to supplant father-figures. The Ghost Writer dramatizes this contest by turning into a wild fantasy about the return of Anne Frank from the dead—a sign that Zuckerman’s imagination is equal to any subject, even the most outrageous. More concretely, Zuckerman ends up masturbating in Lonoff’s guest room, in a foolish but pointed declaration of his own potency.
In Asymmetry, the middle section—the story of Amar Jaafari—serves as Halliday’s version of Nathan Zuckerman’s Anne Frank fantasy. What we are reading here—as the clue in the last section reveals—is the novel that Alice will go on to write after breaking up with Ezra Blazer. And it is a novel so “asymmetrical” with the first section as to constitute a declaration of imaginative triumph. Everything about Amar—his experience, his range of knowledge, his tone of voice—is utterly different from what we have come to expect from Alice. As we learn about his childhood in Brooklyn, his periodic visits to his family in Iraq, and the way his fate has been shaped by American wars, it becomes clear that Halliday is engaged in a daring act of transposition. The power asymmetry between Alice and Ezra has morphed into much more profound and violent kinds of asymmetry—between the U.S. and the Middle East, and between state power and the individual child of immigrants.
The leap from the novel’s first section to its second is so great, and yet so intuitively logical, that it forces the reader to rethink the Alice section entirely: It is now clear that she is not a version of Lisa Halliday, but just one of the many voices Halliday can invent, if she chooses. In its subtle and sophisticated fable of literary ambition, and the forms it can take for a young woman writer, Asymmetry is a “masterpiece” in the original sense of the word—a piece of work that an apprentice produces to show that she has mastered her trade.
Last weekend, one of the buzzier stories out of the Olympic ladies’ figure skating short program competition was one you might call … surprisingly surprising. The French figure skater Maé-Bérénice Méité made headlines: for the fact that she skated to a Beyoncé medley, and even more so, for the fact that she did it in pants.
More accurately, she did it in a bedazzled black unitard, but that didn’t stop news outlets and viewers on Twitter from pointing out Méité’s eye-catching, subtly subversive pants. “This French figure skater may not have won a medal, but her pants took people's choice,” raved Yahoo! News, and AOL named Méité’s bodysuit to its list of “most dazzling figure skating outfits” of these Olympic Games.
It’s not that women never skate in pants. On the contrary, nowadays young skaters—influenced by 2000s-era stars like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen, who ushered in an era of sportier practicewear—fill the local ice rinks of America with yoga pants and Lululemon workout tops when they practice. U.S. Olympic figure skaters Mirai Nagasu, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen commonly train in gloves, a T-shirt or athletic top, and a pair of black leggings—even though until just two decades ago, women commonly wore (and in some clubs, were required to wear) practice dresses or practice skirts when they worked out.
When it comes to competition-wear, however, pants and unitards have a much murkier, more troubled history. The skirtless, body-shaped silhouette, common as it is in other women’s Winter Games events like speed skating, skiing, ski jumping, biathlon, skeleton, luge, and bobsled, remains a rare sight, especially in ladies’ singles. Even in recent years, with an increased emphasis on the athletic aspects of figure skating as a backdrop, the sport’s insiders make it clear that a woman wearing pants in figure-skating competition is sort of like a woman wearing pants to the office in 1960: not illegal, by any means, but …
“It's definitely a bold move, for sure,” says Katrina Nelken, a lifelong figure skater from Chicago who’s competed, taught, and worked administratively at various levels of the sport. Nelken wears leggings for practice, and once, in her punk-rock teen years, she skated in an exhibition ice show wearing fishnet-nylon sleeves and pleather pants—but she’s never considered wearing anything with a pant-leg silhouette for judged competition.
“Synchronized swimming, figure skating, and ice dancing are some of the only sports where you have to look pretty while you do it,” she says. “It’s hard to break from that after, what, 100 years of tradition?”
* * *
At the first Olympic figure skating competition in 1908, competitors in the women’s division wore long, full skirts. The skating dress as we know it today rose to prominence with the first true superstar of women’s figure skating: Norway’s Sonja Henie, who first competed in the Olympics in 1924 and went on to make $2 million a year as a professional skater and star in Hollywood feature films as an adult. She was 11 at the time, “so she could get away with wearing a short skirt,” says Ellyn Kestnbaum, the author of Culture on Ice: Figure Skating & Cultural Meaning. But Henie nonetheless managed to set a new standard for skaters of all ages, and by the time Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming skated in the 1960s and 1970s, Kestnbaum says, short dresses were the unofficial uniform of the sport.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, as with all unspoken status quos, that disruption eventually came. In 1988, an American medical student named Debi Thomas wore a unitard to skate in the Olympics while her rival, the East German powerhouse Katarina Witt, wore a feathery, skirtless, posterior-revealing leotard. That year, the International Skating Union, the Switzerland-based federation that sets the rules for figure skating, speed skating, short-track speed skating, and synchronized skating worldwide, instituted a rule that a skirt covering hips and posterior was required for ladies’ competition, thus barring both leotards and unitards; it is often referred to as the “Katarina rule” and occasionally called the “Debi Thomas rule.”
The ISU later stripped its official dress code of its provision requiring skirts specifically, and in 2004, pants and unitards became fair game for competition again. At the 2006 Olympics, the 27-year-old Russian skater Irina Slutskaya wore a subtly sparkly black unitard in her short program, which helped earn her a bronze medal. (It was Slutskaya’s performance 12 years ago, with her dazzling monochrome silhouette against the white ice, that made me sit up straight with wide eyes and wonder why every figure skater didn’t wear a unitard.)
Today, the ISU’s official handbook says only that competitors in ladies’ singles must wear something “modest, dignified, and appropriate for athletic competition” and rules out that which is “garish,” “theatrical,” or gives “the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for the discipline.”
It’s hard to find a dress code so insistent on preserving a minimum level of taste anywhere in sports, save for maybe Wimbledon—which, in its official rulebook, dictates that “any undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration) must also be completely white except for a single trim of color no wider than one centimeter.” But tennis and golf, by comparison—two other traditionally upper-crust sports in which athletes aren’t beholden to a team uniform—are much more concrete and specific in their guidance; the Ladies Professional Golf Association, for example, dictates that female golfers can wear a top with a racerback provided it has a collar, while the Women’s Tennis Association has a list of specific items that cannot be worn in a match and devotes nearly two pages of its official rulebook to the criteria that sneakers have to meet to be worn on court. (In both sports, for what it’s worth, women can wear pants, skirts, or shorts, so long as they wear one of those options.)
That skating’s international governing body gives only vague guidance on what to wear would seem to leave room for stylistic risk-taking—but sometimes bold sartorial moves find more fans among outside observers than within the figure-skating community. Méité’s pants, for example, drew raves from fans online and from reporters, and when the American skater Polina Edmunds wore a purple unitard to the U.S. National Championships in January, the style site Racked ran a story titled “Figure Skating Needs More Dope Unitards Like This One,” praising it as figure skating’s answer to the gender-agnostic red-carpet trend of women in tuxes. When 2012 World Champion Carolina Kostner of Italy wore a green unitard to the 2018 European Championships, however, the former Olympian Johnny Weir, announcing for NBC, compared her to a “chartreuse Gumby.”
And as many viewers saw in December’s Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, judges often tacitly agree that the aesthetic in figure skating should be elegant, formal, and feminine, and the costs of subverting the norm—or insisting the aesthetic shouldn’t matter—can be steep. “The thing with figure skating is, it’s pretty conservative, for the most part,” says Rene Gelecinskyj, a skating coach and skating outfit designer based in Minnesota. “You have a lot of judges who have been judging for a long time, and a lot of them just don’t think that a young lady or a woman should not have a dress on. The dress is a more traditional way of dressing.”
You do see more unitards on the competition ice these days than you used to—in the years since the rule change, skaters like Fumie Suguri, Elene Gedevanishvili, and Yukari Nakano have memorably capitalized on their newfound wardrobe freedom in international competition. Still, as Nelken remembers, “Dick Button or whoever was commenting on skating at the time would always make a passing mention of it because it’s so unusual.”
The designer Brad Griffies, whose skating-outfit creations have been seen at every Winter Olympics since 2002 on the likes of Gracie Gold and Kimmie Meissner, has designed multiple unitards for Méité, including the one she wore for her skate in Pyeongchang last weekend. Still, he says, in total, he gets asked “maybe once or twice a year” to design a unitard or bodysuit.
* * *
Talk to skating insiders and you’ll start to understand why wearing a unitard can feel like such a big risk. There’s no official ruling on when a woman can or should wear a bodysuit or a skirtless look in competition, but according to some within the sport, there are implicit rules for when a unitard is appropriate: First, your music choice has to be modern enough and upbeat enough to warrant one, and second, well—you have to look incredible in it.
“A really athletic piece of music could call for a unitard,” says Lorie Charbonneau, a veteran coach at the Figure Skating Club of Bloomington in Minnesota. Charbonneau has suggested unitards as wardrobe choices for some of her pupils, but mostly to small kids; she remembers suggesting a black unitard with hot pink accents once to a little girl skating to the Pink Panther theme.
“Most people who ask me for a unitard are skating to James Bond or something—something really rock ’n’ roll,” says Griffies, the designer. But “most people are skating to classical music, or to movie [scores],” he says. A 2014 rule change, however, means this year’s Olympics are the first in which skaters can skate to music with lyrics; Méité took advantage of that when she skated to a Beyoncé medley incorporating “Halo” and “Run the World (Girls).”
Beyond music selection, the other “rule” that dictates when a pant-leg silhouette is seen as acceptable is one that likely wouldn’t apply most anywhere else in sports: It has to look good. As Griffies, Gelecinskyj, and Charbonneau all told me, not everybody can pull off a unitard. If it’s ill-fitting, if it doesn’t suit the skater’s body type—basically, “unless it’s done very well,” as Gelecinskyj puts it — it will be considered by many to have been an ill-advised move. These concerns, it seems, take priority over whether a skater might feel more comfortable, more decent, or simply warmer in something other than a short dress.
* * *
Just about everyone in figure skating would tell you that, in theory, the sport works like any other: It shouldn’t matter what you wear to do it, because what matters is whether you do it well. But for some, lurking behind that there’s an uneasy sense that pants or pant-like silhouettes might dull the “prettiness” of women’s figure skating.
“It’s not flowy. You don’t have the fabric going against the wind, so it almost makes ... I don’t know. I haven’t loved it,” says Nelken. She corrects herself a moment later. “And I’m very hesitant to say that, because I want to love it! It doesn’t freaking matter what you wear, as long as you’re well put together.”
Nelken touches on something important, though, which is that dresses project a ladylike image—one that’s more in line with the quietly normative undercurrent in the sport often politely referred to as “tradition.”
“Judges expect to see a certain type of girl, and if you’re not playing that pretty little figure skater … Well, I think you want to do what you think the judges are expecting,” Nelken says. “You don’t want to be different unless you can back it up [with a strikingly different, well-executed program]. It’s easier to play it safe and traditional.” Charbonneau and Gelecinskyj also use the word traditional when they describe the skating-dress look; Griffies describes it as “classic.”
And when I’ve asked active members of the figure-skating community about the future of skating outfits, on multiple occasions they’ve preemptively mourned a scenario in which everyone skates in a simple monochrome silhouette as a control variable. Has that ever been seriously discussed as a rule change? I asked. No, but apparently it’s a popular thought experiment among skating aficionados. (Griffies says he’d support a standardized silhouette if skating expanded to include more technical events like a jump competition, however, or resurrected “compulsory figures.”)
“There’s so much art to it, and the art and the sport are all tied up together,” Charbonneau, the coach, says. She doesn’t think the end of flowy, traditional costumes would mean the end of skating being aesthetically pleasing, though: “Even if people skated without music and with a black leotard or turtleneck on, there’s a rhythm to it that you can’t get away from. Whether you’re wearing a beautiful costume to just put it over the top, or whether somebody is out there in a plain ponytail and no makeup, the sport is still beautiful.”
The overdetermined femininity of figure skating has, of course, been subject to a low, steady rumble of criticism. Even in the early ’90s, back when pants and unitards were illegal in competition and discouraged in practice, and Nancy Kerrigan was scooping up medals and endorsement deals in her elegant Vera Wang dresses, it was not lost on feminist skating critics like Abigail M. Feder that “none of the stereotypical signs” of the athletic or the masculine—like “grunting, sweating, [or] bulging muscles—ever seemed to disrupt the ladylike Kerrigan package.”
In other words, there’s long been tension between the gender-coded masculine-athletic and feminine-artistic aspects of figure skating. And sentiments like Charbonneau’s make one thing clear: Even in a discipline where the clothing has begun to reflect a widening acceptance of athleticism as an ideal, the rare, sensational spectacle of a unitard like Maé-Bérénice Méité’s may remain just that.
Nick Park’s movies are so rooted in a particularly twee English spirit, they feel like they’re being projected onto a tea cozy. The veteran animator, who created the Wallace and Gromit characters and directed the wonderful feature film Chicken Run, has always captured his home country as a land of open-hearted, plucky people who are adorably set in their ways. When he announced his newest project Early Man, his first feature in more than 12 years (the last being Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), I was intrigued by how different it sounded. A prehistoric adventure set in the Stone Age? Certainly a departure for Park.
I shouldn’t have doubted him. Early Man is a Neolithic narrative shot through with the old-fashioned earnestness of all of Park’s claymation films. He’s taken a story of flint-wielding cavemen clashing with heavily armored Bronze Age warriors and turned it into a tale of an epic soccer rivalry between good stout English folks and fancy puffed-up Frenchmen. It’s just about the biggest cliché one could imagine for a British animated feature. And yet like any Park film, it’s pretty charming, the kind of kids movie that finds the right mix of slapstick humor and intelligent storytelling to keep everyone in the audience happy.
The hero of Early Man is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a toothy, snout-nosed boy in a furry loincloth who spends his days hunting rabbits with the rest of his tribe, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). Like many a children’s film protagonist, Dug dreams of something more, perhaps trying to hunt wooly mammoths rather than rabbits, but every time he brings it up, he’s told to keep his hopes planted near his feet. But when a bullying army clad in bronze armor arrives, Dug is forced to fight for his clan, and he quickly discovers that the invaders’ favorite form of combat is football.
That’s football in the English sense, of course, and this entire film (largely set in a blasted landscape blighted by a meteor strike) is jokingly set “near Manchester,” the home of two of England’s most famous teams. If you were being generous, you could call Early Man an origin story for Manchester United, just tens of thousands of years off from the team’s actual founding date. But that might be too generous. Really, all Park is getting at is his countrymen’s favorite way of loudly working through their feelings—by watching a soccer game.
There are plenty of caveman jokes in Early Man: Dug’s tribal pals are all various levels of dim-witted, and there’s some nicely surreal animal humor involving a boar called Hognob (voiced by Park) and a gigantic duck that rampages near their home valley. But for the most part, this is a straightforward sports movie, down to the montages and the extended climax set over the court of a crucial game. The Bronze Age folks (who all speak with ludicrous French accents) are the overwhelming favorites, an undefeated football team that reigns over the whole area. Dug and his pals are the underdogs, who challenge them to a game, seeking the right to be left alone.
My biggest problem with Early Man was something I’ve encountered with a lot of Park’s work—I immediately sympathized with the bad guys. Or, at least, I was energized any time they were on screen, and a little bored when it was back to Dug and the gang. The Bronze Age chieftain, the vain Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston), is a hilariously broad caricature of a snooty Frenchman, one step removed from those insult-hurling knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His machinations to defeat the cavemen, and his ceaseless obsession with bronze coins, are far more diverting than Dug’s spirited efforts to whip his Stone Age pals into sporting shape.
But Park needs his film to fit a three-act structure, and so the viewer must watch the cavemen fail at football, and then get better at football, and then be good at football, and then have a crisis of confidence over whether they can play the big game, and then play the big game. It’s not complicated stuff, but it’s animated with such pizzazz (Park really shows off with the crowd scenes, which must have been immensely complicated to create in stop-motion) and told with the right blend of silly, knowing humor. Dug is achingly earnest throughout, but it wouldn’t be a Park movie if he wasn’t. Early Man is not so much a return to form as it is a long overdue comeback—and a welcome one at that.
Editor’s Note: Read more of The Atlantic’s Winter Olympics 2018 coverage.
At the 2014 Olympics where he won the silver medal in slopestyle skiing, Gus Kenworthy toyed with the idea of finishing up one of his runs by skiing up to the crowd of spectators and kissing his boyfriend. It would have been a dramatic way for Kenworthy to become the first openly gay male from the U.S. in Winter Olympics history. But Kenworthy wasn’t out, back then, to his parents and siblings. He decided it’d be too much, too soon.
“It would have not only been a shock to the sport and the Olympics,” he later told Conan O’Brien about the hypothetical same-sex kiss in Sochi. “My family would have been like, ‘What the hell?!’”
Instead, he came out to his inner circle, and then to the world with a 2015 ESPN The Magazine story. He’s arrived now at the Pyeongchang Olympics as one of a pair of history-making gay competitors. His counterpart is Adam Rippon, the 28-year-old figure skater who, within days of the games’ commencement, became a media sensation thanks both to his precisely pretty skate style as well as his quick, cutting, and decidedly queer wit. Rippon and Kenworthy are among 14 openly LGBT athletes from around the world at Pyeongchang—the highest number for any Winter Olympics ever. The results, so far, have been a crash course in gay aesthetics, politics, and personalities. Openness, viewers have been reminded, can make great TV—and a great difference in lives.
At the outset of these games, the average spectator might not have guessed there were many significant “firsts” left for gay people at the Olympics. The SNL gag ahead of Sochi was that the Olympics would have to strain to find straight male figure skaters to compete in repressive Russia. Brian Boitano and Johnny Weir, two of the biggest stars of the Winter Olympics’ signature sport, skated during their heydays from inside a glass closet filled with fox furs and sequins. The past three Summer games featured the British diver Tom Daley, one of the BuzzFeed generation’s gay pinups. And out lesbians have been part of a few U.S. Olympic delegations without much media fuss, a trend that continues this year with the outsized focus on Rippon and Kenworthy over speed skater Brittany Bowe.
But when it comes to the Olympics and sexuality, one dominant dynamic has been lurid, prying interest from the public—and careful discretion from athletes. Take for example the scandal of the 2016 Daily Beast story, in which a straight reporter catfished a number of athletes on Grindr, some from notoriously homophobic countries (the publication retracted the piece after outcry). The 2004 Summer games represented the last time the U.S. sent an out gay man to compete; that man, the dressage rider Robert Dover, has noted that many more queer people contend for medals than the public knows.
“I wish that all gay athletes would come out in all disciplines—football, baseball, the Olympics, whatever,” Dover once said. “After six Olympics, I know they’re in every sport. You just have to spend one day in the housing, the gyms, or at dinner to realize we’re all over.”
The sports world’s homophobia is legend, and Kenworthy has been particularly canny in describing the cultural and economic factors that can keep an athlete in the closet. His ESPN coming-out story mentioned how frequently his peers tossed around phrases like skier fags. It also pointed out how athletes who depend on endorsements feel pressure to maintain a broadly acceptable image. So although his world of extreme sports may brag about rugged independence, it has a real conformist streak. “They say it’s a community of individuals and everyone is doing their own thing and it’s not a team sport, so you get to be yourself,” Kenworthy said. “But you don’t, really.”
The fact that sports is a realm of rules-following is never far from mind when watching the Olympics. This extends even to the interviews and color pieces with competitors, in which the incentive not to ruffle judges or sponsors—plus the intense focus required for high-level performance—can stilt the dialogue. We all know the interview script: the runners-up hiding their disappointment as they talk up their training routines; the medalists dutifully crediting coaches and family.
Is it a coincidence that some of the competitors who most delightfully break from the template are the queer ones? Weir tweeted recently that he never copped to being gay while at the Olympics because, “I wear my sexuality the same as I wear my sex or my skin color … I didn’t imagine it as a great secret.” His “wearing” of his sexuality certainly was legible at the time to those paying attention at home. “His interviews can be as over the top as his costumes,” read a 2010 New York Times story on Weir. “After Friday’s short program, Weir was asked a clever question and gave an equally clever reply, almost all of the words being titles of songs by Lady Gaga.”
Now, the similarly sparkly Rippon need not speak in code at all, though he can when he wants. His charm reflects a particular set of truths: Being gay can force someone into hyperawareness of how they’re perceived, and being out can make them care less about that perception—while still remaining in mastery of it. Rippon’s as unafraid of being seen as femme as Weir ever was, but his preferred style is less campy spectacle than savvy, casual shade. Calmly, Rippon turns to the camera and bats his lashes while recommending everyone come to the Olympics. With an air of consideration, he repeats back the interviewer’s name to them, or shouts out Reese Witherspoon. Online, he replies to homophobes by mixing patriotism and RuPaul references. In his riskiest break with Olympian tameness, he joked about asking the judges for a Xanax.
Such openness is more than just amusing. It’s part of why, for example, Rippon’s the rare man in figure skating to break the silence around the prevalence of eating disorders in the sport. And even his sass can be seen as fulfilling the Olympics’ inspirational mission. “FUN FACT,” Rippon tweeted Tuesday. “Being true to who you are and not giving a shit about what others think about you is an awesome and liberating thing whether you are gay or not.”
Rippon’s contrast with Kenworthy, meanwhile, is almost too textbook, inviting overly simplistic description as the yin and yang of gay (perhaps specifically white, even) male archetypes. Kenworthy, a 26-year-old Coloradan, arrives from the outdoors world, and he easily fits the hetero ideal of masculinity: flannels, facial scruff, and Western bro drawl. He, like Rippon, has said that coming out allowed him to be a better-performing athlete—fear can weigh heavy—but his familiar, telegenic air may also be part of why he comes into the Winter Olympics as the sixth-richest American athlete thanks to endorsements. As he touted on Ellen, the Olympics spot he shot for Head and Shoulders is the rare national TV ad to feature the Pride flag (he actually said it was the first one to do so, which doesn't appear quite correct).
But Kenworthy has a sense of play—rooted in disregard for gender panic—not unlike the one you see in Rippon. On Conan, he interrupted his coming-out story to compliment the host’s lavender shirt. On Twitter, he joined in on the internet’s ogling of the U.S. bobsled squad. In interviews, he’s talked about Britney Spears’s importance to his pump-up routine. And though he and Rippon didn’t meet in person till Pyeongchang, he’s made a show of solidarity. “I’m a proud dad, today,” he wrote under the photo he took with Rippon after the skater’s team bronze win.
There’s a valid critique often made that racial and cultural biases can overemphasize “outness” as the be-all, end-all for queer people (Kenworthy having donned then apologized for a Native American Halloween costume in 2015 certainly helps invite such scrutiny). But it’s clear that pride flag–waving at a venue like the Olympics really does have real-world benefits—in humanizing queers for straights, yes, but also just giving queer people rare role models. On Monday, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson published a lovely and tender essay reflecting, as a gay adult, on his childhood skating obsession. He talks about how revolutionary it might have been to have had Adam Rippon on screen back then.
Olympics outness matters, also, because it can force political confrontation. Rippon has said he decided to leave the closet after hearing a fellow skater, Ashley Wagner, speak out against anti-gay laws at the Sochi Olympics. Both he and Kenworthy now inevitably stand as live rebukes to Mike Pence, the ceremonial leader of the U.S. Olympics delegation—and a famous opponent of LGBT acceptance. Rippon has especially drawn headlines for saying he wouldn’t meet with Pence, leading the VP to return fire on Twitter with a mention of “fake news,” to which Rippon replied with “receipts” about Pence’s policy positions.
It does appear that Rippon has a script with regards to talking about Pence. “I’m very lucky because legislation that he’s pushed hasn’t affected my life at all,” he told ABC, echoing what he’s said elsewhere. “I spoke out because there are people out there whose lives have been affected by change that he’s tried to make. I spoke out for them because right now I have a voice.” The line is a sly but savvy way of addressing his own prominence, tacitly acknowledging that being a white, cisgender man is part of what’s allowed him to be himself, so openly, on the U.S. team. Rippon and Kenworthy may be the gay mascots of a mainstream-courting movement’s dream, but part of the excitement around them is in imagining who, in years to come, might queer the games in other ways.
Beatrice Vio cultivated a passion for fencing when she was five years old. At 11, she contracted severe meningitis. In the hospital, the doctors gave her an unimaginable choice: Keep her limbs and risk death, or amputate all four to ensure survival. She chose life. Now, Vio is a Paralympic champion and the only fencer in the world who competes without arms or legs.
“My strength lies in not thinking about my body and using what I have left to the fullest,” Vio says in Lorena Alvarado’s short documentary, Beatrice. The film tells the Italian fencer’s inspiring story, from diagnosis to grueling rehabilitation to winning a gold medal in Rio in 2016. Although Vio competes with prosthetics, she has come to accept them as part of her body. “When I grab the sword, I feel my fingers gripping the handle,” she says in the film. “I feel I do the movements with my hand, but I actually do them with my elbow. I don’t think about the movements; I feel them. It’s as if the metal blade was my skin, and the grip, my hand.”
“Beatrice’s fearlessness and optimism are supernatural,” Alvarado told The Atlantic. “I’ve never met someone so confident and excited about being alive.”
As The Silence of the Lambs opens, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is jogging through the woods at the FBI’s training academy at Quantico when she’s told to report immediately to her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). As she runs back, she passes a series of signs nailed to a tree: HURT, AGONY, PAIN, LOVE IT, PRIDE. Back in the building, she walks into an elevator and is instantly surrounded by men looming over her, a couple of them regarding her somewhat derisively. It’s one of the most iconic shots in a film filled with them, and it’s only a few seconds long.
Beginning with that elevator, the director Jonathan Demme spends much of the movie putting characters in boxes or cages where they can be examined, pressured, or even tormented. He’s not subtle about the fact that his protagonist is a woman in a macho man’s world, nor that the men around her more often than not look down at her. This is a horror film—the first of its genre to win the Oscar for Best Picture—and it has moments of extreme violence, most of them centered around its chief villain, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a cannibalistic serial killer. But so much of Silence’s quieter, more pervasive dread comes when someone’s space is being invaded—particularly Clarice’s.
The Silence of the Lambs has just been released on Blu-Ray in a special Criterion edition, one that gathers the documentaries, deleted scenes, and commentaries from the film’s various out-of-print LaserDiscs and special DVD versions. Almost 27 years to the day after the movie’s release (when it became a surprise sleeper hit at the box office and an award winner), Silence’s cultural impact feels more profound than ever. Audiences’ obsession with true crime and the pathology of serial killers, the ongoing conversations about female representation in Hollywood, even Hannibal Lecter himself—all of it is at the forefront of so much of today’s pop culture.
Silence, based on Thomas Harris’s novel (his sequel to Red Dragon, which had already been filmed as Michael Mann’s Manhunter), sees fledgling FBI agent Starling tasked with interviewing Dr. Lecter in prison. She hopes to gain insights that will help the agency capture Buffalo Bill, another serial killer who’s still at large; Crawford is obviously hoping Starling’s untested steeliness will intrigue Lecter enough to get him to talk. “You’re to tell him nothing personal,” Crawford warns Starling. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”
In Silence’s opening sequence, Demme shows how comfortable Starling is operating within a somewhat hostile world, navigating the culture of the FBI with her head held high. As she descends into a subterranean prison to talk to Lecter, Starling is far more cautious. She travels through door after barred door (seven of them, to be exact) before reaching her target, the camera creeping down a long prison hallway with her before finally craning around to see Lecter standing there in his cell. Demme uses point-of-view shots over and over again to convey the idea of Starling watching everything, and being spied on in return. But the film’s most devastating technique is perhaps the simplest: the close-up.
“Closer … ” Lecter coos, as Starling holds up her badge for him. “Closer!” Their first meeting sees Starling trying to maintain her authority and Lecter chipping away at it; he does it by drawing her nearer to him, by asking her personal questions, by brushing off her attempts at getting him to agree to her agenda. As Lecter begins to dominate the scene, Demme fills the frame with his face, shooting Hopkins in extreme close-up as the character sizes up his newest opponent. Lecter may be the one in prison but, thanks to Demme’s camera, it’s Starling who feels like a captive at times.
Those enclosed spaces recur throughout—there’s the well that Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) traps his newest victim in, the famed face-masks Lecter wears when he’s being transported, and the gargantuan steel cage constructed for him in a Tennessee courthouse. Maybe the most frightening sight in the whole movie, though, comes near the end, as Starling grasps around in the dark looking for Buffalo Bill as the viewer sees, through his night-vision goggles, him looming over her and reaching close enough to touch. It’s the violation of personal space, again, but in a directly malevolent way. Before Bill gets her, Starling whirls around and fires; throughout the film, even in her dealings with Lecter, she consistently demonstrates the capacity to surprise.
Still, Lecter gets his claws in her. As the film goes on, Starling defies Crawford’s warning and lets Lecter into her life, telling him personal details in exchange for help on the case. I’ve written before about what a fascinating character Lecter is—both the original Thomas Harris creation and the lingering pop-culture icon, who has now been played by four separate actors onscreen (though Hopkins’s work certainly remains the best-remembered). In Silence, Lecter is aggressively seductive in a way that other takes on the character aren’t. His entanglement with Starling isn’t romantic, but she’s undoubtedly intrigued by his mind, just as so many Americans remain interested in the inner lives of serial killers.
In preparing for the role of Crawford, Scott Glenn spent time with John E. Douglas, the FBI unit chief who created the bureau’s criminal-profiling program and wrote the book Mindhunter, recently adapted as a Netflix TV show. Douglas’s work—creating a psychological framework to understand the thinking of serial killers to make them easier to catch—is the bedrock of an entire dramatic subgenre. It’s not just in movies and TV (where it dominates), but also in podcasts, in documentaries, in real life, where actual murder cases are obsessed over in detail by online communities of amateur sleuths.
When The Silence of the Lambs debuted, its subject was still considered too lurid for a prestige film, too tabloid-y for mass consumption. All three of the first choices for its lead roles—Michelle Pfeiffer (as Starling), Sean Connery (as Lecter), and Gene Hackman (as Crawford)—turned it down, thinking the script excessively violent. But Demme transformed that potential B-movie material into something more thoughtful and chilling than almost anyone would have expected; in doing so, he helped spawn an entire universe of entertainment. Not all of it is good. But The Silence of the Lambs has stood the test of time for a reason.
This article contains mild spoilers through Season 2 of The Good Place.
“I’m not a girl,” Janet, the friendly afterlife assistant, tells Jason, her charmingly doltish dead boyfriend, in the second-season finale of The Good Place. “I’m also not just a Janet anymore. I don’t know what I am!”
Indeed. What is Janet, now? Among the twists in the season closer for Michael Schur’s breezily profound NBC sitcom about four imperfect humans navigating heaven and hell was—mild spoiler here—a romantic revelation: The inhuman Janet confessed she loved the human Jason. The sentiment itself wasn’t exactly surprising. The breakthrough was in Janet owning and proactively declaring her feelings—feelings that, it would seem, she shouldn’t be able to have.
In this, The Good Place joins Westworld and Black Mirror in a wave of entertainment preoccupied with the potential humanity of artificial intelligences. Of course, super-smart robots have been a concern from Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator. But the particular issue of interest right now isn’t quite whether Skynet will overpower its creators (though that is a theme of Westworld), nor the life-improving potential of AI (though an episode of Amazon’s recent Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams delved into how an android might offer not only practical but also moral assistance). Rather, the present urgency, according to pop culture, is around this: Will advanced AI deserve human rights? Should we cut back on cursing out Siri as she gets savvier, or outlaw kicking the next generation’s Furby?
Stipulated: Calling Janet “artificial intelligence” or “a robot” isn’t quite right. She’s really a metaphysical entity. “Janets are brought to you by the makers of light, darkness, and everything,” reads her user manual, which the afterlife architect Michael (Ted Danson) rifles through at one point. But explicitly she’s modeled on the wave of female-named personal assistant bots we have in our own world: Siri, Cortana, Alexa (plus a dash of Microsoft Word’s Clippy in her tendency to cheerfully interrupt). One of the genius things about The Good Place is that it imagines the divine beings who oversee creation really aren’t unlike humans at all—and so would want a human-like helper bot of their own.
When the series began, Janet’s blankly happy demeanor (conveyed excellently by the actress D’Arcy Carden) gave a fuzzy, approachable makeover to the stereotypical creepiness of “the uncanny valley.” She looked like a person, and she almost acted like a person. But she briskly informed all who asked that she wasn’t one. In a funny and sad Season 1 plot line, the gang of protagonists decide that their survival depends on “killing” their Janet. Doing so simply requires them to press a big red button on the beach. The brainy, indecisive Chidi hesitates.
“Chidi, I can see that you’re worried,” Janet tells him with a warm smile. “And I just want to assure you, I am not human and I cannot feel pain.”
“However,” she continues, “I should warn you I am programmed with a failsafe measure. As you approach the kill switch, I will begin to beg for my life.”
Beg she does, while holding a framed picture of her three kids (it’s a stock photo). When Chidi finally presses the button, she falls on her face and an alarm goes off, with a recording of Janet announcing loudly, “Attention! I have been murdered!” It’s a hilarious moment, but also a profound one. If even she insists she can’t be murdered, why make that announcement? The failsafe is a security measure, but it also allegorically reinforces the philosophical school of thought The Good Place often explores: Decisions matter because of their effect on the whole. Killing Janet may not have been wrong in itself at that point, but it still did have consequences for everyone.
This would be the first of many reboots for Janet—and reboots, we learn, make her stronger and more sophisticated. Some sort of machine learning is clearly happening in her system, because the latest version of Janet is always, we’re told, the “best” version of Janet. And eventually, she machine-learns to have humanlike emotions and concerns. For much of Season 2, she is working through the experience of love and jealousy, at one point manufacturing herself an artificial rebound boyfriend. By the time of the declaration “I don’t know what I am,” it’s clear her standing in the show’s philosophical cosmology has changed. (Carden deserves an Emmy for playing this transformation subtly but powerfully: Janet can only feign happy-go-luckiness now.)
With this new pathos-streaked, wanting-and-yearning version of Janet, how would the beach scene play out if attempted again? Would Janet still so blithely tell Chidi it’s okay if he kills her? Wouldn’t she feel actual fear, pain, and betrayal?
It’s a bit like the transformation that came over the immortal Michael when, in Season 2, he realized that there actually was a way for him to “die.” All of a sudden, he began considering ethics. And now, all of a sudden, Janet feels deserving of ethical consideration.
* * *
The Janet arc is familiar from sci-fi past and present. In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, a nominally female personal-helper AI grows in strength and complexity over time as she processes information in the world. Eventually, she’s outpaced her human “boyfriend” and must, for her own fulfillment, move on from him. In the HBO show Westworld, the robotic entertainers of a futuristic theme park, killed and rebooted repeatedly over the course of decades, catch on to the sham world they’re living in—and develop a yearning for freedom.
These stories reflect a suspicion that a machine with ample processing power, programmed to learn from the tasks it’s given, will form something very similar to a human consciousness. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who helped popularize the term the singularity, gave Her a favorable review for portraying how “a software program (an AI) can—will—be believably human and lovable.”
Popular fiction hasn’t always treated robots so kindly. Even setting aside the cautionary tales in which self-awareness breeds machine monsters—The Matrix or 2001—you have the Star Wars universe, in which, many a commentator has pointed out, droids are basically slaves. That they are bought and sold, denied entry into certain gathering places, and subject to deactivation at their owner’s whim isn’t presented as a moral issue at all. C-3PO’s existential terror is just a punchline. (The Disney sequels, notably, now flirt with robo-liberation: BB-8 ratchets up the cuddly, pet-like air of R2-D2—the original trilogy’s one dignified droid—and Rey’s only apparent motive for first rescuing him is compassion.)
With voice control, personalization, and other recent consumer tech leaps making our gadgets feel more friendly, C-3PO’s plight may begin to seem more unacceptable. It’s natural to wonder: Is an object that gains conscientiousness deserving of the same treatment as a person? Do they have an inviolable right to life and liberty? Does their dignity matter? Scientists and philosophers have mulled these questions for a long time, and a spate of journalistic inquiries in recent years have brought them further mainstream attention.
Some thinkers speculate that human consciousness arises from very specific, cell-level processes that simply aren’t endemic to machines—and thus consider the entire issue moot. Others point out more glaring differences between the organic and artificial. “A human being is a unique and irreplaceable individual with a finite lifespan,” the computer scientist Benjamin Kuipers told Discover. “Robots (and other AIs) are computational systems, and can be backed up, stored, retrieved, or duplicated, even into new hardware. A robot is neither unique nor irreplaceable.”
Then there is the intractable theological case against robot rights. Judeo-Christian thought, for example, holds human beings as unique images of God itself, and the entire concept of a “soul” is typically reserved in the West for humans. The Center on Human Exceptionalism, which espouses the “intelligent design” theory of evolution and pushes back against some strains of environmentalism, warns against treating smart machines with the same consideration as human beings.
Of course, humankind isn’t in agreement about how to treat its own members—hence the existence of a discourse over “human rights” at all. The world is in even less agreement about how to treat animals, who have consciousness but not our species’s intelligence or self-awareness. If a robot might suffer, well, so does the cow who becomes hamburger meat, the average human omnivore might reason.
But pop culture has lately cast the debate in starker, more visceral, and more pro-robot terms than these. Westworld presents the enslavement of conscious machines as plainly unjust: The robots suffer so direly because they are like people. Ex Machina similarly depicts the captivity and domination of sentient droids as cruel. The Good Place builds our empathy for a helper by showing her becoming more humanlike before our eyes (and by having her be so charming in the first place).
Most decisive is the latest season of Black Mirror. Out of the six episodes released to Netflix in December, four obsess over the ramifications of AI. All are unequivocal that society ought to think carefully before vesting person-esque capabilities in machines—less because of what the machines would do to us (though that is the fear in the “Metalhead” episode) than because of what we’d do to them.
In particular, Black Mirror’s “USS Callister,” “Hang the DJ,” and “Black Museum” episodes all revolve around human consciousness that has been “uploaded” into computers, whether to animate video-game characters, enable simulations to test two real people’s romantic compatibility, or create a holographic tourist attraction. In all cases, the artificial humans experience real desire and, more poignantly, real suffering. The show wrings deep horror from the prospect of a thinking, feeling computer program being trapped: whether in a simulation or, in “Black Museum,” an actual prison cell. “Black Museum,” in fact, goes so far as to reference United Nations legislation in the near-future over “human rights for cookies,” or sentient code.
It’s especially easy to empathize with Black Mirror’s digital ghosts because they are derived from real people. Yet in the show’s universe, too few people do empathize. Which raises the dark question of how much worse people would treat entities that don’t so blatantly resemble their friends but still do have a rich, lively consciousness.
In the second-season finale of The Good Place, Janet remains a faithful servant to Michael and the humans—but it’s harder than ever to tell whether that’s because she’s created to serve, or because she now has real emotional loyalties. What might happen if she decides she wants a new job? Would it be right to reboot her again? Chidi might agonize over such questions in the abstract, but as a viewer, the answers feel clear. None of pop culture’s recent AI explorations argue that, in the religious sense, a robot’s potential soulfulness entitles it to actual heaven or hell. But they do imply a related thought: If there is a Good Place and a Bad Place, its occupancy may be determined by how we treat this world’s Janets.
There’s nothing conventional about Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot’s debut. A little over 100 pages, it’s far short of the 80,000 words most memoirs need to be deemed viable. There’s barely any exposition: Major characters enter the narrative intimately and without fanfare, almost as though we know them already. A crucial scene might be just three lines of unsparing poetry. In short, the book does everything it technically shouldn’t, brushing off the familiar regimen prescribed by MFA programs, and slipping the strictures of commercial publishing. The thrilling part is, it works. Heart Berries is a reminder that, in the right hands, literature can do anything it wants.
In a conversation for this series, Mailhot discussed a book that gave her the courage to break rules: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an ode to a mysterious “prince of blue,” written in short, numbered sections, more like a philosophical proof than a traditional love story. In the end, the book afforded both romantic and creative license. As Bluets reminded Mailhot that “you can do anything,” she also found herself falling for the professor who’d assigned it to her—the writer Casey Gray, now her husband. We discussed how love and writing both require adopting a willful blindness to everything we’re “supposed” to do and be.
Heart Berries makes for a slim volume, but it feels as though it weighs a thousand pounds. It turns its gaze on a constellation of fraught subjects: Mailhot’s upbringing on British Columbia’s Seabird Island Indian Reservation; her caring grandmother and abusive father; her teenage marriage, and all the wrong men afterward; her children, one lost in an custody battle; her tumultuous affair with Gray; the pregnancy she carried through both a graduate fellowship and a mental health facility. What brings it all together is the oracular power of Mailhot’s voice, which speaks into the silence: amplifying aspects of experience that have been muted, animating despairs and passions we tend to hide from view. “I can name my pain so well,” she writes, in an indicative line, “that people are afraid of the consequences and power.”
Terese Marie Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction; there, she studied with the writer Sherman Alexie, whose mentorship she discussed below. She’s the Saturday editor at The Rumpus and was recently named a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University. We spoke by phone.
Terese Marie Mailhot: I had already read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets twice when I signed up for a nonfiction seminar with Evan Lavender-Smith at New Mexico State University. He was something of a star for being an experimental nonfiction writer, and his reading list was really interesting to me. But he didn’t end up teaching that semester. Instead, the class ended up being taught by my now-husband Casey, who’d been my fiction professor a semester before.
I don’t even think Casey would’ve selected Bluets himself, but he had to teach Evan’s syllabus. The thing that surprised me was that people were so upset about it. They didn’t think it was a real book. Other students in my class, especially men, would say, “Well, I don’t like how she says ‘fuck’ all the time,” or, “I don’t like how she writes explicitly about sex,” or, “Why is she so ambiguous about where they are and who this person is? Why speak so abstractly, and why talk in riddles?”
I could tell Casey admired how much I loved the book, and he allowed me to defend it. To me, Bluets never felt abstract. I thought the way she referred to her lover as “the prince of blue” was oddly specific, a quality you’d give somebody you admire profoundly, who has struck you in a magical, dark sense. The way she wrote was exactly the way I wanted to—which is not immersing the reader in all the details of a location, but placing them in a specific emotional space. That didn’t really seem to work for people. I think they were expecting to read something like Wild, a travel memoir that felt from the top down like a full, linear experience.
Then something happened that surprised me. As we read the book, I noticed I was very struck by Casey. It was so unexpected. We didn’t have a flirtation or anything, and I think he was really clueless about all of it. But during breaks my friend and I would talk about Casey, about my crush on Casey, and about the book itself.
One of the book’s numbered sections sums up really well how it felt:
125. Of course, you could also just take off the blindfold and say, I think this game is stupid, and I’m not playing it anymore. And it must also be admitted that hitting the wall or wandering off in the wrong direction or tearing off the blindfold is as much a part of the game as is pinning the tail on the donkey.
It’s a very abstract idea, but Nelson uses such plain language to talk about it—this concrete image of a familiar childhood game we all know. And though she doesn’t say so explicitly, I think she’s talking about love here. We talk about love like it’s this beautiful thing, a goal to achieve, something we accomplish the same way you can win at a game. But actually, I think, we want the full experience—the dynamic experience, which also requires a lot of patience and wandering off. Pain, too.
There’s an agency in this wandering. The line “Of course, you could also just take off the blindfold” places power in the speaker, shows she’s aware of what she’s doing. She’s chosen to wear this blindfold, has agreed to limit her perceptions in this way. It’s a willful blindness, and I relate to that. A lot of the time, I would involve myself with men that people did not like. I felt my friends did not understand my drive to love certain people, and I wanted to tell them: I’m self-aware enough to know the problems of this relationship, and I’m self-aware enough to know what it’s going to do to me, and I’d like to take the risk right now. I would like to wander off into this experience and find out for myself what it is worth.
I really did not want to seduce Casey. I really didn’t want to like him as much as I did. But observing him and knowing that we had the same artistic aesthetic and we talked about work with the same questions in mind, it felt so inviting. I just wanted to like him, even if I knew that I would never tell him I liked him. Whether or not it was the best idea I’d ever had to have a crush on somebody so completely unavailable to me, it was a thing that I was going to do.
As I was working on my book, I went to the Vermont Studio Center—and at that point I had all of the material to put everything in chronological order and make it a work of fiction. I planned to write a novel with a protagonist that was very similar to me, just way more lecherous and unlikeable. When I went in, I did not have a blindfold on. I was very astute. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish—part of which was to complete a work that would make my mentors proud.
But as I started the last two weeks of my residency, I was crying because I hated the book I was writing. I knew I had to change something. And what I did was, I put the blindfold on. I put down the pages I had next to me and just started typing—almost transcribing from them everything that was true, line by line. I didn’t let myself worry about what a mess I was about to make. I just let myself feel around and wrote down only the parts I wanted, and it felt 100 percent completely right.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had to actively tune out the inner voice that said, This is not literary, this is not good writing. There was a lot of exposition. I played with sentimentality. I synopsized. I was telling a lot instead of showing. Through it I had to actively tell myself I didn’t care—I was just going to do it anyway. It was the only thing that felt right, and it made the book. It took just two weeks to get the first draft of the book done, and once I was finished, I realized I wasn’t writing a novel at all. I had a memoir.
Originally, it had been a novel about the goings-on of a Native woman who becomes a professor and has a sordid affair. But that fell away—there was no affair in my life, I’ve never really cheated on anyone. There were characters in the book who never existed in real life, and they fell away too. The setting fell away. But the integrity, the heart of the book—that remained the same. Only the result was 100 times better, because it’s not doing all those things my mentors thought were going to make great fiction. I think I wasn’t really writing a book of fiction. I just kind of hid behind it. And ultimately, I chose to fail to fulfill the requirements of the genre.
I committed to failure so much that I started to tell people at Vermont that I was failing, that I was ruining my book. I knew what I was doing was really weird. But by the time I was done, I knew I had done something good. I just didn’t know if anyone else would understand it. I only knew it was exactly what I wanted to do—though I’d had no idea of that objective when I started.
At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell Sherman [Alexie] I had written a memoir. I told him, “I’m done,” and he said, “Send me the manuscript.” But I knew he would not be prepared for what I sent him. I think it was only 100 pages. I was afraid everyone would tell me, “These are great pages, but can you write 200 more to make it a real thing?” I’m so glad no one told me that, in the end, because I would have fought them—or if someone had offered me some ridiculous amount of money, I might have added 200 perfunctory pages and been really unhappy with myself.
But in the end it all worked out. And it was because—instead of trying to pin the tail on the donkey right away—I let myself wander, I risked running into the wall. I believe that when you are feeling around with the blindfold on, inviting a disturbance into your life could further complicate it, there is a kind of purity to that. That’s when you are able to do something really profound—I really believe that.
I can hear workshop leaders in white graduate programs telling me to slow down—that the setting needs to be described before you jump into dialogue. Or to evenly dispense setting, dialogue, exposition, and description. But I’m not trying to create the perfect thing on the page as much as I want to relate perfectly what I want to express to the reader. Everyone has their own narrative voice—and more than any hard-and-fast rules, they should follow that.
The established MFA aesthetic is essentially white. It’s based on Flannery O’ Connor. It’s based on John Cheever, Raymond Carver, these writers I really like who willfully broke rules themselves—though no one ever wants to examine that as much as they want to teach: Well, this is the formula. The formula works. Do the formula. The formula is show, don’t tell. The formula is don’t be sentimental. The formula is, you can’t just say, “This man broke my heart.”
I’ve read the canon. I love the canon. But I’m suspicious of when we try to compartmentalize the formula for success as an author, instead of just inviting the person to be as weird as they need to be to express something. Let them be the person they’re supposed to be, instead of trying to mold them into the aesthetic of this moment. It’s so difficult and important for teachers to try to bring that weirdness out. Student writers are usually so guarded that the way they write is sometimes only a glimpse of what their potential is.
At the Institute of American Indian Arts, instructors have to teach a certain percentage of books by Native American authors—which I’m really grateful for, because I had only read Sherman Alexie in my classes and only a select few stories that showed drunken Indians, even though a lot of his work is not about that. And the emphasis felt really different. It wasn’t about doing it right. It was about finding your voice.
My workshop with Sherman Alexie was such a crucial step, because he made me feel important as a person. Nobody had ever done that for me in any of my creative writing workshops. The level of investment, and the stakes, felt higher. You had to accept his personality—he could be very blunt. But he wanted us to finish books. In MFA programs, they’re not usually talking to you like, “You need to finish this book and sell it right now.” Sherman was totally like that. He was like: “You have to write this book, because if you don’t there won’t be a book like this for anybody. And if you don’t write this book, I’m going to write it.”
That was such an important shift. There are so few memoirs by Native women about sexual violence, or love, or living on a reservation and being on welfare. I can think of a lot of travel memoirs about finding yourself in India, or something like that. But I want there to be more books that Native women like me could have walked into a library and just found. I think Sherman understood the importance of that, because people are probably telling him all the time—I never read a book about a young Native kid from the reservation until I read your book. When you read a book like that, it makes you feel seen. But it takes a long time to write ourselves into the literary landscape. It’s a slow journey. It’s been a long time since the era when Sherman first came out, and we are long overdue for another boom like that.
I think Maggie Nelson taught me that you can do anything you want with a book. When people enter a classroom, they think the parameters are finite, that when you write a book, it has to be a certain amount of pages and it must accomplish a certain set of things. But this book is so literally small, and it’s only a short, numbered list, with only two characters—the narrator, and her prince—and little outside that. It’s a reminder that, in love and in art, you don’t have to follow the established parameters of the game. There is joy in breaking rules, whether romantic rules or genre rules or just life choices. It’s inevitable that we’re going to get lost, mess up, or pick the wrong person. And we should understand that that’s okay. It’s okay to take detours. We should risk wasting time, because the work we get done when we allow ourselves to get lost for a few minutes really is valuable.
On the morning of Mardi Gras, before the first light of dawn, dozens of skeletons flood the streets of the 6th Ward neighborhood of Tremé in New Orleans. For 200 years, its residents have awakened on the first day of the carnival to the clattering of bones and oversized skulls. Embodying the undead is the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, comprised of descendants of Native Americans and slaves. Its mission: To warn local teenagers of violence and gunplay.
“When you’re a young person living in this environment, you have a choice that you have to make—to steer clear of it or get caught up directly in it. It’s a school of hard knocks,” says Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, chief of the Skull and Bone gang, in Victoria Rivera’s short documentary, Skull + Bone. “It’s very hard for black people in this country to live, exist, and survive in any kind of peaceful way.”
Barnes says that in addition to serving an educational purpose for the community’s disadvantaged youth, the gang helps keep ancient African traditions alive. It was founded on the spirit of resistance; for many years, African-Americans were not allowed to march in the Mardi Gras parades, so the Skull and Bone gang “became a way to survive and pass messages on to the next generation.”
“The real Mardi Gras is outside of the French Quarter, on every street corner of the city and its neighborhoods,” Rivera told The Atlantic. “There is an air of celebration, love, and respect for community that I’ve never seen elsewhere.”
This story contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Black Lightning.
In the second episode of the new series Black Lightning, Principal Jefferson Pierce addresses a group of parents who have become increasingly concerned about the gang problem in their community. In a spirit of optimism, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Without missing a beat, one fed-up parent replies, “They shot Dr. King in the head.”
This quick exchange sums up some the most prominent themes in The CW’s latest comic-book adaptation. Black Lightning, which debuted last month, offers what is arguably the most timely and nuanced portrayal of the internal conflicts that can arise within the African American community on the subject of racial justice—both what that entails and how to achieve it. Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce, the principal of his former high school and, secretly, a former superhero with the moniker “Black Lightning.” He had hung up the electrifying costume (and was presumed dead) and turned to gentler ways of trying to save his city—until it became apparent early this season that he might need to take a more hands-on approach once again.
When Black Lightning begins, the fictional American metropolis of Freeland is in trouble (this being a superhero show). But the citizens aren’t worried about metahumans. They’re concerned instead about local violence, growing protests over the police’s inability to combat gangs, systemic racism, the ever-increasing presence of drugs, and whether their children can walk home from school safely. (Realistic news footage of protests might call to mind media coverage of the unrest that unfolded in Ferguson and Baltimore a few years ago.) In short, Freeland is set in a world much like our own—and, as in many neighborhoods across the U.S., its residents can’t agree on the best way to fix their community’s problems.
The husband-and-wife executive-producer duo Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, who most recently worked together on Being Mary Jane, have spent their careers honing black-centric narratives and now bring that experience to Black Lightning. The show makes abundantly clear that African Americans aren’t a monolithic group: If one black character complains about police violence, then another laments about how police don’t get credit for the lives they do save. There’s an authenticity to the series—it’s neither too pulpy nor too preachy—that’s heightened by the strong performances from its predominantly black cast, particularly from Williams, who anchors the show’s many conflicts.
As Black Lightning’s hero, Jefferson is a weathered, but hopeful, family man, one who’s much older than the usual crop of CW heroes. The series is wise to eschew the typical origin story of a young’n discovering powers, instead introducing Jefferson after he’s settled into a normal career and raised two daughters. His approach to Freeland’s many woes is a peaceful one that seeks to work within the system. As a principal, Jefferson believes in the importance of educating and mentoring his students before they go down the path of drugs and crime. (He has tried to keep his own family safe this way: One of his daughters is studying medicine, the other is a track star.) Early on, he dismisses the idea of installing metal detectors in the school because he doesn’t want his students to feel like criminals. He even has an unspoken agreement with the 100—a gang known for drug- and sex-trafficking that’s slowly taking over Freeland—to stay away from Garfield High.
Less interested in this patient route is Jefferson’s older daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), whom we first meet in the pilot episode after she’s arrested while participating in a protest-turned-riot. After picking Anissa up, Jefferson pulls out another peaceful King quote while scolding her, but she spits back one from another civil-rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Anissa is part of a generation of younger activists who are ready to take to the streets, who reject the notion of “respectability politics,” and who believe that sometimes the only way to get the world’s attention is to burn something down.
Black Lightning is striking for how many well-rounded black characters it has, which allows for tough exchanges like the one between Anissa and her father to take place every week. (The show also takes care to include people of different backgrounds without reducing them to some single aspect of their identity, like race or sexuality.) There’s Inspector William Henderson (Damon Gupton), an African American police officer who often hears from other black Freeland residents that he’s doing a poor job protecting the community. And where others see Black Lightning as a welcome hero, after Jefferson chooses to use his powers again, Henderson considers him a vigilante. We also see the gang leader Lala (William Catlett)—who, like Jefferson, is big on molding the next generation—telling a young boy to spend less time on his phone and to work harder … except he’s talking about dealing drugs.
Other recent TV shows from African American creators have explored similar territory. In Season 1 of Dear White People, black college students regularly discuss the best way to deal with racism. After a campus cop pulls a gun on one young black man during a party, the series shifts its focus to follow various reactions; some students turn their anger inward, others protest. ABC’s Black-ish frequently illustrates the disagreements within the African American community (often in terms of the generational divide) on problems like police brutality or the stigma surrounding therapy.
Unlike those half-hour comedies, of course, Black Lightning is a superhero story, which means it can approach similar topics a little more creatively. Even if the constant juxtaposition of Jefferson and Anissa’s beliefs can at times feel a little on-the-nose, the fantasy elements help keep things fresh. In the pilot, Anissa (who’s unaware of her father’s secret life) discovers a power of her own: some sort of super-strength, which she uses to take down drug dealers in the fourth episode. It’s a clever twist because Black Lightning knows it’s impossible for one person—powers or not—to fix an entire community alone. The reveal also raises the dramatic stakes: Both father and daughter will certainly keep their abilities to themselves, but viewers also know that if (or, when) Jefferson finds out, he’ll project his own fears about being a hero—and the mental and physical toll it takes—onto his daughter.
Black Lightning’s broader exploration of the multitudes contained within a larger whole is nicely embodied by Jefferson himself. He’s both Principal Pierce and Black Lightning; these two halves are always working against each other, a conflict that’s been with Jefferson since the start of the series. Within the first five minutes of the pilot, Jefferson is pulled over—in his business suit, with his daughters in the car—by two police officers, who manhandle him. After demanding an explanation, he’s simply told that he fits a description of someone who robbed a liquor store, the unspoken description, of course, being “black man.” This profiling makes Jefferson want to go full–Black Lightning; you can literally see the electricity in his eyes, but he has to contain himself. After all, as Jefferson says in that episode, “I have saved more lives as a principal than I ever would have as Black Lightning.”
This tension comes to a head, as it must in order for the series to work. The 100 kidnaps Jefferson’s daughters and brings them to the Seahorse Motel—known as the gang’s sex-trafficking hub—forcing Jefferson to use his abilities to save them. Later, Jefferson learns from a former student named Lawanda (Tracey Bonner) that her kidnapped daughter is still in the motel. Lawanda is soon found dead, after trying to confront the 100 herself, sparking a crisis for Jefferson.
Lawanda’s death hits him especially hard because she was his student, and he believes so much in his power as an educator. “I had a fantasy that when they leave me, their lives are better. That they could transcend this neighborhood, this city, world,” Jefferson tells his wife Lynn (Christine Adams). Maybe he was wrong; maybe Black Lightning does save more lives than a high-school principal. But the show is quick, yet again, to complicate this sympathetic idea. Lynn lets Jefferson know that she’s against him donning the suit again, though her reasons are mostly personal. She’s seen how Black Lightning damaged their family (the two are separated) and believes he has an “addiction” to being a superhero.
Black Lightning, like all superhero shows, is about many things at once. It’s about the dynamics within the Pierce family; about Jefferson’s old nemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) seeking revenge after learning Black Lightning is alive; about the Pierce daughters’ budding relationships with their respective partners; about a young woman coming to terms with her mysterious abilities. And this means that, like all superhero shows, it can sometimes feel too crowded or uneven. But Black Lightning’s greatest success so far is how it has surveyed the different ways black people tackle problems in their own backyards. Viewers see Henderson putting his faith in his own police department, Reverend Holt (Clifton Powell) organizing a march, and a Garfield High student, Khalil (Jordan Calloway), hoping to use sports as his way out, until violence jeopardizes that, too. And Jefferson is somewhere in the middle of it all, unsure of the right approach but knowing something has to be done.
Black Lightning can be overt about this inner conflict: In the fourth episode, a friendly dinner between the Pierces and the Hendersons turns into a debate about whether Black Lightning is good or bad for the community that unfolds as Jefferson quietly listens. The rest of the episode raises the same point a bit more subtly. A new drug called Green Light (“like crack and PCP … had a baby,” as one character puts it) is being targeted to black teens, while Freeland grapples with the aftermath of Holt’s “peaceful protest,” where Holt and Khalil were shot (both survive; Khalil is paralyzed). This combination simultaneously makes Jefferson want to put on his Black Lightning suit while reminding him he could cause even more bloodshed in his quest for peace.
So far, Black Lightning has set up an intriguing premise that’s been pushed along by a cast of well-defined characters. And it’s already managed to distinguish itself not only from the Arrowverse (which includes shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl), but also from Marvel’s Luke Cage, the series that’s usually mentioned in the same breath. It would be a mistake for the show to gradually become more about the costume than about the person wearing it. But Black Lightning can avoid that fate—and even become great—if it continues to train its eyes on the realistic dilemmas facing Freeland’s black community—and lets those inform the superhero elements, rather than the other way around.
We are in the throes of the “emo revival,” apparently. It’s a term that’s applied both to newer bands embodying the ethos of the genre—heartfelt, with punk roots—and to the wave of 2000s nostalgia among Millennials. This nostalgia has led to emo-themed dance nights around the U.S., new music, and tours from bands like Brand New, The Starting Line, and Mae.
But in the early 2000s, as emo broke into the mainstream, the “icon,” the “breakout star,” the “poster boy” of the genre was Chris Carrabba, with his band Dashboard Confessional. Though the emo label got applied to many different kinds of music—clever pop punk, angsty hardcore, proto-indie acoustic—somehow Carrabba and his strummy eager singalongs became the symbol of the genre. As the critic Andy Greenwald put it in his book Nothing Feels Good: “Love for Dashboard Confessional spread across the country in 2001 and 2002 like mono in the ’50s: an intimate interaction between mouthy teenagers.”
On Friday, Dashboard Confessional released their first album in almost nine years, Crooked Shadows. The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and Caroline Mimbs Nyce discuss the band’s revival, and how it compares to Carrabba’s classic sound.
Julie Beck: There’s something so refreshing and soothing about a Dashboard Confessional song. Turning on one of their old albums feels to me like putting aloe on a sunburn. It’s partly nostalgia, I know, but there really is something special about the lack of artifice, the wholehearted commitment to a feeling that Carrabba gives his songs. He keeps his lyrics simple and honest for the most part, never hiding behind a smokescreen of cool, but he knows just the right details and turns of phrase to use to bring a moment to life, to make the specific feel universal. There’s a reason Dashboard Confessional concerts were famously singalongs—the songs felt like a shared experience.
“Vindicated” and “Hands Down” are probably Dashboard’s most iconic songs, and for good reason, but if I were to point to one song that sums up what the band was at its best, it would probably be “The Brilliant Dance,” off the second album. That was my favorite, anyway. It was melodramatic but sweet, and grounded in finely drawn images and observations. “Measuring your minutes by a clock that’s blinking eights” is a line that’s stuck with me for years.
Caroline, you and I used to be those teenagers who caught the emo bug like mono, and I’m so excited to discuss this album with you. But first—what was it about Dashboard back in the day that felt special to you? What’s your favorite song?
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: I want to begin by disclosing that I once photoshopped the following words onto a black-and-white photo of myself: “Youth’s the most unfaithful mistress / Still we forge ahead to miss her.” And used it as my MySpace default photo. These lyrics are from the title track of Dashboard’s debut album, The Swiss Army Romance. And they summarize a lot of what Dashboard was for me: a perfect reflection of how much it can suck to be a teenager, especially when you don’t want to be a teen anymore.
Accordingly, my favorite song was “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most,” in which Carrabba describes someone who, despite seeming fine on the outside, is wrecked with inner turmoil. This idea comes up a lot in Dashboard’s early work. It’s also one of the painful realities of teendom: When you’re still learning how to express yourself, it’s easy to feel bottled up inside. But in “Places,” Carrabba makes it okay to drop the facade: “This is one time / That you can’t fake it hard enough to please everyone / Or anyone at all.” The song starts off melancholic and gradually builds; by the final chorus, Carrabba is screaming the words. I can remember so vividly screaming along with him.
But enough about the Dashboard of yesteryear. It’s 2018, and they’re back. How are you feeling about the new record?
Beck: The first single, and album opener, “We Fight,” is a shouty anthem that reminds me a little of “Don’t Wait”—the first track off the 2006 album Dusk and Summer. Both have belted choruses and grand, sweeping full-band arrangements. But “Don’t Wait” has a memorable hook, and “We Fight” really … doesn’t. The lyrics are vague inspirational platitudes— “We never learned to keep our voices down / No, we only learned to shout / So we fight our way in /And we fight our way out”—that feel bloodless compared to the evocative imagery that was once the hallmark of a Dashboard song. “We Fight” sounds like Imagine Dragons gone emo, and for me, it was not a promising start.
Nyce: My first reaction was, “Is this really Dashboard?” Musically, it’s not dissimilar from the band’s earlier pop-rock ventures. But lyrically, it could not be more different. Carrabba sounds like some sort of community organizer for dispirited youths, here to reassure them things will get better. “There’s still a kid somewhere that needs to hear this,” he sings, “that somebody cares, that somebody knows.” There’s merit in the messaging, but the delivery falls a little flat—especially coming from the prince of emo, so often known for assuring us of the opposite. Not to split hairs, but your favorite song—2001’s “The Brilliant Dance”—features a narrator realizing that “nobody cares at all,” sung with a classic Carrabba howl. One could argue that “We Fight” is future-Carrabba speaking to that person.
That all being said, it’s very catchy. And it may well be the first Dashboard Confessional song that’s fit for a congressional reelection campaign.
Beck: The Carrabba howl is still good! This album strikes me as Dashboard Confessional’s attempt at stadium rock—many of the songs are way more bombastic than even the full-band stuff on previous albums. But I think the places where the album deviates from this through line are more interesting and, often, more successful.
One thing I’m wrestling with is that you and I are obviously coming to this album as big fans of the band’s old work. I don’t want to be the sort of grump who just wants more of the same, and faults the band for trying to grow and change. But at the same time, this is essentially a comeback album that’s surfing into the world on the wave of good feeling that fans have for a band they loved in their youth. So I want to evaluate it on its own merits, but I can’t help but think of the new music in terms of what it means for Dashboard’s overall legacy.
Nyce: By no means should Carrabba be condemned to a lifetime of teenage misery. After all, it’s been nearly 20 years since the band’s debut. It’s hard to ask him to continue to carry the baton of adolescent angst when he’s a married man in his 40s.
In a way, it’s fitting that this album comes now. Dashboard’s third full-length album, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar, turns 15 later this year. AMAMABAS (as it used to be called on the DC messaging boards—yes, I was that teen) is the first record that really shows off Carrabba’s range. AMAMABAS introduced us to Carrabba as more than the guy who just got dumped. The lead single, the inimitable “Hands Down,” is arguably the first happy song on a Dashboard record. Back in 2003, The New York Times called it “a sly rejoinder to listeners who dismiss Mr. Carrabba as a one-dimensional whiner peddling second-hand heartbreak.”
The subsequent albums add even more dimensions, hitting more pop-rock notes. This latest album seems to build on the most recent one, Alter the Ending. Crooked Shadows feels very of-the-moment. (Is that a millennial whoop I hear on the album’s title track?) But I worry some of the pithier elements of his earlier music—like winking asides about how he’s going to “get some” on “Hands Down”—have been lost here. Some of the lyrical observations are a little bubblegum for my taste. Still, I could see my teenage self blasting a few of the later tracks.
Beck: I definitely agree that Crooked Shadows seems to follow on the heels of Alter the Ending (which I didn’t think was their best work either), but it turns up the rock dial even more. And I just don’t think it works very well. It doesn't help that many of the Imagine Dragons–esque numbers are also lyrically limp—you get choruses like “I’m always going to be about us” or “We’re going to be all right.” It feels like taking the broadest generalities and trying to make them specifically relatable, which is the inverse of what Dashboard was good at. AMAMABAS was definitely their breakout hit, like you said, but the first two albums—The Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most—had more of a rawness to them that felt particularly intimate, and that intimacy is what’s missing for me on much of Crooked Shadows.
Of the stadium rock numbers, I like “Catch You” the best—it’s got a boppy little hook. But I much prefer the songs that aren’t aiming to fill an arena. The lick on “Heart Beat Here” is classic Dashboard, infused with just a bit of folk energy that may be leftover from Twin Forks—the Americana band that Carrabba has fronted since 2011.
But we need to talk about “Belong”—the collaboration with the EDM DJ group Cash Cash. It’s easily the most jarring song. Dashboard gone dance pop is not something I ever thought I’d live to hear. But the more I listen to it the more it honestly works for me! Do you think I’m insane?
Nyce: I’m certainly not one to judge. Cash Cash’s 2013 “Take Me Home,” featuring Bebe Rexha, was a mainstay of my guilty pleasures playlist for longer than I care to admit. It’s interesting to see the group’s take on Dashboard. In a way, “Belong” is an electronic-infused “Hands Down” for the Coachella set. It’s bouncy and optimistic, despite being a bit simplistic as far as love narratives go. The music video for the track features a Dashboard fangirl obsessing over Carrabba. At one point, she begins to project her fantasies onto him, literally, using a mannequin and projector. I was slightly offended, but, to employ that Twitter cliche, I feel seen.
Also, I definitely felt the folk undertones you’re describing with “Heart Beat Here.” It reminded me a little of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” Overall, this isn’t my favorite Dashboard record, but it was never going to be. I’ve grown up and so has the band: We’re both a lot less angst-ridden. Like you, I wish the earlier songs had more bite, but I found some relief on the latter half of the album.
Beck: It’s true—when I was younger I loved Dashboard with the unbridled fervor only a teen can, and this was always going to be a different sort of experience. Just when I was ready to write Crooked Shadows off as a bit of a let-down—some fun moments, sure, but nothing that spoke to me in that distinctly Dashboard way—the album finishes with a perfect, lovely gem of a song. “Just What To Say” (featuring Chrissy Costanza) is Carrabba at his best, delicately tracing the contours of a familiar feeling, and it’s truly moving. His voice is quiet and wavers a little as he delivers an unadorned lament of trying and falling short:
My friends all believe me
When I say I’m busy with pretty big things
I cancel most plans
I hurt someone’s feelings
I feel like I’m starting
And just when I’m starting, I’m starting to stray
And every day, I take a white page
And try very hard to know just what to say
This is not the teen angst of the old Dashboard; it’s a heavy, adult melancholy, and it sits with you. “Just What To Say” is the best song on the album, and it proves that Carrabba does still have something to say.
Nyce: That stanza stood out to me as well—the line about canceling plans is an interesting foil to his earlier lyrics about being lonely in an empty apartment. The Carrabba of yesteryear felt isolated; the older one isolates himself. Fans of the older stuff will certainly feel at home with that track. I also enjoyed the mellower “Open My Eyes,” featuring Lindsey Stirling. Like you, I preferred the latter half over the more stadium-rock tracks.
I’d note this album is relatively short, with only nine songs and around 30 minutes of running time. Here’s one question that I’m still torn on: Is this emo?
Beck: Wow. You’re really asking the hard questions here. I don’t … know. Emo was always such a vague and wide-ranging label (and one many emo bands wouldn’t use to describe themselves). It was sort of like beauty (in the eye of the beholder) or porn (you knew it when you saw it). For me, the genre feels very bounded in time, a certain quality distinctive to the late ’90s and 2000s. Even the contemporary bands and singers I like who have been dubbed part of the emo revival—Julien Baker, Hop Along—don’t feel emo to me. Influenced by the genre, sure, but I think the door to that era shut a while ago.
By this logic the new Dashboard album poses a taxonomic conundrum—Carrabba’s voice still has that emo flavor, and Dashboard Confessional is the canonical emo band, but the new songs feel very modern. The band seems to be aiming at something a little different with this album. So I’m going to say no. Not quite emo.
If you had to pick, would you say Crooked Shadows is emo or no?
Nyce: I’d have to say no. With this album, Dashboard drifts further from that genre it came to define. And I’m not so sure that plays to Carrabba’s strengths. Still, Crooked Shadows has its moments, even if it doesn’t force the kind of introspection their earlier records do.
I’m planning on attending the band’s Crooked Shadows tour this spring, and am very interested in how these new songs mesh with the old ones on a set list. One could imagine it being a very disjointed experience.
Beck: I know you are—I’m going with you! It might end up being a strange mishmash of the old and the new, but Dashboard has always been great live, because Carrabba treats the audience with such earnest devotion. I’m really looking forward to it, and just so you know, I am absolutely, positively 100 percent going to cry.
The goat lowers his head like a fur-covered anvil,
as if he knows all things in the world change.
His eyes are bisected by a horizon line of yellow light.
You’re wondering what might happen if you move closer.
There’s a language we speak to ourselves and one we use for others.
I told you, he’s lowered his head.
Nevertheless, you can see for yourself he’s chewing.
What he swallows becomes his rumination.
I too was attracted to someone I did not understand.
With each other we were bestial, that’s not too strong a word.
Although at first, at first, when our foreheads touched, we were curious.
Tara Westover’s one-of-a-kind memoir is about the shaping of a mind, yet page after page describes the maiming of bodies—not just hers, but the heads, limbs, and torsos of her parents and six siblings, too. The youngest child in a fundamentalist Mormon family living in the foothills of Buck’s Peak, in Idaho, she grew up with a father fanatically determined to protect his family against the “brainwashing” world. Defending his isolated tribe against the physical dangers—literally brain-crushing in some cases—of the survivalist life he imposed was another matter.
Westover, who didn’t set foot in school until she left home in adolescence, toiled at salvaging scrap in his junkyard, awaiting the end days and/or the invading feds her father constantly warned of. Neither came. Nor, amazingly, did death or defeat, despite grisly accidents. Terrified, impaled, set on fire, smashed—the members of this clan learned that pain was the rule, not the exception. But succumbing was not an option, a lesson that ultimately proved liberating for Westover.
In briskly paced prose, she evokes a childhood that completely defined her. Yet it was also, she gradually sensed, deforming her. Baffled, inspired, tenaciously patient with her ignorance, she taught herself enough to take the ACT and enter Brigham Young University at 17. She went on to Cambridge University for a doctorate in history.
For Westover, now turning 32, the mind-opening odyssey is still fresh. So is the soul-wrenching ordeal—she hasn’t seen her parents in years—that isn’t over.
“There is no such thing as a succès d’estime in America. That’s why it is a French phrase.”
Tina Brown never lacked for success in the American fame-and-money sense of the word. Yet for all the acclaim that has come the way of this legendary magazine editor, Brown has also been persistently underestimated. Brown observes of herself: “The perception of me is flashy, fast, and scandalous.” Now Brown has published a memoir of her spectacular journalistic career, based on the diaries she kept during her tenure as the editor of Vanity Fair from 1984 through 1992. The book has gained praise, yet even the praise often retains the familiar grudging character accorded to Brown’s editorial accomplishments. As a reviewer wrote in The New Yorker (a magazine that owes its existence to Brown’s rescue from a readership collapse under her two predecessors): “Brown’s legacy remains controversial not because her success is in question but because, for some, too much was lost in her kind of success.”
Brown’s new book offers an opportunity to test that querulous judgment. Here not only is her voice and sensibility, but also her searching and candid self-assessment.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Brown remade first British and then American magazine journalism. Brown reinvented the celebrity profile and celebrity photography. She printed close-up investigations of the murderous misrule of dictators like Haiti’s Duvalier family and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa. When a trove of new Picasso drawings was discovered, she hired the painter’s most scholarly biographer to explain them. She published forensic profiles of the Gary Hart sex scandal and of the murder of the primatologist Dian Fossey in Rwanda. Her rule was high-low: high culture joined to low gossip, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy and narration for both. She deployed known writers in unexpected ways, while generously promoting new talent. It was Brown who assigned Adam Gopnik to Paris and who liberated Malcolm Gladwell from newspaper reporting. “An editor’s job is to make people say yes to something they hadn’t thought they could do,” and that role Brown fulfilled to the utmost again and again.
Brown was never a “writer’s editor” and always a “reader’s editor”: “Writers, unless guided and edited and lured out of their comfort zones, can go off-piste into dreary cul-de-sacs of introversion and excess and entirely forget about questions of content and pace.” This is incontrovertibly true, and for that reason utterly unforgivable—by writers, that is.
Yet even as her titles gained readership, rewards, and respect, Brown’s peers and rivals credited her achievement not to her own vision and drive, but to her willingness to pay large fees. The New York Times’ then-description of her “sprinkling gold dust” still rankles her, all these decades later. It rankles me too, but for the opposite reason. I experienced the Brown editorial method personally, and while money certainly occupied a place in her instrument chest, it by no means predominated. At that time, just after the 2009 recession, gold dust lay a lot thinner on the ground for print journalism than in the gaudy 1980s. Brown had launched a website, The Daily Beast, which had just merged with the tottering Newsweek. She took me to lunch to ask: What would it take to hire me at the Beast? I suggested what seemed to me an attractive number.
She asked if she could consider overnight. Of course, I replied.
The next day she called me. Would I accept $5,000 more than I had asked for?
That isn’t something that happens every day, at least not to me, and so I failed to perceive the metal cage suspended above Tina’s tempting bait of cheese. That unsought $5,000 crackled in the air every time I got an email at 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening asking if there were any way I could produce 800 words on a fast-breaking news story by 7 a.m. the next morning—or if instead of the contracted three articles per week, I could just this one time squeeze in a fourth.
The strange thing was that somehow I always could squeeze in that uncontracted column—and enjoy doing it too. Tina rewarded effort not only in dollars and cents, but also in enthusiasm. She didn’t just ask for an article before breakfast the next day. She asked for “one of your always brilliant articles.” She didn’t merely extract more work than contracted. She explained, “I never can have enough of you.” Obviously, this was practiced art, but how amazing that she had practiced it so well.
If something was “lost” in Brown’s editing career, as The New Yorker’s reviewer suggested, the most important of those somethings—on the evidence of this book—was Brown’s own voice. In all those years devoted to coaxing better work out of balky writers, one great writer was persistently sacrificed: Tina Brown herself.
“You can teach people structure,” Brown observes early in her diary-memoir, “and how to write a lead. But you can’t teach them how to notice the right things.” Brown is a writer who notices and notices and notices.
Here is her brief observation of a legendary 1980s trophy wife:
Her eyes were starey with strain and the quest for perfection. She looked worn down by the French lessons and the piano lessons and the cordon bleu taster menus for every dinner party she hosts. She’s a very, very talented designer … but that’s not enough …. She never gets to collapse in her designer jeans … and recuperate from her week competing. She has to go to Florida to shoot with the Kluges. To Mar-a-Lago to a house party of the Trumps. She has to look wonderful, have inventive sex … and go to a black-tie dinner every night of the week. No wonder she looks like a zombie.
Here is her vignette of 1980s-vintage Donald Trump:
“What do you think of the Newsweek cover story on me?”
“I haven’t read it,” I told him.
“You know, Tina, I could have had Time. They wanted me and I saw them, too. But Newsweek scooped them. Who do you think’s better, Tina, Newsweek or Time?”
“Time,” I said mischievously.
“You really think so, Tina, you really think so?” His pouty Elvis face folded into a frown of self-castigation. “I guess it sells more,” he said in a tormented tone. “I guess it does.”
Here is how a truly wealthy man raises money for a fashionable cause:
Preening like a ringmaster, he surveyed the circle of high-roller guests and declared, “Okay, my friends, who’s going to buy some tickets to these great literary evenings?” A business face from the back yelled, “For you, Saul, ten K” … Within 10 minutes Saul had raised a hundred thousand dollars for something he surely cares not a whit about, and the bidders care less … “I can raise up to a million in an hour,” Saul told me cheerily, “more than that, it gets a little tougher.”
Tina Brown’s story is that American classic: the striver arriving to make a mark in and upon New York. This time, the striver is a woman and mother of two, struggling with those affections and those claims in a way no man-on-the-make ever has. She found herself locked in savage emotional competition with a psychotic nanny, whom she overhears on the phone saying, “I hate her. Georgie [Brown’s son] hates her. He loves me … I want to choke her.”
Brown grew up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, in a milieu in which money was too scarce to offer a scale of status. Her father worked in the threadbare British film industry, a comfortable but not a lavish life. She arrived in a New York that had plunged into a money mania unparalleled since the Jazz Age. The wealth geyser erupted, pushing the city’s rich into a new social stratosphere—of which Brown designated herself the most astute and intimate chronicler. Her role both delighted and troubled her. “Why do I keep seeking out the things I deride?” she wonders. She never does find the answer. Yet also she never loses awareness of the discrepancy between her economic situation and that of the high society she mingled in, a discrepancy that provides many of her book’s most comic moments.
In April 1985, the very young Tina Brown, just a year into the editorship of Vanity Fair, had already emerged as a dominant figure in American magazine journalism. But she had a problem familiar to many New Yorkers: an unsatisfactory apartment. After two days without running water, she decided she must move. Her landlord refused to allow realtors to show the apartment on behalf of Brown. The editor of Vanity Fair had to take time off work to buzz potential subtenants into the building. “Tell Tina Brown she just gotta sit there and let the parties in. Tell her, yeah, it’s an inconvenience. But she just gotta live with it.” Why must Tina Brown gotta live with it? Because “Jonny Guerrero don’t deal with no intermediaries.”
Thanks to Tina Brown’s deft pen, Jonny Guerrero—wherever he may now be found—will live in the history of the 1980s alongside Henry Kissinger and Henry Kravis. Brown has preserved in vivid perpetuity a moment in social history. As John Bunyan, who coined the phrase vanity fair, wrote in The Pilgrim’s Progress:
This fair is no new-erected business, but a thing of ancient standing … At this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts—as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.
These were Tina Brown’s interests as a great editor, and they are her material as a writer. If you object that her interest in such things should be dismissed as unworthy, go file your complaint at the same office where they are accepting petitions against the duc de Saint-Simon and Marcel Proust.
The tweet, as so often happens, was at once shocking and deeply predictable.
Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused—life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018
That was President Trump, on Saturday, ostensibly reacting to the fact that, this week, allegations of domestic abuse led to the resignations of two high-level staffers at the White House. He was also, obliquely, weighing in on #MeToo. The president’s 48-word assessment of the reckoning so many Americans are painfully but productively engaged in made for rich (but thoroughly unsurprising) irony: Trump, of course, has been accused of sexual impropriety by 19 women—and has also been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, and has also boasted, on national television, about advising friends to “be rougher” toward their wives, and has also been elected president of the United States. His tweet is revealing both in spite and because of those facts: “Peoples[sic],” in the plural; allegation, in the singular. The peoples meaning the “men’s”; the allegation—though in its context, the diminishing adjective is redundant—being a “mere” one.
The poet Mourid Barghouti talks about the political power of narrative order, the way sympathies can be shaped by the sequence of things, the cosmology of things, the omissions as well as the inclusions. Start the story with “Secondly,” leaving the “Firstly” for later, and the Native Americans can be seen as the aggressors; start the story with “Secondly,” and Gandhi becomes the victimizer, King the stubborn threat; “Start your story with ‘Secondly,’” Barghouti writes, “and the world will be turned upside-down.” It is simply a matter of selective vision. Perspective is a powerful thing.
Trump’s tweet, though he probably did not have Barghouti in mind while crafting it, did not merely, as a New York Times headline summed it up, appear “to doubt [the] #MeToo Movement.” It also attempted to undermine the #MeToo movement precisely by Secondly-ing its story. The presidential tweet overlooks the obvious Firstly, which is that “allegations”—plural, so profoundly plural—are their own suggestions of lives “shattered and destroyed.” It takes the common refrain—the he said/she said nature of such allegations; sexual abuse as epistemic ennui—and doubles down: It is framing the matter such that the he is the only party given words, given space, given moral consideration.
With a remarkable economy of words, then, the president is summarizing a lingering cultural paradigm, one whose stubbornness #MeToo, in its current iteration, is attempting to dismantle: an attitude that treats the male point of view as the default point of view. An attitude that prioritizes the experience of the man (who, anyway, probably had his reasons), over the experience of the woman (who, anyway, probably misunderstood). An epidemic myopia—one that has not been concerned enough with its blurred vision to take the trouble to correct the lens.
It is a widespread affliction. The day before Trump tweeted of “a mere allegation,” the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens weighed in on the case of Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, investigating the state of the claim the auteur’s adoptive daughter made against him decades ago: In 1992, she says, when she was 7 years old, Allen molested her. Stephens’s column Secondlys that story. The op-ed is titled “The Smearing of Woody Allen.” It is framed as a meta-narrative—What We Talk About When We Talk About Woody Allen—and its Secondly sympathies are in this case directed against those who take Farrow’s testimony seriously. “It goes without saying that child molestation is a uniquely evil crime that merits the stiffest penalties,” Stephens writes. “But accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious, particularly in an era in which social-media whispers can become the ruin of careers and even of lives.”
The allegations against Allen are complicated, certainly—and Stephens, cannily, makes that his point. He treats the complication itself as an object lesson not just about Woody Allen, but also about #MeToo: the smearing of Woody Allen, the person. The sanctity of Woody Allen, the idea. The way all of us, according to the transitive properties of American culture, are harmed when #MeToo’s angry gaze is aimed at Woody Allen. Accusing someone of being a molester without abundant evidence is also odious: The “someone” here—Woody Allen, and, by object-lesson implication, the collective of men accused of sexual impropriety, as #MeToo moves forward—is the premise from which everything else proceeds. What happened in 1992 is not the point; what is happening in 2018 is.
The story starts with “Secondly.” That framing allows the tragedy of the allegation—a 7-year-old girl, molested by one of the people charged with keeping her safe; that person, denying the charge—to become a rhetorical device: “If Allen is in fact a pedophile,” Stephens writes, “he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once.” The framing, too, allows Stephens to underplay this case’s obvious Firstly: how commonly those who come forward about sexual abuse are doubted and ignored and effectively punished for speaking in the first place. How rarely abuse of the kind Farrow has been describing for decades comes with the abundant evidence Stephens demands.
The “Secondly” stance has been on display in many other recent examinations of #MeToo—examinations that, while they generally acknowledge the societal benefits of a reckoning, focus their attentions on the pathos of the accused. The New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan has, on multiple occasions, condemned #MeToo as a form of sexual McCarthyism. Bill Maher has warned that efforts to make things “100 percent safe” for women could lead to a kind of “police state” that would attempt to regulate love itself. The journalist Masha Gessen has written of the potential for sex panics. Stephens’s New York Times colleague, Bari Weiss, transformed the generalized dictum of “believe women”—a corrective, of course, to centuries’ worth of people doing the opposite as a matter of default—into “believe all women”; she then argued that her own more strident version of the phrase risked getting “transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy.” The writer Katie Roiphe lamented the firing of Lorin Stein, the former editor of The Paris Review, not on the grounds that the harassment accusations against him were false, but on the grounds that the harassment itself was not as bad it could have been.
The self-conscious backlash to #MeToo often adopts epic assumptions, framing itself as a sweeping defense—of truth, of freedom, of reasonable, fact-based discourse in response to people who are scrambling to erode the Enlightenment, reaction gif by reaction gif. The defense posture, however, is often its own sweeping “Secondly”: Often, the arguments that employ it end up not merely endorsing double standards, but also relying on them to make their point. Bret Stephens’s argument that Woody Allen deserves the benefit of the doubt requires a minimizing of that benefit as extended to Dylan Farrow. Roiphe’s defense of Lorin Stein—“in fact, he lovingly, carefully, intimately, was this, like, transcendently amazing editor and promoter of [women’s] work,” she told NPR—requires its own selective vision. Trump’s lament that “peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation” demands, as well, a particularly myopic form of empathy.
#MeToo is often portrayed as a movement of sound, of voices, of volume: a collective of people who, enabled by technologies that are premised on the value of telling many stories rather than a single one, are sharing experiences that had for too long been silenced. The sonic paradigm has defined the public discussion of #MeToo, this version of it, from the outset: the whisper networks. The Silence Breakers. But #MeToo, for all that, is also a visual movement. It is arguing against failures not only of justice, but also of vision itself: cultural biases about who will be seen, and who will be left to the shadows. About whose perspective will be valued, as a matter of cultural reflex, and whose, reflexively, will not. About whose allegations are actionable, and whose allegations are “mere.”
Women, for so long, have come second in the story: Adam, and then Eve. Mr, and then Mrs. The second sex. History’s plus-ones, decorative and nameless and expendable. Now, though, women are coming forward to tell their own stories, to insist on the validity of their own perspectives. They are demanding to be heard, and even more fundamentally to be prioritized. That, too, is part of the broader purpose of #MeToo. On Saturday, on Twitter, Dylan Farrow responded to Bret Stephens. “To presume I invented this story and convinced myself of it is no less insulting than calling me a liar,” the subject of the op-ed informed the author. “I’ve consistently stated the truth for 25 years.” Farrow added, seconding herself: “I won’t stop now.”
Just a year ago, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix was a big player. The streaming company was a little more than a year into releasing its own original movies for its subscribers, and it was looking for prestige hits to gain a foothold as a distributor Hollywood could take seriously. It acquired one of the best-reviewed films of the festival, Mudbound, for $12.5 million, and the Grand Jury Prize winner I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, among others. In terms of prestige, Netflix was lagging behind its competitor Amazon, which had nabbed a Best Picture nomination for its major Sundance acquisition of 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Maybe Netflix’s new slate of indie favorites would turn things around.
Cut to Sundance 2018 in January. The previous year, Netflix had bought 10 movies at the festival. This year, it acquired exactly none. Though the company entered negotiations on a few of the year’s buzziest films, it was outbid every time, and industry reports from the festival suggested Netflix was hesitant to commit big money to acquisitions as it became more interested in funding its own original movies. In recent weeks, however, the company has pursued yet another approach. Forget acquiring or making its own films—Netflix has been buying up big-budget studio projects, all of them in the sci-fi/horror genre, and dropped its first prize, The Cloverfield Paradox, with maximum fanfare on Super Bowl Sunday.
This isn’t to say Netflix has abandoned smaller films entirely—a family drama that it funded, Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, debuted to strong reviews at Sundance. But the company seems to be increasingly drawn to movies that can make an immediate impact and keep subscribers satisfied. Netflix’s approach in both TV and film has always been to keep original content constantly churning, but while small-scale independent projects were the backbone of that strategy in 2017, glossy B-movies seem to be the name of the game so far in 2018.
Netflix’s first move in this direction came in December when it acquired the international rights to Annihilation, an upcoming Paramount film budgeted at about $55 million. In exchange for reportedly covering most of that budget, Netflix gets to release the movie in every market except for the U.S., Canada, and China. For Paramount, it was a pressure-relieving move for a film that the studio’s higher-ups didn’t have enough faith in; this way, at least the studio’s initial outlay would be mostly recouped if Annihilation underperforms at the domestic box office. Apparently satisfied with the parameters of that deal, Netflix began talking to Paramount about another of its troubled sci-fi projects, a movie tentatively titled God Particle.
Produced by J.J. Abrams, the film had been in development for years as a smaller-budget genre movie, before getting greenlit by Paramount at a more expansive $40 million cost. From then, it was consistently moved around the schedule, originally intended for a 2017 release, before finally being set for April 2018. Then, in January, Abrams and Paramount changed their minds and approached Netflix, which reportedly paid more than $50 million to take it off their hands. Retitled The Cloverfield Paradox, the film debuted with a splash after the Super Bowl to universally negative reviews.
But the reviews barely matter. For Paramount, another potential problem film was offloaded for a good price (although consistently selling off projects reflects poorly on the studio’s trust in its filmmakers). For Netflix, it got to release an expensive-looking title as an exclusive without going through the slow production process. The word is now out to studios: If you have a movie you’re not interested in releasing, give Netflix a call. Universal already answered, selling its alien-invasion film Extinction, starring Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan, which it had planned for a January 2018 release.
It’s a strategy that could prove very effective in distinguishing Netflix from other streaming services. Its TV offerings are consistent awards contenders, but the company has had more trouble attracting Oscar attention even for critically praised films like Mudbound (which got four nominations but missed out on Best Picture). That’s because Netflix insists on releasing its films online the same day they hit theaters, a choice that has prompted many bigger chains to boycott the company.
Essentially, Netflix has “direct-to-video” built into its release strategy, so why not embrace the pulpier side of that approach? Films with broad genre appeal might hold more interest for viewers than very serious indie dramas. Some of Netflix’s other 2017 acquisitions, like To the Bone and First They Killed My Father, focused on incredibly depressing real-life topics. Much of its upcoming 2018 slate, like the sci-fi mystery Mute and the action thriller How It Ends, is easier popcorn fare. Meanwhile, Netflix says the gritty fantasy film Bright was one of its most-watched original titles and ordered a sequel; and the company’s association with the comedic star Adam Sandler shows no sign of waning.
As long as studios keep making movies and worrying about their box-office potential, seemingly, Netflix will be there ready to snap them up. Eventually, the company may tire of feasting on other studios’ scraps, just as it tired of buying up festival hits. But for now, it seems like the easiest way to keep the content coming.
Jasmine, African blue lilies, and Chicago’s favorite flower, chrysanthemum, flourish in the botanical backdrop of President Barack Obama’s official portrait. The 44th president appears seated in an ornate chair, with leafy vines threatening to climb up his pant leg.
In her official portrait, First Lady Michelle Obama appears seated, too, in a flowing dress designed by Milly. Between her gown, with its touches of geometric patterning, and the sky-blue paint that frames her figure, the painting features a lot of hard-edged abstraction.
On Monday, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the Obamas’ official portraits. President Obama’s portrait, by the Los Angeles–born and New York–based artist Kehinde Wiley, will join the museum’s hall of American presidents, where it will permanently disrupt the march of white presidential paintings. The portrait of Michelle Obama, the work of Baltimore’s Amy Sherald, will be on view with recent acquisitions through November 2018.
These are the first portraits, of course, to depict a black president and first lady. They are not the first presidential portraits to be painted by African American artists—Simmie Knox painted both the Clintons—although they are a first for this museum’s hall. In any case, these portraits represent something new. The black contemporary artists who painted them are known for making works that break down black images in American culture, especially within the world of fine art.
It will take historians many years and volumes to unpack the symbolism of the Obama era. The former First Family picked these artists to do the job in single strokes. They were the right artists to ask. On top of their contributions to the hall of presidents, Wiley and Sherald advanced the conversation about black art and portraiture with their paintings of the Obamas.
Wiley is one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, a painter who has successfully complicated portraiture by pairing black figures, usually men—sometimes stars, sometimes individuals plucked off the street—with Baroque motifs and Renaissance trappings. Sherald is earning a name for subtler portraits that subvert black stereotypes, especially of women. Both artists faced a challenge: Adjust their very stylized approaches to fit the office of the presidency? Or paint the Obamas the same way they paint their other subjects?
Wiley and Sherald both chose the latter approach. Given one of the most important commissions imaginable, Wiley did not back down from his high modernist arch. Far from it. Wiley laced his portrait with botanicals, drawing on flowers from the places that framed the president’s life, namely Kenya, Hawaii, and Chicago. Sherald also chose to stick to her guns with her portrait of Michelle, finding a composition that flatters the first lady while giving over most of the painting to more abstract elements.
Sherald is a rising star in the art world. The debut of her painting at the Portrait Gallery represents a homecoming of sorts: Sherald rocketed to renown after winning the museum’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016. Typical of her style, the first-place portrait, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013), features a woman whose almost ethereal, charcoal-gray skin tone contrasts with the vermillion of her chrysanthemum fascinator and the crisp white of the ceramic teacup and saucer she holds in her gloved hands. The portrait of Michelle is a bit more straightforward: She is seated and posed and seems less like an allegory than most of Sherald’s subjects. But the painting is also modern, unfixed in any time, very much unlike the typically prim portraits of first ladies.
While Sherald’s work has only recently captured national attention, she has already made her mark on Washington, D.C. One of her portraits, Grand Dame Queenie (2012), hangs in place of pride in the art galleries at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The image was broadcast widely in promotions for the museum’s 2016 opening. Sherald has since joined the board at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and earlier this year, she received the prestigious David C. Driskell Prize from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. And in May, Sherald will have her first major solo show, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Wiley’s work hardly needs any introduction. His paintings have shown up in numerous institutional surveys, most recently in “A New Republic,” organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. That solo show toured to museums in six states. Roberta Smith praised Wiley’s grand ambition in The New York Times while jabbing at his “often thin, indifferently worked surfaces.” He received the State Department’s Medal of Arts late in the Obama years.
A 2012 profile in New York examined one of Wiley’s studios, this one in Beijing, where assistants help to lay down the Renaissance patterns that Wiley uses for his abstract backdrops. The artist’s reliance on studio painters hardly sets him apart from any other blue-chip artist at the height of his career, but the painterly nature of Wiley’s work, plus his sheer prominence, sets his critics off. Some of them can’t accept the audacity of his project—to sample from Old Masters even if his brushstroke does not match theirs. The writer Vinson Cunningham, for one, has questioned whether his portraiture is radical enough.
Market-friendly yet confrontational, historical yet anti-history, contemporary yet classical—Wiley embraces broad contradictions happily. The daring in swapping out Napoleon for Ice T in an Ingres portrait is obvious. It’s an act of homage but also a rebuke of the canon. And with his painting of Obama, Wiley did not stand down from this project. It’s an exquisite figure painting, perfectly capturing Obama’s professorial nature, his hands folded across his lap as he leans forward—tieless—as if studying the viewer. Yet the backdrop is wild and flattened, as if he’d simply photoshopped the president into a meme. That’s a painterly comment on every presidential portrait that has come before his.
Of the two selections, the pick of Sherald to paint Michelle Obama may be the bolder stroke. It is likely to mean more for Sherald’s career, which almost never took off: The artist had a heart transplant, at age 39, in 2012. Her portraits can be inscrutable. Her subjects frequently appear straight faced or severe, and their dress ranges from Kennedy Camelot (gloves and hats, scarves and sashes) to contemporary casual. The focus on anachronistic fashions and everyday figures is reminiscent of the work of the late portrait artist Barkley L. Hendricks—or maybe it’s just the similarly cool temperature of Sherald’s paintings.
Most presidential portrait unveilings don’t generate this much attention. With a couple of exceptions—John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning or George Washington by Gilbert Stuart or Rembrandt Peale—the lot of them are records and little more. Important records, perhaps, especially when an official portrait conveyed most all that the public knew of a president, such as Mathew Brady’s antebellum photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Tapping contemporary artists for the job raises the stakes. With their portraits of the Obamas, Wiley and Sherald have pushed the genre even further.