After 22 years as a college-basketball commentator for ESPN, Jay Bilas is now slogging through his busiest November yet. Finding himself far-flung during a month stacked with tournaments and traveling from Chicago to Maui—with maybe a night to recharge in his Charlotte-area home—is common practice by now. But the addition of the Phil Knight 80, a Thanksgiving tournament in Oregon that commemorates the Nike founder’s 80th birthday, has thrown Bilas’s carefully controlled schedule for a loop. “For me to do 12 games in basically seven days,” Bilas told me by phone last week, “is unprecedented.”
Such is the life of perhaps the most well-regarded and trusted individual in all of college basketball. With his voice honed over the decades into a reassuring timbre, Bilas effectively serves as the sport’s Walter Cronkite—a respected commentator unafraid to speak openly about an American institution beset by a fraught and ongoing debate about amateurism (and whether student-athletes should be paid), as well as a bribery scandal that has mushroomed into its most serious crisis in years. “The NCAA makes its own rules, and their rules are bad,” Bilas said during a panel discussion in Baltimore last month. “That’s been pointed out forever, and so for the people in charge, and specifically the president of the NCAA, to talk about some code of silence in college basketball that people weren’t telling them what was going on—they knew exactly what was going on.”
The commentator’s outspokenness isn’t surprising to those who’ve been following these concerns. “When Jay cares about something, he wants to try to help in any way he can,” said the University of Central Florida head coach Johnny Dawkins, who played with Bilas at Duke. “He doesn’t mind debating and having difficult discussions, and he has a talent to look at an issue ... and then dissect it to suggest the necessary improvements.”
Standing a lean 6-foot-8 with a salt-and-pepper-speckled buzz cut, Bilas spent his formative years playing under coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, where he then served as an assistant following a brief playing career in Italy and then Spain. While he was coaching, Bilas was working toward his law degree. (He remains a licensed lawyer, though doesn’t practice much anymore.) Between his varied experiences as a player, coach, and lawyer, Bilas has thrived as someone who understands not only the Xs and Os of strategy but also the promise and pitfalls that imbue collegiate athletics with its inherent drama.
It’s this credibility that helps him relate to fans, university administrators, coaches, and student-athletes alike—and it has made him a valuable voice on how college basketball needs to improve, from its governance of rules violations to player transfers to transitioning toward a future where players are paid a commensurate wage for their labor. Because of his stature, Bilas may be the person most capable of saving college basketball from itself. “I wasn’t hired to be a cheerleader—I was hired as a commentator,” he said. “When I say something, I’ve researched it, and thought about it, and I believe I am right.”
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This 2017–18 season, just two weeks old, should be triumphant for the NCAA. The sport is riding a rising wave of popularity, fueled by newcomers like Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton, and Mohamed Bamba, all of whom possess the kind of versatile “unicorn” skillset that is transforming the NBA. In all likelihood, each will leave for the pros after this season, but that hasn’t diminished the sport’s hype. There are also a dozen or so schools, including Michigan State, Villanova, and Kansas, that could realistically contend for the national championship in San Antonio next April. Last season’s title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga scored the third-best ratings since 2005, and the NCAA has a nearly $20 billion contract with CBS Sports and Turner that runs through 2032.
Yet college basketball’s credibility remains low. The same eligibility and transfer issues pop up before every season and range from head-scratching to ham-handed. In one case, the University of Houston’s Rob Gray was suspended one game for playing in a summer church league. Another involved Braxton Beverly, a guard who had enrolled in summer classes before transferring from Ohio State to North Carolina State and was told he’d need to sit out a year even though he’d never played or practiced with the Buckeyes. (The NCAA only reinstated Beverly once he hired a lawyer).
More stunningly, in September, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York blindsided the NCAA with charges alleging corruption, bribery, and wire fraud. The ripple effect was vast: Assistants at Arizona, Oklahoma State, Auburn, and the University of Southern California were arrested, each accused of accepting money to either pay players or “exert influence.” The arrests also included an executive from Adidas. At the University of Louisville alone, the investigation led to the firing of the athletic director (Tom Jurich), head coach (Hall of Famer Rick Pitino), and two assistant coaches, as well as the permanent ineligibility of Brian Bowen, that school’s top recruit and a player whom the federal complaint (and later reports) said accepted $100,000.
As far as scandals go, Bowen’s case is rather pedestrian, but the allegations laid bare the sport’s underbelly, in which money, gift cards, and other enticements are de rigueur to establishing a winning program. “There are a lot of gray areas within college basketball that can change,” said Nebraska’s head coach, Tim Miles. “This is how recruiting has been done, and there is no question that this ‘scandal’ has gotten the attention of lots of people.” That, according to Miles, is how someone like Bilas can help the NCAA maneuver such waters. “Since Jay’s voice has been pretty steady on issues like this for the past few years,” Miles said, “he has to play a critical role in the advancement of college basketball, as we are in a transformational period.”
“Common sense reigns when you are on the outside,” said the Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. “Jay points things out and makes people think. The NCAA is a large business making a lot of money and employing a lot of people, and Jay makes them very nervous.”
Asked about the federal corruption charges, Bilas demurred, arguing that the case is built on shaky ground. “I have been a trial lawyer for years, but I don’t see these as federal crimes,” he said. “No federal laws have been broken.”
But the investigation has exposed the fallibility of the NCAA’s core tenet—that “student-athletes” are equally defined by both sides of that term—and Bilas is willing to use his on-air platform (and nearly two million Twitter followers) to advocate for change. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the contradictions that exist within college sports,” Bilas said, “and my opinions seem especially germane now.”
He contends that there are common-sense solutions to the NCAA’s eligibility concerns, ones that don’t penalize players for simply trying to survive. “All of this results from how valuable these players are, and there is nothing wrong with that,” Bilas said. “While I don’t condone violating rules and laws, we need to change the rules to accurately reflect the current world. We used to fight over whether it was a violation for guys to eat a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter! Why are so we so worried about all this stuff?”
This bluntness is a departure for Bilas, who largely stayed in his lane in the mid-1980s as a starter for the first Krzyzewski-coached Duke squad to play for a national title. An exception was the two seasons he served as a student representative on the NCAA’s Long-Range Planning Committee, but Bilas’s feedback was routinely dismissed. “Nobody wanted to hear it,” he said. “We spent a ton of time talking about where our next meeting was going to be.”
After three seasons as an assistant coach at Duke, Bilas left the sidelines behind to practice law. In 1995, he started calling games for ESPN on a part-time basis, but it wasn’t until after a decade or so that he felt emboldened enough to use broadcasts for something other than, as he described it, “criticizing players that make mistakes or coaches that are on the hot seat.”
Bilas felt there was more he could do to effect some kind of positive change. “Why would I stay away from the contradictions and hypocrisy of the NCAA’s policy when it is constantly in our face?” he said. “And as the money keeps growing, the contradictions are more stark. It’s maddening.”
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So, what reforms should college basketball embrace? For starters, Bilas suggests the NCAA allow—but not mandate—players to be paid. “There aren’t any positives to amateurism,” Bilas said. “If Adidas had given $100,000 to a 15-year-old tennis player or a college basketball player after the season ended and he turned pro, that’s good business. But if Adidas gives that same amount to a player still in school, that not only violates an NCAA rule and is now a federal crime? Where is the harm?” And while the NCAA has largely eliminated what Bilas deems to be “banana peels”—seemingly trivial transgressions that could slip up any athlete and derail a promising future—the organization still has work to do, as evinced by the confounding cases of Gray, Beverly, and many others.
In a sport often swayed by constantly evolving areas of legality, Bilas taking the mic often feels like a litigator arguing his most persuasive case. His arguments, stress-tested both on the air and social media, lay the groundwork for a future where players receive payments as well as health insurance and financial advice. But would the NCAA and its president Mark Emmert ever entertain Bilas’s proffers? Bilas confirmed to me that, as early as 2014, just as his public calls for change were gaining traction, the NCAA approached him about joining its Division I Committee on Infractions, the organization’s investigative force. Bilas’s charge? To help decide cases by applying the rules as they were written and interpreted to the facts, a duty he (and, he says, his bosses at ESPN) ultimately concluded was a clear conflict of interest.
Bilas turned down the NCAA’s offer. “The committee has strict confidentiality rules, so I wouldn’t have been able to comment on any cases before the committee,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out why I was offered a seat—so I wouldn’t be able to talk about those issues anymore.”
The commentator is under contract with ESPN through the 2022–23 season. But while Bilas isn’t naïve in thinking that there may not be substantial changes to the NCAA’s operating model by then, he remains optimistic that the sport is headed in the right direction. “The NCAA is trying to make the rules fit what they are doing on a commercial basis, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “There have to be some rules, but we can fix the overwhelming majority of what dogs the NCAA, so that it won’t keep embarrassing itself and its best people.”
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, millions of Americans in their churches and community celebrations will sing the hymn that has become the de facto anthem of the holiday. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” reads the opening stanza of the familiar song, a line that suggests the pluralistic and communal spirit Americans associate with Thanksgiving. As Pilgrims and Native Americans once dined together, so the myth goes, Americans of all races, religions, and creeds still unite to celebrate the country that welcomes everyone.
Yet the opening line of “We Gather Together,” seemingly an apt expression of inclusiveness and shared thankfulness, momentarily distracts from the larger, quieter message the hymn contains. The song’s lyrics, as well as the dark history that inspired them, point to the sinister tradition of violence and expulsion that also runs through the nation’s story, present even in that first Thanksgiving observation.
Though many now see it as a quintessentially American creation, “We Gather Together” actually originated from the religious strife of 16th-century Europe. Following the 1597 Battle of Turnhout, where a Dutch army led by Prince Maurice of Orange defeated Spanish occupying forces in an area now part of Belgium, the poet Adrianus Valerius wrote “Wilt Heden nu Treden” to commemorate the victory, setting the words to an old Dutch folk melody. During the occupation, Dutch Protestants had been barred by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain from meeting with one another for worship. So the gathering together that the song celebrated represented not only the end of religious persecution for the Dutch, but also the reestablishment of sectarian uniformity through the removal of heretical outsiders.
The Pilgrims, who would arrive in Holland shortly after, probably heard the song during their brief time there. But they were unlikely to have brought it with them to Plymouth, as their strict religious practice meant they only sang Psalms directly from the Bible. Instead, the song made its way to this continent with the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam in the early 1600s, becoming a cherished hymn that generations of Dutch-Americans in the Midwest passed down through the centuries and still sung in their native tongue.
The song’s English version—and its connection to Thanksgiving—came from Theodore Baker, an American music scholar who encountered its German translation while studying at the University of Leipzig in the 1870s. In 1894, shortly after his return to the United States, Baker translated the hymn into English, naming it “Prayer of Thanksgiving.” Starting in the early 1900s, Christian denominations began to include it in their hymnbooks.
That song’s new title established its association with the holiday, but World War I and, especially, World War II secured its popularity. Where the hymn’s mention of “the wicked oppressing” referred to the Spanish Catholics in the original Dutch version, Americans began to sing it with the threat of German Nazis in mind, as the music scholar Michael Hawn has argued. The song’s request, “O Lord, make us free,” voiced the plea of a country at war. And once victory had been won, the song offered an expression of gratitude while also evoking America’s strongest sense of itself as God’s chosen nation: “Sing praises to His name, He forgets not his own.”
Born out of a 16th-century battle and finding its permanent cultural status in 20th-century U.S. conflicts, the hymn has connections to war that mirror Thanksgiving’s own link to military strife. While Americans remember the original 1621 Thanksgiving (of which there exists only two primary-source accounts) in their celebrations each year, most have forgotten that it was the Civil War that led to the official holiday. With a country torn apart, Abraham Lincoln had declared the last Thursday of November in 1863 “as a day of thanksgiving and praise” to promote unity. But his proclamation acknowledged it would take the “advancing armies and navies of the Union” and a conquered Confederacy to bind the nation together again.
If war gave Thanksgiving and its unofficial hymn their meaning, it was in the seeming domestic tranquility and relative peacetime abundance of the 1950s that “We Gather Together” reached its cultural apex. Newspapers from the time reveal countless stories of the song being performed to commemorate Thanksgiving at church services, school assemblies, and community pageants across the country. “Nothing is more widely loved,” The New York Times remarked in 1956, than the tradition of singing “We Gather Together” to begin Thanksgiving festivities. At a time when many Protestants and Catholics were caught up in the ecumenical movement to promote Christian unity, the song appeared to represent a spirit of interfaith communion, despite its anti-Catholic origins. And with another war, albeit a “cold” one, shaping the American imagination, singing the hymn as an interreligious anthem of national harmony could be seen as offering a rebuke to the godless Soviets.
Of course, whatever postwar consensus that may have existed at midcentury could not contain the coming reckoning with one of the nation’s deepest sins. In that context, singing “We Gather Together” represented a cruel fantasy in a nation where law and custom segregated white and black Americans. But the song, much like its associated holiday, has often served more for mythmaking than for truth-telling. Indeed, the American celebration of national cohesion at Thanksgiving has always required overlooking how much of the country’s history of gathering together has also depended on equal measures of exclusion and expulsion.
Can a holiday heal a nation? Can a song? Perhaps those questions never had greater urgency than in 1963 when Thanksgiving fell less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In his first address to a joint session of Congress the day before Thanksgiving, the new president Lyndon Johnson quoted the opening line of “We Gather Together” to call for solidarity in a time of tragedy. Newspapers like The Chicago Defender printed the song in full, explaining “His death has cast deep shadows of gloom ... We can only repeat the words of this Hymn.” (Perhaps this connection is why Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would choose “We Gather Together” as the processional hymn for her funeral in 1994.)
It’s worth noting that the song found its place in U.S. culture at a time when Christians made up a much larger portion of the population than they do now (91 percent in 1948 compared to 71 percent today). As a result, “We Gather Together” can’t be taken for granted as a hymn that will necessarily be meaningful to a vast majority of the country—ironically, a natural outcome of living in a pluralistic society.
While the nation’s divisions today don’t match those of 1863, nor do its traumas compare with those of 1963 (after Kennedy’s assassination), the ties that bind in this Thanksgiving season may feel particularly fragile. Many Americans continue to sing “We Gather Together” each November, but they do so in a nation increasingly riven by hardened political polarization and social stratification. “He chastens and hastens His will to make known,” reads the second line of the Thanksgiving hymn. Reflecting more on those words, Americans might hear the song not as an encouragement for self-satisfied celebration, but rather as a much-needed call to self-correction.
The National Football League’s tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day is also its oldest. Back in 1920, the year the league was founded, 12 proto-football teams squared off in six Turkey Day matchups. Since then the NFL has hosted Thanksgiving games in every year but four—all during World War II—with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions emerging as annual hosts and other teams rotating through to play in front of a tryptophan-tripping, football-mad nation.
And as the NFL has ballooned into the most popular professional sports league in North America, its Thanksgiving custom has grown as well, adding pyrotechnics and halftime shows to impress massive TV audiences. Aside from the Super Bowl, no celebration better represents the NFL’s largesse, cultural might, spectacle, and promise of escapism than Thanksgiving—the league’s entire self-image, shrunken down to one day.
This Thanksgiving, however, the NFL faces a cornucopia of crises, from backlash over player protests to allegations of collusion to rising concerns over head injuries to sliding TV viewership. Fans fret over the league’s quality of play and sponsors bemoan sagging ratings. Players decry racism in and out of football, while owners fear how such expression will affect their bottom lines. At times this fall, the games themselves have wound up smothered by one cacophonous controversy after another. This has been the NFL’s most tumultuous season in recent memory and the first time in at least a generation the league’s problems have seemed to overwhelm its product.
The top storyline in the NFL this season has not been Tom Brady’s continued excellence or Carson Wentz’s timely emergence or the surprising Rams and Jaguars. It has instead been the dozens of players across the league who have knelt, sat, or raised their fists during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. The demonstrations have prompted anger and admonishment from Donald Trump and backlash from fans who view such acts as disrespectful to America’s flag and military.
And although player activism has slowed in recent weeks, its specter continues to hover. Take the Detroit Lions, who will kick off Thursday’s Thanksgiving slate by hosting the Minnesota Vikings. In September, eight Detroit players knelt in protest days after Trump said NFL owners should fire “son of a bitch” athletes who disrespect the flag. The kneeling Lions drew not just boos from their own fans but also angry letters, prompting the team’s owner Martha Ford to request they stand during future anthems. The players all eventually complied, though the running back Ameer Abdullah resumed protesting weeks later by raising a fist before his team’s game at Green Bay earlier this month.
This Thursday, hours after Abdullah and his Lions teammates do or do not protest, the New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon will, in all likelihood, kneel before taking on Washington on the road. Vernon has knelt each week since September, despite the Giants owner John Mara’s plea that all players stand. “What it would take for me to stand is if people can understand what the whole message is behind it,” Vernon told Newsday last week. “But everybody doesn’t see things that way and tries to distort what the message was from the beginning, which is basically social injustice on African Americans and police brutality.”
The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will not be anywhere near Thursday’s action, as he remains unsigned after initiating the wave of protests last fall, but his name will echo through living rooms every time, say, the Vikings quarterback Case Keenum throws an incomplete pass. Why, Kaepernick’s defenders will wonder, do retreads like Keenum continue to receive opportunities while a former NFC-champion quarterback sits at home? That Keenum is enjoying a surprisingly productive season will seem beside the point. To many observers, poor quarterback play around the league serves as a weekly reminder of the alleged blackballing of Kaepernick.
Meanwhile, no one will loom over the NFL’s Thanksgiving more than the Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has spent this fall sowing chaos on numerous fronts. Some owners have either accommodated or compromised with protesting players, but Jones issued an ultimatum: Stand during the anthem or be benched. ESPN revealed he has also pushed hard for the NFL at large to adopt a similar mandate, sparking a power struggle among league owners. When the Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter recently blamed players’ protests for his company’s declining revenues, some owners reportedly wondered whether Jones (who owns more than 100 of the chain’s franchises) had masterminded the comments.
As the protest issue simmers, Jones has feuded with the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, which the running back began serving last week after months of injunction requests and appeals. ESPN reported that a furious Jones told Goodell he would “come after [him] with everything I have,” then later threatened to sue the league to hold up the commissioner’s contract negotiations.
On Thursday afternoon, Jones’s Cowboys will play the Los Angeles Chargers, who face a crisis of the existential variety. The franchise relocated this past summer from San Diego, a year after the Rams arrived in L.A. from St. Louis. From the day they showed up, the Chargers have received only tepid support from Angelenos, struggling to sell out even the puny 27,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium they are using until their new (much larger) home is completed in three years.
But, to the NFL, all of these issues pale next to one chief concern: TV ratings. The league has long sold itself as a bulletproof property in this area, and the prevailing wisdom always held that even if changing tastes, proliferation of options, and rampant cord-cutting chipped away at ratings for other kinds of programming, Americans would never give up their football. But for the second consecutive year, viewership is down, suggesting the league is no longer immune to the industry’s broader trends. Whether the decline owes to backlash over player protests, quality of play, or over-saturation, the league seems vulnerable in a way it hasn’t in decades.
In the NFL’s ideal world, every fan would sit through Thursday’s games while focused on nothing but football. The day’s slate would offer an escape from the messy outside world. But this year, viewers will be faced with Jones’s feud with Goodell and the players’ ongoing protests, with Kaepernick’s absence and the league’s lagging ratings, with the rash of injuries to star players that will, for example, keep the Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. away from the field, and with the repetitive brain trauma these athletes will have invariably suffered (and continue to suffer) as part of their jobs.
As usual, Thanksgiving will showcase much of what the NFL is all about. This year, for once, that reality will work against them.
One of the principal pleasures of Mad Men, on rich display beginning with the pilot episode, was looking at all of the crazy things people used to be able to do in offices: smoke, drink, and—if they were male—grope and corner and sexually humiliate the women, who could either put up with it or quit.
It’s just about impossible to imagine someone lighting a cigarette in today’s hyper-sanitized workplace; anyone with liquor on his or her breath at midday is usually targeted as a massive loser or frog-marched to human resources. But to look at the shocking and ever-growing list of prominent men recently and credibly accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to violent rape is to realize that abhorrent treatment of women is alive and well in many American workplaces.
Every day seems to add another man to the list, and precious few of them have flatly denied the accusations. The strangled, vague, blanket apology—intended not to rile up any other potential accusers, leaving plenty of maneuvering room if the charges end up in court—has become an art form.
How many women will find some kind of justice for terrible things that have happened to them at work? And how many women won’t ever have to face such things because of this profound episode? We don’t know the answer to either question, but we do know this: There is a gathering sense that all of this has just gone too far. It was fine in the beginning, when a handful of Hollywood monsters were brought to account. But as the tide keeps roaring onto the beach, depositing flotsam of all kinds, the sentiment has begun to turn. It seems that this is just too many women saying too many things about what has happened to them, and something needs to be done about it. The approaches are various: It’s a witch hunt; it’s a sex panic; it’s destroying good men’s careers.
One reason the “witch hunt” argument falls flat is because the person advancing it, on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, was Woody Allen. Asked about Weinstein, he told a BBC reporter, “You … don’t want it to lead to a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself. That’s not right either.”
It seemed a pretty long way down the ladder from the violent rapes described by Weinstein’s accusers to jail time for a winker, but Allen introduced early-on an important theme: scale.
Obviously there are terrible acts that God and man frown upon, but was every little unwanted bit of sexual energy directed at a woman—within the naturally romantic and flirtatious environment of an office—going to cost him his job? This led to the sex panic argument.
Advanced by the progressive, mainstream press—a notorious redoubt of mashers and grabbers—it started with The New Yorker asking the question, “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” and fretting that we might be on the verge of a “war on sex.” Two days later, the first of Al Franken’s two accusers came forward and it was clear that if a man apparently forced a wet kiss on you and took a sexual gag-photo of the two of you while you were asleep, you were going to have to walk it off. “Is This a ‘Sex Panic’ or a National Moment of Reckoning?” asked Salon, deciding that it was actually both. Poor Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times could barely contain her anxiety over wanting to be on the right side of history about Al Franken. On November 16, the paper published her column saying that he should be drummed out of the Senate, but then she had a bad weekend, apparently—had she said the right thing? Or the wrong thing?—and ran a second column in which she worried she was “participating in a sex panic.”
Saying there’s a sex panic on the grounds that women don’t like having their asses grabbed is the 2017 way of calling women frigid. In the 1950s, the woman who slapped a man’s face for an unwanted grope was mocked for not being sexually open, for being uptight. Now she’s accused of participating in a “sex panic.” But it’s all the same thing across the generations: When women stand up to say “keep your hands off of me” there’s a good chance they’ll be called prudes. Saying there’s a sex panic is a fancy way of saying that women’s bodies don’t completely belong to them the way their cars do. Someone can damage a woman’s car in a very small way, and insurance companies take it seriously and pay for the repair. She owns that car, and has every right to protect it. But if someone grabs her butt without her permission, she needs to lighten up. What is she, a frigid bitch?
In the America of earlier generations, one thing that silenced women who wanted to report unwanted sexual acts was how important it was not to damage a man’s career, his reputation, his family. Was one unpleasant event really enough to cause so much trouble to a respected member of the community, to a breadwinner? The importance of men’s careers has also become a part of the new resistance. After the first Al Franken accusation, Joan Walsh wrote a piece in The Nation in which she urged readers to remember that Franken was “a champion of Planned Parenthood,” and also “a committed feminist,” which was helpful for those of us who didn’t know that committed feminists sometimes—allegedly—jam their tongues down unwilling women’s throats.
I remember—a very long time ago, because I’m old now, and blessedly free from most male sexual aggression—the first time I was groped. It was a crowded bus, a hand came out of nowhere and what happened was so shocking to me, so intimate and wrong, that I stood there stunned. I wasn’t even angry yet; I was just mortified. Afterward I started telling people, expecting that they would be outraged on my behalf. But the response was very different—the weary, way-of-the-world instruction: That’s how it is. Even my mother, who had taught me so carefully from such an early age and in so many ways that my body was mine, was hardly riled by the story. “Bastard,” she said, when I told her, and that was it.
You learn early on, if you’re female, that your body mostly belongs to you. But if you are going to make a big fuss every time a hand grabs you on a crowded bus or train, every time a man forces a wet, unwanted kiss on you, you’re going to become something men really don’t like: bitter. And so you come to accept that for the most part your body belongs to you. But in a small way a little bit of it belongs to the men of the world. And I am reminded of the ancient words that washed over me in the churches of my childhood and the college chapels of my late adolescence, in the cathedrals and outdoor masses of my early life on my own: This is my body, which is given up for you.
Dee Rees’s Mudbound opens in media res: Two sparring brothers, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), are trying to bury their father on their Mississippi farm by digging a grave during a rainstorm. The entire endeavor is tinged with futility, as the horrible weather seemingly mocks their efforts. While they struggle, the African American Jackson family rides by with all their possessions strapped to their buggy as if they’re fleeing the farm. Henry—who is white—sees them and asks the patriarch Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) for help. Even with little context for the moment, viewers can tell from the look on Hap’s face and the ’40s period setting just how big a line Henry is crossing. It’s just as easy to see that, despite the quiet insult, Hap can’t decline.
Mudbound, which debuted on Netflix and in limited theaters last weekend, is an old-fashioned epic drama about race relations in the 1940s Deep South, adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. The film touches on the evil of the Jim Crow era, the oft-ignored post-traumatic stress suffered by servicemen returning from World War II, and the stifling sexism of the time. Mudbound is beautifully shot, well-acted, and surprisingly sweeping for a movie with a relatively small budget of $10 million; if it’s guilty of anything, it’s perhaps trying to do too much at once, which is understandable given its novelistic scope.
But Rees, whose debut fiction feature Pariah announced her impressive talent as a director in 2011, has a gift for smaller, multilayered moments, like Henry’s transgression in asking Hap to help bury his father. Even before the story gets underway, the audience can recognize how Henry is leveraging his institutional power over a black tenant living on his land. He can’t technically order Hap to assist him, but Henry is taking advantage of a terrible legacy of slavery and subjugation, one he’d never openly acknowledge.
Before it explains what exactly drove the Jackson family from Henry’s land or what killed Henry’s father, Mudbound then cuts back to somewhat happier times. Even then, it’s obvious that darker days are around the corner. Henry purchases his Mississippi farm seemingly as a way to prove his worth, to live independently off the land with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Hap is a tenant on Henry’s farm who dreams of buying his own land and living independently with his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their kids. The two families’ daily work, digging through the caked mud to plant their crops, is strikingly similar, but there’s a vast gulf between them.
Rees (who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams) explores that divide in various episodic tales. When their children get whooping cough, Henry and Laura compel Florence to help nurse the pair back to health, eventually taking her on as a maid (a job she resents, but with a salary she can’t turn down). Henry’s virulently racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) moves to live with the family and starts associating with similarly toxic folk in town, as well as openly sowing discord between the McAllans and the Jacksons.
Viewers also see the exploits of war: Henry’s brother Jamie is a B-24 bomber, while Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is a tank commander in the famed 761st Tank Battalion (the segregated unit known as the Black Panthers). Rees weaves in scenes of combat, of Henry and Ronsel both consorting with women in Berlin as the war winds down, and finally of their glorious returns home, where they’re celebrated as heroes by their family but nonetheless alienated by a country they’ve been away from for so long.
Rees takes care to touch on the viewpoints of every member in her ensemble: from the open hatred of Pappy to the more sublimated prejudice of Henry, from the weary pliancy of Hap (who, on the subject of white people, advises his son that there’s “no point in fighting, they’re gonna win every time”) to the understandable fury of Ronsel. The director is creating a portrait of an era in the way an old Hollywood epic would strive to do, both in her discursive storytelling and the gorgeous, Malickian photography of her cinematographer Rachel Morrison.
Still, Rees notably avoids the blinkered perspective such traditional stories often have; in doing so, she captures the racism of the period in ways both routine and heartbreaking. Mudbound never feels like it’s driving at one particular message, or identifying one villain to blame. A character like Pappy would be the cartoon nemesis of a simpler tale, a problem to be dealt with or ignored, but to Rees he’s a symptom, a festering boil that nobler characters like Jamie (or Henry, who quietly agrees with much of his father’s way of thinking) can’t lance. The bigotry of the time undergirds the film, but Mudbound doesn’t let us forget just how thoroughly it also permeated American life.
The only problem is, in trying to tell so many stories, Mudbound neglects to develop some of its more fascinating ones. The relationship between Ronsel and Jamie, who bond over their shared wartime traumas, is genuinely enthralling (and helped by Mitchell and Hedlund’s terrific performances), but it doesn’t even get going until more than an hour into the movie, which runs for 134 minutes. Laura’s internal monologue, meanwhile, plays a huge role in the first half, chronicling her and Henry’s courtship and the eventual cooling of their passions when they move to the farm, but it fades in importance as the film goes on, leaving her arc hanging.
Mudbound is the kind of movie that deserves a huge audience, which its release on Netflix may help secure. But as a slow-building story that shines in its subtler moments and in its mesmerizing shots of the harsh but mystical Mississippi landscape, it’s absolutely worth seeing on a big screen if possible. Beyond that, in a year when fissures in American race relations continue to be at the forefront of national discussion, Mudbound feels like a worthy antidote to the pop culture that has struggled to reflect this current reality. Rees’s film understands the country’s history of systemic oppression, but examines that through the fully imagined interiority of its characters—and without offering simple solutions.
As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around “believe women” and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured—in particular when it comes to society’s decisions about which allegations are taken seriously, and which should be subject to deeper scrutiny.
Last Friday, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-showrunners for the series Girls, issued a statement defending Murray Miller, a friend and writer on the show, against allegations that he had sexually assaulted the actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17. (Miller has denied the allegations.) “During every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe … that this is the case with Murray Miller,” they wrote in a statement. “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.” After a wave of criticism that her statement was in direct opposition to the feminist beliefs she espouses, Dunham issued another statement apologizing for her remarks; it acknowledged that, regardless of her closeness to the situation, she had used her considerable influence to unduly put “our thumb on the scale.”
Intentionally or not, Dunham’s initial call to scrutinize Perrineau, a biracial actress, but not Miller, fed into an implicit message that believability, sympathy, and public rage are reserved only for certain women. And those women are rarely women of color. Dunham’s actions caused the writer Zinzi Clemmons to resign from Lenny Letter, the feminist newsletter founded by Dunham. “It is time for women of color—black women in particular—to divest from Lena Dunham,” Clemmons wrote in a note about why she was leaving the publication, chronicling her issues with Dunham. “She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us.”
This isn’t the first time that Dunham has been criticized for her interactions, or lack thereof, with people of color. Girls was widely criticized for the lack of diversity among its cast and its portrayal of the few characters of color who did appear on the show. Last year, Dunham came under fire after publishing her fictional imagining of the inner monologue of the football player Odell Beckham Jr., who sat next to her at a gala—a depiction that many said highlighted her racial insensitivity. This latest incident—Dunham’s use of her huge platform to cast doubt on the account of a woman of color—brings into focus a familiar and troubling status quo: American culture has long had a preferred archetype for victims it deems worthy of rallying around—and rarely is that person a black or brown woman. It also raises legitimate questions about whether movements like #MeToo, for all its current momentum, will bring about change that will truly help all women. And further, the episode raises difficult questions about who deserves redemption, and who gets to decide. None of this is easy to unpack, not least of all when the standards seem different for both accusers and victims of different backgrounds.
Though women of all races suffer the trauma of sexual harassment and violence, it’s hard to argue that America treats alleged crimes committed against white women and women of color the same. Harvey Weinstein’s own response to the wave of allegations about his sexual misconduct reflected this disparity. While the mogul initially denied claims by the actress Ashley Judd directly after The New York Times broke its story, he then maintained a relative silence as myriad accusations rolled in from dozens of women; he broke that silence to attempt to publicly discredit Lupita Nyong’o, a black actress, when she wrote of her experience of harassment. While Weinstein has used this tactic since, it was specifically Nyong’o’s account that the embattled producer attempted to disparage. As my colleague Megan Garber put it, “Weinstein took the testimony of a woman of color, among all the other women coming forward, to paint as dishonest.”
Though the #MeToo movement has made clear the insidiousness and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, it has also been centered mostly on the experiences of white, affluent, and educated women. One doesn’t need to look far to see instances of women of color being forgotten or sidelined. In October, as #MeToo began to trend on social media, many credited the actress Alyssa Milano, who took to Twitter to encourage women to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault; what got lost amid those calls was the fact that the originator of that slogan was a black woman named Tarana Burke, who came up with the concept more than a decade ago. The oversight highlights a common concern about the ways that black women’s contributions can be ignored or belittled, only to have the same ideas lauded when they are presented by white women.
An important hallmark of the “Harvey effect” has been the massive role played by female solidarity. In fact, Dunham herself used Instagram to lament the prevalence of harassment in Hollywood and to direct people to the Times’s story about Weinstein. “If you agree (and I think you do) I hope you’ll share the story,” she wrote. As more women have read the accounts of others and shared their own, the number of those willing to come forward continues to grow, and demonstrations of support in the form of protests and hashtags have gone viral. While a culture that promotes more gender equality and tolerates less harassment and sexual violence is a goal that most can agree on, figuring out how to express solidarity for those ideals while wrestling with the flaws of these movements can be a much more complex calculation for women of color.
The rift is evident in just about every attempted demonstration of solidarity. Last month, a group of women chose to boycott Twitter for the day, a protest tied to the actress Rose McGowan’s account suspension. The #WomenBoycottTwitter plan called for all women to abandon the platform for a day, in solidarity with a woman ostensibly being silenced yet again. But some wondered, where were those same, broad calls for action when women of color have brought up concerns about about racism, misogyny, and suppression. In response to the boycott, the director Ava DuVernay asked white women to be aware of the conflict some women of color felt, given the lack of support they received when confronting these issues.
A movement of the same magnitude, for example, didn’t manifest when the comedian Leslie Jones was being relentlessly attacked on Twitter; or when the ESPN anchor Jemele Hill was suspended from her job after she tweeted that President Trump was a white supremacist and that those upset about threats to bench kneeling NFL players might consider protesting advertisers. As the author Roxane Gay put it, “Now people want to boycott twitter? Always interesting where and for whom people draw the line.” Meanwhile, during the Women’s March, women of color reported feeling conflicted about the demand for support for so-called “women’s issues” despite the fact that white women fail to show up in similar numbers to support causes that affect women of different races, such as police brutality. And the “Day Without a Woman” protests were criticized as being primarily targeted at affluent (and mostly white) women.
These examples underscore the importance of acknowledging the extremely different experiences of women in America. One need look no further than the 2016 election to understand that women are not a monolith. More than half of white women voted for Donald Trump. By contrast, more than 90 percent of black women, and more than two-thirds of Hispanic women, voted for Hillary Clinton. A majority of Asian American women also voted for Clinton. Political choices, of course, aren’t the only metric by which to judge the views and desires of groups—but they can give an indication of broad priorities. The 2016 election showed that, despite a shared gender, white women and women of color differ vastly on their top concerns.
And yet calls for wholesale support among women in America are often presented as uncomplicated, straightforward feminism. Solidarity, at its most basic level, however, requires a level of trust and an understanding of shared goals that are not always present. Demanding it without attending to the nuances of privilege ignores the spotty track record that white women have when it comes to being allies to people of color. America’s history provides example after example of how dangerous this disconnect can be. In a moment focused on rectifying power imbalances, it would be irresponsible to forget that white women have often cast the fight against sexism and the fight against racism in a zero-sum game, from suffrage to the present day.
The social hierarchy that determines whose voices are heard—and who is believed—is more complicated than looking at men vs. women. The millions of women who don’t fit the categories of straight, cisgendered, white, and wealthy could tell you as much. As Clemmons noted in her resignation letter, real change and accountability cannot be achieved without sacrifice.
If someone were to stumble upon the Race of Gentlemen in Wildwood, New Jersey, that person might think they had stepped into the Mad Max universe. The annual motorcycle and hot rod race attracts 15,000 bikers and spectators from across the country. Over the course of one exciting day, riders race at speeds up to 70 miles per hour in vehicles exclusively made before the year 1950.
“These guys created a world of their own,” said Daniel Soares, director of the short documentary The Normal People. “It's like a huge film set.” Soares’ film is indeed a visual spectacle, evoking the dystopian steampunk aesthetic of George Miller’s franchise. But even more interesting are the characters who inhabit it—characters Soares calls “slightly crazy, but in a good way.”
Cullen Murphy grew up in the funny pages. Almost literally: His father, John Cullen Murphy, was an artist who drew numerous comic strips, the best-known and longest-running of which was Prince Valiant. He somehow managed to support a family of eight children. This improbable feat was made possible partly by the times—the postwar prosperity and optimism that saw hundreds of thousands of returning servicemen, like his father, moving to the suburbs and starting large families, if not quite as large. And Connecticut, where his father and a cadre of cartoonists (Murphy numbers them in the hundreds) eventually settled, had no state income tax. Still, ten people on one cartoonist’s salary is impressive in any era. Soon after the grown Murphy joined the staff of The Atlantic as managing editor, we published an excerpt from a 1988 biography of Pablo Picasso by Arianna Huffington called Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. Murphy, who had already made his father a familiar figure around the office through frequent and offhand references, reported that after seeing the galleys his father asked that any biography of himself be subtitled “Creator and Provider.”
Their unlikely profession kept the cartoonists in an unusually companionable group, united by the oddity of working at home and by the common task of making the fantastic and whimsical the stuff of daily life. As Murphy recounts in his new Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, comic strips, so much a part of the fabric of the American scene in the last century, were in Fairfield County a family enterprise. Even today, when the number and ubiquity of strips is far lower than when Murphy was growing up, the children of family friends—including Mort Walker, the industrious and businesslike creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, and Dik Browne, the endearingly scraggly creator of Hägar the Horrible—carry on the family tradition by drawing and writing the strips their fathers created. If one cartoonist happened to be sidetracked by an accident or, in the case of Murphy’s father, pneumonia, another would take over the drawing of his strip—the “syndicate” that distributed the strips never the wiser. As Murphy points out, this is unimaginable in the case of, say, op-ed writers, though it is fun to imagine Thomas Friedman pinch-hitting for Maureen Dowd. (Even more fun, he adds, to imagine it the other way around.)
By the time Murphy joined the Atlantic staff, he was writing the story sequences for Prince Valiant, working with his father mostly by correspondence to suggest how he might illustrate the story lines. The real reason he wrote the strip—a continuous epic of love, war, and of course valor that spans the Roman empire to the late middle ages—for 25 years was not to use his Amherst degree in medieval history. It was to work with his father. Cartoon County is full of hilarious Polaroids of his father, mother, and himself and siblings in theatrical poses and outlandish garb, all for visual aids in drawing panels; photographs of the raffish world of New York cartoonists at the same newspapers that gave louche life to “The Front Page”; lovely passages from his father’s and his friends’ sketch books; and generous samples of the strips themselves, with notes on how they varied in style and tone. It is a loving, precise, and delightful portrait of a world Murphy was “powerfully drawn to” as a child, though he knew “even then that its days were numbered and that before long it would disappear.”
But most of all it is a loving portrait of his father. In the last chapter, “Indian Summer,” Murphy describes the kind of silent communion that makes for the sweetest, most longed-for sort of recollection:
My father had a knack for being companionably present in an undemanding way. … In the studio, you could sit for a long period in silence, reading or working, the faint sound of his scratching pen like that of a mouse behind a wall. From time to time a neuron would fire and he would speak. “People forget that Bobby Kennedy used to work for Joe McCarthy,” he might point out. Or, “Always remember, yellow objects cast purple shadows.” … Comments like these couldn’t help but encourage a bit of talk. Then it would be back to work.
I spoke recently with my longtime colleague and friend Murphy, now editor at large of Vanity Fair, in our shared home base of Boston. Here is a condensed part of our conversation.
Corby Kummer: Your father drew cartoons and stayed home all day. Were you objects of envy?
Cullen Murphy: I don’t think so. For one thing, there were eight kids in our household. Our life was indistinguishable, really, from the lives of other people that we knew—children of policeman, children of teachers, children of electricians—it all seemed pretty comparable.
The thing about this career was that it set you apart in terms of your way of life, but it didn’t set you apart in any way in terms of income. Except that your parents were hanging around with very different kinds of people than most people’s parents.
Kummer: You make the cartoonists of Fairfield County—Cartoon County—sound like an enclave, almost a cult.
Murphy: It definitely was not a cult; it was nothing like that. But there were lots and lots of cartoonists around. And my parents would entertain a lot, and they would go out a lot. And the people that they would entertain would largely be other cartoonists, and their spouses. It was very much a subculture that was aware of itself at the time. You know, there were probably a hundred people who were cartoonists that we knew one way or another in that group. And they were all essentially within 30 miles of each other. People like Mort Walker, who did Beetle Bailey, and Dik Browne, who did Hägar the Horrible, and Stan Drake, who did The Heart of Juliet Jones, and Jerry Dumas, who did Sam and Silo, and Tony DiPreta, who did Joe Palooka, and Ted Shearer, who did Quincy, and Crockett Johnson, who did Barnaby and also the children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Not to mention Chuck Saxon, the great New Yorker cartoonist.
Kummer: That letter of Dik Browne is the most loving, wonderful document.
Murphy: You mean his letter to Tim Dumas, the son of Jerry Dumas, in which he talks about Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Who would have thunk that the guy who did Hi and Lois and Hägar had at some point in his life stopped to read Lord Chesterfield’s letters? Much less salvage this from his memory, put something about it in a letter, add some beautiful drawings, and write to Tim as if he’s a long-lost friend. All of us had things from Dik Browne like this. He was very drawn to children, and children were very drawn to him—because he was a big guy and he was unkempt. It’s like what a child hopes adulthood will be like. And isn't! Except, as Dik showed, it could be. It’s definitely a possible lifestyle option.
Kummer: You mentioned the pitching in to draw, the remarkable chameleon-like quality, that they could work in each other’s styles, and they often covered their walls with drawings by their fellow cartoonists, which I find very collegial and touching. What about plot lines? Did they get together to talk about them?
Murphy: I don’t believe they really did, overtly. In our own family, when I was writing Prince Valiant, a number of my brothers and sisters would come up with ideas for the strip. It’s the kind of thing we would talk about at dinnertime on occasion. “Such-and-such a character hasn’t been in the strip for a while—maybe we should do something about her or him. And what might that be?”
Kummer: Your father was a very educated and erudite man, but he didn’t go to college, and it sounded like that was the norm in this circle: wartime service, career.
Murphy: Going to college was not a ticket to entry to the world of comic strips and cartooning and illustration, and not going to college was not a bar to entry. It was one of those professions where you learned to do it by doing it. And if you couldn’t do it, you discovered that fact fairly quickly. So you had people who were kind of adventurers who would go into it. To have lived a wide life before you settled down into this trade could be helpful to you. Because of what it tells you about human nature, and what it tells you about an audience—people in general. That’s probably another thing that the army did for all of these cartoonists—it give them a sense of just ordinary folks.
Kummer: The comics were cultural touchstones, as you made clear. Fifty million, did you say, could easily see Prince Valiant on a Sunday?
Kummer: And now, what are the numbers?
Murphy: I don’t know what the numbers are, but we are in the midst of a shift. We all know what has happened with newspapers. The number of people who read a newspaper declines by maybe 3 million people a year in this country. That’s a lot. And nothing is going to reverse that. Those beautiful, full-page, 16-sheet color supplements that King Features used to put out—those were an event every Sunday. The newspaper would come and the kids would take the comics section and go off with it. There’s nothing really comparable to that nowadays, and it’s hard to see what would bring comic strips in that form back. Although there are still many successful comic strips.
The transition is really toward graphic novels. I think one of the reasons comics succeeded in the first place was simply because the marriage of image and text is such a natural form for human beings. The one-two punch of a picture and words is very economical. With that combination, you can have a story moving along at a very fast clip. Faster than you can with just text. There’s something about it that appeals to people. They don’t need instruction. Their minds apprehend it very clearly and they get with the flow. Graphic novels have picked up the momentum. We’re sitting right across the street from Newbury Comics, and if you go over there, you will see whole walls full of graphic novels. They’re beautiful. And very sophisticated. Many of them aspire to and achieve real literary quality. Not to mention artistic quality.
Kummer: Do you miss writing Prince Valiant? And do you miss, essentially, writing historical fiction?
Murphy: I don’t miss writing historical fiction, although I’ve been tempted to return to it at some point. But I do miss working with my father. And in many ways, that’s what the whole thing was all about. Very few people these days get to work with a parent for a long period of time. It used to be normal. Now the people who work with parents or a parent are restricted to a very small number of occupations. Royal families, crime syndicates, other family businesses. When my father died, I didn’t think twice about whether I wanted to continue doing it, because I knew that I did not. The strip has been capably taken over by others, but I’m immensely grateful for those three decades of working on the strip with him.
Kummer: So. How did all of you eight children fit into a single station wagon?
Murphy: Probably the same way eight tomatoes fit into a plastic bag. It helps not to have seat belts.
As they entertainingly crash through old ideas of gender and sex, the flaky and self-involved Pfefferman family of Transparent demonstrate that living liberally isn’t the same thing as transcending cruelty, narcissism, or lust. Now two transgender women have alleged abusive behavior by the show’s star Jeffrey Tambor, a cisgender man who is publicly a vocal advocate for the dignity of transgender women. His response is odd. Expressing general regret for his conduct while denying specific allegations of harassment, he said, “This is no longer the job I signed up for four years ago. … Given the politicized atmosphere that seems to have afflicted our set, I don’t see how I can return to Transparent.”
It’s hard not to read “politicized atmosphere” as a dig at Tambor’s accusers and former employers, suggesting they’re driven less by fairness or justice than by optics and agendas. Yet the line also crystallizes how Transparent stands out in the list of media properties shaken recently by harassment scandals. In many other cases when it comes to powerful entertainers accused of misconduct, the question of how their shows or movies might continue to exist or not has been, rightfully, secondary. What does it matter if House of Cards film a sixth season when questions of consent and child predation are being raised? Who wants The Weinstein Company to be the one to release such movies as Channing Tatum’s forthcoming drama about sexual abuse? Transparent is a bit different: The politics, the people, and the product can’t be so separated.
Jill Soloway’s dramedy was hailed from the start as a breakthrough for transgender representation on television, earning heaps of acclaim as it followed the Los Angeles professor and grandparent Maura Pfefferman, who transitioned from Mort Pfefferman. Along with other circa-2014 developments—like Janet Mock’s widely read memoir Redefining Realness, Laverne Cox’s breakout role on Orange Is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition—Transparent was held up as a sign of new visibility and acceptance for transgender people. Soloway all along spoke of a long-term purpose: “Topple the patriarchy.” This was the show, plenty politicized, that Tambor signed up for.
But as quickly as Transparent became a phenomenon, the conversation around the issues it raised began to evolve. Tambor, a famous cisgender man, was now playing the most famous fictional transgender woman on TV—at a time when roles for transgender actors are frightfully sparse. Soloway addressed criticism of this fact by hiring a significant number of gender-nonconforming people to work in front of and behind the camera. Accepting the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series last year, Tambor called for the film industry to “give transgender talent a chance” and added, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender.” The obvious implication: Transparent’s advocacy for trans people would be incomplete without broader, behind-the-scenes change.
The accusers against Tambor, his assistant Van Barnes and the actress Trace Lysette, are both transgender women. Lysette’s accusation is the most detailed, describing Tambor rubbing against her while filming a scene in Transparent’s second season. Her statement also shows an acute awareness of how two political desires have been put at odds: the desire to speak out against piggishness and abusive men, and the desire to promote transgender stories, such as those Transparent tells, in the media. While describing Tambor’s alleged offenses, Lysette expresses gratitude for getting to play “a low-income trans woman with active roots in New York’s ball culture,” and adds, “Transparent has been a guiding light in the industry, by employing more trans people in Hollywood than any other production in history, which made it even more difficult to speak out.”
She proposes a solution, though. Rather than cancel the show, she suggests Amazon “use this as an opportunity, a teachable moment to recenter the other trans characters in this show with the family members instead of just pulling it.” Our Lady J, a writer on the show who is also trans, has spoken out to support Lysette’s statement, writing, “You are right—we cannot let trans content be taken down by a single cis man.”
It’s worth noting that Transparent by no means is solely about trans issues, nor is it as pedantic as the description of it as “political” might make it seem. Maura is a deeply flawed character who has, at times, ended up hurting other trans folks (see the Season 3 opener in which she becomes a reckless white-savior type, overstepping boundaries while trying to help someone who called a crisis hotline she works at). Much of the plot is driven not by Tambor’s character but rather by other Pfefferman family members, who sometimes chafe against gender and sexuality norms but more often struggle simply with their own selfishness. Liberal pieties are often joyfully mocked.
Still, moving on from Tambor and keeping Transparent going would appear to be no simple task. His face and his performance have been integral to the character of Maura—she is, in many ways, a collection of his tics. Yet perhaps the ideals of the show when it comes to representation are such that recasting him with a trans actor will be deemed worth the aesthetic complications. Or, perhaps writing Maura out by killing off the character—she is in her 70s and has had health scares in the plot—to focus on the rest of the ensemble and on new trans characters is the way to go. Soloway hasn’t said, yet, how the show would proceed.
It’s plenty conceivable, too, that the writers might find a powerful way to address the #MeToo movement within the series itself. If you were to ask a devoted Transparent viewer what its true message is, they might use the words kindness and empathy, two seemingly overused terms that, in recent contexts, are nonetheless political. In regards to these themes and the Tambor allegations, once again, what’s behind the camera and in front of it can’t in this case be separated. In addition to allegedly making sexual passes, he is accused of generally being a cruel boss to Van Barnes, who Tambor in turn called a “former disgruntled assistant.” Our Lady J, after Tambor’s statement Sunday, offered a reminder why such conduct and the show’s ideology might clash: “I am proud to be a part of a politicized atmosphere that does not tolerate harassment or assault in any form.”
“You have me riveted,” reads the incoming text. “How long will you be in NY?”
Later that evening, my phone lights up again: “Reading with pleasure.”
The next ping: “Exquisite pleasure in fact.”
The man writing me these texts was James Toback. He’d struck up a conversation earlier that day at The Harvard Club in New York, where he’d spotted me sitting alone with a cup of tea, typing away at my laptop. Might he share my table? Might he ask my name? What brought me to town?
Book tour, I told him. I’d just published a novel. Well, fancy that. He was a movie director. Had I ever seen Black and White? He and Jessica Chastain were tight, he informed me; she would be perfect to play my protagonist.
Riiiiiight, I thought. But I Googled him when he excused himself to the men’s room, and the first photo that popped up was of him with Alec Baldwin, arms linked, strolling the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
When Toback returned, he scribbled down the address of his apartment on Park Avenue. Perhaps I would care to swing by later, to deliver a copy of my book. Umm, no, thank you. I arranged a bike courier to drop it instead. Over the following weeks, Toback texted and called. I never saw him again. Does it go without saying that he never produced the movie version of my book?
My encounter with Toback came in 2013, and I hadn’t thought of him for ages, until the Los Angeles Times broke a story last month. The headline took my breath away: 38 Women Have Come Forward to Accuse Director James Toback of Sexual Harassment.
“He prowled the streets of Manhattan looking for attractive young women,” the article begins. It continues: “His opening line had a few variations. One went, ‘My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?’” Oh boy.
The Times interviewed dozens of women who described meetings framed as interviews or auditions, which culminated with Toback dry-humping or masturbating in front of them. Toback has denied these allegations.
In fairness, he never laid a finger on me. But looking back, two thoughts strike me. One, that my encounter might have ended differently had I been younger and more naive, or simply hungrier to make it big in Hollywood.
The second thing is that it never occurred to me—a journalist with two decades of reporting under my belt—that this might be a story. That there might be a pattern of behavior worth investigating. Seeing Toback’s face loom above that headline, I had occasion to regret my lack of imagination.
This is a decisive moment for women—and also for the journalists telling their stories. On the one hand, it’s thanks to journalists that allegations of revolting behavior by Toback, Harvey Weinstein, and so many others have now come to light. Hats off.
On the other hand, it has taken us—all of us in the media—far too long.
The day after the Weinstein story broke, I interviewed Kim Masters of KCRW and The Hollywood Reporter on NPR. Masters is a good reporter, and I was surprised when she told me the claims against Weinstein had been an open secret in Hollywood for years.
Really? I’ll admit to having wondered, a tad judgmentally. If you all knew, why didn’t you write about it?
Ah, how the chickens came home to roost. Three weeks after my chat with Masters, in the middle of the live broadcast of All Things Considered, my co-host Ari Shapiro turned to me in the studio with shock on his face.
“Have you seen this Washington Post story that just posted?” he asked.
The story detailed allegations of sexual harassment against our top news editor, Mike Oreskes. By that evening, he’d been placed on leave. By lunchtime the following day, he’d resigned. And by the time Ari and I were back on air for that afternoon’s broadcast, our media correspondent, David Folkenflik, had spoken to another five women claiming inappropriate behavior by Oreskes.
Turns out we at NPR had been sitting on our own open secret.
Among the many, many questions that gnaw at me is this: How did I miss a scandal unfolding within our own walls? How did a whole newsroom of reporters get scooped on our own story?
One partial answer is that taking on your boss is not pleasant. I can’t say I would have been brave enough to go first. Many colleagues have since allowed that they’d heard rumors about Oreskes, which goes to show their nose for news is better than mine—I didn’t have a clue. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I’d still rather not be writing about this stuff. Not because it’s unimportant—on the contrary—but because 2017 has presented us with so many things to be furious about, so many fights to fight. It irks me that we’re being forced to channel precious energy and outrage in the direction of horndog creeps.
The irony is that if you went looking for a building packed with empowered women, you’d hit the jackpot at NPR. Our four big shows are all led by female executive producers. My immediate boss, the head of the National Desk, is a woman. Women have run every reporting desk; they’ve chaired the board; turn on NPR right now and you will hear women leading our newscasts, filing from the White House and from war zones.
Like many companies, NPR is in the midst of serious soul-searching. A harassment support group has been created. The whistleblower hotline has been expanded. An outside law firm has been hired to investigate what happened. All good steps.
But to me, the most heartening development has been NPR’s policy of allowing its journalists to cover our own turmoil with the same rigor we would apply to any other organization. Folkenflik was on air immediately with the Oreskes story, moving it forward with his own reporting—he had fresh tape of an NPR journalist who agreed to speak about the complaint she’d filed.
Then there’s our CEO, Jarl Mohn. The same day that he asked for Oreskes’s resignation, we asked Mohn for an interview. He agreed and submitted to our grilling him, on the record, about why he hadn’t acted sooner to remove Oreskes from the newsroom. The interview wasn’t perfect. Information has subsequently surfaced that reveals some of his answers as incomplete. But many news organizations would not have allowed what was a decidedly uncomfortable conversation to happen in the first place—much less broadcast the segment nationwide.
Last week, just when it looked like things might be starting to settle, came word the chair of NPR’s board of directors was stepping down, and that another top NPR editor had been placed on leave, as allegations of inappropriate behavior reached them too. Cue the collective if fatigued gasp from the newsroom.
But there’s a scrap of good news, from where I sit: Along with most NPR staffers, I learned of these latest twists not from another news outlet, or from the office rumor mill. We learned them, along with the rest of the world, from a well-sourced and thoroughly reported story on the NPR website, written by Folkenflik and another colleague, Merrit Kennedy.
“At least we didn’t get scooped this time?” tweeted a producer on the National Desk.
When The Avengers opened in theaters in May 2012, it was a genuinely unusual offering for viewers—a film that both was and wasn’t a sequel, uniting the characters of various Marvel movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) for a new story about them functioning as a team. The novelty was such that box-office sales far outstripped previous efforts: The Avengers opened to a stunning $207 million, far above the previous Marvel Studios record ($128 million for Iron Man 2).
Since then, that’s been the sales plan for any “cinematic universe,” the comic-book storytelling template that Marvel applied to its films and that other studios have since scrambled to copy: Invest in big blockbusters that introduce your stars, then spend even more on the movie that sees them all sharing the same screen. That’s why Warner Bros. invested a reported $300 million in Justice League, making it one of the most expensive films ever shot. Here, finally, fans could see all of DC’s famous superheroes—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, plus new faces like The Flash and Aquaman—hanging out with one another.
But those fans didn’t materialize in droves as the studio had hoped. Justice League opened to a tepid $94 million last weekend, a figure that has set off a new round of murmurs in Hollywood. The weak ticket sales are proof that the wild success of Marvel’s grand comic-book experiment should be seen as an exception rather than the rule—that simply teaming up big-name heroes isn’t enough to ensure a financial win. In the five years since Marvel officially struck gold with The Avengers, every major studio has worked to plan scores of expensive franchise films intended to build up to a guaranteed payout, but audiences already seem to be growing tired of this scheme.
After the critical and financial triumph of Wonder Woman this summer ($821 million worldwide on a $150 million budget), it seemed like the DC Comics movies had finally turned their fortunes around. Earlier offerings like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were critically reviled but made decent money anyway; Wonder Woman outgrossed them both domestically, despite a lower opening weekend, showing that positive word of mouth still mattered even for an action-packed superhero film. Justice League was more in line with previous efforts, recording a 39 percent Rotten Tomatoes score (compared to Wonder Woman’s 92 percent).
Even with that said, Justice League’s underperformance was startling. Studio estimates pegged it earning about $115 million, around what the Superman film Man of Steel opened to in 2013; it came in well below that. Whatever appeal Warner Bros. had hoped would be generated by the union of Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and Henry Cavill’s Superman was nonexistent. The film’s entire marketing campaign was centered on the movie’s lighter, funnier tone following criticism of the oppressively dark and brooding Batman v. Superman, but audiences either didn’t buy that change was for real, or weren’t actually eager for more jokes in the first place.
Hollywood’s franchise blockbusters have had an exceptionally bad year. There have been a few well-received hits—Wonder Woman, all three of Marvel’s efforts, Logan. But by and large, there’s a sense of colossal fatigue from audiences, depressing sales for sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, and stopping “cinematic universes” in their tracks (such as The Mummy, the beginning of Universal’s aborted “Dark Universe”). Even well-reviewed sequels like Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant failed to break the $100 million domestic gross barrier, a classic benchmark for success in Hollywood.
So Justice League’s failure shouldn’t just be attributed to the mixed quality of the DC movies, or to its comic-book rivalry with Marvel that many fans online seem invested in. It’s also a repudiation of a strategy that’s starting to wear out its welcome. When The Avengers debuted in theaters five years ago it stood out because it was different; the same goes for Avatar wowing audiences with 3D photography in 2009, or Spider-Man making the superhero movie appeal to more than just comic-book nerds in 2002. But the film business has long excelled at taking any kind of surprising success and replicating the mechanics of it to death. And despite other studios’ best imitative efforts, Marvel is the only one that has benefited from its particular storytelling approach.
So what will the next craze be? Horror films will certainly tick up after the huge success of It, Get Out, and Split in 2017. Disney’s policy of remaking all of its beloved classics isn’t going away anytime soon (Beauty and the Beast remains the biggest hit of the year). And perhaps the success of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s war movie made without any chance of sequels or team-ups, will convince studios that handing big budgets to proven directors is wiser than simply banking on the power of the branded sequel. Then again, there are at least 25 sequels, spinoffs, and remakes already on the release docket in 2018, including at least three team-ups (with the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Harry Potter universes). With projects this big, it’ll take more than one bad year to reverse any trend.
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, the Lucas brothers were surrounded by violence and drugs. Amidst the chaos of public housing and abject poverty, television was a constant and laughter an escape. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, animated above, the twins said that at an early age, they learned the power of comedy. Now, the successful comedians see their work as more than simply a vocation.
“All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” Martin Amis wrote in the London Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the title piece in that collection, Didion’s second, the essayist recalls sitting in her sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969, when the phone rang. The friend on the line had heard that across town there had been a spate of murders at a house rented by the director Roman Polanski, on Cielo Drive. Early reports were frenzied, shocking, lurid, and incorrect. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” Didion writes, “and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
The killings orchestrated that summer by Charles Manson, who died on Sunday at the age of 83, after spending the past 48 years in prison, occupy a unique space in the American cultural psyche. All of the elements of the Tate–LaBianca murders, as they came to be known, seemed designed for maximum tabloid impact. There was the actor Sharon Tate, luminously beautiful and eight months pregnant, who was stabbed to death with four others at a rental home in Hollywood. There were the killers—young women, Manson acolytes corrupted by a sinister cult figure. There were the drugs, abundant both on the Manson Family ranch and at the house on Cielo Drive. There was the nebulous chatter about satanism and witchcraft and race wars ready to erupt. And, as Didion captured, there was a sense that something was rotten from the Hollywood Hills to Haight-Ashbury—that the Summer of Love had long since curdled into paranoia and depravity.
All of us are excited by what we most deplore. How else to explain how Manson, a diminutive grifter, had so much power? Not over the girls, who were mostly lonely teenagers from broken homes when they joined Manson, looking, as the convicted murderer Patricia Krenwinkel once explained, “for the first time, to feel safe … to feel like someone was gonna care for me.” Manson’s real power, it turned out, was over popular culture. He inspired books and songs and operas and TV series and Diane Sawyer specials and clothing lines and the name of an American band that itself became synonymous with fears of societal breakdown. He’s the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s next film. He inspired one of the breakout literary hits of 2016, a novel that won its unknown 25-year-old author a $2 million advance. The most recent season of the FX show American Horror Story, titled Cult, was billed as being about the 2016 election, but really it was about Manson, and about how a charismatic psychopath can compel others to commit murder.
What Manson knew, on some level, was how to capture the national imagination. The separate elements in the Tate–LaBianca murders—celebrity, corrupted innocence, sex, drugs, brutality, and, most of all, fear—were by themselves enough to sell newspapers for months, but together they made Manson immortal, one of the most famous monsters in history, and were a window into a culture that could not get over him. “Clearly Charles Manson already stands as the villain of our time, the symbol of animalism and evil,” David Felton and David Dalton wrote in a June 1970 cover story for Rolling Stone. But “I am just a mirror,” Manson told them, again and again. “Anything you see in me is you.”
* * *
As much as Manson the murderer became culture, he was also formed by it. If you consider his autobiography now, what stands out (beyond the neglect and the transience and the repeated institutionalizations) are the constant references to cultural touchstones. A young Charlie reportedly learned how to manipulate his followers by reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis taught him to play guitar in prison, which is also where Manson was introduced to Scientology. In 1968, after Manson and the earliest Family members had moved to Los Angeles, he got involved with the music scene, befriending Dennis Wilson, a Beach Boy, and briefly interacting with Neil Young. As Young wrote in his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace:
After a while, a guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it. His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.
Manson was a peripheral figure on the Los Angeles rock scene at best, a frustrated musician who was infuriated when the producer Terry Melcher declined to give him a record deal. Melcher was the only child of the actor Doris Day, a friend of Wilson’s, and the owner of the house on Cielo Drive, where he’d lived with the actor Candice Bergen before he rented it to Polanski and Tate. All of these coincidences, all of these tenuous links to Hollywood royalty, contributed to the tabloid frenzy after the murders, as well as a sense of escalating panic. As Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, reported in his 1974 book, Helter Skelter, there were media reports that Frank Sinatra was in hiding, and that Mia Farrow, the star of Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby, believed she was “next.” A Beverly Hills sporting-goods store, Bugliosi wrote, reported 100-fold increases in gun sales.
Bugliosi’s book was named after a song that had particular significance for Manson. The sixth track on side three of the Beatles’ 1968 record, The White Album, “Helter Skelter” was written by Paul McCartney to explore feelings of rise and fall, like a fairground roller coaster. “Do you, don’t you want me to love you?,” McCartney sings. “I’m coming down fast but I’m miles above you.” The song seemed to contain references to drug trips, although McCartney claimed that it symbolized the decline of the Roman empire.
Manson saw it differently. The song, he believed, and told his followers, contained coded references to the race war that he believed he was about to ignite, where black Americans would rise up and defeat their white oppressors, after which Manson would rule over a decimated society. He thought that every song on The White Album, in fact, contained some kind of message to initiate the end of the world. “This music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized overthrow of the Establishment,” he told Rolling Stone after his arrest. “The Beatles know in the sense that the subconscious knows.” When Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by Manson Family members, on August 10, 1969, one of the perpetrators daubed “Healter (sic) Skelter” on the refrigerator in the victims’ blood: a grisly motif for the killings sprung from a pop song.
* * *
This confluence of factors made the Manson Family murders one of the biggest crime stories in American history. At the time, Manson was seen as emblematic of the counterculture, living on a hippie commune with his followers, writing music, and dropping acid. The underground press, rather than denouncing Manson, tried to claim him as a hero. The paper Tuesday’s Child named him Man of the Year, and portrayed him as a Jesus-like figure on the cross. As Joe Hagan recounts in his new biography of Jann Wenner, Wenner was eager to run a headline on the cover of Rolling Stone that read, “Charles Manson Is Innocent!” At the time, Manson was “an object of media obsession,” Hagan writes, adding that “while the straight world viewed him as a monster, much of Wenner’s audience saw him, at least hypothetically, as one of their own.”
Manson’s being a musician, a celebrity hanger-on, and a hippie icon ensured his dominance over the news cycle. But his prominence as a cultural figure, even five decades later, arguably has less to do with him than with his followers. It wasn’t that a psychopathic ex-con would mastermind random murders to further his own bizarre agenda. It was that he would manipulate girls into doing it for him. The idea of wide-eyed innocents from middle-class homes being spoon-fed hallucinogens and indoctrinated into sexual and moral deviance was a story few could resist. Even after Manson was arrested, his cult endured. When he carved a cross into his forehead (it later became a swastika), so did his followers. They shaved their heads and held sit-ins outside the courthouse. A photograph of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten from 1970, wearing matching blue dresses and smiling vacantly at onlookers, has become as indelible over time as the images of Manson himself.
The girls. In a 1988 interview with Manson, Geraldo Rivera described him as “the stuff of a nation’s nightmares.” The girls signify innocence corrupted, or worse, a fundamental misunderstanding of what girls are capable of. As my colleague Julie Beck wrote in 2016, “The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls. … The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered.” Only Manson himself could have truly known whether he believed in the “philosophy” of Helter Skelter, Beck argued. But that wasn’t the point. “The girls believed.”
And this is how the real cult of Charles Manson started: not the group at the Spahn Ranch, with its bedraggled flower children and days-old food and butchered animals and acid-spiked sermons, but, rather, the cult that follows Manson still, captivated by his aura and his awfulness and his ability to change ordinary young women into murderers. Without them, Manson was a nothing, a failed musician and a petty criminal, but his grip on the girls, and his embodiment of the dangers inherent in freedom, turned him into a terrible legend. Helter Skelter and Charlie Rose and South Park and The Girls and Aquarius and Kasabian and Family Guy and Nine Inch Nails and American Girls and Marilyn Manson and The Ben Stiller Show transformed a murderer into an icon of everything that was dark in the American psyche. “We wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice,” Susan Atkins told her cell mate in jail. The world did just that. And it hasn’t been able to look away since.
There have been other murderers since, of course—more violent in their methods, more brutal, more obscene. But none who’ve so persistently captivated us by channeling all of our fears at once. As the social scientist David R. Williams writes in Searching for God in the Sixties, “We, as a collective culture, looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in every way a full-grown man—43 years old with a reddish beard sporting patches of gray—but in NASCAR circles he shall forever be thought of as Junior. That infantilizing can be partly blamed on his boyish good looks and rascally charm, though most of it has to do with his late father being a seven-time Winston Cup champion. The racing world had dubbed the latter The Intimidator, born from his habit of methodically stalking his rivals on the racetrack. A healthy percentage of fans that follow stock-car racing will always remember Junior as the smirking towhead grilling his mustachioed old man in a 1990 post-race interview: “Are you gonna give me some [prize] money when we get home?” Even in the throes of victory, Earnhardt tried to remain the responsible parent. “I doubt it,” he replied. “You spent enough down here this week.”
The memory persists even though Junior would go on to forge his own formidable NASCAR career. But after almost three decades at the wheel, his long road trip will roll to a stop. Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 in Homestead, Florida, will be his last professional race. Speaking with the media Friday, Earnhardt Jr. seemed satisfied with his decision. “I don’t need to reconsider,” he said. “This is great timing for me. It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can.”
In some ways it’s a miracle that Earnhardt Jr. lasted 19 Cup seasons. It wasn’t that he didn’t have talent, as evinced by his 26 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs in 2004 and 2014. His bigger challenge was the baggage that accompanied his particular set of skills. One couldn’t overstate the expectations that came with sharing a name with a man many believe to be the greatest racing driver who ever lived. When Earnhardt Jr. began racing full-time in NASCAR’s premier league in 2000—after claiming consecutive championships one level down in the Busch Series—it was with the family operation known as Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI). It was the perfect setup for high-profile failure, but Junior instead capitalized on this great inheritance, winning two races and just missing out on Rookie of the Year honors.
That same year, Earnhardt Sr. finished second in the championship standings while driving for Richard Childress Racing—yes, he owned one NASCAR team while racing for another—and that performance only ballooned expectations for the following year. The Earnhardts were poised to become the most successful father-son tandem the sport had ever witnessed, better even than Lee Petty, a three-time champion and unassuming star of NASCAR’s post-moonshine days, and his son Richard, the seven-time champion and flamboyant star of NASCAR’s tobacco-shilling era.
The Earnhardts were already hurtling toward that destiny as the 2001 Daytona 500 reached its dramatic finish. With nine laps to go, the top three cars all bore the family name. Michael Waltrip (driving for DEI) was in the lead, followed close by Earnhardts Jr. and Sr., the latter fighting like hell to protect the trio from the cavalcade speeding right behind them. As Waltrip and Junior entered the final turn on the final lap, Earnhardt Sr. got bumped on his left rear quarter panel by one driver before being T-boned by yet another.
That harrowing sequence sent Earnhardt Sr.’s car scraping into the concrete barrier nose-first between two turns. It sent Junior running through the infield to see about his father, while Waltrip waited in vain for his boss to join him in celebrating his first career victory in 17 years on the circuit. Earnhardt Sr. was forcibly extracted from the car, taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, and pronounced dead. An autopsy cited his cause of death as a fracture near the base of his skull that was caused by blunt force trauma from behind. He was just 49; Junior was 26.
Earnhardt Sr.’s death ushered in a new era of safety in racing that is most evident today in the “soft walls” that ring circuits all over the world and the neck restraints that cradle drivers’ skulls. It came as NASCAR was venturing beyond its southeastern roots to secure a lasting and profitable future, deep into the western and northern territories of Sonoma, California, and Indianapolis with young telegenic drivers like Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart leading the way. All the while attendance and viewership skyrocketed, to the point where stock-car racing began threatening football’s claim as America’s pastime. It was a culture era that gave rise to an influential new demographic: the NASCAR dad.
Earnhardt Jr. thrived in this new era, winning 12 races from 2002 to 2007. That following season, some industry folks were taken aback when he left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports—the super team led by mega-stars Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who, at the time, had six Cup titles between them—in the hope that he could finally secure his own elusive championship in NASCAR’s ever-evolving playoff format.
But Junior didn’t get close to the promised land. He could never quite hold on to a crew chief long enough or find the precise words to relay to engineers about his car so they could make it faster. The setbacks, though, didn’t stop him from becoming stock-car racing’s top endorser (with hundreds of millions earned from the likes of PepsiCo and the Department of Defense), or from becoming the kind of mainstream celebrity that Kid Rock or Jay-Z could call on to appear in a music video.
It also didn’t stop Earnhardt Jr. from becoming an unlikely progressive voice in a sport that has given rise to few. In the last two years alone he has condemned the Confederate flag (“offensive to an entire race”), opposed the Trump administration’s proposed immigration ban (“my fam immigrated from Germany in 1700s escaping religious persecution”), and lent his support to the NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic police violence and racial injustice. (Meanwhile, some owners in his own sport threatened to fire any employee who demonstrated similarly.) Somehow, for all of Earnhardt Jr.’s left-leaning espousals, his curb appeal among NASCAR’s conservative base hasn’t visibly subsided. (He’ll almost certainly be voted the sport’s most popular driver, for the 15th time overall, at year’s end.)
His following has remained intact, perhaps, because he’s genuine. Midway through the 2016 season, Earnhardt Jr. took himself out of competition to recover from lingering symptoms related to concussions, the fourth time in his career he’s been so afflicted. He was frank about his ongoing struggles with balance and nausea, sincere about his concerns for his long-term health, and serious about offering up his brain for CTE research in the future. His voice has changed the way NASCAR handles concussions; drivers can’t simply shake them off any longer.
For all his popularity and influence, this is not the career that was mapped out for Earnhardt Jr. His father won far more Cup races—76 checkered flags in 22 full seasons—but the son’s celebrity has been cemented for decades to come. And the reality that this phase of his career is finally ending has loomed over all of NASCAR since he announced his retirement plans seven months ago. Even more damning for the governing body’s top executives is that Matt Kenseth (the 2003 Cup champion) and Danica Patrick (a global icon on every level) are almost certainly leaving as well, at least as full-time racers. It would present a terrifying development for a sport dealing with freefalling television ratings and attendance figures. It didn’t help that Earnhardt Jr. was rarely a competitive force in his final season, but a victory in Homestead would be a welcome finale for all parties.
The Earnhardt name couldn’t tow NASCAR forever, and priorities invariably changed. Junior, a recent newlywed who is expecting his first child in May, has a long career ahead of him as a podcaster and broadcaster. And he won’t stray far from the track, as he will keep advising JR Motorsports, the team he runs with his older sister, Kelley.
But by retiring on Sunday, Junior gets to do what his father never could—quit while he’s ahead and go out on his own terms. The sport’s fans were fortunate to witness a dashing upstart figure out his own path and finish out a career that fell short of his namesake’s remarkable success but remained enthralling in its own ways. NASCAR may not be ready to let Earnhardt Jr. go, but that figures. Kids always grow up too fast.
The Punisher, Netflix and Marvel’s new 13-episode drama about a superhero whose superpower is killing people with guns, is debuting in a very different environment to the one the character was conceived in. When the vigilante Frank Castle first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, the American psyche was more preoccupied with serial killers and mob violence than with mass shooters. Punisher, a former Marine Corps sniper, turned the merciless tactics of organized criminals against them, displaying no qualms about executing gangsters. He employed what amounted to an arsenal of military-grade weapons. His accoutrements were guns, guns, and more guns.
In 2017, a dizzying number of disturbed gunmen have given the imagery and mythology of Punisher an even darker resonance. In October, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 58 people dead, excluding the perpetrator. A month later, a 26-year-old former member of the U.S. Air Force killed 26 people in a church in Texas. It’s a discomfiting news landscape in which to absorb The Punisher, whose opening credits caress silhouetted weaponry as brazenly as James Bond title sequences undulate around women’s bodies.
But the show seems to have anticipated this line of criticism. Compared to the first appearance of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle/Punisher in Season 2 of Daredevil—where he executed mob bosses and underlings with brutal, surgical revenge, and tried to provoke Daredevil into committing murder—The Punisher mostly resists fetishizing gun violence. Steve Lightfoot, its creator (and a veteran of the NBC show Hannibal), clearly wants to add shades of gray to his hero’s black-and-white worldview. Frank is a ruthless vigilante who imposes his own, bloody justice on the world, but the show twists itself into knots trying to both critique and justify his moral code. Hardcore fans of the comic-book Punisher, who include a large number of veterans and cops, love him because he’s simple. He takes no prisoners; he embodies eye-for-an-eye vengeance. The Punisher, though, wants to emphasize that it’s more complicated—that Frank’s bleak agenda springs directly from the fact that all the systems he encounters are fundamentally broken.
So it largely eschews the institutions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to root itself much more doggedly in the real world, focusing on the American military, defense contractors, and the CIA. It often feels like a grittier Homeland, with a new character, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), an ambitious Iranian American DHS agent recently returned from Kandahar, and a hacker-turned-whistleblower (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who’s in hiding. Frank’s closest ally is Curtis (Jason R. Moore), who served alongside him in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who runs a therapy group for veterans. The first few episodes go deep on the sense of isolation and alienation these returning soldiers feel. “I just know that I fought for this country and it’s got no place for me,” one man says. “I don’t know what the rules are anymore.”
It’s a fascinating indictment of the American government, which, the show argues, trains young men as killers and then casts them aside. Without reliable institutions to believe in, The Punisher suggests, people create their own, and the series emphasizes that nothing should be beyond scrutiny. Dinah’s mother, Farah (Shohreh Aghdashloo), tells her that her father’s belief in God doesn’t mean he can’t see the flaws in his religion. Hackers leak information in the hope of exposing officially sanctioned criminal acts and coverups. And Frank, whose family was murdered in a three-way mob fight organized by his own commanding officer, avenges them by bypassing the justice system, seeking out and eliminating organized criminals wherever he finds them. “The system let Frank down in a big way,” Curtis explains at one point. “So he did what he was trained to do.”
What makes The Punisher most interesting, though, is that it’s clear Frank finds pleasure in killing. It’s the logical extension of all his years of training, the manifestation of his id, and it makes the most violent scenes more disturbing than heroic. The show’s most gripping set pieces resemble first-person shooter games, where Frank ducks and dives through dark rooms and wooded landscapes. It’s a lot like the John Wick franchise, where the thrill of watching is experiencing the action almost first-hand, and like John Wick, Frank is an eminently skilled professional with a very simple mission: revenge.
But where John Wick invented a superhero, crafted his universe, and detailed the entirety of his mission in a tightly paced 90 minutes, The Punisher has upwards of 11 hours to do the same thing, and all too often it’s a plodding slog. Bernthal’s performance somehow finds energy in Frank’s pain—there aren’t too many actors who could make a character with such a one-note emotional range feel compelling. Still, the narrative progression of the first six episodes could easily be condensed into two hours of television without excising anything more than extraneous shots of people looking at things. You’d still have Frank beating bullies into mulch with Chekhov’s sledgehammer, Frank pulling off a daring weapons heist to the soundtrack of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Frank scowling and reading F. Scott Fitzgerald in his dank studio apartment.
All of the good stuff, in other words. Because The Punisher is, in fleeting moments, extremely entertaining. Frank is ferocious, tragic, and the butt of the series’s best jokes, like when the only weapon available to him is a neon-pink shotgun intended for a gangster heiress’s Sweet 16, or when a diner waitress sees his misery-beard and assumes he’s a hipster. These moments are endearing, and they add further texture to a character whose show rests on viewers finding him sympathetic. Lightfoot’s breadth of storytelling is gratifying—he wants to do more than give the cultural landscape another killing machine to idolize. It makes The Punisher less uncomfortable to watch than it could be amid so many outbreaks of extreme gun violence. But it isn’t an easy ride.
The picture was striking. The military airplane. The sleeping woman. The outstretched hands. The mischievous smile. The Look what I’m getting away with impishness directed at the camera.
On Thursday, Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, came forward with the accusation that Senator Al Franken of Minnesota had kissed her against her will during a 2006 United Service Organizations trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a story posted to the website of Los Angeles’s KABC station, Tweeden shared her experience with Franken. She also shared that photo. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.
How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?
I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.
I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.
But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.
I’m no longer afraid. It’s a sentiment that has been steadily spreading among those who have been sexually harassed and preyed upon in recent weeks—not among all of them, certainly, but among many more than before. Tweeden, however, had another reason not to fear coming forward: She had, unlike so many other victims of harassment, hard evidence. This was not a case of her word against his, he said against she said; Tweeden had, via that photo of Franken groping and grinning, the receipts. Because of that, members of the public had no other choice but to do the thing that so many people, for so long, have been extremely hesitant to do: Take her at her word. Trust the woman and the story she tells.
It remains to be seen whether the #MeToo moment—the “Weinstein Moment,” it is also called, in ironic commemoration of the man whose alleged actions led to the flinging open of the floodgates—will prove to be a pivotal one in the sweeping context of American cultural history. There have been, after all, other such moments. There have been other such movements. But one of the most significant elements of #MeToo as a phenomenon is the fact that it has served, effectively, as its own kind of photograph, its own kind of receipt. There are so many women, telling such similar stories. They are painting a picture. They are daring you to look. “Pics or it didn’t happen,” as they say; well, here’s the pic. That makes the #MeToo moment not only about justice—and about women being required, once again, to insist on their own humanity—but also about something both simpler and more fraught: belief itself. Will this be the moment that we—we as a culture, we as a collective—finally start taking women at their word?
The Franken revelation came, as it happened, after a week of discussion about Roy Moore, the U.S. senatorial candidate from Alabama, after multiple women came forward to say that he had preyed upon them as teenagers. They did not—save for a yearbook signature that Moore’s defenders have suggested could be fraudulent—have photographic evidence. And of course they didn’t: Harassment and assault, by their nature, often take place in the shadows, away from others, in intimate places that are hidden and walled and secret. And this is in many cases used as a weapon against the victims. And so, soon after Leigh Corfman came forward to share her alleged experience with Moore, when she was a girl of 14—the clock ticks predictably—a rumor that was entirely unfounded began spreading:The Washington Post, it went, had paid the women to speak on the record. Divorces were mentioned; financial troubles rehashed; characters impugned. Tick, tick, tick.
Corfman and Tweeden are only two of so many women, and their experiences differ greatly—and yet, what they underwent while coming forward to share their stories makes for an instructive comparison. Tweeden, with her photo evidence, was believed because it was unreasonable not to believe her. Moore’s accusers were believed in some quarters, but in many others were met with doubt: If true, if true, if true. (“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / But make allowance for their doubting too …”) Partisan politics are at play in all that certainly, but so are also politics of a much more ancient strain: Doubting women, after all, is an age-old game. #MeToo and its celebration of women’s agency is fighting centuries’ worth of ingrained beliefs about women’s propensity to deceive, to manipulate, to doctor the picture.
Aristotle—he of the “women are mutilated men” conviction—believed enthusiastically that women’s inferior bodies accounted for women’s inferior minds, and that this led, in turn, to a capacity for deception. (“Wherefore women are more compassionate and more readily made to weep,” he declared, they are also “more jealous and querulous” than men. “The female,” he continued, “also is more subject to depression of spirits and despair than the male. She is also more shameless and false … than the male.”) The Greek physician-philosopher Galen of Pergamon refined that idea in his Complexion theory—complexion in this case having less to do with the skin and more to do with the balance of the “humors”: the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet, as anatomical approximations of earth, wind, fire, and water. Women were colder and wetter than men; this anatomical reality made them more apt to manipulate and deceive. As one summary of the matter put it: “Aristotle and Hellenistic medicine attributed woman’s fickle attitudes, immorality, and insatiable sensory appetite to biology—excessive moisture. She’s too soggy.”
The ideas trickled down, as so many ancient assumptions did, through the centuries. (“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough,” Hamlet glowers to Ophelia, and really to all women. “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another.”) Eve tempted; Delilah betrayed; Jezebel deceived; Cassandra told truths that were assumed to be lies. Calypso beguiled Odysseus—himself a master manipulator—into her island cavern not with her home-decorating skills, but with that standby of gendered scapegoatery: feminine wiles. Men and women, the ancients assumed through their literature, are at odds with one another; women, generally lacking economic or political power, exert themselves through manipulations. Lysistrata is a comedy; it is also, in that sense, an insight.
On the one hand, of course, men lie too. Yet the expectation has been that they lie as an exception while women lie as a rule. Notions of honor and honesty—“Honest Abe,” Washington’s cherry tree—have been construed over time as specifically male aspirations. (The words testimony and testify, one theory goes, are rooted in the fact that the men of ancient Rome, as a gesture of trustworthiness and truth-telling, cupped their testicles.) Women, on the other hand, the mythologies have gone, use their body to manipulate and cajole and entrance: Calypso’s “cavern,” of course, is a metaphor. So is Eve’s apple. As the author Dallas G. Denery II put it in 2015’s The Devil Wins: A History of Lying From the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment: “Over 1,200 years of endlessly repeated authority transmitted in the form of religious doctrine, natural philosophy, and stories, poems and plays, jokes and anecdotes” framed women as men’s natural adversaries. And women have done their fighting, the long-running story has insisted, though seductions of both body and psyche: “sweet words, fallacious arguments, tears, and exposed breasts.”
It’s an ancient idea that has extended to the modern-day United States (as, of course, to many other places). Notions of “hysteria.” Dismissals of women’s anger as at once irrational and manipulative. Fear of—and interest in—witches and their crafts: “And I’ve got no defense for it / The heat is too intense for it / What good would common sense for it do?” And it has lived on, in even more recent times, in the protestations of GamerGate, and the plot of Gone Girl, and the title of Pretty Little Liars, and the trope of the gold digger, and the notion of the femme fatale, and the paradigm of “the Madonna and the whore,” and the racist logic of the “welfare queen.” It’s in every lyric of “Blurred Lines”—and every “but look how she dresses” rebuttal, and every “if true” dismissal. As Soraya Chemaly, writing for HuffPost in 2014, put it: “If she expresses herself in a combative way in response to a hectoring lawyer or reporter, she is going to be disliked. If she is silent, she will be distrusted. If she talks too much, she is thought to be making stories up. If she is a woman of color, well, all of that on steroids plus some.”
And around it goes. In 2003, a woman set off an airport metal detector en route to a vacation she was taking without her husband: He had forced her to wear a chastity belt forged of metal, she explained to the confused security agents, to ensure that she would be faithful in his absence. In 2017, a (male) developer released an app that promises to reveal what a given woman looks like without makeup—Hamlet’s anger at being deceived by women who paint their face, finally getting its champion. The same year, a Dutch production company announced the creation of a new reality show—Raped or Not, it’s teasingly titled—in which guest panelists will make that determination on behalf of the pair in question. Until very recently, U.S. police departments had “corroboration requirements” for allegations of rape. One of the investigators working for the Philadelphia Police Department’s sex-crimes unit nicknamed his workplace “the lying bitches unit.”
These things are not unrelated. They are, on the contrary, bound together in the most intimate of ways. If true. If true. If true. In one way, certainly, it’s a fitting refrain for the America of 2017, with all its concessions to the conditional tense: alternative facts, siloed reality, a political moment that has summoned and witnessed a resurgence of the paranoid style. And yet it’s also an abdication—“moral cowardice,” the journalist Jamelle Bouie put it—and in that sense is part of a much longer story. If true is a reply, but it has in recent cases become more effectively a verb—a phrase of action, done to women, to remind them that they are doubted. If true used as a weapon. If true used as a mechanism to enforce the status quo. For years. For centuries. The woman says, “This happened.” The world says, “If true.
“No wonder so many women, for so long, have preferred silence. No wonder they have found it more tolerable to bear their experiences on their own—to keep them safely locked away, monstrous but contained—than to share them and risk the inevitable results. The economics of truth-telling have been too stark, too brute. They could speak; very likely, however, people would listen but not hear. Very likely, they would reply with excuses and questionings and punishments and shame: You probably misunderstood. Anyway, that’s just how he is. And don’t take this the wrong way, but that was a pretty short skirt to be wearing to work. And how do we know for sure that you’re not making it all up?
In recent weeks, as similar conversations have emerged about Bill Clinton, the fact that more than 16 women have accused President Trump of sexual misconduct—a story that has lurked in the shadows of his campaign and his presidency—has reemerged in American media. “Donald Trump’s Sexual Assault Accusers Demand Justice in the #MeToo Era,” one headline—in People—summed it up. The accusers, however, just as the #MeToo movement itself, are fighting against a strong foe. Last month, during a press conference, a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, about those accusers. Her reply did not include an “if true.” Instead, she declared, on behalf of the American president: The women, all of them, were lying.
In 1972, the Staple Singers lodged themselves at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and cemented their place in soul history by singing of a place where nobody’s crying, nobody’s worrying, and nobody’s “lying to the races.” “I’ll take you there,” Mavis Staples and her family promised. As neatly as could be, the song distilled gospel and soul’s deepest yearning: for deliverance.
Over the last 45 years, Mavis Staples has never stopped singing about the dream of a better world, nor has she ignored the political reality that makes such a dream necessary. Her third album with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the nourishing and nuanced If All I Was Was Black, arrives with a retelling from her label about her experiences with prejudice in the ’60s and her participation in the civil-rights movement. “Nothing has changed,” Staples said this year. “We are still in it.”
Staples’s first album with Tweedy, 2010’s You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy and wide acclaim with a rich, enveloping take on the classic sounds that have long accompanied Staples’s husky and nimble voice. If All I Was Was Black, the first Staples album written as well as produced by Tweedy (and recorded with players from the Wilco extended family), is a more mysterious, rock-rooted work that sees Tweedy balancing his traditionalism and experimentalism and Staples her inspirational and realist sides. Where you’d expect the songs to explode in gospel-glory climaxes, he and Staples often pull back, setting off sparklers rather than sky fire. It’s a technique that, perhaps, reflects the unfinished nature of the political project Staples sings about.
On the opener “Little Bit,” Tweedy lays down a sawing, steady arrangement, mimicking a tight predicament Staples sings about: “Do what you’re told / gotta keep your eyes wide on this long, narrow road.” The guitar bursts out in high, sorrowful wails and dips into low, pensive ruts, but always returns to the groove. One verse tells of a boy who was shot, ostensibly for not having his license, and Staples doesn’t have to mention his race for the social context to be clear.
The title track is yet more direct. Staples gives the impression of smiling and shaking her head at being reduced to a skin color, and not only because of the pure injustice of it but also because of what racism denies to all parties. “You might look past all the love I give,” she sings. Throughout the album, indeed, Staples meets rivals with affection. “We Go High,” a contribution to the growing number of songs inspired by Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention, feels all too jarring in the context of the hostile national discourse: “When they tell their lies / Spread around rumors / I know they’re still human.” She delivers the line with a quiver, as if reciting a devotional.
Such moments of generosity bolster her already formidable authority on a song like “Build a Bridge,” in which she gently explains to a skeptic why “Black Lives Matter” needs to be said. Her willingness to engage with the other side also makes her all the more convincing when she extends comfort to the listener, as on “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” a breezy duet with Tweedy. It almost feels like a children’s song, but her advice is clearly earned from—and applicable to—a long life: “Every time I get worried / When I don’t know what to do / I think of all the things I’ve worried about / How few of them ever came true.”
The singer directs her love and criticism inward, too. It’s odd to hear a woman as venerated as Staples say there is “evil” within her, as she does on “Try Harder,” but that’s why the message connects. That song is one of her and Tweedy’s most full-throated attempts at a new rally standard, with his distorted guitar purring and growling as Staples insists, over and over, that everyone push themselves to greater righteousness. The raw muscle of that track clears a path for the vulnerability of the album’s closer, “All Over Again.” On it, Tweedy’s meditative acoustic playing defers to an outstandingly textured performance by Staples. “I’d do it all over again,” she sings, but lest anyone worry she’s writing her career’s endnote, she also assures, “I ain’t done yet.”
Soul is naturally a sound of spiritual care, but Staples, right now, is more interested in concrete action. The “I’ll Take You There” ideal of banishing tears shows up on the fidgety, rousing “No Time for Crying,” but here it’s an admonishment. When “people are dyin’ / bullets are flying,” she suggests, mourning isn’t the priority—making progress is. “We’ve got work to do,” she sings, and this album shows her leading by example.
Jake Tapper sometimes wakes up angry. This may be a good thing for America.
Amid the chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, and the deep partisanship that filters through seemingly all aspects of American life in 2017, Tapper is motivated by the same forces that have animated much of his career in journalism. He can’t stand hypocrisy. He can’t stand unfairness. He can’t stop talking about it.
“I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now,” he told The Atlantic. “But it is just who I am.”
“I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening,” he added. “There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it’s horrific.”
Tapper, who is writing a novel about America in 1954, says he sees an echo of that era in today’s political climate. Despite the many unprecedented aspects of the Trump presidency, Tapper argues, the nation has grappled with the same kind of turmoil, the same unseemliness, the same level of uncertainty that’s playing out now. “There was this before,” he says. “It was McCarthyism. It was incredibly indecent. It was full of lies and a lot of people should have known better and did not stand against it. There was a very powerful person, and everybody was worried about alienating his supporters.”
Here’s a condensed and lightly edited transcript of Tapper’s conversation with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, recorded for the second episode of The Atlantic Interview podcast.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve become very, very famous.
Jake Tapper: I don’t know that that’s true.
Goldberg: You were in GQ magazine!
Tapper: It was a very nice story, and I thought it captured something that I've been feeling a lot—which is that I spent eight years being attacked by the Obama administration and Obama fans, and now a lot of them are acting as if I’m some other person.
Goldberg: I don’t think you went into journalism to become famous.
Goldberg: Why did you become a journalist?
Tapper: I wanted to be a cartoonist, and then I wanted to go into film—not as an actor, but as a writer-director—and then I found myself during film school at the University of Southern California listening to the Clarence Thomas hearings in class on my Walkman, and I realized L.A. was not really for me.
I just started submitting any freelance story anywhere I could. I wrote a piece about a guy in his early twenties living in his grandmother’s pool house running a smut empire. He was making lots of money, living with these two strippers, and he was trying to get into porn—and this was all taking place in College Park, Maryland. I wrote this for the Washington Post Style section and they got back to me and saying they couldn’t print a word of it. So I went to City Paper with it. And that was my introduction to City Paper.
Goldberg: Was that your introduction to David Carr?
Tapper: To David Carr, to Erik Wemple, to the whole team.
Goldberg: Tell me a little bit about what David Carr did for you.
Tapper: Well, he made me a journalist. And he convinced me to leave [public relations], and come work for him.
Goldberg: I can’t picture you in PR.
Tapper: I was so awful at it. I was the worst.
Goldberg: What made you bad at it?
Tapper: Well I’m not a particularly good liar.
Goldberg: Humble brag.
Tapper: Kind of.
Goldberg: Tell me two things that you learned from David Carr. Two general rules.
Tapper: Every mistake is important, and you should avoid them at all costs. I remember the first time I made a mistake in print. I was writing a piece about the Humane Society and some people who were foster-cat people saying that the Humane Society was too eager to kill off cats and dogs. And I mixed up quotes of two women that had the same first name, I think. He was not happy at all.
Goldberg: What did he say to you?
Tapper: I just was kind of glib about it.
Goldberg: That’s bad.
Tapper: Yeah, because it wasn’t an editing error. It was a reporting error. I mean, I still hear it. Every time I make a mistake or somebody who works for me makes a mistake I hear that voice. So that was one. And, two, cliches. He hated cliches so much.
Goldberg: Television journalism is built on cliches.
Tapper: There are a lot of good writers in TV! Yeah, I mean, look, first of all, let me just also say, 24 hours of live television is not easy. And people end up saying cliches because they’ve been talking for so long. I’m sure I use them all the time. You know, we have banned phrases on my show: “Popping the champagne,” “measuring the drapes.”
Goldberg: Do you keep a list?
Tapper: Those are the only two on my list right now.
Goldberg: What about the word eatery?
Tapper: I like eatery. What’s wrong with eatery?
Goldberg: Eatery is one of the worst words. There’s another word for eatery. You know what it is? Restaurant.
Tapper: Yeah, but what if you have to say a restaurant five times? You wouldn't put the word “restaurant” five times in a paragraph.
Goldberg: Then write harder. A question I always have for people who jump from writing to TV is why? Because no matter how long a story is on television you just can’t tell as much of that story as you can in print. You have pictures, which is amazing.
Tapper: Print and television journalism are very different, and it’s not like one is better than the other. I mean, look, I interviewed [the Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson the other day and I think that, as live television journalism, it was effective for what it was. How does it compare to a print interview with Tillerson? Well, a print interview with Tillerson, you would do differently. It wouldn’t just be a transcript. You would weave in context and analysis.
One of the things that I decided to do in that interview was—we talked about Russia, and we talked about North Korea, and we talked about the Iran deal—but obviously I was going to also ask about the moron thing, and I knew he was going to not answer the question. So one of the things I did was explain [in the interview] why I was asking.
Goldberg: Talk about something else related to your interview style. I don’t mean this literally, but you don’t blink. I’m thinking about your most famous Kellyanne [Conway] interview.
Tapper: Twenty-seven [minutes] without commercials.
Goldberg: Twenty-seven minutes! It’s the combination of being able to sit still and bear down on it, and also there is this thing—and I’m admitting something about myself that I don’t like which is—when somebody is squirming, sometimes I turn away from it even though my job is to get them to squirm because they're lying to me.
Tapper: The natural human impulse is to avoid conflict. Sometimes when President Trump tweets something, or like today—today was such a weird morning. Okay. I wake up. I’m already kind of upset because President Trump said that other presidents including President Obama didn’t call the families of [service members killed in action]. That bothers me a lot because I cover the veterans so often, and I know veterans that President Bush spoke to, visited, hugged. Same with President Obama.
Goldberg: So you woke up angry. How soon after you actually wake up do you look at your Twitter feed?
Tapper: It’s on the way to the bathroom. I’ve made an improvement in that I now look at my e-mail first. But, so, that bothered me. I’m not worried about President Obama or President Bush’s feelings. But I know these Gold Star families. And I know that they remain—a lot of them—incredibly vulnerable, incredibly upset, and understandably so. So that just really bothered me. Within the course of an hour, the Scaramucci Post—which is, the whatever the heck it is, the web site or Twitter feed of the former White House communications director—is engaging in Holocaust denial. And then! Some nitwit on Twitter was comparing John McCain to Bowe Bergdahl, who just pleaded guilty to desertion. You know, President Obama loved John McCain and Bowe Bergdahl, and this is why I love Donald Trump—something like that. And Donald Trump Jr. liked it.
And I’m just like, I don’t want any of this to be happening. That’s my feeling about this. I would rather have woken up and none of that happened. It bothers me. It’s indecent. So I would prefer to not be so agitated. I would prefer this stuff to not be going on.
Goldberg: You’re maybe at your best when you’re a little bit peeved. But would you be better off if you just didn't pay attention to the passing noise of Twitter?
Tapper: I try not to pay attention to the stuff that’s against me. But the three things I just told you about have nothing to do with me.
Goldberg: One of them is so small. Some yutz on Twitter is comparing John McCain to Bowe Bergdahl.
Tapper: But Donald Trump Jr. liked it.
Goldberg: But that’s almost a reflex.
Tapper: But he knows better.
Goldberg: He’s not the president.
Tapper: No, but he’s the president’s son, and I know him a little bit, and he knows better, and it bothers me to see. And it bothered me when Democrats did this in 2008. It bothers me to see people denigrating John McCain’s military service. It bothers me. And when McCain was attacked by Trump—[Trump] said he wasn't a hero because he got captured. I found that horrendously offensive.
Goldberg: Was that the moment when you realized, Wait, something has gone awry in our society? That sort of thing should have killed the candidacy. But he actually became more popular with his base out of that.
Tapper: It’s so hard in retrospect to figure out which one was worse than the other.
Goldberg: The racism and misogyny and all the rest—let me say this as carefully as possible—those are things that could appeal to certain parts of his voting public. Some people who are racists voted for Donald Trump.
Tapper: Not everybody who voted for Donald Trump is racist. But plenty of racists voted for Donald Trump.
Goldberg: Veneration of veterans, specifically POWs, is known as patriotic conservative political behavior. And then Donald Trump flipped the whole thing on its head by attacking a POW for getting captured, which of course, when you think about it, is insane. This is the moment when the world went upside down.
Tapper: There is, in the United States, a historical context of xenophobia and racism that.
Goldberg: I’m staring at George Wallace in your office.
Tapper: We should point out that, before people think I have an office dedicated to a horrible segregationist, that my office is full of posters of people who ran for president and lost.
Goldberg: George Wallace is next to Howard Dean, which would probably not please Howard Dean.
Tapper: I have a Strom Thurmond in the corner over there too.
Goldberg: And a Hillary.
Tapper: I have two Hillarys because she lost twice. But the point in even invoking them is there are a lot of people in this room—Democrats and Republicans, their pictures on the wall—who stood for some pretty heinous, xenophobic things.
Goldberg: My point is that is that it’s traditionally been thought of as a losing proposition for a presidential candidate to attack a war hero. And that gets me to the question about this moment in our history. In a way, your personality was made for this moment because you do have an intolerance for nonsense, hypocrisy, and—let’s put it bluntly—unreconstructed and unapologetic lying.
Tapper: I don’t know that I’m any guy for any moment.
Goldberg: But there’s something crazy about this moment.
Tapper: There are so many lies and so much indecency, and I’m not only talking about President Trump. There is just a world of it exploding—and we are, I fear, as a nation, becoming conditioned and accepting of it. And it's horrific. It just feels like we’re meaner to each other. Every now and then I'll see a glimmer of light. The uncovering of Harvey Weinstein, that story was amazing.
Goldberg: The dam burst open.
Tapper: It feels like that. Although it’s incredibly horrible to—I don’t know what your Facebook and Twitter feeds are like, but all the women hashtagging #MeToo.
Goldberg: This is the disinfecting aspect of sunlight.
Tapper: I didn’t know that every single woman I knew had been assaulted or harassed at some point, if not worse. I didn’t know that.
Goldberg: I wasn’t going to bring this up because it's ancient history but you dated—for like 10 minutes—Monica Lewinsky.
Tapper: I went out with her once.
Goldberg: She was wronged by society and wronged by the meanness of our society. And I’m wondering if knowing her just slightly shaped any of your thoughts on the subject.
Tapper: Totally. Well, it was my first cover story for City Paper. I’d already been talking to them about coming on board but I’d gone out with Monica. It was a very G-rated date in December 1998. She was lovely. Sweet, nice, funny, charming, bright. You know she was about to move up to New York, and we went out and that was the end of that. But then I went on vacation with my dad, and when I came back, the story broke, and I was just like, Oh my god I know this woman—girl, really. She seemed like a girl. She must’ve been like 22. It was astounding because, first of all, everybody was so giggly.
Goldberg: Prurient and mean.
Tapper: Everybody was excited. A big sex scandal. Isn’t this funny. And I’m like, I know this girl—I know this young woman—and her life is being destroyed by everyone. Everyone was destroying her.
Goldberg: But it also fed into a general posture that you have in life of intolerance for a level of hypocrisy or—
Tapper:—meanness, I hope.
Goldberg: I’m trying to understand the root of it because I do think that you have risen high in a moment of great hypocrisy.
Tapper: Well can I tell you one thing. So, I’m writing a novel. And it takes place in 1954. So I've been spending a lot of time in the last year reading about 1954. And I don’t know who said it, but it is a brilliant saying, which is: history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And there was this before. It was McCarthyism. It was incredibly indecent. It was full of lies and a lot of people should have known better and did not stand against it. There was a very powerful person and everybody was worried about alienating his supporters.
Goldberg: And when called out on lies, [he] doubled down on the lies without embarrassment.
Tapper: And there were people that knew better like Senator [Robert] Taft of Ohio, who was very highly regarded—a very strong conservative. And he thought he could straddle it—thought he could straddle the worlds—and he would say to people, to reporters, Well why do you cover them? Why do you cover him? Why are you giving him the attention he needs? You think you can straddle this stuff. And ultimately you can’t. You have to be Margaret Chase Smith in 1950 calling it out four years ahead of anybody else. You have to do it because history has its eyes on you, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Goldberg: You think Obama got a free ride from much of the press?
Tapper: Often. I think people were soft on him for a lot of reasons. Many, many reasons. Complicated reasons in some cases.
Goldberg: You think there’s a possibility that Trump is getting too hard a ride?
Goldberg: You do?
Goldberg: Give me an example.
Tapper: I think there is an inclination of some people to interpret every single thing he says and does in a horrific way, and as if he is without charm. He’s not wrong about everything he says. Washington is a swamp and there are a tremendous amount of conflicts of interest that we’re not outraged enough about. Now, is he doing anything about it? Not really that I can tell. Have trade deals been negotiated with Wall Street and corporate America in mind more than middle-class workers and the working class? Yeah, of course, 100 percent. Is it insane to think that we should have a secure border? I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know if a wall is the right way to do it. Policy-wise, I think a lot of people in the press just act as though everything he wants to do is just based on a falsehood.
Goldberg: Where do you think this general posture of yours comes from? Righteous indignation, obstreperousness, oppositional behavior. Where does it come from? The moralizing part of your personality.
Tapper: I don’t know. Part of it probably is being raised by a doctor and a nurse who lived in a section of Philadelphia where there were a lot of working class people, and seeing the world through their eyes. They were part of that generation thinking the world needs to be better. We’re not doing enough for poor people, we’re not doing enough for black people, we’re fighting a war that we shouldn't be fighting and our kids are dying for no reason. There is something in me that gets really exercised when I think things aren’t fair. And I can’t psychologically explain it except to say that it’s just part of who I am.
And sometimes it ends up being something that I can use to try to benefit the public’s knowledge or understanding of an issue. And I recognize that it’s probably a pain in the ass for a lot of people now. But it is just who I am.
I don’t have any illusions that any of this is going to stand the test of time. I’m just—when Jack and Alice, my kids, read about this period in history, I want to be able to Google it and say, “That’s what daddy did that day. That’s the story.” I want them to feel good.
Goldberg: All of our kids can get together as adults and listen to this podcast. The chances of that are extremely slim.
Tapper: The chances of them making it through the first 30 seconds are nil.
Goldberg: They’re not that interested in us.
Tapper: I think it’s fair to say that you and I are the two least popular members of the families. And I’m including the dogs.
A teenage girl is brutally raped and murdered. After months pass without any progress on the case, her mother takes matters into her own hands. She rents three billboards outside of her small town, indicting the local police chief: “Raped While Dying”; “And Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”
It is easy to imagine the movie that might have emerged from this premise in the hands of a typical writer-director: the noble parent; the inept or uncaring police chief; the slow, orchestrally underscored march toward some form of justice.
But Martin McDonagh is not a typical writer-director. And Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is assuredly not that movie. Rather, it is a film that continually complicates and recomplicates itself, denying viewers the comfort of easy moral footing. It is by turns heartbreaking, harrowing in its violence, and very, very funny, and it features Oscar-level performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. It contains both the most moving scene I saw in a theater this year and the most mordant bit of black comedy. Though it’s set in a (fictional) town in the Midwest, it exists very much in the moral terrain of Flannery O’Connor’s bleak, existential humor, as is made clear by the fact that we first meet one character while he is reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Even for fans of McDonagh—and I am certainly one—Three Billboards is a revelation, and among the very best films of 2017.
An Anglo-Irish playwright with multiple Tony Award nominations, McDonagh came to filmmaking relatively late. His debut, Six Shooter, won the 2006 Academy Award for Live-Action Short Film; his first feature, In Bruges, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 2009. Three Billboards is substantially more ambitious than either. (More ambitious, too, than his second feature, the wickedly subversive 2012 crime-comedy Seven Psychopaths, of which I was an exceptional admirer.)
McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, whose daughter Angela’s body was found raped and burned by the side of the road. After Mildred puts up her billboards, she receives a visit from Chief Willoughby (Harrelson), who appears to be neither inept nor uncaring. “I’d do anything to catch your daughter’s killer,” he tells her. He also tells her something else, something he believes will persuade her to take the billboards down—something that would persuade almost any normal, decent person to take the billboards down. But Mildred declines to do so, even as the pressure on her rises in town. As the local priest explains to her: “Everybody is with you about Angela. Nobody is with you about this.”
That’s all I think I should say about the plot itself. This is a film best seen with as little foreknowledge as possible, and I would caution against reading too much about it, as not all reviews will be so circumspect. Suffice to say that the story also revolves around Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), a low-IQ policemen who lives with his mother and has a record of abusing black suspects in custody. (Accused at one point of being in the “nigger-torturing business,” he replies, “It’s the ‘person-of-color’-torturing business.”)
McDonagh mines his familiar veins here—death, anger, remorse, revenge, ambiguous absolution—but he mines far deeper than in his earlier efforts. Until now, the brutal-yet-ironic combatants in his darkly comic theater of cruelty had been almost exclusively male. In Six Shooter (which, truth be told, did not really merit its Oscar), two men with death in their immediate pasts meet on a train. In In Bruges, two hitmen await their fate at the hands of another, more senior killer. And in Seven Psychopaths, a series of violently unhinged men—and one confused screenwriter—trade McDonagh’s particular brand of diamond-sharp verbal barbs.
But choosing to hinge Three Billboards around a female lead tethers the wilder, more boyish fancies to which McDonagh occasionally succumbs. Mildred Hayes may have the soul of a hitman, but she’s not one: She’s a mother who has lost her only daughter to sexual violence. Moreover, Three Billboards is not merely the story of her interaction with two policemen, but the story of a community struggling to deal with both the horrifying memory of Angela’s murder and the difficult reality of Mildred’s response to it.
This is McDormand’s greatest performance since Fargo, a remarkable portrait of obduracy indifferent to consequences. It is hard to imagine an actress better suited to the role. She is neither vain nor working hard to establish her lack of vanity, and she has a face that has grown ever more interesting with age. I’m reminded of Tommy Lee Jones (though he’s a decade older), another performer for whom every line or wrinkle suggests a lesson learned for good or ill, a level of gravitas that slowly accumulates in tectonic layers. Mildred’s hardening resolve almost seems the flip side of Jones’s growing despair in No Country for Old Men: another face carved by bitter weather.
The characters who orbit her, by contrast, are more malleable, more subject to evolution in the face of circumstance. (Here, again, I don’t want to say too much.) Harrelson is as good as I’ve ever seen him, equal parts tough and tender. And Rockwell has found a role that makes full use of his goofy charisma while harnessing it to something more substantial. This may finally be the role that gets him truly noticed—though I’ve believed that before. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, who left her in order to date a 19-year-old—but he, too, is allowed to be more than the sum of his sins. And sound supporting work is done by Sandy Martin, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, and Zeljko Ivanek.
McDonagh has a habit of working with his stars more than once: Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and others. Indeed, this is his second collaboration with both Harrelson and Rockwell. But in McDormand, he may have found his strongest partner yet. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a triumph for director and actress alike. Here’s hoping it is not their last.
The Lust in the Heart of Rolling Stone—Spencer Kornhaber reads a new book that describes Jann Wenner’s “jovial sexual harassment” and other forms of self-gratification as the editor deals with accusations of trading work for sex.
Frontiers of Sports
The NFL Is Making Colin Kaepernick’s Collusion Case for Him—Robert O’Connell posits that as weeks pass and league-wide quarterback play worsens, the athlete-turned-activist’s continued absence on Sundays is becoming impossible to rationalize.
Vince Carter and the Slam Dunk’s Day of Reckoning—Sam Riches notes that after 20 years in the NBA, the most influential dunker of all time is winding down his career and the game is preparing for a new era of high-flyers.
How Will the Oscars Reflect This Moment in Hollywood?—David Sims looks at how the Best Picture race could see another surprise winner following Moonlight’s triumph earlier this year.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Is an Absolute Marvel—Christopher Orr calls the writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest one of the best films of the year.
A Cheerful Facade Can’t Save Justice League—David Sims dislikes the latest installment in the DC Comics universe, which suffers from trying to do way too much, too quickly.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. Wastes a Denzel Washington Performance—David Sims thinks that Dan Gilroy’s legal drama does a poor job of trying to tackle the American justice system, the death of activism, and a pulpy crime story all at once.
Alias Grace Is True Crime Through the Female Gaze—Sophie Gilbert says the new Netflix drama, an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, is must-watch TV for the current moment.
American Horror Story: Cult’s Angry Women—Sophie Gilbert watches the FX show’s seventh season, which tackled a timely subject with typical incoherence.
Remembering Lil Peep—Spencer Kornhaber eulogizes the rapper, who died at the age of 21, as someone who fused hip-hop, emo, and a magnetic persona and earned legions of fans in a short time.
What Donald Trump’s Books Say About Winning—Steven Watts writes that 30 years ago with The Art of the Deal, the president broke with a long tradition of American success writing by separating self-improvement from morality.
The Intolerant Left—Adrienne LaFrance recaps a conversation with the writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jeffrey Goldberg about self-righteousness among progressives, the appeal of Donald Trump, and the entitlement that comes with being white in America.
Bill Clinton: A Reckoning—Caitlin Flanagan asks if it’s time to make things right after feminists saved the 42nd president in the 1990s, putting them on the wrong side of history.
He Doth Brotest Too Much—Megan Garber points out that Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and many other men alleged to be abusers were great at seeming to be good.
Reflections of an Affirmative-Action Baby—Peter Beinart grapples with the fact that white men from fancy schools advanced quickly at the New Republic.
Al Franken, That Photo, and Trusting the Women—Megan Garber provides a brief history of looking at half the population and assuming the worst, from Eve to Aristotle to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
How Louis C.K. Used Comedy as a Smokescreen—David Sims argues that the artist’s stand-up, TV shows, and his latest movie were all ways for him to craft a careful narrative about his brand of “brutal honesty.”
‘It Was Clearly Intended to Be Funny but Wasn’t’—David Sims analyzes Al Franken’s apology in response to the allegation that he groped a woman.
The hero of Roman J. Israel, Esq. looks like he emerged out of a time tunnel straight from 1979. He wears baggy three-piece suits, sports an afro, and never goes anywhere without his Walkman or its fuzzy orange headphones. A lawyer and an activist, Roman is a man who’s frozen in the past, the personification of a guilty conscience for a more corporate, less moral world. He’s also the star of Dan Gilroy’s new drama, which tries to reckon with how the American justice system has failed the idealism of generations gone by. Except, that is, when the film decides to be about something else entirely.
One element is consistent throughout Roman J. Israel, Esq.—the enigmatic lead, played with typical dedication and forcefulness by Denzel Washington. But even though he’s fully committed to the role, this movie is anything but, aimlessly weaving between story ideas like a distracted driver. Roman’s journey goes in strange directions: He steals a duffel bag filled with money; he locks horns with corporate attorneys; he tries to launch a lawsuit against the pillars of the American court system; he even falls in love. There’s at least a third of Roman J. Israel, Esq. that I loved, and another third I had no patience for whatsoever. Ultimately, it’s a small-scale work that nonetheless falls victim to its dizzying ambition.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems all the more odd given that its writer and director is Gilroy, who made 2014’s Nightcrawler, a propulsive and focused thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a photographer caught up in the dark world of “if it bleeds, it leads” local news. While that film features a fairly original protagonist, Roman J. Israel, Esq. relies on dull stereotypes about people on the autism spectrum: Roman possesses an encyclopedic brain and a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but aside from that, whatever disorder he might have is left unnamed and unexplained. Equally unclear is the reason for the film’s strange narrative structure. It begins in media res with Roman decrying how he betrayed his own values, then cuts back to “three weeks earlier” and goes on to tell an impossibly epic tale.
Roman is an office-bound lawyer who does busywork for his partner, a hero of the civil-rights movement who’s the face of their two-person firm. When that partner has a heart attack and goes into a coma, Roman is adrift. He initially thinks about getting back into public activism, meeting (and developing a close friendship with) a nonprofit organizer named Maya (Carmen Ejogo). But then he ends up working in corporate law, hired by the soulless hotshot George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who wants to take advantage of his computer-brain. And Roman gets into a legal predicament, making a desperate decision that nets him a ton of cash and a whole heap of trouble.
How this could all fit into three weeks is beyond me, but it certainly can’t fit into an otherwise roomy 130 minutes of screen time (and that’s after Gilroy trimmed 12 minutes following the muted response the movie got at the Toronto International Film Festival). Roman J. Israel, Esq. has simultaneously too much story to tell and not enough; unable to pick a lane, it gets bogged down in uninteresting details. To his credit, Washington is working hard, and he somehow manages to make Roman feel like more than a cartoon, despite a screenplay that vastly underserves him.
The movie seems to be on the right track early on, as Roman wanders in search of new employment after decades tucked away in a back office. We get a sense of what this man has sacrificed, and what he’s held onto while things have changed around him. In a job interview at Maya’s nonprofit, Roman starts stammering and crying as he tries to recount his activist history and expresses his confusion at their less aggressive methods of protest. But just as quickly, the film jumps the tracks to an entirely different plotline—the first of many disruptions to the narrative flow.
Anytime the movie returns to Roman’s efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar world, it bursts with energy. When he has to appear in front of a judge for the first time in years (that was his partner’s job), he’s almost immediately held in contempt of court for arguing against the DA’s aggressive use of sentencing maximums to browbeat his young client into a plea bargain that will send him to jail. Roman hates the way the law has evolved to punish young black men in so many pernicious ways, and he’s tried to ignore it over the years by never venturing into a courtroom. There’s genuine poignancy to watching him try, and fail, to find loopholes in the system, despite his obvious intelligence and legal acumen.
But Gilroy clearly decided that a film about good principles struggling in the face of institutionalized racism might lack for gripping drama. That’s why Roman J. Israel, Esq. is laden with side-plots that go nowhere, and characters like Farrell’s who are deeply sympathetic at one moment and dismissive the next. George Pierce represents the kind of legal mind lost to a system Roman decries, but rather than construct a full arc around him, Gilroy uses him alternately as a villain and a sidekick, before cramming in a last-minute change of heart that comes out of nowhere.
It doesn’t work. And neither does the pulpiest part of the film—involving an illegally purloined $100,000 reward—which is too convoluted and ludicrous to bother spoiling further. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would have been better served by embracing its smallness and, dare I say it, by being more conventional. There’s a worthy performance driving this movie, and there could have been a great tale at its heart; Gilroy just should have picked one story and told it.
If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.”
Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.
But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
As gross and cynical and hypocrtical as the right's "what about Bill Clinton" stuff is, it's also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) November 10, 2017
What happened next can only be compared to the moment when Glinda the Good Witch of the North came to Munchkinland and told the little people that it was finally safe. Come out, come out, wherever you are!
The tweet galvanized not just the usual Clinton haters of Fox News but also a cadre of the most unexpected players: editors of the kind of prestige publications that have traditionally handled the accusations of Clinton’s accusers with nearly pathological disdain. But not this time. When Hayes’s tweet became a sensation, editors at the best shops gave marquee writers a radioactive assignment, which they gladly accepted. By midday Wednesday there was such a glut of “I Believe Juanita” pieces that Chelsea Clinton couldn’t have sold one.
Peter Baker of The New York Times wrote a story about this watershed moment that included the testimony of the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias writing, “I think we got it wrong”; Jeff Greenfield of Politico observing that liberals could be having a “moral awakening”; and David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, saying that even Monica Lewinsky—who never claimed she was abused in any way by Clinton—“deserves an apology from many of us she has never received.”
Enough time has passed that outing Clinton for his alleged sex crimes now has the same retro “Oh grow up” feeling as revealing that John F. Kennedy had lovers—nobody’s perfect. But let’s not fool ourselves. “I believe Juanita” doesn’t just mean that you’re generally in favor of believing women when they report sex crimes. It means you believe that for eight years our country was in the hands of a violent rapist.
Broaddrick’s account—now accepted not just by a vast right-wing conspiracy, but also by a gathering number of liberal writers—is of an attack as brutal and unambiguous as the worst of the alleged assaults by Harvey Weinstein. Clinton, she says, manipulated his way into her hotel room, threw her down on the bed, yanked off her pantyhose, and raped her. She says he bit her lip hard enough to leave it bloodied. “You better put some ice on that,” she remembers him telling her as he walked out the door, headed off to his important work of feeling other people’s pain.
When I have talked about these matters with progressives over the past week, I have encountered a fairly consistent response. It is no longer a frank denial of the weight and gravity of Broaddrick’s testimony. Rather it is a frustrated and dismissive statement of fact, one that can be reduced to the following formulation: I feel sorry for Juanita Broaddrick, but Bill Clinton was an excellent president. It’s a sentiment that encompasses the bitter and irreducible truth about being female in this world. There is sympathy for a rape victim—but she shouldn’t go around destroying a man’s reputation or family or career. Rape, unlike murder, is accepted as such an unremarkable fact of the human experience that a woman who spends years seeking redress for the crime comes to be viewed as some kind of lunatic, rejected lover, or tool of a vast conspiracy.
When three of Clinton’s principal accusers accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to sit front-row at a presidential debate, they were largely regarded by the left as a gallery of ghouls and liars. But that was politics, and an election was stake. Now—when all is lost—there’s been a change. The truth bats last.
Liberals seem almost giddy with relief, admitting what they believe—which is how it always feels when you finally decide that you’re going to say what you really think and to hell with the consequences. The truth does set you free, but it usually comes at a price, which is why it will probably take another 20 years to open The New York Times and read an editorial called “Hillary Knew.”
How could she not have known? She’s a hugely intelligent woman, a visionary, and a political street fighter; someone who knows her way through a difficult thicket of legal explanations as well as someone who understands as well as anyone the insane tactics of the fringe right and the surprising number of people who are gullible enough to fall prey to them. She didn’t kill her friend Vince Foster; she wasn’t running a child-trafficking operation at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria; and the Whitewater land deal was not the product of a white-collar crime on the scale of Enron’s pension thefts. Nor was she merely a machine politician lost in the wonkery of policy and unable to effect meaningful change.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton created a children’s health-insurance program that continues to provide health care to millions of American children; as a U.S. senator, she secured the billions of federal dollars necessary to right the great damage done to New York City and its residents after 9/11. But in addition to these great and good works, she must have looked at the facts about Juanita Broaddrick and decided to put them in the same locked box where she kept the truth of Bill’s consensual affairs. As a wife, she had every right to do that. But as a Democratic candidate for president—one whose historic campaign was largely centered on the glass ceiling and the rise of women—she had a Grand Canyon–size vulnerability, as she learned a year before the general election when she blithely tweeted out this corker: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”
That’s our Hillary—and that’s the woman even some of her staunchest supporters have been gritting their teeth about for decades. (At least O. J. Simpson had the grace to spend a few months looking for “the real killer.”) Hillary had put the many women who’d credibly accused her husband of sexual misconduct into the forgetting hole and forgotten that women—progressive women and conservative women alike—have a very different view of rape and assault than they did 20 years ago. We don’t send victims who lack a police report or a photograph of their bruises to the back of the line. We understand that rape is so violent and so scarring that it can take years for a woman to come forward to describe it. We understand that—as with the women now accusing the U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of sex crimes—it can take an abuser’s rise to greater fame and power to prompt them to stand up for themselves and tell the painful truth.
Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, posed the greatest existential threat to progressive goals and values of the past half century. He also had a long string of women come forward with very credible accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct. A different Democratic candidate would have cut him off at the knees for that, but Hillary had to be careful because of her husband’s past and because of her own widely believed complicity in helping to marginalize and silence his accusers.
So maybe, in the end, she’s one more casualty of the truly vast conspiracy: the one that swings into action every time a woman stands up—usually alone, and almost always afraid—and says, “He raped me.”
If you were going to bet on the young musicians most likely to soon be superstars, until yesterday, a lot of smart money would have been on Lil Peep. The rising trend on the Billboard Hot 100 is a woozy-slow mutation of rap, obsessed with drugs, emotionally open but still marked by macho posturing. Gustav Åhr, the Long Island–raised 21-year-old who went by Lil Peep, spiked that brew with the catchy yelping and self-loathing sensibility of emo and pop punk, just at the moment when a popular revival of those scenes seemed imminent. And he arrived as a fully-formed, totally watchable generational symbol. To dive into his world, as hundreds of thousands have done in the two years since he started uploading his music to SoundCloud and YouTube, is to be magnetized.
Lil Peep died Wednesday night in Tucson. The Guardian reports he’d been hospitalized for an overdose, and the last 24 hours of his Instagram is a chronicle of drug-taking and death notes. The same, though, could be said of many 24-hours periods in Peep’s packed social media feeds. He is, of course, not the only rising star of his—or any generation—to take addiction and suicidal thoughts as lyrical inspiration, and he’s not the first to obsess over Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Fixating on mortality was part of the act, but as important to his appeal was his delivery style: the enveloping haze, the singalong center, the specific attitude and look, all of which earned him notices in The New York Times and GQ.
“Awful Things,” from this year’s Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 1, offers a glimpse at the potential he had as a crossover star. The song opens with the kind of ugly-pretty electric guitar strumming that’ll transport certain listeners straight back to the early 2000s of listening to Deftones or Taking Back Sunday, and for other listeners will just land as novel and exciting. Quickly the production moves into hip-hop territory with drum machines and glitch edits, but Peep’s chorus just gets gnarlier, more barbed, with the transformation. “Bother me / tell me awful things”: a great scrawl-in-your-binder catchphrase.
If you hear self-seriousness in the music, it’s undercut in the video. What might have been an overdone high-school story gets personalized for Lil Peep’s heart-on-his-forehead, pill-popping, cartoon-colorful slacker persona. “Burn me down ’til I'm nothin’ but memories,” he sings, and in the video he does light himself on fire to get back at a girl. But then they’re happy together under a rainbow.
Other songs tie more closely to hip-hop. Over the grumbling guitars of his biggest song, “Benz Truck (Гелик),” Lil Peep gave a clinic in the ways that “mumble rap” doesn’t have to be a derogatory term. The slurred syllables create a feeling of bleary intimacy, and beneath the keyword jumble about drugs and jewelry is a tune you can hum all week. The video offers a great clash of aesthetics, with Peep unafraid of appearing feminine and pretty while he raps about having sex with women. (He once said that he was bisexual, to not much scandal—another sign of generational aptness.) The hitmaker Mark Ronson today tweeted that the “Benz Truck” clip gave him “chills. + flashes of what the future of gtr music might b.”
An earlier clip, “White Wine,” makes clear example of how well Peep fit into the lineage of negative music—living in the void, aiming to cause discomfort—stretching back to Black Sabbath. The beat and words trigger gut-level queasiness, but the underlying melody, and Peep’s stare into the camera, makes it difficult to shut off.
The death of a 21-year-old star is necessarily shocking, though it’s also shocking to hear Peep’s manager announce the news by saying he’d “been expecting this call for a year.” Now comes the inevitable discussion of Peep’s scene and its glorification of drugs and self-destruction: a very familiar discussion in the scope of music history. But the most remarkable thing about Lil Peep isn’t that he’s dead now. It’s that he connected with so many people, so quickly. In a statement, Sarah Stennett of the Peep-associated label First Access Entertainment said she’d spoken to Åhr’s mother, who wanted “to convey that she is very, very proud of him and everything he was able to achieve in his short life.”
The picture the radio host Leeann Tweeden included with her story about Al Franken, U.S. Senator from Minnesota, kissing and groping her without her consent on a 2006 USO tour is straightforwardly damning. Tweeden, wearing a helmet and a flak jacket, sits sleeping on a plane during a 36-hour trip from Afghanistan to Los Angeles. Franken (at the time a radio-show host, famed for his years working on Saturday Night Live) looms over her, his arms outstretched, grabbing at her breasts, his faced turned and grinning at the camera. “I couldn’t believe it. He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep,” Tweeden wrote. “I felt ... embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.”
Franken responded quickly with an initial statement on the matter. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.” Before being elected to the Senate, Franken was best known as a comedian, and at the USO show he performed at with Tweeden, he wrote a sketch that Tweeden said was designed to get the two to kiss onstage. He insisted on “rehearsing” beforehand, and despite Tweeden’s protests, Franken forcibly kissed her anyway, she said. As in the case of the photo, Franken was using his comedy as a smokescreen, but beyond that, he’s now using it as cover for his apology. He can’t refute Tweeden’s report of groping, given the picture, but he’s insisting that “humor” adds some sort of valuable context to it.
I was just kidding is often a defense offered onstage by stand-up comedians who have, in some way, pushed past performance into something more threatening or upsetting. When Daniel Tosh heckled an audience member with a menacing monologue about how it’d be “funny” if she “got raped by, like, five guys right now,” he claimed afterwards that he was trying to weaponize the “awful things in the world” by making jokes about them. The joy of comedy, after all, is that you can make light of anything, right? But that defense falls flat when a “joke” is targeted to harass, degrade, or even assault a particular person or group—in such cases, “comedy” becomes an excuse to abuse an imbalanced power dynamic. Franken, with all his years in the comedy community, could lay claim to knowing what was funny and what wasn’t, and could plausibly pressure Tweeden into kissing him as a form of unnecessary “rehearsal.”
In a statement, Franken disagreed with her account without providing specifics, saying only, “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” Franken has been criticized for sexist humor (in a much less severe sense) when he first ran for Senate in 2008. Then, an article he wrote for Playboy in 2000 titled “Porn-o-Rama” came under fire for its explicit content (in it, he fantasized in explicit detail about visiting a fictional futuristic sex institute).
He was also critiqued for a series of rape jokes he made about the journalist Lesley Stahl that were reported in a 1995 New York magazine piece about Saturday Night Live. Suggesting lines for a sketch, Franken said at a script meeting: “And, ‘I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then, when Lesley’s passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her.’ Or, ‘That’s why you never see Lesley until February.’ Or, ‘When she passes out, I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.’” At first, Franken refused to apologize for what he considered “his job,” that is, writing humorous content. As he later recounted in his autobiography, he said he was sorry, but considered the apology a little white lie.
It was meant to be funny has been used as the defense for supposedly ironic racism that more often than not feels like button-pressing that’s meant to be emptily offensive. It’s been used to justify “telling it like it is” in ways that work to silence women. And, of course, it’s been used since time immemorial as cover for “goosing” (or whatever other euphemism you might think of) and grabbing people without their consent. Perhaps Franken’s defense could fall into this category—that he was mocking such casual sexism, that he was just pretending to be a thoughtless pig, perhaps for the benefit of giggling onlookers.
In practice, it’s hard to tell the difference. Franken has long positioned himself as a paragon of virtue in the comedy world, the long-married (42 years now) straight-arrow who worked at SNL at the height of its debauchery and never thought of straying from his marriage. The picture Tweeden provided flies in the face of all that. Would Franken claim he was mocking his own penchant for creepiness? As with so many “jokes” about this kind of behavior, it seems there’s no daylight between mockery and the real thing.
Shortly after the revelations broke, Franken offered a second, longer statement that was more contrite but didn’t break from his underlying defense. “I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter,” he said. “There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. … Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all.”
Regarding his intentions, he’s right—one’s mindset when making a joke is not a catch-all defense if it harms or offends. But even as he more directly reckons with his actions, Franken is still failing to distinguish between writing a bad joke and the physical forms of assault he’s accused of here. It was meant to be funny is a flimsy excuse at the best of times. Here, it feels like nothing less than delusion.
To dunk is to tempt fate. It is a combustible mixture of elements inclined toward destruction: a high rate of speed, a defiance of physical laws, the unrestrained ego. It is ephemeral—you go up, you come right back down—yet over that brief flight time, an eternity spawns in a second. Through this natural transcendence, dunks have a way of living forever.
The dunk has persevered since it came alive during the height of the civil-rights movement. There were dunks before then, of course, but the shifting social subtext of the ’60s loaned the act a political relevancy. In 1967, the UCLA Bruins’ starting center, a 19-year-old sophomore from New York City named Lew Alcindor, led them to a 30–0 record and a national championship. But the year before, the championship game had pitted Texas Western College (an all-black starting lineup) against the University of Kentucky (an all-white team). Early in the game, the Texas Western center Dave Lattin dunked over the Kentucky guard Pat Riley, an act that infuriated Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.
After Alcindor’s breakout year followed, Rupp successfully lobbied the NCAA to ban the dunk in time for the 1967–68 season. The dunk was unskilled, the traditionalists argued, and destroying the sanctity of the game. They put forth fantastically reductive arguments, devoid of critical thought or inquiry, but it stuck. The NCAA’s ban on dunking survived for nearly a decade, until 1976. The NCAA claimed the ban was instituted to protect the players, but the NCAA was only protecting white fragility. “The white establishment has an uncomfortable feeling that blacks are dominating too many areas of sports,” said Robert Bownes, an assistant coach at Hunter College, back in 1969. “Everyone knows that dunking is a trademark of great playground black athletes. And so they took it away. It’s as simple as that.”
The dunk marked a shift in a sport that has veered in new directions since. Compared to 40 years ago, the dunk is not what it once was. There’s little room left for innovation, limited real estate left to claim. The ’70s brought Julius “Dr. J” Erving, David “Skywalker” Thompson, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins. The ’80s brought Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan. Shawn Kemp, Penny Hardaway, and more came of age in the ’90s. Each generation forged from the one before, each adding their own artistic expression and own stylistic tics.
Then the game evolved again. It is now perimeter-oriented, heavily focused on player efficiency and versatility. Today’s dunks are mostly utilitarian, about function rather than form; they are cold and clinical in contrast to what they once were. There are exceptions, of course, but the overall impression is one of sanitized creativity. The artfulness of the dunk has largely been lost—if not forgotten, then ignored.
Surprisingly, the game’s greatest dunker—and arguably the NBA’s most important player of the early ’00s—is still active. This season, Vincent Lamar Carter turns 41 years old. He has been in the NBA nearly as long as his youngest current teammate has been alive. The twilight of his career is unfolding in Northern California, with the perpetually adrift Sacramento Kings, an inauspicious basketball locale but a fitting geographic terminus. The beach is only a couple of hours’ drive away, and when he finally does succumb to his looming retirement—very likely after this season—Carter has earned a seat at the bar, ocean view and everything.
Carter entered the NBA as the next Jordan, but soon he will leave it as only himself. No championships rings, no Most Valuable Player awards, not even a single appearance in the Finals. His career never reached the apex many envisioned, but this is not a bad or tragic or even unfortunate thing. Because of the dunk, Vince Carter became Vince Carter, and his exceptionalism came to define an era.
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The smile is still there, the one that sold shoes and filled posters and billboards across North America. For his first six-plus seasons, Carter belonged to Toronto, which meant, by extension, he belonged to all of Canada. Now, as he labors through his 20th season, that friendly countenance is framed by a thick beard, flecked with gray. That he is on the verge of completing two full decades of service in the NBA is remarkable, as few could’ve confidently predicted such longevity during Carter’s earlier, spectacular (but rickety) years.
When he was healthy and at his peak, Carter’s athleticism made his peers, some of the finest athletes on the planet, appear perpetually bloated and hungover. Carter’s dunks defied our fundamental desires to explain events and processes. The dunks were not rational, but did they have to be? They awakened and enlivened the senses. There is an era that lives inside those dunks, with the spring-coiled shoes and the ill-fitting suits and sweatbands. Then came the commercials, with Carter leaping up to snatch wayward cats from tree branches before returning them to thankful grandmothers, the arrival of Dr. Funk and his unending windmill in Rucker Park, and the sneaker-squeaking, rim-rattling, backboard-breaking rhythm of a dunk-off with Richard Jefferson.
Then there was the dunk contest in February of 2000, with the elbow-in-rim greatness and the unifying, shared joy of Carter’s gravitational buoyancy. It was not just basketball that night. It was emotional labor. It was spiritual work.
In a run of a few seasons, Carter became one of the NBA’s most electrifying athletes and inspired a new generation of basketball players across the United States and Canada. There was an artistry to his dunks, an efficiency of motion so refined that it falsely gave the impression of ease.
In the present day, it could be argued that the game’s most exceptional dunker is Russell Westbrook, who, maybe more than any other player, embodies a similar aesthetic quality in his dunks. They are marked with personal expression and they are vicious, a means to puncture the aspirations of his opponents. Westbrook is notoriously cagey with reporters, entirely uninterested in most any question and that’s perfectly fine. The dunks say enough.
After Carter himself leapt into basketball immortality in early 2000, he cemented his reputation for all time with the Dunk of Death at the 2000 Summer Olympics, a dunk so spectacular that it rerouted the life of Frédéric Weis, the 7-foot-2 Frenchman that Carter scaled in a single bound. After that, there was nowhere else to go but down. And the journey from peak to the precipice is never easy.
Soon after, Carter started to fly with less regularity. He was shipped out of Toronto under less than amicable circumstances, and went on to play for New Jersey, Orlando, Dallas, Phoenix, and Memphis. On occasion, there have been flashes, but their intensity has dimmed. After the Dunk of Death, it was never the same, but that is the stark reality that often engulfs those masters of the dunk. As the Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “An individual dies when he ceases to be surprised.” And being defined by an act of liberation can, in time, start to feel constrictive.
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When Carter finally retires—likely after this season, during which he has sat out the last four games due to kidney stones—he will be leaving behind a league that is vastly different than the one he entered 20 years ago. It is now a game that functions on efficiency, where the three-point shot is a necessity and the mid-range game has been all but excised from game plans. Dunking is an inseparable part of the game’s DNA. Without the dunks, the sport would become something else, just as it was once something else before. The first basketball game, after all, was played nine-on-nine and ended in a score of 1–0.
The good thing about dunking is that it only requires one athlete, one moment, to remind you of possibility, of the bending of human limitation. There is a new generation of athletes—rookies like De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, Malik Monk, Dennis Smith Jr., and Josh Jackson, to name a few—that are bringing their own style and speaking their own language, but they have that same uncanny confidence to challenge physics and laws of nature and the biggest dude in the room. If you watch Dennis Smith Jr. fly, you can see the blueprint drafted by Carter, from the ease of movement to the joyful swagger.
Here is another truth: Dunking eventually takes away everything it gives. The energy, the exuberance, the effect. The career of every leaper is short-lived. Knees weaken, backs wither, ankles snap. This makes Carter’s endurance even more remarkable. His spring is not yet fully gone, his powers not yet fully revoked, but time is relentless and inexorable. Eventually, an ordinariness will settle into what was once magical.
Even so, dunks are timeless. They stubbornly endure, and that is the gift these top athletes are able to provide. Memories take root in these singular feats and, in that way, the players come and go but the dunks never die.