Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bottom rail on top:
Tyler Shields revises the racial equation

IN THE 1988 book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” author James McPherson recounts how, at war’s end in 1865, an escaped slave guarding Confederate prisoners recognizes his former master among the rebel captives and says, “Howdy Massa. Bottom rail on top this time.”

That marvelous expression of underdogs becoming overlords, or something close to it, is at the heart of a series of provocative photographs by Tyler Shields, whose new work explores the ultimate what-if of American society and the racial dynamic. What if the current racial calculus was something completely different?

Shields, whose “Historical Fiction” exhibition opened Saturday at the Andrew Weiss Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., posits a reversal of the violence and bias that’s been historically visited on African Americans throughout our history. At the same time, he sees the extant paralells between the then and the now.

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“Right now we are going through a real racial issue in our country,” Shields told Justin Jones of The Daily Beast. “And, to me, these things that happened in the 20s and 30s, they’re just as poignant today as they were back then.”

“I’ve always loved the idea of seeing the opposite,” Shields told The Daily Beast. “Cops who are beating people up or white people who are hanging black people—what would they think if it was the other way around? What would the KKK say if this happened to them? It would potentially be the most famous photo of that entire generation.”

One of the more truly galvanizing images brings that issue home in 2015 terms like few things could. A white police officer is held down, face down on the ground, with the hands of two black men keeping him pinned there. In an era of numerous black male casualties of the police — Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on and sadly on — an image like this speaks its own emotional truth to power.

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THIS DIFFERENT way of looking at African Americans in the broad overview of history isn’t new. In March 1999, “Re/Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African-American Artists” upended expectations of the black artist when it opened at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.

Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Camille Billops, Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Betye Saar (among others) had a hand in artistically revisiting the impact of African Americans in the nation’s life.

Discussing the Katonah exhibition, Dr. Barbara Bloemink, the curator, told the museum that “we need to recognize that history is often quite subjective. It is not just a matter of what is reported, but what is left out.”

TRUE ENOUGH. But history is also a collection of interpretations, an array of viewpoints that couldn’t be more subjective, regardless of how they do or don’t dovetail with the acknowledged reality. History is about what’s contemporaneously perceived or emotionally experienced as well as what’s factually reported.

Two hundred-plus years of institutional imbalance and injustice, and the emotional and psychological damage that injustice created, is what provoked the “counternarrative” of the Katonah exhibition. It also helped make Shields’ work both possible and utterly necessary.

In 1999, Bloemink observed: “As the African proverb states, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of history will always glorify the hunter.’” We can consider Tyler Shields button-pushing images a lion’s shot across the bow of our historical complacency.

Image credits: All images © 2014, 2015 Tyler Shields.

You done lost your good thing now:
B.B. King (1925-2015)

DAYLONG PERIODS of rain visited Southern California on May 14, culminating in a brief but torrential downpour in Los Angeles that Thursday night. For a good twenty minutes or so after 9 o’clock, the sky was crying its eyes out. Later that night, we’d find out that the sky was just getting ahead of the rest of us. With good reason. B.B. King passed away at his home in Las Vegas, shortly before 10 p.m., after a decades-long battle with Type 2 diabetes. He was 89 years old and forever young.

Intellectually, of course, it doesn’t make any sense thinking that Riley B. King — B.B. to you, me and everyone else on the planet — would live forever. But you don’t approach the blues as an intellectual exercise. It’s all about feeling, about emotion, and as a long-time master of the emotional palette that makes the blues what it is, B.B. King created a sound that seems like it’s always been there, constantly in the ether, so long a component of the air we breathe, it’s hard to see where it really began.

For most of us, we’ve never known a world without him. He was always there, present, available. Even when we didn’t actively listen and pay attention — and if we’re honest, we know perfectly well that was most of the time — it was damn fine just knowing he was around, like oxygen and a woman’s smile and the blue blue blue of the sky above.

In his 2008 autobiography, Eric Clapton (who’s forgotten more about the blues than we will ever know) wrote this about B.B.: “He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced, and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”

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A career that would last 65 years got its beginning not that long after he did, in September 1925, in the plantation town of Itta Bena, Miss. Raised by his maternal grandmother, he sang in the church choir in Kilmichael, Miss., and either bought his first guitar for $15 or was given a guitar by his cousin, blues great Bukka White. Whichever way it happened, it was an iconic  beginning, a powerful marriage that would change the course of American music.

Between 18 and 21, B.B. started the adventure of life on the road, circulating around Mississippi and traveling to Memphis, where he was mentored by Bukka White. He went back to Mississippi and later went to Arkansas, performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark. (Albert King hailed from there).

His big break came in 1952, when B.B. recorded “3 O’Clock Blues,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. A string of other hits followed — “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer” and “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as songs that would become more recognized staples of his playlist for decades (like “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Please Accept My Love”).

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BY THE 1960’s, the ascendancy of the blues as a musical influence was well underway. Thanks to any number of young UK musicians eager to stake their claim on the British invasion, the blues was as big a full-on cultural influence as it would ever be. This worked to B.B.’s advantage. He toured constantly throughout the decade, opened for the Rolling Stones and had a crossover hit with “The Thrill Is Gone,” which took the R&B and pop charts by storm.

And by the late 60’s, and certainly the 70’s, the regimen of non-stop touring he started years before had taken hold for good. All due props to the one-time Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, but B.B. could rightly lay claim to that title too: A 1998 Rolling Stone story by Gerri Hirshey estimated that King had played more than 15,000 concerts. And that was 17 years ago.

Rolling Stone elsewhere reported that King “spent more than 65 years on the road, playing more than 300 shows a year until cutting back to around 100 during the last decade.”

It was proof of his recognition of blues as a universal sound, and his belief that the blues would always have an audience. B.B. recognized early the democratizing power of blues, its ability to blend with all kinds of music.

He turns up on a 1970 album working with Duke Ellington. He opened for the Rolling Stones at the 1969 Madison Square Garden show that led to the live Stones album “Get Your Ya-Yas Out.”

He worked with U2, recording “When Love Comes to Town,” a duet with Bono, on the band’s “Rattle and Hum” album.

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How strange it’s been, over the years, to see what’s become of that audience. I wrote this for back in 2003: “It’s one of the enduring ironies of popular culture that the blues — the music that figures so centrally in the very existence of rock — is so consistently ignored by the buying public. Sales of blues records have declined in recent years to under 4 percent of total recorded-music sales, according to 2001 data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.”

A B.B. King discography

Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2011 that “the blues exists on the margins of American cultural life, a quaint reminder of what once was, a sound with a colossal history, a diminished reality and a tenuous future.”

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The challenges for Clinton

ON SUNDAY, putting an end to the biggest open secret in American politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton — are we back to using the middle name again? — announced the start of her 2016 campaign for the White House, her second bid for the presidency. “I’m running for president,” she said in a brief announcement video. “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote — because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

With the announcement, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state instantly moved to the top of the leaderboard of Democratic prospects for the White House, a lofty perch so far before the election.

Clinton hit the ground running, following her announcement with an almost immediate departure for the state of Iowa, part of a tour (New Hampshire will be next) meant to reconnect her with long-term loyal Democrats and introduce her to younger voters who know more about her than the guy she’s married to. You know, that president dude.

The thrust of her campaign — enhancing the economic fortunes of millions of middle-class Americans struggling not to fall out of the middle class — will give her a chance to break down the lingering sense of Clinton as elitist, imperious and a bought-and-sold politician whose officialist past makes her, for many Americans, as much problem as solution.

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There are challenges for Clinton right outta the gate:

In a political culture enamored of the new, and almost 19 months before the 2016 election, Clinton has to keep her persona and her message fresh and inviting. Her public persona, of course, precedes her by years; the message she brings to the campaign and how well it resonates with voters remains to be seen.

It’ll be important for her to stake out philosophical territory that’s hers alone, to come up with policy prescriptions that aren’t cookie-cuttered or patchworked from other candidates.

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And Clinton has to stay fully engaged in a race that, in real terms, hasn’t even begun, at least on the Democratic side. The expected parade of potential Democratic rivals for the nomination hasn’t even started, since her possible fellow contenders have been waiting for Clinton to make her move.

Now that she’s officially in, she’ll soon be at the mercy of a ravenous news cycle obsessed with the Very Latest Thing. Sooner or later, that will include challengers on her side of the aisle. Some will be more ready for prime-time than others, some won’t be ready at all. Regardless, it’s her job to stay hungry and on message, and to keep the country the same way for her. Which leads to another challenge.

Clinton has to resist the huge temptation to portray herself and her campaign in a light of anything close to inevitability, a mindset that can infect the larger, more well-capitalized venture. This issue crippled her in 2008. By accident or by design, her '08 bid for the Oval Office was hampered by a persistent sense that she thought she was the bell cow, the only Democratic candidate in the race with viability (or the only one worth paying attention to).

A little-known senator named Barack Obama disabused her of that nation, and fast. It was a mistake she’d be well-advised not to repeat.

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THE COMING campaign will be the last best chance for Clinton to fully establish herself as a leader, defining her brand of statecraft permanently in the American experience.

The milestone of gender that her campaign, and possibly her presidency, represents both works for and against her. There’s no question that our national politics would be better informed — more intuitive, less historically reflexive, presumably more enlightened by nuance and negotiation — with a feminine perspective in the Oval Office. In this, a Hillary Clinton presidency would in and of itself be a welcome departure from the past.

But there are already many in the Hillary camp who view her possible ascension to the White House in the context of an absolute timetable. You’ve heard their rallying cry: “It’s time for a woman to be president!”

Yes and no. It was time for a woman to be president in 2008. After many hard lessons on the trail, Clinton’s campaign from that year had to confront political realities — the same realities she has to face down again: 2008 was, and 2016 will be, prime time — the perfect time — for the right woman to be president.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

American crime: The killing of Walter Scott

WHEN YOU SEE the video of what happened after a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. on April 4, there’s a sense of disbelief of what you’re seeing as an event in the real national life. You look and watch and think this must be something from the bizzarro world, it must be a malign invention of the movies or a video of a training exercise on what police officers are not supposed to do. This can’t be freakin’ real.

And then it hits you. Its harsh documentary finality. What happened in the full light of day and documented in a YouTube video seen around the world was as real as real gets for black Americans in 2015.

There will certainly be other revelations that emerge, officially and otherwise. In our wired world, someone else will come forward with another video, and a third and a fourth, like the forensic evidence of an assassination. Other literal views are certain to emerge in the postmortem of this latest American tragedy.

But whatever else is revealed by way of the reflexively forensic technology of our time, it’s got to contend with the inescapable chronology of the moments before and the moments after:

Walter Scott, an African American man, was running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer, and Slager shot Scott several times in the back, a consequence of firing eight shots. Whatever the antecedent provocation might have been, whatever set it all off besides the stop of Scott for a bad tail light, has to be weighed against an outcome that indicated deliberation, a thought process, before the gun went off.

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This was no rash, momentary action. Look at the physical posture of Officer Michael Slager. Note the calm, procedural adoption of the classic Weaver stance as he fires, rear foot positioned to absorb the recoil. He might as well be on the firing range at work.

But that deliberation was hardly the worst wound, bad as it was. The worst one is the one inflicted on a nation of African American men grappling with not just with what it all means — we know that already — but also with what this incident announces to the world. How it tells the world what we know already, and what the world has either questioned or refused to believe.

Absent other transformative evidence, the killing of Walter Scott is precisely the deeply corrosive confirmation of what black America has known and internalized for generations: that, more than most of America’s citizens, black African American men are at nothing less than existential risk that is creeping toward the panoramic, a risk too often powered by the police forces sworn to protect them — and the rest of America’s citizens.

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THIS IS NOT a corrupt fantasy. It’s not all in our heads. It’s not the figment of a tortured imagination. Like so many cases before this one, the case of the execution of Walter Scott reveals the depth of law enforcement’s institutional cement, its cold calculus of the value of African American life.

And that’s where this malign statement gets greater, wider. Because whether he’s convicted in a court of law not, this is an American crime right now. It may or may not rise to that threshold at trial, but it’s already an American crime in the larger, wider sense: considering what this did to this nation’s already fragile racial fabric, how it feeds an increasing tolerance for injustice; what it does to the psyche of black Americans in general and black men in particular.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Starbucks’ nice try

THE NATION’S fractious racial climate has always invited the good intentions of those who’d try to improve that climate, by just about any means necessary. Each of us in our own lives has had that fumbling but earnest opportunity to step outside his or her own (dis)comfort zone and take a stand for justice, equality ... or just having a conversation.

Which makes the virulent reaction of Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign both hard and easy to understand. On March 15 (the Ides of March, FWIW), the Seattle coffee titan launched the campaign, an effort to enlist the company’s baristas in provoking genial repartee about race and ethnicity among the customers at the thousands of Starbucks coffee shops across the country. The baristas (as if they don’t have enough to do already) were also asked to write “Race Together” on Starbucks cups.

“Baristas in cities where the forums were held said they wanted to do something tangible to encourage greater understanding, empathy and compassion toward one another,” said a post on the Starbucks website. “Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too.”

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Despite its appearing to come from a real place, the Starbucks overture failed in the days that followed. Customers weren’t having it; social media went batshit crazy with snarky reactions to the campaign — reactions that said more about the people writing them than the people they were writing about.

At Talking Points Memo, Sniffit commented: “This should go over swimmingly. Would you like that black or should I leave a little room at the top for privilege?”

 Also at TPM, just_observing observed: “I really don't want to have a sound bite discussion of an important issue in a retail checkout line. In fact, let me go one further: please quit asking me what I'm doing this weekend or five questions about how my day is. I came for coffee, give me the coffee. You want to improve things, give you…

Larry Wilmore, host of “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central, had his own take: “You're lookin’ to make progress, Starbucks? How about you stop selling CDs in 2015?”

Starbucks media machinery tried its best to spin it the right way. ““Leading change isn’t an easy thing to accomplish," spokeswoman Laurel Harper told The New York Times. But no: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz formally pulled the plug on the project on Sunday, March 22.

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ADMITTEDLY, IT’S a serious stretch to expect people to weigh in in a meaningful way about race relations before they’ve had their first caffeine jolt of the day. Most of us don’t know our own names before that first blissful cup. But Starbucks tried its best to move the needle on this matter, the nation’s eternal blind spot, in a way that maybe its customers could get behind, if only for a moment.

God knows Starbucks (2014 market cap $71.2 billion) doesn’t need any more publicity, so the idea of doing this as a stunt or a gimmick — as if Starbucks was a startup company— doesn’t really make sense. The campaign may have been ham-fisted, but it was apparently sincere.

In this hyperpartisan time, though, reactions like the ones SBUX attracted shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. It’s an indicator of just how broken and angry we’ve become about even talking about race in this country. Even the valiant of misguided effort is subject to attack; good intentions are the work of bad actors.

The next time Starbucks tries to push the envelope on cultivating a conversation on what’s still the country’s most combustible topic, or any other big concern, maybe Schultz will come up with a better forum than a checkout line for people waiting on their morning defibrillator cappuccinos.

The topic of race relations in our raging nation deserves that forum. But a seemingly principled effort to inspire such a conversation deserves better than vilification.

Unless, of course, we’re willing to talk about race relations on our own ...

Image credits: RaceTogether cup: via Starbucks logo: © 2015 Starbucks Corporation. Wilmore: © 2015 Comedy Central. Tweets are the property of their respective creators.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Interracial as the new prime-time

A SURPRISING byproduct of the growing number of minority-themed TV shows — not so much inevitable as unavoidable — has been an increase in depiction of interracial relationships through the TV spectrum. Risk-averse TV suits and the advertisers to whom they pledge allegiance have finally come around to accepting the country’s romantic complexion.

Some people will say “what’s the big deal?” — a question more properly directed at the network executives for whom it was a big deal, for generations.

And it’s not just the number of them. As a departure from the usual casting reflexes, the more-than-occasional interracial pairing is refreshing in and of itself. But the real separation with the past, the big break with our social and cultural history, comes in who plays what role. In the TV relationships, if not the series itself, there’s often a black male lead.

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Interracial romantic relationships have long been the third rail of the American racial dialogue, the unfortunate carry-over from deep in our segregated national history. In the bitter years after the Civil War, southerners and their sympathizers painted black men as rapacious defilers of White Womanhood, one of the poisonous, resentful rationales for creation of the Ku Klux Klan.

D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was notorious for its depiction of black men in just this way; his corrosive characterizations in the film (100 years old this month) persist into the present day.

But in recent years, some series have stepped outside this comfort zone, with couplings that challenged the televisual status quo. It’s been de rigeur on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” in its 11th season; NBC’s “ER,” which ran for 15 seasons, did it as an earlier ensemble series. And it’s very much a part of the current prime-time diet.

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THERE’S A KIND of wave that hits our shores from time to time, makes its necessary and inescapable point, and then recedes. Well, that wave has returned anew. In the second season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” lobbyist Remy Danton (played by African American actor Mahershala Ali) got engaged in a steamy relationship with Jackie Sharp, Assistant House Minority Whip (played by the white actress Molly Parker).

In the runaway Fox hit “Empire,” Andre Lyon, scion of the founder of the Empire Entertainment (played by black actor Brai Myers) is married to Rhonda (played by white actress Kaitlin Doubleday); the couple’s navigating family machinations and personal challenges as the series heats up every week.

In ABC’s new multi-storyline series “American Crime,” Elvis Nolasco portrays a meth addict implicated in a murder that resonates through a California community. Nolasco’s character, Carter Nix, is married to Aubry Taylor, played by Caitlin Gerard. Nolasco is black, Gerard is white.

All of these, of course, follow ABC’s hit show “Scandal,” our guiltless TV pleasure that’s explored the duotone romantic experience often, the relationship between Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) the stuff of morning-after watercooler talk. Interracial love has also been explored — with meaningful diversions from even our expectations about interracial love is — in Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” and ABC’s “The Fosters.”

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True, four or five high-profile departures from TV’s monochromatic romantic norm don’t necessarily indicate a trend. But their presence on mainstream television today — broadcast, cable, streaming — comes to this cultural crescendo at the very time when our collective real-life patience vis-à-vis matters of race and ethnicity has, to go by several recent events, run out.

From the sad events in Ferguson, Mo., to the sadly astonishing incident playing out in Oklahoma over a racist song sung by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, to the never-ending slights and indignities faced by President Obama, there’s still no limit to our pursuit of intolerance.

That’s the heartening connection between what we see in prime-time TV drama and a series of disquieting national events. Even amid the downbeat storylines of each of these programs, there’s a hopefulness that’s implicit in their casting structure, a positive narrative that plays out in the context of the modern romantic relationship. As a society, we’ve reached, or are certainly reaching fast, a comfort zone with mixed doubles, a rapprochement with the past.

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THERE IS OPPOSITION to interracial pairings on TV and in real life, for sure, and a lot of it. But a society is often led to evolution by its cultural devices. In our society, in our culture, that means television. The realities explored in each of these gritty, sometimes explosive series include that other reality: when personal and professional lives collide, they often do it regardless of race.

The television business wasn’t always so accommodating of realities it didn’t understand; the change reflected in these programs and others that dance on that third rail at this angry American time is a cause for nothing but optimism.

Some reactions to even writing about this not-exactly seismic shift in the teleculture will say it’s not necessary — for them, not talking, writing about or noticing the issue eliminates the issue. But that’s silly, certainly as far as modern American television goes. That’s like saying if you don’t talk about the weather, the weather will go away.

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That weather, and our emotional bandwidth as a nation according to the mirror of television, are changing at unprecedented speed. And that’s going to accelerate and keep going until these programs have company.

Until the day when it’s not minority-themed programming anymore. Until it’s just programming and people ask themselves why depicting interracial relationships on TV was ever such a big damn deal in the first place.

We may, may be closer to that day than we think.

Also published at BuzzFeed Community. Still from “American Crime”: ABC. Still from “House of Cards”: Netflix/Triggerstreet. Still from “Scandal”: ABC/Shondaland.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

ISIS, take 1, 2...: Unintended consequences
of a visual culture

THE MOVIES, America’s indelible and undying contribution to popular culture, has permeated — some will say insinuated itself — into cultures around the world. The relentless motion-picture combine that is Bollywood couldn’t exist without the Hollywood that gave it every letter of its name but one.

The globalization of the Hollywood visual esthetic has had its own benign unintended consequences. Directors from all over the world have taken it and transformed it according to their own singular visions — the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu just won the Oscar for Best Picture doing exactly that, a year after the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for Best Director last year. And other filmmakers have adopted the Hollywood Look for years.

And technology has played its part. Thanks to such video editing tools as the iMovie software included with iMac computers since 2003, it’s been increasingly easy for everyday people to create You Tube-ready videos with any number of top-shelf special effects.

But lately, in a completely different world, that visual language has been corrupted — the only possible word — by the terrorists of Islamic State, or ISIS, whose videos of human beings murdered on camera has altered the terms of engagement between ISIS and the civilized world.

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In exhaustive, at times brilliant reportage in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Fleishman writes of how ISIS has appropriated the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking for thoroughly malign purposes.

An excerpt: “The Islamic State's production values have steadily improved since the network grew in Iraq and Syria; it now operates or has affiliates across North Africa and the Middle East. The group's ranks have been bolstered by as many as several thousand recruits from Europe, which may be where the organization's videographers learned their trade. The videos, including those showing the deaths of American, British and Japanese hostages, have been frequently released since last summer.

“The most recent films unfold with almost surreal matter-of-factness, taking their time before death is carried out. Cameras pan and glance from different angles; anxiety builds. The executioners are masked and often dressed in black, including the militant who beheaded American hostage James Foley in August. In those videos and in the one in which 21 Coptic Christians were decapitated on the Libyan coast, the killers speak in English and relish in lurid exhibitionism.”

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I WON’T undercut Fleishman’s work by attempting to boil it down here; it deserves to be read and enjoyed in full, on its own terms. I’d only say that it puts the power of our culture, its viral capacities, into sharp focus. If you’ve ever had any doubts about the power of movies according to Hollywood, the ISIS videos you’ve surely seen over the last six months should have set those doubts to rest.

“They want to make sure we get the message,’ Bruce Hoffman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told Fleishman. “The world's most powerful media will amplify it and jump on it. ISIS is very sophisticated. They know they're pushing our buttons.”

Fleishman’s story contextualizes what to the unenlightened eye might look like isolated anomalies — the work of terrorist directors fascinated with modern movie style — to reveal how consistently and poisonously well those terrorists grasp that visual narrative ... how thoroughly those killers have learned not just how to push our buttons, but exactly which buttons to push.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The loyal opposition opposes itself

BACK IN the day – in the days and weeks after the November election – it all seemed so clear, so simple, so obvious where things were going. The Democrats — wounded, bloodied and chastened by a midterm election that overwhelmingly rejected them — would come back to a new Congress run by a newly energized Republican majority flush with success, bound to govern as a unified force and ready to mop up the marble floors of Congress with whatever was left of the Democrats. It was all going to be different. It was going to be better.

That was the script, anyway. What a difference a few months makes. After coming back to Washington with a purported agenda to continue blocking legislation from the Obama White House while advancing the GOP agenda — especially on immigration — it’s all different.

The Republican congressional majority may be a majority by party name, but the internal divisions that have plagued them for years – divisions largely hinging on old litmus tests of loyalty and ideological purity – show no signs of letting up.

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The latest example of this played out on Friday. The GOP-majority House of Representatives approved a stopgap funding bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security up and running ... for a week. It’s the same bill passed by the GOP-majority Senate that had already acquiesced to Democrats’ demands to keep President Obama’s immigration policies intact. The funding for DHS remains at current levels, with no layoffs or cutbacks in that vital agency, arguably the most important and public-facing federal agency in the wake of 9/11.

The Republicans’ willingness to knuckle under on the DHS bill, bowing to Democratic demands, puts the lie to the wall of resistance the GOP was prepared to be after the November election. So does the opposition that Speaker of the House John Boehner, a long time in the crosshairs of conservatives, faced from Republicans, who rejected his bid for a three-week stopgap bill — preferring the short-leash option instead.

Since he was re-elected Speaker in January, Yahoo News reported, Boehner “has had to rely on Democratic help in passing the funding bill, after a three-week funding bill was voted down 203-224, with 52 Republicans voting against Boehner. He’s found it routinely difficult to line up a majority on any given bill, especially if the topic is a contentious issue like immigration, education or abortion. Many Republicans campaigned for re-election last fall on promises to stop Obama on immigration, and their inability to do so is infuriating to conservatives.”

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THE SAME thing happened earlier, on Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Woodstock (or the Coachella) of American conservatives. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who’s made a career of championing his independent political spirit, often to the consternation of his fellow Republicans, took to the microphone to declare himself a “disruptive app” on the party landscape, and to condemn his party’s elder statesmen.

Cruz has a reputation of hewing to his principles, regardless of how it endangers the fortunes of his party in particular and the fortunes of the country in general. We all remember the utterly disastrous 2013 government shutdown Cruz presided over, and the one that happened about a year later.

He’s swung for the fences and whiffed before — on defunding Obamacare, and pushing back against the immigration policy. Now, though, Cruz may be trying to straddle the fence on the DHS matter. On Wednesday, Cruz indicated he wouldn’t block an agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders to proceed with the bill to keep DHS operational. The same damn bill he condemned a day earlier at CPAC. Will the real Ted Cruz please stand up, please stand up?

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This latest evidence of bifurcated Republican identity showed up on Thursday. That was when some GOP lawmakers, standing on conservatives’ laissez-faire corporate principles, pushed back against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to establish new net neutrality rules that seek to ensure all Internet traffic is uniformly regulated.

Those Republicans conflicted with others of the party, who hope to hash out a compromise with congressional Democrats — imagine that! — amounting to a “resolution of disapproval,” an administrative expression of their discontent with the FCC’s sweeping ruling, which treats the Internet as a utility.

“Right now, it’s just a function of playing this out and seeing if there are any Dems that are willing to play ball, and then we’ll go to plan B,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told Politico last week. But right now, plan A is still legislating on this.”

The proposed resolution of disapproval is a down-in-the-weeds issue, and practically speaking it reflects a relatively minor difference between Republicans on the issue. But it’s just one more thing that points to a divergence of opinion in the GOP where there shouldn’t be one — one more proof of a disconnect we were led to believe ended last Election Day.

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FRANKLY, AND despite all the talk about a new Republican identity forged in the heat of last year’s election battle, we might have expected this. Our Congress, a legislative body long choked by pettiness and lassitude, has habits that are hard to break. But the difference goes beyond lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The matter of immunization is one of the hot-button divisions announcing itself in the slow but steady runup to the 2016 presidential election. On Feb. 2, Bloomberg Politics reported on where two possible GOP contenders for the nomination stand on the matter: opposing sides.

"Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society,” said Dr. Ben Carson, a well-known neurosurgeon and conservative speaker, wrote in a statement to Bloomberg Politics’ Steven Yacchino.

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“Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”

But that don’t quite jibe with where Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is on the issue. “I'm not anti-vaccine at all,” he told Laura Ingraham recently. “But particularly, most of them ought to be voluntary. What if you have someone not wanting to take the smallpox vaccine and it ruins it for everybody else? I think there are times where there can be some rules, but for the most part, it ought to be voluntary.”

There’s more. The wave of laws governing recreational marijuana has created a split between younger and older Republicans. On Friday, the Pew Research Center released a survey that found that 63 percent of millennialls who self-identify as Republicans favor pot’s legalization. It’s a marked departure with their older counterparts: the survey found that 47 percent of older Republicans (35-50) support legal pot.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Films and movies:
The disappointments of Oscar 2015

WITH AN 18 percent drop in viewership this year from 2014, the Oscars telecast may have become the last, final cultural victim of the era of seriously lowered attention spans and seriously increased distractions that we live in. Or maybe it was something else, something deeper.

Thanks to a spate of nominated films that not nearly enough people saw (much less got passionate about); and a weak rationale for excluding at least one other well-received film with clout with critics and audiences — a film whose racial undertone is the kind of thing that gives Oscar hives — the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may slowly be making the Academy Awards the niche event it apparently wants to be.

OK, that’s over the top. Anything that gets 36.6 million people around the TV fireplace for three hours-plus in the digital age can’t really be called “niche.” But Sunday’s broadcast was watched by that 36.6 million people, the Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 — this after recent years of steadily inclining viewership (and in spite of Neil Patrick Harris’ tighty-whiteys). What the hell happened?

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Part of it was that Academy voters fell in love with films, while the rest of the country was trying to fall in love with movies. While the spiritedly eccentric “Birdman” won for Best Picture, and prestige period films in British locations did well (“The Imitation Game” won for Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Theory of Everything” got Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor Oscar), other films with wide populist appeal and a correspondingly healthy box office — “Gone Girl,” “Interstellar,” “The Lego Movie,” “Selma” — couldn’t get arrested.

“Gone Girl” has grossed $167 million domestically, and $368 million worldwide as of Feb. 19, according to Box Office Mojo. “Interstellar” has grossed $187.5 million domestic, $672 million worldwide. “The Lego Movie”? $257 million in the USA, $468 million worldwide. “Selma”? $49.6 million in domestic receipts since a limited opening on Christmas Day. These were the numbers that put butts in the seats, all year long.

But with the exception of Rosamund Pike’s nom for Best Supporting Actor in “Gone Girl,” those films were shut out of the mainstream Oscar competition. “Interstellar” was nominated for work in the technical categories (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, for which it won) but none in the more popularly anticipated creative categories.

Films that didn’t open that widely — Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” — got great buzz from critics and moviegoers alike. Alas, not much love from the Academy voters: “Unbroken” got technical nods for cinematography, film editing and sound mixing, but other than that? Bupkis. And Jolie, for whom the film was a deeply-realized passion project, didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director. It’s grossed at least $115 million domestic, $160 million worldwide, according to

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” a popcorn movie if there ever was one, garnered one nomination, for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and winning nothing.

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IT’S SOMETIMES easy to forget that, at the end of the day, despite all the customer-facing razzle-dazzle, the Oscars are the movie industry’s celebration of itself. It’s not the raucous, quasi-populist bacchanal of the Golden Globes, and it sure as hell ain’t the People’s Choice Awards.

Since there’s a degree of exclusivity built into its infrastructure and history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the industry insiders populating the Academy voter rolls tend to reward their own. On that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised that “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s towering, powerful drama of civil rights protest in the crucible year of 1965, was largely ignored by Academy voters. For any number of reasons.

Some were logistical and technological; according to at least one report, the film was subject to editing that was too close to last-minute, snarling the process of getting physical screeners —the actual discs of films in contention— into the hands of members of the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors Guilds, the people most ready to make a difference in the fortunes of “Selma” and every film from Hollywood last year.

Tim Gray of Variety reported on Feb. 3: “It can cost up to $800,000 and take three to six weeks to manufacture, watermark and ship discs. This lag time was the reason guild voters didn’t get screeners of 'Selma’; a final print was delivered Nov. 26, so screeners were not available until Dec. 18. The 'Selma’ problem would have been solved with streaming: It takes only a few days to two weeks to encode and upload a title, at a fraction of the cost.”

One reason may have been historical: not longer after it was released, the film faced a concerted pushback by historians and editorialists who claimed that the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson contained historical inaccuracies that largely sidelined LBJ’s efforts on behalf of the Voting Rights Act.

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But in a Jan. 15 analysis, Kyle Buchanan of Vulture offered up the elephant in the American room, that other possible reason, the one people don’t want to talk about:

“It’s true that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture last year, but it may be just as true that some Oscar voters, still recovering from that harrowing picture, were now reluctant to watch another important historical drama about race. Ninety-three percent of Oscar voters are white, and while the Academy is making a concerted effort to diversify its ranks — and is now presided over by its first black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs — progress has been slow.”

DuVernay’s film of protesters who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, in the face of Alabama cops determined to keep that symbol of resistance from taking place, has been widely praised by critics and the public. Which raises the question of how and why a relatively minor, administratively procedural matter should scuttle the legitimate chances of such a galvanizing picture to vie for Oscar gold.

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THE ONE unalloyed triumph of Oscar glory for “Selma” was, well, “Glory,” the John Legend-Common composition that took the Best Song Oscar on Tuesday. But despite this moment, and if we didn’t know it already, what the 87th Oscars ceremony showed us (along with the process that led to it) is that Oscar plays by its own rules. Always has, always will.

The problem is that this year’s golden-dude derby showed the industry’s mattering less to the people it should matter to more: the paying customers, the everyday people who go to the movies. That much is reflected in the viewership numbers just released.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The new playa:
How Larry Wilmore changes late-night

ON JAN. 19, after considerable media fanfare, veteran TV writer-producer Larry Wilmore debuted “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central. Wilmore, who created “The Bernie Mac Show,” played an early role in ABC’s new and brilliant multiracial bellwether series “Blackish,” and who for seven-plus years was Jon Stewart’s minority-affairs go-to as Senior Black Correspondent on CC’s “The Daily Show,” followed Stewart that night and kept his promise to shake things up in the exclusivist late-night desert that, until that night, defined the chieftains of America’s TV after dark.

Wilmore’s been all over the place from the jump, weighing in on issues from the furious controversy over Bill Cosby addressing rape allegations to normalizing relations with Cuba, from the firmness of Tom Brady's footballs to the need for taking climate change seriously. “If we don’t figure this out,” he said, “it won’t be just black people saying ‘I can’t breathe.’”

And on Feb. 4th, in what Mediaite called the first great “Nightly Show” segment, Wilmore engaged in a deep dive on the particularly sensitive issue of black men and the police with a panel of four black fathers.

Wilmore appears on a set whose backdrop is a Robinson-projection view of the world upside down, and it’s an apt visual metaphor for Wilmore’s own industry; maybe never before has the world of U.S. electronic media been in such a heads-is-tails situation vis-à-vis race and ethnicity.

Wilmore’s program takes its righteous contrary place in a late-night environment where Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel are the walking symbols of the white male hegemony that’s characterized late-night broadcast TV almost exclusively since Steve Allen pioneered late-night on the “Tonight Show” in 1954.

And Wilmore breaks the mold in other ways. As an experienced TV comedian, writer, producer, showrunner and now the host of a major late-night franchise, he’s precisely the kind of success that has a big influence on Hollywood: one whose diversity is as much about what he does as who he is.

The fact that he’s African American complicates things wonderfully (for viewers) and seriously (for risk-averse TV suits).

The good complication for TV viewers is obvious; as an insider Wilmore plays a big role in programming that pushes back against a TV landscape that overlooks or marginalizes minorities, broadening our own perspectives and exposing us to the perspectives of others.

For TV executives, Wilmore frustrates the creative inertia that defines the U.S. entertainment industry on matters of race. It’s no longer enough to say or think that “there’s nobody out there.” And it hasn’t been for a long time.

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WILMORE MAKES his ascendancy in what can fairly be called the Shonda Rhimes era – an ongoing period in which the creator and/or executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice” and (our latest guiltless pleasure) “How to Get Away With Murder,” has obliterated old assumptions about blacks and the power equation in modern Hollywood.

Shows like Fox’s “Empire” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” ABC’s “Blackish” — and the full-on commitment ABC has made to more diverse programming (“Fresh Off the Boat” just debuted, “American Crime” breaks in March) throughout the calendar — are also indicators of how the landscape is changing.

Rhimes’ juggernaut has raised the bar and the stakes for broadcast networks and their counterparts throughout the television universe. “Diversity” may be the hot buzzword for programmers right now, but whether the spate of minority-themed shows represents a sea change in perspective or just a momentary spasm is yet to be seen.

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According to a Directors Guild of America study released in January, first-time minority directors helmed only 13 percent of episodic programming (read: dramatic shows) over the five-year life of the study (2009-2014). So much for bringing along the next generation.

There’s more that’s just as dispiriting in the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Citing figures from the 2011-2012 season, the study found that minority show creators were only 4.2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; minorities were lead actors in 5.1 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; and 62.5 percent of the writing staffs of those broadcast comedies and dramas were 10 percent minority or less.

In some metrics, the study found, minorities got better representation on cable properties – but in other ways less representation as well. One graph from the survey found minorities and women panoramically underrepresented anywhere from 3 to 1 to, in one case, 12 to 1.

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TO NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, the time’s more than right for television execs to adopt a mainstream mentality vis-à-vis minority viewers — an assessment, finally, of minority audiences as something other than “minority.”

“On top of just wanting to reflect how the world looks, diversity is good business," Salke told The Hollywood Reporter. "A show like Empire is a turbo boost to the change. It's a wake-up call that there's a gigantic audience that doesn't want to see themselves reflected in token casting. They want authenticity.”

Late-night is something of a litmus test for television as a whole; that’s why Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” could be such a game-changer. The role of late-night has genuinely evolved in recent years. From the beginning, Stewart and “The Daily Show” deftly blended reporting and on-point commentary; his Comedy Central counterpart, Stephen Colbert (who replaces Letterman on “The Late Show” later this year) joined, and then dominated, the national conversation. Late-night has become a source of actual news for the younger demographic of viewers that the industry and its advertisers covet.

And with Stewart’s Friday announcement of plans to step down from “The Daily Show” sometime later this year, the wagering over his replacement has already begun, with a number of names already floated. In the parlor game of name-dropping to come, most of the prospects will be white males. So why not Larry Wilmore? As someone with the multi-hyphenate talents Hollywood both needs and craves, he’s in the perfect position to be for late-night what Shonda Rhimes is for prime-time: An example of what happens when you change the game by changing the players.

Also published at Medium. Image credits: Wilmore: Peter Yang/Comedy Central. Rhimes: via; possible original derivation: ABC. Directors by ethnicity chart: Directors Guild of America.
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