All posts tagged: Oscars 2019

Who Is an African Without Ancestors?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are We are our grandmothers prayers we are our grandfathers dreamings we are the breath of the ancestors we are the spirit of God —Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey In the Rock, “We Are” I. Who is an African without ancestors? One of the great challenges of diasporic African life is a constant memory of the loss of home, lineage, and spiritual patrimony. The South African Bantu word ubuntu which translates most literally into something akin to the abstraction “humanity,” is also said to embody the proverb, “I am because we are.” Lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade have included a cultural dislodging from a holistic worldview tied to land, language, religion, and history. Living in culturally Western societies, whether in Europe, or Latin or North America, has meant that the cultural and aesthetic values that undergird said societies will often be neutral to the flourishing and validation of black life at times, …

Friendship and Freddie Mercury

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a very subtle movie. In the first moments of Bryan Singer’s Queen bio-drama, we get a montage of preparation for Live Aid, the famous 1985 all-star charity concert. The jorts-clad roadies move equipment, thousands of people make their way into Wembley Stadium, the members of the band wait in their trailer, guitars are tuned, costumes are donned, and Queen’s “Somebody to Love” plays on top of it all. Although we soon cut to fifteen years earlier and will not return to this time for another 90 minutes. The movie has successfully telegraphed to the audience: Live Aid is an important climax of this movie. As I said, not subtle. Much of this story is well-known, not only because of the popularity of Queen and Freddie Mercury (a Best Actor nominated Rami Malek), but because it is cliché. In 1970, four young British men form a band to rock on their own terms and for a different audience: “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together . . . playing for other misfits,” …

Roma’s Wounding Confession

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Roland Barthes’s mother died. As the renowned critic and semiotician reflectively sifted through old photos, he stumbled on an image that floored him: there she was, a little girl, in a “Winter Garden” (i.e., a glassed enclosure), radiating some undefinable quality that, he recognized, would characterize her whole future life. Barthes devotes many pages of his book Camera Lucida to this encounter and struggles to analyze the dynamics at work. As an ineffable event, language ultimately fails him, but he comes closest with a paradoxical summary of his mother’s aura, miraculously and photographically transmitted: “Her assertion of a gentleness.” Lying beyond categorization, much of the power of photography lies not in information, Barthes surmises, but in the ability to poignantly “prick” and “wound” us. So, he calls this effect (and others sharing a similar immediacy) the punctum of the photograph. Some have summarized his now-famous studium/punctum dichotomy to be the social/cultural meaning of a photo vs. its “personal” meaning, but this falls short. It is clear that punctum encompasses more than …

An Inadvertent Critique of Scapegoating?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! In the beginning of his speech, the just man is his own accuser. —St. Bernard Vice, Adam McKay’s spoof of Dick Cheney, is a feature-length ritual of scapegoating, America’s entertainment du jour. Let me be clear: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. First, because I enjoy feeling moral outrage, provided it is not directed at myself. Second, during the early years of the Bush-Cheney administration that the film covers, I was more preoccupied with reading every single Agatha Christie mystery than attending to policy decisions. Vice’s plot, like that of The Big Short—McKay’s other darkly educational comedy—was instructive. Yet, something in Vice’s tone is perturbing. It is not the mode of story-telling: McKay’s artistic gimmicks and fourth-wall-breaking create an aptly absurd arena for his faux-Machiavellian tale of Cheney’s rise to power. The cast, particularly Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, impersonate the public figures of Vice with great gusto. Christian Bale seems to really enjoy sinking into a silicone mummy and rolling around halls of power …

BlacKkKlansman Scopes the Archives of the American Soul

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Spike Lee’s newest joint BlacKkKlansman (2018) opens with an iconic scene from Gone With the Wind (1939). Scarlett O’Hara walks through a maze of wounded soldiers after the Battle of Atlanta. The film’s score transitions to Taps and the camera pans over a tattered Confederate flag. It is a grand spectacle of loss. Lee jumps to Alec Baldwin portraying Dr. Kenneth Beauregard, a white supremacist producing some species of “informational” video that touts the travails of whites; his words are vitriolic and his tone is incendiary in reaction to that tattered Dixieland banner. Dr. Beauregard is trying too hard, though, and he is a caricature just like his public awareness campaign. It is an absurdist entry into the film—the viewer can chuckle a bit and feel some relief having thought he might be made a little uncomfortable by the film’s themes. However, Lee’s opening sequence is clarified throughout BlacKkKlansman, and the question that remains through the film’s powerful, emotionally throttled end, a question meant to haunt the viewer, is stark: how …

Is Truth and Reconciliation Possible?

Director Peter Farrelly’s Green Book seems like obvious Oscar bait: a road trip dramedy centered around two men from very different worlds who find their assumptions challenged as they get to know one another. An unexpected friendship develops, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about not judging people by the color of their skin. We have seen versions of this story before, and when I related the premise of the film to a friend, his response was simply, “That sounds cheesy.” He is not wrong. It does sound cheesy. Yet, his uninformed judgment of the film proved to be an example of exactly the kind of behavior the film seeks to challenge: making uninformed, unfounded judgments. Based on a true story, Green Book is set in 1962. Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a stereotypical “fuggeddaboudit” Italian-American from the Bronx, is hired to chauffeur Dr. Donald Shirley, a refined African-American pianist, who has chosen to perform a series of popular music concerts throughout the Deep South, where the Jim Crow segregation laws are still very much in effect. …

Death and Bunnies All the Way Down?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . . T he doctrine of the Theotokos’s perpetual virginity is, paradoxically, a celebration of Mary’s utter fecundity. Surrendering utterly to the will of God, Mary bears fruit completely and comprehensively, in one elegant gesture of incarnation, in the Word himself. All of our human effort, all our worthwhile striving to produce, remain asymptotic reaches towards Mary’s fiat, in which she reaches the limit of human availability to do the will of God and produces maximal results: God himself. Queen Anne, the broken heart of Yorgos Lanthimos’s mournful farce The Favourite, is a woman who is certainly fecund but whose efforts to bear fruit culminate in unrelentingly repeated traumas of loss. Seventeen rabbits hop around her room as insultingly ambulant tombstones for each of the fruits of her womb whom she has lost. The animal emblem for abundant procreation becomes a grotesquely fluffy incarnation of death. Anne, whose husband, children, and beloved sister have all been taken …