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Danielle is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Velamag, The Rumpus and Blackberry.

The Resplendent Photography of Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems, Woman playing solitaire, 1990. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

For T, The New York Times Styles Magazine issue “The Greats,” Megan O’Grady profiles MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, “perhaps our greatest living photographer” as the artist prepares for a trio of shows in Boston, Ithaca, and New York City.

O’Grady takes a look back at the works that made Weems’s reputation and gives a pulse on today’s art world amidst the culture shifts that Weems helped to usher in.

In one of the indelible images from “The Kitchen Table Series” — possibly the most famous picture Weems has ever taken — a young girl and her mother are looking in matching mirrors while applying lipstick. It’s the kind of effortless-seeming image that complexly plays with ideas of feminine subjectivity, recalling the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot’s 1875 painting “Woman at Her Toilette” in the way in which it shows a private act that anticipates public exposure. In Weems’s version, a young girl is also learning, perhaps unwittingly, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be looked at by men. “What do women give to one another? What do they pass on to one another?” says Weems, recalling the girl who modeled for the picture, whom she spotted in her neighborhood in Northampton, Mass., where she was living and teaching at the time. “I just thought she was the perfect echo of me as a young person. The same intensity and the same kind of hair.”

After her parents’ divorce, Weems moved with her mother and siblings into a large house owned by her grandfather. She would pirouette down the long wood-floored hallway and look out the attic windows, wearing her mother’s work smock, imagining she was a dancer or an actress. “I was simply becoming interested in this idea of being an artist in the world in some sort of way, not knowing really what the arts were,” she says. “I had these great, grand visions that I would move to New York City and that I would always arrive fabulously dressed, and I would always arrive late, and I would always leave early and everybody would want to know who I was. ‘Who is she?’ That was my fantasy.” After a visit from her drama teacher, her mother agreed to send her to a summer program in Shakespearean theater, freeing her from having to earn money by picking strawberries with the other kids in her neighborhood — giving her permission, essentially, to create. The program led her to other opportunities in theater and street performance, “dancing at the crossroads at night to bring up the gods,” she tells me.

We still live in a world in which the highest price ever paid for a work of art by a woman (in 2014) was Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” for $44.4 million, while dozens of male artists sell in the hundreds of millions. Of her own work, Weems tells me, “It is not embraced in the marketplace. And this is a sustained problem across the board, in the ways in which the work of women is valued and the work of men is valued. This is a real problem. And it’s worse for women of color, for sure. And I make a fine living.” Recently, her work was up for auction around the same time as the artist Kerry James Marshall’s. “And it was fascinating. My work sold for $67,000 and his sold for $21 million. Kerry Marshall and I became artists together, we were friends together, we were lovers together, we participated in this field together. On the social value scale, we’re equal. But not in the marketplace,” she says. The numbers are stark and shocking, but Weems’s real value is reflected in the vast scope of her influence, visible in the intimate photographs of Deana Lawson, the transhistorical portraits of Henry Taylor and the subdued longing of Kara Walker’s silhouetted paintings.

Elena Ferrante and the “My Brilliant Friend” Adaptation for HBO

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 25: Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco of 'My Brilliant Friend' speak onstage during the HBO portion of the Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotelon July 25, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

For the New York Times Magazine, Merve Emre writes about the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante in advance of an eight-episode HBO adaptation of the first novel of the Neopolitan series, My Brilliant Friend. 

Emre discusses the creation of the series with director Saverio Constanzo, who relied on Ferrante’s copious notes throughout production to bring the story of Lila and Lenù to the screen. To dive deeper into the ethos of the world the two collaborators created, Emre also interviewed the elusive Ferrante, with mixed results:

I tried again with a question, only this time my tone was less sentimental, more acerbic. I observed that contemporary writing on motherhood has an irritating tendency to treat children as psychological impediments to creativity — as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. But her novels are different: They entertain the possibility that motherhood might be an experience conducive to creativity, even when it is tiring or onerous. For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace, and though she finds her children burdensome, Lenù’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother. What did she take to be the relationship between time spent taking care of words and time spent taking care of children?

She was more receptive, if a little scolding. “I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question,” she wrote. “But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: One finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production.”

There was something different about the style of this answer. The “I” she wielded seemed more present, the defenseless voice of the writer behind the author. I asked her to say more about being a terrified mother. What, I asked, was the nature of that terror for her?

She retreated, adopting the impersonal tone of the commentator once again. “I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children,” she wrote. “I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers.” It is tempting to rewrite these statements to reclaim the immediacy of her “I”: “I was afraid of sacrificing my life to my children; I was afraid of surrendering myself completely.” But nothing authorizes it. It may not even be the right interpretation; she may really be talking about her fear of other mothers. Why do I want to make it about her? To do so would be to traffic in fiction. But the traffic in fiction is pleasurable. It prompts me to study her language carefully, to appreciate anew the words she has chosen, the phrases she repeats, how easily she moves between sentences. It prompts me to rewrite her words to project fears I may or may not have onto the figure of the author — the character she and I are sustaining. It lets me speak without speaking for myself.

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Remembering Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange (right) in a scene from her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a seven woman ensemble that was nominated for a Tony Award in 1977.

Ntozake Shange, whose choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf ran on Broadway for 742 shows between 1976 and 1978, making her the second Black woman to have her work performed on Broadway, died on October 27 at age 70. (The first was Lorraine Hansberry with “A Raisin in the Sun,” in 1959.) Besides her canonical play for colored girls, Shange was the author of more than a dozen other plays, four novels, five children’s books, and several collections of poetry. She’d suffered a long illness, but released a new collection of poems  just last fall, and had been working on another new book and performing spoken word around the United States in recent months.

Shange was raised in an upper middle class household in New Jersey and St. Louis where luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois and Miles Davis encircled the family. She took degrees from Barnard and USC. In a 2010 piece for The New Yorker about the feature film adaptation of for colored girls produced by Tyler Perry, Hilton Als said seeing the show  in 1977 was an introduction to a familiar yet dazzling “world of unimpeachable cool.” It showed seven different Black women on a stage dancing, singing, and speaking a language that was determinedly itself and not at all stilted by pressure to be polite or respectable. In Shange’s words, it made, “drama of our lives,” and showed future artists who were queer, female, and / or people of color that the stuff of their specific worlds was good enough material to create from.

Shange’s death produced an outpouring on the internet, and it’s a loss that marks a shift. The access and visibility of queer and female people of color in mainstream media is something we can very well nearly take for granted, and the reckonings around sexual misconduct in the public sphere owe much to the space Black women like Shange, who in for colored girls and other works “explor[ed] the various trials that black women often confronted, from rape and abortion to domestic violence and child abuse,” opened up in the ’70s.

we are compelled to examine these giants in order to give ourselves what we think they gave the worlds they lived in

Ntozake Shange, from the forward to three pieces (spell #7, a photograph: lovers in motion, and boogie woogie landscapes) 

More on Shange:

 

On Blackface, Bert Williams, and Excellence

Publicity still portrait of American stage actor and Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, 1915. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

“Who doesn’t wanna look like Diana Ross?” journalist Megyn Kelly asked panelists Tuesday morning on her news show, during a segment about Halloween costumes. She was defending former Housewife Luanne de Lesseps, who dressed up last year in a crude costume that looked nothing like the glamorous Ross, with a white jumpsuit, a tower of a curly wig, and darkened skin. “She wants to look like Diana Ross for the day — I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween,” Kelly said. Her claim to the harmlessness of blackface betrayed an empathy problem, but also an ignorance that was too much to ignore; NBC’s top brass reacted swiftly. It seems for that and, (likely, mostly), the show’s lackluster ratings, the commentator’s morning show was canceled. At least publicly, blackface is universally condemned now, and understood to be borne of racist intentions. But Kelly’s comments reveal several truths about a complicated anxiety at the heart of American entertainment and the tradition of minstrelsy upon which it all resides.

* * *

I caught a screening of the silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day earlier this fall, at an independent theater in Brooklyn. Possibly the oldest surviving set of moving images with a cast of Black actors, Lime Kiln has made rounds on the independent circuit since 2014, when it first released to the public. It was made a century earlier, in 1913, and restored from a trove of negatives found in MoMA’s film department. Legendary vaudevillian Bert Williams, born in Nassau, Bahamas in 1874, stars. He plays a lovable, almost clever oaf who competes with three other gentlemen for a local woman’s favor.

The actors in Lime Kiln filmed scenes of leisure: sitting in a local club and at tables in their homes, walking on sidewalks, and, at a raucous field day, dancing a cakewalk. Bert Williams is excellent in the role. His impressive comic timing, flexible, open face, long-limbed stature and commanding posture make it impossible to look anywhere else. He plays the role in blackface — a mask of burnt cork, a kinky wig, long black gloves. The rest of the cast does not. MoMA’s associate curator Ron Magliozzi called this “a sop to the white audience,” and noted “the fact that the lead wore blackface allowed the rest of the cast not to wear blackface before white audiences.” Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Star told me in an email that the mask for Black performers of that era “might be considered the price of admission to the entertainment world,” and that fair skinned Blacks, especially, were under pressure to cork up.

It is because minstrelsy, the theatrical practice that began in the urban North in the 1830’s, in which white men ridiculed southern Blacks, “established the representation of blackness, in the society at-large and entertainment in particular,” said Forbes. Its singular popularity fueled its influence. According to the scholar Eric Lott:

Minstrel troupes entertained presidents (including Lincoln), and disdainful high-minded quarterlies and rakish sporting journals alike followed its course. Figures such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Bayard Taylor were as attracted to blackface performance as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany were repelled by it. From “Oh! Susanna” to Elvis Presley, from circus clowns to Saturday morning cartoons, blackface acts and words have figured significantly in the white Imaginary of the United States.

When Williams filmed Lime Kiln Club Field Day, America’s motion picture industry was not yet two decades old. Production on D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation began the same year. When it released in 1915, it became the first blockbuster, and its direct nods to minstrelsy (white actors blacking up to play one-note, not-quite-human black characters and blatant Confederate nostalgia) reinvigorated the Klan. Lime Kiln Field Day lingered in post-production and, despite its shortcomings, forms a contrast, an alternate history —one of  Black excellence in American performance. It showed Black characters struggling toward their own goals, with back stories.  Lime Kiln’s cast of 50-100 actors haven’t yet been all identified, but we know some performers had previously worked in the Harlem-based musical revue, “Darktown Follies,” which drew white audiences uptown. “Darktown Follies” anticipated the all Black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, which played a part in Harlem’s artistic flowering of the 1920s and 1930s and helped launch the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.

Williams had been a working actor since starting out in 1893 in minstrels. He was a featured performer at Zeigfield’s Follies for nearly a decade starting in 1909. He also became a legitimate star of the record industry, composing and recording songs for Columbia Records. Once he started, he never abandoned blacking up, and he played several variations of the long-suffering “Jonah Man” throughout his career.

At my Brooklyn screening of Lime Kiln, a piano accompanist followed the drama in a jaunty ragtime. The reconstructed film lays out alternative takes of many scenes, arranged with an estimated chronology of the storyline, based on the feedback of lip readers MoMA hired to study the actors’ encounters. There’s also footage of the cast and crew between scenes. It is dizzying to watch some of the scenes in public space — there’s the blackface, as well as other humiliations like a wrestling match for discarded shoes and a watermelon eating contest. The audience was mostly white, with a smattering of Blacks, and sometimes, during close ups of Williams’ facial contortions, I felt a simmering discomfort at the laughter of my white neighbors. Still, Williams was known to have performed in only two other films, both shorts — A Natural Born Gambler and Fish — both released in 1916. The multiple takes in the Lime Kiln restoration reminded me how rare it is to see these particular actors in this particular way, how invaluable is every frame.

* * *

Williams stated in an interview that blacking up allowed him to find his actual humor, to conceive of himself, finally as a character. It explains the unsettling mix of feelings I had watching him being excellent, yet, still, to my eyes, debasing himself. By most accounts, he was an apolitical artist in a politicized age. During his professional life, the U.S. formalized rollbacks to Reconstruction and institutionalized Jim Crow; concerned citizens created institutions in response. W.E.B. Dubois’s Niagara Movement, the NAACP, Black Greek Letter Organizations, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs all arose during this era. What the scholar Imani Perry calls Black formalism — ritual practices “internal to the black community,” concretized. Some of the new Black organizations and associations that employed these rituals were purely social, with no explicit connection to politics, yet had an implied, vested interest in the sustenance and uplift of Black people in an apocalyptically difficult time.

Williams made no formal statement of protest, expressed no pro-Black sentiments on the record. He did chafe at the racist treatment he could not avoid, and claimed concern for racial uplift. He and ten other Black men in entertainment started the Frogs, a social club for Black artists based in Harlem. Williams led the art committee. Their aims were philanthropic, and also, to create an archive collection for a theatrical library. They held a popular annual social event, “The Frolic,” with a ball and vaudevillian revue. Many Black people held Williams’s accomplishments in esteem. The Black press assiduously and soberly covered his performances and business dealings. When he died in 1922 at age 47, after working through illness and collapsing near a stage after performing in Detroit, Forbes says Black critics “assess[ed] his role as a black man as well as his influence as a performer.” (Emphasis mine).

Eric Lott described the pull of minstrelsy as a combination of “love and theft,” which suppressed “the real interest in black cultural practices they nonetheless betrayed.” It was an attempt, in the anxious antebellum period, to enforce a social order, and in various eras of rampant social confusion, its tropes and formulations, which never really disappear, become lightning rods again. Kelly’s comments about walking in the skin of Diana Ross mirror this “love and theft,” and our current era is one where we may be approaching another nadir, another near-apocalyptic, broad loss of hard-won rights and access to the privileges of citizenship, similar to the cascading losses of Bert Williams’s time. It’s probably why our discourse is so contentious, even among friends and comrades. It helps explain our interest in relics like Lime Kiln. 

In a piece from the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Wesley Morris laments, “Everything means too much now.” He bemoans how “we’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.” It annoyed Morris that he couldn’t pan Insecure the way he wanted, without blowback, because it feels so “necessary” to see a Black woman beautifully shot, performing irreverent messiness and coming into her own. He’s right — we’re all entitled to art for its own sake. But everything has always meant a lot, and excellence has always been a factor, and the threads of politics and aesthetics rub up against each other all the time. Probably, we need to imagine even more lenses through which to think and talk about art and culture, and demanding the best, from everyone, on all fronts, may be the way we get through the difficulty that could be coming.

 

 

Reading with Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy”

10th October 1957: American author Richard Wright sits at a desk with a pen in his hand shortly before the publication of his book, 'White Man, Listen!,' Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eighth grade, age 13. I was skinny, flat-chested, and wore round Dwayne Wayne glasses with red wire frames. My mother and I lived together in a small brick house on a wide, busy road, near the Memphis International Airport. We had a rotting oak tree in our front yard. I went to the public middle school across town where students were mostly white and middle class. That year has many beginnings. It was when I began to notice my math homework was harder for me than anything else, and that I felt serious about English class.  Ms. Erskine, my English teacher, was a short plump woman of Scottish ancestry who lived in the suburbs out east and had a son in my grade. Her hair was curly, brown, and chin length. She spoke rapidly, with her hands.

In our unit on Black American literature, I first encountered the poetry of Langston Hughes.  We talked about, “I, Too,” (They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well), and Ms. Erskine told us, dropping her voice as if letting us in on a juicy piece of gossip, “he isn’t talking about eating food.” She read “Mother to Son,” aloud (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) and made her voice strangely accented in a way I wished she wouldn’t.

At some point that semester we read Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I found it gorgeous and also scary. It trembled with a fiery propulsion and it was the first time I’d read a book that talked about a Black person being there, where I was, in Memphis. Wright had lived in the city for a portion of his early childhood, from sometime in 1913 to 1916. In an early scene, he beats the neighborhood boys who try to rob him of his grocery money with a stick. Ms. Erskine mostly lectured to us about the hunger Wright and his family suffered, and for this reason, Wright’s mother’s advice to, “Jump up and catch a kungry,” sticks with me. I remember Black Boy as a story of a stark, bleak childhood and the violence of a racist South. “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled,” Wright tells us.

I had been a reader for a long time. A born reader, it seemed; I read poetry and Bible verses in church pageants and had an active private reading life that sometimes got me in trouble when I’d stay up past my bedtime with a novel by Judy Blume or the Sweet Valley High series, a nightlight, and bleary eyes. It had been my mother who stoked a desire for reading in me and drilled into me a certain kind of speech that made me sound older than my age, as if I wasn’t the poorest kid in my classes, which I almost certainly always was. She’d had her own active reading life. I remember new books coming to our house, from the library, by the handful, and when every Toni Morrison novel from the 80s and 90s debuted. My reading life kept growing — the work of Sylvia Plath and Jane Austen became high school obsessions I shared with my closest girlfriends; in college, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Tsitsi Dangarembga taught me about the global costs of poverty, racism, and misogyny.

* * *

What I’m saying is I was always going to read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. I was made for it by birth and acquired disposition. With its author, I share a region of origin, a generation, a difficult relationship with a mother who taught me to read. There are artists I love and admire for how well they execute ideas and Laymon is one of those and has always been. But I also relate to his work ancestrally, at its marrow.

I read Heavy first in one sitting, up late into the early hours of the next morning despite having to work the next day. I was silent for a while — for a few days actually — and just let my feelings be. I’d been in the middle of a rough spot with my own family, due to our denials and delusions about sexual assault and physical abuse. I’ve loved reading white readers and critics engage with Heavy as a reckoning with America’s sick affairs with racism and familial violence. I loved reading about Laymon’s generosity as a teacher in Bim Adewunmi’s stellar profile of the artist, and other Black women writers have mined layers of the story in impressive ways. What interests me right now (and many things about the book interest me, for there are numerous portals through which to enter it), is how Heavy spoke to me as a Black woman reader. It sent me back to Black Boy; it honestly gave me a sense, a nudging that I should revisit it that preceded my recognition of the two works’ unquestionably shared literary genealogy:

That night, I started rereading Black Boy. Reading the book at Millsaps felt like a call to arms. Reading the book in my bed, a few feet from your room, in our house, felt like a whisper wet with warm saliva. Wright wrote about disasters and he let the reader know that there wasn’t one disaster in America that started the day everything fell apart. I wanted to write like Wright far more than I wanted to write like Faulkner, but I didn’t really want to write like Wright at all. I wanted to fight like Wright. I wanted to craft sentences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do anything about the styling they’d just witnessed. I understood why Wright left Jackson, left Mississippi, left the Deep South, and ultimately left the nation. But I kept thinking about how Grandmama didn’t leave when she could. I thought about how you left and chose to come back. I thought about how I chose to stay. I wondered if the world would have ever read Wright had he not left Mississippi. I wondered if black children born in Mississippi after Wight would have laughed, or smiled more at his sentences if he imagined Mississippi as home. I wondered if he though he’d come back home soon the day he left for Chicago.

Because I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, I’d forgotten that Black Boy is also an account of how a Black boy became a Black writer and reader. When he has his first story published as a teenager in a Black newspaper, Wright tells us, “From no quarter, with the exception of the Negro newspaper editor, had there come a single encouraging word…Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing.” On what reading novels opened up for him:

It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.

* * *

Heavy is about a family and a state and a nation and trauma, but it also directly confronts generations of Black art (by men and women) and the redemptive possibility inherent in the making of it. It is a direct response to Richard Wright’s seething, possibly unrelenting anger at his condition, a dance with Toni Cade Bambara’s humor and her love of Black speech. It chronicles a conversation with Margaret Walker Alexander, where she gives Laymon a poetry collection by Nikki Giovanni and tells him to “own your name.” It is a dare to Black artists to make work for us, about us, and without shame:

I read The Fire Next Time over and over again. I wondered how it would read differently had the entire book, and not just the first section, been written to and for, Baldwin’s nephew. I wondered what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece. I wondered about the purpose of warning white folk about the coming fire. Mostly, I wondered about what black writers weren’t writing about when we spent so such creative energy begging white folk to change.

In doing this, Heavy shakes off many burdens.

Throughout, Laymon shares his wildly vivid reading life with us, how he reads and thinks about his reading. He admits when something in a text confuses him; he tells us a book must be re-read to be truly read. He is, essentially, teaching us, reminding us, how to read. And reading may not save us from despair, or pull us from the edge of where we’re at with our families, or reverse the damage we have done to this planet. But I’ll always believe storytelling can clarify, fortify, nourish, and help us move things along.

More great Black writers on writers, readers, and reading:

 

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ Adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, director Barry Jenkins, KiKi Layne, Regina King and Stephan James of "If Beale Street Could Talk" attends The IMDb Studio presented By Land Rover At The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at Bisha Hotel & Residences on September 9, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

For the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Angela Flournoy speaks to Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award winning Moonlight, about his newest film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. 

In addition to this new film’s being the much-anticipated follow-up to “Moonlight,” it is also the first big-screen English-language film adaptation of a novel by [James] Baldwin, a writer whose works are closely guarded by his estate. Much of the country, owing to our current political reality and Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” has recently become better acquainted with a truth black readers grasped long ago: James Baldwin was right about everything. Jenkins began his adaptation of Baldwin’s fifth novel back in 2013, writing a faithful screen version of the 1974 book, in which a pregnant 19-year-old woman named Tish works, alongside her family, to prove the innocence of her child’s jailed father, a young sculptor. This being Baldwin, of course, there’s more to it: a meditation on the radical implications of declaring yourself an artist while black, on what it means to be poor in New York, on the power and limitations of romantic and filial love.

Flournoy considers how Jenkins grew up, what is indelible about his body of work, and why his films’ quietest moments are so arresting:

I’ve spent my life loving black men, and I understand black masculinity to be malleable, its fabled rigidity overblown. After work, in the dark, I’ve heard whispered secrets, the wanderings of restless minds. And yet all of my moviegoing life I’d never seen this quotidian vulnerability so accurately rendered in film — not without a wink, a glance away, some posturing that distances — until I saw Jenkins’s “Moonlight.” An adult son tries to keep emotional distance from his mother, a recovering crack-cocaine addict, and cannot; tears stream down his face instead. A drug dealer confirms his profession to a boy (the same son, but younger), thereby admitting to playing a part in what holds the mother captive; the boy leaves, and the drug dealer (a father figure, not a monster) stares straight ahead, defeated. In “Beale Street,” we watch the main character, Fonny, listen to his friend Daniel describe the psychological horror of prison. Daniel begins the conversation nonchalant, swigging a beer, and ends it with his shoulders stooped forward, the light drained from his eyes. His honesty and helpless frustration is so familiar from my actual life that it is nearly too much to bear — a perfect moment of cinema.

Jenkins enjoys moments when his actors make direct eye contact with the camera. He and Laxton are in agreement on the power of this sustained looking, how holding the camera on an actor can bring out a host of emotions in the viewer. “If you’re in a dark theater with 300 people sitting next to you,” Laxton said, “and you have someone looking at you from a big screen, I think it does something to you as an audience member.” Alfred Hitchcock employed these sorts of shots, as did Jonathan Demme (who can forget Hannibal Lecter’s stare?), but unlike those filmmakers, Jenkins and Laxton rarely shoot theirs during moments of great emotional agitation. Instead they catch their characters at ease, quiet. “Barry captures silence in a way that we don’t see much, and we especially don’t see that much in the African-American film experience,” Mahershala Ali, who won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for playing the drug-dealer-cum-father-figure in “Moonlight,” told me. “You usually don’t see black people holding peace and occupying silence, having to fill those voids in that way.”

Jenkins shoots these moments intuitively, waiting until he feels something. “I’m not directing them,” he says. “They are just giving me this thing. And sometimes you can look at an actor and see, Oh, there’s the soul.” And if they’re comfortable enough, he says, they can look directly into the camera without losing that soul. “Instead they’re going to give it to the audience.” KiKi Layne, whose starring role as Tish in “Beale Street” marks her first foray into film from theater, described it as looking into a black hole: “I think at one point I told him that ‘Man, this feels so strange’ and he was like, ‘I know, but I need it, I need it.’ ” The actors don’t know where these shots will wind up in the film, and neither, necessarily, does Jenkins, at the time. Later, though, the emotions viewers read on the actors’ faces — a close-up of Fonny near the end of the film goes from anxious and unsure to settled — feel made for the precise moment when they appear on screen.

These looks don’t quite break the fourth wall, because the actors are not regarding the audience. In “Beale Street,” they’re most often gazing at someone they love. For nonblack audience members, it might be the first time they’ve had a black person direct such a gaze their way; Jenkins offers a glimpse at a world previously hidden to them. For a black viewer, there’s more likely a kind of recognition: I know that face, although I have never seen this actor before. Or, if the actor is one you’re familiar with, it can go the opposite direction, letting you see the person anew. Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother in the film, has played a mother or wife as many times as I have fingers, over decades. But who was this woman on the screen, staring at her reflection in a mirror, summoning her courage, while also staring at me? Typecasting actors isn’t simply about having them play a role they have played before; it’s about locking them into the same aesthetic representation of that role. “He knows that it’s not just his film,” King told me. “He can’t do this without the talent of other people, and he allows those talents to shine.”

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Lady Gaga, Celeb Profiles, and the Third Remake of “A Star is Born”

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Lady Gaga attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "A Star Is Born" at The Shrine Auditorium on September 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

John Caramanica declared the celebrity profile dead a few weeks ago. Yet Rachel Syme’s story on Lady Gaga for New York Times Magazine about her new film, the third remake of A Star is Born, does everything the best profiles are supposed to: It draws the subject as a fascinating main character and gives us a peek into what she does and why. It illuminates a specific moment in time.  It tells the audience what the writer thinks is interesting or compelling about its subject and how that relates to us all. It offers an origin story, not just of the main character, but an origin story of the origin story — revealing the social world the main character inhabits and how it explains something essential about who she is.

For her interviews with Syme, Gaga, possibly one of the last true pop stars, was not very forthcoming:

Now, as we toured her house, Gaga was as opaque as Ally is transparent. She spoke carefully, in a breathy tone, as if she were in an active séance with an old movie star whose press agent advised her to remain enigmatic and demure. She showed me a bizarre bathroom, where she had found a bed over the shower; she gestured delicately at her backyard, announcing: “Some beautiful lemon trees. It’s a nice place to come and just create.” When we got into the studio, she tiptoed through the cavernous live room, pointing out a grand piano in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. We made our way to a small alcove with whitewashed walls and 20-foot ceilings, which looked like the storage room of an art museum — an echo chamber, she explained. I asked about the acoustics, in part because it seemed the polite thing to do, but in part because I was trying to open any conversational tap I could find. Whether she was feeling legitimately shy or was simply method-acting as a restrained ingénue, she had yet to speak at full volume.

In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece on Gaga’s co-star, Bradley Cooper, also the film’s director, Cooper’s dull aphorisms only make Brodesser-Akner’s insights shine more brightly. “His voice is not yet as good as it would become,” she writes of seeing the first time Cooper and Gaga sing together, in footage from before they made A Star Is Born. Watching Brodesser-Akner watching Cooper tells us more about his journey in making the film than anything he says in the entire piece.

Similarly, I’m not sure whether less reticence from Gaga would have helped us understand more about her first major film role or the mystique and mythology of A Star is Born. Some of the most memorable and probing profiles ever written don’t even include interviews with their subjects. It’s Rachel Syme’s trenchant musings on Gaga’s rise, her performance as Ally, and “the grueling machinations behind celebrity” that are a delight to read.

“A Star Is Born” has never really been a film about an unknown actress shooting across the screen like a rare comet. Instead, from the very beginning, it has always been a film about an already superfamous woman shooting a movie. That’s the real reason the franchise works: It comes with a built-in insurance policy. In 1937, when Janet Gaynor stepped into the role of the farm girl Esther Blodgett in the first version (which was itself a remix of a 1932 drama called “What Price Hollywood?”), she was making a comeback, but she had been a box-office titan of the silent era, the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for acting. Judy Garland, who tackled Esther in 1954 (a studio executive quickly changes her name to Vicki Lester in the film), was a household name at 17, no longer a vaudevillian striver but a minted studio girl, kept on a steady infusion of amphetamines and barbiturates and praise. In 1976, Barbra Streisand, whose character’s name was Esther Hoffman (we have to believe she goes from mieskeit to swan), was already an Oscar winner for playing Fanny Brice, and fresh off another nomination, for “The Way We Were.” These actresses were all at least a decade into their careers, and they used the material less as a coming-out party and more as a victory lap. Of course the Esthers would succeed; their real-life counterparts had already pushed through every obstacle.

This is why the lead role is so alluring to divas who want to explore the boundaries of their fame and what they had to endure to lasso it. These actresses, in drag as younger versions of themselves, get to wrestle with their flaws and air out their darkest fears. But we don’t fear for them, not really, because we know how the story turns out. Garland, who always felt so intimidated by the leggy army of MGM blondes that she spent her life making self-deprecating jokes, fashioned herself into the world’s most beloved brunette. Streisand, whose line “Hello, gorgeous” was soaking in wry irony, turned a prominent bridge into a locus of desire.

Gaga’s innate New York City toughness brings a different flavor to the role than her predecessors. Where Janet Gaynor plays the starlet as pure and cornfed, Garland plays her as a plucky troubadour in pert ribbon bow ties and Streisand plays her as a wisecracking prima donna in colorful ponchos (hey, it was the ’70s), Gaga’s Ally is more world-weary and knowing. She is the kind of woman who gets into fistfights, who alternately sasses and fusses over her father (Andrew Dice Clay), a chauffeur who once had showbiz aspirations himself but never had a lucky break. When Cooper offered Gaga the role, he told her that “this is what it would be like if you were 31 and had never made it,” and she readily embodies the ferocious hunger of the would-be famous. She’s no innocent when she walks onstage to sing. She knows exactly what to do, and exactly what this will mean for her career. She’s ready to go.

Ally’s journey is not about a singer developing her talent — that’s already there. It is about finding her way toward an aesthetic once she has the world’s attention. She dyes her hair Tang orange, begins working with a choreographer and sings springy pop songs about butts, all of which she does without wavering, even when Jackson drunkenly criticizes her for being inauthentic. Some viewers may read a rock-versus-pop hierarchy into Ally’s transformations — that she is more “real” when she is harmonizing with Jackson’s twangy melodies or sitting at her piano — but Gaga’s onscreen mastery over both genres is a pre-emptive rebuttal to what is essentially a gendered bias. What “A Star Is Born” makes clear about Lady Gaga is that she possesses the dexterity to make whatever kind of music she likes.

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An Inclusive Guide to Lingerie and a New Take on Self-Care

E+ / Getty Images, Ten Speed Press

 

Danielle Jackson | Longreads | September 2018 | 17 minutes (4,454 words)

In 2014, the U.K.-based entrepreneur Ade Hassan launched Nubian Skin, a line of nude hosiery and undergarments especially for darker skin tones, with product photos on Tumblr and Instagram. Hassan told Forbes she’d started the brand out of personal frustration —while working in finance, she couldn’t find lingerie or hosiery that complemented her skin or fit her wardrobe. Within days, audiences flooded Nubian Skin’s social channels. Then a number of new brands followed Hassan’s lead, offering nudes for dark skin in lingerie and other product categories, too, like skin care, cosmetics and swimwear.

Cora Harrington, founder and editor-in-chief of The Lingerie Addict, called Nubian Skin’s launch an “inflection point” in the fashion business. She also said the industry still has far to go on inclusivity. In lingerie, large retailers like Victoria Secret continue  to uphold a thin, white, feminine of center ideal. Harrington is a Black queer woman with a glamorous afro and an expertise in undergarments. Her long running site of product reviews, primers, how-to’s, and delightful fashion editorials that she conceptualizes, art directs, and often models in herself, demystifies the craft and care of lingerie for a wide range of bodies.

In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie, Harrington’s first book, expands and formalizes her approach. It’s both a practical reference guide and a deep, probing history of bras, underwear, shapewear, hosiery, and loungewear — the five core categories of intimate apparel. Harrington dispels advice in a warm, inviting tone. She uses no gendered pronouns, and gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Sandy Wirt adorn the pages instead of photographs of bodies. Special sections give guidance on binding and how commonly used garment components can be difficult for bodies with skin sensitivities and conditions like fibromyalgia.

Dita Von Teese writes in the foreword, “lingerie allows for seduction of self,” that it doesn’t need to have anything to do with sex or partnership.  Harrington believes lingerie can be a place for play and self-exploration, a form of self-care. It is “the first thing you put on in the morning,” before attending to your day, and the last thing you take off at night. It should make you feel good.

My most recent bra fitting was at a shop in Soho a few months after I’d gained a bit of weight. It had been years, quite frankly, since I’d made the time for a proper fitting, and the time, care, and expertise of the shop attendant gave me a break from the body blues. Wearing something new and pretty and well-constructed can do that, of course, but it was especially meaningful in my personal time of transition. It made me feel that my new body wasn’t wrong, just different. I spoke with Harrington on the phone about her path, her expertise in lingerie, what she was going after in writing In Intimate Detail, self-care, and the future of the industry. Read more…

The Meaning of “Aquemini”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 18: Big Boi (L) and Andre 3000 of Outkast perform at the Treasure Island Music Festival on Treasure Island on October 18, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Along with a cluster of other seminal albums that debuted in 1998, Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast’s masterful third album Aquemini turns 20 this year. I was in Memphis then, a high school student living at my mother’s house. To me, Atlanta was like a sophisticated older cousin — still country, but sexier, with more polish and definitely more lights. Many of my friends’ dreams were there, and when I listen to Aquemini now, it still sounds like dreams, a frenetic, far-out ambition, and a real love of home and roots. At The Undefeated, Atlanta-based writer Dennis Norris considers how the album defined the contemporary South and anticipated the pop music landscape of today. 

The idea of having pride in the South has for a long time generally been associated with whiteness. “Southern pride” conjures images of Confederate flags and a longing for a time when the states below the Mason-Dixon could own black people. But what about black Southerners? What do we have pride in? Growing up in Mississippi, I didn’t find any pride in my elementary school named after Jefferson Davis. I didn’t find pride in the Dixie flag fluttering above my head every time I drove through downtown Jackson.

Outkast showed us our reflections as seen in the shiny spokes of Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes bouncing off Old National Highway potholes. They reminded us of the life we could find pride in. The Bayou Classics. The Essence Festivals. Music crafted with the same love and care that the Gullah use to weave a perfectly made handbasket. That perfect slap of a domino smacking the table to drown out the sound of stomachs growling waiting for the ribs to get off the grill.

While we were fighting for monuments of oppressive Southern pride to get torn down, Outkast was constructing a monument to the beauty in the ugliness around us. Aquemini was a love letter to home — a reminder that we were imperfect kings and queens in flip-flops and socks. Aquemini‘s promise was that, if we turned our love inward toward the place that raised us, then we’d see the beauty around us. Because excellence is only magnified by the obstacles overcome to get there. I say, to have a choice to be who you wants to be / It’s left up-a to me / And my momma n’em told me. That’s why Outkast including that Source clip at the end of the album is so powerful. They stuck the landing.

But the acclaim of the album goes beyond mere critical ratings. It’s no coincidence that the years following Aquemini would bring about an era of Southern dominance over hip-hop culture. And while the cultural shift changed the course of the national music scene, it also transformed Atlanta. The city of Atlanta, complete with a black woman as mayor and possibly a black woman governor on the way, embraces hip-hop as much as any other large city in the country. From T.I. and 2 Chainz with restaurants seemingly on every corner to Big Boi and Gucci Mane performing during halftime at Hawks gamesand even the Atlanta United soccer team embracing the likes of Waka Flocka to get the crowd hype. This is an Atlanta that understands the beauty of Southern culture. This is a country that sees the city and its blackness as a triumph worth emulating.

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25 Years of Vibe Magazine

Courtesy of VIBE

For Billboard,  Dan Charnas compiles an oral history of Vibe magazine, the first issue of which was published in September, 1993. Founded by Quincy Jones in partnership with Time Warner (and still publishing digitally today), the magazine represented a “new black aesthetic” that “championed hip-hop but thought broad and wide about the genre’s connections to the past and the future.”

Mimi Valdes (editorial assistant, 1993-94; assistant editor, 1994-95; style editor, 1997-98; executive editor, 1999-2002; editor-at-large, 2002-03; editor-in-chief, 2004-06): Jonathan [Van Meter, editor-in-chief 1992-93] booked Madonna and Dennis Rodman as a cover. And Eddie Murphy’s publicist was mad as hell that Madonna was getting the cover over Eddie. We all wanted Eddie over Madonna, so we were upset about it too. When [word of the cover choice] started to get out in the industry, we all felt the need to save Vibe’s reputation.

Scott Poulson-Bryant (senior editor/writer, 1992-96): I said [to Jonathan], “The staff needs to have a conference. People are really not happy about this.”

Van Meter: I said, “This isn’t The Village Voice. We’re not unionized. You can’t come in here representing the staff.”

Valdes: We were all standing by waiting for Scott to give us the go-ahead to come in. When Jonathan saw us, he got really upset.

Van Meter: I felt like I was losing control. And I said [to Scott], “You’re fired.” People in the hallways started crying. Mimi Valdes was screaming as if she’d just found out her mother was shot and killed. And I was like, “Oh, my God, I made it worse.”

Poulson-Bryant: He came to my office: “You’re not fired. Look, we’ll have a staff meeting.”

Quincy Jones: I was staying away from editorial policy. I got involved when Jonathan put the Beastie Boys on the cover and told me he was following up with Dennis Rodman and Madonna. He had already shot it!

Van Meter: I guess Quincy was getting a lot of shit from people for putting the Beastie Boys on the cover, and when he sees the Madonna cover, he went crazy.

Jones: I said, “Over my dead fucking body! That’s the way you blow an urban magazine.”

Van Meter: Madonna was queen. You can’t not put her on the cover. I couldn’t conceive of killing the best cover story we had done so far. [Quincy and I] ended up having a fight on the phone, and I smashed my phone into a thousand pieces and cleared off the top of my desk onto the floor. I think I said, “I quit.” I went home. And then the phone calls started. Everyone tried to get Quincy to change his mind. Even Madonna called me at home. She was really pissed.

Jones: I called Madonna and I said, “I’m telling you as a friend: it’s not personal, but you cannot pander with an urban magazine this early.” She said, “Quincy Jones, you and I can take over the world if we want to. See you around, pal.” I haven’t talked to her since then.

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