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We are seven months into 2020, so it’s a perfect time to share thoughts about art I enjoyed in 2019. 

Movies

High Flying Bird.

I had reservations with Steven Soderbergh’s first film of 2019 when I saw it in the spring of 2019 (it felt too light and the premise was more intriguing than the finished product), but this movie was stuck in my mind over the last few months. I was initially frustrated by the modest, almost mundane goals that were behind Ray Burke’s (Andre Holland) bold, controversial ideas. I wanted something more. I was still fascinated by the assured performances and the novelty of using a smartphone to create a slick feature film. There were moments and line readings that stuck in my mind, and as I thought about them, I realized that I failed to consider that the elements of the story that frustrated me could have been designed to produce that reaction, that the audience is meant to see Ray as a complicated figure of his generation, a man who could think outside the box but was unable to imagine living outside of its confines. 

The Report.

I still remember where I was and how I felt when I first learned about my country’s official torture program, but the emotional impact has faded over the years. The Report has been compared to Watergate inspired conspiracy thrillers from the 1970’s and the more recent action propaganda movies set during our current Long War/War on ‘Terror’, but I experienced it as a horror movie. The film is filled with scenes of congressional staffers combing a CIA database in a secure facility for information about the CIA’s interrogation program contrasted with uncomfortable sequences that show the events described in the database. The quiet scenes set in Washington – the negotiations over the scope of the inquiry and the various official responses to the revelations in drafts of the report reminded me of how easy it is to normalize the savagery that we see in the flashbacks. The Report is not a typical thriller. The tension doesn’t come from the actual investigation, but from the race to complete the report and navigate the bureaucracy before opportunities for accountability vanish. 

The Black Godfather.

The story of the man behind many of the men and women who sit on the thrones of pop culture. A man who is not a traditional mogul or high powered agent or lawyer or producer, but a dealmaker specializing in putting the right people together and encouraging creative people to recognize the value of their work. Clarence Avant is an entrepreneur, dealmaker and executive who is connected with almost every prominent cultural figure over the last several decades (and many powerful Democratic figures over the last twenty years). He is the subject of a documentary that is extremely conventional on its surface – a series of testimonials followed by a biography that takes us from his childhood in North Carolina to the present day. There are segments narrated by a number of names – Quincy Jones, Jamie Foxx, Bill Withers, Sean Combs, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and the forty second and forty fourth presidents of the United Atates. We hear nothing from critics or detractors, but this isn’t that kind of story. This film is about helping us understand how Avant carved out a place for himself as an indispensable figure, the kind of fantasy godfather figure who leveraged his power and connections to the dark side of American culture industries to build more relationships and empower creative people (especially those in the African American community). He presents as a brusque businessman who is only concerned about numbers, but the mask slips when he tells us that his goal is to move us forward or explains that he “doesn’t have problems, I have friends.” The original context for the quote is related to a moment in his life when his friends in the industry intervened to prevent him from financial ruin, but the film shows us how he served as the friend who made the problems go away, the one who kept them from (in the words of Combs) “getting fucked”. There are two ideas that have stuck with me since I first watched this doc – “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and the importance of knowing your worth/true value.

Tell Me Who I Am

A fascinating and maddening documentary about memory, trauma and loss centered around two brothers. There are two stories at the core of this film. One story is about a man who reconstructs his life and sense of self after losing his memory with the help of his loving twin brother only to discover that his brother was hiding a giant secret.  The other is the story of a man who loved his brother (and hated his pain) so much that he told his brother a story of a better world while neglecting to tell him that the story was false. It’s a curated narrative that feels both surprising and familiar, with perfectly timed twists and revelations. There are no narrators to provide context or shape the story, but the careful editing and abstract reenactments are a reminder that we are only viewing the parts of the story that the director wants us to see. It’s easy to imagine a deeply reported version of this documentary that featured interviews with other individuals (like the unmentioned third brother) who could’ve helped viewers get a better understanding of the big picture, but Tell Me Who I Am is not a journalistic documentary. Perkins is less interested in finding facts than in creating a space for the brothers to reconnect and explore the emotional wreckage of their lives. 

Dolemite Is My Name.

I don’t like biopics. Even the best of them transform fascinating and complex people into one dimensional icons. The movie can never let us forget that the great person (not always but usually a dude) is great. One of the best things about Dolemite is the way that it inverts that formula by depicting a man most commonly known as a profane (and hilarious) showman as a deeply complicated, sympathetic artist. 

Eddie Murphy is at the center of almost all conversations about this movie, and it’s easy to understand why – he is an electric presence and delivers a performance that reminded me that he was one of the most dominant cultural figures of my childhood. 

His charisma is overwhelming and his smile is as infectious as ever, but his eyes and manner suggest a man who has been humbled by life. 

Eddie Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore is the inverse of the classic “Eddie Murphy” characters from early in his career and the legends that have grown around Murphy’s rise to fame. Murphy’s Rudy is not always the most talented person in the room and is not concerned with being the coolest cat in the scene. He’s a grinder, not a prodigy, a man who has tried and failed at almost everything. We are watching Murphy play against type, but he doesn’t abandon the qualities that made him a superstar. It’s a terrific performance, but the movie’s more than a Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle. The directors, performers and costume and set designers all work to show us glimpses of the African American working/middle class from the early seventies engaged in casual leisure activities – dancing to music and laughing at comedy made for them at local clubs and in movie theaters. We don’t get introduced to most of these people – the film is focused on Rudy Ray Moore and his inner circle – but these moments suggest a richer, more fully rounded portrait of a community than we typically see in American pop culture. We are used to seeing this community through the lens of tragedy and trauma, but My Name Is Dolemite shows us some of the joy and fun. We need more of that. I also appreciated some of the simple pleasures of watching creative people make art, even if the finished product is not a masterpiece. We can appreciate the value of art and artists that are neither magical nor excellent.

HOMECOMING: A Film By Beyoncé.  

The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” -Malcolm X.

We all have a Beyoncé take. We are not allowed to not have an opinion.

Here is mine. Beyoncé is mature beyond her years – a steely businesswoman who appears to actually be a genuinely decent person. She is the exemplar of a generation of artists who double as savvy, hypercompetent entrepreneurs and business people. I joked that Beyoncé was actually Beyoncé Inc., and that the woman we saw on screen was the brand ambassador, logo and the signature product of a sophisticated corporate entity helmed by Ms. Beyoncé Knowles Carter. 

Sometimes I made the joke sound like a critique, but there was genuine affection and respect behind it. I grew up with stories of artistic geniuses who brought joy and meaning to the lives of millions and were living a few steps away from abject poverty. It was easy to respect and admire an artist who built an empire without  someone who built an empire without screwing over other artists. I enjoyed her songs. I respected her as an artist, even before watching Homecoming.

Homecoming is a reminder that Beyoncé is a visionary artist, the kind of singer and performer who will define our era. I should be more specific. It’s a reminder for me. I turned forty one last year, and one of the interesting things about getting older is the realization that my tastes and preferences had calcified. If I imagined a Mount Rushmore for almost any creative field, the faces would have been the same as they were in my early thirties. My personal pantheon of black soul (or rhythm and blues or black people singing about stuff) mostly consisted of artists who released their classics in the decade before I was born (and Prince. Always Prince.). I respected Beyoncé’s savvy and competence. I appreciated that she outworked, outhustled and outthought almost all of the other artists of her generation. I loved her last few albums and the Lemonade visual album/video. But I never thought of her as a potential member of the pantheon until Homecoming. It’s not just her ability to interpret songs with her voice, it’s the way she (as an auteur) uses movement, light and sound to create meaning. The LLP transforms the experience. Her dancing and choreography are incredible, but familiar to any who have watched footage from her concerts or music videos.  

Homecoming helps us expand our focus/attention to include the army of artists and artisans who contributed their talents and vision to the final product. Beyoncé feels less like an accomplished solo artist and more like a conductor, a point guard or quarterback.

It was also a reminder that Beyoncé is still an impressive vocalist in her own right. I’ve listened to all of the different incarnations of Beyonce, from teen pop star to black soul icon, and watching Homecoming felt like seeing those versions of her converge into one. She moves effortlessly between standard pop singing, concert singing, sanging and spitting bars. 

In her blend of two Lift Every Voice and Sing performances, the visual elements of Beyoncé’s performance – her costumes, her movement, her band and dancers – amplify the political subtext of the song while reminding the audience of her place within a long legacy of art created by folks of African descent in America. The image of Beyonce surrounded by a sea of talented black artists (and so many black women) celebrating and highlighting black culture (while singing our anthem) is indelible. 

Although the Coachella performances were as impressive as I expected (the mix of Lilac Wine and Drunk in Love was strong), the rehearsals are the true heart of the film. It was fascinating to watch the dancers craft their routines, glimpse concept art for performer costumes and share in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s enthusiasm for the breathtaking acrobatics of the dancers. 

The film elevates HBCU and African American culture while capturing the perfectly coordinated spectacle of an amazing concert. I may never be a Beyonce super fan, but Homecoming is a film I expect to return to over the years. 

Us.

Sometimes the best stories defy conventional notions of narrative logic. There are moments in Jordan Peele’s terrifying and hilarious second film – Shahadi Wright Joseph’s chilling smile as Umbrae, Lupita N’Yongo’s unforgettable first words as Red, the virtual assistant who predictably misunderstands a desperate command, the breathtaking final fight scene – that feel like excerpts from a vivid fever dream.

The scenes followed me out of the theater and haunted my dreams in the days and weeks after I saw the film in the theater (one of two in 2019!) although I wasn’t sure if Ioved or hated it. The doubles of the Wilson family felt like the embodiment of our fears and a reminder that many of the comforts of our lives are made possible by the suffering and pain of others. I was fascinated by all the ways the film made me uncomfortable. 

I still had some reservations about the film, which only grew over time. I became convinced that the raw power of Us diminished as the scope of the story expanded from the Wilson household to their neighbors and surrounding community (and beyond).

The film begins as a razor sharp social satire and exploration of anxiety and dread. The doubles of the Wilson family perfectly evoke the fears (and stereotypes) of the Black middle/professional class in America. They come from a world without opportunities or choices, where the best one can do is survive.They can (or do) not code switch. They do not fit in. 

Their lives are defined by trauma. They are the embodiment of the tragic, unsettling stories from the tabloid newspapers of the eighties and nineties, the stories of abuse and crack babies and super predators.They are ghetto, characters from a fable that could have been told by my grandmother, an upwardly mobile African American woman who was terrified of what might happen if the family didn’t move forward. If you’ve fought your way into the middle class – into home ownership, nice clothing, children who “speak right” and can be engaged in structured after school activities – there’s nothing more terrifying than backsliding out of a “respectable” life. Once you’ve made it to a nice Long Island home, the projects are more terrifying than a haunted house. I wanted to spend the film with these doubles, to learn what lay beneath the veneer of brutishness.

We don’t get to learn very much about the family after the Wilsons escape their home. The sense of dread that was established in the first part of the film dissipates as we are introduced to more doubles and the Wilsons fight for survival. The new doubles are weird and occasionally amusing, but rarely terrifying.If the most powerful moments of Us felt like a fever dream, the second half of the film is filled with scenes that disrupt the illusion and remind you that you are not actually awake.

I saw the movie a second time with my wife when it was available via streaming and have watched it a few more times over the months that followed. Us’ flaws didn’t vanish but they felt less central to the experience of the film. Once I stopped looking for (or expecting) an immersive imagined world that was intricately plotted and detailed, I was able to appreciate the impressionistic fable about the costs of capitalism and the anxieties of the African American upper middle class. I’ve watched Us several times since that second viewing, and have become convinced that it’s an absolute masterpiece.

First Reformed.

The images and sounds in this film still haunt my imagination. First Reformed is about faith and radicalism and the environment. It is a critique of the industrial complex that has developed around faith in this country and a film about an intense man striving to heal himself by fixing the world. It is about the temptations and failures of manhood in America. 

Ethan Hawke’s progression from an uninspired (and uninspiring) man of faith struggling through a midlife crisis to a passionate and dangerous believer felt unpredictable, even implausible as I watched it, but felt inevitable by the end of the story. 

On the first viewing, I was lost in his perspective, in his physical and emotional pain. There was something unsettlingly persuasive and resonant about his radicalization. We follow Hawke in a series of short, simple (nearly silent) scenes as he struggles with God and his body and the world. Schrader prompts the viewer to focus on Hawke’s form, to examine his facial expressions and how time is reflected in the lines on his face. I was lost in Hawke’s anguish. I found myself wondering whether God will forgive us for what we’ve done to each other, to the world. 

I watched the movie a second time a few weeks later and my attention was drawn to the silent, contemplative moments and the austere images on the screen. Hawke’s long dark night of the soul is still in the foreground, but I noticed the ways in which his anguish blinded him to the possibilities of the world.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor.

I didn’t want to see this movie. The promotional material and early reviews made this documentary about the life and legacy of legendary children’s television host Fred Rogers sound like a sentimental exercise in nostalgia by aging Gen-X’ers. I was one of the many kids who watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on occasion, but it played a pretty small role in my life. It came on at an awkward time of day and felt like an artifact from an earlier era – children’s programming for my parents (or my uncles and aunts). He was a nice important man who seemed a bit boring even in comparison to other wholesome entertainment that taught life lessons. I was more of a Jim Henson kid. 

I watched the film when it became available on HBO Now. It was one of the featured titles and my wife suggested that we check it out. She wasn’t a Mr. Rogers kid either, but she was interested in his story.

I planned to give the film my full attention for a few minutes before shifting my attention to my iPad. There were e-mails to respond to and memos to write. 

It would be ninety minutes before I looked away from the television screen. My work was abandoned and there were tears in my eyes. Yeah, I was moved by the moments – the graduation speeches, the testimony in front of Congress – that were designed to inspire an emotional response, but I was particularly struck by the almost militant sense of decency that pervades the film. I always thought of Fred Rogers as a good man, but I don’t think that I completely appreciated his vision or his commitment to creating art on the screen that respected the children in his audience as thoughtful, curious people. It felt like a glimpse of a world that felt very far away in 2019 (and which feels completely foreign in 2020). It wasn’t a more innocent time, but it was certainly a (slightly?) more humane one. 

Fast Color.

I’m tempted to talk about how Julia Hart’s film is a reminder of the unexplored possibilities of the superhero genre (is this the Storm movie that never was?), but would prefer to think about how brilliantly this moody atmospheric film tied together themes of matrilineal legacy, hidden cultural power, racial justice against a backdrop of environmental degradation. Or how much I loved the deliberate pace – every moment felt purposeful. Or the use of color and music to highlight moments of joy or hope and strength amidst desperation.The grounded, naturalistic performances from Gugu Mbatha Raw and Lorraine Touissant stand out in my mind – all of the subtle moments of joy and anguish and wonder, the messy relationships filled with joy and pain. 

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.

This might be the most successful superhero movie ever made. There are superhero movies that have been more profitable or had a larger impact on the views of the general public about the genre, but none have come as close to capturing the sense of wonder and possibility that one can find in almost any superhero comic book. It’s not just the amazing animation that blends traditional and modern techniques to create a dynamic world, but the commitment (from the small army of directors, animators and writers who created the film) to using images, color and movement to tell the story. Superhero comics use images and letters to tell thrilling adventure stories that tap into your imagination. They are more than delivery systems for stories dreamed up by an ‘architect’. In Spiderverse, we learn as much from watching Miles prepare for school or listen to music or from seeing the Kingpin move as we do from plot exposition. We know Miles is ready to become a hero through his body language and understand what the spider sense feels (and sounds) like through the use of visual comic language (which also signals the transition from ordinary Miles to super powered Miles) and color shifts. The film is an incredibly rich text filled with allusions to other stories featuring Spider Man in a variety of media (comic books, film, etc.), the work of legendary comic artists like Bill Sienkewicz (the sequence explaining Kingpin’s motivations is a love letter to the classic Love & War). They are more than Easter Eggs, they are the kind of allusions to deeper meaning that remind me of the arcane references in superhero comics from my childhood. 

Other PicksBreslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, Sermon on the Mount, John Wick, Wu-tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.

Comics

Copra, Michael Fiffe. A perfect action comic inspired by John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Luke McDonnell’s classic Suicide Squad from the 1980’s. The original will always have a special place in my – heart, but Fiffe’s emphasis on visual storytelling adds layers of meaning to the story and complicates the redemptive violence central to superhero stories. 

 

Two of Us, Jessi Zabarsky. A beautifully illustrated story about an unusual child who tries to fit into a foreign environment and finds a way to belong (while preserving her place in her home community).

Visiting, Alivia Horsley. A short, beautiful tale about family and the conversations we consciously avoid. Horsley tells a story about a young man who is sent by his mother to visit his aunt and uncle. He is there to reconnect with family. He is also there for another reason. Horsley’s art is simple and effective and her dialogue is naturalistic and perfectly constructed. 

Run For It, Stories of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom, Marcelo d’Salete. A collection of short stories about the experiences of enslaved people from Africa in Brazil. D’Salete captures the full humanity of those struggling for freedom without ignoring (or minimizing) the horrors of slavery. There is pain here, but it sits alongside love, joy, longing and all of the mundane things that are a part of life. D’Salete’s art is natural in some moments – every character’s movement feels precise and grounded in reality – and impressionistic in others. He uses thick smears of ink to create a sensation of claustrophobia and impending doom. The result is a powerful, haunting work. 

Waves, Ingrid Chabbert, Carole Maurel. A moving, precise story of loss and healing. I have been thinking about Maurel’s colors (which reflect the theme, the mood and the story) all year long. 

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Giant Days, John Allison, Max Sarin, Julia Madrigal. These slice of life stories about a group of young women attending university in Great Britain have been some of the most fun and entertaining comics on the market over the last few years. I’ve enjoyed the book (via trade) as a diversion, an optimistic book to read before I turned in at the end of the night. I still enjoy the book on those terms, but my love for it has deepened over the last year as the women approach the end of their time in college and the end of the series is in sight. The jokes still landed, but I started to see the emotional stakes that were always present in the background. I wasn’t just following a series of zany misadventures, I was reading about a group of friends maturing into adults.  

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Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame, Erin Williams. One of the most direct and powerful things I’ve read this year. Williams does not hesitate to explore the broader political/societal implications of her experiences as a woman. I appreciate that she doesn’t try to make male readers comfortable.  

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Immortal Hulk, Al Ewing, Joe Bennett. The best superhero comic published by Marvel or DC. Ewing and Bennett dig deep into the horror and sci-fi guts of superhero comics and reveal a fascinating mess of toxic masculinity, pain and righteous anger. It’s not like any Hulk comic Marvel’s ever published, but Ewing ties it so closely to earlier stories that it reads like a natural progression of a lengthy narrative. It’s almost as if this is where Peter David, Dale Keown and Greg Park were going all along.

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The Wicked and the Divine, Kieron Gillen, James McKelvie. A fascinating (and efficiently told) story about power, fame/celebrity, youth and redemption. The duo construct a satisfying conclusion to their epic story, and the last issue (which serves as something of a coda) was clever and profoundly moving. I was surprised by how strongly I felt about all of the characters involved (even the antagonists). I look forward to revisiting this series in the future. 

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Is This How You See Me, Jaime Hernandez. Jaime Hernandez’ stories about the lives and loves of Maggie and Hopey (and the communities that surround them) are some of the best comics I have ever read. In this volume, Hernandez uses a reunion (of Maggie, Hopey and their old crew) to explore love, friendship and nostalgia. We can always go home as long as we’re comfortable with accepting that things have changed in our absence. This is the book that most directly paralleled my experiences in 2019.

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Peter Cannon Thunderbolt, Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard. There have been a number of books that referenced, homaged and sampled Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen over the decades, but it’s still fun to see art that seriously engages with the ideas in the legendary book while gently nudging us to move on. Please, let’s try something else. 

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House of X/Power of X, Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva. Hickman, Larraz and Silva’s reinvention of Marvel’s moribund X-Men franchise in two bi-weekly (and intertwined) miniseries combined novel ideas with nearly perfect pacing to remind me of a time in my life when I eagerly anticipated the release of new comics on Wednesdays. 

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Dark Knight: The Golden Child, Frank Miller, Rafael Grampa. A World’s Finest story set in a dystopic future that looks a lot like a funhouse (or slightly heightened) version of the world we live in now. Grampa’s art is as vital and urgent now as ever, and Miller’s writing is spare, mad and perfect. 

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X-Men, Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Yu. We talk about how House and Power of X have reinvented X-Men comics (and they have), but this series feels like a step towards a different kind of mainstream superhero comic, one that acknowledges the passage of time and the need for growth and evolution. “I’m choosing to spend my days focused on the things that make me want to live”.

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More soon.