Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.

Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.

The People v. Donald J. Trump

I can tell you the exact moment on Election Night when I realized the world was about to explode.

It was when PBS (or whatever I was watching) flashed a series of exit polls across the screen, and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump.

Seeing that figure, and performing a bit of number-crunching in my head, it was all I could do to reach for the whiskey bottle and think, “This is gonna be one long f**king night.”

Of all the statistics about how America chose its 45th president on November 8, none was more painful or disappointing than that, in the end, women did not come together as a bloc to elect their country’s first female commander-in-chief.  We knew that men couldn’t be counted on to get this done, nor could we expect that white people, as a whole, would ever make any bold, progressive move if they could possibly avoid it.

But women voting for Trump under any circumstances, let alone against Hillary Clinton?  It boggled the mind:  Whatever you might think about Trump’s so-called policies, how could any self-respecting woman throw her lot in with a candidate who regards all women merely as sexual objects and who has bragged about committing sexual assault and been accused by a dozen women of doing exactly that?

But then I recalled the moment in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Marcia Clark assumed that having a largely female jury would guarantee that O.J. Simpson would be found guilty of murder.  Clark’s thinking was that women jurors would instinctively sympathize with Nicole Brown as a battered wife and condemn Simpson as a brute who controlled, tortured and ultimately killed her.

It made sense in theory.  In practice?  Not so much.

As it turned out, the ten(!) women on the O.J. jury were more sympathetic toward Simpson—a beloved athlete, actor and all-around celebrity whose natural charisma and calculated charm proved as irresistible in court as in all other facets of his life.  In the end, the Simpson trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department and 400 years of institutional racism in America, and not—as Marcia Clark hoped—a narrow case of spousal abuse gone berserk.  If anything—and quite counter-intuitively—Clark’s own standing as a strong, independent woman only made matters worse.

The gender dynamics in the O.J. trial proved nearly as compelling as the racial dynamics, and the entire Simpson saga is instructive to us now in understanding the $64,000 question, “How could Donald Trump possibly be elected president of the United States?”

In truth, the answer is almost exactly the same as it was in the fall of 1995, when every white person in America asked, “How could O.J. Simpson possibly be found not guilty by a jury of his peers?”

In short:  Because the team responsible for preventing it fundamentally misread its audience.

In 1994-95, Clark and company thought their case was about male aggression when it was actually about the racism of the LAPD.  And now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats thought the presidential election was about the character of Donald Trump when it was actually about the “forgotten Americans” who’ve felt screwed over by their government and want radical change in Washington, D.C.

In both cases, the two sides weren’t just making separate arguments:  They were speaking entirely different languages.

In the Simpson trial, the prosecution argued that O.J. had to be guilty because the science said so:  A trail of blood containing his, Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s DNA was found leading from Nicole’s house to O.J.’s house via O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.  That’s to say nothing of the pair of matching gloves and O.J.’s long, long history of violent behavior toward Nicole.

Like any confident prosecutor, Clark trusted that the 12-member panel could put two and two together; all she had to do was present the information that would enable them to do so.

Same thing with Hillary:  Beyond her wonkiness and stamina, her entire campaign boiled down to quoting Donald Trump’s most vulgar and outrageous statements and assuming the electorate would realize how obviously unfit he is to hold any public office, and then vote for Clinton by default.

If your brain worked the same way as Clark’s and Clinton’s, you viewed their cases as offers you couldn’t refuse.  Of course O.J. was guilty!  Of course Trump is a moral disgrace who doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the White House!  How could anyone possibly think otherwise?

Fairly easily, as it turned out.  Not because they disagreed with the evidence, per se, but rather because they rejected the premise that the evidence could only be interpreted one way.

Sure, the DNA showed that O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron.  But how do we know the DNA itself wasn’t tainted?  The LAPD had proved itself corrupt and bigoted in the past; why should we give it the benefit of the doubt now?

And sure, Trump has made racist and sexist comments on an almost hourly basis and has no experience in government.  But that’s exactly what we need:  A disruptive outsider who tells it like it is.

Of course, O.J. was guilty and Trump is stupendously unqualified for high office, and deep down, I suspect many people who claim otherwise secretly know the truth.

But what we cultural elitists didn’t appreciate was the overwhelming power of symbolism, and the notion put forth by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who mused that “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”

In the mid-1990s, with Rodney King still fresh in everyone’s minds, the question within Los Angeles’ black community was, “How can we stop law enforcement from brutalizing us with impunity?”  Although O.J. Simpson had spent his entire life running away from his African-American identity—associating with a mostly white crowd and marrying a white woman—his arrest and trial became an opportunity—maybe the only opportunity—for black America to strike back loudly and clearly by asserting its right to exist.  O.J. was hardly the ideal vessel through which to transmit this righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean the anger itself wasn’t real or justified.  It was both, and if it meant allowing a black man to get away with murder—after four centuries of white men getting away with murdering black men—then so be it.

Likewise, prior to last year, Donald Trump was nobody’s idea of a working class hero—or, indeed, as someone with even a shred of interest or compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like him.  And yet, through a combination of Trump’s own cynicism and the genuine fear and panic among America’s blue-collar white folk, that’s exactly what he became.

As O.J. suddenly decided to embrace his blackness when it served his own selfish purposes, so did Trump embrace his “silent majority” when he realized it could enhance his brand and maybe even make him president.

The tragedy in all this—and the central lesson we can glean from the Simpson fiasco—is that few lives are ever made better through latching onto false idols.

The O.J. verdict undeniably provided catharsis for much of black America—demonstrating that it was possible for a black defendant to cheat justice the way white defendants have for centuries—but it certainly didn’t bring an end to police brutality or the glaring racial disparities at all levels of the American justice system.

And now that Trump is heir apparent to the most powerful job on Earth, there is little reason to think he will follow through on any of his promises to the economically dispossessed—a group of citizens who will presumably be hung out to dry just like every other sucker that Trump has ever used as a means to an end.

When push comes to shove, Trump does what is best for Trump.  Through his greed, vulgarity and unhinged narcissism, he is the human embodiment of everything that is wrong with America, and now that he has somehow risen to the highest office in the land—both despite and because of his shortcomings—his story has become intertwined with that of the country itself.

The inherent tension of such a consequential, outsize life was the driving force of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary from earlier this year that is not only the best movie of 2016 to date, but also a defining document of what it means to be an American today—for better and for worse.

Donald Trump is the latest chapter in that story, and every last one of us has a stake in how it all plays out.  We are about to learn just how much abuse the American way of life can sustain without collapsing under its own weight and, once again, we’ll be able to watch every riveting moment as it unfolds.  Live and in color.

Dear White People

Up to now, I haven’t written anything about—or, really, even thought anything about—the situation surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has refused to stand during the National Anthem in protest of America’s many sins against African-Americans.

I have ignored this story for three excellent reasons.  First, until last week, I had no idea who Colin Kaepernick is.  Second, although I like football in general, I’ve found the NFL to be an increasingly evil organization and, therefore, have tried my best to pretend it doesn’t exist.  Third—and most importantly—I really couldn’t give less of a Schlitz about what any athlete thinks about current affairs—just as I don’t heed the political opinions of actors, musicians or most public officials.

When you get right down to it, there are maybe 15 people in America whose views on controversial subjects I truly respect, and not a single one of them has a day job in the NFL.  I have been informed by knowledgeable sources that Colin Kaepernick is not a terribly high-ranking player, but what would it matter if he were?  So far as I know, there is no proven correlation between athleticism and any greater wisdom, and in any case, why would you turn to your sports heroes to tell you how to think about anything other than sports?

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that athletes shouldn’t express themselves about issues they care about.  Olympic swimmers notwithstanding, there is little evidence that professional athletes are any less intelligent than the average American, and if they decide to use their platform to say what they really think, who are we, their fellow citizens, to stop them?  If a crooked, racist reality TV host gets to run his mouth just because he happens to be running for president, why wouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to a football player whose only crime is not scoring enough touchdowns?

Kaepernick’s real problem is that he is employed by an inherently fascistic organization.  The NFL is prepared to forgive stars who commit rape, murder and domestic assault, but it absolutely draws the line with players who dare to think for themselves and express unpopular ideas—especially when those ideas conflict with the utopian fantasies that many Americans have apparently bought into about the country in which they live.

One of those fantasies, of course, is that racism is over and black people should just shut the hell up about it.  For some reason—and in the face of 400 years’ of evidence—white people just can’t abide the notion that they are a privileged species whose success—collectively and individually—has rested (and still rests) on the backs of black people.  They don’t get how “redlining” deprived multiple generations of black families of the sort of wealth that white families take for granted, or how racist drug policies have ruined the lives of countless young black men and women for engaging in behavior that white kids indulge in with impunity.

So when white NFL fans go red in the face and demand that Kaepernick stop making a spectacle of himself and just play football, I wonder about the enormous guilt that must be eating them up inside.  About how profoundly unequipped they are to be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the country that has given them so much by virtue of their being white.  They don’t want to hear that they have benefited from a rigged society from the moment they were born, and so they resent anyone who gives it to them straight—especially when that person is 100 times more successful than they are.

The problem, in other words, is not Colin Kaepernick.  The problem is the army of coaches, fans and executives who are so insecure and close-minded that they can’t tolerate even a single dissenting voice in their carefully-scripted, hyper-patriotic bubble.  Again, rapists and murderers are fine, but saying an unkind word about police officers is an outrage.

It’s fascinating, in moments like this, to observe just how many Americans don’t really believe in free speech.  How the right to express oneself apparently only applies when it doesn’t make other people queasy.  How, when a rich and famous person says something we don’t like, we are temperamentally incapable of just letting it go or (God forbid) engaging the argument.

Nope.  In America, even professional sports leagues have become “safe spaces” where unwelcome thoughts are shunned and their speakers reprimanded for opening their mouths at all, as if being an athlete means that you can no longer be a citizen.  The problem, you see, isn’t racism—it’s the people with the temerity to identify racism.  The problem isn’t crooked cops—it’s the people who dare to suggest that some cops are crooked and are protected by a crooked system.

Such is the essence of a totalitarian state:  Solving a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, while smiting those who dare to suggest otherwise.  While America, as a whole, is in no immediate danger of becoming such a place, it’s a little scary how many of us seem to wish that we were.