On The Undefeated: Interviews with Black Actors who played “token” characters on television in the 1990’s, from “Seinfeld” to “Dawson’s Creek.” Important, moving, and infuriating.
n the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking (if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons) that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were, in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.
For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier,Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.
Rotten Tomatoes: How Digital Media is Changing Movie Criticism
Posted on March 29, 2018 at 8:41 am
Rotten Tomatoes has a fascinating and very insightful essay about online movie critics. Citing the 1990 essay by Richard Corliss decrying the devolution of movie critics due to television, Rosemarie Alejandrino, the inaugural USC Annenberg-Rotten Tomatoes Digital Innovation and Entertainment Criticism fellow, describes the scope of online critics and their connection to their audiences.
Across multimedia platforms — particularly online video and podcasts — a new class of critics has arisen, made up of people who view the world of film and entertainment criticism through a digital lens. Some don’t consider themselves critics at all. This new breed of content creators isn’t looking to compete with traditional print critics; in fact, they exist side-by-side in the same cinesphere, often using written reviews as a jumping off point for their discussions.
Where these video and audio critics are taking us represents an exciting chapter in the evolving narrative of film criticism. The ability to pause and zoom allows a crafty YouTuber to dive into a scene’s shot construction in minute detail. Access to streaming services lets a critic watch a movie over and over as to not miss a detail while dissecting the plot for easter eggs and hidden gems. The rise in podcasts and longform audio platforms connects the critic to the listener in an intimate setting, as if you’re listening in on a conversation between friends who love (or hate) a film as much as you do.
The key culture-shifting component of new media film criticism is the critics’ relationship with their audience.
The First of What Will Probably Be Many “Ready Player One” Reference Guides
Posted on March 26, 2018 at 1:50 pm
Ernest Cline’s book, Ready Player One, takes place in the future but its main character is as enmeshed in the past as he is in the video game puzzle created by the mysterious man who is something between Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and whoever invented Grand Theft Auto. The book and movie are filled with references to the pop culture of the 1980’s and there are likely to be many critics and fans examining every frame to find them all. Rotten Tomatoes kicks it off, from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Terminator,” “Iron Giant,” “Say Anything,” and the original “Mad Max.” Of course “Ready Player One” director Steven Spielberg was himself responsible for many of the iconic pop culture moments of the 1980’s.
There are tons of nods to and cameos from Spielberg’s big blockbuster hits, especially the one about the dinos. The Spielberg gems come thick and fast and pretty early in the pic — so eyes out. It all makes a bunch of sense, given that the filmmakers had to secure the rights for every easter egg they use here. And it has us imagining a Spielberg-directed Ready Player One sequel, full of easter eggs referencing the original Spielberg-directed Ready Player One: Our pop-culture–loving minds were just blown.
It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.
Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.
The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”
Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.
The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.
All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.
As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.
Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.
Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?
Black Panther: The Accents, The Villain, The Women
Posted on February 25, 2018 at 2:20 pm
“Black Panther” is now more than a blockbuster, record-smashing superhero movie. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon, with thought-provoking and remarkably nuanced issues of identity, race, gender, and politics, and it has inspired some fascinating commentary.
Slate goes behind the scenes in an interview with Beth McGuire, director of speech and dialects at Yale and dialect coach for the film.
Aisha Harris asks:
In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?
I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.
I always say that the most important character in a superhero movie is the villain, and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik may be the best bad guy in the history of superhero movies. He isn’t some alien who wants to control the universe. He’s just an American guy who has experienced and witness a lot of injustice. As Ryan Coogler told me in an interview, at the beginning of the film he is more altruistic than the hero. But because of the losses he has suffered, he is a damaged person and his empathy does not extend beyond the people he identifies with.
Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.
“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”
This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.
During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.
Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding Killmonger chooses death later on over instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.
From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.
When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.
In the film, the fictional Dora Milaje — “adored ones,” an all-female military group that protects the King and the fictional nation of Wakanda — are perhaps the most obvious example of female strength. The Dora Milaje were introduced in Black Panther comic by Christopher Priest, who took over as lead writer of the series in 1998; since the series’ relaunch in 2016, they’ve become much more central to the plot. (The title character, who was Marvel’s first African-American superhero, was created in 1966.) In their initial appearance, Priest’s narrator describes the female bodyguards as “Deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks,” who were also the King’s “wives-in training.” While many have speculated about the inspiration behind these warriors, it is clear that one of their main antecedents was the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa (now The Republic of Benin), whom the French dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” after female warriors in Greek mythology.
Those who want to understand the history of the character will enjoy these comments from one of the leading writers on race and politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written Black Panther comics: