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Daily Reads: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and How Western Cinema Sees Africa, How Political Correctness Helps Comedy, and More

Daily Reads: 'Beasts of No Nation' and How Western Cinema Sees Africa, How Political Correctness Helps Comedy, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. “Beasts of No Nation” and How Western Cinema Sees Africa.
“Beasts of No Nation,” written, photographed, and directed by Cary Fukunaga follows a young boy living in a small West African village who is forced to become a child soldier. Though “Beasts of No Nation” has garnered some critical acclaim, much of the reception has been mixed, with some, like Matt Zoller Seitz, claiming that the anonymity of the conflict coupled with the Fukunaga’s horror imagery presents Africa as a wholly bestial and barbaric. At Next Projection, Alex Bean explores Western cinema’s relationship with Africa and where “Beasts of No Nation” fits in.

The Golden Age of Hollywood, in the first half of the 20th Century, coincided with the last few decades of the brief and cataclysmic period of European colonization that started with the infamous “Scramble for Africa” in the late 1800’s. Considering how deeply entrenched racism was in American law and society at the time, it’s unsurprising that Hollywood used Africa as little more than a shorthand for exotic primitiveness in this period. Long-running adventure series like “Tarzan” and “Jungle Jim” showed white heroes outside of their “natural” habitat were still able to be strong and victorious. They turned colonization into a child’s playtime dream. The occasional A-picture movie set on the continent invariably centered on Europeans or Americans dealing with matters of colonial politics or the forbidding landscape. Even in a classic political and romantic thriller like “Casablanca,” Africa’s people were invisible and their lack of self-determination is never even thought of. The continent exists as a shadow play of Western power politics and intrigue. The period of decolonization in Africa began right as Hollywood’s old studio system was collapsing in the 1950’s and 60’s. Despite the infusion of young politically-conscious filmmakers this brought about, most Western films that dealt in African politics were post-colonial fantasies. “Zulu,” from 1964, told the story of British soldiers under attack in southern Africa in the 19th Century. “Out of Africa,” the Best Picture winner from 1985, was a romance between two aristocratic Europeans set in colonial East Africa during World War I. Features like these served to emphasize that Africa was once a beautiful place where Whites could comes and learn something about themselves. The perspectives of the people they ruled over there were still rarely explored. Even seemingly innocuous comedies like the 1980 South African hit “The Gods Must Be Crazy” or Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” reinforced old stereotypes. Both were remarkable for being world-wide hits about African characters, but it’s fair to assume that many Westerners walked away from the film with their presumptions about African primitiveness unchecked. There were some exceptions to this trend in Western cinema, of course. The most famous is Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful “The Battle of Algiers” tells the story of the revolt against French rule in North Africa by shifting perspectives among the French soldiery, Algerian resistance fighters, and the civilians who inexorably get drawn into the fighting. Its documentary-like realism and even-handed treatment of the characters on both sides would inspire generations of political filmmakers.

2. Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy. It’s Helping.
In recent years, the rise of discussions of identity politics have also given rise to minority groups that previously didn’t have a voice finally getting a chance at center stage. As a result, many have been speaking out at what they deem to be offensive speech, and that hasn’t gone over well with certain sections of the population, especially comedians. Some comedians (ludicrously) believe their free speech rights are being trampled by political correctness, but The New York TimesJason Zinoman argues that PC isn’t ruining comedy, but rather it’s helping, and comedian Anthony Jeselnick is the perfect example.

We are living in the age of the joke controversy. On the Internet, they seem to arrive with the frequency of subway trains. But despite what you might have heard, a new political correctness is not ruining the art of comedy. In some quarters, it may be helping. The power of online outrage is highly overrated. Trevor Noah didn’t lose his job over idiotic tweets and Stephen Colbert wasn’t canceled over an Asian joke. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham survived criticism of racial and ethnic jokes. Even comics without star power who have set off furors, like Sam Morril and Kurt Metzger, are doing fine. Does fear of backlash make some comics self-censor? Probably, but if the possibility of blowback makes artists think twice before delivering a rape joke, that’s a good thing. Comedians have never been able to joke about provocative subjects without repercussions, and what’s often overlooked is how, during the past few decades, the ability of comics to push the line of good taste for a national audience has actually dramatically increased. It is easier than ever to see the kind of risqué comedy that was once the province of the big-city club. Today you can say all of the curses in George Carlin’s famously brilliant seven words you can never say on television on the Internet and several of them on cable TV. The cantankerous debates online today can be seen as moral pushback and a reminder that those dastardly censors at the network were standing in for audiences with strong opinions about what is offensive. Since these squabbles now begin online, comedians are more likely to be harshly criticized in public, but this presents a new foil for comedy that depends on violating social or ethical norms, a broad tradition that includes everything from National Lampoon to Sarah Silverman. While many try to give high-minded explanations for button-pushing jokes, anyone who sees enough stand-up knows the truth: Transgression gets laughs.

3. #BoycottStarWarsVII and Why the Internet Is Trolling Itself to Death.
So, if you haven’t heard, there’s a new “Star Wars” movie coming out soon, and in case you literally live underneath a rock, it’s kind of a big deal. But because it’s a big deal, it sometimes makes the Internet do, say, and believe in crazy things, including shining attention on trolls who wanted to prank the thinkpiece content farm into writing about fake “Star Wars” racists. Esquire’s Luke O’Neil examines how the Internet trolls itself when people who work in media can’t tell a real story from a fake one.

“Laughably enough, the racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic crusaders of the #BoycottStarWarsVII movement completely miss the point of every lesson ever built into the Star Wars franchise,” wrote The Daily Beast, which, like many other sites, attempted to point out that the franchise has indeed featured numerous actors of color over the years. Sadly, many of the people writing these posts seem to have completely missed the point of every lesson ever built into the Internet: Don’t feed the trolls. For almost the entirety of the hashtag’s run, it was dominated by people commenting on how terrible it was, with very little of the noise coming from actual racists, the thing we were supposed to be upset about in the first place. That’s because there weren’t that many of them involved. Not long thereafter, users on the message board 4chan, noted for these type of petulant tactics, began taking credit for the con. “WE DID IT” wrote one, linking to the Salon article. Others gleefully echoed the sentiment on Twitter. “We did it Again #4chan should win a Nobel Peace Prize ! We made a racial issue out of thin air!!” posted one. Many writing on the topic today have noted, as the suspicion that it was a prank has dawned on them 24 hours later, that it doesn’t matter if it was a sincerely launched movement, because so many people glommed onto it, lobbing their own hateful rhetoric into the fray. And yes, while there are very many bigots out there who would rather not see their beloved fantasy franchise sullied by non-white actors, framing it within the context of this obvious troll job makes everyone involved look bad at their jobs. Some have said there’s no difference between outright racism and “ironic racism” tossed around like a grenade just to see how people will react. That may or may not be true, but it’s incumbent upon a media professional to be able to distinguish between the two. If you’re working in the media today and you can’t spot a troll from five clicks away, you should hand over your password to the CMS.

4. An Analysis of Costuming in “Fargo”.
Noah Hawley’s “Fargo” TV show returned for a second season last week and has racked up critical accolades left and right, with many claiming it’s the best show of the year by a wide margin. While there are plenty of qualities to focus on in the series, such as the acting or the photography, something that doesn’t get quite as much attention is the costuming. At their own site, Tom and Lorenzo write about the costumes in episode two of “Fargo’s” second season.

There’s a heavy color motif of blues and earth tones in a great deal of the costuming and art direction. Part of that is simply because these shades in these combinations were very common in the late seventies, but there’s also a sense of parallelism among characters and situations; a tying together of people and conversations through subtle color cues. We’ll get back to that in a second. Notice how every character’s outerwear is distinct and manages to say something about them. Dodd is both the flashiest dresser in the Gerhardt clan and simmering with violence and menace so his outfit is trendier than the others and dominated by animal skins. Bear is working a lumberjack look, because what goes better with an axe? They’re very different from each other and yet they’re both wearing brown jackets with blue shirts. Bear’s unnamed (?) son, who has some sort of physical disability and is clearly not exactly the apple of his father’s eye, is set apart from the other Gerhardt men with his more youthful style and grey jacket, but all three men are wearing a different print shirt rendered in blue: plaid, abstract floral, and stripe, subtly indicating their bond and their differences.

5. “Bridge of Spies” Is Spielberg’s Ultimate Dad Movie.
Yesterday, Criticwire highlighted Bilge Ebiri’s piece on Steven Spielberg’s transition from popcorn films to political ones. Today, we highlight a piece about Spielberg’s transition from seeing the world through a child’s perspective and a parent’s perspective. Vox’s Peter Suderman examines how “Bridge of Spies” is Spielberg’s ultimate dad movie.

By the end of the 1980s, though, that started the change. The 1989 movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” introduced Indy’s father, Dr. Henry Jones (Sean Connery), and Spielberg focused on the tug of war between their two personalities. Two years later, he made “Hook,” a revisionist take on J.M. Barrie’s story about an adult Peter Pan living a conventional middle-class life with a wife and kids who returns to Neverland and learns to use his imagination — and, finally, to be a better father to his son. You can practically see Spielberg, now mid-career with several children of his own, wrestling with the transition to adult- and parenthood. By the time “Jurassic Park” hit theaters in 1993, the transition was complete. Although the film looks like another populist adventure with rousing action set pieces, there are distinct differences. For one thing, Spielberg, empowered by a sizable budget and advances in digital effects, shows the dinosaurs comparatively early and often. The movie draws its terror less from fear of what unknown monster might be out there and more from very specific fears about scientific innovation’s capacity for violence and destruction. In particular, “Jurassic Park” plays up the audience’s fears about threats to the movie’s two child characters, Lex and Tim. Much of the tension in the film’s second half comes from the near-constant threat to their lives and attempts by adults to rescue them. Spielberg’s perspective is now a parent’s perspective, fearful of all the real-world horrors that could befall his children. It’s a perspective he invites the audience to adopt as well. At the same time, Spielberg’s movies developed an increasingly noticeable protective streak of their own. Think of the present-day coda to “Saving Private Ryan,” which offers an off-key sentimental reassurance to the audience following two and a half hours of unspeakable brutality and inhumanity. Or the final moments of “War of the Worlds,” in which the lost son — whose exit and presumed death midway through drives the film’s emotional journey — is safe and sound in a nice, middle-class home. Or the end of “Minority Report,” in which the film’s Washington, DC, pre-crime program is safely dismantled and life returns to a placid, lakeside calm.

6. The New Music Is the Best Part of The “Star Wars VII” Trailer.
A couple days ago, the public got their first look at the official “Star Wars VII” trailer, which inevitably took over the Internet for a while. It also produced a bunch of meaningless articles that broke down the trailer into GIFs and screenshots to feed the content monkey, but occasionally someone writes something worthwhile about a trailer. Slate’s Ali Arikan unpacks the new music in the “Star Wars” trailer and how it offers up some clues.

The trailer opens with a new theme. First, we hear the stripped-down version on the piano, played meticulously as Daisy Ridley’s character Rey makes her way through the insides of a fallen Star Destroyer on Jakku. It’s an innocent theme, hinting at longing and a desire to get away, underscored when we see Rey watch a starship leave her barren, desert planet and the piano is complemented by the harp. We hear a repeat of this theme as we’re introduced to John Boyega’s turncoat stormtrooper, Finn, protesting that he has nothing to fight for. If you listen closely, you can also hear some of the whispered words in Sanskrit from “Duel of the Fates,” the key musical motif from “The Phantom Menace.” Then come the timpani, and we are taken to the bridge of a star destroyer: At the center of the shot is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), our mysterious villain, surrounded by a red glow emanating from what seems to be an explosion in space. We hear the same theme as before. It’s a full-on orchestral version this time, heavy on the bass and percussion, still sad but this time threatening. Does this hint at a connection between Kylo and Rey, a familial one? If so, who are their parents? Just as we ask this question, this new theme blends into a brand new arrangement of Han and Leia’s love theme from “The Empire Strikes Back.” Now, John Williams reverse-engineered a number of the themes from the original trilogy for the prequels (see the final celebration music in “The Phantom Menace” as well as the final few notes of the “Trade Federation March”). Could this seamless musical transition in the trailer hint at something more?

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