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Daily Reads: Why Writers Rooms Aren’t as Diverse as Their TV Shows, How Spielberg Shifted From Popcorn to Politicals, and More

Daily Reads: Why Writers Rooms Aren't as Diverse as Their TV Shows, How Spielberg Shifted From Popcorn to Politicals, and More

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

1. Why Aren’t TV Writers Rooms As Diverse As On-Screen Talent?
In recent years, television has slowly started to correct the pervasive diversity problem in the entertainment industry, specifically by casting minorities and people of color in high-profile roles. Shows like “Empire,” “How To Get Away With Murder,” and “Quantico” all feature a diverse main cast that does its best to represent the vast swath of people who actually watch television. So how come the diversity of TV writers rooms lag so far behind casting? Slate’s Aisha Harris writes about how writers staffs aren’t catching us as fast as on-screen talent.

Setting aside the impressively diverse staffs of those few Rhimes and Rhimes-adjacent series, writers’ rooms, like the one Gray was in on “Dog With a Blog,” are still overwhelmingly white and male, as are the high-powered positions of showrunner and executive producer. A Writers’ Guild of America report released earlier this year noted that staff employment for people of color actually decreased between the 2011–12 season and 2013–14 season, from a peak of 15.6 percent to 13.7 percent. The number of executive producers of color also decreased in those seasons, from 7.8 percent to 5.5 percent. While the 2014–15 season may have seen those numbers increase thanks to the addition of a few shows with diverse casts, such sharp declines demonstrate how tenuous progress in Hollywood can be. The Rhimes effect onscreen is real. But can the remarkable diversity in those few writers’ rooms spread to shows across the television landscape? Can the writers of color staffing those writers’ rooms on hit series get their chance to become showrunners and executive producers two, three, five years down the road? Will the 2015 television season be a tipping point, or just a blip, akin to the brief heyday of black sitcoms in the 1990s? In more than 20 interviews conducted over the past few months with writers (nonwhite and white, young and seasoned), executive producers, and directors of diversity programs and committees, a picture emerged of an industry that’s not even close to “normalizing” — to borrow a term from Rhimes — so that it more accurately represents what America looks like today. Instead, the television industry, like most creative industries (including journalism), pays lip service to “diversity” while very little actually changes. Even as the hottest show on TV boasts a majority-nonwhite writing staff, the work of vigorously recruiting non-white writing talent is still confined to a narrow pipeline: Diversity departments and fellowships help to fill one or two designated diversity slots on each staff. And that’s just the start of the problem: As writer after writer revealed, even when writers of color make it into that pipeline, the industry hasn’t gotten much better at making them feel as though their voices matter.

2. How Steven Spielberg Shifted From Popcorn Movies to Politicized Ones.
Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama “Bridge of Spies” is technically an espionage film, but it’s really about one man struggling to retain decency in a culture of fear when our national values are at stake. Though “Bridge of Spies” is a Spielberg movie top to bottom, the concept of a “Spielberg” movie has changed radically over the past couple decades. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri explores how Spielberg shifted from popcorn movies, like “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” to politicized ones like “Schindler’s List” and “Munich.”

One reason the shift feels so pronounced is because, to some onlookers, the apolitical nature of Spielberg’s early hits was in itself political – whatever his own beliefs, his cinema was a conservative one of comfort, of old-fashioned values returning in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the economic turmoil of the era. In his films, communities were healed and families were reassembled or reunited (albeit often symbolically). As Robert Phillip Kolker wrote in his influential book about American film of the period, “A Cinema of Loneliness”: “Steven Spielberg is the great fantasist of recuperation…the great modern narrator of simple desires fulfilled, of reality diverted into the imaginary spaces of aspirations realized, where fears of abandonment and impotence are turned into fantasy spectacles of security and joyful action.” Spielberg’s films made for a perfect, albeit unwitting complement to the so-called Reagan Revolution’s culture of reassurance and its return to a golden-hued vision of the past. To such critics and theorists, Spielberg’s technical expertise was also suspect. His films were self-contained units that prompted very specific, universal, and unambiguous responses: “Spielberg never permits the viewer reflective space,” Kolker asserted. “Should they occur, they might bring down the entire structure of belief each film works so hard at erecting.” He had a point, too: Even those of us who adore Spielberg’s films from this period can see a kind of overwhelming, mystical benevolence at work in them, calling on us to give up agency and power. Look at how many of his films end with big, bright light shows in the sky, which the characters watch in awe – and which we ourselves watch in awe. As Pauline Kael wrote in her rave review of “Close Encounters”: “God is up there in a crystal-chandelier spaceship, and He likes us.” Even as Spielberg branched out into more difficult material, the criticism of his work as facile and childlike remained. Never mind that, with his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Spielberg took a fairly daring novel about lesbianism, domestic violence, and race relations in the early 20th century, cast it with mostly unknown African-American leads (including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their feature acting debuts), and turned it into a huge financial and critical hit. To many, he had scrubbed the novel of its more risqué, subversive elements to create another Spielbergian tale of innocence lost, families reunited and returned, patriarchies redeemed. Such criticism, of course, largely ignored the humanism of Spielberg’s films, and the generosity they demonstrated toward even the most debased characters. It also ignored the ways in which the director had started to break free of his comfort zone. Jim (Christian Bale), the young expat hero of “Empire of the Sun” (1987), is a Spielberg protagonist par excellence. As the Japanese invade China, and Jim is separated from his parents and winds up in a detention camp, the film becomes, yes, another tale of innocence lost. But along the way, Spielberg shows a willingness to consciously undermine his own, by-then-patented cinematic flights of fancy. There are even two “bright white light” scenes near the end: The first is a sharp lens flare that repeatedly overwhelms the screen as Jim tries (and fails) to revive a young, dead Japanese soldier accidentally killed by Americans; the second is what turns out to be the distant flash of an atom bomb, which Jim thinks is God.

3. “Steve Jobs” and the Triumph of the Work Wife.
The most stable relationship in Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” is between Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). The two have a close, platonic working relationship that’s supportive, demanding, and intense. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber examines the triumph of the work wife in “Steve Jobs” through Joanna Hoffman.

Joanna is not, to be clear, a great cinematic figure. She is — like literally every other character in “Steve Jobs,” arguably including Jobs himself — an extremely eloquent stick figure. (The real Joanna Hoffman, who joined Apple as the fifth hire for Jobs’s beloved Macintosh team in 1980, was a relatively minor character in “Steve Jobs,” the Walter Isaacson book the movie was based on. Sorkin’s decision to amplify her role in Jobs’s life was based, it seems, on a desire for narrative impact more than a fealty to history.) We are never given an explanation for why she has Jobs’s ear in a way that other people — including Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak — don’t. We’re never told (or shown) her motivation for serving, at the low points as well as the high of his career, as Jobs’s “right-hand woman.” Instead, Joanna exists, in “Steve Jobs’s” aggressively hermetic universe, mostly as a classic foil to the film’s eponymous inventor: She’s the yin to his yang, the human to his automaton. (“Do you want to try being reasonable,” she asks him, in an accent only mildly inflected with her native Polish, “just to see what it feels like?”) Joanna is there, in theater after theater, to remind Steve that he, too, is in possession of that classic Sorkenian preoccupation: “better angels.” She is there to reprimand and cajole him into some semblance of human decency. She is his Manic Pixie Moral Compass. And yet. The flip side of being a foil is the fact that there’s a flip side at all. There’s an inherent equality to the tension between Steve and Joanna in all this, an inherent balance that blends Newtonian physics and that even older of things: human camaraderie. A big part of the equilibrium they maintain throughout the movie, through all the clashes and the inevitable compromises, stems from the very thing Joanna points out to Steve: Their relationship is, both implicitly and deliberately, platonic. Their defining tautology — they have not slept together because they would never sleep together — keeps them, as an operating system, stable.

4. Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled.”
The small publishing company Critical Press has released some of the best film books in recent years. Focusing on very small, specific topics, Critical Press releases shine a light on films and ideas that don’t get much play in the mainstream press. RogerEbert.com has released an excerpt from Ashley Clark’s book on Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” in which he makes the case that it’s one of Lee’s most enduring, most radical works.

“Bamboozled’s” relentless assertions that there remains something unspeakably rotten at the core of American entertainment, pulsating out into wider society, are precisely what make it so interesting. That, and its jagged, ragged form and content. With its jumpy, torrential style — facilitated in large part by Sam Pollard’s bewildering, random-seeming editing — it’s as though the film somehow anticipated the furious visual argot of the 24-hour news cycle or was crafted in the style of the short-attention-span internet culture with which so many of us are now sadly all too familiar: 17 Google tabs open, 4 Gchat conversations on the go, plus a couple of roiling Twitter arguments for good measure. Over subsequent re-viewings, I have come to believe that “Bamboozled” is in fact the central work in Lee’s canon — the house on fire to which all roads lead. It features some of the rawest and most successful expressions of his enduring obsessions as a filmmaker, including: his investigations into “blackness” as an identity — what does it mean, and who has the authority to claim it?; his playful, pop-artistic use of the frame and soundtrack to convey a multitude of ambiguous and contradictory political slogans and messages; and his depictions of conversations between characters as danger zones fraught with potentially fatal misunderstandings. Notably, “Bamboozled” represents the zenith of Lee’s formal experimentation. Throughout his filmmaking career — from the sudden, glorious switch from black-and-white to color in feature debut “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), to his trademark floating dolly shot, and the anamorphic fish-eye-lens effect which warps a significant portion of somber family drama “Crooklyn” (1994) into pure visual abstraction — Lee has displayed a willingness to play with received notions of traditional cinematic grammar in order to disrupt the viewer’s expectations. He has pushed this no further than in “Bamboozled,” which took a cue from the radical work of the Danish “Dogme 95” movement to become the first major American studio film to be shot, mostly, on digital video. I say “mostly” because Lee, working with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, shot the “New Millennium Minstrel Show” performance scenes on Super-16mm film. These primary color-saturated sequences, juxtaposed with the blurry look of the film’s main body, resonate as disturbingly lush, underscoring the ease with which the public is seduced by such appalling material. Kuras also commented in “The Making of Bamboozled” that “[w]hen you put blue light on [blackface], it feels like cast-iron…what a great metaphor for this particular feature in the film. People feel locked in the blackface.” There’s also something mischievously ironic — and fittingly topsy-turvy — about using film stock for material that would, within the fictional universe of the film, be viewed as “live television.”

5. “Runaways” As The Gold Standard of Teen Superheroes.
It’s “Unconventional Families Week” over at The A.V. Club with many articles and pieces highlighting the brilliant unconventional families across pop culture. These families come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes they include tights and sometimes they fight crime. The A.V. Club’s resident comics expert Oliver Sava explores the “Runaways” comics series, the gold standard of teen superheroes.

The teen superhero team is a comic-book staple, and over the years, certain patterns have emerged in the groupings of these extraordinary adolescents. Typically, they’re students at the same institution forced to work as a unit (“X-Men,” “New Mutants,” “Avengers Academy,” “Gotham Academy”), sidekicks and legacy heroes making a name for themselves by banding together (“Teen Titans,” “Infinity Inc.,” “Young Justice,” “Young Avengers”), or gifted strangers that unite for the greater good (“Legion Of Super-Heroes,” “The New Warriors,” “The Movement,” “We Are Robin”). But Marvel’s “Runaways” takes a different approach. Created in 2003 by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona, “Runaways” brings five teens (and one tween) together through parental betrayal, sending them on the run when they discover that their parents are a cabal of supervillains called The Pride. Elements of those teen superhero traditions are in the DNA of Vaughan and Alphona’s concept, but the familial angle grounds the story in recognizable emotional territory for adolescent readers. The Runaways are constantly learning, but they aren’t students. They’re trying to establish their personal identities, but they despise their legacy and definitely aren’t sidekicks. They’re barely even superheroes, primarily focusing on their own survival as teenagers living outside the established structure of authority. Instead of strangers fighting for the greater good, they are family friends that feel obligated to be heroes to make up for the evil of their parents. Those distinctions elevate “Runaways” above other teen superhero team comics by giving the series a clearly defined direction inspired by pubescent behavior, particularly the impulses to rebel against parental authority and create a new chosen family of friends. “Runaways” is at its best when the theme of family is at the forefront, and the first 18 issues (composing the series’ first volume) are the strongest because they focus on the conflict between The Pride and their runaway children. Beyond the appearance of Captain America, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Invisible Woman, and Hulk as avatars in a MMORPG played by Alex Wilder, the debut issue of “Runaways” is completely separate from the rest of the Marvel universe and largely devoid of superhero elements, until the final scene revealing the true nature of the adult cast.

6. Self-Criticism: A Theater Critic’s Search For Nuance.
Though critics are all eminently aware of this, but people never seem to realize that critics are constantly learning how to do their job while they’re doing their job. Criticism is difficult and complex, and it has much less to do with verdicts and much more to do with a “working through,” a sense of process. The L.A. Times’ theater critic Charles McNulty writes about his job, the dwindling state of theater criticism, and how it can still matter in the age of Yelp.

There has been much lamenting within my dwindling tribe over the demise of outlets for theater criticism. For as long as I’ve been writing, reviewers have been complaining about the shrinkage of review space, but now the big issue is the vanishing of entire publications and arts sections. Once unapologetically high-minded periodicals such as the New Republic have tilted their arts coverage toward pop culture. Today it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a play without a celebrity to enter a magazine’s back pages. This is a consequence of what has been dubbed “digital disruption,” that handy euphemism for the perverse devaluation of creative labor and loony overvaluation of an elite tier of managers and bean counters. Someone — where is George Bernard Shaw when we need him? — will have to sort out all the upheaval this “democratizing” technology has wrought. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for the nonprofit sector — universities being the obvious place — to launch new arts journalism initiatives and collaborations that could fill in the intellectual breach. (Academics questioning why they should get involved might consult the work of literary critic Northrop Frye, who in his classic “Anatomy of Criticism” reminds his readers that “[a] public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory.”) But the crisis in criticism isn’t simply a business problem that USC or Eli Broad could solve. In this hyperdistracted age, in which marketing has insidiously pervaded the cultural landscape with the persistence of weeds on a neglected lawn, criticism isn’t always readily distinguishable from the salesmanship and hype that have corrupted not just our politics but the arts, education and even healthcare. Critics shouldn’t be shielded from critical light. There are still great ones out there, but the time has come to broach the elephant in the newsroom: the decline in prestige and prominence of reviewers in their once oligarchic role as cultural arbiters.

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