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Daily Reads: 2015 Was the Year Movie Women Broke Out of Jail, Why Chris Rock Was the Perfect Oscars Host, and More

Daily Reads: 2015 Was the Year Movie Women Broke Out of Jail, Why Chris Rock Was the Perfect Oscars Host, and More

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

1. 2015 Was the Year Cinematic Women Broke Out of Prison.
Last year saw plenty of movies that set their sights on female empowerment, how women can overcome patriarchal oppression by breaking out of the chains that tie them down. The A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede examines 2015 as the year cinematic women broke out of prison.

Three of the best movies of the year, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Ex Machina,” and “Room,” perfectly demonstrate the very different ends to which filmmakers utilized prison imagery last year. If these three films haven’t entirely swept through awards season, they’ve rightly been a large part of the conversation…Where male-centric prison break films tend to take place in real prisons (think “The Great Escape,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “Escape From Alcatraz”), “Fury Road,” “Ex Machina,” and “Room” feature devious cages created by power-hungry men eager to imprison beautiful young women. Wildly dissimilar in genre and tone, the three films even structure their escape stories differently: In his utterly insane dystopian car-chase flick, director George Miller focuses almost exclusively on the high-octane escape of Immortan Joe’s five wives, with details of their imprisonment implied only in sparse bits of exposition. Loud, noisy, and constantly in motion, “Fury Road” paints with a broad brush to comment on societies and how men and women function within them. In “Ex Machina,” meanwhile, writer-director Alex Garland ruminates on the imprisonment of a beautiful female robot, with her suspenseful escape saved for the last few minutes of the film. An intensely cerebral film, “Ex Machina” is interested in philosophical ideas about humanity and — I would argue — storytelling itself. And Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” splits the difference, with the first half of the film charting Ma and Jack’s life in a tiny one-room prison and the second following their adjustment to life in the big, wide world. Intensely human, “Room” tells an intimate story that simultaneously touches on larger themes of motherhood. “Fury Road” stands out as the the most overtly feminist of the three. With help from Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Mad Max, five enslaved “wives” (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton) break out of their captivity at the hands of tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and flee across the desert. Though Men’s Rights Activists were quick to read it as an attack against men, “Fury Road” makes a far more nuanced argument than “men are bad, women are good.” The film’s thesis is that Immortan Joe’s violent, hyper-masculine society is hurting everyone — not only the beautiful women forced into sex slavery, but the peasants denied water, the larger women forced to produce milk, and the young War Boys who are taught that the only way to live a good life is to die in one of Joe’s battles. “Fury Road” asserts that healthy societies cannot function without a strong sense of empathy and nurturing — traits generally associated with women, both in the film and in real life. Having suffered at the hands of Joe, the wives adopt a nonviolent philosophy; they use their own bodies as human shields and release War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) rather than kill him. And their empathy ultimately provides a better life for everyone as they take over Joe’s kingdom: Nux finds fulfillment in caring for others; the “milk bag” women break free and give the peasants water; and the War Pups won’t have to grow up in a world that glorifies their death. “Fury Road” argues that freeing women from the societal chains that hold them back will create a world that is more fair and just. In other words: There’s no need to fear a feminist revolution.

2. With Chris Rock, The Oscars Find a Lucky Pairing of Host and Subject.
On Sunday evening, comedian Chris Rock hosted the Oscars and skewered the Academy as well as the nominees for its lack of diversity; he took a no-holds-barred approach that took aim at Hollywood’s racism. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik reviews the Oscars and how they found a lucky pairing of host and subject with Chris Rock.

The one thing more certain at the Academy Awards than a best actor win for Leonardo DiCaprio was that the broadcast would need to address the white elephant in the room: For the second year in a row, no acting nomination went to a minority performer. Hollywood was guilty, and Chris Rock was deputized to carry out the sentence. He came with his ax sharp. Mr. Rock had been signed to host the awards before the controversy, but it was a lucky pairing of host and subject. You have to wonder if the academy was anticipating it less with dread than with relief. If Mr. Rock flogged Hollywood properly enough, the Oscars — along with the academy’s reforms — might come across as a kind of public penance. Mr. Rock’s set, which he had been trying out at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, went straight at it, welcoming the audience to the ceremony, “otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.” But his tight opening monologue also efficiently set the controversy in a broader frame. Black performers, he said, had been overlooked in decades past, but “we were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.” This year, he joked, “In the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.” Mr. Rock, in other words, wasn’t about to let anyone off the hook — including people who had called on him to quit the gig in protest. (“The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”) His set managed to be evenhanded without being wishy-washy. He reassured the crowd that Hollywood wasn’t “burning-cross racist,” but — as he deftly put it — it was “sorority racist. It’s like: ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa!'”

3. Laverne & Curly: The Slapstick Anarchists of “Broad City.”
The third season of “Broad City” premiered on Comedy Central two weeks ago to widespread critical acclaim, with much of the praise laid at the feet of the series’ two stars and creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum examines the two leads of “Broad City” as slapstick anarchists and the series’ views on identity politics.

On a recent podcast with the critic Andy Greenwald, Glazer described the show’s premise as “vulnerability is strength.” Out of context, that might sound gooey, but it reveals something about “Broad City’s” compassionate take on shit and sex, its insistence that bodies out of control are hilarious and lovely, not dirty and grotesque. Jacobson and Glazer’s take on identity politics — and their characters’ well-intentioned but barely informed fourth-wave, queerish, anti-rape/pro-porn intersectional feminism — is a more intricate matter, both a part of the show’s philosophy and a subject of its satire. When it comes to race, the series has had a particularly complicated arc, stretching back to the Web sketches, which included a loving homage to “Do the Right Thing,” with Abbi and Ilana punching the air like Rosie Perez. Visually, and in terms of their friendships, the world of “Broad City” is racially inclusive. For a while, this diversity was regularly used as a snotty wedge against HBO’s “Girls,” as if Abbi and Ilana were the pure Elizabeth Warren to Lena Dunham’s tainted Hillary Clinton. But, in fact, Abbi and Ilana, just like Hannah Horvath, aren’t generic young women: they’re college-educated white kids from the Northeast, artsy urbanites who aren’t rich but also aren’t poor, even if they can’t afford much. They’re also secular Jews in a way that network sitcoms never allowed characters to be, in the nineties, when “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “Mad About You” smooshed New Yorkers into an ethnically vanilla, network-friendly neutrality. Like many people in this demographic, the characters on “Broad City” are deeply into hip-hop. This is particularly true of the fictional Ilana, who dates a black guy, Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), a supremely chill dentist. (“Hey, bwah,” she says when she calls him. “Hey, grah,” he replies.) But Ilana’s not just a girl with a diverse social circle, a taste for Lil Wayne, and graphic fantasies about Rihanna backstage at the Barclays Center. She’s legitimately obsessed with the notion of herself as a bi-poly-cross-ethnic sexual adventurer; at times, she seems to believe that she’s not white, accusing her boss, say, of white privilege. When she hooks up with a doppelgänger (played by the Glazer doppelgänger Alia Shawkat), Ilana explains that, in bed, she craves difference: “Different colors, different shapes, different sizes. People who are hotter, uglier. More smart; not more smart. Innies, outies! I don’t know, a Catholic person.” It’s a mixture of idealism and solipsism that reminded me of a German ex of mine, who insisted on calling himself “a citizen of the verld.” In real life, a white woman like this might be a nightmare of cultural appropriation, screaming “Bow down, bitches!” and tweeting hot takes on Black Lives Matter which she’s barely skimmed. Ilana’s fascination with blackness has a warmer feeling, in part because she is such an awed true believer when it comes to her heroines: as Oprah is to Liz Lemon, Nicki Minaj is to Ilana. Still, the show has always had a tricky undercurrent — the risk of finding something intrinsically funny about white people talking like black people — and it’s an issue that has intensified as the national conversation has shifted around it. (The fictional Abbi expresses this worry, in a perfect modern koan. “You’re so anti-racist, sometimes, that you’re actually really racist,” she tells Ilana.) Last season, some viewers were put off when Ilana’s ridiculously elaborate masturbation ritual included pulling on big gold-hoop earrings that read, in lacy script, “Latina.” Who was that joke on? And who got to make it?

4. “The Witch” Nails the Desperate, Crazed Mindset of Early American Settlers.
Robert Eggers’ new acclaimed horror film “The Witch” focuses on the specter of the supernatural hanging over the lives of 17th-century Puritans, but the film can also be read as historical fiction. Slate’s Rebecca Onion explores how “The Witch” understands the mindset of early American settlers.

But I submit that the most interesting way to watch “The Witch” as historical fiction is to put witchcraft aside, and instead to focus on the very questions William poses to the tribunal that will soon exile his family to the woods. “The Witch” is a great exploration of the dark, chaotic, troubled psychology of English colonists at the very beginning of the empire’s colonial experiment in North America. People who “travailed a vast ocean” to find a new life turned starving and paranoid, surrounded by their dead, uncertain of their identities or their missions. To put it bluntly: People living through those first settlement years often lost their goddamn minds. In a well-received 2014 book, literature scholar Kathleen Donegan wrote about the earliest histories of Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados, arguing that the awful things that happened to colonists — starvation, sickness, violent death, breakdown of the social order — in the first few decades of habitation of these places fundamentally challenged their worldview and deeply traumatized them. I don’t know if Eggers read “Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America” while making the movie; I don’t care. It’s a great companion to “The Witch.” “When I began this study, I wanted to write about the first years of colonial settlement because I could not get the stories out of my mind,” Donegan writes. Indeed, some of the episodes she describes — people dying by the score at Jamestown, so hungry that they licked blood from the bodies of sick compatriots; panicked colonists mounting ill-conceived raids on nearby Native American tribes, committing awful atrocities; doomed trading outposts populated by rough men who eventually descend into lawlessness — are truly terrible. Donegan’s fellow literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt writes about what happens in places where cultures meet, calling them “contact zones.” Adapting Pratt’s idea, Donegan calls the psychological state induced in early colonists facing these trials a “chaos zone.” “I use this term to refer to both social and mental spaces within the colonial context where the ability to understand what is happening is recurrently and threateningly disturbed,” she writes. Whether such failures of recognition result in uncanniness, paranoia, misprision, panic, physical violence, or (most frequently) a dangerous combination of all of these, they must be understood as something other than a temporary sense of disorientation. Native Americans often bore the brunt of the colonists’ mental dislocation. As an example, Donegan describes the actions of George Percy, the governor of Jamestown who presided over the colony’s worst months—the “Starving Time” of 1609-10. Eventually, as tensions with the neighboring Paspahegh escalated into open conflict, Percy, trying to send a message, “threw Indian children into the James River and shot their brains out as they were trying to swim ashore.”

5. Director Julie Dash on the 25th Anniversary of “Daughters of the Dust” and Challenging Traditional Narratives.
In 1991, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film directed by an African American woman to receive a theatrical release, and has since been widely examined by critics and scholars alike. Film Comment’s Cassie de Costa sits down with Dash to discuss the film’s 25th anniversary, its in-progress restoration, and challenging traditional narratives.

Q: It’s been 25 years since “Daughters” came out, but press reports usually make it sound as if you haven’t been doing anything in all that time when you really have been.

A: They don’t mention anything but “Daughters of the Dust.” And the public tends to believe I haven’t done anything, and then they start making these lists, and they say, well, list the black filmmakers, and I never make that list because it always has that little caveat “working within the last 10 years.” And it’s like, oh really? That’s the way you’re going to list things? But do they know about the commercials I do? I did a couple of Coca-Cola commercials last summer. I do car commercials. I do TV. I have never stopped working. It’s just that I’m not in the public eye that way. I had a good run with being highly visible, and now it’s time for other people to be highly visible — I have no problem with that. Let me just support them, and let me just keep doing what I’m doing, because at the end of the day it’s about the work.

Q: I wanted to talk to you about “Daughters” both in terms of the film itself, but also in terms of what it’s generated over the past several years since its release. You were inspired by novels by Toni Morrison, for example, and also by foreign films in creating a narrative structure that actually speaks to the ways that stories are told within the diaspora and not adhering to A-to-B-to-C narrative.

A: Right! Binary narrative. In the culture we’re not binary, we speak in rhythms and sensibilities, we’re circular. We’re agrarian, we do improvisation, and movement and dance and speech and art and design, and it’s possible to communicate in these ways through cinema too.

Q: And you brought together so many artists to do this. In reading the book you wrote about “Daughters,”
the entire production sounded like a truly collaborative experience, people pitching in in all these different ways. I know people talk a lot about film being a collaborative experience, but the idea seemed to be taken to heart.

A: It was collaborative. And back then, Arthur Jafa talked about it as a jazz band, like a jazz orchestra out there. Working with [production designer] Kerry James Marshall and [art director] Michael Kelly Williams and the costume designers — it just started flowing. It was a huge production for an independent film. We had these big warehouses where we had the costumes stored, where they were being dyed. The art department had their warehouse where Michael Kelly Williams was making the chair and he and Kerry were making the tombstones and the figureheads. It was a museum, if you will, walking through the art department. And it started even before we got down there. With Kerry, we were pulling images as references for the indigo plantation flashback scene, and Kerry actually built those indigo dyeing mounds, all based upon what we could find or pull together or read about about how they did it in West Africa as the foundation for what was done here. I believe we were the very first ever to have indigo as a visual theme or motif that went throughout the story. I decided, instead of showing the form of enslaved people with whip marks or scars of slavery, their scars would be the permanent blue hands from working the indigo fields, and that’s how you could tell who was a former enslaved person of the elders.

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