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Daily Reads: What Happened to Denzel Washington, ‘Taxi Driver’s’ Fear of a Black Planet and More

Daily Reads: What Happened to Denzel Washington, 'Taxi Driver's' Fear of a Black Planet and More

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

1. What Happened to Denzel? Denzel Washington is one of the two or three best actors of his generation, seemingly incapable of telling a lie onscreen. Yet in the past decade he’s devoted way too much time to generic action films (and, admittedly, a few Tony Scott films that have their champions) that don’t allow him to show his range as an actor, including his new thriller “The Equalizer.” Slate’s Aisha Harris writes about where Washington went wrong, and how he can get back.

But I hold out hope that someone, perhaps an up-and-coming director, will give Denzel the chance to be Denzel in a new way, for the last act of his career. Imagine what Ava DuVernay, for instance, of the beautifully wistful “Middle of Nowhere” and the upcoming MLK biopic “Selma,” could bring out of him, with the right script and supporting cast. Or Ryan Coogler, whose impressive debut was “Fruitvale Station”? Heck, I’d even be curious to see Lee Daniels tackle Denzel—his filmmaking may be uneven, but he gets great performances out of his stars. Read more.

2. How to Handle New Voices in Television. This fall’s new slate of TV shows is something special, featuring promising shows with primarily black (“Black-ish”) or Latino (“Jane the Virgin”) casts. What’s particularly exciting is that while the shows consciously with black or Latino identity, neither feel pandering or stereotypical. The Root’s Eric Deggans writes about this encouraging development.

It’s obvious now that diversity in casting and stories isn’t about social justice or seeking special advantage or looking for a grievance to beat up TV executives. It’s about putting vibrant, new characters on TV and cultivating audiences that have always been taken for granted. And unlike other years, when networks offered diverse TV shows that were halfhearted and lame, the two best new comedies this fall are “Black-ish” and “Jane the Virgin.” Read more.

3. How Not To Handle New Voices in Television. That’s not to say that we should pat ourselves on the backs for supporting more diverse television. Deggans also wrote for NPR about how not to write about new voices in television, prompted by Alessandra Stanley’s tone-deaf article about Shonda Rhimes in The New York Times.

What’s wonderful about Rhimes’ “Scandal” for so many women is that there are few female characters on TV — let alone black female characters — who are as powerful, focused, conflicted, vulnerable, capable and compromised as Olivia Pope. But it is too easy to see the rise of new voices in combative terms, as a threat or gimmick, mostly because they demand we rethink all the images shown to us in other, less evolved settings. Stanley seems to pingpong between praising Rhimes as a revolutionary and dinging her results, calling her a “romance writer.” Small wonder so many readers had a tough time discerning whether the critic was praising or panning her work. Read more.

4. Shonda Rhimes’ “Hyperdrama.” Despite Stanley’s misrepresentation, “How to Get Away with Murder” is not a Shonda Rhimes show (though Rhimes is the executive producer). But Rhimes’ influence is clear, and Slate’s Willa Paskin writes that it’s part of a new kind of show, “hyperdrama,” that outdoes melodrama by combining the twists and turns with a cynical perspective. Paskin also writes that “How to Get Away With Murder” has to make major strides to become more than a pale imitation of Rhimes’ “Scandal.”

Set at the fictional Middleton Law School in Philadelphia, “Murder,” like “Grey’s,” focuses on a highly competitive, extremely bright, very attractive, multiracial group of classmates, as they try to please an exceedingly demanding teacher. Like “Scandal,” it throws those classmates into a high-octane, high-stakes, high-plot world, where ethics dim before the allure of an astonishingly competent, black female professional. It is simultaneously totally fun and somehow wan: kicky and fast and, so far, just a copycat. Read more.

5. “Taxi Driver’s” Fear of a Black Planet. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” is among the nerviest, most psychologically disturbing films ever made.The recently revamped Reverse Shot has a Symposium on Scorsese, and they tasked Ashley Clarke to talk about the film’s handling of race, which is at once understandable (we’re in the perspective of a psychotic racist) and, as Clarke articulates, still uncomfortable.

The unceasingly hostile treatment of blacks in “Taxi Driver” would have made more sense had it retained the ending of Schrader’s original script, in which all the people massacred by Bickle at the brothel (including Iris’s pimp) were black. Instead, viewers are left to process the cognitive dissonance of a film that softens them up for a racially motivated bloodbath, only for the race issue to quietly seep out of the film along with the dead, black stickup kid…Had Schrader’s original ending remained, “Taxi Driver’s” treatment of racism would have been simultaneously easier to peg as a more cogent articulation of white supremacist or reactionary rage, and more difficult to swallow because of its total marginalization of blacks. Read more.

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