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Daily Reads: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Nina Simone’s Blackness, What Happens When Franchises Collide, and More

Daily Reads: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Nina Simone's Blackness, What Happens When Franchises Collide, and More

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

1. Nina Simone’s Face, Zoe Saldana, and the Realities of Blackness.
There has been much controversy over the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the new biopic of singer’s career. Saldana’s light-skinned features don’t necessarily square away with Simone’s dark-skinned complexion that she embraced as a radical form of beauty. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examines the Simone controversy and the insidious implications of the casting decision.

I played a lot of Nina Simone in college. I play a lot of Nina Simone now. But I have always known that Nina Simone means something more to the black women around me than she does to me. Furthermore, I have always known that Nina Simone means something much more to a specific kind of black woman than she ever can for me. Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess. Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked. Simone is something more than a female Bob Marley. It is not simply the voice: It is the world that made that voice, all the hurt and pain of denigration, forged into something otherworldly. That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone’s face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder. We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view — there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us. We are being told that Nina Simone’s face bears no real import on the new eponymous movie about her life, starring Zoe Saldana. “The most important thing,” said Robert Johnson, whose studio is releasing “Nina,” “is that creativity or quality of performance should never be judged on the basis of color, or ethnicity, or physical likeness.” This is obviously false. Saldana could be the greatest thespian of her time, but no one would consider casting her as Marilyn Monroe. Indeed Nina’s producers have gone to great ends — tragicomic ends — to invoke Nina Simone’s face, darkening Saldana’s skin, adorning her with prosthetics. Neither the term blackface nor brownface is entirely appropriate here. We are not so much talking about deliberate mockery as something much more insidious. It’s difficult to subtract the choice to cast Saldana from the economics of Hollywood — Saldana is seen as bankable in a way that other black women in her field are not. It’s equally difficult to ignore the fact that, while it is hard for all women in Hollywood, it is particularly hard for black women, and even harder for black women who share the dark skin, broad nose and full lips of Nina Simone. This fact is not separable from this country’s racist history, nor is the notion of “darkening up” a lighter skinned black person. Producers did it to Fredi Washington in “Emperor Jones.” They did it to Carmen de Lavallade in “Lydia Bailey.” (The make-up was called “Negro Number Two.”) They did it because they wanted to use the aura of blackness while evading the social realities of blackness. It’s possible that the producers were not, themselves, personally racist. This has no bearing whatsoever on anything. In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy.

2. What Happens When Franchises Collide?
The impending release of “Batman v. Superman” calls to mind other franchise collisions in cinematic history, everything from “Aliens vs. Predators” to “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” They serve to bring people of different franchises together to see their favorite heroes fight to the death (or close to it.) In honor of Zack Snyder’s new film, The Guardian’s Tim Robey examines the history of franchise collisions.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and one of them is played by Ben Affleck? This is the riddle “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” intends to solve, at least before the barely-concealed phase of the film where the crusaders set their differences aside for puny humanity’s sake. Obvious from the earliest trailers, this is a disappointing spoiler only if you wish the film had devoted itself entirely to an epically destructive WrestleMania bout between the pair. Is it that much of a no-no that one might destroy the other, or that the film might at least toy with the idea? Couldn’t we live with the superhero field being thinned out to the tune of one of them? In any case, this is the most expensive example in film history of what you might call Franchise Collision: a putative deathmatch scenario whipped up by letting two icons fight for the same feature-length strip of turf. Traditionally, these face-offs are devised when both brands are at something of a low ebb, and need a bit of circus hoopla drummed up to get bums back on seats. This was certainly the case with the “Alien” and “Predator” franchises, both owned by Twentieth Century Fox. Come the millennium, the “Predator” series had dribbled out after just two films, and “Alien: Resurrection” had failed to live up to its name by making the least money of any in the series. “Alien vs Predator” (2004) was therefore hatched. The ominous cheesiness of the idea was clear for all to see, even before the notorious poster tagline – “Whoever wins, we lose” – flashed up its accidental warning signal to the audience. Still, the film was a successful enough cash grab that it spawned a sequel of its own, “Requiem,” in 2007, and probably paved the way for the niftier comeback of Nimród Antal’s Predators in 2010.This is half the trouble though – how endlessly resurrectable these sworn foes tend to be. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, you can get them to tussle mano a mano and tumble over, but there’s nothing to stop a Conan Doyle simply pressing reset. Fans hold their breaths for a long-cherished crossover between “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who” on the BBC: obviously teaming up in the end, after a sharp tang of mutual suspicion or rivalry when they’re first introduced. But Stephen Moffat, screenwriter of both series, has ruled this out because of what irreversible shockwaves it would send through the Holmes mythos. He’s probably got a point. In fan fiction, video games and elsewhere, both Holmes and the Doctor have separately taken on Jack the Ripper, though. Perhaps Moffat’s answer is to have them tackle this particular evergreen mystery in parallel, without ever meeting, and thereby avoiding that weird sense of dislocation you get when two figures disobey the monolithic laws of franchise physics and pop up right next to each other.

3. Making “The Americans” Great Again.
The fourth season of the little-seen but universally acclaimed spy drama “The Americans” premieres tonight on FX. The series follows two Russian sleeper agents as they infiltrate America from the inside while dealing with the effects of their work on their family. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz and Gazelle Emami interview showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the new season and the history of the series.

Matt Zoller Seitz: One of the things that’s most fascinating about the show, and what separates it from a lot of psychologically driven dramas on the air post-“Sopranos,” is it’s as psychologically driven as any other premium cable show, but the characters aren’t aware of themselves as psychological constructs.

Joel Fields:
We have this running joke with our writing staff because we talk a lot about how these characters are not aware. Once we really pin down all of the dense thoughts and emotions that are colliding back and forth between the characters, we’ll say, “And remember, they’re unaware of any of this and can’t express it!”

Joe Weisberg:
It’s a great challenge in writing and filming the show because, a) they’re unaware, b) they keep everything secret, so even the things they know they really can’t talk about with anyone. And then you get into a situation where if you’re filming scenes between these people, if you miss a facial expression, you might miss the whole scene, so it can get really tricky. We’ll be watching something in the editing room and say, “Oh no!” and say to the editor, “Wait, do you have that twitch that was supposed to be there? Or else the whole scene might not make sense.”

Just recently, we actually excised a chunk of a scene because a twitch wasn’t there. We thought, Well, it’s not going to play, we’re going to have to save that character move for later.

MZS: A fan of the show on Twitter was talking about Matthew Rhys’s performance over the seasons saying, “You would see his eyebrows going from this,” and he drew two flat, horizontal dashes, “to this,” and they were making a V-shape. Like the weight of the world is bearing down on his eyebrows.

The thing is, Elizabeth is changing too, but, relative to her, he’s changing fast. But really, he’s changing slowly, and she’s changing extremely slowly.

4. “The Americans” Music Supervisor On Building Tension With Cold War-Era Music.
One of the best parts of “The Americans” is its use of music and how it scores often brutal, uncomfortable scenes with 80s pop hits. The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston sits down with music supervisor P.J. Bloom about the series’ music choices and highlighting some of the best scored scenes in the series.

“The Walk-In” (Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood”):
 Peter Gabriel is one of those artists that Joe and Joel just love and is perfect for the show. He lines up well with our time period, the post-Genesis period. The overly progressive Genesis stuff doesn’t really work for the show, and it’s difficult to make it work for anything. But we’re coming into Peter Gabriel’s solo career at the beginning of the show, and everybody who works on the show are huge, huge fans. He’s one of the artists we’re constantly looking at. “Here Comes The Flood” was one we had played with in several spots before we found a home for it. It’s one of his greatest songs. It has an incredible sense of drama to it and it fit perfectly into the show. We had a lot of success with “Games Without Frontiers,” which closed season one. So much so that Peter wrote a letter to Joe and Joel to say he watches the show and really liked it. He doesn’t do a lot of licensing, and he takes those requests very seriously and personally approves them. It’s not the easiest thing to get him involved, but he said yes, and he ended up writing to Joe and Joel to express his appreciation for how we used it. He’s one of those artists we’re constantly looking at now because we know he’s a fan of the show and he’s got so much great music to choose from.

“Echo” (Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”):
 I think there’s something to be said for “too on-the-nose” but it depends on what project you’re working on and what the tone is. There are plenty of shows I work on where the filmmakers want to be on-the-nose, so that’s what I go for. I don’t think that’s what Joe and Joel are about, and they want first and foremost stuff that makes sense for the story. But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean lyrics, or the tone of the music, or the timbre. They’re just really good at knowing exactly what they want when they see it. They love the element of surprise. They’re both true music fans and they want to be excited by the music we’re using, so they don’t get boxed in or worried about criticism about something being trite or on-the-nose. They want something that works for them, and if they get excited about it, chances are the audience will too. “Twilight Zone” was one of those cases where we pitched a lot of different songs and that’s the one that worked. We had gone round and round with it. I want to be able to tell you there’s some specific art or science behind it, but we’re just making sure the producers are happy and excited about it. It’s one of the song moments where we probably looked at 20 or 30 songs before we landed on “Twilight Zone.” Golden Earring is one of those bands that was bigger outside of America, and they only had a couple of songs break through in this country, “Twilight Zone” being one of them. When you think about the lyrics and the general tone of that music, it made a lot of sense for an espionage thriller like “The Americans.” This particular sequence wasn’t an exact science though, we went through a lot of stuff, but when we hit it we knew.

5. Comedy Knocks Drama Off the Iron Throne of TV.
While for many years in the so-called “Golden Age of TV,” TV dramas were considered prime programming while comedies often existed in the shadows. But now, the opposite seems to be true. Variety’s Maureen Ryan explores comedy’s takeover of television.

Part of what makes TV comedy so vital right now is its willingness to attack or explore anything. Comedies are engaging with difficult themes and ideas with confidence and skill, which is part of what’s allowed them to wrest the Iron Throne of television from drama. In a more diffuse era, in which our attention is split among various screens and apps and social platforms and most of us have too many tasks on our plates, we often retreat to TV for plain old entertainment — and it had better be prepared to deliver, preferably in manageable bursts. Many of comedies consistently do just that, but to their great credit, most of them don’t feel the need to pat us on the head and patronize us. There are weird experiments and controversial ideas and political agendas all over the TV comedy landscape — and that does feel very much of this cultural moment, in which old hierarchies and attitudes are wobbling and evolving all over the place. Few dramas feel truly subversive or dangerous at the moment; more than ever, comedy is the place where it feels like anything could happen. Just as drama has become a little logy and prone to meandering, comedy has exploded in a dozen wildly divergent directions. There’s the engaging, irreverent curiosity of “Master of None,” the hilariously ruthless commentary of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” the scathing brilliance of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” the madcap fever-dream friendship saga that is “Broad City,” the goofy and warm “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the compassionate existential despair of “BoJack Horseman,” the sharp and profane family comedy “Survivor’s Remorse,” the acerbic yet heartfelt “Fresh Off the Boat,” the weird and wonderful meta-comedy “The Grinder,” the emotionally acute and often devastating “Transparent” and “Togetherness,” the screwball playfulness of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the anti-sentimental romance of “Catastrophe,” the sly satire of “Silicon Valley” and “Veep.” And that’s just a tiny sampling of shows that debuted in the last couple of years. If you’re mentally compiling a list of another fourteen shows I should have mentioned, you’re proving my point for me. The most vital comedies aren’t interested in tossing out softballs. In recent weeks, the parents on “Black-ish” talked about police brutality to their kids, and “The Carmichael Show” devoted a whole episode to the alleged crimes of Bill Cosby. “Last Man on Earth” is a serialized comedy about what happens after the end of the world. A season 5 storyline on the consistently irreverent “Girls” revolves around porn and mentions Andrea Dworkin, and “You’re the Worst” successfully integrated clinical depression into its most recent season. “Louie” has taken on any number of difficult ideas, not always successfully, but its willingness to be bold inspired a lot of experimentation elsewhere. “Inside Amy Schumer” has mined topics like rape in the military and the impossible beauty standards women are held to, and then, just for fun, the irreverent show re-made “12 Angry Men” for the Instagram generation.

6. A Glimpse of the Otherworldly at New Directors/New Films.
The great programmers at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art in New York City program a New Director/New Films series that features two dozen feature-length films as well as many short films. The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott examines some of their favorites from the first week of the series.

“Under The Shadow”:
 The opening-night selection gets New Directors off to a strong, eerie, accessible start. Set in Tehran in 1988, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war, this delectable, increasingly unnerving shiver-fest opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi), modestly swathed in revolutionary-mandated headdress, vainly pleading with a university official to be allowed to return to medical school. As she sits across from this imperious man, Shideh looks out the window framing her and her interlocutor and sees a bomb falling on the city. The man’s apparent indifference speaks volumes about the enveloping violence as well as the writer-director Babak Anvari’s filmmaking skills. The story slides into unnerving gear after Shideh’s impatient husband is called to the front, leaving her alone with their daughter, Dorsa. In between air raids and nosy neighbors, Shideh struggles to keep a sense of normality, which includes practicing aerobics to her banned Jane Fonda workout tape. As the building shudders and cracks so does Shideh, especially when Dorsa begins communing with an invisible force. Making the most of a limited budget and two strong female leads, Mr. Anvari turns the everyday into the otherworldly using a medley of genre tricks, though mostly through the bracing idea that the Iranian revolution is itself a horror tale haunting one and all.

“Neither Heaven Nor Earth”:
 At first, this film, directed by Clément Cogitore, looks like yet another naturalistic visit to wartime Afghanistan, with the requisite slaughter of sheep. A French platoon, its tough, sympathetic commander played by Jérémie Renier, holds down a base overlooking a dusty valley. Relations with villagers are tense, and the Taliban is active in the area. But when soldiers start to disappear, the war story turns into a ghost story. “Neither Heaven Nor Earth” is one of several movies at this year’s festival that use the supernatural as an allegorical window into real-world crises. It’s effectively spooky, and moves beyond the clichés of combat into troubling political and metaphysical territory.

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