Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. American Untouchable: P. Jay Sidney’s Crusade to Integrate TV. Though television is much more racially and culturally diverse now than it ever has been, it’s not remotely difficult to imagine a period when this wasn’t the case, seeing as just a few years ago there weren’t so many brown and black faces on the small screen. However, every progressive crusade has a leader that fought against tradition to move society forward. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes about actor P. Jay Sidney’s crusade to integrate television in its early days.
Sidney was born Sidney Parhm, Jr., in 1915 in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in poverty, in an era of public lynchings and Jim Crow. His mother died when he was a child; his father moved the family to New York, then died when his son was fifteen. According to a 1955 profile, titled “Get P. Jay Sidney for the Part,” he was a “difficult” child who landed in foster care but excelled academically — he graduated from high school at fifteen, then went to City College for two years, dropping out to enter the theatre. A lifelong autodidact, he is described by those who knew him as a guarded, sardonic figure, eternally testing those around him against an intellectual ideal. But even during the Depression he got jobs: he was in Lena Horne’s first stage play, in 1934; in the forties, he appeared in “Carmen Jones” and “Othello.” In a photograph taken at a campaign event for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sidney is a dapper bohemian with a clipped beard. He also built a radio career, producing a series called “Experimental Theatre of the Air,” which, in a radical move, cast voices without regard to racial categories. Sidney collected his press clippings in a binder, which is saved at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center. As the country came out of the Depression, and the civil-rights movement began, progress for black actors may have seemed possible. When television emerged, in the forties, it was a low-status but experimental medium, suggesting tantalizing opportunities for innovators. Yet a newspaper article from the mid-fifties, headlined “TV’S NEW POLICY FOR NEGROES,” depicts Sidney as the “single exception” to the exclusion of black dramatic actors. In TV’s infancy, the article laments, “The video floodgates were expected to be thrown open to experienced Negro actors. It never happened.” “We took it for granted that we would be the last hired if hired at all and the first fired,” Ossie Davis recalled, in “The Box,” Jeff Kisseloff’s oral history of television. “And that we would wind up doing the same stereotypical crap that we did on Broadway.” “Amos and Andy” was typical fare. In the late fifties, Davis participated in a TV boycott in Harlem, in which black viewers turned off their sets one Saturday night. But it was Sidney’s rabble-rousing that had a direct influence on Davis’s career: “He used to walk around with a sign, accusing the broadcast industry of discriminating against black folks. As a response to P. Jay’s accusations, CBS didn’t give him a job, but they gave me one.”
2. Inside “Creed’s” One-Take Boxing Scene. Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” is racking up more and more critical acclaim, as well as box office receipts, by the day. Its most passionate advocates argue that it’s a powerful, effective piece of entertainment that manages to pull heartstrings without pandering to its audience’s most susceptible impulses. In the film, the first major boxing scene is stunningly shot in a single take. Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary talks to Coogler and Jordan about that scene and how it came to be.
Jordan said he spent a month in rehearsals and choreography for “Creed’s” boxing matches, of which Coogler said roughly a week was spent blocking out the one-take fight. But Jordan wasn’t just working with the real-life professional boxer, Gabriel Rosado, who played his opponent in that match — he was also working with the main Steadicam camera operator, Benjamin Semanoff. “Ben started taking boxing classes so he could prepare for this moment,” said Coogler. A boxing ring was set up next to the production office, where Jordan, Rosado, Semanoff, Coogler, cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“The Visit,” “The Wrestler”), and stunt coordinator Clayton J. Barber could run through the scene step by step. Later, Stallone and co-star Tessa Thompson, who plays Adonis’s girlfriend Bianca, were brought in for a day to work out how, when, and where they would come into the scene. For Semanoff, the chance to operate a Steadicam in a “Rocky” movie was especially exciting, since one of the first times a Steadicam was used in a feature film was to shoot the famous scene in the original “Rocky” of Stallone running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. “Ben’s from Philadelphia,” said Coogler. “He’s really passionate about the history of the Steadicam, so this [scene], he was especially excited for. It was really great to see.”
3. Why Angelina Jolie’s “Behind the Sea” Is Much, Much Better Than You’ve Heard. Angelina Jolie’s most recent directorial effort “By The Sea” has been critically derided in some circles for being a self-indulgent vanity project for its star, Jolie, and her husband, Brad Pitt. Though some critics have actually praised the film, many still hold onto old-fashioned ideas about actors directing films. The Nashville Scene’s Jason Shawhan argues why “Behind The Sea” is much better than its critical reputation.
The sense in the air is of fraught tension. Cigarette smoke wafts around corners, but it’s okay because it’s the ’70s. A seaside hotel, overlooking a crystal clear cove and a charming village. And the man and the woman have come here to shake things up. He is Roland, an occasional writer in the midst of a spiral into alcoholism and macho signifying. She is Vanessa, a retired dancer devoting herself to amateur pharmacology and finding exquisite pools of light. And they’re played by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, tearing into the screen with anguish and vigor. “By the Sea,” Jolie’s third film as director, is not what Hollywood expected. Working in the idiom of classic European art cinema that encompasses everything from the institutionalized ennui of Antonioni’s “The Red Desert” and “L’Avventura” to the camp masterpieces of the Elizabeth Taylor/Joseph Losey collaborations “Boom!” and “Secret Ceremony,” she finds a way to tell a story of frustration, rage, suppressed desires, and the liberation that comes from sexual branching-out in a way that feels like nothing else that’s played in mainstream theaters for decades. Back then, these dramas would get dubbed into countless languages around the world, so directors were beholden to up their visual game. Anyone who saw Jolie’s hit “Unbroken” or her underseen but masterfully made and emotionally devastating “In the Land of Blood and Honey” knows that she has never been any slouch in terms of visual storytelling. But “By the Sea” is magnificently composed, with shots that convey volumes without even having to speak a word. When the film slips into more wanton territory with the addition of a honeymooning young French couple and a strategic peephole, you don’t even have to be a student of film theory to get how inherently well Jolie understands mise-en-scéne. If the dialogue seems occasionally wonky or obvious, it suits Vanessa’s frustration with words and with the gift her husband is drowning in spirits.
4. “The Leftovers'” Damon Lindelof Explains Last Night’s Shocking Twist. Damon Lindelof’s HBO series “The Leftovers” is arguably the most polarizing series on TV right now. For whomever can get on its wavelength, it’s a wonderful show that explores trauma, grief, and the aftermath of a global catastrophe. For anyone who can’t, it’s a pretentious, overwrought mess that laughs in the face of accessibility. On last night’s episode of “The Leftovers,” there was a shocking twist that throws next week’s finale into curious light. Variety’s Maureen Ryan sits down with creator Damon Lindelof to discuss it. (Spoilers for “The Leftovers” ahead.)
Q: For me, the reveal worked, partly because I didn’t need it. Does that make any sense?
A: That makes perfect sense.
Q: I mean, this world is interesting to me and your show is about asking questions. This is not a show that has ever told me as a viewer, “Every week we give you another piece of the mythology and you have to put the puzzle together.” You’ve made that very clear from day one that it is not that kind of puzzle-solving show. Whatever other issues I’ve had with the show, there was total clarity about the idea that it’s more about questions than answers. I’ve never felt misled.
A: Well, thank you. And that’s why, you know, among other reasons, emotional reasons, that’s why Patti’s final soliloquy is about “Jeopardy.” The reason it’s about “Jeopardy” is because you have to give your answer in the form of a question.
Q: I had issues with the Guilty Remnant in season one, but this season I’ve realized, I don’t mind the GR as a backdrop against which an interesting character operates or comes into my orbit. That’s fine. But, “Let’s hang with the Guilty Remnant and watch them write on pads of paper” — that didn’t do it for me.
A: You’re not wrong. Nope, you’re right. Hopefully I feel like we presented the Guilty Remnant in a more compelling way through Meg’s perspective, because she questions them. In fact, she challenges the parts of the Guilty Remnant. “I don’t want to write on this pad of paper. Stop writing. Let’s f–ing talk.” And that’s good, because that’s what religion is. I mean that’s why there’s a broad [array of faiths]. Not every Christian is a Catholic. There have to be people inside those religions questioning and challenging and offering new doctrine.
5. “Chi-Raq” and the “Sex-Strike” Myth. Spike Lee’s new film “Chi-Raq” has come under heavy fire for its supposedly mocking treatment of Chicago’s real problems with inner-city gang-related violence. Though Lee has expressly said the film is satire, that didn’t stop numerous people from denouncing the film based on a trailer. Criticwire doesn’t usually link to articles about films written by people who haven’t seen it, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about Lee’s own perception of the “sex-strike” myth after he seemingly argued for its use on college campuses while on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
Much like advising women to combat rape by wearing longer skirts, the sex-strike solution holds that there is something in the behavior of women that might alter the calculus of predators. This seems unlikely. Rape is plunder of the body. It relies on the individual power of the rapist and also on the tolerance of institutions which have a heritage of either endorsement or looking the other way. The notion that individuals, themselves, should be expected to successfully combat not merely the power of individual rapists, but rape as heritage, which is to say the predilections of courts, colleges, churches, fraternities, societies etc. is rather incredible. One might as well claim that sharecroppers could have ended debt-peonage if only they’d refused to pick cotton. But the kleptocrats of Mississippi did not serve at the pleasure of sharecroppers. And rapists don’t ply their trade at the leisure of women. They ply their trade through great violence — a tactic shown to be quite effective against any manner of “strike,” no matter the genre. Even the more narrow claim that “sex-strikes” can somehow stem the violence in the inner cities is wrong. It is wrong morally, because it rests on the notion that women, as a class, are somehow responsible for the kind of socially engineered violence you find in cities like Chicago. But it is also manifestly false. Lee cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in his comments, asserting that she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for using a sex-strike to end violence in Liberia. It’s certainly true that Gbowee received a Nobel Peace Prize and made incredible contributions in her country. It is also certainly false that sex strikes were the method by which she made those contributions. The sex strikes “had little or no practical effect,” Gbowee has written. “But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.”
Tweet of the Day:
If you are writing something set in the past, resist the urge to include a character who represents “the modern sensibility.” Please.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) November 30, 2015