Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Netflix Drops First Trailer for 'Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey' -  Variety

One of my family’s Christmas traditions each year is to put up our Dickens Village. The display is made up of little ceramic figurines depicting Victorian life with a literary, Charles Dicken-esque twist. Growing up (and still to this day) I enjoyed rearranging the pieces and the characters to tell stories. From the snow-covered trees to bakery windows with desserts on display to the ice-skating rink with Christmas carolers and the newspaper boy riding on a horse-drawn carriage, the Dickens Village evokes a quaint, fairytale Christmas feel. 

A Dickens Village (Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/557531628839539802/)

Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is like if my Dickens Village came to life, except instead of sickly malnourished pasty-white English schoolchildren singing off-key carols, there was a diverse but mostly-Black cast singing catchy broadway-style tunes, with just as much Christmas cheer. 

Jingle Jangle is an original musical written and directed by David E. Talbert about Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), a genius toymaker who is swindled by his apprentice (Keegan Michael-Key) and ages into a real scrooge. With the help of his granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills), he learns to love again and share his toymaking talent once more. The family film has been compared to 2017’s The Greatest Showman by many critics, and it’s an apt comparison. While The Greatest Showman had its charms and will probably be remembered longer than Jingle Jangle for its more recognizable cast and that it’s not a seasonal movie, Jingle Jangle has the benefit of being an original story that doesn’t have to grapple with the messy history of its lead. Despite both being period pieces (Victorian-era adjacent) both films have unmistakably modern sensibilities, in their music, storytelling, and diverse casting.  

Jingle Jangle runs about thirty minutes too long, and its promising story about forgiveness is wrapped up too quickly in favor of another musical number about believing in yourself or something like that. But Jingle Jangle makes up for these weaknesses in overabundant energy and spirit. The cast is a delight, with Keegan Michael-Key making an especially strong case for why he should be the only actor considered for all fun villain roles. Forest Whittaker and Anika Noni Rose bring star power and help move the story forward when things drag. The production design, costume and hairstyling, choreography, and background dancers are all scene-stealers and absolutely stellar. 

Jingle Jangle may not reach the mainstream holiday classic status of a film like Elf, but it goes above and beyond just “doing the trick” and scratching your yearly holiday movie itch. It’s a sweet, lovingly-made film that anyone can enjoy.

-Madeleine D.

6 Netflix-Originals Recommendations

With theaters still closed, I’m relying on my Netflix subscription more than ever. Luckily, the service keeps pumping out excellent original content. Here are six of my favorite movies, shows, and limited series they have. 

  1. Unorthodox

I don’t usually talk about something being “well-directed,” since good directing often doesn’t call attention to itself. But I can’t think of a better catch-all term for how excellent Unorthodox is. The four-episode series, adapted from the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, follows 19-year old Esther as she flees her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City to Berlin, Germany. 

The series doesn’t coddle its audience, instead trusting that the storytelling, acting, and attention to detail will guide the audience through the probably unfamiliar world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The story is well balanced in exploring both the beauty and horror of the world Esther leaves behind, and the realistic struggles she has as she tries to build a new life. It also provides fascinating commentary into what it is like for Jewish people in post-WW2 Germany, something I hadn’t really considered before. Actress Shira Haas as Esther and actor Amit Rahav as her husband Yanky are extraordinary. Watching Unorthodox was one of the best four hours I have spent this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

2. Crash Landing On You

Don’t let the subtitles scare you! This cinematic South Korean melodrama is one of the most inventive, fun, and unabashedly weird tv shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. At an hour and a half per episode, it’s like getting sixteen movies that somehow are able to blend a handful of genres seamlessly: romance, comedy, action thriller, a political spy drama, fish-out-of-water shenanigans, and Succession-style family business power plays. Crash Landing on You tells the story of powerful-but-troubled South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-Ri. A paragliding accident lands her in North Korea and into the arms of handsome soldier Ri Jung Hyuk, who tries to help her get back home. 

3. Our Planet

For a soothing, ethereal watch with a hint of existential crisis, look no further than Our Planet. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series has the features of all good nature documentaries- gorgeous cinematography, awe-inspiring looks at creation, and a beautiful score. But uniquely, each episode ends with a call to action that explains how humans have negatively impacted each natural habitat and what can be done about it (first by going to ourplanet.com). The inconvenient truths that end each episode are a bummer, but are also hopeful- in most cases, it’s not too late to turn things around. 

4. The Kindergarten Teacher

Based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, this American remake starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is an unsettling, excellently written and acted drama about a kindergarten teacher who realizes one of her students is a poetry prodigy. As a discontented artist herself, Gyllenhaal’s teacher decides to do whatever she can to foster her student’s talent, blurring the lines of appropriate behavior. It’s the kind of film that racks up the tension without you even realizing until you’re sitting on the edge of your seat in the final act.  

5. Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices

These short, 8-10 minute episodes feature Black celebrities, from Tiffany Haddish to Misty Copeland, reading children’s books that explore different parts of the Black experience. The series accomplishes several things: one, it features great books that any kid can enjoy, Black or otherwise. Two, the celebrities who read all do a great job, and it reminded me how wonderful it is to be read out loud to, at any age. And third, for white children and their families, it exposes them to Black authors and Black picture-books, which I know was sorely missing when I was growing up. I probably didn’t read a book by a Black author until I was in middle school, and none of my picture books ever had characters of color. If you are a white parent seeking to expose your child to more diversity and fight against racism early on, this is an easy and entertaining place to start. 

6. The Haunting of Hill House/ Haunting of Bly Manor

I am a wimp when it comes to horror films, but The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor (two different seasons of the same anthology series) are so well-made and more creepy than scary that even I can handle it. Hill House tells the story of the Crain family as the adult children remember their strange summer at Hill House and how it tore their family apart. Bly Manor takes place in the ‘80s and follows young Dani as she becomes a governess for two strange orphaned children in an even stranger manor. Great horror isn’t about making up scary situations, but how bravely it probes the already terrifying things in this life, and this show is a rumination on death and how we are haunted by other people and by our own previous selves and actions. In a time of extremes, both politically and socially, it is refreshing to experience a piece of entertainment that has a thoughtful, melancholic tone. Season 1’s Hill House is an epic, Genesis-style family tragedy, while season 2’s Bly Manor is a slow-burn gothic romance. 

– Madeleine D.

Streaming Quadruple Feature: Mulan, Boys State, The Devil All the Time, & Enola Holmes

Mulan – Disney+

This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film. 

This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices. 

This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it. 

Boys State – Apple TV+

This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy. 

Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in. 

The Devil All The Time – Netflix

The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check. 

Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs. 

Enola Holmes – Netflix

Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.  

Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for. 

-Madeleine D.

My Strange and Magical Odyssey Through the Work of Aaron Paul

During my city’s stay-at-home order in March and April, I finally got around to watching AMC’s iconic Breaking Bad series, and later, its prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. I quickly fell in love with both shows, but especially Breaking Bad. I loved the writing and directing, the twists and turns, and the complicated characters. My favorite character, far and away, was Jesse Pinkman- junkie dealer turned tortured soul.

When I finished the show, I experienced post-show depression. Also, we were in a pandemic. To combat this sadness, I decided to chase the “high” of Breaking Bad by watching a few of the movies of Jesse Pinkman’s actor Aaron Paul. 

And then I kept watching. Once I had watched a few movies, I decided I was too far in and committed fully to going through his filmography. Now, I have watched two full TV shows (BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told) and almost every single movie from Aaron Paul’s post-Breaking Bad career (the exceptions being Welcome Home, Central Intelligence, and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV). As a newly certified Aaron Paul academic, I am compelled to share my findings with you. 

This essay will examine Paul’s filmography after 2013. We will examine the trajectory of his career and the underlying themes of the roles he has played and how they have responded to Hollywood trends, and we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of his projects. 

~

It is an infamous Hollywood sentiment that most actors cannot make the jump from television to film. Only a few have been able to do it successfully and reach movie star level. While the era of prestige television has brought many stars to the small screen, it is still difficult to do the reverse. 

But if anyone would be able to do it, it should have been Aaron Paul. With the end of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season in September of 2013, Paul entered 2014 with five movies released in U.S theaters, all wildly different. The reactions to these five films set the course for the rest of his career.

Timeline

  • Breaking Bad ends in September 2013. 

  • Hellion (dir. Kat Candler) premieres at Sundance on January 17th, 2014, and gets a wide release in June. It’s an indie that doesn’t make much money, but Paul gets good reviews for his performance as an alcoholic widower struggling to keep custody of his sons. The film receives mixed to positive reviews. Hellion doesn’t quite come together as a whole but has a lot of strong elements. The film observes its characters without moralizing, full of empathy for their plights, no matter how frustrating it is to watch them self-sabotage. It’s an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief ripping a family apart. (I give it 4 out of 5 stars). 

  • Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh) comes out March 14th. This is obviously supposed to be Paul’s “leading man” action blockbuster debut. It’s panned by critics and makes decent box office, but not enough to get a sequel. The only thing about the film that lives in the cultural lexicon is this meme:

    So it was all worth it in the end. Paul is completely miscast as the lead here, which is probably why he’ll never be trusted with a franchise again. Lead characters in action movies are usually proactive and initiate within the story to drive the plot. Paul is great at reacting, which makes him a poor fit with a movie like this, which asks him to mostly sit and glower in front of a wheel. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Paul has talent, though the actor’s idea of simmering intensity in the context of Need for Speed comes off more like serial killer in the making.'” Yikes. (1/5 stars)

  • Decoding Annie Parker (dir. Steven Bernstein) has a U.S theatrical release on May 2nd. It is a small drama that doesn’t get much publicity or box office, and it receives mixed to negative reviews. Paul’s character here is- and I mean this as respectfully as possible- a himbo. A himbohusand, until halfway through the film when his character does a complete 180. He wears a delightful array of terrible wigs that do a lot of the heavy lifting. The movie never figures out what story it wants to tell about the real-life Annie Parker and her contributions to breast cancer research, botching what could have been a moving story. But Paul’s relatively small role is entertaining, and much more so if you track his character’s moral decay by the shortening of his hair. (2/5)

  • A Long Way Down (dir. Pascal Chaumeil) gets a long, windy European rollout but eventually hits the United States in limited release on June 5th. It’s also a small film that doesn’t get a lot of attention or box office returns. Those who see it give it negative reviews. Paul plays a depressed ex-musician who tries to commit suicide on News Years Eve, but, surprise! three other people (played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collet, and Imogene Poots) are on the roof as well. The four of them make a pact to stay alive until Valentine’s Day and in the process become a little family. The movie is a tonally uneven “dark comedy” that refuses to sit in any kind of grief or sorrow. It’s not well written, and, as Mike D’Angelo notes for the AV Club, “Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy…while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair.” But, admittedly, this movie is my kind of trash. It has plenty of tropes I hate, like “Go on vacation to find meaning in life again.” But it also has tropes I do like, such as “on the nose power ballad,” and “angstily swims in the ocean as a form of spiritual baptism” and “Aaron Paul crying,” which, in this case, are all the same scene. (3/5)

  • The 66th Primetime Emmys are on August 25th. Breaking Bad wins big, and Paul takes home his third Emmy win for best-supporting actor.

  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott) is released on December 12th. The movie is a box office failure and gets slammed with terrible reviews, as it deserves.(1/5)

Here is, apparently, what Aaron Paul learned from this appetizer-year of roles:

  1. I will never do a big blockbuster again, and my only leading man roles will be in B-level action flicks. (Whether this was a decision Paul came to on his own or was just what Hollywood decided post-Need for Speed, we’ll never know).
  2. I can continue to play boyfriends & husbands in supporting roles for mid-budget movies (Fathers and Daughters, American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker). 
  3. I will never ever do a period piece ala Exodus again, but I WILL work with a Scott again (he works with Ridley Scott for Exodus, works with Ridley Scott’s son Jake Scott in his 2019 film American Woman). 
  4. I will continue to play Troubled Fathers™ in indie movies (The Parts You Lose, Hellion, The 9th Life of Louis Drax)
  5. TV is my real home (BoJack Horseman, The Path, The Truth Be Told, Westworld)

So what did Aaron Paul’s career look like after 2014? Let’s go through each movie and see. The following movies are in chronological order by U.S theatrical release date.

Eye in the Sky (2016) 4/5 – This well-crafted drama explores drone warfare in a way that presents probably a more idealized version of how modern war is conducted than an accurate one. Putting realism aside, however, the film does what it set out to accomplish, which is to make the audience think about the ethics of this new frontier of combat. Paul spends most of the film sitting in front of a computer and being distraught, but he pulls it off perfectly. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (this was his last role) co-star and are both characteristically excellent.

Fathers and Daughters (2016) 1/5 – This movie is incredibly forgettable, and so is Paul’s role as Bland Supportive Boyfriend. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried turn in nice performances in this not-particularly-insightful drama about… well, the relationship between a father and daughter.

Triple 9 (2016) 0/5 – This is a brutal, violent film that offers no redemption in the story nor interesting filmmaking on any level. Its great cast is wasted. Paul plays a sensitive criminal whose most interesting trait is his half-shaved head, half mohawk comb-over. Absolutely nothing worth recommending here. 

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) 3/5 – This movie is bonkers! It’s absolutely nuts! It barely makes sense! Yet that makes it so much better than many of these other films. Paul plays the father of young Louis Drax, who falls off a cliff and into a coma on his ninth birthday. Paul also plays a sea monster. I… really can’t explain it, it has to be seen to be believed. This whimsical, dark children’s-but-is-really-for-adults-movie has a distinct vision. Is it a good vision? Debatable. But it is a wild ride nonetheless. 

Come and Find Me (2016) 0/5 – I despise how boring this movie is! Paul is again miscast playing a boyfriend trying to find his missing girlfriend in this action thriller that has neither good action nor is thrilling. You’ve seen a better version of this movie before.

American Woman (2019) 4/5 – This haunting drama follows the life of Debra (Sienna Miller), a down-on-her-luck working-class woman from a small town whose daughter goes missing. Paul plays her love interest, and while his role is small, gets to do some nice dramatic work. It’s Miller’s movie though, and although the film is a non-stop train to Sad-ville, it’s worth the ride.

The Parts You Lose (2019) 5/5 – Paul plays a nameless fugitive who is hidden and nursed back to health by a deaf child. Paul has a natural chemistry with child actors and he gets to use that here with promising newcomer Danny Murphy. Like in El Camino, he excels at expressing feral energy through a mostly silent role. It’s a perfect use of his talents, while also challenging him, and the whole movie is definitely a worthwhile watch.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) 5/5

This should have won the Emmy this year for Outstanding Television Movie! Vince and Aaron were robbed!

Paul delivers an outstanding performance that stands apart from his previous work as Jesse Pinkman. This Jesse is stripped of all of the things that made him more of a meme than a character (“yeah, science!”) and instead reminds us of the complex path towards salvation the character has been on, and the depth of his desperation when on the cusp of grasping it.

Strangely Specific Tropes in Aaron Paul’s Work

*I’m including here what I saw of his roles in TV shows BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told, the first two episodes of The Path, and a shoutout to the movie Smashed, which came out in 2012, which puts it before this scope of this essay.

  • His character is enslaved and gets tortured in the desert- Breaking Bad/El Camino, Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Scene where his wife follows him in her car because she suspects he’s cheating on her and he goes to a shady motel to meet a mysterious woman: The Path, American Woman
    • Modification: Plays a husband who cheats and leaves his wife because he just can’t cope with the trauma she is undergoing: American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker
  • His character was in a band (but no musical abilities demonstrated) – Breaking Bad, American Woman, A Long Way Down, Decoding Annie Parker
  • Is a construction worker in the South with a spotty accent- American Woman, Hellion 
    • Only southern accent: Triple 9 and The Truth Be Told 
  • Wears a Beanie- The Parts You Lose, A Long Way Down, Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Triple 9.  (All these costume designers were like, “his forehead is bigger than our budget, we gotta cover it up!”
  • Interacts with Nazis/White Supremacists or the Mafia: Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Come and Find Me, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told
  • Is a junkie or alcoholic- Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Hellion, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told, Smashed
  • I’m a criminal, yo: Breaking Bad, The Parts You Lose, Central Intelligence, Triple 9, Westworld, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
  • Does some guttural crying- Breaking Bad/El Camino, A Long Way Down, The Path, Hellion, Come and Find Me, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
    • Closeup as he sheds one single tear- El Camino, Need for Speed

So what’s the verdict? Aaron Paul’s filmography is uneven, to say the least, but it has some bright spots, especially as of late. If I were his manager, I would advise him to continue acting (and producing) small indie dramas that play to his strengths, stop doing mid-budget action movies, and try to befriend some prestigious directors (I could see a fit with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood, even Bong Joon Ho) and start edging back into big films, but not as the lead. He should also continue with prestige television, but use this as an opportunity to try different genres and be more experimental. I think with the right role he could get into better movies (and even win an Oscar one day?) but he needs to choose better projects and filmmakers need to take a chance on him.

As of right now though, Paul seems more focused on building his Dos Hombres Mezcal brand with Bryan Cranston, being a new dad, and taking responsibility for racism. And that’s pretty cool, bitch. 

– Madeleine D.

Dragging The Dead On Leashes: Generational Sin in Netflix’s “Dark”

A guest review by Kevin McGuire

“To a world without Winden”

“Winden won’t give up that easily”

-Ulrich and Hannah, 1986 (Season 1, Episode 3)

Dark’s opening scene takes place thirty-three years after this exchange, where the small town of Winden is as rotten as ever. Jonas Kahnwald has just returned to school following his father’s suicide. The nuclear plant, long a source of civic pride and economic stability, is set to be decommissioned. Half the residents seem to be involved in extramarital affairs. The police department is investigating several cases of missing children. Entire flocks of birds drop dead from the skies with no apparent explanation. Created in 2017 by director Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, this German Netflix series centers on a handful of local families, and the dark secrets in the town’s past responsible for the current problems. Time travel quickly comes into play, and as various characters attempt to change the past to fix the present, it becomes apparent how deeply the roots of their modern pain lie in their actions and those of their ancestors.

In case you haven’t picked up by now, this is not a happy show. The New York Times described it as “the show for people who thought Stranger Things was just a little too much fun”. Dark is simultaneously a technical and narrative masterpiece and a difficult show to watch. In preparation for writing, Friese read over 100 books on quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology – and it shows. Direct references are made to numerous scientific concepts by name, everyone in-universe is capable of directly quoting both Freud and the book of Psalms, and quotes from a range of continental philosophers provide prologue to many episodes. It is an incredibly dense show, unwilling to leave any scientific or relational worldbuilding unexplored.

Odar’s background as a painter infuses each scene with strikingly intentional composition. The camera is unblinking as the show moves at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, whether capturing sordid affairs, brutal murders, or exposition over the physics of black holes. Indebted to the grand myth building of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, Dark takes lessons from their oft-criticized lack of payoff. A consistent atmosphere is maintained by a steady drip of the dreadful truth replacing each piece of the central mystery, with the endgame always in sight. The solution to the puzzle is revealed early on, but the journey to that point – and what it can reveal about the human experience – remains the greater story.

A Brand New, Broken World

Dark is, at its core, as much about philosophical conflict as it is time-travel and soapy drama. While questions of time, fate, and causality form the grand theater that the show plays in, the heart of the narrative is much more human. Ultimately, Dark is about the experience of navigating generational sin, how the misdeeds of the past can bring pain and suffering through lasting scars and continuing patterns of destruction. The town of Winden is the entire universe of the show, and the most enduring monument to the crimes committed by generations of inhabitants. Beneath the nuclear plant, a system of caves acts as both the catalyst for time travel and a physical manifestation of the town’s dark underbelly. Occasionally we meet characters who have just moved to Winden, but no one escapes. Midway through season one, Katarina, mother of one of the missing children calls into a radio show, her oracle against Winden playing over scenes of small-town life now seen through a newly darkened lens:

“I want people to completely understand what’s going on here. We’re all so blind about this. There’s a murderer here among us. No one actually dares to say it. But it’s the truth. We’re all clinging to the hope that it won’t happen to us. We all know one another. And we think we know those around us. But do we really? We live right next door to people we know nothing about, and behind one of those doors is my son. It could be anyone’s door. The man behind the cash register. Someone we invite for coffee and cake on Sundays, who plays with our children. But I don’t want to look away anymore. And you shouldn’t want to either. This whole town is sick. Winden is like a festering wound, and all of us are a part of it.”  

The sins of the past directly affect every aspect of life in Winden. Fractured relationships within families echo the abuse and addictions that have haunted them for generations, while externally individuals betray the children of those their parents betrayed. Nothing changes, in pattern or substance, even as one generation replaces the next. Institutions, whether educational, political, or clerical, provide no solace for the residents as they continue to be harnessed for selfish motive just as they have throughout Winden’s history. The thin veneer of camaraderie that unites the town decays on screen as the secrets of the past emerge from whispered rumor into the light, setting neighbor against neighbor, daughter against mother, and father against son. 

Dark illustrates two types of this generational sin, the show proudly wearing its existential heritage on its sleeve. Characters moving through time fall into one of two camps. The first, represented by those like Ulrich, travel to the past in attempts to prevent present tragedies. Upon arrival, they face the realization that generations of misdeeds, both theirs and their ancestors, cannot be erased and inevitably haunt their families’ emotional and physical security. Confronted with this absurd and transcendent reality, they shrink into impotence or madness.

The second is represented by the cult-like secret societies of Sic Mundus and Erit Lux that carry out a war waged beyond time. Their founders began on the same path as the others, but answered the absurd directly. Instead of heroic courage, their actions prove to be the inciting incidents behind much of the horror plaguing their modern world. Generational sin is now cast through the lens of eternal recurrence – essentially the concept that all events in history occur repeatedly, in the same sequence, through a never-ending series of cycles. Dark makes this literal, as all of the travelers find themselves fighting the same tragedies not just at different points of time, but failing again and again to change the past and seeing their family and friends torn apart repeatedly by their actions. Trapped in this unending knot, each character operating outside of their native timeline is faced with the disharmony that arises from the apparent meaninglessness of their existence and the futility of their actions, and together represent three unique philosophical responses.

Heroes of the Absurd

As leader of Sic Mundus (which is short for Sic Mundus creatus est, which means “Thus the world was created” in Latin), Adam represents a war against God and time, viewing both as ultimately non-existent concepts which must be dethroned from the human mind. He adopts the view of eternal recurrence advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche – that only through amor fati (love of fate) can the “horrifying and paralyzing” reality of what will happen be embraced, allowing escape through the “creation of novelty”. Corrupted both physically and spiritually by countless attempts to restore order through time travel (his scars serving to conveniently obscure his identity until late in season two), Adam is the embodiment of the Nietzschean “will to power”. In his eyes, only he is strong enough to bend the universe to his will. Winden is sick, and can only be cured through destruction. In the center of the Sic Mundus lodge hangs Peter Paul Ruben’s The Fall of the Damned, Adam viewing himself as the archangel Michael, casting the damned of Winden into the abyss they deserve. For any innocents in the town, non-existence is a more merciful fate than continuing to live in such a world. Judgement and salvation, carried out in the same motion.

Eva, the leader of the Erit Lux (“There will be light” in Latin), is chiefly opposed to Adam, and seeks a different path. Her encounter with the absurd leads her instead to embrace it. There is a radical value to mere existence, any harm from generational sin largely ignored. Chief among the artifacts adorning Erit Lux’s comparatively barren lodge is a detailed mapping carved into the floor of every individual’s role which must be sustained for the cycle to continue. Eva embraces the absurdism articulated by Albert Camus, presupposing a world in which God is already dead and nothing beyond the immanent matters. To Erit Lux, both history and hope represent false idols doomed to disappoint. In this weary world, nothing is promised beyond today, and even the freedom that comes from everyone’s self-determined path to destruction is preferable to the fantasy of salvation. 

There’s an interesting contrast between the absurdism of Camus and the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (bear with me for a second). In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proclaims about the character that “he too concludes all is well”. This is a bitter statement acknowledging that the world has no master, and that Sisyphus must make his own meaning out of the boulder he eternally pushes. ‘All is well’ because nothing can be any different from how it currently stands. These words are a strange echo of Julian of Norwich’s famous recounting of her 13th vision:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

For Julian, all is not well. But it will be. She doesn’t know how or when or why, but Christ will make all things right, and that is enough for faith. Likewise in Dark, Claudia, the last of three travelers who is outside time, accepts that there might be hope outside the knot in which Winden is stuck. She only arrives at this point through desperation, unwilling to perpetuate the cycle of parents and children wronging one another. The same mechanism which brings suffering into the world is the only way to escape it. 

In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard writes that anxiety is the amoral tension between all possible actions that predates even the knowledge of good and evil in human consciousness. Anxiety made possible Adam and Eva’s leap into their original sins, yet anxiety also makes Claudia’s leap into a faith in a better world possible. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard saw the tyranny of fate on human consciousness as a blight to be overcome. However, his solution lay in the ability of anxiety to prepare the human mind for faith “because the anxiety within him has already fashioned fate and has taken away from him absolutely all that any fate could take away”. Claudia’s recognition, that nothing she imagines can be worse than the present cycle imprisoning Winden, provides the catalyst for hope that unhitching from the origin can lead to a better world.

Out of the Caves

Three seasons of wallowing in suffering is draining. There’s a purpose to this pain though, as only in the absence of hope can the vastness of its joy be seen. In a recent interview, artist Elijah Tamu spoke about darkness as being a key to realizing spiritual transcendence, “white light is beautiful, but a world of only white light without differentiation would be no different from a world of darkness… Sometimes darkness is what makes it possible to appreciate and contemplate certain subtleties of light”. For example, the traditional candlelit tenebras service of Good Friday situates the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice alongside both spiritual and physical darkness, making a conscious attempt to draw the modern mundane into viewing a more sacred fullness. Unilluminated by the divine, the inherited suffering of this world can either lead to holding tight to past wrongs and perpetuating injustice on personal and systemic levels, or to redemptive release. 

While Dark cloyingly refuses to acknowledge whether any of the characters truly manage to outwit fate, Odar and Friese make clear that healing of even the deepest hurts begins with the extension of personal grace. Forgiveness of self and others, coupled with sacrifice, literally wipes away any trace of the show’s central sins. The generational patterns are coming undone. The final episode concludes with a dinner party, prior suspicion replaced by true community. As the guests eat by candlelight in a town without power, their final exchange illustrates a place still amid gloom, but no longer hopeless:

Regina: “If the world were to end today, and you only had one wish, what would you wish for?”

Katarina: “A world without Winden. Let’s drink to that.”

All: “A world without Winden.”

[The lights turn back on]

Peter: “Looks like Winden doesn’t want to just disappear.”

Woller: “Maybe it’s for the best.”

~

* “Dragging the Dead on Leashes” is the title of a song by Being As An Ocean

Kevin McGuire is currently a PhD student in the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. In his free time, he enjoys both watching and playing basketball, spending too much time on Twitter, and continuing his quest to find the strangest music on the planet.

Exploring Time in “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

*Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things

On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject. 

In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything). 

Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed. 

Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents. 

The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love. 

Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through. 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.

-Madeleine D.

I Don’t Care Whether You Understand My Movies (Anymore)

By Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's Next Movie is Getting an IMAX Summer 2020 Release |  IndieWire

There was a time in my life in which I believed it mattered whether the miserable cretins who viewed my films understood what was happening. It was a dark time, reader. I struggled mightily to provide the ill-bred masses with the petty satisfactions they required, employing degrading techniques designed to explain my ingenious, chronologically non-linear plots to even the stupidest of dolts who consumed them.

Yes, reader, I engaged in shameful behavior, lowering my films to the tastes of their basest audiences. I used such abominable devices as “exposition” and “audible dialogue.” I even (forgive me) took the time to write coherent and explanatory endings, designed to fill in whatever points audiences may have missed in their feeble understanding of my sweeping artistic vision. NO MORE! My latest magnum opus, Tenet, is free from such demeaning restraints. 

No longer will I task my considerable genius with “accessibility” or “coherence.” My audiences are, plainly, dumb and worthless, and they will henceforth be treated as such. Of course their feeble minds don’t understand my breathtaking reflections on the nature of time itself, so why should I bother debasing my work for their sake? Don’t understand the intricate workings of Tenet’s time mechanics? Imbecile. Here are some buildings blowing up to satisfy your toddler-esque attention span. Unclear on who a particular character is or where they came from? Too bad, now they’re punching somebody else you’ve never seen before, does that satisfy your infantile lizard brain? Confused by the ending? Not my problem, focus on the big, shiny guns I put in just to entertain idiots like you. Enjoy the flashy lights and shut the hell up. This is cinema. There’s no time to accommodate the dimwits who can’t keep up, I’m making art here. If prolonged landscape shots, car chases of ambiguous purpose, and inexplicable gunfire don’t satisfy your shallow cravings for petty entertainment, I have nothing further to say to you. 

Christopher Nolan is a writer and director. His latest film, Tenet, is in theaters now. 

~

This piece of satire was guest-written by Sam Shideler. Sam is a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, where his academic pursuit are best articulated as “reading, writing, and regarding STEM majors with contempt.” His hobbies include referring to movies as “films,” pretending to understand classical literature, and suffering at the hands of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball.

Indigenous Filmmaking, Satire, and Horror in “Blood Quantum”

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A guest review by John Truden

Editorial Note: Blood Quantum is a 2019 Canadian zombie horror film directed by Jeff Barnaby, a Canadian Mi’kmaq filmmaker. Barnaby’s film is rooted in an Indigenous perspective. It stars Indigenous actors and is a love letter to both classic zombie horror films and to “indignerds,” the self-proclaimed title of Indigenous people who love pop culture. Blood Quantum holds to many of the conventions of the zombie movie genre, along with influence from filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, but its main premise and some of the stylistic choices draw on Jeff Barnaby’s Mi’kmaq context. The following was written by my friend John Truden, who is currently getting his Ph.D. in Indigenous history, to give some context and history, so the film can be more enjoyable and understandable to a non-Indigenous audience. 

Blood Quantum follows the residents of the Red Crow Indian Reservation (a fictional reserve that stands in for many Indigenous communities in North America) who are overtaken by a zombie outbreak. The residents quickly discover that they are immune, but the surrounding white settlers and wildlife are vulnerable to infection.

The 1970 saw the beginning of a renaissance of Indigenous films, or films rooted in the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. That renaissance reached full bloom in the 1990s and has not stopped since. Smoke Signals, a 1998 film that followed the journey of three young people from the Coeur D’alene Reservation in Idaho, became a marker of this growth. Barnaby created Blood Quantum in this context. The film emphasizes community, ties to the land, and grounding in a specific time and place, reflecting precedents set by Indigenous filmmakers.

The film plays with themes of blood and colonialism. It takes the history of settlers who are a threat to Indigenous populations, and puts it within the genre, casting those settlers as zombies who pose the threat to the immune Indigenous population. It’s a theatrical reimagining of very real history (and recent divisions, colonization is not simply a thing of the past). It’s a reversal of what’s called “Settler Colonialism,” a process where people come to a region and re-shape it. In Blood Quantum, instead of settlers coming in and re-shaping the reservation, the Indigenous population is cleansing it. 

Blood quantum itself was a system devised by the United States and Canadian government to slowly eliminate Indigenous populations by essentially assimilating them out of existence. They did this by measuring Indigenous blood and then making it difficult for Indigenous people to marry one another. According to the blood quantum system, if you don’t have a certain amount of Indigenous blood and ancestry you’re not Indigenous, and if you marry a white person, your kid’s blood quantum goes down, making them even more removed from the Indigenous identity. Slowly but surely, entire indigenous bloodlines are erased. The irony of this film then is that these people who are fighting the zombies that have Indigenous ancestry, and that’s what keeps them safe.

The concept of the zombie came to the United States through an effort to explain Haitian independence. In the 1920s the United States occupied the country of Haiti. At this time the United State is in Jim Crow; it’s a white supremacist nation. But in Haiti, the Haitian are resisting and asserting their independence. In order to make sure no Black Americans got any ideas of revolution, journalists and politicians took the Haitian mythology of the zombie and used it to “explain” why the Black people in Haiti are asserting their independence. They depicted Haitians as being brainless and murderous, stupid and violent. This appropriation the zombie erases an important part of Haitian folklore, where the zombie originated somewhere between 1625 to 1800, and “was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie” (Mariani). 

In the 1960s, American director George Romero re-used the concept of zombies and turned them into the “undead,” through his films. He turns them into flesh-eating cannibalistic zombies as a stand-in for things. Night of the Living Dead is a critique of American race relations, in a lot of ways. Day of the Dead is a critique of the military-industrial complex. He starts a tradition where the dialogue between the characters is more important than the actual zombies themselves, which is true of this movie. He also sets the precedent of using zombies as other problems. The format is flexible, there’s a lot of different things you can do with a zombie movie. So there is a long canon that Blood Quantum is joining where the zombies stand for thing, usually various social anxieties. Here, the zombies are used to stand in for white settlers, and in this tells a uniquely Indigenous story. 

Blood Quantum is available on Shudder

Sources:

Zombies and Haiti: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0AF1qPSmvhPEjmSE3vEwu7?si=mPNsSf05Qf2kPZeXlSS20A

Mike Mariani: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies,” for The Atlantic

John Truden is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation explores Indigenous-settler relationships in a settler-dominated Oklahoma. Upon graduation he would like to take on a full-time collaborative role by teaching at a tribal college. In his free time he enjoys historical research, working alongside marginalized communities, and investing in friendships. 

Top 20 Movies of 2020 (So Far)

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Guest Review by Jonathan Dorst

Many movie theaters are reopening today. For how long, nobody knows, but hopefully for good. I last saw a movie in a theater in early March, so I’m ready (I think) to go back to seeing new releases on the big screen. And there are a number of tantalizing films set to come out in the last four-plus months of this year, including The Personal History of David Copperfield (8/28), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (9/3), Quiet Place Part II (9/4), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix 9/4), Antebellum (9/18), Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (October), David Fincher’s Mank (October), Wonder Woman 1984 (10/2), Trial of the Chicago 7 (10/16), Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (10/16?), The Courier (10/16), Black Widow (11/6), Pixar’s Soul (11/20), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (12/18), Coming 2 America (12/18), and Spielberg’s West Side Story (12/18).

But, if you think there haven’t been any good movies that have been released up to this point in 2020, you haven’t been paying attention. Some came out before the pandemic, some went to streamers or VOD when theaters were not an option, and some were released as planned through a streamer. One note: Although some multi-episode documentaries (like OJ: Made In America) have won Oscars and been considered a ‘feature,’ I chose not to include them on this list, so Tiger King and The Last Dance would be part of a top television list instead. One more note: As always, don’t take the inclusion of a film as a blanket endorsement of its content; you are responsible to research the content and determine if certain movies are appropriate for you.

20. Bad Education– Hugh Jackman shows off his versatility in this telling of a true story of embezzlement in the public school system.

19. Radioactive– A good biopic that makes the interesting decision to show the downside (in jarring flash-forwards) of the protagonist’s historical contribution.

18. Downhill– A not-as-good-as-the-original remake of a very good Danish film, still Will Farrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus give good performances in this serious comedy.

17. The Truth– A bit of a cliched premise about an actress mother and her flawed relationship with her daughter, but it’s Juliette Binoche and Catherine Denueve, so it’s a must see.

16. Tigertail– A thoughtful film that tells the story of an immigrant’s struggle to connect in his new land while reconciling what he’s lost back in his homeland.

15. The Vast of Night– An interesting, slow-burn of a film about strange happenings in the sky in New Mexico in the 50’s that I suspect will get better with repeated viewings.

14. Arkansas– A minor, but enjoyable entry in the ‘loveable loser drug dealer’ genre; Liam Hemsworth is terrific playing against type.

13. The Invisible Man– An effective thriller that is a not-too-subtle metaphor for the psychological oppression that powerful men can administer on women.

12. The Old Guard– A superhero film that takes consequences seriously.

11. Da 5 Bloods– Spike Lee’s exploration of the Vietnam War and its effects, as well as his continued exploration of America’s racial history- the acting is great, but the tone and pacing is all over the place.

10. Young Ahmed– The Dardenne brothers’ latest about a young teenaged boy being influenced by a radical Islamic imam.

9. To the Stars– A movie about small-town Oklahoma in the ‘50s that tells the age-old tale of the shy, bullied kid who gets courage from the extroverted, courageous friend, but with some twists that keep it fresh.

8. Ordinary Love– Two great actors (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) telling a slice-of-life story that made me want to watch more of their life together.

7. Palm Springs– A very funny take on the Groundhog Day premise that doesn’t quite earn its happy ending but is still very memorable and enjoyable.

6. Athlete A– The emotional story of how USA Gymnastics failed to protect its female gymnasts from predators like Larry Nassar.

5. The Assistant– A day in the life of an administrative assistant who serves her unnamed boss in a Weinstein-like film production company; we see how powerful men got away with so much for so long as we watch her try to raise a red flag in an atmosphere where no one is motivated to change anything.

4. The Trip To Greece– The 4th film in the ‘Trip’ series, this is the most poignant as Rob and Steve follow in the footsteps of Odysseus and ponder their mortality. 

3. Driveways– A beautiful film about people in different stages of life connecting and making the best of their situation.

2. Sorry We Missed You- British filmmaker Ken Loach has been making great social commentary films for a long time, and this one takes aim at companies taking advantage of workers in this ‘gig economy’ while telling an affecting story of a family trying to thrive, or at least survive.

1. Hamilton– I know this really came out as a musical in 2015, but it’s not the first play to be filmed and released as a movie (consider Bergman’s The Magic Flute and Powell’s The Tales of Hoffman), and everything about this production is just. so. good.

Bonus: Worst Movie of the Year (so far, that I’ve seen)- Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

A Guide to Beyonce’s “Black is King”

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On July 31st, Disney+ released Black is King, a visual album by Beyonce. It functions as a sort of movie-length music video that puts visuals to Beyonce’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was created by Beyonce for the release of last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, where she voiced Nala. Black is King follows the storyline of the film abstractly, and there are short audio clips from the film to help move it along. 

Because this is debuting on Disney+, which markets itself as a family-oriented streaming service, and is not a typical film in most regards, I thought it would be helpful to try something different. Instead of a normal review, I’d like to offer some observations and questions that can guide your viewing of Black is King, whether you watched it and would like to learn more about what messages and artistic reference you may have missed, or you’re a parent interested in watching Black is King with your children and would like to cultivate a fruitful discussion of the film (although the film probably won’t interest young children, I’d suggest pre-teen and up). 

As always, this isn’t an endorsement of the film or a suggestion that it is appropriate for all ages and families.

Initial Feelings after Finishing the Film:

  1. How do you feel? Did you like the ending? Were you engaged throughout the movie, or did some parts feel boring?
  2. Did you like it? Give some reasons for why or why not.
  3. Did you like the music? Did it make you want to dance? Do you think it is catchy?
  4. Do you think the visuals matched the music? How so? Did any shot or visual stick out to you as memorable?
  5. There are a lot of spoken-word sections (where Beyonce or others are talking over the music and visuals). Were there any lines that stuck out to you?
  6. Do you imagine visual albums/ feature-length music video films growing in popularity? What are the pros and cons of the medium?

Talking about Race and Black Identity:

1. Black is King was filmed in various African countries. The music is inspired by African music traditions, there are cameos by artists from all over Africa, the costumes were inspired by African fashions, and there are references to various African mythologies and legends. Recognizing, of course, that Africa is not a monolith but is made up of different countries and hundreds of sub-cultures, did the film spark your interest in learning more about Africa, or in any particular parts of African culture?

2. Black is King is explicitly about Black empowerment. It encourages Black people to embrace their heritage, to take pride in their culture and community, and to use their gifts and talents to help build a better future. In a world where Black people are often seen as disposable and are overlooked, Black is King relishes in presenting Blackness as complex, regal, intellectual, spiritual, dynamic, and worthy of respect and attention. Many of the songs are pieces of activism, such as “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” which lovingly reminds Black girls of their beauty, fighting against the very-real stigmas of colorism.

If you are Black, how did Black is King make you feel? (Parents- as with all of these questions, remind your kids that it’s okay to feel ambivalent). Did the film feel relatable, or like Beyonce was talking to you? If you are white or non-Black, how did you feel? Black is King has no prominent white or non-Black characters- was that strange or unusual for you? Did you feel like you learned anything new? Did you feel inspired?

3. In her seminal work Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry makes the argument that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Her argument essentially says that because the perspective of Black women has been silenced for much of American history, and stereotypes about Black women persist so much in popular culture, when a Black woman is at the forefront of a narrative, it is inherently political and even transgressive in white-dominant cultures. First, what do you think about this as a theory? Is it fair? And then second- Is Black is King political? How or how not? Does it feel political?

4. Throughout the album, and especially in the song “MOOD 4 EVA(the song with Jay-Z that takes place in a mansion), Beyonce talks about her wealth and opulence (fairly standard for celebrities). But through this and her other work, she seems to make this statement: Beyonce and Jay-Z, in being successful and rich, and showing that off, is a source of empowerment for all Black people. Because Black Americans are more likely to be of lower-income, it is inherently progressive and even radical to present Black people who are wealthy and successful, because it presents both an idea of what could (and even should) be, and presents a positive representation of the abilities of Black people.  

What do you think of this? Is Beyonce right? Can showing off wealth and opulence be empowering, particularly for minority groups? Is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (presented) lifestyle aspirational?

Homages and References:

1. Did Black is King help you appreciate The Lion King any more? Were you able to follow the storyline of Simba in Black is King, or was it too abstract? Do you think Black is King could stand alone, without the influence of The Lion King?

2. The opening sequence is a retelling of Exodus 2:1-10, where Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile to escape the slaughter of all the Hebrew boys. Moses is a large figure in African American music, especially in gospel songs that were sung by enslaved people to speak about freedom. What might Beyonce be referencing by showing it here? And are there any similarities between Moses and Simba from The Lion King?

3. There is a concept called the “Christ-Like Gaze” in film, outlined by this excellent article. It puts forth the idea that cinematography- the way the camera films subjects- can be used to look at people the way Christ looks at us. The three tenants of a “Christ-like gaze” in a movie is this: 

  1. The film sees people as being complex and filled with inherent worth and dignity. The movie doesn’t watch characters with cynical dispassion. Instead, a Christ-like gaze approaches the characters in warmth. Practically, this means the camera doesn’t objectify characters (such as focusing on body parts for sexual attention). There is often a focus on the facial expressions and eyes of a character. The camera is usually at eye-level with the subject.
  2. A Christ-like gaze means the film isn’t only concerned with the plot. The characters act beyond being used as plot devices. The story- and the camera- pays attention to little details and truths about life. Does the film take time to observe beauty? Are there any moments of quietness?
  3. Movies can (and should) depict suffering honestly, but a Christ-like gaze ends in hope. Hope is not blind optimism, nor is it the removal of consequences. But hope knows that there is a resurrection and healing coming.

So with all of that being said- does Black is King have a Christ-like gaze? Does the camera treat the Black bodies on-screen with care and present them as beautiful? How is the scenery treated? How do the choices in hair and costuming contribute to the presentation of Beyonce and the other stars? Is this an uplifting film, and in what regards?

Further reading:

NPR- “‘Black Is King’ Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity”

Vox- Beyonce presenting herself as African Goddess Osun

The Root: Some of the cameos in Black is King

Vox- Framing Black Bodies as Art in “Apeshit”

            –  Madeleine D.