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    Did the Music Industry Change? A Race ‘Report Card’ Is on the Way.

    The Black Music Action Coalition, a group of managers, lawyers and others, was created last summer with a mission to hold the business to account. In June, it will report on the progress so far.Last summer, as protests roiled over the death of George Floyd, the music industry began to take a hard look at itself with regard to race — how it treats Black artists, how Black employees fare at music companies, how equitably money flows throughout the business.Major record labels, streaming services and broadcasters pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, convened task forces and promised to take concrete steps to diversify their ranks and correct inequities. Artists like the Weeknd and BTS donated money to support social justice, and Erykah Badu and Kelis signaled their support for economic reforms in the music industry.Everything seemed on the table. Even the term “urban,” in radio formats and marketing — to some a racist euphemism, to others a signifier of pride and sophistication — came under scrutiny. But there was still wide skepticism about whether the business was truly committed to making substantial changes or whether its donations and lofty statements were more a matter of crisis P.R.The Black Music Action Coalition, a group of artist managers, lawyers and others, was created last summer with a mission to hold the industry to account. In June, it intends to release a “report card” on how well the various music companies have made good on their promises and commitments to progress.The report will lay out what steps the companies have taken toward racial parity, and track whether and where promised donations have been made. It will also examine the number of Black executives at the leading music companies and the power they hold, and how many Black people sit on their boards. Future reports will take deeper looks at questions like how equitably the industry itself operates, Binta Niambi Brown and Willie Stiggers, a.k.a. Prophet, the coalition’s co-chairmen, said in an interview this week.“Our fight is much bigger than just whether or not you wrote a check,” said Prophet, an artist manager who works with Asian Doll, Layton Greene and other acts. “But the fact that you said you were going to write a check, we want to make sure that money was actually given and that it went to a place that actually hit the veins of the Black community.”The report, to be written by Naima Cochrane, a journalist and former label executive, will be modeled on the annual media studies by the advocacy group GLAAD, which track the representation of L.G.B.T.Q. characters in film and television and assign ratings to the various companies behind them. It is expected to be issued by June 19 — Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.The coalition’s public statements have made it clear that it sees itself as a strict and unflinching judge of the music industry, which has a dark history of exploitation of Black artists even as Black music has long been — and remains — its most essential product. Last summer, an online campaign called #BlackoutTuesday brought out painful commentary that, even today, many Black executives feel marginalized, subject to white supervisors who hold greater powers and earn more money.Brown, a label executive and artist manager, said the goal of the report is not punishment but encouragement.“We want to do it in a way that is more carrots than stick, so we can continue to incentivize good behavior,” she said. “We want to hold folks accountable, not cancel them.”Most of the major music companies have hired diversity officers and promoted some top Black executives to positions equal to those of their white colleagues, though there are still only a handful of Black people at the uppermost levels of leadership.A number of outside studies have also been commissioned to examine diversity within the industry, including one by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California and another by the Recording Academy, the Berklee College of Music and Arizona State University about women in music.Yet there has been relatively little public discussion about looking at artist contracts, including ones from decades past, and curing any unfair terms.One company, BMG, examined thousands of contracts and found that, of 15 catalogs it owns that have rosters with both Black and non-Black artists, 11 showed no evidence of racial disadvantage. Among the four that did, the company found “a statistically significant negative correlation between being Black and receiving lower recorded royalty rates” of 1.1 to 3.4 percentage points. BMG has pledged to take action to correct that disparity.Those deeper issues about fairness in the music industry may well be covered in future reports by the coalition. For now, they are limiting their scope to whether promises have been kept.“Racism is 400-year-old problem,” Prophet said. “We didn’t think it would be solved in 12 months.” More

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    The Brief, Brilliant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry

    The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: “Get up!”It is the opening scene — and the injunction — of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” her friend James Baldwin would later recall. It was the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. When “Raisin” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, Hansberry — at 29 — became the youngest American and the first Black recipient.How often the word “first” appears in the life of Hansberry; how often it will appear in this review. See also “spokeswoman” or “only.” Strange words of praise; meretricious even, in how they can mask the isolation they impose. Hansberry seemed to anticipate it all. At the triumphant premiere of “Raisin,” at the standing ovation and the calls for playwright to take the stage, she initially refused to leave her seat. “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,” she later wrote, “is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”Hansberry died in 1965, at 34, of cancer. The fact still feels intolerable, almost unassimilable — her death not merely tragedy but a kind of theft. “Look at the work that awaits you!” she said in a speech to young writers, calling them “young, gifted and Black” — inspiring the Nina Simone song of the same name. Look at the work that awaited her. She goaded herself on, even in the hospital: “Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”But a flurry of recent renewed interest attests to how much Hansberry did accomplish — the range of her interests and seriousness of her political commitments. There has been Imani Perry’s 2018 book “Looking for Lorraine” and Tracy Heather Strain’s 2017 documentary “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.” The pre-eminent Hansberry scholar Margaret B. Wilkerson has a book in the works.To this Soyica Diggs Colbert, a professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University, adds her contribution with “Radical Vision,” positioned as the first scholarly biography. Here is Hansberry resurrected from the archives, from her scripts, scraps and drafts. Through a series of close readings, Colbert examines “how her writing, published and unpublished, offers a road map to negotiate Black suffering in the past and present.”.To quote Simone de Beauvoir, an important influence, Hansberry could not think in terms of joy or despair “but in terms of freedom.” And she could not think of freedom as a destination but as a practice, full of intervals, regressions. It is the same idea one encounters in radical thinkers today, in Mariame Kaba’s notion of abolitionist feminism as a practice of freedom.A central aim of Colbert’s biography, as with Perry’s book and Strain’s documentary, is to reclaim Hansberry as the radical she was.In the public eye, she was the slim and pleasing housewife, the accidental playwright featured in a photo spread in Vogue. “Best Play Prize Won By a Negro Girl, 28,” The New York Herald Tribune declared. “Mrs. Robert Nemiroff,” The New York Times profiled her, “voluble, energetic, pretty and small.”Studies of Hansberry excavate her behind-the-scenes activism. There is the now famous story of her confrontation with Robert Kennedy, who as attorney general in 1963 convened a group of Black activists and intellectuals. Hansberry demanded Kennedy acknowledge racism as a moral problem, not a purely social one, before walking out in disgust.Colbert adds detail and dimension to Hansberry’s work — covering, for instance, the years she spent writing for Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom, reporting on the Mau Mau Uprising and child labor in South Africa. She held fund-raisers, and studied alongside Alice Childress and W.E.B. Du Bois. The mythos of “the first” obscures so much of the communality of Hansberry’s thinking. “We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together,” Nina Simone wrote of Hansberry in her memoir. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.”A small interlude. Imagine another opening scene. Another dim, drab room. The alarm sounds. A woman wakes, tries to rouse a sleeping child. This is the beginning of another story set on Chicago’s South Side — Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” published in 1940. The parallels to me have always felt too uncanny for it not to be homage. Hansberry reviewed Wright’s fiction — a little uncharitably, to my mind. She had no patience for despair, for victims, really; her plays hinge on a decisive moment in which a character fends off complacency and takes a stand (quite often while making a thunderous speech about the necessity of taking a stand). There’s an odd narrowness to her vision. Her commitment to realism was absolute, a matter of moral principle. Interest in anomie, absurdity or paralysis was dismissed as liberal silliness, and an abdication of artistic responsibility.This stringency is curious, given Hansberry’s openness when it came to tactics, her insistence that the movement required a multipronged approach. “Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and nonviolent,” she wrote. “The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children.” This belief, Colbert argues, was her inheritance.Soyica Diggs Colbert, the author of “Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.”Paul B. Jones/Georgetown UniversityHansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in the first Black-owned and -operated hospital in the nation. She was a “movement baby,” Colbert writes. Her father built a real estate empire by chopping up larger apartments into smaller units to provide housing for the waves of Black migrants who fled the South only to encounter deeply segregated Chicago.In 1937, the family moved to a white neighborhood — the story she revisits in “Raisin.” A segregationist landowners’ association challenged the sale of the house. White mobs harassed the family, on one occasion throwing a concrete mortar through the window. It narrowly missed Hansberry, who was 7 years old.These years taught Hansberry the necessity of fighting on all fronts. Her father filed a lawsuit, and Hansberry recalled her “desperate and courageous mother,” home without him, “patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children.”Colbert’s study is loving, lavishly detailed, repetitive and a little stilted in the telling. (The notes, however, are splendid — fluent, rich and full of a feeling of discovery; here she permits herself to speak more freely.) The book circles a few points very dutifully — even as we feel Colbert itching to rove. She has a habit of making arresting asides and then refusing to follow their trail: “Hansberry’s writing suggests that she understood Blackness to implicitly include what we would now describe as queerness.”It’s not incidental, I think, that these asides often have to do with desire. Colbert pays forensic attention here to scripts, articles and stories, but takes less intellectual interest in the jottings and journals — to the self that was feverish, exultant, wary in its sexuality. The thinking gets pleasantly tousled and unsure here; Hansberry is off the podium and on her second glass of Scotch, wondering at her attraction to femininity — “the rather disgusting symbol of woman’s oppression.” And yet: “I am fond of being able to watch calves and ankles freely.” She divorced her husband in 1964 (they remained artistic collaborators) and began to move in lesbian circles that included Patricia Highsmith and Louise Fitzhugh, the author of “Harriet the Spy.” For years, she kept annual inventories of her loves and hates. (“My homosexuality” made both at age 29.) To read these notes, their shame and their thrill (At 32, under “I like”: “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth”) recalls some of the pleasures of the private writing of Virginia Woolf and the fragmented diaries of Susan Sontag — two other writers capable of caginess about their attraction to women.Hansberry exhorted students to “write about our people, tell their story. Leave the convoluted sex preoccupations to the convoluted.” And yet out of her own convolutions, a new self was emerging, a new understanding. “I feel I am learning how to think all over again,” she wrote anonymously to a lesbian magazine.What would this thinking have wrought? Her impatience, her greed for work, for thought — for more life — is palpable until the end. The final journal entries burn. She is desperate for her lover (“I consumed her whole”) stuck in the hospital, she is hungry to return to her play. “The writing urge is on,” she wrote. “Only death or infirmity can stop me now.” More

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    Making Music Visible: Singing in Sign

    On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.A look behind the scenes as Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox collaborate on a signed performance of the classic song.Up Until Now CollectiveAround the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. Many Americans know about signed singing from moments like the Super Bowl, when a sign language interpreter can be seen — if barely — performing the national anthem alongside a pop star.But as sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.“Music is many different things to different people,” Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to “Sing Gently,” a choral work by Eric Whitacre.“I realize,” she added, “that when you do hear, not hearing may seem to separate us. But what is your relationship to music, to dance, to beauty? What do you see that I may learn from? These are conversations people need to get accustomed to having.”Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, who collaborated with Brandon Kazen-Maddox on “Midnight Train to Georgia.”Justin Kaneps for The New York TimesA good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could “tangibly feel the music,” he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase “all aboard.” But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out “oh” of “not so long ago-oh-oh,” his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.“The hands have their own emotions,” Primeaux-O’Bryant said. “They have their own mind.”“The hands have their own emotions,” said Primeaux-O’Bryant, far right. “They have their own mind.”Justin Kaneps for The New York TimesDeaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.But the teacher “pulled it out” of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, “the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.” Afterward the audience erupted in applause: “I fell in love with performing onstage.”Both men spoke of the impact ballet training had on their signing.Justin Kaneps for The New York TimesSigning choirs have long been common around the world. But the pandemic has fostered new visibility for signing and music, aided in part by the video-focused technology that all musicians have relied on to make art together. As part of the “Global Ode to Joy” celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth last year, the artist Dalia Ihab Younis wrote a new text for the final chorus of the Ninth Symphony which, performed by an Egyptian a cappella choir, taught elementary signs in Arabic Sign Language.Last spring, the pandemic forced an abrupt stop to live singing as choirs were particularly thought to be potential spreaders of the coronavirus. In response, the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra reached out to the Dutch Signing Choir to collaborate on a signed elegy, “My heart sings on,” in which the keening voice of a musical saw blended with the lyrical gestures of Ewa Harmsen, who is deaf. She was joined by members of the Radio Choir, who had learned some signs for the occasion.“It has more meaning when I sing with my hands,” Harmsen said in a video interview, speaking and signing in Dutch with an interpreter present. “I also love to sing with my voice, but it’s not that pretty. My children say to me, ‘Don’t sing, mother! Not with your voice.’”The challenges of signing music multiply when it comes to polyphonic works like the Passion oratorios of Bach, with their complex tapestries of orchestral and vocal counterpoint and declamatory recitatives. Early in April, Sing and Sign, an ensemble founded in Leipzig, Germany, by the soprano Susanne Haupt, uploaded a new production of part of the “St. John Passion” that is the first fruit of an ongoing undertaking.Haupt worked with deaf people and a choreographer to develop a performance that would render not only the sung words of the oratorio, but also the character of the music. For example, the gurgling 16th notes that run through the strings are expressed with the sign for “flowing.”“We didn’t want to just translate text,” Haupt said. “We wanted to make music visible.”Just who should be entrusted with that process of making music visible can be a contentious question. Speaking between takes at the shoot in Brooklyn, Primeaux-O’Bryant said that some music videos created by hearing A.S.L. speakers lack expressivity and render little more than the words and basic rhythm.“Sometimes interpreters don’t show the emotions that are tied to the music,” he said. “And deaf people are like, ‘What is that?’”Kazen-Maddox signing “relationship.”Justin Kaneps for The New York TimesPrimeaux-O’Bryant signing “gone” or “left” or “took off,” as in a person leaving.Justin Kaneps for The New York TimesBoth men spoke of the impact ballet training had on the quality of their signing. Kazen-Maddox said that when he took daily ballet classes in his 20s, his signing became more graceful.“There is a port de bras, which you only learn from ballet, which I was really engraving into my body,” he said. “And I watched my sign language, which had been with me my whole life, become more compatible with music.”Wailes, too, traces her musicality to her training in dance. “I am a little more attuned with the overall sensitivity to spatial awareness in my body,” she said. And, she added, “not everyone is a good singer, right? So I think you’d have to make that analogy for signers as well.” More

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    Horse Riders, a City Street and a History Now Captured on Film

    The coming-of-age drama “Concrete Cowboy” is set amid the stables of Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street, a hub for Black equestrians for decades.On Fletcher Street one summer morning in 2019, Ricky Staub was asked to walk the plank.For decades, Fletcher Street — a slice of North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood — had been home to urban horse stables, and a hub for Black equestrians, and Staub had started spending time there after befriending a local rider.That’s how Staub found himself struggling to push a wheelbarrow up an angled wooden beam as a group of stable regulars watched his every wobble. Staub was eager to prove himself. He’d shown up for a day of dirty stable work wearing clean, bright sneakers (“like an idiot”) and couldn’t afford another rookie flub. Also, the wooden plank was teetering atop a colossal pile of horse manure.“I’m literally going to be thigh-deep if I fall,” Staub said.Lucky for him (and his sneakers), Staub kept his balance. And when he successfully finished his task, dumping the contents of the wheelbarrow — also full of manure — onto the growing pile, the spectators erupted in applause.That daring maneuver is one of several firsthand experiences that Staub, 37, recreated in “Concrete Cowboy,” his first feature, which is now streaming on Netflix. In this coming-of-age tale, a Detroit teenager (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to Philadelphia to live with his estranged father (Idris Elba, also a producer of the film), who ekes out a modern-day cowboy existence on Fletcher Street, where small stables sit modestly among rowhouses.The movie, which Staub and Dan Walser adapted from the young-adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” by G. Neri, may follow a familiar Hollywood arc, but it is injected with extraordinary, sometimes surreal details drawn from Staub and Walser’s experiences hanging out with urban horse riders in Philadelphia for about two years.Idris Elba, left, and Caleb McLaughlin in “Concrete Cowboy.”Aaron Ricketts/NetflixConsider, for instance, the campfire scene early in the movie, when the riders gather around a fire at night, swapping stories by the light of flames, which spew from the belly of a metal barrel. It’s a tableau, complete with cowboy hats, taken straight from a classic western. It’s also something you might see offscreen today.“In the summertime, any given night that you want to, you go around to Fletcher Street stables and there will be at least three guys with a tin-can fire sitting outside, just relaxing,” said Ivannah-Mercedes, a rider who grew up caring for horses on Fletcher Street in the 2010s. Mercedes, who plays a fictional cowgirl in “Concrete Cowboy,” is one of a handful of riders — some still active there, others now based at different stables around the city — who got involved in the film, on both sides of the camera.The riders pointed to many details in the movie that were true to their own experiences, chief among them that riding has proved an indispensable form of healthy recreation in an environment where gun violence and other dangers can be difficult to avoid.Young people “need alternatives,” said Michael Upshur, 46, who began riding horses on Fletcher Street as a child in the early ’80s. “If they only see people on the street corner, that’s what they’re going to gravitate to.”Upshur said that he had boarded more than a dozen horses on Fletcher Street over the years. Like other riders there, he views the stables as more than a passion or a pastime.“Being with those horses taught me to have patience,” he said. “I found myself thinking a lot more before I act.”Upshur described methodically washing horses with a hose, watching as they playfully chomped at the stream of water. Over the decades, he has often ridden in Fairmount Park, about a 10-minute ride from the stables.“There’s something about you and that park,” Upshur said. “You can hear the sticks cracking while your horse is walking on those little twigs. You see the little squirrels running through, and the horse jumps a little bit — it calms you.”Michael Upshur on the set of “Concrete Cowboy.” He began riding horses on Fletcher Street in the 1980s.Aaron Ricketts/NetflixErin Brown, 37, remembers being told as a young rider that “your horse is a reflection of the type of person that you are.” Brown, who learned to ride on Fletcher Street in the early 1990s and later managed a barn there, said that caring for horses gave her a sense of responsibility when she was growing up. She said that for a period during her late teens, she “was headed down the wrong track,” but that the stables grounded her. She’s now a professional riding instructor.“I honestly don’t know where I would be today — and so many others can say the same thing — if it were not for the horses,” Brown said.Several Philadelphia riders teamed up with Staub and other members of the film’s creative team to create the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, a nonprofit that aims to maintain and preserve the history of Black riding in Philadelphia. (Brown is the organization’s executive director; Upshur and Mercedes are on its board of advisers.)Riders on Fletcher Street have long worried about the future of the stables, as gentrification and new development loom. Each stable in the cluster on Fletcher Street is individually owned and managed. There have been problems with conditions over the years, leading to run-ins with the city and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And the large, grassy field across from the stables — a set piece in the movie that has served as an open space for riders — is now being developed. The Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy’s goal is to create permanent stables where riders from Fletcher Street and elsewhere in the city can make a sustainable home for their horses.Brown, Upshur and Mercedes each emphasized that the history of urban ridership in Philadelphia should be preserved, and that the sense of empowerment and responsibility that horses offer riders is an invaluable — and irreplaceable — asset in the community. The Hollywood actors in “Concrete Cowboy” sensed that, too.Lorraine Toussaint, who plays one of the fictional riders, said she was struck by “the discipline involved with the care and maintenance and love of these extraordinary animals.”“I fell in love with horses so much,” she added, “that I actually went off and bought a horse farm after this film.”Elba himself felt the rush and grit that the real riders described.“These were really proud moments for me,” he said. “It felt very powerful jumping on a horse — you feel tall. You’re on this majestic beauty of a beast.”Elba was so committed to shining a light on the Philadelphia riding community that he signed on to produce “Concrete Cowboy” when it was still a script in search of financing and took up the challenge of playing opposite actual local riders. He even contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack.Elba did all of this despite an unchangeable, rather inconvenient truth: He’s allergic to horses. More

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    40 Acres and a Movie

    Disney owns a piece of every living person’s childhood. Now it owns Marvel Studios, too. The co-hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris look at depictions of racist tropes and stereotypes in Disney’s ever-expanding catalog. The company has made recent attempts to atone for its past. But can it move forward without repeating the same mistakes?On Today’s EpisodeThe Marvel Cinematic UniverseLetitia Wright as Shuri in “Black Panther” (2018).Disney/Marvel Studios, via Associated PressTeyonah Parris portrayed Monica Rambeau in the 2021 Disney+ series “WandaVision.”Marvel Studios/Disney PlusEarlier this year — during “season three of the pandemic” — Jenna binged the M.C.U., the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While she appreciated the moral messaging of the movies, which are centered on a fight against evil forces, she was appalled by the lack of nonwhite characters. “You mean to tell me they’ve been making these movies for over a decade — 12 years — and you have still not managed to decenter the whiteness of this universe?” she exclaimed.Jenna and Wesley talked about these offerings from the Marvel universe: “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), “WandaVision” (2021) and “The Eternals” (2021).The Disney of Your Childhood and NowWesley and Jenna discussed how rewatching classic Disney movies with adult eyes has been unsettling, from the colonial undertones in “The Little Mermaid” (1989) to the Orientalist tropes peddled in “Lady and the Tramp” (1955).Disney, however, has tried to atone for its history. On the Disney+ streaming service, some older movies, such as “Dumbo” (1941) and “The Aristocats” (1970), contain warning labels about “negative depictions” and “mistreatment of people or cultures.” And one musical, “Song of the South” (1946), does not appear on the platform at all.Still, the labeling effort isn’t comprehensive and seems to address only movies with instances of blatant racism, Jenna noted. “It’s worth interrogating how all of these movies reinforce the ideas that are so harmful in the formation of this country,” she added.In recent years, Disney has started to make movies that feature more diverse casts and story lines, such as “Coco” (2017), “Moana” (2016) and “Soul” (2020). They’ve also remade classics, including the live-action “Mulan” (2020) and a super-realistic version of “The Lion King” (2019).“Moana” (2016) is about a Polynesian girl who embarks on a journey to save her island from destruction.DisneyBlack FuturesJenna mentioned the essay, “Fandom, Racism, and the Myth of Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which unpacks how Black and Asian stereotypes are employed in Marvel comics.She also pointed to Alisha Wormsley’s art project “There are Black People in the Future,” which began as “a response to the absence of nonwhite faces in science-fiction films and TV.”Alisha’s project gets at the importance of thriving representation in popular culture. “What is on our screens matters so much,” Jenna said, and “has a huge impact on how we see ourselves.” She added: “We have to be able to imagine ourselves whole, happy and healthy in the future for that to be possible today.”Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley MorrisProduced by: Elyssa DudleyEdited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha WeissEngineered by: Corey SchreppelExecutive Producer, Shows: Wendy DorrExecutive Editor, Newsroom Audio: Lisa TobinAssistant Managing Editor: Sam DolnickSpecial thanks: Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree IbekweWesley Morris is a critic at large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at The Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morrisJenna Wortham is a staff writer for The Times Magazine and co-editor of the book “Black Futures” with Kimberly Drew. @jennydeluxe More

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    Erika Dickerson-Despenza Wins Blackburn Prize for ‘cullud wattah’

    The play is about the effect of the Flint, Mich., water crisis on three generations of women.Erika Dickerson-Despenza quit her last non-theater job in 2019, ready to pursue a full-time career as a playwright in New York. And that career was looking good: she was wrapping up a fellowship at the Lark, starting a residency at the Public Theater, and working on a play inspired by the Flint water crisis.The Public scheduled a staging of that play — her first professional production — for the summer of 2020.You can imagine what happened next.The coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters across America, and with it, scuttled her debut. But now the play, “cullud wattah,” is being recognized with the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a respected annual award honoring work by women and nonbinary playwrights. The prize is a distinctive one — $25,000 for the winner, plus a Willem de Kooning print — and many of its recipients have gone on to great acclaim (among them, the Pulitzer winners Annie Baker, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, Wendy Wasserstein and Paula Vogel).Dickerson-Despenza, a 29-year-old Chicago native, is thrilled. “It’s a really affirming moment,” she said, “not only for me as an emerging playwright, but also for the way that I am doing my work as a queer Black woman who has intentionally decided to write about Black women and girls.”Her career, like so many others, has been upended by the pandemic. “cullud wattah” is on hold, but a spokeswoman for the Public said the theater still hopes to produce it once it resumes presenting in-person productions.In the meantime, she has been working on a 10-play cycle about the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. The second play in the cycle, “[hieroglyph],” was staged (without a live audience), filmed and streamed earlier this year by San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theater. And next week the Public Theater will introduce an audio production of “shadow/land,” the first installment of her Katrina cycle.“I am interested in what we learn, and do not learn, and what history has to teach us,” she said.She said she had been following the news out of Flint for some time before deciding to write “cullud wattah”; for a while, she said, she just made notes about the crisis and posted them on her wall. The play imagines the effect of the water crisis on three generations of women.“I had a wall full of Flint, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “The play is not so much about Flint, as it is about how an apocalypse makes everything else bubble to the surface.” More

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    Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble’s Spiritual, Funky Escape

    The Chicago musician’s group is following up its 2019 album, “Where Future Unfolds,” with an LP reacting to the events of 2020 titled “Now.”During the summer of 2020, as protesters took to the streets after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the United States once again reckoned with fierce racial and ideological divides, the Chicago-based vocalist, producer and sound artist Damon Locks found himself at a creative impasse.“Where Future Unfolds,” his 2019 album as the leader of the 18-member Black Monument Ensemble, expressed the pain of seeing Black people killed without adequate justice. Should — and could — Locks gather the Ensemble during the pandemic to record new music in response to what was happening around them?“The challenge was, ‘What would I say now?’” Locks, 52, said in a recent phone interview from Logan Square. “And when breath is the most dangerous thing around, how do you record up to six people singing?”He emailed a local studio engineer about recording with a condensed version of the group in the building’s backyard garden. Two obstacles made themselves evident. One, it was hot. “I think it was like 93 degrees the first day, which is a lot,” Locks said. Then there were the cicadas; they were chirping so loudly you would’ve thought they were in the band.“They were seriously right on beat a number of times,” said the clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, who plays in the Ensemble.Undeterred, Locks and the Ensemble convened at Experimental Sound Studio in late August and recorded what would become “Now,” the band’s new album, out Friday. Where the group’s 2019 LP spun racial disharmony into a sacred celebration of Blackness, the new record envisions an alternate universe of infinite possibility. “The moment ‘now’ is not accounted for,” Locks said. “So anything can happen, you know?”Partially inspired by sci-fi shows like HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” where Black people literally transport themselves out of perilous situations, “Now” uses up-tempo electro-funk and lyrics that spin societal despair into forward-looking optimism. The album — and Locks’s music, in general — also explores the concept of “the Black nod,” or the unspoken mode of communication between Black people in public spaces. In turn, Locks’s Ensemble work — with all its spiritual jazz arrangements, vibrant drum breaks and esoteric movie clips — feels overtly communal, like a private conversation between those who understand the nuances of Black culture.“To me, the nod speaks to this destabilized scenario in the United States and acknowledges that you’re here,” Locks said. “‘I understand that this is crazy, so I see you.’” Locks, who also teaches art in Chicago Public Schools and at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison about an hour outside of Chicago, said he was encouraged by the activism he saw in the wake of protests and the pandemic. “I took inspiration from people checking in on people, people trying to get money from one place to the other, trying to find ways to get food to people who didn’t have food,” he said.Locks grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and was introduced to punk as an eighth-grader. One year later, he started going to punk and hardcore shows just down the road in neighboring Washington, D.C., where he saw now-legendary bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains.As a nascent musician and visual artist, he loved the freedom these groups exercised onstage. That inspired him to create work based on his own feelings, regardless of what was popular. In 1987, as a freshman at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he became fast friends with a classmate named Fred Armisen, who’d only gone to the college to form a band. (“Because all of my favorite bands were art school bands,” Armisen said in a recent interview.) Armisen couldn’t really find anyone to play with, until he met Locks, who had spiky red-and-black dreadlocks.Locks discovered punk rock as a teen and played in the group Trenchmouth with Fred Armisen and Wayne Montana for eight years.Jermaine Jr. Jackson for The New York Times“Damon had a jacket with the Damned painted on it, and I loved the Damned,” Armisen remembered. A year later, Locks transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Instead of saying goodbye, Armisen dropped out of S.V.A. and moved too. Another friend and bandmate, the bassist Wayne Montana, followed suit. “That’s how much I believed in him,” Armisen said. They started the experimental rock band Trenchmouth in 1988.The band lasted eight years, during which Locks earned acclaim as a powerful vocalist, performer and visual artist. He made the band’s fliers, collagelike drawings mixing intricate sketches and printed images, which he photocopied at Kinko’s. “That’s the first place where I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is just a genius,” Armisen said. “This is a brilliant person who cares about every millimeter of what something looks like and sounds like.”After Trenchmouth split, Locks and Montana formed the Eternals, an amorphous outfit with a sound rooted in reggae and jazz. Where Trenchmouth scanned as punk and post-hardcore, the Eternals tried to be even weirder. “We let that free openness overtake the music,” Montana said. “We started using some samples and clips from movies in Trenchmouth, but as we got older and bought more equipment, it allowed tonal things to happen that we were always reaching for.”Locks was doing a studio residency at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2017 when he had the idea of putting singers together to expand the sound of his performances. He contacted Josephine Lee, the director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, who sent him a list of five adult singers who could bring his songs to life. The first performance was in his art center studio, where “I just opened the doors and put chairs out in the hall,” he said. The band landed a gig at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The percussionists Arif Smith and Dana Hall agreed to do the show. The cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, a friend of Locks’s, joined, too.The band’s breakthrough performance came in 2018 at the Garfield Park Conservatory as part of the Red Bull Music Festival, where Locks brought in dancers, a few new singers and Dawid, who filled in for Gay. The Black Monument Ensemble was born; “Where Future Unfolds” is a live recording of the Garfield Park performance. The group’s membership, and size, is fluid: “Some of the singers have changed over time but I consider it a family and possibly folks might show up again,” Locks said.On “Now,” Locks purposely left studio chatter on the album to underline the band’s kinship. (Listeners can experience the joy that comes after the sessions are done, as the melody fades and the Ensemble applauds the take.) “For it to be such a hard time right now, and for us to have this time to record, it was absolutely beautiful,” Dawid said. “We were just thankful to see each other again.”Locks said that his art is designed to speak one-on-one with the receiver. “I’m just trying to communicate as a human being,” he said. “The idea is to be in classrooms talking to students, to be in Stateville talking to artists who are incarcerated, trying to get their voices out there.” And with the collective anguish endured over this past year, he hopes “Now” can bring some positivity: “I’m talking about things that inspire me and passing that along.” More

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    In ‘Exterminate All the Brutes,’ Raoul Peck Takes Aim at White Supremacy

    After completing his 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” the director Raoul Peck felt he’d had his say on the topic of U.S. race relations. Or at least his subject, the writer James Baldwin, had.In the film, Baldwin called whiteness a “metaphor for power” and called out this country’s legacy of racism in the bluntest of terms. What more could Peck say that Baldwin hadn’t?“Baldwin is one of the most precise scholars of American society,” Peck said in a video interview from his home in Paris. “If you didn’t understand the message, that means there is no hope for you.”The film went on to win over a dozen film awards and an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature. In addition to the accolades and rave reviews, “I Am Not Your Negro” prompted a revival of interest in Baldwin’s work that continues today. In the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the writer’s work seems as relevant as ever. Even so, said Peck: “I was astonished that people could continue to live their lives as if nothing had happened. As if these words didn’t exist.”The realization prompted Peck to try to uncover the roots of what Baldwin had written and spoken about so eloquently and passionately: the history of racism, violence and hate in the West. “What was the origin story of all of this?” Peck said he wondered. “Where did the whole ideology of white supremacy begin?”That search is the focus of Peck’s latest project, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a supremely ambitious, deeply essayistic undertaking that combines archival footage, clips from Hollywood movies, scripted scenes and animated sequences. Premiering Wednesday on HBO Max, the four-part series charts the history of Western racism, colonialism and genocide, from the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’s “discovery” of already populated lands, through the stories of the Atlantic slave trade, the massacre at Wounded Knee and the Holocaust.In scripted recreations, Caisa Ankarsparre plays a recurring role representing Indigenous at various times and places in history.David Koskas,/Velvet Film, via HBOFor Peck, who weaves his own story into the film using voice-over, snapshots and home movies, the project is an intensely personal one. In many ways, he is the ideal person to narrate a tale about western colonialism: After growing up in Haiti, a former colony that won its independence in 1804, he moved at age 8 with his family to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where his parents worked for the newly liberated government. He has also lived and worked in New York, West Berlin and Paris, and has directed films about the Haitian revolution (“Moloch Tropical”) and the assassinated Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba (“Lumumba: Death of a Prophet”).“I think my soul is somehow Haitian,” he said, “but I’ve been influenced by all the places I’ve been.”Peck began thinking about “Exterminate” in 2017 after Richard Plepler, then the chairman of HBO, “cursed” him “for 10 minutes” for not bringing “I Am Not Your Negro” to his network, then offered him carte blanche for his next project.“We’d been working on several film ideas, both documentary and feature film,” said Rémi Grellety, Peck’s producer for the past 13 years. “And Raoul said, ‘Let’s bring Richard the toughest idea.’”A photograph of Long Feather, left, and Father Craft by David Francis Barry from the 1880s, as seen in “Exterminate All the Brutes.”Denver Public Library, via HBOThe film, they told Plepler in a two-page pitch, would be based on the historian Sven Lindqvist’s 1992 book “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a mix of history and travelogue that used Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” as a jumping off point to trace Europe’s racist past in Africa. (“Exterminate all the brutes” are the final words we hear from Kurtz, Conrad’s ivory trading “demigod.”) It would be about that, but also much more, much of which they hadn’t quite worked out yet.“There were a lot of ideas in that pitch,” Grellety remembered.After mining Lindqvist’s book, Peck determined he needed a similar text about the history of genocide in the United States. He came upon “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s American Book Award-winning examination of this country’s centuries-long war against its original inhabitants, and was “wowed.” Peck and Dunbar-Ortiz talked at length about her book and his film, and how the two might come together.Many of the film’s most powerful scenes derive from Dunbar-Ortiz’s text, including an animated sequence depicting Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi in 1831, on what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. When their dogs realize they are being left behind, they “set up a dismal howl,” leaping into the icy waters of the Mississippi in a vain attempt to follow.“I’m almost crying now, just thinking about it,” Dunbar-Ortiz said. “And in the film, showing it in animation, I think it’ll make a lot of people cry.”To round out the history, Peck turned to the work of his friend, the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who died in 2012. Peck was moved by a central idea in Trouillot’s book “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History”: that “history is the fruit of power,” shaped and told (or not) by the winners.“That’s the history of Europe,” Peck said. “Europe got to tell the story for the last 600 years.”Peck with Eddie Arnold, who plays an Anglican cleric in one of several dramatizations that use anachronism and self-reflexiveness to challenge historical conventions. David Koskas/Velvet Film, via HBOThroughout the series, Peck takes down a succession of sacred cows, including the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“a murderer”); Winston Churchill, who as a young war correspondent described the slaughter of thousands of Muslim troops at the 1898 Battle of Omdurman as “a splendid game”; and even “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” author, L. Frank Baum, who advocated the extermination of Native Americans after the massacre at Wounded Knee.Among his most frequent targets is Donald Trump, which the film compares — through a series of powerful juxtapositions — to bigots throughout history. “I am an immigrant from a shithole country,” Peck says at one point, one of several references in the series to Trump’s racist rhetoric.As a way of creating a “new vehicle to make you feel what the real world is,” Peck said, he filmed several scenes starring Josh Hartnett as a 19th-century U.S. Army officer (loosely based on Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup), a racist Everyman who reappears throughout history, hanging Black people and shooting Native Americans. Hartnett met Peck years ago on a failed film project, and then later at Cannes, and the two had become friends.“Last year, he called me and said he wanted a white American actor to play the tip of the genocidal sword of Western history, and he had thought of me,” Hartnett said. “I thought, wow, that’s flattering.”“I’ve known him for 20 years,” Peck said, “and so I knew I could have that conversation with him.”In March of last year, Hartnett and the rest of the cast and crew traveled to the Dominican Republic to film the live-action scenes, with locations around the island nation standing in for Florida and the Belgian Congo. Then the pandemic hit, shutting down operations the night before production was due to start. Peck considered his options and moved the entire shoot closer to home.“We were in the South of France in the summertime,” Hartnett said. “So it wasn’t a bad situation.”Through meta-textual moments and manipulations, Peck creates his own counterbalance to the dominant Western version of history, forcing viewers to think about the narratives, both popular and academic, they’ve been fed all their lives. In one scene, Hartnett’s character shoots an Indigenous woman (Caisa Ankarsparre), only to have it revealed that she is an actress on a film shoot. In another, a 19th century Anglican cleric gives a lecture dividing humanity into the “savage races” (Africans), the “semicivilized” (Chinese), and the “civilized” — to a contemporary audience filled with people of color.“I think my soul is somehow Haitian,” said Peck, who was born in Haiti but has lived all over the world, including his current home, Paris. “But I’ve been influenced by all the places I’ve been.”Matthew Avignone for The New York TimesEarly in the series, Peck declares, “There is no such thing as alternative facts.” But he also seems to recognize the selective nature of all historical narrative and the power of controlling the image, probing deeper truths in some scenes by asking viewers to imagine what history might be like if things had gone a different way. In one scene, white families are shackled, whipped and marched through the jungle. In another, Columbus’s landing party is slaughtered on the beaches of present-day Haiti in 1492.“I’m going to use every means necessary to convey these points,” Peck said.A longtime filmmaker and film lover, Peck filled his series with movie clips to illustrate Hollywood’s creative reshaping of history (John Wayne in 1960s “The Alamo”) and as a supplement to his arguments. (In a scene played for laughs, Harrison Ford shoots a scimitar-wielding Arab in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”)One of the most disturbing clips in the series — no small feat — is from an otherwise lighthearted Hollywood musical: “On the Town” (1949). In the scene, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and others cavort through a seemingly docent-free natural history museum, chanting in mock African gibberish, dressing as Indigenous Americans and letting out “war whoops,” and mugging as South Pacific “natives.” Set to the tune “Prehistoric Man,” the dance number conflates a club-toting cave man — “a happy ape with no English drape” — with Native Americans, Africans and Pacific Islanders.“When I watched it, I said, ‘No, my God, that’s not possible,’” Peck said. “It’s like they knew I was making this film. It just kept giving and giving.”Not surprisingly, getting rights to some of the clips was a struggle. “We didn’t lie,” Grellety said. “We were contacting people and saying, the title is ‘Exterminate All the Brutes.’ So they knew it wasn’t a romantic comedy.” In some cases, the filmmakers had to secure the clips by invoking fair use — as they did with “Prehistoric Man.”Peck might not have seen himself reflected in the movies he grew up watching as a young boy in Haiti, but he uses those Hollywood clips to help tell the history of the West anew. This process of imaginative recovery was no accident.“I was born in a world where I didn’t create everything before me,” he said. “But I can make sure that I take advantage of everything I can to show that the world as you think it is, is not the world as it is.“And those Hollywood films, those archive folders, those are windows that they didn’t know that they left open.” More