Burqas, Lesbians, and Black Skin: The Week's Best Pop-Culture Writing

The most intriguing articles about entertainment we've come across in the past seven days
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The Washington Post
12 Years a Slave, Mother of George, and the Aesthetic Politics of Filming Black Skin 
Ann Hornaday

The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics — and the advent of digital filmmaking. For the first hundred years of cinema, when images were captured on celluloid and processed photochemically, disregard for black skin and its subtle shadings was inscribed in the technology itself, from how film-stock emulsions and light meters were calibrated, to the models used as standards for adjusting color and tone.

That embedded racism extended into the aesthetics of the medium itself, which from its very beginnings was predicated on the denigration and erasure of the black body. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation” — in which white actors wearing blackface depicted Reconstruction-era blacks as wild-eyed rapists and corrupt politicians — the technology and grammar of cinema and photography have been centered on the unspoken assumption that their rightful subjects would be white.


Sundance Selects

Deadspin
This Is Not Lesbian Pornography: Blue Is The Warmest Color, Defended
Tim Grierson

We're used to colorful back stories and inflated brouhahas impinging on our relationship with a movie. (Lars Von Trier, for one, can't seem to make a film without pissing off his leading lady or saying something stupid at a press conference.) In the world of art house cinema, which doesn't have the high profile of even the lowliest Hollywood movie, a little attention-causing controversy never hurts. But instead of Blue's NC-17 rating causing that controversy, it's the question of whether the man who demanded such intense performances went too far to achieve them. Suddenly, the emotional starkness on display in Blue doesn't feel like the work of three like-minded artists working in unison but, rather, the results of an older, unwavering tyrant (Kechiche is 52) browbeating his young actresses to keep filming even when, according to Seydoux, Exarchopoulos cut herself during an argument scene.

These accusations fundamentally change the perception of Blue's intentions—and could, I fear, irreparably alter viewers' impressions of what Kechiche and his actresses accomplished. The movie's intimacy and honesty—which is suggested by the spontaneous, natural performances and Kechiche's caught-on-the-fly handheld shooting style—are delivered with such rawness that we don't want to think it was achieved underhandedly. And if these two women stripped for extended sex scenes and later felt that he was too demanding of them, then the discussion shifts uncomfortably toward questions of male power plays and female subjugation. That's more serious than Von Trier making dumb jokes about identifying with Adolf Hitler. It gets close to exploitation.

I don't want to dismiss the actresses' complaints. But I also don't think they should overshadow Blue's considerable merits. 


The New York Times
This Bubblegum, Too, Shall Pop
Ben Ratliff

“Stripped-down” is a crazy description for “Prism” — a good interview decoy, a good term to use when you’re telling your audience that you’re making progress. The record is, if anything, more grandiose and researched than her earlier work. If Ms. Perry is acting out healthy vulnerability, she’s showing the less healthy side, too. She seems lonelier and looking for validation, more ready to follow the status quo. A fair amount of “Prism” leans toward sounds that won Grammy Awards last year and some that will probably win them this year — parade drums, optimistic anthems sung in raggedy unison, and careful retreads from ’70s and ’80s dance music. It’s fine to frame the musical quotations in the album as post Pop-art collage. But that collage seems to be the last five volumes of “Now That’s What I Call Music!,” not the presumed supercollider of a pop savant’s imagination.

The outside echoes don’t stop with “Roar.” Here’s a straight ’90s Euro-house track, “Walking on Air”: one waits for a wink to the audience, the acknowledgment that she’s in on the game, but it doesn’t really come. (Maybe straight homage is a form of vulnerability?) Here’s “Legendary Lovers,” with a sitar loop and vapid lyrics intimating Eastern spirituality, speaking of karma, third eyes, and mantras; to call it a knowing rip on, say, mid-period-Madonna spirituality would be generous. Here’s “Dark Horse,” efficiently split between boilerplate trap and E.D.M., as well as the return of that Lumineer-y “hey!” “International Smile” borrows Daft Punk’s old rhythm feel, as well as its vocoder breakdowns. “Double Rainbow” lays a 2011 Internet meme over a melody line that suggests Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”


Magnolia

NPR
Time Untied: Why We'd All Be Better Off Without Release-Date Myopia
Linda Holmes

If almost all of the coverage comes when the majority of people have no access, you're condemning a huge part of the audience — no matter what their level of curiosity, intelligence, and enthusiasm, no matter what they might bring to the table as a result of their unique experience — to passive engagement with criticism and culture. You're saying, "Sit there while two coastal clumps talk about this really fascinating thing and decide what The Cultural Consensus is going to be, and then in a while, we'll ship it to you, by which point we won't be talking about it anymore."

Looking at this kind of thing differently doesn't even mean that there's no right cultural moment to have a conversation; it just means that moment might be the one when something truly becomes a piece of cultural currency, which might be its arrival on demand, or on cable, or on PBS.


Instagram / badgalriri

The Guardian
Rihanna, Lady Gaga and What's Really Behind Burqa Swag
Arwa Mahdawi

One of the many problems with burqa swag is its confusion over what a burqa is in the first place. There is a world of difference between a burqa, an abaya, a chador, a niqab etc. Yet in western discourse these are often grouped together. Indeed, the burqa has become something of a convenient symbol not just for the entire spectrum of Muslim culture, but for the Arab world and the Middle East in general. A handy way to lump all that "otherness" together and defuse the threat it poses.

There's a certain glamour associated with the pariah status that, much as we might like to think otherwise, Muslims bear in western societies. Cavorting with the Muslim world generates a kind of transgression by proxy for the savvy pop star. You could say #burqaswag is this generation's Like a Prayer. While Madonna romping with saints and dancing around burning crosses may have shocked 1989 sensibilities, goading Catholics just isn't that risqué anymore. No, if you're really going to prove yourself as a modern day bad girl, the most effective place to do so is in a mosque. Indeed Madge herself appears to be quite aware of this. According to recent reports, Madonna is now studying the Qur'an.


Fox Searchlight

Grantland
The Song of Solomon
Wesley Morris

The film even permits you to see from 1841 all the way to the last couple months. What it costs to entertain is a central concern of this movie: Early on, we see how much Solomon enjoys performing, for appreciative, predominately white audiences. But over the course of the film he goes from accompanist to accomplice, from pride to disgust, providing musical accompaniment for atrocities, like the impromptu dances that Mr. and Mrs. Epps like so much. One night Epps blows into the slaves' quarters and rouses them awake. He shepherds them to the big house and commands them to dance in their nightgowns. It's such sad, uninspired dancing that you don't know what pleasure either of the Eppses could take from it, beyond the perverse power to demand they dance at all. Mainly, Mrs. Epps sees the evening as an occasion to chuck a whiskey decanter at Patsey's head.

I watched the joyless look on all those black faces and the amusement on the faces of their white owners, and I thought about last August 25. I thought of the handful of black burlesque dancers who jiggled and bounced in animal costumes for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus couldn't have known the uncomfortable history she had reached into, what it means for black people to perform this sexually, this anonymously for a white woman, but there she was traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts, performing an otherwise good song whose title normally refers to a nonstop party but also encompasses a depressing legacy of ownership: "We Can't Stop."

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Nolan Feeney, Ashley Fetters, Spencer Kornhaber

Ashley Fetters and Spencer Kornhaber edit The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel. Nolan Feeney writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel.

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