Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Racism

So, I’m not a huge fan of musicals. There’s just something about the level of earnestness that a musical has to have in order to work that puts me off. Unless we’re talking about Soundheim. Seriously, there’s something going on in that dude’s brain that I hope he’s addressing with a therapist. That all said, when you get a musical that intersects with biting social commentary, I’m totally drawn in. Which is why I watched The Wiz Live! last week and am here to talk to you about it.

The Wiz Live! is the follow-up to The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! and precedes next year’s Grease Live! All four are created by NBC which is clearly concerned about the dearth of exclamation points used in modern writing. But the biggest thing that The Wiz Live! has managed to do is thoroughly out-perform its two predecessors. By almost all measures, be they social media, ratings, or critical reception, The Wiz Live! was significantly better received than either of NBC’s previous live musical outings. Unfortunately, there are always jerks waiting in the wings to yell loudly about things.

Le Sigh.

I’ll talk about the jerks in a second, but first let’s focus on the production itself. Simply put, the show was thoroughly entertaining. First, consider the cast: David Alan Grier as the Lion, Mary J. Blige as Evilline (The Wicked Witch), Uzo Aduba as Glinda, and Queen Latifah as the Wizard. Dorothy is played by Shanice Williams, an actress who isn’t even 20 and for whom this is her first substantive production and she still managed to hold herself up next to these industry veterans. It almost goes without saying that the costumes and sets were going to be gorgeous and camera-ready, nevertheless they still knocked them out of the park. The word “ambitious” has been tossed around a lot in describing the production, but it is an accurate one that served it well.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I want the Wizard's chair in my apartment.

That’s not to say that there weren’t a few cracks – on one or two moments, the actors clearly stepped on each others’ lines or misspoke slightly. A mic dropped into the frame at the beginning of the broadcast. The director also relied too much on camera tricks to accomplish some of the special effects, a particularly confusing decision since those effects are all visible onstage whenever the musical is produced outside of a television studio so it’s not like they’re that hard to create. Those are generally trifles when compared to what the musical did right, however.

But of course, you can’t talk about The Wiz Live! without talking about racism. If the predominant storyline that came out of the production was generally about how good of a production it was, the second biggest story was the extent to which people online who don’t know their heads from their asses seemed to think that casting an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz is somehow an example of “reverse racism.” Twitter and other sources went nuts on this with lots of folk demanding that someone, anyone, should make an all-white version of The Wiz to protest this craziness.

"Should we tell them about MGM in the 1930s?"

I’m just old enough to remember the original version of The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson airing on television when I was a kid. When the original film was created, it was actually the end of something; the movie marked the conclusion of an era of films that centered on African American characters and settings, beginning with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Blaxploitation as an era of filmmaking has always been controversial, being seen alternately as both empowering to African American actors, filmmakers, and audiences and harmful to them. (See modern discussions on feminist pornography for a current example of the same argument.) The Wiz made for an odd, if likely unintentional, capstone to that movement. It is hardly the first film people are going to think of alongside Shaft, Super Fly, Blacula, Foxy Brown, or even Dolomite. Nevertheless, it remains one of the last major films to fall firmly into that world until later resurgences in the 1990s and beyond.

Given the original movie’s place in black history and black entertainment, it’s interesting that the modern version made some significant changes to its 1970s forbearer. The original musical and film was firmly grounded in the African American experience of the 1970s, harkening back to L. Frank Baum’s novel in broad strokes but bringing the action, settings, and characters into a thoroughly more urban environment. In it, Dorothy is 24 years old, a teacher, and living in Harlem. The version of Oz she travels to is a Through The Looking Glass version of New York City. Munchkinland is an inner city playground and the Munchkins have been transformed by the Wicked Witch of the East into graffiti because they tagged the park. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin-Man is found in an abandoned amusement park, the Lion has been hiding among the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. The four have to contend with an evil subway line, a motorcycle gang, and “poppy girls”, prostitutes working Times Square who spray poppy perfume. The Wicked Witch of the West is a sweatshop owner. Oz isn’t a place that’s arrived by magically; Dorothy gets there by stumbling through a snowstorm below 125th Street, an area of the city that she’s literally never been to.

I've had this exact same look while riding the B train.

By contrast, The Wiz Live! returns the action to a setting that’s much more in-line with the source material. Now, Dorothy, like her white counterpart from the 1900 novel and the 1939 film, lives in Kansas and is trying to get to Omaha. This Oz looks much more like Judy Garland’s, all psychedelic colors and rural environments. It’s a much more traditional approach that both undercuts the interpretive power of the 1970s film and adds to the value of the original story. Both approaches show that the story can thrive in different settings; the 1970s film transplants the story full cloth into a different world where the modern take applies a different cultural worldview to a predominately white world.


All of which is kind of what makes The Wiz Live! feel so especially different. Instead of being a closing scene, this time the musical is clearly part of the opening number and comes as a vanguard of a new movement toward televised musicals. Second, it layers the experience of a minority population onto a majority’s worldview. Much has been made in the past eight years of the United States becoming a “post-racial” society. While I don’t believe that’s entirely true, we are starting to see pools of that prospect begin to seep into the greater fabric of American culture. Particular in that goal of being “post-racial” is the understanding that no culture speaks with one voice and that there are multiple stories within each cultural group, oftentimes ones that are contradictory. The Wiz Live! and its success is a welcome contributor to that notion.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Jessica Jones: The TV Slut Chat

After binge watching Netflix's Jessica Jones all weekend, fellow TV Slut, Ben, and I sat down and had a good old fashioned chat about it. It's mostly Ben using big words and having deep thoughts and me acting like a fool (typical day at the office), but I think we occasionally come up with some insightful things to say. Enjoy!

Maggie Cats(M): So what did you think of Jessica Jones?

Benjamin (B): I liked it a lot. I think I liked it more than Daredevil, which is saying something. The first thing I think about, though, when I read all the think-pieces on Jessica Jones, is that I feel calling it a "noir" is kind of on the wrong track, thematically.It's really blurring the lines between a detective story and a horror story which involves detective work, like The Ring.

M: I agree with all that and getting back to Daredevil briefly, it's clear that the shows both exist in the same world, but their "heroes" are wildly different. Jessica Jones is even darker and bleaker...and she's a type of hero we haven't seen before (at least in the Marvel cinematic universe). I love how broken, traumatized, and scared she is. She's one of the most powerful women in the world and she's basically jumping at shadows and drinking herself into oblivion.

B: Frankly, except for some cop shows which (mostly deservedly) had only one season before being consigned to Netflix (e.g. Hack), we don't have crime-fighters who are basically messes.

M: Exactly. The entire season is really about her finding her own agency again and learning to trust people. I deal with PTSD a lot in my job, and in my lay opinion, they did a nice job with a realistic portrayal of someone with this type of trauma. Well, not mind-control trauma, but you know what I mean. We don't get a lot of THAT in my line of work.

B: I thought that was all pretty good, too. I was a little worried up until about episode 8 that Jessica Jones, for plot reasons, seemed to have it too well together, but then she did some really dumb self-destructive stuff that you do when you can't keep it together.

M: EXACTLY. And the one thing the writers had to do to make the viewer buy into  this season was establish why you couldn’t just shoot Kilgrave and call it a day. And I think that's why Hope was such an important character. Kilgrave had to stick around to get Hope off the murder rap--which clearly represented Jessica's one chance at redemption as well. After all, without her the show would be over in one episode. "Jessica tracks down the guy who violated her and puts a bullet in his head." Done. So how do you keep the story going? Come up with a compelling reason to make her want to keep Kilgrave alive.

B: It's also true that, until Jessica Jones gets Kilgrave to run amok in NYC, if she just killed him, no one would really believe her about his powers and therefore other than Trish they wouldn't believe that she didn't want to do all the stuff Kilgrave told her to do. Many of the people in Jones' orbit - I'm thinking Hogarth and Cage primarily - only give lip service to, "oh, yeah, Kilgrave can control minds" until they encounter him directly.

M: Everyone told Jessica that they understood Kilgrave was bad and the things he did were horrible. But nobody REALLY understood the full extent of it until they were victims of his powers themselves. It's another thing that felt very real and powerful; until you have experienced something like that, you can't really appreciate the true horror. I think the guy who was forced to give up his coat on the subway clearly had it the worst. I mean, can you IMAGINE? Oh, the humanity.

B: Note how he kept going to the meetings, though. Not being able to be an asshole when he wanted to really took a lot out of him.

M: The show is certainly dark and I wouldn't call it funny, but there are little moments like that are funny in a kind of Fargo-"aren't people ridiculous" type of manner.

B: I actually thought this show was more "accurately New York" than Daredevil. The real estate looked realer, the weirdos seemed more like the folks I encountered on the street, etc. I and most of the people I knew lived in buildings like the one Jessica Jones lives in.

M: That takes us back to your first (or was it second) point, I actually found Daredevil much more noir than this in terms of style and lighting. Sidenote: I think Jessica Jones and Veronica Mars would have gotten along well. 

**POTENTIAL LATER EPISODE SPOILER AHEAD**Shifting gears a bit, were you surprised when Rosario Dawson’s Night Nurse showed up?

B: Slightly. I am familiar with the MCU movie schedule, so not exceptionally surprised since Since Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones are all in the Defenders movie together. **END LATER EPISODE SPOILER**

M: I was shocked, I had no idea there would be overlap. I knew they would eventually come together, but was surprised at a cross-over character at this point. Speaking of Luke Cage…any thoughts? I thought he was hot as hell.

B: He is an amazingly attractive man. It seems, though, in Jessica Jones, if you're a man without super powers, you're mostly incompetent. And not worth talking to for the most part. It's refreshing, really.

M: I read somewhere online that this series actually fails the Bechdel test for men. Which delights me. It's so great how Marvel is getting to explore all these new types of characters and storytelling on Netflix. It almost (well actually, not almost) makes the movies look kind of hackneyed in comparison.

B: I wonder how much of this we would have seen had it not been on Netflix or a similar streaming service. This is a "prestige TV"-level of faith in the auteurs.

M: Netflix (and to a similar extent subscription cable) are really redefining what makes a successful tv series. Network programming looks sloppy and poorly planned in comparison.

B: The problem, I think, with network TV is that, like any legacy media, they would like to keep the same level of market share. So NCIS and other pleasers of everyone over 50 keep coming because the newer market is so fragmented. Or riffs thereon, like Mysteries of Laura.

M: It will be interesting to see at what point streaming television stops being considered "new" by more established (i.e. older) viewers. And oh my gosh, I can’t believe we haven’t talked about David Tennant yet!

B: I want to note that the first time we see his face he's licking Krysten Ritter's cheek in classic "creepy pervert" style. Also, we do not see the "soulfully sad" eyes he uses in pretty much everything else he's in.

M: I think David Tennant is a great actor, but I don't think he has a lot of settings. So this character felt very derivative of the Tenth Doctor to me--if the Tenth Doctor was a total sociopath. So what I am trying to say is that I found him really fucking scary. And I think the show made an excellent choice by keeping him basically off-screen for several episodes. We only hear of what he does from his victims; so you aren't REALLY sure what he's going to be like. And then within a few seconds of meeting him, he casually tells a guy to throw hot coffee in his face. As the audience, in that moment, you are like, "oh, I get it."

B: I had a different take on the buildup. Because we see early on how pervasive Kilgrave can be in recruiting small armies of agents, and how insidious their programming can be, when he's not on the screen he's sometimes a lot more dangerous-seeming than when he is. I felt Jessica Jones' paranoia for those first episodes; I totally understand why she wanted to book it to Hong Kong.

M: That’s an excellent point—there’s a lot of “Kilgrave can be anybody.”

B: AND HE IS. They just don’t say it.

M: He’s definitely playing a long game and Jessica is more flying (controlled falling) by the seat of her pants. I mean, she’s basically controlled falling the entire season. OMG SYMBOLISM.

B: It's also good to note that what Jeri Hogarth says about Kilgrave is also true - his ambitions are kind of small potatoes. Darkseid spends like years and years of DC comic time trying to get the Anti-Life Equation, which is basically what Kilgrave has.

M: I wonder what traps Kilgrave has left for Jessica in season 2? There was a lot of time he had to whisper in people's ears, you know. I am sure he made some contingency plans.

B: But that would require he consider the potential that he would actually fail. I don't know that he ever really does. You can see how sort of anti-charming he is when he can't use his powers. I think one of the reasons Kilgrave is so after Jessica is that she could escape him and that just makes him crazy. He's not really interested in controlling the world, he's interested in what he wants now and if he doesn't get it, he throws a fatal tantrum.

M: His emotional development definitely got stunted. Right about the time his parents started stabbing needles into his brain stem.

B: He's like some philosophers' descriptions of demons: unable to manifest the virtues of patience, prudence, etc. except for sheer force of will.

M: WOAH. What? It’s a Sunday afternoon man, you can’t get that deep with me. STOP IT. Let’s talk about how hot Luke Cage is again.

B: He has an amazing chest. So, on that front, what did you think of the first sex scene where Jessica Jones says "you won't break me," and Luke Cage insists that he probably will? And then you see in Krysten Ritter's face like, "man, this is NOT DOING IT FOR ME."

M: I like how I knew they both had super powers, but neither of them knew the other one did. Basically, the first sex scene felt like foreplay for the later sex scene. When they are like, "ah yeah now I can go for it."

B: And then destroy things.

M: So instead of the first sex scene feeling like a culmination of something, it was just really just whetting the appetite.

B: Did you notice that Trish is also super-assertive during sex?

M: UM, YEAH. There is one part right after when she, Simpson, and Jessica are discussing the plan to get Kilgrave when she is like, "Hey, last night was fun, but that doesn't mean I want to hear your opinion.” I was like, GO GIRL.

B: Well, Trish is super-supportive of her BFF/sorta-sister. And Simpson is never right about anything ever.

M: And here's the real crazy thing: it's not like the women in this show are just "acting like men" or whatever you want to call it. They're all just ACTING LIKE PEOPLE. Who are flawed. And kinda broken. And it's wonderful.

B: Yes. They’re not just made up to be “masculine.”

M: So of course Trish is going to back Jessica, and you can shut your mouth, Simpson. This is a great example of how to do blind casting (changing character's genders and races from the source material) correctly.I believe these people were the right fit for the part and make Jessica's NYC feel more authentic. Sure, it's not perfect, but definitely a step toward more diverse storytelling.

B: I know that I really liked watching Trinity from The Matrix and Calamity Jane from Deadwood yell at each other.


And we’ll leave you with that mental image since that’s where the discussion pretty much stopped. We didn’t get a chance to do much summing up (since Ben’s daughter was getting squirmy in his lap), but needless to say we both loved Jessica Jones. And saying that we liked it even more than Daredevil is high praise indeed!

You can watch all 13 episodes of the first season of Jessica Jones on Netflix streaming.