Archive | Essays

Kerry James Marshall’s American Dream

Walking through the galleries of “Mastry,” the two-floor Kerry James Marshall retrospective at Met Breuer, the newest branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I flash on James Baldwin’s quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Certainly Marshall’s paintings, which I have visited three times in the last month, are profoundly American – proudly, gorgeously, and defiantly so. In a swoon of silver, brocade, and funeral banners, they embody the beautiful resistance that our country needs most right now – the civil rights movement that never really ended, the revolution that has just begun. More than that, these paintings ask us to join the party.

Born in Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1963 – a classic midcentury migration of African American clans. He has said that his infatuation with Marvel comics began around the same time that he visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and certainly both influences are evident in his work. Also evident is the Civil Rights movement, which grew up right along with the artist, often in the same place. He was in Birmingham when four young girls were killed in a bombing of a Baptist church, and was living in L.A.’s Watts section during its 1965 riots. Remaining in that city during his early adulthood, he knew founding members of the Crips gang and studied at the Otis Art Institute, where he opted to become a representational painter who queries tropes of beauty as well as the eye of the beholder. Marshall has so much to say about the gaze. Continue Reading →

American Tragedy on Film

I’ve been trying to figure out why I love “Patriots Day” so much. Though I moved to New York City from Greater Boston decades ago, it’s a fact that you can take the girl out of Massachusetts, but you can’t take the Massachusetts out of a girl. And “Patriots Day,” Peter Berg’s adaptation of the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is one of the most Massachusetts-proud movies ever made. But I also love this docu-drama because it has enough heart and brains to help heal its audience.

The United States always has had a hard time navigating tragedy. Perhaps this is because, in the grand scale of world civilizations, we are a very young nation. When it comes to boundless optimism, this often works to our advantage. Even today, Americans tend to believe that a good attitude and persistence can change the most direst of circumstances. It is the backbone of our founding story – how we scrappy mavericks defeated the Brits – and certainly the classic Hollywood premise. But the downside of our youthfulness is a widespread, culturally reinforced immaturity. This translates into an immunity to critical thought and an inability to process complex emotions. So when confronted with trauma, we are uniquely ill-equipped to grieve without resorting to finger-pointing or dissociation. To the degree that we address our pain, we do so through the arts – especially film and television, which, even more than sports, is our common denominator. Continue Reading →

Top Ten Everything

Today’s kind of an intersticial day, so I’m revving up by sharing all the commentating and writing I did during the 2016 holidaze.

I reviewed Fences, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the August Wilson play; Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of three Alice Munro stories; Neruda, Pablo Larraín’s film about the Chilean poet and dissident; 20th Century Women, Mike Mill’s homage to his mum; All We Had, Katie Holmes’ adaptation of Annie Weatherwax’s novel; and Silence, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel. As well, I named my top ten films and top ten adaptations, and the most creative adaptations, and spoke with Jack Rico and Mike Sargent about 2016 film on Rico’s Highly Relevant podcast, and reviewed the end of the year’s best on Talking Pictures, the NY1 show on which I appear weekly. Perhaps the piece I’m most proud of (and was the least read) is Who’s Reading Who, about the hazards of racial identification in literature —especially YA novels.

Thank you as ever for coming along on this ride, Sirenaders. Happy happy new non-Jew year!

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy