Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.
This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.
In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.
Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.
Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.
That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.
The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.
The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.
The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.
It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.
There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.
To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.
The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”
Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.
When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.
But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”
Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.
Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)
Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.
Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:
- When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
- When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
- When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.
Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”
But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.
I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.
Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.
Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.
TORONTO — Director Atiq Rahimi (Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone) has once again created a beautiful and disturbing work of cinema.
This time, it’s Our Lady of the Nile, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s a story about a Rwandan girls boarding school in 1973 that marries the nastiness and cruelty of Mean Girls with far higher stakes. When the school’s most privileged Hutu student, Gloriosa, decides to launch a crusade against Tutsis based on a lie she concocted to keep herself out of trouble, the result isn’t hurt feelings and stolen boyfriends — it’s murder based on ethnic hatred.
Adapted from Scholastique Mukasonga’s bestselling 2012 novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, the movie script by Rahimi and co-writer Ramata Sy is lush and complicated as it works through the way colonialism warped Rwanda, and how that shows up in a Catholic boarding school run by Belgian nuns.
Our Lady of the Nile foreshadows the genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Gloriosa (Albina Sydney Kirenga) is a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, which was ruling the country at the time. Her father is a Catholic priest overseeing the elite school where she is a student. The school has a quota system for the Tutsi minority. No more than 10 percent of the student body may be Tutsi, and so only two girls in Gloriosa’s class are part of the minority, Veronica (Clariella Bizimana) and Virginia (Amanda Mugabekazi). One other girl, Modesta (Belinda Rubango Simbi), has a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, but she keeps her mother’s ethnicity secret to avoid being ostracized. Only her best friend, Gloriosa, knows and she’s constantly pushing Modesta to redeem her “dirty” mixture of blood.
Rabid with hatred, Gloriosa sets a mission for herself and Modesta. There is a statue of a black Virgin Mary in a waterfall near the school, but Gloriosa thinks it has a “minority” nose that makes her look Tutsi. When their clothes get muddy attempting to get to the statue, Gloriosa tells the head nun that a group of Tutsi men tried to kidnap and rape her and Modesta. It’s not long before a Hutu reign of terror is implemented. When Gloriosa then tries to replace the Virgin’s nose with a “majority” nose — again, in secret — she fails, and instead, the statue appears to have been vandalized. Again, the Tutsis are blamed.
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, Rahimi fills Our Lady of the Nile with beauty in every frame. He does not begin with deadly violence, but builds to it through four acts: “Innocence,” “Sacred,” “Sacrilege,” and finally, “Sacrifice.” He also shows immense compassion toward the Tutsi minority girls of the school, especially through the eyes of a character named Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), a French artist who lives in the hills and has built a pyramid on top of the grave of the Tutsi queen Nyiramongi. The Tutsi schoolgirls Veronica and Virginia, unaccustomed to such admiration, label him “crazy,” and an “old pagan.”
Rahimi’s shots of remote mountains and hillsides are lovely. But Rahimi goes beyond, offering moments of surrealism when Veronica gets high drinking a concoction that Fontenaille gives her before he paints her portrait, and a brief black-and-white dream vignette that pays homage to the French New Wave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rahimi’s debut feature, Earth and Ashes, won the Prix du Regard vers l’Avenir (“Looking to the future”) at Cannes in 2004.
It’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis and the scapegoating and murder of European Jews during World War II. Gloriosa’s calls for the assembly of a Militant Rwandan Youth sound awfully similar to the justifications that led to the inception of the Hitler Youth. Her father only eggs her on, calling her “Joan of Arc.”
When Virginia is desperately looking for a safe place to hide as Hutu soldiers storm through the campus looking for Tutsis, a Hutu friend, Imaculeé (Belinda Rubango), hides her in a pile of laundry and instructs her not to move. But Virginia peeks out, and she’s discovered by a Hutu soldier who orders her to strip off her clothes so that he can rape her. Virginia escapes by killing the soldier, but not before he brands her chest. Viriginia is marked, similar to how Jews were required to wear yellow badges that read “Jude” in Nazi Germany.
With Our Lady of the Nile, Rahimi has created more than a story of how genocide begins, because he never allows the film to turn into suffering porn. Instead, he illustrates how easily countrymen and women can turn against each other, all based on a lie and the creation of a scapegoat.
Sweetness in the Belly
Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a film about a white woman born in England, abandoned by her hippie parents in Morocco at age 7 and raised by a Sufi cleric, who finds her way back to her birth country as an adult as a refugee fleeing the violence of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974.
That is the story of Lilly Abdal, the main character of Sweetness in the Belly, adapted from the bestselling 2006 novel by Canadian author Camilla Gibbs. Dakota Fanning stars as Lilly, and the film traces her life as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslim who is more familiar with the customs of northern Africa than anything to do with England.
After she moves to Harar, Ethiopia, as an adult, Lilly falls in love with a local doctor, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’re both involved in the underground resistance to the Derg, the military junta that overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie. When Selassie falls, Lilly flees to England and makes a new life for herself. Her beloved, Aziz, chooses to stay in Ethiopia and is later imprisoned and executed.
Directed by Zeresenay Mehari, Sweetness in the Belly is lovely to look at, but also anodyne in the way that seems to plague big-budget films about white ladies in Africa. Thematically, Sweetness in the Belly overlaps with another film from earlier in Fanning’s career: The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It, too, is a movie about a white girl named Lily (one “l,” not two) who is failed by her parents, gets taken in by kindly black strangers, and falls in love with a black boy. It takes place in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina, in 1964, in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
It would not surprise me if Sweetness in the Belly gets labeled as “Habesha Green Book” given that it contains a few similar beats. For instance, Lilly is far more of a devout Muslim than Aziz — she worries about being denied entry into paradise for sleeping with, or even kissing him when the two aren’t married. Aziz is far less dogmatic.
When Lilly escapes to England, the government immediately places her in a one-bedroom apartment in Brixton. She offers her bedroom to a fellow refugee, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) who has just given birth to a baby conceived in a refugee camp.
Amina and Aziz offer Lilly gentle reminders of her whiteness. Aziz is curious about her simply because she doesn’t look like anyone else in Harar. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s no real investment when it comes to interrogating how Lilly’s whiteness and her connections to the Ethiopian resistance affect those around her. A few throwaway lines add about as much depth as a London rain puddle.
“Must be nice, having this place all to yourself,” Amina remarks the first time she sees Lilly’s apartment.
“Well, I didn’t ask for it,” Lilly responds.
“You didn’t have to,” Amina says.
The shallow focus isn’t limited to questions of race. Laura Phillips’ script never really delves into how much Lilly is affected by being abandoned by her parents when it comes to issues surrounding attachment or her ability to trust others.
Though Lilly is white, in some ways she’s treated like an immigrant in her “home” country. Her training as a nurse in Ethiopia is not regarded as legitimate experience when she applies for a job in a London hospital. She’s finally hired when she convinces the administrator interviewing her that it might be useful to have a staffer who speaks Arabic and Amharic to translate, given the influx of Ethiopian refugees.
Fanning is by far the biggest name attached to Sweetness in the Belly, and it may be that it was easier to find financing for a film set against the Ethiopian Revolution because a well-known white actress was at the center of the story. Still, the assumption that the presence of a white name is the only way to get people to pay attention to a film about Ethiopia is frustrating and limiting.
Sweetness in the Belly has its moments of grace, and director of photography Tim Fleming has a lovely eye for capturing the beauty of a range of skin tones. But for a complicated story set during even more complicated times, Sweetness in the Belly just feels altogether too simple.
TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.
Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.
Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?
Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.
While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.
For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.
The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.
It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.
Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.
Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.
But now, you’re about to see him.
At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.
And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.
Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.
This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.
“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”
Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.
In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.
Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.
In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.
Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”
Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.
“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.
“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”
Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)
But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.
The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.
“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.
“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”
Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.
Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.
After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.
In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.
“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”
“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”
“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”
“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.
“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”
And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.
“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”
“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”
If any subject has been mined to death in American film and television, it’s the idea that everything is not idyllic in the American suburbs.
Somehow, though, Sam Levinson, the creator and director of Euphoria, found a spark of life within that theme. His new teen drama, based on an Israeli series of the same name, premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO, and it’s already stirring up condemnation and panic thanks to its copious and graphic depictions of teen sex, drug use and self-harm.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of the season, and the first and fourth are especially terrific. The Drake-produced show centers on a biracial 16-year-old named Rue (Zendaya), who spent the summer before her junior year in rehab. Born three days after 9/11, Rue’s witnessed the 2008 financial crisis and her father dying of cancer. Before she started experimenting with the hard drugs that came with her father’s in-home hospice care, Rue was on a cocktail of prescription meds for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder. She was a veteran pill popper by the time she’d entered middle school. Her best friend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), is new to town, and the two girls become fast friends after meeting at a party. Jules also happens to be a transgender girl.
“There’s nothing I’m really passionate about, ya know? Like, I’m not dying to say or do anything, really, and every time I admit that to people, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s so sad,’ ” Rue admits to a friend at one of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, the one person who clocks that she’s still high even as she’s proclaiming to be clean. “But I think that’s the case for most people. Like, when I look at my mom, or the kids at my school — like their profiles or their posts or their Tumblr rants — you realize they’re all just f—ed up too. And lost. They just have a reason to mask it. Whether it be like their families, or their boyfriends, or their hashtag activism.”
As Rue astutely observes, the others in her community have their own issues, which fall along a spectrum of teen drama tropes. Jacob Elordi plays Nate, a jock who falls for a girl who’s inappropriate for the strictures of his highly scrutinized social life. As Kat, Barbie Ferreira is a nerdy, horny girl who writes One Direction fan fiction on Tumblr and tries to reclaim some control over her body after footage of her losing her virginity gets uploaded to Pornhub. There’s a nighttime carnival where everyone’s lives collide in predictable ways. But, boy, is it engrossing to watch how all of these things are colored by the fact that they’re happening to Generation YouTube.
There’s been a spate of engaging, fun, sometimes thoughtful portraits of youth culture lately, including On My Block, Sex Education and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which are streaming on Netflix. The delightfully cringey PEN15 is on Hulu. Olivia Wilde’s movie Booksmart features two high school seniors dipping a toe for one night into the behaviors that are practically standard on Euphoria. Kay Cannon’s 2018 comedy Blockers encouraged parents to have more faith in their daughters’ ability to make intelligent decisions, especially about sex, by making them look like hovering, panicked idiots. Soapy teen dramas of the 2000s such as Gossip Girl, The OC and Friday Night Lights came equipped with a content restrictor plate by virtue of being broadcast network properties, as does the contemporary Riverdale, which airs on The CW.
Euphoria is different. It isn’t interested in the kids who have a cushy mattress of family wealth and acceptance to elite schools to soften whatever tourist jaunts they take through the valley of bad decisions. The security blanket of these other films and shows is that they tend to have happy endings. They’re full of girls who find their way back to sensible decision-making. And there was never a question that the feckless boy stoners in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared would somehow stumble through life without too many Big Problems.
Euphoria is more like Kids, the 1995 film starring Rosario Dawson, Chloë Sevigny and Leo Fitzpatrick that scandalized audiences so much, the MPAA smacked it with an NC-17 rating.
Rather than simply being scandalized by the sex and drug use on Euphoria, viewers could take a breath and ask what its presence is telling us about the world of these teens. To borrow an example from another genre, both rape and consensual sex on Game of Thrones reflected the patriarchal nature of the Seven Kingdoms. They were depicted as natural consequences of the way gender functioned there: Women were dismissed and assumed to be either unworthy or incapable of holding power. Even female characters who escape gender-based violence, such as Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, are shaped by the atmosphere that harbors it.
What’s equally fascinating and disturbing about Euphoria is that it’s not set in a vaguely medieval universe full of giants, dragons and ice zombies. Its purview is suburban America, right now, and it’s not a pretty sight. Right alongside the existence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the heroines who inspire the dutiful good girls of Booksmart, there’s a country full of kids who simply are not all right, and the sex in Euphoria is symptomatic of that.
The show’s female characters find themselves feebly objecting to boys whose entire expectations around sex have been shaped by Pornhub and similar sites. That’s life for Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and her bestie, Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney). I appreciate the consideration given to Cassie and Maddy in this series. Often, girls like them are dismissed as vain, airheaded sociopaths, and few seem interested in examining how the world made them that way in the first place.
In one telling moment in episode four, Cassie and Maddy meet up at the carnival. “Hey, you’re not having fun,” Maddy observes, after her boyfriend has admonished her for dressing “like a hooker.” “Me neither,” she continues, before blithely adding, “You wanna do molly?”
Cassie and Maddy aren’t high-flying, Yale-bound overachievers who read Rookie and fill in their meager sex ed with actual facts from Scarleteen. They’re both dating football players, and they have subsisted on a steady diet of contradictory messages telling them to be sexy but not slutty, cool but not careless, and that the best thing they can hope to be is hot. That ideology is upheld by their parents. Amy Poehler’s comedic take on the Juicy Couture-sporting, chardonnay-guzzling Cool Mom in Mean Girls has been supplanted by something much darker in Euphoria. Cassie’s Cool Mom is either oblivious or in denial about what’s happening in her daughter’s life.
Options are limited for girls like Cassie and Maddy. They can disengage from the social strata of high school or find a way to cope. Coping, in this universe, means reclaiming agency in bits and pieces and telling yourself that the decisions you’re making are your own, even when they’ve been shaped by a culture that has little regard for you. You concoct ways to make yourself matter: by having public sex in a swimming pool to make your boyfriend jealous, by participating in a beauty culture ruled by Instagram influencers and butt injections.
That is what powers the show through its equal-opportunity nudity. I have seen more penises in four hours of Euphoria than I have encountered in 30 years of television-watching. But none of this matters if the show isn’t any good. Penises and a plethora of scary-sounding street pharmaceuticals will only hold an audience’s attention for so long.
Levinson, thankfully, is interested in more than that. He opens each episode by focusing on a different character. Zendaya, as Rue, is an omniscient narrator for these sketches. Her delivery is flat without being monotonous, like a person who’s seen too much and is already, like, over it. Rue’s barometer for what constitutes normalcy is not like yours and mine, and yet Zendaya’s line reading goes a long way toward making you believe that maybe it’s not that far off.
The friendship between Jules and Rue is the show’s strongest feature. They’ve both been forced to grow up fast, in ways they’re ill-equipped to handle, and they are the ports in each other’s storms. I’m eager to see what the show does as its big secrets reverberate through the community it’s built. Moreover, I’m hoping that folks can see past the condemnations of its nudity and drug use, which are really unfulfilling escapes from the Age of Anxiety and a societal mess that’s been decades in the making.
Ava DuVernay has now established herself as the country’s pre-eminent director in using film and television to foreground the truth about black people, white supremacy and justice.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it is after watching When They See Us, DuVernay’s limited series about the Central Park Five, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.
When They See Us represents the pinnacle of a directorial career examining injustice. A righteous confidence propels her telling of the story of Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, the five boys who were wrongfully convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of a woman known simply as the Central Park Jogger.
Trisha Meili, who is white, was sexually assaulted and left for dead while running in Central Park. A group of brown and black teenagers was implicated. The five were all between the ages of 14 and 16 when they were held for hours by the New York Police Department, without lawyers, and coerced into confessing to the assault. The demand for blood — for revenge, really — reached a fever pitch. Donald Trump — then a publicity-seeking real estate developer, not a president — paid for ads in four New York newspapers calling for the state to bring back the death penalty and apply it in the case.
Although the five were minors, the police released the names of the teens as suspects, and their reputations were trashed across print and local news before their guilt or innocence had been proven.
It wasn’t until 2002, when the real rapist confessed to the crime, that Wise, Santana, Salaam, Richardson and McCray were exonerated. At that point, four of them had served six years each in prison. Wise, who was prosecuted and sentenced as an adult at age 16, spent 13 years bouncing from Rikers jail to Attica prison before he was finally released.
In 2012, Ken and Sarah Burns told the story in their documentary The Central Park Five. It revealed that DNA testing done by the FBI in 1989 concluded that none of the five boys could have raped the victim, yet the New York Police Department and New York district attorney Linda Fairstein proceeded with their prosecution anyway. The Central Park Five told a straightforward story of a horrifying miscarriage of justice, with Wise, Santana, Salaam and McCray speaking about their experiences. But it didn’t have the power to match the onslaught of media coverage from 1989 that defamed a group of scared boys as out-of-control hoodlums and bloodthirsty monsters.
When They See Us does. It is David come to slay the Goliath of a destructive, wrongful, racist narrative once and for all.
Reframing the systematic and racialized indignities inflicted by America’s prison system is a recurring theme in DuVernay’s narrative and documentary work, from Middle of Nowhere (2012) to Queen Sugar (2016) to 13th (2016) and now When They See Us. In each of these, DuVernay repeatedly turns her lens on those who are dismissed, disregarded and thrown away because they’ve been labeled as criminals. Furthermore, DuVernay always expands her view to consider how mass incarceration affects not only those serving time but also the people they love.
That’s where the impact of When They See Us truly lies. DuVernay takes full advantage of the limited series form, patiently unfurling humanizing details about the lives of the five boys before, during and after police hauled them in for questioning and prosecutors tried and convicted them.
The moral confidence of When They See Us is especially notable considering the flak DuVernay received during the awards campaign for Selma because of her refusal to paint President Lyndon B. Johnson as an anti-racist saint. Selma (2014) took a huge hit in its Oscar campaign when former Johnson aides expressed their discontent with the way he was depicted. A lesser director might have backed down in subsequent projects after weathering such consequences. DuVernay simply dug in.
Fairstein, who went on to become a successful crime fiction writer after leaving the prosecutor’s office, comes off especially poorly. Even though the timeline of the jogger’s run and the vast geography of the park made it impossible for the group to have raped her, Fairstein doubled down on their guilt anyway. The series is sure to reignite questions about the consequences (or really the lack thereof) that she faced for knowingly stealing years from the lives of five innocent boys.
Once again, DuVernay has teamed with Selma cinematographer Bradford Young. The effect is similar to that of If Beale Street Could Talk in the way it captures both the preciousness and banality of freedom and everyday life. DuVernay shows us young love before it’s interrupted, with Wise (Jharrel Jerome) joyously flirting with a girl he likes named Lisa (Storm Reid). Richardson (Asante Blackk) exclaims his pride about making first chair trumpet in the school band. It’s these moments that most get to take for granted that become so precious when they’re wrenched away. She named the series When They See Us as a cue to the audience to really see Richardson, Salaam, Wise, McCray and Santana as discrete individuals rather than as part of the Central Park Five, a moniker, which they had no part in choosing, that works to obscure and dehumanize.
Except for Wise, each of the five is played by two sets of actors, first as free children and then as wounded, previously incarcerated adults. When They See Us follows the group after they’re exonerated in 2002, as they try to reintegrate themselves into society and find new obstacles at every turn, from the difficulties of finding a new job or navigating romantic relationships to the hardship of being an innocent person who still has to register as a sex offender. By its end, the audience understands the true cost of the case, of the unseen toll of wrongful conviction that extends far beyond the prison yard and into the soul.
The decision to keep Jerome, best known for his role as Kevin in the second act of Moonlight, through the entire series is deliberate on DuVernay’s part. It’s meant to underscore that Wise, 16, was the only member of the group tried and sentenced as an adult. Jerome shows impressive range as he charts the loss of Wise’s innocence at the hands of unscrupulous guards and disgusted fellow prisoners who don’t know that he’s been wrongfully imprisoned. Though solitary confinement offers some respite from the physical violence of being in the general population at Rikers and later Attica, it brings madness too. Jerome’s take on a young man whose most resonant life lesson is “trust no one” is impressive and devastating. It stands apart, even as the ensemble cast of When They See Us delivers one gutting performance after another.
Michael K. Williams, who plays Bobby McCray, the father of Antron, provides another. When the police are holding Antron for questioning, Bobby tries desperately to persuade his son to tell the police that he was involved in the rape — not because it’s true but because it’s what they want to hear, and the cost of not cooperating is just too high.
“Goddamn it! Why you not listening to me? Tron, these police will mess us up,” says Williams-as-McCray in a heart-rending scene that fully illustrates the racial power imbalance between the police and the black people they’re pursuing. “They’re not playing. They’re not. Look, when the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything. They’ll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain’t gon’ let them kill my son. But you don’t know nothing about that yet. But you will do what they say. You will go along. Do you understand me? Do you understand me?”
What’s incredible is how DuVernay weighs and balances each boy’s story across four episodes. No one gets short shrift. Instead, she marries the drive of a historian with a keen sense of fairness, purpose and, frankly, love. When They See Us gives Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson back their names. DuVernay knows that she can never replace what was lost, but she is fearless and direct when it comes to revealing what was taken, and why.