Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race All Stars 4 Episode 8: Despite Shock Value, Show Tunes & Sequins Fall Flat

February 1st

This week’s 8th episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars is the much-anticipated makeover judy garlandchallenge.  Whereas in past years there was only a loose theme to the makeover, the All Stars rendition has a fully realized concept: gay icon Judy Garland. Rather than make over random strangers, the queens are tasked with dragging up their “best Judy” (aka best friend).  As in past seasons, the girls have to makeover their partner, taking special care to create a “family resemblance.”  In addition to fashioning original runway looks, they have to choreograph and perform in a Judy Garland-style lip-sync number.

After Ru kicks off the episode with a fascinating “herstory” lesson about Garland (who knew the gay community’s grief over the Wizard of Oz star’s untimely death contributed to the Stonewall riots?), the queens are off to work.  Because they’ve been competing week after week without contact with the outside world, you can tell it’s a blissful respite to have their friends in the workroom.  In its best moments, the episode offers some heartwarming meditations on friendship.  Ru’s exchange with Latrice and her longtime friend Tim is particularly touching.  Remembering the dark days when she was just released from prison, Latrice tears up, grateful she had Tim’s support.  As RuPaul so beautifully articulates, we’re all Dorothy— we need friends to help us withstand the lure of the poppy fields.

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Though the episode has tender moments, much of the preparations for the main stage are uneventful.  Traditionally, the fun of the makeover challenge was watching the male guests stomp awkwardly in high heels, looking less like Cindy Crawford than Sasquatch.  This was especially entertaining when the men were straight and had to connect with a whole unexplored side of themselves (who can forget the metamorphosis of straight shy boy Chester into Marilyn Monroe look-alike Ms. Cookie, season 10’s gorgeous, hysterical master of one liners?).  By comparison, this makeover challenge has no tension, no drama.  Normally we see the queens struggle to instill a bit of their “essence” into their partner, but this season we don’t see any such footage— not Manila teaching her husband how to embody her quirkiness or Naomi instructing her best friend how, exactly, to duplicate the unparalleled fierceness of her signature runway walk.  The result is a yawn-worthy 60 minutes.

The Judy-Garland lip syncs aren’t much better.  Though I love a classy old Hollywood number, the jazzy “My Best Judy” show tune falls flat, with none of the performances memorable enough to recall even an hour later.  I myself prefer when the queens have to write their own lyrics for these kinds of opening numbers because it provides an opportunity for them to demonstrate their own unique brand of humor.  When the contestants had to put “jocks in frocks” back in season 3, they had to create their own cheerleading routine to promote safe sex— an assignment which led to hilarious, if vulgar, pleas to not “ride bare back.”  In comparison, these performances feel lackluster.

For those struggling not to siesta at our TV sets, the runway jolts us half-awake.  As has been the case all season, the queens really bring it to the runway: Trinity’s blue and gold Versace-inspired look is impeccably tailored and displays the kind of attention to detail we’ve come to expect from her whereas Monet’s gold pant suit is dazzling but nothing we haven’t seen.  This week’s “most improved” goes to Monique, whose campy eye dress represents a real step up from her usual outfits and actually has a fresh concept.  Not to mention, her makeup (thank god) is finally up to All Stars standards.  But the real stand out is Naomi Smalls, whose clever 1960s Sonny and Cher ensemble finally earns her a win.  Sadly that leaves Drag Race legends Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon in the bottom.  As is usually the case this far in the game, the bottom two aren’t horrible— they’re just slightly less fabulous than everyone else.  Manila’s queen of clubs dress is cute but fails to demonstrate the originality we know she’s capable of.  She’s served some of All Star’s most iconic looks— from last week’s geometric Mrs. Chiquita plastic fantasy to the super group episode’s breathtaking gray gown.  Because she’s been slaying all season, this week’s minor misstep feels more pronounced.

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Naomi’s decision to eliminate Manila, the season’s top contender for the crown, will resound through the centuries as Drag Race’s most controversial elimination.  Like many diehard fans, I finished the episode wanting to smash a 10-inch stiletto through my TV set.  How could Naomi be so callously competitive as to send home the strongest contestant?  In between empty promises to never again watch this trash reality show, I realized this episode represented everything I’ve come to loathe about All Stars and Drag Race in general: no longer a light-hearted celebration of gender fluidity and self-expression, the now mainstream Drag Race prioritizes plot twists and shock value over actual talent.

Stranger Things 2

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When it debuted in July of 2016, no one had heard of the Duffer brothers; however, their nostalgic sci-fi/thriller Stranger Things soon emerged as the surprise hit of the summer.  Heart-racing and action-packed, the small screen sensation had it all: a mysterious girl with telekinetic powers, a nefarious mad scientist, a government cover up.  The fact that it was also a heart-warming nod to growing up in the 80s only made the show that much more irresistible.

Flash forward and few shows have inspired such ardent adoration.  After a long 15 months eagerly awaiting the second season, fans rejoiced when Netflix released all 9 episodes on October 27th.  Though I, too, fell under its spell of 80s references and mullets, I always wondered how Stranger Things could be sustained over multiple seasons.  And I have to admit: when I initially watched the much-anticipated second season last week, I was less than impressed.  

The first season was masterfully, almost flawlessly constructed: it had a strong central conflict, a clear antagonist, not to mention an overarching mystery so compelling that we had little choice but to hit “play next.”  By contrast, this season felt less plot-driven.  Unlike last season where I literally could not stop watching, this year I was perfectly capable of pausing after a single episode.  Rather than indulge in a binge-watching marathon that left my roommates concerned I hadn’t left my room for 2 days, I watched moderately, pacing myself over the course of a week.  Was my ability to restrain myself irrefutable proof of the show’s declining quality?

Yes and no.  In all fairness, it’s hard to follow up a season as suspenseful and adrenaline-fueled as season 1.  I mean how do you top Jaws?  When a show generates as much buzz as Stranger Things, expectations are bound to be high…it’s possible that no matter what the Duffer brothers had turned out this year, some fans were going to be disappointed.

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Regardless Stranger Things 2 still has some major problems.  For one, the tight, expert story-telling of last year feels meandering and, dare I say, sloppy this time around.  While its debut season had a driving conflict (find the missing Will) and more than one threatening antagonist (a horrifying monster from another dimension, a diabolical mad scientist, a troop of forbidding government agents to name a few), Stranger Things 2 lacks a fundamental problem to propel the plot.  Yes, there is the issue of Will-why does he keep having these disturbing, PTSD-induced flashbacks?  are they really flashbacks at all?-these questions aren’t nearly as compelling as the odd happenings and puzzling mysteries of season 1.  “Who’s the mute, bald-headed girl the boys stumble upon in the woods?” we wondered, “What’s the upside down?  And where in god’s name is Will?”  Last year, these enigmas had us enthralled episode after episode; this year, I didn’t feel as mesmerized by the plot.  Why does Will keep seeing that spider creature?  What’s killing all of Hawkins crops?  What a shocker: it’s yet another petrifying monster from the upside down.  

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Which brings us to another failing of Stranger Things’s sophomore season: the way it shamelessly regurgitates many of the same plots.  The first season’s central premise-girl with paranormal abilities unintentionally opens portal to another realm and unleashes otherworldly monster- is recapitulated again here, only this time the monster is a little bigger and a little badder.  The shadow monster, much like its Dungeons & Dragon’s counterpart the mind flayer, is a parasitic beast who traverses dimensions, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself.  A sinister spider-like creature who menaces over Hawkins in ominous red clouds, the Duffer brother’s invention certainly looks the part of monster.  But though it’s physically colossal, its threat feels less serious and immediate than that posed by the bloodthirsty demogorgan of season 1.  Last season, if you were unlucky enough to cross its path, the demogorgan would surely snatch you and bring you to its lair; this season…I’m not sure what the shadow monster would do.  Much like horror movie franchises, the Stranger Things “sequel” manages to feel less scary though it boasts a more powerful killer.  

There are countless other instances when Stranger Things 2 retraces the same narrative ground: protective mother Joyce once again has to decipher the mystery of what’s happening to her son (which of course involves channeling a paranormal being until her living room looks like a page from Samara’s coloring book), the lovable gang of preteens bickers about whether or not to admit yet another outspoken tough girl into their group, and older high schoolers Jonathan and Nancy rehash the same tired “will they or won’t they” subplot.  Am I asserting good television has to be completely original to be entertaining?  Of course not.  Part of Stranger Things’s charm was the way it could make a story that was at once familiar seem fresh and exciting.  But literally recycling the same exact narratives is just lazy storytelling.  In season 2, instead of paying homage to the past while telling a new story, Stranger Things started paying homage to itself, becoming- as film critic Jess Joho writes- a “self-referential uroboros that couldn’t stop eating its own derivative tail.”  Watching the latest installment, I felt like the Duffer brothers were merely replicating a formula because it had already worked once.  

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And why would you repeat the same stale conflicts and predictable troupes when there’s so many interesting directions this sci fi/thriller could have gone?  As a viewer, it was maddening that the majority of last year’s loose ends were so tidily resolved.  Really?  After our characters discover Hawkins Lab has performed heartless (not to mention illegal) experiments on human subjects, wrenched a hole in the space/time continuum and freaking unleashed a deadly monster onto a sleepy Indiana town, life just resumes as usual?  In real-life, if you uncovered that huge of a government secret, you wouldn’t live to tell the tale.  And what about the rest of Hawkins?  Do they just unquestioningly accept the idiotic explanation that the body found in the quarry was not Will but another boy who drowned?  Hawkins Lab poses another series of problems.  Are we just supposed to forget it was the main human antagonist now that Brenner’s not in charge?  I wish the Duffer brothers had the courage to explore these questions and venture off the beaten path instead of retrace what they’ve already done.

But that’s not to say there’s no novelty in Stranger Things 2.  As is obligatory in television, the second season expands its original cast, adding Max, a skate-boarding redhead, her short-tempered brother Billy, a head-banging bad boy who drives the girls wild in his unimaginably tight Wranglers and Bob, a lovable nerd who acts as romantic interest for Joyce, Will’s mother.  

Though I grew to like many of the new additions to the cast, it bothered me that the majority of new characters were created for purposes of plot.  Max, for example, was obviously created to fill the void left by Eleven.  Oh, Eleven’s going to be wandering off on her own most of the season?  Better toss another tomboy into the plot.  She might not possess psychic powers or the ability to teleport to other planes, but hey, she can skateboard and beat your ass at Dig Dug.  More a plot device than flesh and blood, Max exists to act as a love interest for the younger boys, ignite conflict between Lucas and Dustin, the two lads vying for her affections, and thus advance the plot.  Did I dislike her character?  No, in fact her flirtatious adolescent banter and eventual relationship with Lucas was adorable; I just felt she was designed to fill a very stereotypical part.  

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I had a similar complaint when it came to Sean Astin’s character, Bob.  Almost unbearably sweet, Bob possesses little depth, playing the all too cliched part of nerdy nice guy who’s endlessly considerate.  How is he obnoxiously thoughtful?  Let me count the ways.  For one, he surprises Joyce at work just because he’s so giddy in love (barf).  Later, he stops by the house with brainteasers when he hears poor Will is sick.  And of course he accepts single mother Joyce’s kids, even offering to move them all to his parent’s house in Maine so the troubled Will can get a “fresh start.”  He’s the “perfect boyfriend,” in other words, boring as fuck.  Not only is his character hopelessly dull, he’s pointless since we all know Joyce is going to eventually get with Hopper.  Bob literally only exists so the main characters (the ones we actually care about) can get out of Hawkins Lab alive when a pack of demo-dogs show up.  Constructing such a one-dimensionally kind character only to sacrifice him is like murdering a teddy bear: it’s just wrong.  Winona Ryder agreed.  When she caught word that the Duffer brothers were killing off Bob, she was furious.  “You’re monsters,” she rebuked, “monsters!”

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But the worst additions to Stranger Things 2 have to be Kali and her gang of misfit punks.  In the now infamous 7th episode “The Lost Sister,” the Duffer brothers introduce us to Kali, another gifted child who was kidnapped by Hawkins Lab.  Narratively, Kali acts a foil to her “sister”: while Eleven hides out quietly and bides her time until she can live without fear of being recaptured, Kali vows to take vengeance on the “bad” men who mistreated her.  Once again Kali is a poorly disguised plot device designed to lure Eleven to the dark side and pose a moral dilemma.  But didn’t our favorite telekinetic girl already struggle with this in season 1?  I thought she already definitively decided she would not be a monster?  Besides broadening the universe of the show (and perhaps creating the possibility for a spin off…dear god I hope not), Kali accomplishes nothing but stall the season’s momentum.  Come on, Duffer brothers: do we really need to introduce a needless subplot at the very moment the season starts to pick up?  Kali does, however, remind us of one cinematic truth: the original is always better than the sequel.  The fact that Stranger Things 2 opens with a scene of Kali, at the time a mysterious Indian girl with an “8” etched on her wrist, makes it seem as though she and her rebel band of vigilantes will be a significant part of the story but neither ends up having any real bearing on the larger plot.  Such shoddy craftsmanship would never fly in season 1.  And don’t get me started on those hackneyed Hot Topic “punks.”

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Reading this, you might think I detested Stranger Things 2.  But I absolutely did not.  Despite its many flaws, there were certainly things about this season that worked: the budding of an endearing father/daughter dynamic between Hopper and Eleven, Steve’s redemption from rich kid bully to babysitter/love guru/mentor (not to mention learning the secret to his gorgeous, much lusted after locks), the heart-warming school dance where we got to wistfully behold the miracle of our beloved teens growing up.  A nostalgic concoction of slow dances to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and adorable couplings up, the finale was probably the best episode of the season.  I’m not going to lie: I might have gotten misty-eyed when Nancy tried to spare Dustin the humiliation of being rejected and Eleven agreed to dance with Mike.

In the end, was Stranger Things’s newest installment perfect?  Unreservedly not, but in the words of New York Times film critic James Poniewozik, it’s last year’s Halloween candy: repackaged, perhaps, but undeniably sweet.

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mick and eleven

The Monster Factory: Perpetrators & Victims in Orange is the New Black’s Season Finale

The smell of gun powder lingered in the air as a pool of blood collected on the stoop outside 1157 Wheeler Ave.  After an eruption of gunfire, an uneasy silence settled over the working-class Bronx neighborhood.  Amadou Diallo, a street peddler from Guinea, lay sprawled on the street just outside his brick apartment building, nineteen bullets pierced through his 22-year-old body.  “Where’s the gun?” police officer Ken Boss shrieked frantically as he searched the area, “Where’s the fucking gun?”  The only thing in sight was a black wallet between Diallo’s lifeless fingers.

America had always held a magical place in the young Diallo’s imagination.  America, particularly New York, was the land of limitless opportunity, a beacon of hope that glimmered with the promise of self-fulfillment and possibility.  When Diallo told his family of his ambitions to move to the big city, his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, wasn’t surprised, “When I look at pictures of him now, he’s always wearing USA T-shirts and caps,” she realized, “To be here was always his dream.”  His father, Saikou Diallo, shared the sentiment, “Amadou was the kind of boy who had ambition to go to school and to be somebody,” he told the New York Times.

Born in Liberia on September 2, 1976, Diallo was the eldest of four children.  Unlike many who come to America, his upbringing was well-to-do: his parents owned a successful business exporting gemstones from Africa to Asia and him and his siblings lived around the world.  Diallo attended the International School in Thailand, then the Computer Institute in Singapore, an affiliate of Cambridge.  He was fond of literature and spoke five languages: Fulani, the native language of Guinea, English, French, Thai, and Spanish.  In America, he hoped to earn his high school equivalency and eventually enroll in college.

Determined to realize his starry-eyed ambitions, Diallo immigrated to New York in 1997, renting a modest apartment in the poverty-stricken Soundview neighborhood in the Bronx.  To support himself, he sold tube socks and CDs on Manhattan’s East 14th Street.  Peddling was disheartening and the money was poor.  But Diallo remained upbeat.  He worked hard and, despite his meager earnings, was generous and always willing to help those in need.  Mourning their lost friend, those close to him remember Diallo stopping to give beggars his spare change though he barely made enough to pay his own rent.  Shahin Chowdhury, the owner of the C & B Convenience Store where Diallo helped with the occasional odd job, said of the young man, ”He was a jewel.  I will never forget him.”

It was a little after ten p.m. on February 3rd 1999, when Diallo decided to pack up his tables and head home to 1157 Wheeler Ave.  A devout Muslim, he said his evening prayers and strolled into the tranquil night just as he had every night since moving to America.  At home, he ate dinner, chatted with his room mates, and then stepped outside for some fresh air.  A few minutes later, four plainclothes police officers, Ken Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy, turned onto his street in an unmarked car.  The men, who were members of the Street Crime Unit, a special division of the New York Police Department tasked with patrolling the city’s toughest neighborhoods, saw Diallo outside his apartment and thought he matched the description of a serial rapist who had been terrorizing the area.  Thinking he looked “suspicious,” the police officers approached.  “Police!” McMellon shouted, holding up his badge, “Can we have a word?”  Diallo didn’t answer.  Though it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through his mind, it seems reasonable to assume Diallo was scared: it was after midnight in a neighborhood devastated by crime and the police officers were wearing jeans, sweatshirts and baseball caps— not uniforms.  They were, however, holding police-issued 9-millimeter semi-automatic handguns.  Moreover, Diallo’s English was proficient, not perfect, so if McMellon did in fact identify himself as a police officer as he would later testify, it’s possible Diallo simply didn’t understand what was going on.  Perhaps all he saw were four large men with guns.

What happens next is a series of irreversible decisions made far too rashly.  Terrified for his life, Diallo ran to the building’s front door.  As he twisted the doorknob with his left hand, he reached in his pocket with his right.  “Gun, he has a gun!” Carroll cried out.  Carroll and his fellow officers then preceded to unleash a barrage of bullets, firing a total of forty-one times.  When the smoke cleared, Boss searched the “menacing rapist” for his “gun” but a weapon was nowhere to be found.  The only thing in Diallo’s hand was a black rectangular object.  The officers had mistook his wallet for a gun.

Senseless deaths like Diallo’s are far from uncommon.  Twenty years after Diallo’s tragic demise, police brutality persists.  But thanks to the dedicated activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, these appalling cases have gained much deserved publicity and entered the foreground of public consciousness.  Like most, I’m outraged that in our supposedly equitable and fair democratic society, police officers so unapologetically abuse their power to target racial minorities.  A hard-working street peddler from Guinea is brutally shot forty-one times for looking “suspicious” while simply stepping outside his own apartment for some fresh air?  How does this happen?  When horrific miscarriages of justice such as Diallo’s occur, who do we condemn?  who do we hold responsible?

Sometimes the officer is at fault: he’s prejudiced or power-hungry.  But other times, both perpetrators and victims of police brutality are casualties of larger social, historical forces: widespread racial bias, lack of training, or the justice system in general.

Orange is the New Black handles these issues in its fourth season’s final episodes masterfully.  After a season simmering with racial tension, Litchfield’s women unite to protest the sadistic practices of punitive police captain Piscatella.  Outraged that a guard was killed on his watch, he forcefully grabs a feeble-looking Red by the arm and makes an announcement to the cafeteria: “Things have been pretty lax around here if you ask me, so lax, in fact, that one of my men was murdered on prison property by one of you.  It seems like somewhere along the way, everyone around here forgot the only thing that matters.  You’re criminals and you deserve nothing.”  Here, Piscatella embodies a pernicious belief in “us vs. them.”  Because he demonizes the inmates under his watch and is so quick to dehumanize them, he immediately breaks up a peaceful protest, which leads to riotous chaos and Poussey’s unnecessary murder.

piscatella

The most obvious victim of the Orange is the New Black’s season finale is Poussey.  Of all Litchfield’s inmates, she didn’t deserve to die: she wasn’t a violent offender or gang banger—hell, she barely even qualified as a “criminal.”  When the MCC’s lawyers try to paint her as a dangerous threat to excuse Bailey’s excessive use of force (and, more importantly, save themselves from a PR nightmare and potentially very expensive lawsuit), they come up with diddly squat.  “She was convicted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute…not even half an ounce!” they groan defeated.  “Even her intake shot is adorable!”  

As is characteristic of Orange is the New Black, the last episode relies on the clever use of flashbacks to relay characters’ back stories.  In “Toast Will Never Be Bread Again” the device is never used so poignantly.  After Poussey is accidentally murdered, we see her on the night before her arrest.  The night—much like her future—beckons with magical possibility: she parties with a hilarious group of drag queens who say she looks like Whitney, smokes a joint with an Improv group dressed as monks and contemplates her exciting new life in Amsterdam, a life—we know—she’ll never have.  

poussey

As is often the case in instances of police brutality, we may feel tempted to villanize Bayley as a bigoted, corrupt cop.  But Bayley, too, is a victim.  Orange is the New Black consistently portrays him as one of the only “good” guards along with Coates (though Coates’s membership in that class is more debatable).  Bayley’s involvement in Piper’s panty smuggling ring seems laughably innocent compared to Hump’s disturbing mind games and Piscatella’s sadism.  

Is Bayley flawed?  Yes.  But he’s also redeemable.  Though he participates in the idiotic mischief of adolescence— he trespasses to climb a terrifyingly high water tower and smoke pot, he indirectly steals from his boss when he gives away $30 of free ice cream a day to cute girls— he isn’t malicious.  When Bayley and his friends embark on yet another one of their juvenile shenanigans and egg his ex-boss’s house, he participates willingly.  “No one fires Baxter Bayley!” he laughs, reassured.  

Later as the boys pass through the crimson trees of the Litchfield prison grounds, they see half a dozen inmates raking leaves.  “Everyone armed?” Bayley’s handsome, Abercrombie-looking friend asks excitedly, “On my count. One, two, three!”  Bayley and his friends then chuck eggs at the unsuspecting women. “You think that’s funny?”  Frieda screams infuriated, “I’m a fucking human being!”  Seeing Frieda’s reaction, the futility of her outrage (after all, he gets to drive away; she gets shoved by a CO and is forced to go back to work), Bayley’s boyish amusement quickly metamorphoses into empathy…and shame at his own behavior.

What’s brilliant about Orange is the New Black is that it recognizes the fundamental unfairness of holding Bayley completely accountable for Poussey’s murder.  At first, MCC’s lawyers want to shift blame onto Poussey but when they realize that’s not going to work, they decide to use Bayley as a scapegoat.  But in the end, is it fair to point the finger at either party?  Poussey never posed a threat, never displayed a predilection for violence but Bayley wasn’t a rouge cop either: he was simply an incompetent, poorly trained guard whose lack of training led him to panic and make a fatal error.

bayley

The season finale’s genius lies in this very ambiguity.  Though we as an audience possess enough context to recognize the impossibility of neatly classifying those involved as perpetrators and victims, the question of responsibility obstinately asserts itself throughout the episode: if Bayley’s not to blame, who is?

Despite MCC’s attempts to craft a “story” and cast clear villains and victims, we know the real story is far more complex than that.  Poussey wouldn’t have died had Piscatella not irresponsibly ordered the guards to break up a peaceful protest.  She wouldn’t have died had Humps not forced two mentally unstable inmates to barbarically fight the night before.  And she wouldn’t have died had Crazy Eyes not been so traumatized from brutalizing her former lover that she started attacking Bayley.  Poussey’s murder is the tragic result— not of a single man’s misconduct— but of a system, which makes her death all the more upsetting.  After all, bad apples can be thrown in prison— bad barrels cannot.

The only character that bridges the perpetrator/victim divide is Caputo, whose negligence throughout the season makes him a tacit accomplice in MCC’s failures.  In many ways, Caputo begins as a victim.  Whenever he wants to make positive changes at Litchfield, he meets yet another road block in his path: if it’s not maddening bureaucracy, it’s the heartless, corporate obsession with the bottom line.  At one point in the season, he tries to launch an educational program only to have most of his ideas scraped.  “What happened to all my classes?” he asks Linda as he hopelessly searches Litchfield’s course catalog, “There’s no science, no English, no math.  None of these classes were in my original proposal!”  Turns out rehabilitation through education was just a ploy to exploit free labor.  Rather than offer real courses that could break the nasty recidivism cycle, MCC decides to provide “life skill” classes like “Cement 101” instead.  Caputo’s understandably upset but— like Figueroa before him— his hands are tied with red tape. 

This is just one of Caputo’s many compromises: at first, he compromises his ideas for restorative justice reforms like education and, at first, such compromises seem reasonable.  After all, “Cement 101” might not be exactly what he envisioned but at least it’s a start.  But as the season progresses, we see Caputo strike a Faustian bargain of sorts: to be warden, he exchanges his morality for a sharp $1,000 suit.  Caputo may be one of the only morally upstanding members of MCC’s privatized prison machinery but he’s still guilty by association.  It’s his absence that enables this tragedy in the first place.  What if he had been there the night the body was found?  What if he had fired Piscatella?  Like the first domino, what Caputo does (or doesn’t do) sets a whole chain of events in motion.caputo

On one hand, Caputo’s refusal to scapegoat Bayley at the end of the episode is a triumph but— as film critic Myles McNutt notes—”it is a hollow victory. It is a victory in that he is resisting the narrative MCC is presenting, but it is a failure in that it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of what really happened in that cafeteria.”  Caputo may accurately recognize that Bayley was a “victim of circumstance” but— by refusing to name the true perpetrator— he condones the actual forces responsible for Poussey’s murder.  In his statement, he never mentions Humps, he never mentions Piscatella.  More importantly, he never mentions the million and one institutional failures that culminated in this disaster.  And the cost of these failures is high.  Just as toast can never be bread again, Bayley can never recover his innocence and Poussey can never be brought back from the dead.  

So when horrific miscarriages of justice happen, who do we hold responsible?  There’s no one to blame but the system that renders such events inevitable.

“This place crushes anything good,” a distraught Caputo warns in a moment of smartly crafted foreshadowing, “It’s like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs and now it’s stumbling around crushing whole cities.  You can’t survive it.”  

“Which one are you,” asks Bayley, “the city or the monster?”

“Neither,” he stutters, “Both…Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”

3 Reasons Why I Loved Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things”

Finished Netflix original series Stranger Things after a few hours of major binge-watching last night. Called the surprise hit of the summer, Stranger Things has been building a steady following since its release and-some have said-is on the road to cult status.

The series begins with the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), an average 12-year-old boy from Hawkins, Indiana. As Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) launches an investigation, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) embark on their own search and quickly discover there’s more to his disappearance than meets the eye. Filled with horrifying monsters, a girl with telekinesis, and portals to other worlds, Stranger Things is the intersection of the ordinary and supernatural. Though I could go on and on as to why Stranger Things deserves all the hype, here are a few reasons why I loved the show.

stranger things cast

1. Mystery

What are stories but mystery boxes?” director and filmmaker J.J. Abrams once posed. Abrams, the mastermind behind such puzzling television riddles as Lost, knows that good story-telling is about ambiguity; it’s what you don’t know-not what you do.

Stranger Things builds edge-of-your-seat suspense by constantly denying us access to the box. Creators the Duffer Brothers, in fact, padlock the box and throw away the key. With each episode, the enigma of Will’s disappearance deepens: where is Will? Who keeps calling Joyce, Will’s mother (played by a convincingly distraught Winona Ryder)? Who is the practically mute girl the boys stumble upon in the woods and where did she come from? Why did the state claim jurisdiction of where Will’s body was found and later bring in their own guy to perform the autopsy? Just when you think the show can’t get any more bizarre, just when you think you have a handle on the sinister happenings of this strange town, something even weirder happens to complicate your theories.

This series reminds me of one of my all time favorite movies: Donnie Darko. In terms of genre, both dabble in the paranormal and both play with the possibility of other worlds.  Like the cult classic, Stranger Things preoccupies itself with the questions-not so much the answers. So if you adore slightly offbeat shows that are one part sci-fi and two parts mystery/thriller, watch this show.

dr. brennar & hawkins lab

2. Conspiracy 

In her astute analysis of the sixth episode, AV Club critic Emily Stephens considers both the literal and figurative meanings of monster:

“El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.

The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.”

When a frightening, alien-like monster wriggles through a hole between the real world and the upside down and begins tormenting Hawkins, we can’t help but think it’s the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. But as Stephens so insightfully points out, the real monster is not some creature from another world-it’s within us.

The central antagonist of Stranger Things is not a literal monster but a figurative one: Hawkins National Lab. Since the 1960s, we learn, diabolical yet socio-pathically kind scientist Dr. Brenner has been performing mind control experiments on human subjects. He kidnaps his most prized subject, a young girl named El, from her mother when it’s discovered she has telekinetic powers. Since then, Dr. Brenner has been trying to harness her abilities for the more malevolent purposes of weaponry and espionage.

In their pursuit of truth, Joyce and Captain Hopper realize Will’s disappearance is a part of this massive government cover-up. And the U.S. government is a titan adversary. The more unsettling truths they uncover, the more they realize they have nowhere to turn. Stranger Things creates a twitchy, anxiety-laden atmosphere where no one-especially those in positions of authority-can be trusted. Brenner and his team are unstoppable: dissenters who try to expose the truth are easily made to look insane…or are mercilessly killed off.

Dr. Brenner, Hawkins Lab, the U.S government- all represent the most terrible kind of monstrosity: indifference to one’s fellows. As Brenner and his colleagues ruthlessly exploit El’s powers for their own advantage, the government remorselessly covers it up.

If you love underdog stories, you’ll find it immensely satisfying when Hopper goes all renegade cop and tries to untangle Brenner’s webs of lies and cover-ups (though it’s hard to believe he’d emerge from some of his discoveries unscathed). Like all underdog tales, Stranger Things derives its tension not from the anticipation that we might encounter a real flesh and blood monster but the certainty that a less easily defeated foe lingers around every corner. 

stranger things

3. The 80s

If you’re an 80s kid like me, Stranger Things will be a nostalgic return to the ambient synth and bad hair of yesteryear. Watching this sci-fi/horror is like being teleported to 1983, a time when anti-communist paranoia was its height and we thought-for some reason- that mullets looked good. Creators the Duffer brothers do a superb job of accurately reconstructing the period, never stumbing into overblown caricature territory (you won’t see any Madonna-esqe fish nets or neon eye shadow here).

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan fittingly coined Stranger Things a spooky shot of 80s nostalgia straight to your heart. In their 1980s tribute, the Duffer Brothers pay homage to every cinematic genius of the period from Spielberg to Steven King. The group of best friends coming of age whilst chatting over walkie talkies recalls Stand By Me (not to mention another classic period piece Now and Then) while the otherworldly girl with telekinetic powers conjures up images of ET.  All that’s missing, as Mangan notes, is the glowing finger. Ryder herself is a relic of the era, bringing to mind the pseudo-intellectual banter and dark morbid humor of such movies as The Heathers.  Add a dose of creepy spirits communicating through electronics a la The Poltergeist and you have the perfect cocktail of heart-warming coming-of-age tale and spooky, eerie sci-fi thriller.

Master of None Series Finale

Funny.  Real.  Heart-breaking.  All of these words describe the excellent season finale of Aziz Ansari’s superb Netflix original series “Master of None.”

From the opening credits, the episode preoccupies itself with numbers. In a comic scene, Aziz and Arnold debate what to have for lunch:

“I’m starving!” Aziz complains.

“Me, too” Arnold agrees.

“Well, what do you want?”

“How about tacos?”

The next 2 minutes trace an experience made all the more hilarious by its all-too-real familiarity: determined to find the “best” taco joint in all of New York, Aziz frantically searches Yelp reviews and looks for input on Google. 45 minutes later Aziz is exhausted from too-much-information syndrome. Overloaded with information meant to aid the process of buying, consumers are ironically paralyzed by indecision when confronted with too many possibilities. The once relatively simple task of finding a place to scarf down a taco has now-with the advent of rating sites like Yelp and Google Plus- become a kind of art. One must consider average ratings across multiple criteria, assess the validity of reviews, a complex process indeed. And what’s usually the result? Like Aziz, we find the ideal taco haven only to show up at the food truck and find it’s closed 40 minutes later.

The rest of the episode concerns itself with similar issues of indecision and regret. After Aziz attends a friend’s wedding and witnesses their blissful, seemingly perfect romance, he begins to question his compatibility with his quirky, live-in girlfriend Rachel. “If you had to rate the likelihood of us being together forever on a scale of 1-100, what would you rate us?” he interrogates Rachel.  When she responds with 70, Aziz is upset and hurt:

“70? ”  

“What?” she defends, “It’s a high number.”  

“It’s not as high as 80 the number I wrote.”

Dev & Rachel

Though from an outsider’s perspective his request is so ridiculous it borders on the absurd (after all, how can you forecast something as unpredictable as whether or not you’ll stay with someone?), his desperate need for certainty is a desire most of us can relate to. In your late 20s and early 30s, doesn’t everyone have that lingering fear that “this is it”? that the man we’ve dated for 5 years out of habit will be the man we end up with?  that the job we just “fell into” will be our career?

Quarter-life is a turbulent time riddled with anxiousness and self-doubt:

“You’re so indecisive!” Aziz’s father scolds, “You’re like the girl with the fig tree!”

“Huh?” Aziz wonders, confused.

“Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. You need to read more…”

As Aziz strolls through an idyllic New York park pondering his life choices, images of all his potential lives flicker across the screen: a quiet, domestic life with a wife and family; a traveler’s lifestyle of excitement and adventure. Like Plath, Aziz finds himself tormented by the countless possibilities open to him and terrified he’ll choose the wrong one.

A Wonderful Future Beckoned & WInked

By forcing Rachel to assess the seriousness of their relationship, Aziz inadvertently inspires her to assess her life, ultimately leading to her decision to move to Tokyo.  “I don’t want to be like my sister,” Rachel divulges, “She always wanted to live in Paris; now she never will. I’m afraid if I don’t do this, I’m never going to.”

Though this-at first-seems like a heartbreaking, too-soon end to an adorable love story (after all, who didn’t love Aziz and Rachel?), Rachel’s decision to end the relationship and pursue a life-long dream rouses Aziz out of the immobilizing, I-have-to-do-everything-perfectly indecision that has been plaguing him all episode. In the episode’s final scene, we see Aziz on his way to what we can only assume to be a plane to Tokyo. Just when we assume Master of None is going to settle into the predictable conventions of rom-com, the show violates our expectations and surprises us:

“Have you ever been?” a round-faced Japanese woman leans over and asks Aziz.

“To Italy? No, no,” Aziz shakes his head, “this is my first time.”

Italy

Enlightened Series Finale

In the genius, if underrated, HBO series Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe, former corporate executive turned idealistic do-gooder, struggles to change the world after having an affair with her boss and suffering a mortifying, at-work breakdown.

What’s interesting about Amy is that she is a flawed character and her quest is not an entirely noble one.  From the beginning of season two, we get a sense that her lofty ambition to take down corporate giant Abaddon may conceal a less enlightened desire for vengeance.  “What kind of revenge play do you have going here?” LA Times reporter Jeff Flender asks when she leaks confidential company emails, “Did one of these guys screw you over?”  Outraged, she rebuttals: “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice.”  But is it?  Throughout the series, the true nature of Amy’s motives remains uncertain.

Co-creator and writer Mike White isn’t interested in having his characters fit cut-and-dry black or white categories, which makes for compelling and at times, unbearable, television.  There is a duality to Amy: she is alternately contemptible and heroic, awkward and charming, psychotic and sane.  On the one hand, she despises the superficial materialism of the 1% but, on the other, she longs for their particular brand of power.  “I’m tired of feeling hopeless and plastic and numb.  Please,” a desperate, teary Amy begs Tyler, “don’t make me go back to being nothing.”

Being somebody, doing something: this is the heart of Amy’s goal.  It is up to us to decide whether her crusade is a commendable one.  Amy yearns for something more but her starry-eyed aspirations are often complicated by an egotistical lust to climb the social ladder.  One of my favorite scenes is when Amy rushes to take her trashy Entertainment Weeklies off the table before Jeff comes over.  “We don’t read those,” her mother says confused as Amy spreads out copies of TIME magazine and the New Yorker.  No, they don’t but she wants Jeff to think they do.  “He’s a big deal,” she tells Tyler.

Though Amy may be caught up with impressing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and schmoozing her way into the liberal, activist elite, upon watching season 2, I think we can agree she is a pretty remarkable character.

When the finale opens, we see Amy watching TV, transfixed by footage of the Arab Spring.  “Am I my higher self or am I in the mud?” Amy wonders via voice over (a clever device used throughout the series to glimpse her inner dialogue).  “Am I an agent of change?” she muses, “Or a creator of chaos?”

In the preceding episode appropriately entitled “No Doubt,” we see Amy become less and less certain of her decision to expose Abaddon.  When Charles Sizdon, her supposed nemesis and Abaddon’s nefarious CEO, offers her the community outreach position she’s been hoping for, the once radical, burn-the-fucker-down Amy can’t help second-guessing herself: had she made a mistake?  Would it have been better to impact change from within?  Before she had been fighting a concept, an idea-corporate greed, the inhumane exploitation of workers and the environment-but now she was rallying against a living, breathing human being.  Sizdon is likable, charming even, and Amy can’t help questioning whether sending him to prison is the right course.

enlightened mom

 

This doubt continues to play itself out in the final episode.  Sane, adult-like pragmaticism finds form in hyper-sensible Helen, Amy’s mother.  After confessing that she has helped to expose the evil-doings of her slimy, unethical employer, her mother is disappointed, not proud.  

“Why would you do that?” Helen asks, exasperated yet again at her daughter’s refusal to fall in line and conform.

“Cause the guy’s a criminal…”

“And why is that any of your business?  They brought you back after all you did (never mind that Abaddon wrongfully  transferred her out of her department in typical boy’s club fashion, siding with her sleazy, dick-headed boss) and this is how you repay them?  You have done a lot of foolish things in your life but this is too much.”

Where Amy expects to find confirmation, she meets disapproval (and a chilly suggestion to pack her bags and move out).  Ms. Jellicoe may be doing something great but Helen-like the rest of the world-just doesn’t care.

Enlightened makes the upsetting suggestion that the majority of Americans don’t care.  If we knew what Amy knew-that our company’s CEO was bribing a government official, essentially rigging the system to line his own pockets-would we do something?  would we be compelled to action?  

For the creators of this one-of-a-kind tragicomedy, the answer is no.  

White never makes this observation in a condescending, predictable people-are-sheeple kind of way but he maintains the claim regardless.  So many of the show’s characters-Amy’s mother, Krista-are unwilling to face the reality of the world in all its injustice and terror.  At the end of the episode, Amy stands alone as the only one willing to wake up and be “enlightened.”

amy and levi

“Am I crazy?” she asks ex-husband Levi in one of the episode’s most gorgeous final shots.  

“No,” he responds, “you’re just full of hope…It’s a beautiful thing to have hope for the world.”

 Like Amy, the idea goes, we have to be a little crazy if we want to change the world.