At FemFreq, despite being deeply concerned with media and with how representations in the media impact our culture, we don’t always get to talk about the media we love. Sometimes it’s because we just don’t have time to review a particular work, and sometimes it’s simply that it doesn’t fall within the scope of what we cover. Here are five of my favourite things from this year that we weren’t able to cover, and boy, was this a hard list to write:
1. Queen Sugar (OWN)
On the same day that I watched Moonlight, I began watching Insecure. And within a week I started watching Queen Sugar. Race and gender representations in our media are still tokenizing, stereotyping, reductive, and invisible. But that said, being able to watch films and television shows with almost entirely black casts that aren’t siloed for specific audiences is refreshing and wonderful.
I could not stop watching Queen Sugar. I tried to pace myself, to not binge the whole thing, but I couldn’t help myself. The ups and downs of the Bordelon family are intoxicating. This show would be special regardless, but what puts it on the top of my list is how it represents a range of Blackness, from wealthy to poor, metropolitan to rural, weaving social injustices that have been targeting black communities for decades into a narrative that feels natural and honest.
Insecure is the brainchild of the talented Issa Rae who you might know from Awkward Black Girl. The show follows Issa as she navigates the rut of a long-term relationship, a job filled with “well-meaning” white people, and her random assortment of friends. The show doesn’t try and erase what it means to be Black in the lives of these people, but it also isn’t all about that either. Insecure demonstrates how to make shows about human beings who happen to not be white dudes.
2. O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
A friend declared this one of the best documentaries of all time, and I just looked at him like o_O. My friend is a filmmaker whose opinion and perspective on media I really trust, so I gave this five-part documentary a shot and he wasn’t even a little bit wrong. Director Ezra Edelman was asked by ESPN to make a one-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson and it quickly morphed into five hours because these episodes not only tell the story of the Simpson trial, but also paint a picture of all the crucial details surrounding it.
I was a child living in Canada during the year-long media circus of a trial, and while I was too young to fully grasp the social context and cultural significance of the case, I certainly remember watching it on TV and hearing about it in the news: the white Bronco, the black glove. Made in America puts all the pieces together, from OJ’s childhood, to why he was so beloved and famous to begin with, to his history of aggression and violence against women, as well as the political climate in Los Angeles and the decades of police brutality from the LAPD toward communities of colour, specifically the Black community. There is nothing simple or straightforward about this case, and Edelman digs deep through interviews with key figures and mountains of footage to do this daunting, incredibly complex and layered story justice.
This documentary by Ava DuVernay explores the Thirteenth Amendment, mass incarceration in the United States, and the utter failure of our political and justice systems. But as Juleyka Lantigua-Williams said in the Atlantic, “…it’s also a gorgeous, evocative, and maddening exploration of words: of their power, their roots, their permanence.” Bring tissues.
3. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I live for the moments when I get swept up into another world with such fierce intensity that I spend my days waiting for evening to come so I can be reunited with the people and environments of the book I’m reading. All the Birds in the Sky is one of the rare books that gave me that feeling. Anders’ ability to weave contemporary concerns about the tech industry, climate change, global destruction, and the extremes of altruism together with a deep empathetic humanity and wrap it all up in an enchanting world of magical realism is a remarkable gift. The story follows two kids, Patricia and Laurence, through their unusual lives, skipping through time, watching their relationship dissolve and form again with a number of complications throughout. Oh, and Patricia is a witch and Laurence is a tech genius. Just read it. It’s good.
Ashby has become one of my favourite contemporary authors with her previous books vN: The First Machine Dynasty and iD: The Second Machine Dynasty. In Company Town, we follow the life of Hwa, the last truly organic person in her town, where everyone else has had significant biological modifications and upgrades. Hwa’s strength and role as a bodyguard lead her to try to uncover a series of murders.
4. A Seat at the Table by Solange
I’ve never really listened to Solange’s music before this album; not for any particular reason, it just never happened. But when I first heard A Seat at the Table I was blown away. The album feels like an emotional adventure through the life of a Black woman. The music and symbolism simultaneously feel vitally responsive to politics in 2016 and old, as old as time. The vignettes of spoken dialogue discussing Blackness in America never get tired no matter how many times I listen to this album. In “Interlude Tina Taught Me,” Tina Lawson discusses the false equivalency between being pro-Black and anti-white: “It’s such beauty in Black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being Black; and that if you do then it’s considered anti-white. No! You just pro-Black. And that’s okay. The two don’t go together. Because you celebrate Black culture does not mean that you don’t like white culture; or that you putting it down. It’s just taking pride.”
Okay. Regardless of any politics, I’ve never really liked Beyonce’s music. There, I said it. But with Lemonade, she really broke the mold. This has been a good year for the Knowles sisters. Lemonade is an epic album that explores her heartache and pain through such an eclectic array of different musical directions that it’s astounding hearing them all come together so beautifully, as if they were always meant to be played side-by-side. And if the music itself wasn’t enough, the accompanying film was a masterpiece. There have been smart criticisms of some of the representations in Lemonade but putting some of that aside (and, of course, being critical of the media we love), this album is so incredibly outstanding as to outshine anything around it.
5. Politically Reactive
Comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, known for their smart political humour, joined forces to start a podcast that discussed the current political climate of 2016. It’s hard to believe this podcast only started this year because this series and format feel like they should have been with us for years. In each episode, Bell and Kondabolu provide commentary as well as interviews with a wide range of folks from Lindy West to Rachel Maddow to Van Jones. The topics aren’t just limited to election politics but also discuss the larger landscape of American life, covering issues such as sports, online harassment, hip hop, Black Lives Matter and more. It’s smart, funny, angry, indignant, and silly, and the show’s slick, well-paced production will keep you coming back week after week. In these deeply uncertain times, it’s nice to suffer through the political horror show with two smart, funny dudes and their ragtag group of guests. The podcast is on hiatus but it’s worth going back through the archives as these issues and conversations will be relevant for years to come.
She Does podcast has been around for a couple years now, hosted by documentary filmmakers Elaine Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg, with each episode featuring personal stories and intimate conversations with women working in the media.
BONUS: Harry Potter Studio Tour
Even for the least obsessive Harry Potter fan, the London Studio Tour is such a treat. I spent hours exploring the exquisite costumes, the meticulously crafted sets, and riding my very own broomstick through Hogwarts.