Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP
Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP
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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP
Joe Biden has secured a weighty Deep South endorsement for his presidential campaign, with Alabama’s lone Democratic House member on Friday announcing her support for the former vice president.
Terri Sewell marks Biden’s 11th endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus, far outpacing any other Democratic White House hopeful. Sewell also expands Biden’s footprint across the March 3 Super Tuesday primary slate that will play an outsize role in determining the Democratic nominee.
A Selma, Alabama, native whose congressional district includes seminal sites of the civil rights movement, Sewell told The Associated Press ahead of her announcement it was no coincidence she chose the weekend of Martin Luther King’s birthday observance to make public her 2020 choice.
“The No. 1 threat to my district is Donald Trump. The No. 1 threat to Martin Luther King’s legacy is Donald Trump,” Sewell said of the Republican president. “The best way I can counter that threat is to support someone who can beat him.”
Biden, she continued, “has a proven track record of furthering what Dr. King fought for” and can “protect that legacy” because he can appeal across the racial and ideological spectrum.
“Joe has a special combination of vast experience, respectability and authenticity that is well-received by Republicans and Democrats and globally by our allies and foes,” the fifth-term congresswoman said. Quoting her mother, she added, “Joe can talk to anyone.”
Sewell will campaign this weekend with Biden in South Carolina, which hosts the South’s first presidential primary on Feb. 29.
Biden now has virtually swept the most coveted endorsements among Alabama Democrats. Sen. Doug Jones is among his earliest supporters, and he recently picked up the endorsement of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, a coup for Biden given the 38-year-old mayor’s relationship with 2020 candidate Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator helped Woodfin in his upset mayoral bid, helping him defeat a two-term incumbent backed by establishment Democrats, including Sewell.
The 55-year-old congresswoman’s mother, Nancy Sewell, added her endorsement Monday, as well. She was the first black woman on the Selma City Council, elected in the decades following the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights.
Alabama, where African Americans are expected to cast a majority of primary ballots, has 52 Democratic pledged delegates at stake, part of the 1,357 up for grabs on Super Tuesday. That’s about a third of the party’s pledged delegates nationally. Biden is in a cluster atop polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two overwhelmingly white states that begin 2020 voting in early February. But polls consistently show him with a wide lead among black voters who make up significant portions of the states that follow, starting with Nevada and South Carolina and continuing through the Super Tuesday slate.
Terri Sewell’s announcement comes after Democrats’ most high-profile black presidential candidates — California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — ended their campaigns. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick remains.
Sewell praised the diversity of Democrats’ historically large field and said it “saddens” her to see black candidates drop out. But Sewell said the hand-wringing over Democrats’ all-white slate of remaining top contenders misses Biden’s appeal and deep connections in the black community, especially among older African Americans and black women.
That’s even more important, Sewell continued, given increasingly overt racism in American society. “Trump has given people a license to be racist, sexist, misogynistic — out loud,” Sewell said. “My district longs for a normality and stability again, and they know Joe Biden. He is a well-worn shoe we are comfortable with and who we know will fight for our values.”
Sewell pointed specifically to Biden’s work reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the 1970s as a young Delaware senator and his efforts as vice president to protect federal money for historically black colleges and universities. Sewell acknowledged the criticisms some younger black activists level at Biden over a legislative record that includes him criticizing busing as a school desegregation tool in the 1970s and his lead role in passage of the 1994 crime law now considered an aggravating factor in mass incarceration.
“No long-serving elected official has a perfect legislative record. None of us do,” Sewell said, arguing Biden’s legislative experience is a net plus and means he can deliver more meaningful progress on issues including health care and income inequality, even if some of his proposals aren’t as far-reaching as those from Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“I like and respect all our candidates; any of them would be better than Donald Trump,” Sewell said. “But Joe can win these battles.”
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”
WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is set to launch a program designed to organize grassroots support at historically black colleges and universities, focusing on electability as a key part of the pitch to students.
Biden’s status as one of the frontrunners in the Democratic primary has been fueled by backing from African-American voters who favor him by a wide margin. And in the final weeks before Democratic primary voters head to the polls, Biden’s team is aiming to shore up his support among African-American youth by highlighting his plans for historically black colleges and universities.
As part of the program, called HBCU Students for Biden, campaign surrogates will visit HBCUs around the country to highlight the former vice president’s plan to provide increased funding to these schools. Biden campaign staff will also be training student leaders to organize on their campuses.
The campaign is kicking off the program at the same time as it launches a four-day “South Carolina Soul of the Nation” bus tour, which will feature HBCU student leaders and other campaign surrogates making appearances at African-American schools in that key early state. Biden’s campaign also released a web video claiming he is offering “the boldest presidential plan for HBCUs in our history.”
“Historically black colleges and universities built America’s black middle class, and Joe Biden knows that’s the backbone of our country,” a narrator says in the clip.
As he faces primary challenges from more progressive Democrats who have stronger youth support, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Biden and his team have made the case that he has a more realistic chance of defeating President Trump. A television ad released by Biden on Tuesday highlighted polls showing his margins against Trump in key battleground states.
Even as polls indicate young people aren’t enthusiastic about the former vice president, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of Biden’s top African-American surrogates, told Yahoo News she believes there is excitement around removing Trump from office. Bottoms predicted young people will ultimately coalesce around Biden if he secures the Democratic nomination.
“I hear people make this narrative, people aren’t excited or whatever. The narrative is, we just need people to go and vote,” Bottoms said. “You can be unenthusiastic as long as you go and vote. You can be just overcome with joy as long as you go and vote. Whatever your feelings are, we just need people to go and vote.”
And Biden’s allies believe African-American youth are particularly likely to be swayed toward him due to his connection to the community. Bottoms attributed Biden’s strength with black voters to what she described as the “authentic nature of his relationship with the African-American community.”
According to Bottoms, one root of this bond is that Biden worked with a sizable black population in his home state of Delaware and is the only leading Democratic candidate from a state that has an HBCU.
But the main factor driving Biden’s connection with black voters that Bottoms and other allies cite is that he served as vice president to the country’s first African-American commander in chief, Barack Obama. According to Bottoms, Biden’s work alongside Obama resulted in “affection” and “appreciation” that “runs deep” in the black community.
“For many African-Americans, it’s not lost on us that this was an older white man willing to stand behind a younger African-American man and to be a part of his team as a No. 2,” Bottoms said of Biden. “That may be something that may appear very subtle to a lot of people, but to African-Americans it’s a very strong signal.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who is a national co-chairman of Biden’s campaign, said the former vice president’s “numbers are so solid in the African-American community because of his entire body of work” and suggested that Obama’s willingness to partner with him was an endorsement of his prior record.
“President Obama, just like the rest of the African-Americans, looked at his whole track record and decided that here is somebody that deserves support and, in President Obama’s case, he decided to make the second-most-important man in the United States,” Richmond said.
Nia Page, president of student government at Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, will be one of the co-chairs of HBCU Students for Biden and is traveling to colleges as part of the South Carolina bus tour. Page said she was drawn to Biden because of his experience and ties to Obama.
“He has the most expertise, and he also worked with Obama,” she said.
Biden’s political career has lasted about 50 years, and as rivals have sought to dent his black support, they have questioned past comments he made and elements of his record. Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, announced her support for him last June, on the day after Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., attacked him on a debate stage for his prior stance on busing in Delaware.
“There are these moments that are amplified, but at the end of the day, it’s about knowing somebody’s record and knowing their heart,” Bottoms said.
Along with highlighting his electability and connection to Obama, the Biden campaign hopes this new initiative will promote his policies for HBCUs directly to the schools’ student bodies. Historically black colleges and universities were established during segregation and served as key resources for African-Americans, particularly in the South, as they sought education. Many of the schools, which include a mixture of public and private institutions, developed a distinctive and iconic culture. Despite this rich history, in the decades since integration, HBCUs have experienced decreased enrollment that has been dubbed a “death spiral,” and many have closed their doors.
Biden’s HBCU plan calls for over $70 billion to address funding disparities that exist between these schools, other minority-serving institutions and traditionally white colleges. This money includes $10 billion in programs designed to increase retention, enrollment and employment rates upon graduation for HBCU students.
Richmond, the congressman and Biden campaign co-chair, said he believes Trump’s support of HBCUs is “hollow” and “disingenuous.” He blamed Trump’s rhetoric for recent racial incidents, including one in which police were called after an African-American graduate student at Yale was found napping in the common area of her dorm, and a situation in which black men were arrested at a Starbucks.
“You can’t say that ‘I care about HBCUs’ but you don’t care about the black students that go to them. You’ve created an environment of intolerance,” Richmond said. “You know all the stories, the ‘living while black’ stories, and that is a direct correlation from Donald Trump and the fact that he will give cover to those extreme ideologies.”
Biden’s progressive Democratic rivals have also announced initiatives to aid HBCUs. Warren has proposed $50 billion in discretionary funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. While that figure is less than the amount proposed by Biden, Warren also has a proposal to cancel student debt and establish free tuition at public colleges that could benefit many HBCU students. Sanders has called for $15 billion in funding that would go to HBCU graduate programs, infrastructure and cancellation of student debt. He has also called to make all public and private HBCUs and minority-serving institutions tuition-free. Biden’s education plan includes two years of free community college and elimination of some student debt, which his allies have suggested is more realistic than Sanders’s and Warren’s platforms.
In the end, Biden’s HBCU pitch also comes down to electability and his campaign’s claim that he is the most likely candidate to defeat Trump.
Some young Democrats are clearly unenthused about Biden. There’s even a meme on the social media site TikTok in which teens beg, “Please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden.” But Richmond offered a simple message to young people who might prefer the policies Biden’s more progressive rivals are putting forward on education and other issues.
“I would just remind them of one of the first rules of service: You can’t govern if you can’t win,” Richmond said. “No matter what your ideas are, they go nowhere if you can’t win the election.”
In the final days of December, speculation that Rihanna might be about to release her ninth album, known among fans simply as R9, entered overdrive. Despite the many articles and social media posts leaking titbits about the work in progress over the last four years, Rihanna has never shared official details about the project, though she once said her next album would come out in 2019.
When did fans start believing they deserve albums from their favourite pop stars? New albums were once “eagerly awaited”; now fans believe that work is, in effect, being held to ransom. A similar chaotic energy surrounded Frank Ocean in 2016. He hadn’t released music in more than four years; like Rihanna, he had casually teased dates for new music only to miss his own deadlines. For a while, he couldn’t be spotted in public without being criticised on social media for not being in the studio. “Frank Ocean is behaving like a dickhead,” stated the Ringer critic Justin Charity, although he said Ocean’s fans with their “psychotic mob chants” were worse. The mood became so embittered, it was hard to tell whether fans still really wanted new work.
The situation is exacerbated by the music media. In the 2010s, online news outlets began to behave like fans themselves, scouring artists’ social media for any clues about big releases and then publishing their findings as gospel. These days, we know a lot about an album before the work is officially announced. (Search “everything we know about R9” and you’llfindmanyresults.) Publications and blogs report on Ocean’s every Tumblr post, contributing to fans’ already frantic anticipation. Grimes has also been hit hard by this rolling news cycle. In 2013, she posted an angry missive on Tumblr, stating: “nothing i write here is an official statement and i really resent this shit turning into news”.
If new music does materialise, but fails to meet fans’ high expectations, the backlash is swift and brutal. In the summer of 2016, Ocean broadcast a livestream of himself building a staircase to an ambient soundtrack titled Endless. Endless is a beautiful, haunting piece, and its introduction to the world seemed to convey a message about patience and perseverance. But fans were simply upset that this wasn’t the traditional album they felt they had been promised. (That record, Blonde, arrived days later.)
In stan culture, everything is hyperbolic. This breed of extreme fandom has emerged from a connected world in which fans can access (and berate) stars at the click of a button. In her book Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, Hannah Ewens observes that music fans have long been early adopters and innovators in the world of tech. Today, their rhetoric permeates online culture. The binary tendency to declare something either a “hit” or a “flop” has rippled through the increasingly polarised music press: in an economy driven by page views, it pays to declare everything either an era-defining masterpiece or a heap of trash.
In 2014, Popjustice founder Peter Robinson described how online fandom was supplanting the traditional, top-down fan club. With fan bodies becoming more autonomous and organised away from the control of artists and labels, Robinson depicted a stark power imbalance, saying that many artists felt “trapped by fanbases that invariably look unfavourably on an artist wishing to progress their sound”. He predicted that fan-artist relations might be running headlong towards a “full-on, real-life siege”. One glance at Rihanna’s Twitter mentions suggests his prophecy is coming true.
Stan power can make or break an artist. As hinted at by Justin Bieber’s recent cynical plea for his fans to stream his comeback single in their sleep and use proxy US IP addresses to help it to reach the top of the charts, hardcore fans are well versed in how to manipulate streaming and sales figures, and they mobilise to make sure their faves are successful. They regularly battle other fandoms by pointing to the latest streaming figures or chart positions their icon has achieved, and take pride in having influenced those numbers. In this respect, some stan factions – usually at the vanguard of digital culture – feel slightly archaic. Their obsession with the album “era”, charts, sales and commercial success is out of step with how the music industry functions today.
The traditional “album cycle” is certainly not the only way for artists to operate any more. Some have abandoned this model altogether: German pop star Kim Petras recently said that she likes to make her fans feel “connected” by dropping music as a weekly event, “like a TV show”. Many artists have ambitions beyond music. Journalist Tshepo Mokoena has explored how black artists, Beyoncé and Rihanna in particular, reshaped what it means to be a pop star in the 2010s. Their careers no longer centre around album releases – although those remain their most publicly hyped moments. Instead, with ventures such as Beyoncé’s Ivy Park and her Homecoming film, or Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty and Savage lingerie line, they’ve positioned themselves as curators, designers, businesswomen, directors and all-round entertainers.
For all that stans cast themselves as the people who truly get an artist, this demand for satisfaction – for product – fundamentally misunderstands creativity, and fails to appreciate the ebb and flow of human life. Any artist they perceive as slacking may not be in a music-making phase; they may be going through some kind of personal turmoil, writer’s block, or simply be busy with another project. Fan armies pestering idols heightens the pressure that labels, managers and other invested parties can apply to artists to meet contractual obligations, and thus make more profit. As Zayn Malik’s second album showed, nobody wants to hear records churned out to meet a quota. Keeping cherished artists tied to the content treadmill until they let fans down isn’t love.
For me, music fandom in the 2010s was defined by Beyoncé’s surprise album release in 2013: one of those rare, thrilling moments when you remember exactly where you were when you first heard something. That album, Beyoncé, remains one of Beyoncé’s most mature and complex works, but it can never be separated from the masterstroke of surprise that brought it into the world: “I changed the game with that digital drop,” she rightfully bragged on Nicki Minaj’s Feeling Myself two years later.
That kind of shock release from any major pop star no longer feels possible in 2020. Fans are too finely attuned to the minutiae of clues dropped online, too well-trained as internet sleuths. The promise of the number of retweets you might get from being the first to discover a new song registered on ASCAP is too great; as is the number of page views you might get from posting a fake leaked tracklist as news. Fans are even circumventing streaming services’ lax security to upload fake albums, usually comprising old demos, to Spotify and Apple Music: a prank that has brought flashes of chart success and ill-gotten royalties.
At the start of a new decade, what might a better model of fandom look like – maintaining the joy of being part of a global collective with a shared passion for a culture-shifting artist, but not privileging constant releases and sales as a measure of love?
First, we need space to listen harder and have nuanced discussions. In this column, Tom Ewing argued that online forums may be the future of fandom, explaining that the behaviour of fans “is guided by limits and defaults baked into the technology”. Subreddits like r/popheads provide the format for stans to go deep in a way that Twitter and Instagram don’t. On forums for individual artists, such as Kanyetothe, there’s even more willingness to dive into an artist’s back catalogue and explore what already exists. Podcasts such as Dissect and Song Exploder are bringing deep critical and technical readings of pop into the mainstream and making a case for subtlety.
The pace of pop culture hardwires fans to constantly expect more. Up against waning attention spans and falling album sales, artists have learned how to hustle harder to avoid vanishing from view. As we move forward – with a deeper consciousness about the impact that a culture that’s always asking “what’s next?” is having on both our planet and on our minds – let’s ask for less.
As the 2010s ended, sustainability became an urgent concern for the music industry, with artists such as the 1975 and Coldplay leading the discussion on how it can be made more eco-friendly. But sustainability is also a mindset: not demanding novelty, not prioritising economic growth, and not treating art as disposable. Fandom’s next phase might be rooted in cherishing what we have. As Gen Z resist oversharing on socials and everyone is feeling overwhelmed by connectivity, perhaps in the 2020s, the performance of fandom will come to feel less important than the intimate connections we all form with music.
As usual, Rihanna is way ahead, operating with the cool detachment of someone who knows where her best interests lie. Her last album, 2016’s joyfully weird Anti, was her first after leaving the Def Jam label and purchasing her masters. She released it on her own label, in conjunction with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. It’s likely that R9 will arrive the same way. Last year, she told Interview magazine, “it makes no sense to rush it”. She’s beholden to nobody’s schedule but her own. For that reason, I truly stan for ever.
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By New Year’s Day, nearly every local news outlet in D.C. had the story: The city saw its highest homicide count in a decade in 2019. We lost 166 people—a 4 percent increase on the 2018 count, which was a 38 percent increase on the 2017 count.
Two weeks into 2020, the numbers are holding steady.
This is happening in D.C.—a city that witnessed nearly 500 homicides in 1991 and spent two decades getting those numbers down to a low of 88 in 2012. A city that’s seen such a productive ongoing building boom, some neighborhoods are nearly unrecognizable to those who have watched it change. A place where most other crimes, including robberies and assaults with dangerous weapons, have been on the decline for the last three years.
Why is the homicide count rising in D.C.? And how can the city stop the killings?
City Paper asked those questions of more than a dozen people who deal with homicides and their aftermaths every day, whether as part of their jobs or volunteer work or their personal lives.
Nearly all of them, from city officials to the formerly incarcerated, responded that there are people in D.C. who face a stunning lack of opportunity—who see a shiny new city, but no way to take part. They also say that rising rents have forced some residents into unfamiliar neighborhoods, pockets of the city where people feel insecure and on edge. And several people City Paper spoke with described a deeply fractured relationship between residents and the police.
And many homicides fit into no box: The story behind every death is different, but for those paying close enough attention, this is a source of hope.
“Every time I’m on the scene, every family that I’ve talked to, it’s a different story,” says Jay Brown, a community advocate from Ward 7 who spent his career working in social services. He testified about the murders to the D.C. Council and at community town halls more than 15 times in 2018 and 2019. “There’s a story behind each and every one of them, and if there’s a story behind them, they can be prevented,” he says.
Clayton Aristotle Rosenberg, who works as a violence interrupter for Alliance of Concerned Men, mentoring at-risk youth and acting as a first responder to shootings and stabbings in Southeast D.C., says: “If we treat each person as an individual, then we will be able to get to the root cause and understand why the violence is occurring so much, what’s going through a person’s mind where the violence can be the trigger.”
“How do we get to the root cause?” he asks. “By building those relationships.”
Clayton Aristotle RosenbergDarrow Montgomery
A trip to D.C. Superior Court, where judges hear many homicide cases, provides some insight into why someone would murder another person. D.C. Witness, a local nonprofit news site founded in 2015, logs every murder and observes every homicide case until the end if the alleged perpetrator is arrested. D.C. Witness reporters listen to cases in the courtroom and read police reports, and compile the information in an internal dataset.
“Increasingly, people aren’t denying they did the shooting, but they’re saying they had to do [it] for self-defense, because they needed to—they needed to have a gun for protection,” says D.C. Witness founder and publisher Amos Gelb. “The data says, very clearly, that the number one motivation is petty insults. Another is neighborhood beefs.”
LaTrina Antoine, D.C. Witness editor-in-chief, recalls recent cases her staff covered that further illustrate these points.
In 2019, 48-year-old Vaughn Alexander Koshfatally shot 38-year-old Alayna Dawnielle Howard in her Northeast apartment because he says she was the source of his problems. Kosh had gotten into several disputes with Howard and her boyfriend over a few years, and he accused the couple of breaking into his apartment and destroying property. Kosh admitted to shooting Howard, but says he’s remorseful, and that he was just pushed too far by Howard and her boyfriend.
Another came from 2017, when 33-year-old Leonard Smithallegedly stabbed his friend, 26-year-old Leonte Butler, more than 45 times in Congress Heights for mocking his stutter. The two men started the night drinking and using drugs and ended it in a physical altercation that turned fatal, according to one eye witness. To complicate matters, Smith and Butler initially bonded because they both struggled with speech impediments. The case ended in a mistrial in 2019.
“Gun crime is unique. It is stubborn,” says Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and JusticeKevin Donahue. A gun was the weapon used in the majority of D.C.’s 2019 homicides. “It generally involves individuals who have easy access to guns, who have a history of using them and carrying them, in which the assailants and victims are known to each other. Now, there are also individuals who, when it comes from the standpoint of need and opportunity, are some of the hardest to reach and the most in need. Individuals who have had a lot of trauma in their life, who feel a disconnect from the economic vibrancy we have in the city.”
While not all of those who lack economic opportunity to survive and thrive in this booming city commit violence, nearly every government official and community leader raised it as a factor contributing to the murders. Unequal access to opportunity derives from inadequate education, health care, and housing. Frustration that comes from a lack of opportunity only intensifies when D.C. is rapidly changing and some are disconnected or excluded.
“We understand the consequences of social exclusion,” says the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement Director Delbert McFadden, who works with men with criminal records and helps them overcome myriad obstacles to employment through D.C.’s Pathways Program. “And a lot of these guys want to be part of the larger society. They want to have a voice. They want to be able to thrive, just like anyone else.”
Anacostia High School teacher Ronald Edmonds sees his students suffer from exposure to violence, and this can lead to social marginalization. Of the more than 160 homicides last year, nearly 70 victims were under 26 years old, and a dozen of those were between the ages of 11 and 18. A minor was murdered in every quadrant of this city, but a few schools lost multiple students, current and former, within a year. Teachers, like Edmonds, unavoidably bear witness to the violence and lingering trauma.
Since working at Anacostia High School in 2011, Edmonds has lost several students to bullets. In 2019, 15-year-old Thomas Johnson was killed near Nationals Park, and in 2018, 15-year-old Gerald Watson was fatally shot 17 times in his apartment complex. And Edmonds also recently lost a former student, 21-year-old Travis Deyvon Ruth, to gun violence in January 2019. Edmonds had come to know the young man well when he decided to attend his church.
“They don’t value life itself,” Edmonds says of some of his students. “They don’t value the fact that you are able to wake up in the morning. Sometimes, many of our young people are so much in a depression that life does not matter.”
That’s why efforts like Anacostia High School’s redesign can be seen as possible solutions to the rising homicide rate, says Edmonds. This redesign augments school programming by connecting students with career opportunities outside the classroom. While never packaged that way, education investments like these help young people see themselves differently.
“We are watching D.C. change right before our eyes, the infrastructure… that’s why redesign is so important,” says Edmonds. “Gentrification is real, it is happening. Instead of isolating them, [prepare them] with proper education [and say] ‘You can be a part of it.’”
Ronald EdmondsDarrow Montgomery
Several people City Paper interviewed brought up gentrification when discussing the murder count.
D.C. is the most gentrified city in the United States, according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition released in 2019. This is to say, about 40 percent of the city’s low-income neighborhoods experienced gentrification between 2000 and 2013. The study defines gentrification as “an influx of investment and changes to the built environment lead[ing] to rising home values, family incomes and educational levels of residents.”
Gentrification itself isn’t the problem. The issue is that long-time residents are pushed out when development and other economic opportunities move in. That same study says more than 20,000 African American residents were displaced from their neighborhoods by more affluent, white outsiders during that time period.
“That gentrification thing is—it makes the city look good from the outside. But within the core of it is still rotten. I say ‘rotten to the core’—it means it looks good. It looks good from the outside. But it still has a lot of problems within,” says former D.C. homicide detective of more than two decades Mitch Credle, who now works in behavioral support at a charter school and has a film production company. “It looks like the city is throwing away the old and bringing in the new, that’s what it looks like.”
All of D.C. is impacted by the murders, with the effects of the violence rippling throughout the city. But the Metropolitan Police Department reports a majority of the homicides occurred in Wards 7 and 8. Of the 2019 murders MPD mapped, Ward 7 had 42 homicides and Ward 8 had 63. As with any ward, Wards 7 and 8 aren’t a monolith. Violence is being perpetrated by a small number of people in these areas, and concentrated in certain blocks. The numbers out of Wards 7 and 8 starkly contrast those of more affluent wards like Ward 2, where MPD mapped zero homicides; Ward 3, where there were three; and Ward 4, where there were five.
“A lot of people who are being displaced from gentrification, a lot of them are going over to those particular neighborhoods,” says Credle. “If you take people who move into a new neighborhood, their walls are up, so now you have a lot of just natural tension that may exist … a lot of it’s just about natural survival.”
Brown, the Ward 7 community activist, makes a similar argument.
“You’re shutting down a lot of the older communities in the area and moving people together who have had traditional disagreements—no disagreement that they could really articulate,” says Brown. “Now you got unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar cultures—people who are operating out of fear when they have a disagreement. They have a lack of coping skills. They resort to the only way that they know how to eliminate that threat.”
Rob Butler, too, cited displacement that comes from gentrification. He is a recent graduate of the Pathways Program who has a full time job, is raising his daughter, and running his own business on the side.
“I know with gentrification a lot of people are being pushed into places that they’re not comfortable with, or it’s not familiar to them,” Butler tells City Paper. “So what I’ve been learning about trauma is the way we respond to certain situations is not even in our control all the time. So if I get into a situation where I’m in constant flight or fight mode because I’m in this environment [where] I don’t know anybody, I’m not familiar with it, I wasn’t properly brought into this community—you know, just like, “Hey, you can’t stay here. Go here.” And you don’t know what this community is like, how it’s going to affect me and my family. And you get there and you [are] walking around in constant flight or fight mode.”
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray hears these kinds of ideas often, and understands them, but is hesitant to say whether displacement is contributing to the homicide count.
“I know there is a strong sentiment that displacement is playing an important role—resentment about displacement, the threat of displacement—is leading a lot of people to believe that it’s contributing to the increase of violence and increase in murders,” he says. “I hear it all the time from people—that people are losing control of their own city, losing control of their own neighborhoods because people are being pushed out … There’s certainly a strong sentiment about that, but whether it’s borne out by data or not, I really don’t know.”
Speak to those living in the communities where people are being murdered at an alarming rate, and they’ll point to systemic failings: People don’t have access to support and services they need, particularly in areas that have been left behind by development. Sometimes it’s because the safety net doesn’t exist, and sometimes it’s because the right messenger—someone from the community—isn’t being sent to deliver the message.
“We’re not living anymore. Individuals are not living because everyone’s almost living in fear. And when you are living in fear, you are just trying to survive,” says Rosenberg. “They’ve been experiencing so much trauma and asking for help for so long, but didn’t know how to get the help, and then when the resources are finally here—and we got all the resources in the world—they don’t even know how to grab onto it, enjoy it, or use it.”
Rosenberg recalls an event he attended in Kenilworth last summer. It was a community-run event and the Workforce on Wheels bus was invited to attend. The idea behind the mobile unit is for the Department of Employment Services to serve constituents in underserved communities, connecting them with information for potential job opportunities. But residents in attendance were skeptical of the bus’ offerings, says Rosenberg. It wasn’t personal. It’s that “people are not going to accept a quick little event, thinking everything is OK,” says Rosenberg.
Mitch CredleDarrow Montgomery
The majority of D.C.’s homicide victims die of gunshot wounds, and the District reports that fewer shooting victims survive than did in years past. “We’ve seen an increase in the fatality rate for gun interactions,” says Donahue. “In other words, when an individual uses a gun against another human being, that interaction has been more fatal last year and this year, which explains some of the increase.”
Several District officials who spoke with City Paper focused on this: Shootings are down, yet homicides are up. And without question, limiting gun access nationwide would save lives in D.C. But nearly everyone City Paper spoke with put greater emphasis on helping individuals and neighborhoods plagued by gun violence.
“You can have an illegal gun, you still gotta pull the trigger,” says Gray.
When there were sudden spikes in homicides last year, in both the summer and fall, the mayor’s office launched its crime prevention initiative. Among the priorities for the 60-day initiative: increased police presence in areas that experienced a high density of violence. But when D.C. launched its Safer Stronger DC Fall Crime Prevention Initiative in October 2019, some immediately spoke out against it because they do not see police as part of the solution.
“Chief Newsham keep your killer cops the FUCK off my block,” tweeted April Goggans, the core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC.
Several of those City Paper spoke with for this article had broad doubts about what an increased police presence accomplishes.
“I live in [the] Congress Heights area and the police are stationed on our streets 24 hours a day,” says Edmonds, the Anacostia High School teacher. “Very seldom do I not see them. I question, how does crime not decrease if the police are so vivid and there? It doesn’t change behavior. It makes others like myself feel protected. But still, collectively as agencies in D.C… we are not changing behavior.”
“The problem that we’re hearing on the Council and the places that do this, everybody is looking at a superficial level, surface: too many guns, so we need more cops on the streets,” says Amos Gelb of D.C. Witness. “None of that is necessarily wrong, but that’s not going to solve the problem. And so it hasn’t been solving the problem. … If you look at the whole data and you go beyond the surface, you may find that despite the MPD’s demand for more cop cars, which is the thing they always want, because that’s their job, right? More cop cars probably ain’t gonna bring down the homicide rate.”
A common criticism of the city’s approach to curbing the violence is the overemphasis on law enforcement, given past examples of police bias and brutality against black residents. There are racial disparities in policing, as demonstrated by MPD’s own stop-and-frisk data. Of the 11,600 police stops between July 22 and Aug. 18, 2019, 70 percent of people stopped were black, while 15 percent were white. For comparison, 46 percent of the D.C. population is black whereas 37 percent is white.
With more research suggesting the over-policing of black residents and more cell phone videos showing these confrontations, it’s no surprise why relationships are fraught.
“The police-community relationship is at its weakest point in our community,” says Brown. “I’m at these funerals. Somebody knew that these homicides were going to take place. Like somebody knew that John was hungry. Somebody knew that John had a gun. Somebody knew who gave John a gun. You know? And it’s not about snitching because if you love somebody, you have that person’s best interests. So why wouldn’t you say some information?”
“A lot of people don’t trust the police anymore and it’s sad,” says Credle. “It hurts me because throughout my entire life, even as a child, the police-community relationship was major.”
Credle says police-community relationships were stronger when he worked at MPD, between 1986 to 2013. With officers retiring and leaving over the years, he thinks newer officers aren’t forging strong connections with people they are policing. He knows he had a good relationship with the communities he served, in upper Ward 1 and lower Ward 4, because he got to know them and they got to know him. He did this by trying to develop relationships off-duty by, for example, coaching and mentoring youth at Raymond Recreation Center beginning in 1982 until he retired.
“I was rooted in the community. I cared about the community, I cared—I went to graduations, I went to funerals, I went to a whole bunch of things that weren’t related to my job. It was related to just being a person and that makes a difference, especially when people don’t like the police, it makes a difference,” says Credle.
Sometimes he had to build relationships with communities fast, like when MPD had him work overnights in Clay Terrace NE one summer weekend. Because he wasn’t familiar with the area, he made it a point on the first night he arrived to purchase all the neighborhood kids ice cream. Once he got some buy-in from the community for the gesture, he started to proactively make conversation with everyone he could. When it was time for Credle to leave, a few residents were actually disappointed, he said, because they connected with him, even if it was brief.
“The police department, they are doing the best they can. The government officials are doing the best they can,” says Credle. “People feel when you’re [just] doing your job. They know the difference when you’re doing your job, opposed to you really trying to help us. Sometimes when it comes to dealing with violence, you have to … go beyond that.”
Julius Terry, a recent graduate of the Pathways Program with a full time job, has had a few run-ins with police and also thinks that police officers could do a better job of connecting with community members. He served five years for possessing an illegal firearm—two years incarcerated and then three years parole. Before that, police cited him for marijuana distribution in the early ’90s. Terry understands why the city is responding to the spike in homicides with more police, ultimately calling it a “good solution.” But because a lot depends on the individual officer, he says, there needs to be better training.
“If they put them out there then there has to be more cultural and more sensitivity training,” says Terry. “You can’t keep getting cops from out of town and putting them in our neighborhoods. They have no connection, which is why they have no problem disrespecting the people that they’re dealing with.”
Butler, who was released from prison in March 2017 and is a recent Pathways Program graduate, says, “I just think they should be more sensitive when they’re dealing with certain populations because of the trauma piece. So what naturally may seem like an aggressive young man—that’s somebody who’s hurt and has been told that the police are against them.”
Police Chief Peter Newsham says MPD is trying to build relationships with communities, calling it “our number one priority.” To back this claim, he cites the Officer Friendly Program, where police visit schools to develop relationships with young people, and the expansion of the cadet program, meaning MPD is prioritizing candidates from within the community.
“If we haven’t been able to reach that person who suggests that it’s at an all time low, we certainly want to reach out to him so we can change his mind about who we are or what we’re doing,” says Newsham.
D.C. lawmakers are investing in police, but also alternatives. Namely, violence interrupters.
“Violence interrupters are doing the jobs that police can’t do. They are going in there, and building relationships,” says Rosenberg, a violence interrupter with Alliance of Concerned Men, who has a grant with the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets program. “You can’t have like pop-up shops [or] bring a workforce development thing to the neighborhood and expect the ones that need to come out to come out. They are not going to do that. It has to be [someone] trusting. You have to use an individual who’s already there because they have established that relationship.”
This is creating some tension. When asked to talk about the violence interruption program on the Kojo Nnamdi Show this year, Newsham’s response was, “I don’t have a lot of insight into those programs… If we are going to invest a lot of money into violence interruption programs, I think we have to have some measure of success.” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who was also on the show, read this response as a lack of coordination between government agencies.
MPD Chief Peter NewshamDarrow Montgomery
When D.C.’s 2019 murder count surpassed 2018’s, a City Paper reader responded to the news online with: “Whatever it is we are doing, it ain’t working and something needs to change.” This sentiment resonates with many families of homicide victims and community leaders we interviewed.
“The residents and your readers should have every expectation that the city will show progress, and we have the goal of having no homicides,” says Donahue, in turn.
His comments come with some caveats. “The reality is some of the investments we’ve made over the past few years, which were rooted in evidence of programs that work elsewhere, take time to show impact they’ve shown elsewhere,” he says. He cites the Pathways Program, a byproduct of legislation passed by the Council in 2016, as a way to reduce crime through a public health approach.
Many outside of the government believe one-off programs like Pathways are not enough. Any one program can be good, but if efforts are not comprehensive, citywide, and coordinated, what impact will they have?
How will these efforts survive something as routine as an election cycle?
“There is a lack of a comprehensive plan to end murder in the city—there is a lack of a plan that is backed by sustained interest and investment from the community, that is backed by investment from the public and private sectors,” says David Bowersof NO MURDERS DC, a movement to end murder in the District.
The Council made an effort in June 2016 when it started the Comprehensive Homicide Elimination Strategy Task Force. Its members were asked to write a report that identifies the most effective strategies to eliminate homicides. Such a task force existed previously, issuing a report in 2008. The Council revived it as a means to get D.C. focused on an issue devastating the city.
But four years later, there’s no report. Why not? The task force had trouble assembling—members are volunteers and everyone involved has jobs along with other competing commitments, said co-chairs Michelle Palmer of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and Eduardo Ferrer of Georgetown Law during a January oversight hearing with the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The group meets once a month, usually in the evenings after work, but hadn’t managed to reach a quorum until recently.
Palmer says her members aspire to get agencies to coordinate with one another about homicides. Members also want to create meaningful oversight through performance measurements on how each agency is addressing the issue.
But once the task force releases its recommendations—if it ever does—they are just that, recommendations. The question becomes whether officials will listen to the vision, or whether committee members will make any effort to build community support for their ideas. The report could become just another PDF on the internet.
Jennifer Massey, a volunteer with the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action, asks: “How do we get multiple agencies together? Because we all have to be on the same page. There’s a lot of different organizations that are doing different things, but how do we make this a unity effort?”
Bowers and Rosenberg, and others doing the daily work outside the realm of government, see a role for literally everybody in D.C.
“We all have to work together to understand that not one resource or not one entity can do this,” says Rosenberg. “It’s going to take multiple people from aspects of life—government, nonprofit, law enforcement, everybody.”
Bowers lives in Ward 3, so he doesn’t experience the murders immediately. But he’s affected when he mentors young men with 100 Black Men of Greater Washington DC on Saturdays. “That’s an example where I’m far removed, but it’s all connected. So now I’m going to go and do something,” he says. “I’m going to call the mayor or a councilmember. Or, can my house of worship get involved? Can I call a foundation?”
“When you have a comprehensive plan, it’s not just a government problem,” says Bowers. “What is the entertainment industry doing? What is the business community doing? What is every single person doing to make sure we don’t have any more homicides?”
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Movies play Thursday–Monday unless otherwise mentioned.
* = Nominated for an Oscar
*1917 Legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said of the film industry, “Nobody knows anything,” and this is still mostly true, with one exception: If cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the movie, that movie is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. Even if 1917 were solely the most impressive work of Deakins’ remarkable career—which it is—I’d be recommending it. But the World War I movie is also one hell of a stunning storytelling experience from director Sam Mendes, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and editor Lee Smith. “But wait,” you say, “isn’t the whole point of this movie that there aren’t any cuts? Why did they need an editor at all?” 1917’s hook (or less generously, its gimmick) is that it’s meant to unfold in a single, unbroken take. It’s one of the rare instances of a film’s marketing actually benefiting the finished film, because of the way this knowledge is both paid off… and then subverted. BOBBY ROBERTS Various locations Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
2019 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour This annual film tour of abbreviated features includes the best of the best out of Sundance, all gathered together in one place for your viewing convenience. The seven 2019 films in the 96-minute theatrical program include the awkward yet sweet romance of Sometimes I Think About Dying, whose painfully introverted protagonist goes from wondering how corpse flies might feel walking around on her dead skin (“like a billion tiny massages?”) to thinking about the thread count of her colleague’s sheets; Muteum, a charming animated short from Estonia about a visit to the museum that takes a funny turn; and Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing winner Fast Horse, a doc about our country’s first extreme sport, Indian Relay, where jockeys ride horses bareback and jump from one horse to another amid racing. Also screening: Suicide By Sunlight, Brotherhood,* The MINORS, and Crude Oil. LEILANI POLK Northwest Film Forum Friday–Sunday
At the Video Store The great fraud of streaming services—and, perhaps, the entire internet—is that we believe them to contain everything. But anyone who has been to Seattle’s Scarecrow Video knows that this isn’t true. Scarecrow, the world’s largest video library, currently has around 130,000 available titles. Netflix, by my last count, has less than 4,000 available in the United States. Amazon’s Prime Video, while roughly four times larger than Netflix, still only offers a fraction of what you find in Scarecrow’s library. Which is to say, video stores are important. New ones, like Baltimore’s Beyond Video, seem to be popping up as we head into the new decade and viewers realize the limitations of streaming. At the Video Store—a new documentary featuring interviews with John Waters, Bill Hader, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Thelma Schoonmaker, and The Stranger‘s own Charles Mudede—catalogs the great remaining video stores in the United States, including Scarecrow and Portland’s Movie Madness. CHASE BURNS Northwest Film Forum Thursday only
Bad Boys for Life Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back for a sequel, but—happily—without Michael Bay as director. In the reprise of this long-dormant franchise, the two cops take on one last case after an assassination attempt almost kills one of them. Various locations
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood It’s unusual to witness real cinematic magic these days, but the Fred Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood absolutely has it. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) wisely avoids the visual slickness one might expect from a Tom Hanks-centric melodrama, instead employing a lived-in style and scene transitions that consist of miniature cities harkening back to the opening of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hanks is totally committed to Rogers’ appearance and manner, but A Beautiful Day is more about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) a fictional journalist profiling Rogers. (Vogel’s work is based on a 1998 Esquire profile by Tom Junod; as is the case with the film, Junrod’s piece sketches a beautiful yet enigmatic image of Rogers.) Where Heller’s film becomes transcendent is in its cinematic pressure points: The striking slowness of the narrative (it’s meant to emulate the pace of Rogers’ show, and you get used to it), the mirroring of Rogers and Vogel in their interview styles and drawn-out reaction shots, and a profound moment of silence that grips your heart like, “Did that really just happen? Why was that so intense?” SUZETTE SMITH Varsity Theatre Nominated for: Best Actor (Tom Hanks)
Chulas Fronteras Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz’s 1976 film, recently selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, is about the music of the Texas-Mexico border. Northwest Film Forum Friday–Sunday
Death Race 2000 Comic book legends Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction will appear at this special screening of the exploitation classic set in the wake of a global economic crisis when the United States has abandoned democracy for totalitarianism and martial law—a plot that was probably much more shocking in 1975 (when the film was made) than it is now. The Beacon Saturday only
Dr. Strangelove It’s difficult to gauge whether the picture’s evolution away from timelessness has more to do with its familiarity—its centrality, even, to the contemporary sense of humor—or with the inconvenient complexity of the current state of international affairs. Either way, Dr. Strangelove has changed. Or maybe it’s just gotten impossible to stop worrying. SEAN NELSON Central Cinema Friday–Monday
Edo Avant Garde Linda Hoaglund’s art documentary reveals the creativity and boldness of Edo-era Japanese artists by filming artwork in collections around the world in 4K. Seattle Art Museum Monday only
Faces Places In 2016, beloved documentarian Agnès Varda took a trip through rural France with muralist JR, driving a box truck that doubled as a photo booth, creating murals of the people they met and establishing a friendship through their artistic (and uplifting) collaborations. SIFF Film Center Sunday only Part of The Restless Curiosity of Agnès Varda
Fantastic Fungi At its worst, Fantastic Fungi gets too woo-woo wacky for its own good (when the film’s discussion turns to magic mushrooms, the visuals turn into what is, as far as I can tell, just a psychedelic screensaver from Windows 95), but at its best, the doc pairs fantastic time-lapse imagery with a good dose of actual, mind-blowing science. Affable, passionate mushroom researcher Paul Stamets is joined by talking heads Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil, and narrator Brie Larson to examine everything from massive fungal networks that carry signals between disparate, distant plants to the psychological benefits of psilocybin. It’s an uneven trip, but a good one. ERIK HENRIKSEN Varsity Theatre
*Ford v Ferrari F v F is about how corporations can’t help but crush the passion and innovation they so desperately need. In this case, the crushees are race car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driving phenom Ken Miles (Christian Bale), both of whom are forced to cajole, finagle, and manipulate the suits at Ford in an attempt to win the famed Le Mans road race. Director James Mangold (Logan) smartly avoids the emotionally manipulative tricks found in other sports biographies, and Damon and Bale are, unsurprisingly, excellent and affecting. The problem? It’s impossible to ignore the two elephants in this room: The fetishization of white male toxicity and car culture, topics which society is trying to deal with and solve… not celebrate. This makes Ford v Ferrari a very good movie that, a decade ago, would’ve been considered great. Now it feels like a brand-new film that’s already an antique. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY Regal Meridian 16 & AMC Seattle 10 Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Freaks You’ll get a startling education from Tod Browning’s 1932 circus horror Freaks if you think that deeply fucked-up movies didn’t exist before John Waters. A tawdry tale of carnival “freaks'” brutal vengeance against two heartless lovers who exploit them, Freaks is not exactly a heartwarming or enlightening portrait of people with genetic differences and atypical physiognomies. However, the “freaks” are played by people with disabilities, and they do so with humanity (though they’re filmed with unsettling fascination). Given how few portrayals of folks with disabilities can be found in non-medical contexts in classic film, Freaks remains an essential piece of film history, even if the representation isn’t everything it should be. JOULE ZELMAN Central Cinema Friday–Monday
*Frozen II It starts out with Young Elsa and Young Anna, and, I don’t know, this is just my opinion, but I didn’t think that part was very necessary, necessarily? I thought the story was good. I thought the parts were well thought out and they had some depth to them, if you know what I mean? Like some parts were really sad, and some parts could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. Also, you know how in the first Frozen, there’s like this main song that you know is the main song? In this one, there’s like three or four different songs that could be that main song. There were songs that like Elsa and Anna and Kristoff sang that could qualify for that position. I thought they were fine. SIMON HAM, AGE 12 Various locations Nominated for: Best Original Song (“Into the Unknown”)
The Gleaners and I Agnès Varda’s most well-known documentary (her classification “essay” is more apt), inspired by old paintings of the peasant “gleaners” who would sweep the fields, post-harvest, for free food, a practice still legal under French law. A tradition carried on in the present day by Roma as well as fun-seekers, and extended into urban life in the form of scavenging the remains of markets and dumpster diving, Varda’s full tour into this world reveals insights with social, environmental, self-reflective, and artistic relevance that are, as is characteristic of her work, ahead of her time. MARJORIE SKINNER SIFF Film Center Saturday only Part of The Restless Curiosity of Agnès Varda
The Good Liar The Good Liar is likely the most bonkers film I will see this year. What begins as a cautionary tale about the dangers of grandma’s online dating unfolds into a baffling series of reveals, all of which support the twist that we already gleaned from the trailer: Roy (Ian McKellen) is trying to double cross Betty (Helen Mirren) and take her money… but she’s not that easy to trick! How all that happens, though? I could never have predicted it. What a septuagenarian mine cart ride! SUZETTE SMITH Crest
*Harriet Aside from the assistance that the formerly enslaved Harriet Tubman got from the Underground Railroad, it’s hard to imagine exactly how she pulled off all her heroics. With Harriet, audiences are given a live-action reimagining of Harriet Tubman’s journey to self-liberation: changing her name, hiding in bales of hay, being chased by dogs, and getting cornered by armed men on a bridge before jumping into the river. Harriet shows how Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) got help from a secret network of safe houses and trusted free Blacks (Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe) who stuck their necks out to help her cause. Throughout the film, the only music you’ll hear, gladly, are negro spirituals—songs that enslaved Blacks used to express their sorrow and joy, and to secretly communicate. Harriet doesn’t subject the sensitive viewer to excessive gore or violence (though there is one particularly unsettling scene), because for once, this is a story in the “slave movie” genre about tremendous triumph, leadership, and Tubman’s unwavering faith, both in God and herself. JENNI MOORE Crest Nominated for: Best Actress (Cynthia Erivo), Best Original Song (“Stand Up”)
The Hottest August It’s August 2017 in New York City, and it feels like the end of the world. In this strikingly shot documentary, Brett Story explores the apocalyptic fears of the current zeitgeist, touching on everything from white nationalism to climate change-induced natural catastrophes. Sinister, beautiful, tense. Northwest Film Forum & SIFF Film Center Thursday–Sunday
Jezebel In director Numa Perrier’s semi-autobiographical feature debut, a young woman named Tiffany is drawn—by her own phone-sex-operator sister—into the world of camgirling. Tiffany, the only black performer on her site, becomes very popular, and perhaps too close to one of their clients. By all reports, this film treats its sexually charged subject matter with tension and sensitivity instead of prurience. Seattle’s own erotic dance celebrity Ms. Briq House will speak after the screening about sex and body positivity. Ark Lodge Cinemas Thursday only
*Jojo Rabbit The latest from Taika Waititi starts off with a bright, Wes Andersonian whimsiness: Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) joyously bounces about at summer camp, having the time of his life as he frolics and laughs with his second-best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and his first-best friend, the imaginary Adolf (Waititi). Just one thing: Jojo is at Hitler Youth camp—their campfire activities include burning books—Adolf is Adolf Hitler, and World War II is winding down, with Germany not doing so great. Both because of and in spite of its inherent shock value, Jojo Rabbit—based on a book by Christine Leunens—is just as clever and hilarious as Waititi’s other movies, but as it progresses, the story taps into a rich vein of gut-twisting melancholy. There’s more to the complicated Jojo Rabbit than first appears, and only a director as committed, inventive, and life-affirmingly good-hearted as Waititi would even have a chance of pulling it off. He does. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various locations Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design
Just Mercy In this dramatization of a true, infuriating story, Michael B. Jordan plays the lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who, with the help of activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), fights racism and systemic legal injustice to save the life of an innocent condemned man, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Various locations
Kind Hearts and Coronets One of the best (and most vicious) comedies to come out of London’s famed Ealing Studios, Kind Hearts and Coronets stars Dennis Price as a down-and-out scion of a snobbish aristocratic family who sets out to gain the ancestral inheritance… by murdering all of his unloved relatives. All of whom are played by the magnificent Alec Guinness! It’s mean, it’s hilarious, and it features the adorable, deep-voiced Joan Greenwood, who should be much better remembered today. JOULE ZELMAN The Beacon Friday–Monday
*Knives Out Knives Out [is] Rian Johnson’s phenomenally enjoyable riff on a murder-mystery whodunit. The less you know going in, the better, but even those familiar with mysteries will likely be caught flat-footed. Things begin in the baroque mansion of famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is very, very dead. Through flashbacks, monologues, and the genteel but razor-sharp questioning of investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), we meet the rest of the Thrombeys—played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, and more, with everyone clearly having a goddamn blast—and we hear about a billion motives and a billion alibis. Somebody killed Harlan, and while Benoit Blanc is on the case, Knives Out quickly spirals into unexpected territory. In a time when filmgoing is dominated by familiar franchises, seeing an original movie executed with as much care, glee, and skill as Knives Out feels like an experience that’s entirely too rare. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various locations Nominated For: Best Original Screenplay
La Collectionneuse A free-spirited “collector of men” named Haydée interrupts the vacations of a playboy art dealer and his painter friend in Eric Rohmer’s witty comedy. Seattle Art Museum Thursday only
*Les Misérables Suburban poverty and police violence provide a throughline from the 19th-century setting of Victor Hugo’s novel to the Muslim populace of present-day Paris in Ladj Ly’s critically acclaimed, Cannes Jury Prize-winning adaptation. In a suburb of Paris, Brigadier Stéphane Ruiz takes part in an arrest that turns deadly, and the neighborhood responds with fury to the act of police brutality. Regal Meridian 16 Nominated for: Best International Picture
Like a Boss Like a Boss is barely long enough to qualify as a feature film, clocking at an hour and 23 minutes—which makes total sense, considering there’s not much meat on this story, aside from a couple of central themes: the evergreen dilemma of choosing between a career and motherhood, learning how to spot frenemies, and evolving for the sake of a valued friendship. Thankfully, the hilarious cast—which includes Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, and Salma Hayek—makes this mediocre movie watchable. JENNI MOORE Various locations
Lifeforce In Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)’s campy space horror, a vessel returns to Earth with only one survivor, plus a troubling guest: an insanely hot alien-vampire capable of sucking life energy from every human she comes across. The surviving astronaut races against time—and zombies—to save the world from this fierce feminine menace. As the Beacon writes: “What is LIFEFORCE? The object of a constructed sexual desire manifested and returned to destroy its subject? An inversion of ALIEN that replaces fear of bodily violation in a feminist register with the fear of losing control of an ideal exploited Other that exists only in the mind? An apocalypse of secret queer desire protested too much?” The Beacon Friday only
The Little Mermaid Some of the most underappreciated European movies came out of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, an era in which governmental repression had clamped down on artistic political dissent, so filmmakers turned to rich, surreal fantasy. Karel Kachyna, one of the greats of the Czechoslovak New Wave, directed this version of the Hans Christian Andersen tragedy; other masters of the dissident filmmaker movement, composer Zdeněk Liška and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, lent their art to this dramatic take on the story of love and sacrifice. JOULE ZELMAN The Beacon Saturday–Monday
*Little Women I say this with my whole heart: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is wonderful. Full of wonder, inspiring wonder, embodying wonder. Which is hard to do as the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel of the same name. Gerwig’s adaptation—which she both wrote and directed—feels neither redundant nor stale. Rather, it’s a fresh, modern-feeling take on a well-trodden story, stuffed with excellent performances, witty dialogue, and gorgeous costumes. The film jumps between Jo’s “present” life in a post-Civil War America and her childhood, living at home with her three other sisters and mother, awaiting the family patriarch to return home from the war as they struggle to make ends meet. The direction and sense of characters are particularly strong in this adaptation. It fleshes each sister out so that she feels real and worthy of empathy, not purely serving as a star vehicle for Ronan in the same way the Winona Ryder version arguably did. JASMYNE KEIMIG Various locations Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Costumes, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
Macross: Do You Remember Love In this ’80s space opera, a young pilot falls in love with a pop singer whose voice mysteriously appears on a long-ago recording. The song holds repercussions for the Earth’s war with giant aliens. The Beacon Sunday only
*Marriage Story As was the case in Noah Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale, the specifics are aggressively upper class: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a big-deal actress, Charlie (Adam Driver) is an acclaimed theater director, and along with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), they spend much of Marriage Story at either a bougie apartment in Manhattan or a bougie house in West Hollywood. But once again, Baumbach—within the film’s opening seconds, even—drills down to unearth the singular combination of grief, fury, melancholy, and pain that can only come from divorce. Marriage Story is brutal and sharp, but it’s also funny and sweet, and captures something that’s impossible to put into words: The feeling of life as it changes, and the feeling of stories as they come to an end. ERIK HENRIKSEN Big Picture Friday & Sunday Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Original Score
My Twentieth Century This sensual, feminist Hungarian fable by the surrealist filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi follows two separated identical twins, Dóra and Lili, who wind up on wildly different paths: One becomes an honest anarchist, the other a glamorous jewel thief. The Beacon Thursday only
*Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood We spend the bulk of our time with three people: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an earnest, anxious, B-list actor whose career is right about to curdle; Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s toughed-up, chilled-out former stuntman and current BFF; and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a bubbly, captivating actress who’s just starting to enjoy her first taste of success in show business. Two of these people—the ones who’re beginning to realize the world is no longer all that interested in what they have to offer—are fictional. The third is not, and how much you know about the real-life events that occurred in and around Los Angeles in 1969 will profoundly color your experience watching the film. How Tarantino plays with history in Once Upon a Time is one of the more intense and surprising elements of the film—and, thankfully, it’s also one of the best. ERIK HENRIKSEN Varsity Theatre & Big Picture Seattle Friday–Monday Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Quentin Tarantino), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
*Parasite Parasite is director Bong Joon-ho at his very best. It’s a departure from the sci-fi bent of his recent movies, though it’s no less concerned with the state of society today. Set in Seoul, South Korea, the families and class issues at play reflect our global era, in which the disparity between the haves and have-nots seems to be widening. Parasite follows the Kim family, who secretly scam their way into the lives of the wealthy Park family. Slowly and methodically, the Kims begin to drive out the other domestic workers at the Park residence, each time referring another family member (who they pretend not to know) for the vacant position. And so the poorer family starts to settle comfortably into the grift—until a sudden realization turns their lives upside down. The resulting film offers an at turns hilarious and deeply unsettling look at class and survival, its essence echoed in the environments the characters inhabit. JASMYNE KEIMIG Various locations Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director (Bong Joon-ho), Best Film Editing, Best International Feature, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay
Property Is No Longer a Theft An unhappy Marxist bank clerk who’s literally allergic to money takes up a life of crime, partly in order to irritate a former client known as The Butcher. This bizarre crime comedy by the director of The 10th Victim and other cult favorites is new to American screens—”perhaps because it’s just so utterly weird,” speculates the Beacon Cinema. The Beacon Sunday only
Queen of Hearts This dark tale, Denmark’s submission to the Oscars, does nothing to dispel the image of Denmark’s national cinema as ultra-bleak and morally challenging. An apparently upright married lawyer, Anne, becomes attracted to her husband’s difficult teenage son. As one compromise follows another, Anne draws her stepson into an increasingly dangerous situation that threatens the whole family. Robert Abele of the LA Times writes: “The tricky brilliance of Queen of Hearts is in how [director May] el-Toukhy uses a well-worn narrative—the unsuspecting, hidden passion with the appearance of erotic freedom—to unveil what in reality is a poisonous tale of abuse.” Grand Illusion Friday–Sunday
Raw The French make everything look delicious… including cannibalism, which happens to be the case in the wonderfully disgusting Raw. It’s a coming-of-cannibal tale by Julia Ducournau that’s as atmospheric as Let the Right One In, as dark as the 2007’s under-seen vagina dentata saga Teeth, and a Bildungsroman that makes The Hunger Games look like a tiptoe down the candy aisle. Bloody, stylish, and incredibly disturbing, Raw is a meaty piece of body horror about a virginal vegetarian who’s gagging for some sweet human flesh—figuratively and literally. COURTNEY FERGUSON Scarecrow Video Friday only
Spies in Disguise I thought Spies in Disguise was very excellent. The plot device of someone turning into a pigeon through genetic manipulation was unique, to say the least. I think it may have been a little too complicated for some younger kids who may have been the target audience. I think some of it may have gone completely over their heads. Although that might not be true in any way. I’m almost definitely sure there’s going to be a second one of these. SIMON HAM, AGE 12 AMC Pacific Place & Thornton Place Thursday only
*Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker I found The Rise of Skywalker, the last film in the Skywalker saga, boring. And it was not even a long movie, and I’m a fan of the director’s (J.J. Abrams) work (particularly Mission: Impossible III—the best in that franchise), and many of the visual effects are impressive—particularly the haunting business of bringing the late Carrie Fisher back to life. But all together, the film is burdened by too much sentimental family stuff (you are my granddaughter, you are my son, you killed my parents, and so on), and its end did not know how to end for a very long time. CHARLES MUDEDE Various locations Nominated for: Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing
Uncut Gems As Howard Ratner, a professional jeweler and asshole in Manhattan’s Diamond District, a great Adam Sandler rarely leaves the screen in Uncut Gems, and the plot is basically Howard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. That isn’t a shock, considering the film comes from brothers/writers/directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who party-crashed the arthouse scene with 2017’s Good Time (in which Robert Pattinson was the one playing an asshole having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day). Uncut Gems is larger in scope, but like Good Time, it has a moral vacuum at its center—it takes place in the no-man’s-land where society’s walls crumble, and where those who look out only for themselves can best navigate the rubble. The Safdies aren’t interested in morality tales but amorality tales, and their stories’ no-holds-barred recklessness, at first freeing, steadily grows exhausting. Thankfully, the Safdies also know how to shoot, cut, and score like nobody else. There’s a twitchy, addictive energy to Uncut Gems, and the Safdies’ choppy, rapid-fire cuts coalesce into a surreal, exhilarating landscape of prismatic hues, blaring fluorescents, and sharp LEDs, all while the analog synth score by Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) adds to the lurid beauty. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various locations
Vanishing Seattle Film Series Launch: Wa Na Wari Over the last few decades, small businesses, family-owned restaurants, and other community-run spaces have been forced to shut down due to the immense amount of gentrification our city is going through. In 2016, activist Cynthia Brothers began Vanishing Seattle, a project that documents these places, acting as a space of remembrance and celebration of the communities that make Seattle special. The site is now embarking on a short-film series, the first one of which documents Wa Na Wari, a fifth generation black-owned home in the Central District that opened last year as a space for Black arts in the historically Black neighborhood. JASMYNE KEIMIG Wa Na Wari Thursday only
The Wave If The Hangover took a hit of LSD and melted into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then tripped into the space-time continuum, hitting A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life on its way down, you’d get something like The Wave. Justin Long stars as Frank, a corporate lawyer who is about to make a big chunk of change for his firm after finding a discrepancy in an insurance claim. It doesn’t take much for his friend and colleague Jeff (Donald Faison) to talk him into enjoying a (Tuesday) night out on the town. Of course, it’s not long before he ingests a drug that’s supposed to hit you “like a wave.” Instead, he wakes up in the same spot, finds his world has been turned upside down, and must retrace his steps from the night before in order to figure out what happened. There’s nothing really fresh in the premise, but throw in some existential ideas about karma and time, then add in some high-quality hallucinogenic camerawork, vibrant visuals, rotoscope animation, believable (and occasionally clever) dialogue, and a few over-the-top characters, and you’ve got yourself an entertaining 87 minutes. LEILANI POLK Grand Illusion Friday–Sunday
Weathering With You Audiences seem to love director Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) and his approach of pairing an original plot with standard anime emotional blocking: boy meets girl, girl has weather powers, boy and girl reach for each another’s arms in climactic moments, a character runs until they are exhausted and then they keep running, and also someone must die. Even when Shinkai introduces some interesting ideas about an impending climate apocalypse (oh, like us!), it all feels familiar: The world isn’t saved, but the world doesn’t end. The world continues, changed. SUZETTE SMITH Regal Meridian 16 & Thornton Place
When Lambs Become Lions Many of the reviews of the brilliant documentary When Lambs Become Lions—about elephant poaching in modern-day Kenya—will claim that the director, John Kasbe, does not take sides on the issue. The director hunts elephants with the poachers, and he patrols the park with the armed game rangers. The poachers don’t give a fuck about the elephants. They are poor, and they need the money. The rangers also need money, as they have not been paid in ages by the government. And it is here that the director takes a clear side, his film clearly denounces the extreme poverty that both the poachers and the rangers face. If the poachers stop killing elephants, then the rangers will lose their jobs. Therefore, we have the poachers exploiting the elephants, and the rangers exploiting the poachers. The problem then is not the poaching; it is, of course, capitalism. CHARLES MUDEDE Grand Illusion Thursday only
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain Plunge into the wild world of ’80s Hong Kong action movies in Tsui Hark’s kid flick full of “flying swordsmen, ice maidens, wizard monks and the infamous Blood Demon,” plus lots of lasers. The Beacon Saturday only
Last week, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts came under fire for featuring wall-to-wall white nominees across its four main acting categories, a result that sparked not only #BAFTAsSoWhite outrage across Twitter, but also encouraged the BAFTAs to review their nomination process.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, filmmaker Steve McQueen, who won both the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the Academy Award for Best Picture for ‘12 Years a Slave’ in 2014, said that he, too, is “fed up” with the process, indiewire.com reported.
“After a while you get a bit fed up with it. Because if the BAFTAs are not supporting British talent, if you’re not supporting the people who are making headway in the industry, then I don’t understand what you are there for,” the British filmmaker said. McQueen is calling out the BAFTAs amid a year rife with diverse talent in eligible films. “Unless the BAFTAs want to be like the Grammys, which is of no interest to anyone, and has no credibility at all, then they should continue on this path,” McQueen said, referring to recurring criticism of the Grammys for snubbing black artists in favor of white talent. “If not then they have to change. Fact.”
McQueen in the interview also debunked criticism that the predominantly white nominees across the BAFTAs are an “industry problem,” as suggested by BAFTA chairman Marc Samuelson when the nominations were announced. “When these films are being made to critical acclaim, they’re not even being recognized – that’s nonsense,” McQueen said.
Academy Award nominations, despite earning Cynthia Erivo the Best Actress nomination which the BAFTAs denied her for ‘Harriet’ and ‘Parasite,’ earning six nominations including Best Picture, otherwise reflected a dearth of inclusion among the nominees. As IndieWire’s Tambay Obenson wrote of Oscar’s announcement of its nominations, “Ultimately, this year’s nominations suggest that the industry continues to undervalue stories that aren’t about and by white men, especially when it comes to awards-caliber work. From the decisions on which projects have been greenlit, to who and what gets nominated, a discriminatory system continues to shut out many groups.”
Cynthia Erivo voiced her boycott as a performer at the BAFTAs, which invited her to perform her song ‘Stand Up’ from ‘Harriet’ at the ceremony happening February 2. “I felt like [the invitation] didn’t represent people of color in the right light,” she said. “It felt like it was calling on me as an entertainer as opposed to a person who was a part of the world of film, and I think that it’s important to make it known that it’s not something you throw in as a party trick, you know?”
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The first Democratic primary race is less than a month away, and though much is in still up in the air, it’s clear that candidates who defined themselves by woke liberalism in the primary are not going to win.
This is not to suggest that “wokeness” is dead as a cultural force — far from it — but rather that wokeness as a force for attracting voters and organizing political campaigns is displaying major weaknesses.
Douglas Murray once wrote that neoconservatism is not “a political party, or social set, but a way of looking at the world.” Perhaps that description better fits woke liberalism.
Being woke is not defined by a clear ideology, but instead by a way of approaching politics that prioritizes loud displays of political association with various socially liberal causes without challenging economic power. (RELATED: Why Don’t Liberals Hate Walmart Anymore?)
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke came to fame in part due to his defense of National Anthem kneelers in the NFL, and later went on to claim 1619 as the true founding of America. He also infamously embraced radical gun control proposals.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) speaks during a campaign rally on October 17, 2019 in Grand Prairie, Texas. O’Rourkes Rally Against Fear was held to counter President Trump’s campaign rally today in Texas. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
California Sen. Kamala Harris also embraced woke liberalism in her campaign, infamously attacking former Vice President Joe Biden over the issue of busing and race.
In the case of Biden, his un-woke campaign seems to be mostly accidental. When speaking of minorities and immigrants, Biden has an almost Trump-like ability to make comments that are not just offensive, but often downright strange.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Yet Biden’s core base of support from black America hasn’t eroded in any significant way.
Biden’s appeal centers on a return to normalcy and “decency,” as well as a vision of America as a kinder, gentler nation. But more than that, Biden’s campaign offers a kind of warm nostalgia that many older Americans, white and black, yearn for. A time when bullies like Corn Pop were sent away and children innocently played with their lifeguard’s leg hair. A time when people were just a little nicer, and things just got done.
Berating someone for forgetting your pronouns? Call-out culture? Freaking out over an un-PC joke?
Sanders himself is sort of an odd child of the original campus left culture, which was already in full swing during his time as a student at the University of Chicago. Sanders’ early work as a politician showed less emphasis on identity-based politics and culture war issues in favor of a vintage, class-first leftism, taking the energy of the antiwar movement and reverence for socialism seriously, not evolving into a Clintonite neoliberal.
In the 1980’s, he advocated for Cuba and Nicaragua, and has spent decades strongly attacking poverty in the United States. Sanders and his campaign–long aware of the fault lines of the left–knows full well the power of woke liberalism in the Democratic Party and thus does not openly attack it. But there’s no mistaking a contrarian streak in Sanders away from the confines of wokeness, including his immigration stances and defense of Trump voters as not being racist. (RELATED: Tucker And Patel: Walmart’s ‘Woke Capitalism’)
Sanders’ old school leftism is also a painful reminder for Democrats of Sanders’ generation that the radicalism of the 1960’s led to the rise of President Richard Nixon and the Nixonian “Silent Majority” populism that Trump cribbed in 2016.
Finally, the candidacies of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem to define themselves not as openly “woke” as O’Rourke and Harris did, but still as fellow travelers in the world of wokeness.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) smile during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
In their future attacks against Biden and Sanders, one can expect them to rely on the opportunistic use of woke points to score points by painting the two front runners as out-of-touch white men, and of course as possible closet racists and sexists as well. Kamala Harris used such a script against Biden and failed miserably, and now Warren is trying the same thing against Sanders.
Whether Warren’s attack will work on Sanders will be determined, but based on how things have been going in the primary, it seems that Democratic voters may be far less woke than the 2020 campaigns believe.
It was an inspiring year for country music writ large: the Ken Burns doc, the triumph of The Highwomen, the fantastic Lil Nas X narrative (the song’s fun, too). In terms of actual recordings, though, it was kinda meh. Miranda and Maren made good records; ditto Yola and Kelsey Waldon. But the sole classic was The Highwomen, and for the first time in 10-plus years of doing this poll, I had a tough time finding records I loved that felt legit “country.” But maybe that’s a good sign — stylistically and spiritually, the genre feels utterly up for grabs. —Will Hermes
The Highwomen hoopla and co-founder Brandi Carlile’s inspiring achievements have helped spur more “Year of the Woman” declarations, but such headlines still imply that women taking charge of their own careers is somehow an anomaly. How many years of chart-topping releases, sold-out tours and awards domination will it take before women are no longer treated as less than equal? Until country radio actually programs playlists without regard to the artists’ chromosomes? Until music festivals feature women’s names at all billing levels? Until women are not forced to sign NDAs, not told to shut up and sing, not called liars when they do speak out? —Lynne Margolis
Tanya Tucker has never, ever been anybody’s slouch. With a voice like a straight razor, she was shredding big-girl songs as a 13-year-old, blazing a rock trail at 18 and taking a victory lap through mainstream country in her mid-20s. Always brazen, always blazing, she stood out. Today Tucker is no different than she ever was. Thankfully, she’s having the moment she’s always deserved. —Holly Gleason
It’s great to see at least one good old boy and girl still hanging in there. Willie’s 86 years and Tanya’s 61 years seem more like capes fluttering triumphantly behind them than overcoats that drag them down. —Grant Britt
Ken Burns and Country Music History
A lot of friends and colleagues had bones to pick with Ken Burns’ Country Music: artists omitted, arguments not made forcefully enough, over-reliance on certain figures (Johnny Cash) at the expense of others (Dolly Parton), punting the 21st century. And sure, I wanted more of various things too. But for a 16-hour series aimed at a PBS layfolk audience, I thought it was masterful and on point: compelling narrative storytelling that made country’s multiracial heritage plain, established the central role of women artists, and showed the genre to be as deep, wide and American as jazz, rock, hip-hop — you name it. —Will Hermes
Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary either taught or reminded listeners that Jimmie Rodgers, the forefather of the genre, owed as much influence to blues musicians as he did to hillbilly players. To me, the question has never been, “Is this country?” but rather, “How does this or that affect country music?” Shifting the parameters of that age-old question allows for more thoughtful, encouraging discussions about the current state and future of the genre. —Zackary Kephart
The Ken Burns Country Music series might not have been perfect, but its acknowledgement of the music’s ties to black idioms reached far more fans and country lovers than dozens of scholarly articles or books by academics and critics. —Ron Wynn
Just because cinematic superheroes and good ol’ white-boyfriend country-pop are welcome types of fun shouldn’t mean they suck up all the cash and cultural capital or hog all the radio spins. We need all the kinds of fun. Country fans need more voices at country radio — from women and people of color, especially, and from those both younger and older than the norm, working a greater variety of sounds and subjects. We need a country music as varied as life itself. —David Cantwell
As always, women continue to be short-served by country radio. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour won a Grammy Award not just for Best Country Album but for Album of the Year. Yet “Rainbow,” a single released in February, settled for a paltry No. 33 peak on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Similarly, Ashley McBryde won New Artist of the Year at the CMA Awards and has already been nominated for several categories in the upcoming 2020 Grammy Awards. But her singles at radio continue to fail. With other data metrics available in 2019, continuing to give credence to a dying medium like radio is foolish. —Zackary Kephart
Yes, streaming is a bottomless pit of artists to play, and all things are theoretically possible in the medium. Yet if you look at the streaming numbers, they’re almost a mirror of terrestrial radio. The conventional online thinking chases what’s working on radio, which creates an even deeper trench. —Holly Gleason
Here in New Braunfels, Texas, we are lucky enough to have an actual independent radio station that has survived for a couple of decades focusing on regional country music and Americana. In a couple hours of listening you can hear Dale Watson, JD McPherson, Ryan Bingham, Old 97’s and Jamie Lin Wilson, for example. These artists don’t sound appreciably similar to each other, but it works. The station’s not hurting for listeners or advertisers. —Mike Ethan Messick
A study published in 2019 by the University of Ottawa’s Jada E. Watson found that women made up only 11.3 percent of country radio’s year-end playlist reports for 2018 — a 66 percent drop from the figure reported in 2000. The task force also found country programmers and jockeys are still being told not to play women back to back, and to play only so many per hour. There’s only one word for that: discrimination. And it HAS to stop. —Lynne Margolis
My most-hated radio hit this year was Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her.” Like Rhett, I find my significant other extremely attractive, but if you ever catch me urging randos at the club to check her out, please punch me in the throat. —David Cantwell
This has been a year I never thought would arrive in my lifetime in terms of country music — a year in which black input isn’t deemed an oddity, happenstance or freak occurrence. Black artists have been a consistent chart presence, getting regular access to topflight songwriters and material. Kane Brown, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Rhiannon Giddens and the criminally underpublicized Valerie June, Miko Marks and Rissi Palmer are just the latest in a line of prominent black acts with deep country roots and sensibilities. No, utopia hasn’t arrived, and it never will, but I’m a lot more encouraged and optimistic going into 2020 than I was going into 2010. —Ron Wynn
My top country music moment of the year was Kacey Musgraves’ late-2019, victory-lap appearances in support of her 2018 career album Golden Hour. At an October concert in Irving, Texas, I was struck by how her fan base is not only multigenerational, but also includes a large segment of openly gay men. In November, she appeared at the CMAs as fellow Texan Willie Nelson’s spiritual goddaughter, singing “The Rainbow Connection.” Both Nelson and Musgraves, within their generations, redefined the genre by advocating acceptance instead of judgment and following their artistic instincts instead of trends. May the circle be unbroken. —Steve Crawford
Yola’s Walk Through Fire is not really a country album, unless country music is truly ready to embrace a much broader definition of stylistic influences (thank you, Dan Auerbach?), not to mention racial inclusion. But by both traditional measures and my imaginary vision of what the music should and could be, the title track is the country vocal performance of the year, hands-down. —Rick Mitchell
There’s no question that the lack of gender equity on country radio is shameful. But if we don’t also question why there are so few trans, nonbinary, queer and POC voices on the radio, we risk making the same mistakes of the feminist movement of the ’60s, by leaving these critical visions of our country on the sidelines. We need more artists like Karen & the Sorrows pushing queer representation in country music into the spotlight and doing their damnedest to lift other LGBTQ+ artists up with them. —Rachel Cholst
Karen & the SorrowsPhoto: Leah James
Lil Nas X, Luke Combs and Other Dudes
“Old Town Road” fused country with trap in much the same way that Mutt Lange fused country with hair metal on his then-wife Shania Twain’s hits. Was the outcry because Lil Nas X parachuted in from beyond Music Row’s artist-development system? Because he used TikTok and internet algorithms instead of country radio? Truth is, even before Billy Ray Cyrus came on board, the song was as country as the hip-hop hybrids plied by Big & Rich, Colt Ford or Florida Georgia Line. —Holly Gleason
You could probably write off Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” as a novel little hiccup in the pop-culture universe that was inconsequential to actual country music — if it wasn’t for the brief racial brouhaha it kicked up. Granted, a lot of this was artificially puffed up on Twitter, but it spoke to the tinderbox times we live in, the genre’s historic near-exclusivity of nonwhite artists, and just how fine a line there can be between tradition and racism. In the end, the hip-hop kid got his hit, and my elementary-age kids got something new to shout along to in my truck. So Lil Nas X, you saved me from “Baby Shark,” and for that I’m eternally grateful. —Mike Ethan Messick
Lil Nas X’s indisputably country, self-ingratiating, genre-upending, weirdly traditional “Old Town Road” is a queer, sexy, ass-shaking masterpiece that you heard in every high school auditorium, out of every car window, and on every radio. Ubiquity doesn’t mean quality, but this hustler had it all. I want this to be the future of country music and am overjoyed it is the present. —Steacy Easton
Luke Combs is country music’s most improbable superstar. There’s something more relatable when the artist that’s singing to you looks like us average Joes. As boisterous, radio-friendly, arena-anthem drinking songs go, Combs’ “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is damn-near perfect. His song topics never vary from tried and true themes of love, having a good time and good old-fashioned sentimentality — and that’s perfectly OK. He’s one of us. —Ken Morton Jr.
I first encountered Tyler Childers in the summer of 2018, when I picked up a hitchhiker. He was a medical student at Duke University whose ambition in life was to cure cancer. He asked me if I knew much about country music. I told him I’d written a couple of books about it, but that curing cancer is a more noble pursuit. When he played me a couple of Tyler Childers tracks on his phone, I was not overly impressed, but the poor sound quality might have been a factor. Having listened to Country Squire in regular rotation for the past several months, I now know what that young surfer dude was trying to share with me. This is a country artist who can appeal both to the hipper side of the commercial country audience and the jaded, been-there-done-that geezers like me. Thanks, Doc. Work on that cure. —Rick Mitchell
Tyler Childers’ “Matthew” is a fiddle-driven ode to Childers’ brother-in-law, an Iraq War veteran who now works the night shift, guarding “rusty missiles” at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky. The song is also about Matthew’s dad, whose guitar picking Childers compares to Clarence White. Despite the allusions to missiles and war (and a terrible logging accident that cost Matthew’s father a leg years before), nobody gets killed or hurt during the course of the song. We hear of the family fishing, swapping tales, and telling lies. It’s just a sweet portrait of people Childers obviously loves and a reminder of why I love good country music. —Steve Terrell
Jon Pardi’s “Old Hat” wonders what’s wrong about keeping those old-school music traditions alive and asks: “When did old-fashioned become so out of fashion?” With a big country sound featuring plenty of fiddle, it feels like Pardi is making a statement. He’s in his own lane, but one that’s been paved by all the neotraditionalists who have come before. He’s developing a sound that pays homage to his heroes and influences, but also works in the modern charts. —Ken Morton Jr.
Randy Houser, like many of his talented peers (see Chris Young, Dustin Lynch, Jerrod Niemann and Billy Currington) was a victim of the bro-country onslaught of the mid-2010s. Houser fell to great depths with the release of 2016’s Fired Up — a collection of D-grade bro cuts. Against this backdrop, 2019’s Magnolia is all the more impressive. This blues-influenced set of excellent songs puts Houser’s once-in-a-generation voice to good use, and is a reassuring example of a return to substance by the country music mainstream. —Markus Meyer
Miranda Lambert and Other Pistols
Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard has taken some heat, and to some extent that’s fair. It’s not as raw as The Weight of These Wings, as fiery as Kerosene or as accessible as Revolution. What it does represent, however, is Lambert in absolute peak form as a performer. It demonstrates her versatility as an artist in ways that past projects haven’t, and after what has certainly been a tough few years for her personally, it’s great to hear her sound so comfortable. —Markus Meyer
Carrie. Miranda. Maren. All three did what country radio wouldn’t: They got developing female artists in front of country music fans. Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty 360 Tour saw opener Runaway June take “Buy My Own Drinks” into the upper reaches of the charts. On her Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour 2019, Miranda Lambert shared opening slots between, among others, CMA Best New Artist Ashley McBryde, breaking-out Tenille Townes (“Somebody’s Daughter”), and Caylee Hammack (“Family Tree”). Maren Morris also embraced Townes, plus Kassi Ashton, RaeLynn, Hailey Whitters and Cassadee Pope. —Holly Gleason
Miranda LambertPhoto: Ellen von Unwerth
Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert have navigated the current dismal radio atmosphere for women in country music by releasing songs they know will never be platinum hits but are so good and so important that they’ll find an audience anyway. “Bluebird” is Lambert’s current manifesto to dealing with life’s unexpected turns. With that wry smile she has on her album cover, she sings: “I turn pages all the time / Don’t like where I’m at / 34 was bad, so I just turn to 35.” Many of the lines from “The Daughters” could apply directly to what new female country artists are dealing with from within their industry, including sexism, sexual harassment, lack of support and gender disparity. —Kristin Hall
John Prine signed Kelsey Waldon because she reminded him of all the country singers he grew up on. Strong mountain voices that bend notes like steel, turning big emotions in small moments into enduring truths about the human condition — that’s what Prine loved, and that’s the best part of Waldon’s White Noise / White Lines. —Holly Gleason
It feels as though there has been a shift in the lyrics written for country music released in 2019. There is a story behind these newer songs that leads the listener to want to know what happens next. Erin Enderlin has had one of the best years in 2019, contributing songs to the new albums by Reba McEntire and Terri Clark as well as releasing her own new album, Faulkner County. —Jessica Bray
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