MTV VMAs: All you need to know about the best video nominees

Cardi B, Childish Gambino and Camila CabelloImage copyright BBC / Getty Images
Image caption Cardi B, Childish Gambino and Camila Cabello are all nominated for the first time

Drake, Ariana Grande, Cardi B and Childish Gambino are all up for video of the year at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards, which take place at New York’s Radio City Music Hall later.

It’s the strongest line-up since 2004 – when Britney’s Toxic went up against Jay-Z’s incendiary 99 Problems. Both lost, however, to Outkast’s irresistibly technicolour clip for Hey Ya!

This year’s contenders span a similar gamut, encompassing everything from searing political commentary to Latin American melodrama.

Collectively, they illustrate how videos have become an extension of the artist’s vision, fundamental to the message of the song rather than a throwaway piece of fluff.

Any of the shortlisted six songs could win – although Kanye’s presumably got his money on Beyonce.

Here’s a refresher on the videos in contention for a Moonman.

ARIANA GRANDE – No Tears Left To Cry

No Tears Left To Cry was Ariana Grande’s first single after a terrorist bomb claimed the lives of 22 fans outside her concert in Manchester last May.

The shape-song reflects the star’s turbulent emotions, and her determination to persevere, as it cuts between elegiac gospel harmonies and a defiant dancefloor shuffle, never quite settling into a single mood.

The video continues the theme, thrusting Grande into an Inception-style cityscape that constantly topples over and throws her off balance.

“We wanted to explore was the disorientation that you go through in life, and the quest we all go through to find the ground again,” explained director Dave Meyers (who won last year’s best video award for Kendrick Lamar’s Humble).

“We sort of flirt with the ambiguity of whether you need to find the ground or whether the ground’s just what you make of it.”

Touchingly, in the video’s final moments, a bee flies towards the screen – serving as an emblem for Manchester and a tribute to the victims.

CHILDISH GAMBINO – This Is America

This video contains language and images some people may find offensive.

The clear front-runner for this year’s best video award is Childish Gambino’s shockingly brutal but utterly compelling clip for This Is America.

Tackling America’s gun epidemic head on, it sees the performer (aka actor Donald Glover) dancing gleefully while violence breaks out all around him.

He’s frequently the perpetrator – in one scene gunning down a choir, in a likely reference to the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

But the story is deliberately ambiguous. Are we supposed to recoil from the violence or be entertained by it? The video provides no easy answers, forcing the viewer to confront the two contradictory roles offered to black Americans – gangster or entertainer.

“People are dying in This Is America, but all they want us to do is sing and dance,” wrote Tre Johnson in a critique for Rolling Stone magazine.

“It’s an upsettingly vivid illustration of the Faustian bargain that black America makes on a regular basis, trading our bodies for our expression and freedom.”

CAMILA CABELLO ft YOUNG THUG – Havana

Another Dave Meyers production, Havana is a marvellously camp melodrama complete with a steamy dance breakdown.

Camila says she took inspiration “from music videos like Thriller” that blur the lines between fantasy and reality; as she plays Karla, a bookish wallflower who finds escape in her favourite TV shows, imagining herself in the starring roles.

There’s an autobiographical thread to the story, she told E! News.

“Karla is my first name, Camila is my middle name. Long story short, my family always called me Camila but when I came to school in the United States, I was really, really shy, and the teachers started calling me Karla.”

As in the video, Karla/Camila found herself through a combination of music and hard graft.

“In my life, I’ve pushed myself to do a lot of things that make me uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s how I started dancing and that’s how… I gained that confidence and [became] a video vixen. They’re both over exaggerated personas of me, basically.”

THE CARTERS – Apes**t

This video contains language some people may find offensive.

The Carters, in case you hadn’t noticed, are hip-hop power couple Beyonce and Jay-Z; and they make an ostentatious show of that power in the video for Apes**t, by taking over the Louvre for an elaborate, symbolically-laden music video.

There’s enough imagery here to fill a textbook; but the essential point is that they are inserting themselves into a traditionally white environment and claiming their place, not just as as African-Americans, but as creators and consumers of art.

It’s a radical, visually-lavish video that subverts art history’s erasure of black culture.

One particularly potent scene focuses on the 19th Century portrait of the Parisian socialite Juliette Recamier. Director Ricky Saiz positions two black dancers, posing as servants, at the woman’s feet – adding what the original artist, Jacques-Louis David, left out.

“The overall point is powerfully put,” wrote Will Gompertz in his review for the BBC.

“The game is up for those institutions – be it Hollywood, Broadway or the Louvre – which have ignored black artists.”

DRAKE – God’s Plan

The most-watched video of the year to date, God’s Plan has a simple concept but the execution is beautiful.

Directed by Karena Evans, it follows Drake around Miami while he hands out the video’s entire $999,631.90 (£785,149.69) budget to those in need.

He pays one student’s $50,000 (£39,275) university fees, and gives the same amount to a homeless shelter for women. Drake even stops by a supermarket to help out with the groceries.

“Everything you guys want inside the store is free,” he beams into a megaphone, prompting one customer to stockpile Nutella.

It’s an undeniably joyous and heart-warming story – although some have questioned the star’s motives.

“I don’t know the last time I saw a four-minute montage of ‘Look at all the nice things I do,'” said influential New York DJ Peter Rosenberg, who claimed the video was exploitative.

It prompted a furious call from the Canadian star who, Rosenberg later recalled, told him, “this is the most important thing I’ve ever done”.

BRUNO MARS ft CARDI B Finesse (Remix)

Bruno Mars’s Grammy Award-winning 24K Magic album is a love letter to 1990s hip-hop and R&B – artists like New Edition, Boyz II Men, Heavy D and Mariah Carey.

His adoration for the decade is on full display in the fun and funky video for Finesse, which riffs on the opening titles to iconic 90s sketch show In Living Color.

Created by Keenan Ivory Wayans, the series rode a wave of black music and comedy at the start of the decade – and helped launch the careers of stars like Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey.

Mars, who co-directed the video, clearly had fun recreating In Living Color’s paint-splattered opening credits; deliberately shooting the footage in low-resolution, a non-widescreen format for that vintage feeling.

Giving the clip a modern twist, he also gender-swapped some of the roles – with Mars dancing on a roof like a Fly Girl (the show’s all-female dance troupe) and guest star Cardi B recreating Wayans’ paint-flinging antics.

“I had sooo much fun doing this video,” tweeted the star after the video premiered. “It felt like a BBQ.”

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Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History, review: an affecting look at the post-Windrush artists that were ridiculed and ignored

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History (BBC Four) was a revelatory survey of the black and Asian artists whose work is largely obscured in British art history. It began with a series of startling archive interviews with young artists in the Eighties. “I was told by my lecturers that there was no such thing as black art,” one of them said. They included last year’s Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, now 64, who arrived in Britain from Zanzibar as a child.

The documentary was driven by the remarkable efforts of Afro-Caribbean British artist Sonia Boyce, who has been searching museum and gallery collections for works hidden in the archives and rarely displayed. She had discovered 2,000 works, including exciting and thought-provoking abstract pieces, figurative paintings and political art.

The struggle for recognition of the artists who arrived from Commonwealth countries in the years after the Windrush docked in 1948, and the generations that followed, was encapsulated in one very affecting sequence. The first large-scale exhibition of work from artists of ethnic backgrounds was held at the Hayward Gallery in 1989. It was called The Other Story, and it had been put together by the artist Rasheed Araeen, who arrived from Pakistan in 1964.

It was a watershed moment, yet the reviews had not only been sneering, but included personal attacks on its curator. We saw how, at the time, one newspaper quoted a visitor who had said, “It’s nice kids’ stuff”, and labelled Araeen a “prankster”.

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Africa:Sublime Soul Diva Who Demanded Respect, Which Will be Forever Given

Photo: Supplied

Image of Aretha Franklin in the July 1976 issue of Billboard.

analysis

It is no coincidence that two of Aretha Franklin’s celebrated contemporaries who travelled to Detroit to see the singer in the last stages of her illness were Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson. It is hard to overestimate Franklin’s importance to both music and the civil rights movement – and the presence of one of music’s greatest figures alongside Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand man at her bedside in the final days of her life is a fitting tribute to one of the true greats of Black American culture.

Aretha Franklin was the “Queen of Soul”. One of the bestselling recording artists of all time, she became famous in the 1960s as a singer with a uniquely expressive voice possessing great passion and control. Her hit songs in the late 1960s tapped into the spirit of the civil rights movement while her hit cover (and gendered re-authoring) of Otis Redding’s Respect was an anthem of black female empowerment.

The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Franklin’s voice was declared one of Michigan’s important “natural resources” two years before. She won 18 Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1994) and presided over a rich recorded musical legacy preserved in 42 studio albums, 131 singles, six live albums and more. Her iconic performances and productions came to define the term “soul music” in the 20th century, setting the standard for black female vocal excellence.

Gospel origins

The daughter of celebrity Detroit minister CL Franklin, Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942 and raised in Detroit, starting her singing career in the choir at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. She belonged to a generation of African American artists who migrated from the south during a time when segregation and Jim Crow law was still in effect, who then went on to participate in mainstream American culture.

Her deep connection to the southern freedom movement was familial and spiritual as well as musical – her father was actively involved with Democratic party politics and the civil rights movement. Politicians and activists – along with many of the gospel superstars of the day – were a fixture in the family home. As a result, Franklin received formative musical mentoring from stars such as Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson in addition to inheriting a strong commitment to social justice. She was to support progressive politics throughout her career.

For people stuck in political struggles for equality and respect, Franklin’s voice came to articulate the collective emotion, frustration, strength and depth of their experiences. Her voice rang out at historical political milestones – at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago that shortly followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, and at the inauguration of the first African American president Barack Obama in 2009. She also performed at pre-inauguration concerts for Democratic party presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Inspired to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke, Franklin began her solo singing career in 1960 performing on the gospel circuit and signing a record deal with Columbia Records. Her first secular albums in the early 1960s blended R&B styles with pop and jazz and achieved only modest success. It wasn’t until her move to Atlantic records and a deliberate return to gospel music stylings in 1967 that Franklin made her commercial breakthrough.

Recording at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working in partnership with Atlantic co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler and the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Franklin’s debut for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was certified gold in the same year of its release. Her work with Wexler at Muscle Shoals during this period spawned many well-known hits such as Chain of Fools, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Respect, and I Say A Little Prayer.

Great Interpreter

While she recorded and performed her own compositions from time to time (hit 1968 single and feminist anthem Think is an original song of hers), Franklin earned a great part of her fame as a unique interpreter of other people’s songs. Through gospel-influenced musical rearrangement, and her striking changes to melodic content, she effectively re-authored material written by others, asserting a sense of creative ownership through spirited and dynamic vocal performance.

Franklin often altered the context of the existing lyric through her inflection and emphasis or by introducing call and answer interplay with her background singers. These voices of sisterly support were often provided by her very own siblings, Erma and Carolyn Franklin or The Sweet Inspirations (a girl group founded by Cissy Houston and Lee Warwick, the mothers of Whitney and Dionne). Using these techniques, as she did with Respect, lyrics could be repositioned to reflect the black female perspective. Another later example of this can be found in her interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1986, which was used as the theme tune for the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name.

Music culture owes Franklin a debt for bringing ecstatic pentecostal fervour to popular music, pushing the expressive boundaries of the contemporary singing voice. She was one of the first true great divas of soul (alongside Diana Ross) – fusing gospel and African American spiritual music traditions with the blues, pop and R&B to create the template of vocal expressiveness and authenticity that artists aspire to still. In doing so she set the stage for the technical virtuosity of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

A fierce musical talent not only in sensitive and dynamic vocal interpretation but also as a skilled pianist and arranger, Franklin demanded respect from us. And because of her many great artistic and cultural achievements, it will forever be given.

Leah Kardos is Senior Lecturer in Music, Kingston University. She is a musician and academic, currently active in contemporary classical, media and commercial music circles.

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When Aretha Franklin Rocked the National Anthem

Five decades ago this month—before “Chicago 1968” became shorthand for mayhem and riots, days ahead of Sen. Abe Ribicoff’s convention-stage denunciation of the police department’s “Gestapo tactics,” and minutes ahead of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “welcome” speech threatening “law and order in Chicago”—Aretha Franklin opened the Democratic National Convention with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that gave birth to days of outrage among older, white traditionalists upset that the 26-year-old black Detroiter hadn’t stuck to what they thought the script of a national anthem performance should be.

“When the Democratic party selected Aretha Franklin to sing … it apparently was not aware that a ‘soul’ version of the anthem is considered bad taste,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Paul Jones. “The appearance of Miss Franklin stirred more controversy than even the seating of the [segregated] Georgia delegations.” “Musically, the generation gap was never so wide,” said New York Times critic Jack Gould.

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True, Miss Franklin was singing behind the beat of the full military-style band playing the anthem in accompaniment, but this, her manager explained, was not a stylistic choice so much as an unintentional one—they were at one end of the arena and she was on the other, performing without the benefit of an in-ear monitor to hear them.

“Did she know the words?” harumphed Boston Globe TV critic Percy Shain. “Did she leave out ‘land of the free’? And if so, was it inadvertent or intentional, as a comment on the status of the black people?” (The missing answers: Yes, though she stumbled once; No; and Not Applicable.)

Watching the recording of Franklin’s performance today—knowing how everything turned out for her, that she’d come to be revered as the national consensus choice as the greatest voice of the 20th century and that her death Thursday at age 76 uncorked a nationwide outpouring of remembrance—it’s difficult to imagine what exactly people were so riled up about.

But there had never been anyone like Aretha Louise Franklin.

There’d been female pop stars, but their voices were thin, or their skin was light, or their waists were safely narrow, or their sensibilities fine-tuned for mainstream audiences. Some, like Diana Ross or Ronnie Spector, were relegated to “girl groups” under the thumb of brand-name record executives and producers. Gospel stars who crossed over were men with matinee-idol looks, like Sam Cooke. Crooners like Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were of an older vintage and had to sand down their rough edges. In the 1960s, black artists who made it big with white audiences—including the entire Motown stable—often had to check their politics at the door so as to avoid controversy (which, per Hitsville impresario Berry Gordy’s business sensibilities, was de facto company policy).

All of which made what Franklin was doing all the more daring. She was black. She was a woman. She had curves. She was strong, but knew deep pain. She was angry about injustice. She came from the church. She married Sunday morning with Saturday night. She didn’t apologize for it or check anything at the door. And in 1968, that made her daring.

By the time of the Democratic convention, Aretha was 19 months into a burn-your-tongue hot streak unlike anything a woman of color had ever had the opportunity to achieve. Within that time span, she became the top-selling solo female artist in music history, with nine top-10 hits.

The emotions she evokes on those songs are, half a century later, still so perfectly heartfelt it’s hard not to envision that Aretha is pouring out her soul directly onto the vinyl record press. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with her soft ecstasy on a lyric like “Oh baby, what you’ve done to me.” Her cut-the-bullshit tone on “Chain of Fools.” On “Think,” the way the pushback in her voice gets more and more assertive, as if she’s whipping herself into a lather the more she recalls how she’s been treated. She takes Otis Redding’s “Respect,” an up-tempo number about a man wanting to receive respect when he comes home from work, slows it down and inverts it into the story of a working woman demanding—not asking for—the treatment she’s earned. The matter-of-fact way she falls into a reverie then snaps out of it: “Oooh, your kisses—sweeter than honey. But guess what? So is my money.” She owns the song so completely that we cannot imagine it ever belonging to anyone else. (Not for nothing did Chicago deejay Pervis Spann anoint her the “Queen of Soul” in October 1967.)

With so much professional success over the previous year and a half, it was a risk to sing at the 1968 Democratic National Convention amid the tumult of the Vietnam War and student protests, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, with an unpopular President Lyndon B. Johnson declining to run for reelection. Offering her voice for the “The Star-Spangled Banner” at that moment in time was itself a political act. So was the flavor of the way she sang it, imprinting the stylings of black gospel music upon the national anthem, laying claim to it as belonging to people like her, even as some Southern Democrats in that very hall were threatening to leave the party and support the presidential campaign of segregationist Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.

Today, we take for granted that pop artists can express their political views and for the most part, nobody really bats an eye. That wasn’t always the case, especially for performers of color.

Aretha Franklin was part of the reason that changed.

She’d always been a social justice activist, the unavoidable outcome of growing up the daughter of Detroit megapastor C.L. Franklin, a man born in Mississippi a half-century after the end of slavery and a half-century before the Voting Rights Act. The Rev. Franklin was an agitator for change, a man whose musical, whooping sermons were carried on black radio stations nationwide. He toured the country in the 1950s and ’60s with a gospel act that featured his daughters. In Detroit, he’d organized the June 23, 1963, Walk to Freedom, the largest civil rights march in American history at the time, where more than 100,000 demonstrators turned out and his friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “He was the high priest of soul preaching,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson eulogized at C.L. Franklin’s funeral in 1984, combining “soul, silence, substance and sweetness.”

Aretha Franklin’s inheritance was a tradition in which the political was about justice, justice was about morality, morality about the church’s teachings, and the church was alive through song. “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” President Barack Obama said in 2016. How could a voice like that, charged with such raw emotion, not be political?

With her convention performance, people listened to Franklin and saw and heard what they wanted to or needed to. Any offense lived in the imagination, and as such, certain prejudices took hold in certain viewers.

In that sense, it is not unlike viewers’ reactions to the protests of black athletes during the national anthem today (at the urging of a military veteran, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, not sit, during the song in order to demonstrate his reverence for it). People read unintended motivations into actions, seeing or hearing what they, on some psychic level, want.

Unlike those athletes, though, Aretha Franklin wasn’t protesting during the anthem. When she sang the song’s closing line—“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”—she was not protesting, but singing it as written, as a question rather than a claim of fact. That she was the one singing it was statement enough.

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Soul sister, ‘Blues Brother’: Aretha Franklin’s iconic co-stars

A crown, flowers and pictures are shown placed at Aretha Franklin's star on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, August 16, 2018. — Reuters pic
A crown, flowers and pictures are shown placed at Aretha Franklin’s star on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, August 16, 2018. — Reuters pic

LOS ANGELES, Aug 17 — The death of soul queen Aretha Franklin yesterday marked the passing of the last of the great musical icons of cult comedy movie The Blues Brothers.

The 1980 film told the fictionalised story of the real-life Blues Brothers — an American revivalist band founded by comedy actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi for NBC’s Saturday Night Live sketch show.

The Blues Brothers went on to become one of the best known musical movies in history, noted for the array of stars who put in cameos while brothers Jake and Elwood get the band back together.

Here are some of the musical heavy-hitters who graced the movie before boarding the big Soul Train in the sky.

James Brown

Aretha was the “queen of soul” but Brown was known as its “godfather,” as well as “Soul Brother Number One” and “The Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness.”

Brown, who appeared in more than a dozen movies, took the role in The Blues Brothers of the Reverend Cleophus James, who delivers a sermon at the embattled Triple Rock Baptist Church.

The singer was 73 when he died of heart failure on Christmas Day in 2006, after a colorful childhood growing up in a brothel, time in prison and a musical career that brought him acclaim and riches.

Ray Charles

Charles — a musical instruments store owner in the movie who performs Shake a Tail Feather and Jailhouse Rock with Jake, Elwood and many of the cast’s music stars — needs little introduction.

The soul great, who died in 2004, was instrumental in defining a subset of the genre which took traditional African American gospel music and infused it with rhythm and blues and jazz.

Blind since childhood, the singer and pianist was one of the first African American artists to cross over to white audiences on a wide scale and control over his own musical output at a major record label.

Cab Calloway

Legendary jazz singer and band leader Calloway, who died at age 86 in 1994, played Curtis, a janitor at the orphanage where the brothers grew up and a mentor who taught them the blues.

The frenetic performer, known as Hi De Ho man, led one of the greatest bands of the swing era and was known for his appearances at Harlem’s iconic Cotton Club, and for the million-selling “Minnie The Moocher.”

John Lee Hooker

The word “legend” can be overused but applies in spades to much of the Blues Brothers cast, and not least to vocalist and guitarist Hooker, who played the South Side Chicago busker Street Slim.

It was a small part but the “Father of Boogie”, who was born 101 years ago and died in 2001, is remembered for his rousing performance of Boom Boom in front of the Soul Food Cafe. 

It is his only acting credit, although his music has appeared on numerous movie soundtracks, including The Waterboy and G.I. Jane, while he or his songs often turned up in commercials.

Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy

One of the original members of The Blues Brothers band — Murphy died at 88 at his home in Miami, Florida in June.

In the film he plays himself opposite Franklin as his sassy but long-suffering wife. The pair share the movie’s iconic Soul Food cafe scene, but it was Franklin who turned heads with her soaring rendition of the song Think.

Murphy’s character ended the movie in jail, but 18 years later the actor and his character returned with the band for Blues Brothers 2000, in which he shared another scene with Franklin.

And the regular actors

Many big names from straightforward acting backgrounds have died since the release, including John Candy, Carrie Fisher, Charles Napier and, of course, John Belushi himself. — AFP-Relaxnews

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How Aretha Franklin blew open doors of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

(CNN) – In 1987, Aretha Franklin made history as the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And in doing so, she set the stage for generations of female artists — more specifically, female African American artists.

Of the 55 other legendary female performers have walked in her stead — as solo acts or girl groups or members of some of the biggest bands in music history — more than half have been African American.

As of 2018, 32 of the 56 female Hall of Famers are black women. They also accounted for the first 13 female honorees — from Aretha’s history-making moment in 1987 to the induction of R&B pioneer Etta James in 1993.

“Aretha, your music set a standard for every single lady in this industry to rise to,” Gladys Knight wrote after Franklin’s passing. Knight was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996.

The long line of legendary women to follow in Franklin’s Hall of Fame footsteps include members of Motown royalty, like Diana Ross, The Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas.

They included all-girl groups like The Shirelles and the Ronettes.

They include Franklin’s contemporaries, like Etta James.

And Nina Simone, the Hall’s newest female inductee this year.

The day of Aretha’s passing, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to her impact, not only on the music world, but on their institution.

“Lady Soul,” they wrote on Twitter. “The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remained anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen.”

Women who sang and worked alongside Frankling recalled a singular talent, who was as much a hero as she was a fellow performer.

Bonnie Raitt, who was inducted in 2000, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Aretha was an “incredible inspiration.”

“For me, I was about 16 or so when I first heard her,” Raitt said. “And those first two albums of hers…completely influenced my singing and my style as well as my feelings for what it was to be a woman…and learn about men and heartache and about resilience and respect.”

While Aretha’s triumphs set the stage for generations of black female artists, and female artists in general, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is still a narrow and overwhelmingly male mark of achievement. Of the more than 200 individual performers and groups currently in the Hall of Fame, only 37 are female performers or groups featuring female performers.

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Movie reviews: The Equalizer 2, The Heiress, The Eyes of Orson Welles, The…  


Gung-ho: Denzel Washington returns as Robert McCall in The Equalizer 2
Gung-ho: Denzel Washington returns as Robert McCall in The Equalizer 2

Paul Whitington reviews this week’s new releases.

The Equalizer 2 

(15A, 121mins) – 2 stars

In 2014, Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington released a perfectly serviceable thriller based on a 1980s TV show. In The Equalizer, Washington played Robert McCall, a former CIA Special Ops agent who’s living quietly off the grid in Boston when the casual brutality of a Russian pimp inspires him to take revenge. This will be his calling: to violently avenge the criminally-oppressed, and as The Equalizer 2 opens, he’s really warming to the task.

After wasting a train-carriage load of Turkish hoodlums in order to liberate a kidnapped child, McCall returns to the US to rescue a talented young black artist from the clutches of a street drug gang. But Robert must set all these pressing concerns aside when his oldest friend and CIA mentor is found murdered in a Belgian hotel.

A kind of quietly spoken, heavily armed messiah, Robert McCall was made almost credible in the first film thanks to Washington’s sublimely unaffected acting. The Equalizer was no classic, but seems so next to this hacked together effort, which after a sober enough start quickly descends into by-the-numbers B-movie drudgery.

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Read Chris Wasser’s review: The Equalizer 2: ‘A bloated, confusing and terribly bland thriller’

The Heiresses

(No Cert, IFI, 98mins) – 4 stars

Paraguayan film-maker Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses charts the unravelling fortunes of two elderly gay women who’ve been insulated until now from life’s hard lessons in a well-heeled Ascension suburb. But when Chiquita (Marguerita Irun) is sent to an open women’s prison for tax fraud, her gentler and more retiring partner Chela (Ana Brun) is forced to cope alone.

Money is tight for the proudly upper class Chela, but things look up when she starts driving other posh ladies to card games for a fee, and her life takes an unexpected turn when a languidly sensual younger woman called Angy (Ana Ivanova) takes a shine to her. Dense and complex as a good novel, The Heiresses is bolstered by fine acting, especially from the two leads, stage actresses here making their screen debuts. They make it look easy.

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The Eyes of Orson Welles

(No Cert, IFI, 110mins) – 4 stars

How you get on with The Eyes of Orson Welles will depend on your tolerance for its maker’s iconoclastic flourishes. Belfast-born film critic and documentarist Mark Cousins made his name on the BBC in the 90s, coolly deconstructing contemporary cinema in his trademark soporific drawl. He’s gone on to make quirky but original documentaries, and in this one he reassesses Orson Welles through the prism of his sketches and drawings.

The great man drew obsessively throughout his life, and Cousins was granted access to his sketches by Welles’ daughter, Beatrice. He uses them as a springboard to explore the recurring patterns in Orson’s work, the overwhelming visual power of his films, and the warring contradictions in his imperious personality. Distractingly, Cousins keeps buttonholing Welles (dead now for 30-odd years) in his voiceover, purring “Look, Orson…” and “Guess what, Orson…”. This is massively irritating, especially early on, but The Eyes of Orson Welles is worth persevering with because for all his mannerisms, Cousins knows what he’s on about, chooses film segments with great insight, and finds plausible ways of re-reading Welles’ life and work.

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The Guardians

(15A, 135mins) – 4 stars

And finally, a word about The Guardians, Xavier Beauvois’s handsome epic set in a western French village during the Great War. While the men are away fighting and dying in the Flanders mud, the community’s women till and sow the rich soil abandoned by their brothers and husbands. The formidable matriarch Hortense (Nathalie Baye) turns out to be rather good at it, modernising antique methods on her family farm with the help of two tough young women.

Meanwhile, the men return on occasional furloughs, contradicting party line patriotism with their bitter accounts of a pointless, horrific war. It’s a fine film, thoughtful, nuanced and beautifully photographed.

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Irish Independent

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Howard Davis Review: Reclaiming The N-Word – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman


Reclaiming The N-Word –
Spike Lee’s
BlacKkKlansman Confronts White
Supremacism
W.E.B. Du
BoisThis article is dedicated to the
memory of Jamie Du Bois
and Maxwell Farrell Davis, my
Constant Inspiration.

Black resistance to
institutional racism in the US has a long, tangled, and
traumatic intellectual history. Although we may have assumed
much too easily that white supremacists like David Duke had
become marginalised as a political force, in reality they
never really disappeared. Last year’s events in
Charlottesville revealed just how deeply embedded the roots
of racial hatred and animosity lie buried – as well as how
close to the surface such polarising beliefs remain. The
2016 US presidential election and subsequent actions of
America’s Commander in Chief have only served to demonstrate
the alarming truth of novelist David Foster Wallace’s
prescient warning that there is no such thing as not
voting.

In 1895, the year Frederick Douglass died, Booker
T Washington gave a speech comparing black and white people
to the fingers on a hand, separated but working together in
conjunction with each other. Washington recommended that
black people accept Jim Crow, stop agitating for restoration
of the civil rights they had enjoyed during Reconstruction,
and concentrate instead on self-improvement and economic
development. Washington’s conciliatory approach made his
autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), a best-seller
and he was hailed as the most influential black spokesman of
his day. Theodore Roosevelt even invited him to dinner at
the White House. Washington’s programme may have won him a
degree of white admiration, but he never managed to persuade
many black people, at least as far as sociologist and
historian W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned. In The Souls of
Black Men (1903), Du Bois argued that the influence of
three main attitudes could be traced throughout the history
of black Americans in response to their condition – “a
feeling of revolt and revenge; an attempt to adjust all
thought and action to the will of the greater group; or,
finally, a determined effort at self-realization and
self-development despite environing opinion.”

For Du
Bois, Washington represented an unforgivable attitude of
submission and his Tuskegeee Movement came to stand for
backwater gradualism. This debate between Washington and Du
Bois revealed some of the basic oppositions between North
and South and urban and rural communities which defined
black America at the time. Identifying what Arnold Rampersad
has termed “an essential dualism in the black American
soul,” Du Bois went on to explore the idea of a
double-consciousness – “One ever feels his two-ness – an
American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled
strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” This
conflict between national and racial identity incorporates
both a form of political expression
(integrationist/separatist) and a psychological meaning
(good/bad black; masked black self/real black self).

In
the 1960s, frustration with integration as the primary goal
of civil rights began Washington’s rehabilitation as an
early advocate of black self-sufficiency. His influence is
apparent in the work of contemporary writer Ta-Nehisi
Coates, who grew up in segregated West Baltimore, where his
father was a chapter head of the local Black Panther Party.
The Panthers considered their emphasis on defending black
communities against racist agents of the state like the FBI
as revolutionary. Malcolm X (one of Spike Lee’s heroes and
the subject of possibly his best movie) thought that Du
Bois’ concept of double consciousness was largely a problem
for the black middle class. Even when black people could see
themselves for themselves, a lingering question remained
about whether the white power structure could ever be
reformed, overthrown, or even escaped. According to DH
Lawrence, the American soul is essentially hard, isolated,
stoic, and a killer. If white supremacy is still at the root
of the social order in the US, then so are the temptations
of hate, despair, and doubt, as Du Bois framed them. When
black students baited Ralph Ellison in the 1960s for his
detachment from the protest movement, he responded by
insisting that writing the best novel he could was his
contribution to the struggle. But, in the words of a popular
sixties saying, there is a Malcolm X waiting to emerge from
the soul of every black person. By the time George Clinton’s
Funkadelic started singing “free your mind and your ass
will follow” in 1970, only militant black resistance was
assumed to be an authentic and valid response to endemic and
systematic racism.

Times have changed since then. “As we
move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third
road – being themselves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his
most recent publication, We Were Eight Years in Power: An
American Tragedy
, a collection of eight essays on
politics and black history written during Obama’s two terms
of office and introduced with some new reflections. Its
title is taken from a speech that a South Carolina
congressman made in 1895 when Reconstruction in the state
was terminated by a white supremacist takeover. For Coates,
racism has always been the main action and dealing with it
just a knee jerk form of reaction, which is why he believes
black thinkers and artists should now try to turn things
around, to transcend race, and escape from all forms of
white jurisdiction.

Coates declares that when Obama first
ran for president in 2008, the civil rights generation was
“exiting the American stage – not in a haze of nostalgia
but in a cloud of gloom troubled by the persistence of
racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following
in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the
country to black America’s fate.” According to Coates,
Obama’s rise was so rapid because African-Americans were
“war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that
was tired of the old baby boomer debates. Blacks, too, were
sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing.
There was a broad sense that integration had failed.”

As a teenager immersed in hip-hop culture, it angered
Coates that other black students at his private school had
no idea where or when Du Bois died (Ghana, in 1963), but got
worked up over the anniversary of the assassination of
Biggie Smalls. Indeed, his biography reads much like a hip
hop song, infused with all the anger and rage of the
projects. In 1995, Coates attended the Million Man March in
Washington DC at which the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan
urged black men to be better fathers and role models, but he
now rejects such assimilation, writing that “The essence
of American racism is disrespect.” Having a father around
and adhering to middle-class values have “never shielded
black people from plunder.” Located somewhere between
black people and the outside world, Du Bois had argued, was
the unasked question of what it felt like to be a problem.
Coates insists that even the best-intentioned liberals still
perceive being black as a social handicap. For him, white
people themselves are the problem – “Racism was banditry,
pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to
America, it was essential to it.”

In an echo of the
earlier Washington/Du Bois debate, the radical Harvard
intellectual Cornel West has blasted Coates for his narrow
notion of “defiance,” for choosing a “personal
commitment to writing with no connection to collective
action,” and for losing sight of the tradition of black
resistance. In the contemptuous eyes of West, Coates
represents the neo-liberal wing of the black freedom
struggle, much like Obama himself, and his argument amounts
to little more than misguided pessimism. West’s attack on
Coates has been likened to the scene in Ellison’s Invisible
Man in which young blindfolded black men are made to fight
each other in a ring for the amusement of whites. In his
autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright recounted how he
tried to get the other boy he was matched up against to
stand with him and refuse to fight. Robin DG Kelly, author
of Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American
Original
(2009), has tried to mediate between these
opposing positions, suggesting that both West and Coates
share this sense of fundamental pessimism and that black
movements have always exhibited a dual purpose – both
survival and ultimate victory.

Afro-pessimism and its
equation of withdrawal with transcendence is no less
accetable to white supremacists than Washington’s strategic
retreat into self-help. Harold Cruse, in his vehement work
of black nationalism The Crisis of the Negro
Intellectual
(1967), said flat out that Washington was
right and Du Bois had ended up on the wrong side of history,
that Marxism was just white people (i.e. Jews) telling black
people what to think. Writing well before Franz Fanon’s
ground-breaking investigation into the de-colonised mind was
translated into English, Cruse was largely regraded as a
crank at the time, but his view of black history in America
as a rigged game is becoming increasingly widely shared.
Afro-pessimism may derive in large part from Fanon’s bleak
vision of the future, but maybe it is just another name for
something that has existed in black culture for a long time.
It seems that Fanon’s work, with its wholesale rejection of
universal neo-liberalism, is being rediscovered and
celebrated everywhere these days, in much the same way that
posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara used to adorn the walls
of so many college residence halls in the 1970s. So where
exactly does that leave contemporary black artists, caught
up in this confusing maelstrom of conflicting opinion and
argument?

Part of the second wave of US film
school graduates to work his way into the cinematic
mainstream, Spike Lee is indisputably America’s pre-eminent
black moviemaker. While Francis Ford Coppola attended UCLA
and Steven Spielberg went to USC, Lee followed in the
illustrious footsteps of Martin Scorsese, graduating from
NYU film school in the early 1980s. Courageously outspoken,
uncompromising, and well-versed in film history, he has
directed a variety of feature films and documentaries that
reveal him to be fully capable not only of producing
commercial hits when necessary, but also of articulating a
radical critique of American society’s endemic racism.
Eschewing the surface glitz and glamour of Hollywood, he has
remained close to New York’s Brooklyn/Fort Greene area,
relishing the relative independence his successful track
record deserves.

Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a
Mule Filmworks, first burst onto the silver screen in 1986
with She’s Gotta Have It (recently re-booted as a
Netflix TV series), and has since released such
ground-breaking films as Do the Right Thing (1989),
Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991),
Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995), The
Original Kings of Comedy
(2000), 25th Hour
(2002), Inside Man (2006), and
Chi-Raq (2015). He has won numerous accolades,
including two nominations, a Student Award, and an Honorary
Award for his contributions to film from the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as two Emmys,
two Peabodys, an honorary BAFTA Award, an Honorary
César, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, and a Grand
Prix Award.

With a budget of only $175,000, She’s
Gotta Have It
was shot in just two weeks and grossed
over $7 million at the US box office alone. Do the Right
Thing
was nominated for an Academy Award for Best
Original Screenplay in 1989, with many critics believing it
also deserved a nomination (Driving Miss Daisy won
Best Picture). In a 2006 New York magazine
interview, Lee said the other film’s success was based on
safe stereotypes that may have hurt his chances more than if
his film had not been nominated. In 1991, Lee taught a
film-making class at Harvard and two years later starting
teaching in the Graduate Film Program at NYU, where he was
appointed Artistic Director in 2002. His 1997
documentary 4 Little Girls, about the children
killed in the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham,
Alabama, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best
Feature Documentary. In 2007, the San Francisco
International Film Festival honoured him with a Directing
Award, in 2008 he received the Wexner Prize, and in 2013 he
won the Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the
American arts, worth $300,000.

A prodigious director of
advertising commercials and music videos, Lee has
consistently focused his unflinching cinematic lens on race
relations, the black community, interracial relationships,
the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and
poverty, and many other social and political issues. His
films are notable for their unique stylistic elements, such
as their innovative use of soundtrack music and zooming
dolly shots that portray actors as though they were floating
through their surroundings. They are typically referred to
as ‘Spike Lee Joints,’ with the closing credits ending with
the phrases ‘By Any Means Necessary,’ ‘Ya Dig,’ and ‘Sho
Nuff.’ Only his 2013 film, Oldboy, used the
traditional ‘A Spike Lee Film’ credit after producers
heavily re-edited it.

Highly opinionated and often
cantankerous, Lee is no stranger to controversy. After the
release of Mo’ Better Blues, he was accused of
antisemitism by the Anti-Defamation League which
criticized the depiction of club owners Josh and Moe
Flatbush, who were described as ‘Shylocks.’ Lee refuted the
charge, explaining that he invented the characters in order
to depict how black artists have always had to struggle
against cultural exploitation. Lee said that Lew Wasserman,
Sidney Sheinberg, or Tom Pollock, the Jewish heads of MCA
and Universal Studios, were unlikely to allow antisemitic
content in any films they produced. He said it was not
possible for him to make an antisemitic film because Jews
run Hollywood – and “that’s a fact.”

In 1999, the New York
Post reported that Lee made an inflammatory comment about
NRA President Charlton Heston while speaking to reporters at
the Cannes Film Festival. He was quoted as saying the NRA
should be disbanded and that someone should shoot Heston
“with a .44 Bull Dog,” which Lee claimed was intended
as a joke in response to questions about whether violence in
Hollywood films was responsible for school shootings. “The
problem is guns,” he said. Republican House Majority Leader
Dick Armery condemned Lee as having “nothing to offer the
debate on school violence except more violence and more
hate.”

In October 2005, Lee responded to a question on CNN
as to whether the government intentionally ignored the
plight of black Americans during Hurricane Katrina by
saying, “It’s not too far-fetched. I don’t put anything past
the United States government. I don’t find it too
far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people
out of New Orleans,” citing earlier government involvement
in the notorious Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the
Negro Male.

At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Lee (who was
in the process of making Miracle at St. Anna about
an all-black US division fighting in Italy during WWII)
criticized Clint Eastwood for not depicting black marines in
Flags of Our Fathers. Citing historical accuracy,
Eastwood responded that his film was specifically about the
Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima.
Eastwood pointed out that, while black Marines did indeed
fight at Iwo Jima, the US military was racially segregated
during WWII, and none of the men who raised the flag were
black. He angrily said that Lee should “shut his face.” Lee
responded that Eastwood was acting like an “angry old
man,” arguing that, despite making two films about Iwo
Jima back to back, “there was not one black soldier in both
of those films,” and adding that he and Eastwood were “not
on a plantation.” Lee later claimed that the media
exaggerated their exchange and that he and Eastwood had
effected a reconciliation through their mutual friend Steven
Spielberg, which culminated in him sending a print
of Miracle at St. Anna to Eastwood.

After the
tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Lee circulated a
message on used Twitter including the home address of the
shooter George Zimmerman. The address turned out to be
incorrect, forcing the real occupants, Elaine and David
McClain, to stay at a hotel due to numerous death
threats. Lee later issued an apology and reached an
agreement that reportedly included financial compensation,
with their attorney stating “The McClains’ claim is fully
resolved”. Nevertheless, the next year the McClains filed a
negligence lawsuit that accused Lee of “encouraging a
dangerous mob mentality among his Twitter followers, as well
as the public-at-large.” The lawsuit, which a court filing
reportedly valued at $1.2 million, alleged that the couple
suffered “injuries and damages” that continued up until
Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, but the judge dismissed it,
agreeing with Lee that the issue had already been
settled.

Given today’s overheated political climate, it is
easy to understand why this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury
decided to make a political point by awarding
BlacKkKlansman the Grand Prix and gave Lee a
six-minute standing ovation. A standard police procedural,
Lee’s usual cinematic exuberance is only really evident in
Alec Baldwin’s provocative opening prologue, which is neatly
bookended by horrific footage from last year’s
Charlottesville alt right rally and Trump’s disgusting
response. For the rest of its two hour and fifteen minute
running time, BlacKkKlansman remains a measured, even
sedate exercise in classic narrative movie-making. Tonally,
however, the film is a post-modern melange of dramatic and
action scenes, alternating with episodes of grim humour and
ironic foreshadowing, and intentionally reminding audiences
that the struggle against racism in the US is far from a
done deal. Lee and his co-writers moved the story back seven
years from when it actually took place in 1979 to 1972,
which allowed them to refer both to blaxploitation movies
and Nixon’s re-election campaign, which the Klan actively
supported.

John David Washington (Denzel’s son) and Adam
Driver put in stellar performances in the lead roles, while
singer and long-time civil rights activist Harry Belafonte
provides a stirring cameo that is drenched in authenticity.
Washington has revealed that, just before the gun shooting
scene was filmed, Lee told him the metal “running
nigger” targets were not props, but legally purchased on
the internet. As in many of his previous outings, Lee’s
longtime collaborators (especially editor Barry Alexander
Brown and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard) provide
delicate, nuanced, and unobtrusive touches. There are not
too many cinematographers who know how to light black actors
successfully, but Chayse Irvin does a highly impressive job.
This is Lee’s first film since Oldboy to be shot on
35mm film and it shows in the rich grain and texture of his
imagery. Both Marci Rodgers’ wardrobe selections and Cathy T
Marshall’s set dressing precisely evoke the period setting,
and Lee’s musical ear remains as true as ever, particularly
during a club scene that perfectly captures the joyful sense
of freedom and release that can only be found on the dance
floor. The end credits are accompanied by a previously
unreleased live rehearsal recording of Prince singing
Mary, Don’t You Weep.

It has been over fifty years
since Malcolm X first decried brainwashed negroes bragging
about their blackness. More than half a century has passed
since he described the widespread feeling of cultural grief
and depression among blacks as a form of self-hatred. As the
British father of a bi-racial and West Indian
African-American who spent much of my working life toiling
deep inside the putrid entrails of Tinseltown, I certainly
have some personal “skin in the game,” to cite just one
ironic line from Lee’s deftly astute screenplay. I must
confess to finding the contortions and contradictions in
these recent debates among black intellectuals about how
best to combat institutional racism and white supremacism
somewhat baffling – and perhaps that’s simply as it should
be.

I can only observe, with some degree of paternal
pride, that my gay son seems to have matured into a
remarkably successful and well-adjusted individual. In large
part, his self-confidence, assurance, and surprising sense
of ambition is due to the support and engagement of several
influential mentors, both black and white, for which I will
always be profoundly appreciative. It may be a truism, but
it seems to me that our only hope for progress in so many
problematic social and political arenas these days lies in
the inspiring clarity and vision of our youth. In this
terrifying age of impending environmental catastrophe, with
a mendacious and racist misogynist in possession of the
nuclear codes, we must trust in the sanity and sincerity of
our children to de-escalate the discussion and at least try
to maintain the conversation on a courteous, civil, and
mutually respectful basis. In the end, what other hope do we
have?

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