Exploring the Western fjords of Norway

In a game of word association meant to conjure up descriptions of my personality, I would take a punt that ‘outdoors’ would be pretty far down the list. Such is my strong inclination to cosy up in bed with a warm drink and a movie. I’ve always been the sort of kid that would rather spend 10 hours doing a GCSE art project or a history timeline than taking a stroll through the rural fields of my Surrey home. Strangely, I do love a good outdoors movie – Deadly Pursuit, River Wild, Jurassic Park, Everest – but perhaps more so because I’m inside watching them, safely ensconced in layers of protective blanket and the soft crackle of a fire or candle never far away. I’ve being doing ‘hygge’ long before it became the buzzword of 2016.

So no-one was more surprised than I to discover how at home I felt in the Norwegian fjords when I visited there this week. After flying into Bergen, branded as ‘the gateway to the fjords’, we caught a train to Voss –  the more adventurous sibling to the small-town charm of Norway’s second largest harbour-bound city. From here we were collected and taken to the base camp, kitted out with full wetsuit gear and seduced with Norwegian chocolate buns before setting out on our guided excursion.

Our trip was booked through Much Better Adventures, who offer a range of wild-camping, lake-navigating trips for the intrepid vacationer. We opted to hike and kayak the fjords for 3 days and 2 nights, which turned out to be an ideal length of time to immerse yourself in the sublime landscapes whilst mitigating the risk of trench foot or other such hazardous conditions that your parents undoubtedly worry you’ll acquire if you spend more than 4 days outside.

And sublime it was. It’s hard to describe in any other means than the pictures below, but particularly on the kayak part of the trip, spectacular doesn’t begin to construe our surroundings. On our first day the mirror-like water was pleasingly placid, and if you could bear to look up from the concentrated paddling, you’d see only verdant or snow-capped mountains with waterfalls careening through them. Aside from the occasional boat-cruise, there was little to disturb the peace and it was easy to imagine yourself completely alone. And yet far from lonely. The alienation of the city, with its anonymity and aggression is quickly muted when confronted with the comfort of clouds and the reassurance of rain. You simply feel there and present and in it and not thinking about anything other than the what you’re doing (trying not to capsize) and what you’re seeing (NATURE, NATURE EVERYWHERE). It feels cliche to acknowledge, but it was as refreshing as an early evening swim in the fjords themselves to digitally detach yourself from the world and focus your energies on physical exertion. Every meal and sip of water feels earned. Calories become more about sustenance and fuel than guilt and mathematics. Your muscles feel worked. Your mind feels revitalised. You’re not distracted or numbed. You’re focused only on the smooth strokes of your oar sluicing through the cold water, and maneuvering yourself through the alpines or the burn in your thighs as you power yourself up craggy rocks and muddied tracks. And at the end of the day, you fall asleep, not foggy-headed and slumberous but tired. Good tired. With the sound of waves licking the sand and waterfalls trickling in the background.

We explored the Nærøyfjord, which is a UNESCO listed world heritage site, and for good reason. So here are just some of the photos, which will far better communicate the awe the Norwegian fjords inspire, than any frothy encapsulation of their staggering beauty.

Day 1: The journey there & kayak to camp

Roadside views on our way to base camp

On the water!

Our camp.

Day 2: The hike

Despite a persistent 5 hours of rain and some slipperiness underfoot, 10 hours of hiking was more gratifying (albeit punctured with bouts of frustration, discomfort and elation) than I would’ve suspected. There’s something simplistically thrilling about trusting your own feet and body to get yourself from A to B and back again (albeit relying on a guide who knows exactly where they’re going and can be used as a bridge to occasionally cross a chasmal stream). And my goodness were the views worth the cold feet and achy limbs.

Total distance walked: 25km. Total height climbed: 1300m.

The peak:

Day 3: Kayaking and the journey back

Thoughts on ‘Jackie’

It’s a strange experience to watch a biopic of a person of whom you’ve heard, but with whom you’re not especially familiar. The Kennedy era preceded my birth. Hell, my parents were both just one years old when President JFK was assassinated on November 22nd 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I never watched any of JFK’s speeches as I have done with Michelle and Barack’s. I never saw Jackie’s televised tour of the White House. Or John’s inauguration. As I expect is the case with most people of, and before my generation, I know them through the lens of tragedy. Perhaps more than most, thanks to a visit to Hyannis, Cape Cod and an intense passion for American history. But even then, JFK and Jackie are legends, not people.

As a woman with many monikers and identities; Jacqueline Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, Jackie O, she is essentially unknowable. She is many things to many people and thus defies the classification that biopics tend to dish up. Aside from Todd Haynes’ experimental, multi-faceted unravelling of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, I can think of few that don’t somehow reduce the very person they aim to glorify. By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

And indeed it is. By deconstructing Jackie’s public persona and excavating beyond the superficiality that she herself so masterfully, and somewhat manipulatively moulded, and instead depicting her in moments of astonishing anguish; mourning her husband, her identity and her place in the world, whilst at the same time navigating the crisis that was losing a President, we see a side to Jackie that has been little explored. It doesn’t lay claim to knowing the whole story, or attempt to condense her entire existence into a two-hour yarn. Rather, at a nimble 100 minutes, it offers an insight into a very particular and defining moment.

By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

What’s more, Jackie avoids the fate of many sycophantic biopics by refraining from lavishing its subject with unreserved reverence. Jackie, as depicted by Larrain and portrayed by Natalie Portman (giving Emma Stone a very good run for her money in the Best Actress Oscar stakes) is a prickly, tenacious creature, unafraid of exerting the influence she has accrued. However the film also appraises her with sincerity, subtlety and compassion. Jackie is refracted through many angles, and as such the film becomes a complex composite of all her colours and emotions. In this film she is so much more than the pink two-piece she was wearing on that fateful November day. An icon yes. But a woman first. A woman whose future is in jeopardy and who is striving to retain her relevance and sense of self, as well as the more immediate, concrete concern of her economic stability.

In its deconstruction of character, Jackie cleverly employs or rather recreates historical artefacts, such as the televised tour of the White House that Jackie gave in 1962 to exhibit the renovations she had made (a bizarrely staged and mannered affair). Or the interview with Theodore H. White (here simply known as ‘the journalist’ and played by an understated Billy Crudup), where Jackie blatantly states that she will revise whatever is said and approve what makes it into print. After a particularly uncharacteristic and extemporaneous admission of grief, she adds, ‘Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you print that’. There’s a particularly wry moment of abridgment where Crudup audaciously suggests he mention Jackie’s habit of smoking in print. No sooner than she takes a dispassionate drag of her cigarette, she replies, “I don’t smoke”. Jackie places herself as the subeditor of hers and John’s history; abbreviating and polishing to the exclusion of anything considered improper, determined to secure their legacy in United States history. Candor is not the currency through which the Kennedys, or indeed any First Family trades. Whilst her motivations are desperately poignant, there’s also playfulness to Portman’s Jackie in these moments. She is a woman fully aware of her authority and wielding it most forcefully at the time it’s being called most into question. Of course the very existence of this film suggests her ambition triumphed.

jackie_001

Portman is a force of regal nature. Perhaps taking inspiration from her Oscar-winning turn as a ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (who was slated to direct this at one point), her Jackie is poised and precise, at once a figure of extreme beauty and strength, but also of innate sadness. Her face is at the fore of every frame, and never once does it betray her. Despite the contrivance of Jackie’s unique, whispery and melodious drawl and the scrupulousness of her image, all structured silhouettes and dignified accessories, revealing the machinations of the political system, Portman is free of any such woodenness. Through her you see not an impression of an icon, but rather you feel the anguish of a widow. Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

Two distinct moments of her performance particularly awed me. The first takes place near the beginning of the film. No sooner has JFK been wheeled off to the morgue than Jackie must preside over the swearing in of his successor, Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). Portman is a picture of paralysed disbelief, where only the flash of a camera is capable of jolting her out of this nebulous nightmare. Larrain cleverly begins the scene with Jackie at the centre of the frame, with Johnson reciting the presidential oath off-screen. Gradually however she is pushed farther and farther towards the edge until physically removed from the picture. You see the realisation creep onto Portman’s face and it’s heartbreaking.

Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

The second is towards the end of the film, whereupon, until now, Larrain has refrained from depicting the events of the assassination. In visceral, gory detail – after Jackie has admitted to a priest (John Hurt) of being able to remember everything – JFK’s brain literally explodes across the screen. The astounding thing however is not that image. Rather, it’s Portman’s reaction to it. At first, shock and outrage. But then her instinct becomes harrowingly practical. She picks the pieces of her husband’s shattered cranium off the bonnet of the car and attempts to hold it together, whilst no doubt falling apart on the inside. Portman reconciles these two conflicts – of public vs private – beautifully. Her Jackie is at once wrecked and stoic, restrained and powerful, ethereal and relentless, and the result of all these fragmented identities being played out on screen is nothing less than astonishing.

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

In keeping with this sense of performativity, is the aesthetic of camp which Larrain flavours his film with. Indeed Susan Sontag noted that

Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content”.

This exert practically summarises Jackie’s concerns throughout the film; a woman obsessively passionate with the preservation of historical artefacts and décor in the White House, her affinity for fashion, surfaces, image and perception. A legacy which is surreally and brazenly tackled when Jackie is confronted with mannequins, ready to adorn shop windows, in exact replica of her funereal ensembles. Indeed Robert Kennedy (a scintillating Peter Sarsgaard) fears that his family will just be remembered now as “the beautiful people.”

jackie_004

However, the pinnacle of these theatrical inflections comes during a sequence in which Richard Burton’s ‘Camelot’ blares from the stereo as Jackie drunkenly parades through the White House in various outfits of incredible extravagance; a frenzy of jewellery, designer gowns and dressing up, the flamboyance of her female-ness on full display. And yet the whole affair, however exquisitely photographed, is underscored by sadness and lugubriousness, framed by the interview in which she laments the life marrying the President bestowed upon her. This sadness is reiterated by that histrionic tour of the same building, to which Larrain keeps referring. As if Jackie has now become one of the ghosts that she acknowledged.

Speaking of which, Danish actor Caspar Phillipson could actually be a long-lost relative of the Kennedy’s, such is the uncanny resemblance he bears to the bygone president he plays, and yet for most of his screen time he is merely glimpsed, obscured or simply peripheralized in favour of Jackie. The effect, aside from cementing this as very much her narrative, is creating a sort of mythical, phatom quality to JFK. Just as life eluded him, he eludes the screen.

The score, composed by Mica Levi, only accentuates this ghostly timbre. It is a quivering, grandiose melee of strings, lacerating woodwind, lingering chords and woozy glissando. The effect is eerie and chilling, which, when combined with the fragmented, memoiristic editing – as if Larrain is attempting to depict a collage or impression of trauma –  as well as the claustrophobic interiors and tight close-ups give the film the texture of a chamber horror piece, not all that disparate from the unnerving alien world of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, on which Levi made her scoring debut. Before the first shot of Portman graces the screen, the music; a reverberating, siren-like outpouring of grief, sets the tone. This will jar with the image of Jackie – composed, fragile, elegant – we might have hitherto entertained. This score and this Jackie, is fierce.

Costume and production design are of equal importance and do a splendid job of resurrecting the era, whilst the grainy, archival texture to the footage lends the film a certain seriousness and heft. Though there’s more to it than that. The uncanny reproduction of history invites you to scrutinise its appearance, to see it as performance, wherein each detail is a carefully selected choice. From the gloves to the drapes, nothing has been put there accidentally. A motif that resurfaces throughout the film is that of Jackie looking through reflective surfaces such as mirrors and windows and emphasises the sense of her multiplicity. In one such striking shot there are literally three fragmented Jackies.

jackie_006

This film is nothing if not preferential towards reflexivity, constantly calling attention to the way the Kennedy’s were constructed and consumed. In a moment of wry self-awareness, Jackie and the journalist enjoy the following exchange:

JACKIE

The truth? Well I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.

JOURNALIST

Fine, I will settle for a story that’s believable.

JACKIE

That’s more like it. You know I used to be a reporter myself once. I know what you’re looking for.

JOURNALIST

I’m sorry?

JACKIE

A moment-by-moment account. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?

But don’t be mistaken, this isn’t an unmasking of Jackie Kennedy. Despite the scenes of her removing bloodied stockings, or rinsing of the blood of late husband in the shower, in the end Jackie maintains her veil. And whether she was this sort of woman in real life, I guess we’ll never know.

jackie_005

Verdict: A vivid, mesmeric, tightly-controlled and searingly poignant interpretation of events, shot with a crisp, confident majesty. Much like Larrain’s subject, his film will leave a lasting impression.

Top 10 Albums Of 2016

10. Hinds – Leave Me Alone

homepage_large-21b15074In their oversized t-shirts, smudged eye-liner and beers-in-hand, the sleeve art of Leave Me Alone might as well be a photo of your best girl mates outside that sticky uni club on a Wednesday night. But this sort of dirty dilettante vibe is exactly what fuels Hinds’ appeal. They are the sort of girls you could get along really well with, whipping your hair back and forth or going vintage shopping, as well as being a grungy, Madrid-based quartet that also make really cool music. They’re not preened pop princesses. They’re girls you know. And like all the more for it. Their debut album is just as unfocused as the album cover; playful, haphazard, home-video-style, with sleepy, beach-y melodies (homage to Mac DeMarco) and whimsical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The raucous, strident percussion and occasional chorus-chanting is often chaotic, with sounds and voices competing to be heard, but the album holds together so well because it’s undeniably theirs. It’s their heart, soul, sweat and saliva that’s gone into the production of it. Call them dishevelled. Call it careless. But whatever insouciant brand of garage these girls are operating under, they’re owning it. And whatever they’re selling, I’m buying.

9. Rihanna – ANTI

rihanna_-_antiR.Kelly once sang that “after the show its the after party, And after the party its the hotel lobby, Around about 4 you gotta clear the lobby, Then head take it to your room and freak somebody”. To me, ANTI is Rihanna soundtracking that hook-up. She’s not written this album for the sell-out stadium shows, or for Grammy nominations, or for the millions of devotees that like to slut-drop to Rude Boy. This is purely for herself, and whoever has the good fortune to be invited back to her and Mary Jane’s lair. In Rihanna’s post-pop, post-language rebirth she’s created something subdued, introspective and soulful. There’s none of the flashy, chart-topping anthems that we’ve come to expect from her, mechanically engineered, year after year since 2005. Instead, rejecting the mould of badass pop star that has been built for her, and which she’s so magnificently inhabited, Rihanna has made an anti-commercial, anti-mainstream, anti-Taylor-Swift’s-cutesy-girl-gang album. And if it’s not the triumphant, catchy, provocative music you’re used to, well that’s exactly the point. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad. Consideration, Kiss It Better and Work simmer and throb with the kind of woozy sensuality that Rihanna is so brilliant at. But if ANTI does anything brilliantly, it’s give space to allow Rihanna’s voice to shine (bright like a diamond). My favourite song of hers by far is “FourFiveSeconds” in which she belted with raw, unabashed feeling, only serving to amplify the level of vulnerability and soul in her voice. Here, she builds on that foundation, revealing a side of her – though don’t be fooled, this is just how she wants you to currently see her – we’ve rarely had the joy to behold. ANTI is a brazen, bold statement of intent, and an ANTIdote to the manufactured pop of Rihanna’s yesteryears.

eliot-sumner-information8. Eliot Sumner – Information

Sting’s prodigal daughter burst onto the music scene as I Blame Coco. But in shedding the cutesy moniker and opting to work under her given name, she returns with a moody, melodramatic and ambitious sophomore album that plays like a coruscating fever dream. Having honed in on and toned down her ‘sound’, Sumner produces an album of astonishing singularity, pulsating with vulnerability and searing synth-hooks that play to the strengths of her distinctive, husky vocals.

58764-the-altar7. Banks – The Altar

Brooding, menacing, searing synths and infectious pop hooks only serve to showcase Bank’s vocal talent, as she dishes up a platter of deliveries, cadences, and range over dissonant strings and thumping bass. But for all its experimental production and deeply-honest lyrics, this is an album to make you feel empowered.

6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

985e010aBon Iver, a.k.a Justin Vernon’s latest musical offering sounds like it was born out of Netflix’s Stranger Things sinister parallel universe, The Upside Down. This isn’t the Bon Iver we know and love – impressionistic, mournful, spiritual, trading in acoustic hums and strums – and it’s taken a bit of getting used. But if you can overcome your purist reservations there’s a lot to love here. Despite the glitchy, dissonant and electronic surface, the architecture of Bon Iver’s music remains visible; pastoral themes explored with a penetrating uncertainty. It clocks in at a mere 35 minutes long, but in spite of its brevity, Iver never loses the meditative quality that permeates his previous albums. Synth-heavy and processed it might be, but in pushing beyond the borders of the genre to which we’ve acclimatised ourselves to in relation to Iver, he creates something revelatory, surprising and adventurous. Which surely is what the best music should be?

5. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It

cover1400x1400-1Existing on the periphery of cool, you don’t lose all manner of dignity admitting you like The 1975, as you would with, say, One Direction, but certainly a big chunk of it would disappear. They’re like an edgier version of The Vamps or a grittier version of 5 Seconds of Summerexcept that I like their music. And as much as I could’ve earned more regard among peers by putting Kendrick or Chance or Kanye in the number 5 spot, I’ve given it to these weed-smoking, skinny-jean wearing lads because they’re a huge amount of fun. This is music I’d dance to. And lord knows I like to do that. And with their skittish, aspirational sophomore album (see above) they might just have crawled their way into the realms of reverence.

ILIWYSFYASBYSUOT (more effort than typing the actual title) is self-indulgent, sprawling, self-proclaimed ‘art’. It’s obscenely pretentious and it’s not hiding the fact. It riffs of the effervescent sounds of the 80s; all neon-drenched rhythms and resounding hooks, the gleaming glossiness of which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s 1989, just less neatly packaged and besieged by introspection, digression and experimentation. The ‘hits’ (The Sound, UGH) are interspersed with 6-minute spasms of instrumentals. It tackles BIG SERIOUS TOPICS like fame, faith, loss, love and sex with a trademark bluntness and wit and whilst the profundity the band might be aiming for doesn’t always come of, the playful wackiness certainly does. It’s hard to not to admire the sheer appetite for genre that The 1975 display and how earnest and eager they are to be irreverent. And for that reason they earn this (much coveted) spot.

4. Solange Knowles – A Seat at the Table

ed5cd56aba0fc1ca577a2a67dd5efe9c-1000x1000x1Solange (a.k.a. sister of Beyoncé) comes into her own with this Motown-esque, but thoroughly current album packed to the rafters with dreamy melodies and soulful laments. Not dissimilar from The 1975’s interlude-heavy artistic endeavour, almost every full length song is sandwiched between spoken word vignettes, memoirs depicting the reality of black lives and fragments of intensely personal experiences that often serve as context for the subsequent songs. I wanted to resist comparing it to Lemonade (more of which later), but its difficult when both albums are so determined to push the boundaries of what an ‘album’ is or can be. They subvert and remould and transform expectations. Both are bold statements of intent. Despite the soft, whispery vocals throughout, Solange’s statement is loud and clear. There’s a seething and simmering, but equally gentle and languid undercurrent as she traverses topics from gentrification, heritage, drugs and cultural appropriation. Yet A Seat at the Table never relinquishes its irresistibility in favour of politics, but rather becomes a pitch-perfect integration of the two.  In “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the sparse production, drowsy rhythms and barely-there falsetto gives birth to a song of poignant protest. Indeed the tenderness with which Solange performs the entire album makes it that much more resonant. A Seat at the Table occasionally suffers at the hand of its plaintive textures, but keep listening, keep revisiting and you’ll unearth a lavish feast of intricate harmonies, intimate interlocutions and elegiac lyricism. Pull up a chair.

3. Angel Olsen – My Woman

b536a49eGirl crush alert. Angel Olsen is amazing and this album is spectacular. I’m tempted to publish a litany of adjectives which reiterate as much. But I’ll try my hand at eloquence first.

Not dissimilar from the transformation undergone by Bon Iver in 22, A MillionAngel Olsen has emerged from her folk-rock makings and gone electric, a la Dylan circa 1965. From the brooding intensity of Intern onwards, Olsen doesn’t let up and track after track delivers something fitful, fevered and fierce. It might be heart-break fuelled, but it fizzes and flares with attitude, spunk and the conviction of an artist who is fully realising or harnessing her talent. Olsen has frequently explored the wrenching, conflicting nature of love, but never in such a way that displays all the sullen colours of her voice. Her vocals are at once soul-crushing and electrifying, and despite all the twinkly synths and burnished bass-lines, the staggering thing about the album is the rage Olsen unleashes. The line “hurts to be around you” in Give It Up is a perfect example of where upbeat guitars and riffs almost disguise the anguish this album deals with. It plunges you into the depths of Olsen’s emotions in all their raw, chaotic splendour and never loosens its grip. Which oddly becomes an exhilarating, rather than wearying experience. Amid murmurs, wails and swelling guitar solos, Olsen gifts us an intoxicating, bittersweet record. Fearless.

2.Beyoncé- Lemonade

beyonce-lemonade-album-cover-compressedAn anthemic manifesto. A film. A piece of concept art. A staggering achievement that cements Beyoncé as an artist at the height of her powers and influence. Who knows how the hell to define Lemonade. But lord am I glad life gave Bey some lemons. It’s punchier and more potent that anything she’s hitherto delivered; a visceral and profound insight into the speculated infidelities between her and Jay-Z and her subsequent journey through anger, revenge, jealously, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and so much more. The whole album is a force to be reckoned with, but particularly tracks 2 – 6 are the best we’ve ever heard from Beyoncé (despite the shade it’s received, I’m a big fan of Daddy Lessons). Her vocal prowess is unprecedented. The sheer range when combined with her distinctive patois, individualistic inflections and overall poise confirm her as artist of singular talent. There is no-one like her. But equally Lemonade isn’t afraid to mix things up and incorporate artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake, which never once dilutes this being completely Beyoncé’s album, but rather augments it. She emerges from the swirling flavours and samples a post-genre pop star, as comfortable singing country as hip-hop or soul. As sonically audacious as it is emotionally excavating, Beyoncé is at once the most human we’ve ever seen her and the most divine. An utterly transcendent experience.

1. Christine & The Queens – Chaleur Humaine

christine_and_the_queens_-_chaleur_humaine_600_600Swooping down and nabbing the No. 1 spot? Of course it’s something you can dance to.

Christine & The Queens, the adventurous, androgynous outfit of French songstress Héloïse Letissier, has been performing for a while in her native France. Reminiscent of St. Vincent’s self-titled album in its slick execution and infectious tapestry of beats, but equally inventive, Chaleur Humaine confirms Letissier as an artist deserving of mainstream attention. In exploring the liminal spaces and contours of one’s identity and sexuality, Letissier produces something quick-witted, subversive, joyous, colourful and empowering. Segueing from mesmeric ballads to jaunty pop anthems (try getting Titled or iT out of your head), don’t be fooled by the slinky exterior of these sparkling synth-pop productions, this is a formidable album from an enigmatic personality. Surrender yourself to the Queen.

And Best Supporting Actress goes to…a woman of colour. Hollywood’s diversity problem as reflected by this awards season

As the red carpet is rolled out, and awards season rolls around once more, the question on everyone’s lips is will #OscarsSoWhite become a thing of the past? Has Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ initiative to make the Academy of voters more inclusive worked? Or will they be doomed to repeat the hegemonic mistakes of 2016? 

It doesn’t look that way. Already IndieWire have reported that several films boasting racially diverse casts and crews are battling it out for Oscar inclusion and will inevitably disrupt the status quo. However, before we wax lyrical about Hollywood’s newfound commitment to diversity, there’s another worrying trend that has caught my attention….

As campaigns gain momentum and various nominations are revealed – both the Golden Globes and the SAGs were announced this week – one thing particularly struck me. If you take a look at the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), across the predominant awards announced or decided thus far (Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit Awards; the Oscars have yet to be announced), diversity is far less of an issue in the Supporting arena than it is in the Leading one.

The main Best Actor contenders this year are as follows:

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea 
  • Joel Edgerton – Loving
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Tom Hanks – Sully
  • Denzel Washington – Fences
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington is also a bit of a misnomer because he’s transcended the typical risk-aversiveness to black actors by securing a status of bankability.

The main Best Actress contenders this year are as follows:

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train (an SAG anomaly, not really a contender, to put it, well, bluntly).
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Represented across these two categories you have 2 people of colour out of 15, so roughly 13%.

The main Best Supporting Actor contenders are: 

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges –  Hell or High Water
  • Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon  – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins

And finally, for Best Supporting Actress we have: 

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Whereas in the supporting category you have 6 out of 15, where the percentage increases to 40%. This trend is particularly prominent in the Best Supporting Actress category, where out of 7 contenders, 4 are black women.

If we were to rewind and take a whistle-stop tour of the Academy Awards from it’s inception, this trend is repeatedly confirmed. That is, that women of colour are far more likely to be nominated, and to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar than they are a Leading Actress one.

And even then, the odds are unfavourably stacked.

Hattie MacDaniel was the first black woman to win Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. It then took 51 years until the next: Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990. Another 16 years passed before Jennifer Hudson took home the gong for Dreamgirls.

To keep things recent, if we look at the period between 2000 and 2016, there’s been a comparative flurry of wins and nominations for women of colour in this category:

  • Lupita N’yongo won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave
  • Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for The Help
  • Mo’Nique won in 2009 for Precious
  • In 2008, both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button respectively.
  • Ruby Dee was nominated in 2007 for American Gangster
  • Jennifer Hudson won in 2006 for Dreamgirls
  • Sophie Okonedo was nominated in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog
  • Queen Latifah was nominated in 2002 for Chicago

Whereas in the Leading Actress category Halle Berry remains the first and only woman of colour to have accepted the award, for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2001.

There have been a handful of nominations through the same period:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Viola Davis was nominated for The Help in 2011
  • Gabourey Sidibe nominated for Precious in 2009
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated in 2004 for Maria Full of Grace
  • Salma Hayek was nominated for Frida in 2002.

But the success rate is paltry when compared with Supporting Actress. Indeed, black actresses are 5 times more likely to win Best Supporting, than Best Leading Actress. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, a brilliant chart released by TIME last year visualises the scarcity of nominations at the Oscars for actors of colour. It’s a veritable sea of whiteness (or in this case yellow dots, which stand for white actors nominated).

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And this year looks to be no different. Despite attention being given to Ruth Negga for her performance in Loving, as well as the ensemble casts of Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, odds are on Natalie Portman or Emma Stone to walk away with the Oscar.

The SAG nominations released on Wednesday saw three women of colour nominated in the supporting role category; Naomie Harris as a crack addicted mother in Moonlight is joined by two other black actresses (Fences‘ Viola Davis and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer), marking the first time women of colour have been nominated in the majority.

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N.B. Entertainment Weekly incorrectly reported that this also happened at the 15th SAG Awards in 2009 where Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz were all nominated, alongside Kate Winslet and Amy Adams. However Cruz is Spanish and therefore considered White, not Hispanic.

It’s a highly competitive category, but my money’s on Davis, Harris or Williams to win, once again placing the chances of a woman of colour securing a highly prestigious award with Best Supporting, rather than Leading. Which might seem like the epitome of a #FirstWorldProblem. ‘Oh no, you get to wear a beautiful dress and Hollywood applauds you whilst you pick up a shiny gold man and thank everyone you know in front of the entire world. Poor you’. Right? Except this trend speaks to a wider issue within the industry, and that’s the vitiation or peripheralization of women of colour in film.

So why is that? It can’t be coincidence that ethnic female actresses are more likely to get nominated in the supporting category. And you’d be right. It’s not coincidental. At risk of sounding like the chorus of Greased Lightning, it’s epidemic, systematic, bureaucratic and quite frankly racist. The issue is far more deep-rooted than governing bodies such as HFPA, AMPAAS and SAG-AFTRA are simply more willing to recognise women of colour in supporting than leading roles. It’s that the leading roles don’t exist in the first place for them to be recognised.

Viola Davis has spoken out about the relegation of black actresses to marginalised roles. She believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls.”

Indeed, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University report examined the 100 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2015, noting the ethnic and gender makeup of 2,500 characters. Executive director Dr Martha M Lauzen found that women made up just 22% of key players, up from 12 per cent in 2014. The proportion of female characters was the highest since records began in 2002, when the previous best figure of 18% was posted.

The same upwards trend wasn’t discovered for female actors of colour, however. The survey found their representation in top Hollywood films was largely unchanged compared with 2014: 27% of leading female characters and 13% of all female characters were identified as being from ethnic-minority backgrounds in this year’s report.

If the representation isn’t there, then the critical reception and subsequent awards recognition simply can’t be.

As a report for The Economist delineates,

For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins…. The view behind the scenes is perhaps more revealing. Blacks really are much more under-represented in the director’s chair, where they account for 6% of directors of the top 600 films, according to the Annenberg study. Black women are nearly nonexistent there (two of the 600, Ava DuVernay being one).

If consumers want their films to reflect the society in which they live—as they do their parliaments and executive boards—it is these areas that must see improvement.

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However, the representational issue is largely an economic one.

Studios, ultimately, hold the financial power to greenlight which movies get made and which don’t, and sadly they’re the crux of the issue when it comes to Hollywood’s homogeneity problem. Because believe it or not, most of the Hollywood’s top dogs and studio executives are white men. If you want to click through a depressingly honest slide-show that evidences this fact, be my guest. And in a very insightful breakdown of who has ‘greenlighting power’, The Wrap illuminates the fact that aside from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, the top leaders of the 10 biggest movie studios in the world are white. And two are women. (Though this was published in 2013, so the dynamics might have shifted slightly…but you can guess where the majority still remains).

Martha Lauzen agrees that we’ll “see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes”.  It’s a problem that needs solving from the inside out. But herein lies the obstacle. Studios don’t like when there’s not a precedent for something. They like reliability. They like established fan bases. They love franchises.  And there isn’t a precedent for all-black movies with a plethora of roles for women of colour, because this be America y’all and if the election of Trump taught us anything it’s that the US is profoundly sexist and racist, and so the likelihood of those kinds of movies getting made isn’t just slim, it’s anorexic.

The average production budget of a studio film is between $50M and $100M, on top of which there are marketing costs, which is a hella zeroes. Hence why studios are overwhelmingly reluctant and hesitant when it comes to backing films, especially when they’re new and innovative and don’t possess that all-important template for success. Hence why they prefer to pump their money into Transformers 9 and Mission Impossible 7.

Don Cheadle spoke candidly to Robbie Collin for The Telegraph in promotion of his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, in which he laid bare the realities of film financing and the risk-averse (read: mainstream, read: white) nature of the industry;

Problem one was finding people to fund an unusual jazz biopic with a black lead character. As Cheadle says, “Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes.” In the end, he had to chip in an undisclosed sum himself.

“It was a chunk,” he says, wadding up the last word like papier-mâché in his mouth. “Biggest investment of my life, no question”.

Similarly, Viola Davis and Tom Hanks in their ‘Actors on Actors’ interview for Variety confirm that a racially diverse cast, or indeed a predominantly black cast, does not yet equal ‘commercial success’ in Hollywood and as ever, ethics comes second to economics. (Now would be the point I’d trot out my Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery to win the American Civil War, not because he was a moral crusader argument, but that’s another essay).

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“I’m used to playing housewives and maids and crack-heads…if it is a black movie, at best it’s a biopic”, says Davis on Hollywood’s diversity problem. Writers, casting directors and studios are still confined to stereotypes, generalisations and broad-strokes when it comes to characters of ethnic backgrounds. The nuances and realities are simply not there.

Hanks goes on to confirm “a film has to play overseas to make its investment back…it becomes a barrier to [diversity]”.

This filters back to the Oscars, because, you guessed it, those campaigns cost money. Earlier this year, AdWeek reported that according to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone”. Ultimately, this means that films being distributed by bigger studios (Paramount, the Weinstein Co., Universal) are more likely to get their players in the game, because they have the cash to splash. Certainly independent studios and outfits are starting to penetrate that elite circle and films with smaller budgets are increasingly earning wider audiences, as proved at the 2016 Oscars when Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations. But, look at the casts of those films – not a single one contains a minor role, let alone a leading one for women of colour.

The obstacles to racial equality in cinema are monumental and whilst this means we must celebrate every nomination a female actress from an ethnic background achieves, we must also be careful to vindicate this year as a ‘sea-change’. It might be a turning point, but it’s only a starting point.

Without trying to minimise the achievement that is earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination, we shouldn’t consider this ‘job done’ and think that one year where an awards season is more reflective of diverse talent pool signifies the end point for this conversation. Just because there’s no hashtag, doesn’t mean the debate has died. Women of colour are capable of more than supporting, and enabling their white co-stars. They should be elevated to the title of leading actress wherever possible and given the platform and support that increases their visibility, both during awards season and in general. They have stories of their own to tell, and the film industry needs to do better at sourcing, producing and green-lighting those stories.

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So yes, based on last year, awards season has become a picture of progressiveness. But that wasn’t exactly difficult. The Oscars literally left a blank, stark white canvas beckoning to be coloured. The issue here is that recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category is still a marginalisation of sorts. For women in general, who are more often than not circumscribed by ancillary characters. And for women of colour, who are still usurped by the ruling class, who must watch as their white female peers get nominated once again for Leading Actress, whilst they settle for the next best thing. Sure, Best Supporting Actress is a pretty fancy consolation prize. But bottom bunk is still bottom bunk.

Review: Bleed For This

Ben Younger knows how to make a boxing movie.

And in Vinny Pazienza, a loud-mouth Rhode Islander known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, Younger has found an ideal subject. Who better to embody the boxing genre’s recurrent theme of ‘overcoming adversity with sheer determination’ than a fighter who returned to the ring – and won a title –  a mere thirteen months after a potentially career, and spine, crippling car accident. It’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s dreams.

But in bringing his story to the screen, Younger fails to inject it with any stylistic ingenuity. He merely slots a round peg into a round hole; signalling Paz’s party-going lifestyle, his managerial issues, introducing a new washed-up trainer who immediately makes the change needed to kickstart Paz’s flailing career, the resulting triumph, the unexpected accident, the naysayers, the baby steps as Paz tries to make his comeback and finally the comeback itself. Etcetera, etcetera.

The tropes and emotional beats are hit with such a consistency, it’s as if Younger is using a punchbag himself. And therein lies the disappointment. Is Bleed For This entertaining cinema? Undoubtedly. Is it a good film? Not especially.

It’s hard to believe that 2014’s Whiplash was the last good Miles Teller film we’ve seen. He’s has 8 dubious credits to his name since then, and Bleed For This barely escapes being the 9th. Teller is far and away the best thing in this film; and given good material he can make a strong showcase for being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. He brings an intensity, a bravado and a likeability to Vinny that certainly makes him easy to root for. And who’s to argue with the physical transformation? The reveal of his ripped and shredded body, adorned in merely a pair of leopard print panties early on in the film is testament to Teller’s commitment. He might as well be shouting ‘TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’.

If you can tear your eyes away, there’s some ‘worthy-of-mention’ performances happening elsewhere. Predominantly in Aaron Eckhart’s corner, where he plays the boozy, bellied coach Kevin Rooney, newly ditched by none other than Mike Tyson. With this and the recently released Sully, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sturdier supporting actor than Eckhart. Meanwhile, Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Paz’s brash, flashy, Catholic parents somewhat overcook the accents and the era.

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There are a couple of moments that eschew affectation and speak to the inventiveness of which Younger is capable. Certainly the shot of Pazienza’s head-on car collision is depicted in a novel and sickeningly real way, whilst the energetic camerawork and evocative production design serve up a believably gritty view of working-class America. And if you come away remembering one thing from the movie it should be Willis Earl Beal’s track ‘Too Dry To Cry’ which injects the narrative with the perfect dose of soul and swagger.

It’s interesting to discover that Pazienza returned to the ring thirteen months after the accident and beat future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision. However the film chooses to depict his comeback fight as against Robert Duran. Perhaps because in the former he won via unanimous decision, where in this fight Paz won on the line via decision – making for a greater tension-filled finale. And yet strangely, Younger bleeds his film dry of tension. From the get-go his film establishes a tone where you simply expect Paz to pull through and that completely decimates any nerve-shredding, nail-biting impulses we might have. The only time you’ll be on the edge of your seat is when Paz is getting his metal halo removed and chooses to have the screws extracted without general anesthesia.

Bleed For This tries to have its cake and eat it too. By inserting real archival footage of Paz in the ring, it’s trying to convince us of its authenticity – and certainly with Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese wearing the hat of executive-producer, there’s a whiff of someone that knows how to shoot a fight. But with a good amount creative liability, Younger has created an alphabet soup biopic, bobbing and weaving where he sees fit, but without ever landing a punch.

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The final scene rather serves as an explanation why. Younger’s film bows out not with the ‘we-all-saw-it-coming’ moment of blood-stained, hard-earned, sweat-drenched glory, but with a moment of pensive reflection. Pazienza is being interviewed, and is asked what was the biggest lie he was told. He replies: “It’s not that simple,” – alluding to the naysayers; his doctors, his family, the media, his coaching staff –  that repeatedly told him full recovery was impossible. Paz continues. “Actually, it is that simple.”

And that seems to encapsulates the issue with Younger’s approach. It’s too cut and dry. Too damn obvious. Whilst the story itself is completely true and inspirational, Pazienza’s triumphant rehabilitation makes for a diluted and strangely cautious cinematic subject.

The 2016 US Election

No doubt you’ve read masses of think-pieces, polemics and rallying war-cries over the past couple of days in reaction to the news that Donald Trump is to become the 45th President of the United States. I can’t promise to add anything new to the debate, but here are my thoughts regardless…

Bleary, and somewhat teary-eyed on Wednesday morning, I, like most of the world, digested the result of the US election. Republican candidate Donald Trump had surpassed expectation and secured the necessary 270 electoral votes required to make him President-elect, beating Democratic nominee, and predicted winner Hillary Clinton. After a farcical, grotesque and malicious campaign, this was the outcome many of us had dreaded most. It did not make the past 18 months worthwhile. It did not allow us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, comforted by the fact that logic and decency had prevailed. Instead, it inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric, those who have been appalled and frightened by his misogynist behaviour and those who saw in him the worst of humankind.

It inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric

Donald Trump is greed and ignorance and prejudice combined and now we must look to him as the voice of reason and guidance. I’m not one for melodrama, but this is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. Here’s why:

Watching Hillary Clinton’s unbelievably composed and gracious concession speech on Wednesday afternoon really brought home the sadness of this election. Not just because Trump wasn’t defeated, but because Hillary wasn’t elected, and therefore her career has been ended prematurely.

I haven’t always been her biggest fan, and somewhat erred on the side of Bernie Sanders during the race to choose a Democratic candidate. His left-leaning policies felt like an extension, and progression of Obama’s legacy, and his grassroots campaign seemed to be the spark that was needed to revitalise American politics. What’s more, his tough and informed climate change agenda – viewing it as very much an existential crisis that needs to be tackled – felt genuine rather than strategic. As a senator for Vermont he’s sponsored bills to promote clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, and end fossil fuel subsidies. Both candidates had their flaws – Sanders’ experience in the foreign policy arena was lacking, and his ability to discuss the issue never extended beyond articulating a belief in military restraint. Furthermore, his statement that organisations such as Planned Parenthood formed part of the establishment he was so vehemently attacking felt troublesome. But he seemed like a candidate much more likely to ignite aggressive change.

Hillary, likewise, had her foibles. I thought her foreign policy stance to be too aggressive, her relationship with Wall Street unsettling, and the whole email scandal, well, an overblown misstep. And goodness knows she’s made errors in judgement – we all have, hers have just happened on a bigger stage –  from supporting welfare reform to voting for the Iraq war. However it can’t be denied that Hillary was an incredibly experienced candidate, and a candidate of whom I came to be increasingly supportive of, and blown away by. 

Hillary could have been a conduit for change… The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Her position as Secretary of State in the Obama administration solidified her pragmatism and her preparedness to work as a global strategist and to find viable solutions to international problems. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of her being an ardent feminist. Hillary was a candidate who was willing to have conversations about abortion, equal pay and women’s rights, and someone who understood the sheer urgency of that dialogue. She was a voice for those who have been hitherto under-represented, disqualified and patronised. She could’ve been a conduit for change, and a milestone for the gender equality movement. The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Ultimately she had SO much more to give; possessive of a skill-set and a perspective that now won’t be put to use, or at least to use in the highest position of political power. And frankly, it’s disgusting and horrendous that a man without that experience, who has bulldozed his way to candidacy with money and delusions and scare-mongering tactics has proved the successor.

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Before the result, I believed that if Hillary lost, she’d have to disappear for the shame of it. Her political career would be in ruins, and tail between her legs, she’d be forced to retreat somewhere remote and live out the rest of her days as a red-faced recluse. I cringe at how horrible this assumption is. It hasn’t been especially embarrassing for any of the male nominees who concede to their opponent. It’s simply par for the course. Hell even Al Gore survived. If anything, it’s more necessary than ever to see her continued presence in politics and campaigning for the causes she believes in. Not only because she’s a hugely inspirational agent for change, but because it reminds us of the injustice that happened and how terribly misguided America was to bestow their nation’s path for the next four years in Trump’s grabby hands.

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On a political level, as well as a personal one, the election was an abject failure, with the Electoral College once again rearing its ugly head, and proving itself the archaic institution that it is.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy. At worst, it’s an insidious beast that fuels the wants of the few at the expense of the many. Via this system, a country purporting to uphold the highest democratic values, enabling freedoms, rights and opportunity for all, has elected a man whose opinions are flagrantly antithetical to these tenets. Essentially the Electoral College is a sieve, where people who have been systematically and historically ignored and disenfranchised – African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, the LGBT community, women – continue to be sifted out of relevancy.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy.

If you were watching the election on Tuesday night you would’ve heard the term ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ state, defining that particular state as hotly-contested and decisive, possessive of the power to win or lose the election for a candidate. Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa are the ‘Big 4’, with the former two being where the result has been decided in the last few elections. In simplistic terms, that means that 46 other states are considered of lesser importance. Indeed, when Clinton won Oregon, we effectively shrugged our shoulders because it ‘didn’t matter’. Imagining living in a state where your vote is irrelevant to the outcome of the election. The Electoral College system facilitates that injustice.

It’s also just plain ridiculous. Imagine playing a best of three game of football. The Blues vs. The Reds. In the first match, the Blues win 7 – 2. In the second match, the Reds win 2 – 1. And in the final deciding match the Reds secure a victory by the skin of their teeth by scoring a goal in the 90th minute, making it 1 – 0. Sure, they won the majority of the matches, but cumulatively the Blues scored more goals; 8, to the Reds’ 4. That’s double the amount of goals, and yet they’re deemed the losers. It kind of doesn’t seem fair. That’s the Electoral College for you.

Irrespective of the margin of victory, the electoral votes amount to the same. So it doesn’t matter if Clinton took New York or California by a landslide, but lost Pennsylvania by a fraction. If you lose a state, however marginally, with a defining amount of votes, such as Florida’s 29, you’ll stand to lose the election. Case in point, Al Gore acquired roughly 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election. But Bush became President. That’s like the whole population of Tucson, Arizona being told that their votes don’t matter. Why? He managed to secure Florida’s electoral votes by a mere, paltry margin of 537.

Just as the Electoral College used to serve the interests of slave and landowners, so it has continued to bow to the whims of a southern, white, male (and female) elite. Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

What’s more worrying is how successfully the Republicans have gumshoed their way into power, now controlling both the House and the Senate, and therefore how quickly they might be able to push through regressive and potentially destructive legislation. At a bare minimum, the Republicans are going to halt progress in such areas as health care, climate change, immigration, economic inequality and unemployment, having already laid out their intentions to repeal and unravel much of the Obama administration’s accomplishments. The worst part is that Obama’s legacy – however patchy it is perceived to be – is going to be rounded off by the very person who undermined his right to the Presidency by initiating the birther movement. A bitter pill indeed.

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I’m not American. So there lies an argument that perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. I couldn’t vote. I didn’t have a direct hand in the outcome of the election. I won’t feel the worst impact of the corrosive legislation a Republican government are likely to pass. However the reason for mine, and many other non-US people’s tears, are entirely justified. The United States is still one of – if not the, most powerful country in the world. It’s vast population, economy and influence marks it out as an instigator of change and a standard against which other countries are held up. Obama, and lest we forget Michelle, are a formidable duo. Together, they have shaken up the status quo and re-energised what it means to look and act like a President and First Lady. They are dignified, humorous, intelligent, poised, generous, level-headed and first and foremost, they are role models. They take their jobs very seriously, and they’ve proven very good at them. Barack and Michelle are about productivity rather than provocation, and their time in the White House has operated on a basis of inclusivity, access and advancement, however incremental it may have been. The deficit that’s going to felt in their absence is titanic. America is going to look weaker, more foolish and significantly less cool without the Obamas in the White House. It’s hard to believe that the rest of the world won’t falter slightly as result.

That’s the other thing that deeply perturbs me about Trump’s election; the complete U-turn he and his moronic persona represents. Hillary was often characterised as the ‘safe’ pair of hands, the person whom knew what she was doing and who – despite being a bit ‘vanilla’ – would effectively function as Obama’s third term. The Obama administration propelled the US out to sea with the promise of reaching an island, perhaps not a paradise, but an enticing destination nevertheless. Trump’s triumph has destroyed that ship entirely, and left America marooned, without a lifeboat in sight. It’s unsurprising that the Democrat party and their supporters are in a state of mourning.

Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

Donald Trump is the kind of person that wouldn’t do his homework, or his revision, and would only get the grade by cheating on the exam, or as his wife Melania is want to do, copying someone else’s answers. He’s the kind of person that won’t put in the time to understand the key issues, or weigh up his options. And it’s hard to imagine that he’ll spend any time speaking to lesser-heard communities about their predicaments and priorities. He is cavalier and worse than careless, he is callous. The only people he cares for are those like him, and it’s pretty obvious to state that America, and by extension, the world, is made up of a much, much larger and more diverse demographic than the one he represents.

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If nothing else, the result of the election is incredibly alienating. It’s never a good feeling to have your beliefs refuted, and now three times this year (the general election, Brexit and now the US election) that for which I have voted, or stood up for, has not been reflected in the wider political landscape. The causes that I hold closest to my heart – feminism, environmentalism, socialism – do not match up with those in power.  And I’m someone with very minimal experience of being a minority. I can’t imagine the despair and deprivation felt by those who have been so severely and repugnantly marginalised by Trump’s agenda.

There are a myriad more reasons I could give, in even greater, more granular detail for why a Trump presidency is one of the most devastating things to happen in my lifetime. The likelihood of our entering a period of cultural, social and economic backwardness, if not insanity, seems alarmingly conceivable. His plan for tax cuts and tariffs on imported goods alone could precipitate global economic insecurity, and I hardly want to give thought to the path towards planetary destruction he could set us on with his belief that climate change is “a Chinese hoax”.

In this atmosphere of discontent, many have spoken of the need to galvanise and organise. To speak out louder than ever before for what we care about. We can only hope that this becomes a teachable moment, rather than a trend or a continued downward spiral. And to use an old, but ever more relevant phrase, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

Seeing Friday Night Lights with fresh eyes and a full heart

This year saw the 10-year-anniversary since cult-favourite Friday Night Lights debuted on NBC. As a fairly new devotee, I investigate what about the show sees its appeal endure…

The great thing about streaming platforms – and to be honest, box sets before them –  is that TV shows are gifted with a longer shelf life; preserved in ‘recommended picks’ for a new generation of episodic dalliances or fiercely loyal fans.

Stories and characters once banished to the past can live beyond the era in which they aired, ripe for rediscovery and newfound appreciation. Shows that I grew up around and oft heard mentioned during dinnertime discussions; The Shield, 24, Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, I have been able to pluck from nostalgia and finally understand.

I remember my parents trying to describe 24 to me. “You watch someone for an hour in real-time, so that each series makes up a whole day in their life” my mother vaguely summarised, perhaps trying to shield me from the terrorist sub-plots and gung-ho tactics of Jack Bauer. I mistook it for some kind of warped documentary, or a perverse realisation of The Sims. “So you watch them go to the bathroom? When do they sleep?”, I naively inquired. In retrospect, I can almost hear my parents smirking with superiority.

That naiveté extended to my rebuff of Friday Night Lights. Originally airing for 5 seasons between 2006 and 2011, during my prime pre-university years, I was of an age – considered mature – where I would’ve been allowed to join my parents in watching it. But I turned my nose up at the idea of high-school football, heated rivalries and sports jargon.

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“You watch One Tree Hill” my Dad protested, willing me to get on-board, “that’s about basketball”. True OTH had bestowed me with knowledge of what a point guard and a layup were, but “its about SO MUCH MORE than basketball” I retorted. I see now why my argument fell on deaf ears. Friday Night Lights far outstrips One Tree Hill in the reputation department, and is most definitely about so much more than high-school football.

It’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

It’s a paean to identity, morality and family. It’s about romance and first love and making mistakes. It’s about compromise and marriage and making more mistakes. And with a perhaps unrivalled earnestness it tackles the universal theme of following your dreams.

And so the love affair has begun. We spent all weekend together, and I still can’t get enough. I think about Friday Night Lights constantly, especially when we’re apart and I flirted obscenely with the notion of purchasing a Dillon Panthers t-shirt off Amazon the other day.

But why? How has this sometimes corny, slightly outdated show about small-town rituals and sporting obsession exerted a python-like grip on my attention and monopolised every spare hour since I met with the pilot?

The Guardian asserted that “its appeal lies in its optimism”. The Dillon Panthers are the underdogs from the get-go. Written off early in the State Championships, you’re rooting for them to overcome obstacles (paralysis, race, class, tornadoes, rivalry, corruption) all the way to the ten-yard line. But if I’m being honest, it’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

Across the 35 episodes I’ve watched thus far, the thing that continually astounds me is how well-drawn the individual narrative arcs are and how invested in each story I am. It would be easy for FNL to become the Eric and Tami show; Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are electrically good as Mr & Mrs Coach Taylor. But FNL routinely manages to span and interweave several storylines, without it ever feeling like characters (or at least those we really care about) are being short-shrifted or for want of a better word, benched.

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The fact that it excavates past surfaces, and gets to know characters like Riggins’ brother Billy, Saracen’s best friend Landry or Smash’s mother Corrina is testament to the fact that it’s not just the football team and the cheerleaders that get to bask in the spotlight. The show cares about the town as whole and each individual’s role within it. From the pilot onwards we’ve been introduced to the menagerie of Dillon residents whose affiliations to football range from supportive to exploitative. Characters from multifarious backgrounds with manifold intentions exist in Dillon, and FNL doesn’t evince a preference for any type.

Sure, there have been hiccups. Let’s not mention the Landry/Tyra murder debacle, a plotline conceived out of network pressure to amp up the drama, and subsequently the ratings. Or the ill-thought out romantic asides to keep characters treading water (RIP Carlotta and Jackie, victims to circumstance and lazy penmanship).

But the show excels when it sticks to what it does best. And that’s the little things. The frustrations of marriage, and the awkwardness of school corridor encounters with your ex. Julie Taylor’s embarrassment at having her Mum work at her school (something I know only too well), and having ‘the chat’ with her Dad (something I was thankfully spared). When Eric flies off the handle at Tami’s sister for taping over one of his games, the 90s kid in me broke into a rueful grin of remembrance. I’m sure many-a married couple can take solace in Eric and Tami’s sometimes strained, but always loving, back and forth.

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What’s more it doesn’t confine its characters to stereotypes. Who can forget the tragedy-tinged pilot that sees star quarterback Jason Street paralysed after an ill-advised tackle? Convention would dictate that his status is validated with glory on the pitch, but in a show determined to set itself apart, that validation must be discovered elsewhere. It’s a bold move and it was only the beginning.

Church-going cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), with her shiny brown hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows is perhaps the closest thing you’ll get to cookie-cutter on this show and even she has her moments of tenacity and rebellion. FNL playfully, and continually subverts the boilerplate identities that high-schoolers are meant to fit into. QB1 Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is painfully shy and cares more about his ailing grandma than partying on weekends. (Who else felt a bit sick when he experimented with open relationships and kissed two girls in one episode?! So not cool Saracen). Drunken, womanising fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is part douchebag, part nicest guy on the planet. I’m surprised I haven’t gone into an arrhythmia the amount of times my heart melted at his gestures of kindness and protection.

It’s harder to like other characters. Not everyone on this show is a hero, nor should they be. Smash Williams and Buddy Garrity spring to mind, both of whom teeter on the brink of obnoxiousness on several occasions. But the writers clearly possess an affection for their characters and rather than consigning them to a certain fate, they take the time to make you reassess your judgments. For all of Smash’s locker-room smack talk and juiced up bravado, it pains him to disappoint his single mother (brought to life brilliantly by Liz Mikel), and there’s a glimmer of sensitivity in his dealings with bipolar girlfriend Waverley. Similarly, Buddy Garrity gets his moment of sympathy when, having been kicked out of his house for extra-marital indiscretions, he takes an ex-convict under his wing.

It can’t be said that every appearance is depicted with such refinement. There’s the occasional aggressive thug or opposing team offender that recalls convention, but where it matters, these characters are packed to the rafters with nuances, flaws and redeeming features.

Take for instance, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki). The kind of blonde, lithe beauty who might as well be wearing a tiara, because she has ‘homecoming queen’ written all over her. But both the writers, and Tyra, know she has more to offer than that.

In season 1, she’s working at a diner on the eve of a Dillon Panthers game, pouring coffee and explaining the tiresome ceremonies that plague her football-infatuated town to a cute customer. “Just a bunch of overheated jocks too dumb to know they have no future, fighting over a game that has no meaning, in a town from which there is no escape,” Tyra mutters. This isn’t a girl you’ll find at a pep rally anytime soon.

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It’s in these exchanges that FNL explodes commonly-held perceptions. It allows its characters to dream big, to exist beyond the boundaries that a small-town in Texas might impose. Which is true of FNL itself. The show refuses to liken itself to fellow high-school dramas and evokes classic Greek tragedies more than it does the melodrama of other cable shows.

The greatest thing about FNL is that every pass, every victory, every moment of triumph feels hard-earned. Dillon is a town tempered by struggle and the joy of watching this show is seeing the characters make it out the other side. The persistence and confidence instilled in these players by Coach Taylor, and in the students by Tami, is a lesson that we could all do to learn.  

As summarised in a Grantland piece:

In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of [the US] seemed most in doubt.

And though that optimism never extended to commercial ratings, Friday Night Lights has found a home in the hearts of many. Thank goodness – like Jason Street did Lyla Garrity – I gave it a second chance.