Monday, February 29, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'Star Wars' Finn Is the Hero We Need

Here it is, chickadees, the final post of Black History Month 2016. So far on Masculinity Mondays we've discussed how even progressive shows can reinforce harmful stereotypes, representations of black men in positions of authority that subvert expected narratives, black excellence and white apathy, and the question of why we as a culture insist that nerdiness can't be black. Now we're at the end of this series (though certainly not at the end of talking about representations of black men and people of color in popular culture, definitely not), and it's time to look at perhaps the most culturally relevant example of all. That's right: it's time to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Finn.

As I've previously established on here, I am not personally much of a Star Wars fan. When it comes to the great nerd divides, I've always skewed more towards Lord of the Rings and Star Trek than the hallowed George Lucas films. Heck, even in reviewing this most recent film, I wasn't exactly showering the praise down - I thought the movie had potential but overall was more just a rehash of nostalgia than a promising new story. So you might be forgiven for not taking me seriously when I say that I think Finn is a great character. That's fair. 

But out of all the things I didn't like in The Force Awakens, Finn was one of the few things I really genuinely loved. And why wouldn't I? Finn is the rare character who is even better than he first appears. A sweet, gentle, kind man who cannot be broken even by years of brainwashing, Finn is the perfect example of the reluctant hero who really just wants to hide under a bed somewhere but saves the world because it's better than living in a world that doesn't get saved.

I love him a lot.

What's really interesting here, though, isn't that I happen to like a Star Wars character or even that Finn is such a precious lamb. The fascinating thing is that Finn is a precious lamb and, to our eyes at least, black. That is a big deal.

Now I don't want to get into a big discussion of race in the Star Wars universe. I'm sure that there are quite a few of you out there who have given this more thought than I ever will and I am equally sure that I frankly don't care. I like Lando and I met Billy Dee Williams that one time and quite frankly beyond that I'm just not invested enough in this universe to understand the nuances of race as it pertains to this story. I'm more interested in how race in this story affects race in our world.

As far as I can tell, though, race isn't much of a factor in the Star Wars universe. It doesn't seem to be, anyway. While there are bars that discriminate against droids and probably some humanoid vs. non-humanoid sentiments, race among humans doesn't seem to be much of a thing. So in that regard, having Finn (as played by John Boyega) be a visibly identifiable black man really means nothing. Who cares? Maz Kanata is tiny and orange and voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and no one cares, so it clearly doesn't matter.

What matters about Finn is how he translates into American culture. See, Finn essentially embodies everything that we as white Americans refuse to believe about young black men. Our culture tends to personify young black men as tough, street-smart, physically imposing, brash, uneducated, mean, rude, and violent. I could keep going, unfortunately. 

We as white people are great at coming up with reasons why black men are scary and bad and this demonization of black men has led to an increased insensitivity to their deaths. If we tell ourselves over and over again that young black men are violent and cruel, then why should we as white people care when they die? By perpetuating these stereotypes we perpetuate violence against black men and a tolerance for that violence in white culture.

You can see this implicit tolerance for violence against black bodies in the way we portray even "good" black men. Lots of smarter people have pointed out that black men are more likely to be nominated for an Oscar - though they still face an uphill battle on that one - if the role they play is that of a civil rights leader or slave facing up against violent oppression. In other words, we tend to reward most the films that show violence being done against black men, particularly violence that is uncalled for. Black men are noble when they are beaten down. When they simply exist in their own frameworks, we in white America find that threatening and distasteful.

This violence against black men has become a very literal trope. "The black guy always dies first." It's funny because it's true, but it's also incredibly sad. For a whole host of reasons, frequently the only black character to appear in any given film or show is the one who will most quickly be written out again. Even shows with otherwise "progressive" agendas, like The 100 or  Teen Wolf, kill off their black characters at an alarming rate.

And it's worth noting, as I said before, that most of the Oscar-nominated movies we see about black men are ones where the men are subject to horrific oppression - Selma and 12 Years a Slave being the two most obvious recent examples*. 

My point here is that we as a culture have two assumptions about young black men in movies and television: if they are "bad" then they are violent and cruel and deserve their fates, and if they are "good" they will suffer terribly and endure it all with noble silence. That's pretty much it. Hollywood is not kind to young black men, particularly not young, physically fit black men.

This brings us back to Finn and why he's such an important character. 

So Finn (John Boyega) is one of the first characters introduced in The Force Awakens. A stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience during his first ever battle, Finn quickly becomes our eyes into the story. What's interesting here is not that he balks at shooting innocent villagers, but rather that he balks at shooting them even though he has been trained his entire life to follow just these kinds of orders. From the very first time we meet Finn, we know that he's special. And that just carries on.

Once his consciousness has been raised and he's decided to get the hell out of the First Order, the first thing Finn - at this point still FN-2187 - does is free a Resistance pilot. Now part of this is obviously practical. If you're trying to escape a spaceship then you probably need a pilot. But another part of this is astounding. For all that Finn has been, as we said before, trained since childhood to believe in the First Order, his instinct is to defect immediately upon realizing he cannot stomach violence.

Not only that, but in the very few minutes that he and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are flying through the First Order blockade, they form a bond so tight that Finn openly mourns Poe's supposed death. What we've learned about him so far is that Finn, far from being a soulless automaton or even a violent, menacing black man, is sensitive, empathetic, and deeply invested in other people. Already we're going heavily against the usual way young black men are portrayed.

The movie only continues in that direction, too. When he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn's first thought is to run and help her fight off the bad guys. Upon seeing she needs no help, he still sticks with her and gives her the support she needs to escape Jakku. 

When faced with the possibility that the First Order will catch him again, Finn doesn't go all "well let them try!" and reinforce stereotypes about compulsive violent black masculinity, he tries to run away. Then he comes back because he can't bear the thought of people he loves being in trouble.

Finn is overjoyed to realize Poe is alive. Finn is devastated that Rey was taken. Finn basically hijacks an entire mission to help his friend. Finn picks up a weapon he has no idea how to use because he has to fight the bad guys. Finn sacrifices himself for his friend but is given honor and respect for doing so.

In pretty much every sense I can think of, Finn subverts our expectations of what a young black man should be like in an action movie. He's sweet and sensitive and cowardly and uncomfortable with violence. He'll fight if he has to, but he'd much rather not. He likes nicknames and friends and hugs and cute things. Finn is a precious flower and that's fantastic. He's soft. How often do we see young black men shown as gentle?

But possibly most importantly of all, Finn is not condemned to this "acceptable violence" paradigm. When Finn is hurt - and hurt extremely badly - at the end of the film, the violence is not shown to be "okay". He doesn't shake it off and keep fighting. He doesn't power through. Nor is the violence there because he's a black man standing up for civil rights. It's not a punishment and it's also not a sainthood. Finn gets hurt because he's an untrained fighter going up against a violent white man with years of battle experience. He gets hurt because that's what would happen in that moment, and the film treats it as a freaking tragedy.

I mean, it's intense how they all react. Poe is devastated, Rey sits by his bedside, and even General Organa (Carrie Fisher) takes time to see him in his coma because she knows how important Finn is. It's rare to see a film treat violence against black men kindly, but it's even rarer for the film to treat it as something that should have never happened in the first place. Violence against Finn is not expected or understood, it's horrific and cruel because Finn is so soft and kind and sweet.

Obviously this portrayal of black masculinity as gentleness and kindness and friendship is really important and necessary in our culture. Clearly I am a fan. But I think it's worth pointing out that the real greatness here is that all of this appears in a film that is marketed heavily to children.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not, technically speaking, a kids' movie. But let's be real, a huge portion of the audience for this film and for the entire upcoming trilogy is and will be children. We love showing kids Star Wars and kids love these movies. Even in that sense it's great to just have a black man on screen, since it reinforces the concept that black people exist in science fiction too and it normalizes representations of people of color. But it's especially awesome to realize that there are millions of children growing up who see Finn and know that this is a valid was for a black man to exist, that Finn's heroism and cowardice and softness are all perfectly reasonable expressions of black masculinity. 

I'm talking about black children, definitely, who get to see a hero who looks like them, but I'm also really really talking about white children who for once get to see an image of a black man who isn't punished by the narrative. A black man who is everything popular culture usually tells them black men aren't. A black man who is so unfathomably good that even twenty years of brainwashing couldn't make him a killer.

Finn is pure in a way that few male characters and almost no black male characters are ever allowed to be. He is sunshine and light and happiness and it's astounding to think about the impact this could have on a whole generation of kids. Kids who see Finn and want to be like him, and kids who see Finn and then see him in the people around them too.

A lot of the time my articles can kind of bum people out. I know this, and I am sorry. But this time I want you to be happy with me. I want you to be overjoyed that Finn exists because, well, he does exist! Black men like Finn are real and good and worth celebrating. And black characters like Finn give us a chance to change our cultural conversation on young black men and the violence they endure. I look at Finn and I have hope, and it's a pretty nice feeling.

*quiet sobbing at how beautiful it all is*
*Both of these are actually excellent films and far more complex than I am making them out to be here. But my point stands.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Destiny (Butter)

Wow, chickadees, we've made it to our fifth and final article of Strong Female Character Friday, Black History Month edition!* Already this month we've talked about Garnet from Steven Universe, Michaela on How to Get Away with Murder, Indra in The 100, and Isis from Bring It On. Now we're going to bring it home with a look at a character who demonstrates so much about the media's negative or narrow portrayals of young black girls but who also shows the potential for much better representations in the future. It's time to talk about Destiny in the little-seen 2011 comedy Butter!**

You'll be forgiven if you have no idea what I'm talking about and definitely haven't seen this movie, but for the record, Butter is a pretty great film. An ensemble comedy with a strongly female core of characters, the film is about a butter-sculpting competition in middle-America (Iowa, I think) and the various people and personalities who get caught up in it all. With hilarious roles and/or spectacular cameos by everyone from Hugh Jackman to Kristen Schaal, it's a fantastic movie about a super specific and interesting subculture and it's exactly as hilarious as a latter-day Drop Dead Gorgeous can be.

There's a whole host of fantastic characters in this movie, ranging from an uptight, insecure political wife, Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), to the bitingly sarcastic sex worker, Brooke (Olivia Wilde). But the real character who steals the show and who the whole film really revolves around is actually Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an adorable little girl who's been bounced around the foster system for years and has just been adopted by a nice white couple when she discovers her preternatural talent for butter carving. So, yeah, this is kind of a weird movie. But that doesn't make it any less good.

We meet Destiny for the first time at the state fair where she stumbles on a display of butter carving - it's the work of a butter sculpting master, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), a man so good at making stuff out of butter that he's been gently asked not to compete anymore because no one else can keep up. Destiny is just kind of wandering around the fair when she sees his display of a butter interpretation of DaVinci's Last Supper and wanders right into the cooler to finish sculpting the chalice. Everyone tells her to get out of there, that she's ruining the master's work, but Bob Pickler himself is mostly impressed by her talent and happy to see someone else love what he loves.

It's just the one moment, but we can see that Destiny is hooked. She likes sculpting and for whatever reason, butter is a great material to work with. It's a wonderful, sweet moment that propels the whole movie forward. So while Bob is gently discouraged from competing and Laura decides to carve in his place and defend their family legacy, Destiny goes off to meet her new parents, Jill (Alicia Silverstone) and Ethan (Rob Cordry). It's an interesting interplay, even if it is really not emphasized enough in the movie, how much Destiny is uncomfortable getting too comfortable in her "new home" and how anxious Jill and Ethan are about having her there.

Not that they're anxious because they don't like her or anything, but rather that the narrative makes clear how desperately they have wanted a child and how much they need Destiny to be happy, even if she herself isn't sure whether she can trust these strange white people. It's actually a really compelling storyline, even if it is one of the more minor plot points in the film.

In the process of Destiny settling in, though, they make sure she can ask for anything she needs, and one of the things Destiny informs Ethan she needs is butter. Sure, he says. We can get you some of that.

"Great. I'm gonna need like two-hundred pounds."

And so Ethan and Jill become Destiny's cheerleaders as she decides to enter the local butter-carving competition. Since there's no age limit there's nothing standing in her way and in the beginning at least everyone sees her as a cute kid who isn't much of a threat. 

The grownups have other problems going on, like Laura and Brooke's battle over Bob and the twelve-hundred dollars he owes Brooke for the "engagement of her services" let's say. No one really pays much attention to Destiny until at the first competition she carves Harriet Tubman sitting on a train to symbolize the underground railroad and all of a sudden they all realize she's freaking spectacularly talented.

I mean, this is a kid who's never had the opportunity for anything like this before in her life and who picked up a carving tool to start making masterpieces off the bat. Naturally, Laura, who has fought and struggled for her carving ability, deeply resents this. Since Brooke deeply resents Laura, she decides to help Destiny out of spite.***

Destiny, for her part, really doesn't care about all the politics and adult drama flying around over her head. She just wants to sculpt. She's found a thing that she's really good at, genuinely amazing, and she wants to do it. It's totally natural. Even better, she's now in a home where her new talents are encouraged and can be financially supported. So of course Destiny wants to keep competing, even when Ethan and Jill worry that the toxic environment around the competition is bad for her.

Because she is hella talented Destiny ends up going to the state level and competing against Laura in the finals. Destiny's final sculpture, a moving and touching portrayal of her mother as she remembers her, is so good that Laura feels the need to call in backup to sabotage it. In a stunning moment of brutality, she bribes an ex-boyfriend (played by Hugh Jackman) to melt the face of Destiny's sculpture with a blowtorch. In the morning when they discover the ruined sculpture, Ethan and Jill are incensed while Destiny is quietly crushed. All she wanted was to do the thing she's good at and do it really well. The judges won't let her resculpt it either.

Then the great thing happens: the judges decide that the melting actually adds to the "haunting" quality of her piece and Destiny actually wins. Sure, it's kind of a deus ex machina fix to the plot, but it's still a moving moment to see this little girl finally get the kind of recognition she deserves. The end of the film shows her finally settling into Ethan and Jill's house and implies that Destiny is going to be all right. 

Yes, she still misses her mother desperately and the awful things she went through before coming here still happened, but she's with people who love her and she has potential and skills and talents that she can use for the future. She's going to be okay.

So. What's interesting in Destiny's storyline is how it really toes the border between a good representation and a bad one. On the good side, this is a story about a little black girl who is phenomenally talented in a very unusual skill-set and who pursues this talent with the full support of her guardian figures, eventually winning a huge prize and becoming well known as a very artistically gifted person. That's all pretty great. Destiny is an example of a black character who is just plain good at something and who doesn't have to settle for an awkward consolation prize so that the white characters can feel better. And she gets some of the best jokes, so it's not like she's there just to be a figure of sympathy and nothing else.

On the negative side, though, the film skirts around any insightful or deep examination of Destiny's inner-emotional state and pushes past a discussion of where she was before she came to live with Ethan and Jill. We know that she had a mother and that she loves her mother and misses her very much, but the details of Destiny's life are unclear. We pretty much only meet her when she, by being adopted by this upper-middle class white couple, enters into a completely new part of her life. We have no real concept of where she was before this and who she was there.

The problem here is that the film effectively erases any trauma Destiny might have in her background, and considering the implications we see in her story, we can assume there was some definite trauma here. The narrative also focuses more on her white adoptive parents and their needs than on her actual feelings as a person, therefore positing that whatever she went through is only relevant insofar as it impacts Ethan and Jill.

So while it's great getting a story about a talented young black girl, there's something a little uncomfortable in how her story is framed entirely around white people and how ridiculously better her life is now that she's been adopted. Probably. Only we don't really know anything about her life before. Destiny's story is cool and all, but it's not really about Destiny, and that's the real issue.

This movie feels like it was originally written to be the story of a plucky orphan learning a quirky skill but was rewritten when Jennifer Garner signed on, because you can't have Jennifer Garner playing a ridiculous role like Laura Pickler in your movie when she's just supposed to be some minor side character. So Destiny's role was reduced and the movie became more about the adult drama than the little girl at the heart of the story. Then again, this is just my suspicion. I don't know this for sure at all. 

At any rate, Destiny's story feels underserved by the film, even as it serves as the movie's moral center. I mean, this is Destiny's story. She's the underdog we're rooting for all along, the only sane person in a whirlwind of crazy. But we're not given enough information about who she is and what she really wants for us to feel like the story really plays. Ultimately I think this is why the movie doesn't work as well as it should. Destiny gets left behind.

And all of this is without even getting into the inherent race and class issues here, where Destiny's story is apparently only worth telling when she's adopted by a wealthy white couple, whereas her story as a poor black orphan is only vaguely relevant to the story. That bothers me, even if I do really enjoy Ethan and Jill as characters.

I meant what I said at the beginning: Destiny as a character reveals a lot about the worst of how we as a culture talk about race, but she also shows the potential for moving past that and creating characters who explore race relations without having to be defined by them. Yes, Destiny is designed to fit a lot of pre-existing stereotypes about little black girls in the media. She's an orphan and foster child who never knew her father. It's like the textbook understanding of a black child in pop culture and it's racist as hell. But then she's also a very talented artist who succeeds despite the obstacles in her path and pursues a very unusual goal without anyone making a huge deal about her being "too black" or "too female" for such a whitebread art form.

So it's a mixed bag. That's what I'm getting at here. I love the movie Butter but I can see clearly that it has some real, deep-seated issues that need to be addressed. And I love Destiny, but I would love it more if her character were given more autonomy in the storyline and weren't just defined by the white people around her.

I don't think it's impossible. I think we as a culture can have and appreciate characters of color, particularly black characters, who balance this need for representation of race that acknowledges racism in America and the need to have stories that aren't all about race. I think that's a feasible goal and I think that it kind of has to be if we want the world to get much better.

Destiny might not be a perfect character, but she's still worth praise - she's a little girl with a very weird dream, and she manages to get a happy ending. Some days that's all you really need.

*So, generally there would actually only be four articles in this series, but because this is a leap year and the timing worked out just right, Masculinity Monday got five posts and it only seemed fair that SFC Friday get the same amount. Equality!

**Are you upset about awesome movies totally slipping past your notice because Hollywood doesn't give them the props they deserve? Then you should be a voter in the 2015 Undies, a film award to find the best underappreciated movie of the past year!

***This gives rise to one of the best lines in the film, when Ethan tells Destiny in all actual seriousness, "I'm not sure I want you hanging out with strippers." Rob Cordry's delivery is so dry and good and the moment is so well-timed it's just... It's great.

Strong Female Character Friday: Isis (Bring It On)

Already this month for our special Black History edition of Strong Female Character Fridays, we've talked about Garnet from Steven Universe and the importance of black-representation in science fiction, Michaela from How to Get Away With Murder and the pitfalls of respectability politics, and Indra from The 100 and the issues inherent in stereotypes about the "strong black woman". And that's just what we've done for the ladies! Today, then, I want to talk about some less depressing subject matter and look at a character who demonstrates an often under-represented view of black women and girls as people striving for excellence in every corner of their lives.

I've noticed something: when I bring up Bring It On and my absolute abiding love for this film, I get one of two reactions. If the person I'm talking to hasn't seen the movie, they invariably think that this is hilarious because why would I like such a stupid movie? If they have seen the movie, they agree wholeheartedly.

That's weird, right? I find it fascinating that Bring It On is so universally reviled by people who haven't seen it and has such a bad reputation, when I can't actually find anyone who has seen it and doesn't like it. I mean, sure, there are outliers in any group, but still. We're all so convinced that Bring It On is a bad movie and not worth our time when really it's one of the best sports movies ever made. Seriously. Really really.

I have a more in depth look at the movie as a whole, but today I want to focus our attentions on a character from this film who deserves a whole hell of a lot of credit for changing the way I understood race relations and who manages to take an easily stereotypical role and turn it into a really compelling person. In other words, today is all about Isis (Gabrielle Union), the technical antagonist in Bring It On, but arguably the most sympathetic character, and definitely the one with the most moral high ground.

So if you're not familiar, the story in Bring It On goes like this. There's this prestigious, preppy high school in SoCal where the most successful sports team is their cheerleading squad. Said squad isn't just successful, it's legendary, having won three back-to-back national championships in the past years. Our story starts at the beginning of a new year with the previous team captain reluctantly handing the reigns over to her ambitious but less cunning protege, Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst). 

Torrance is all about helping the Toros win another national championship, but when a transfer student, Missy (Eliza Dushku), tells Torrance that the Toros only won those championships because they stole their cheers - as in they stole the words and routines - from an inner-city school in Compton, LA, Torrance is horrified and has no idea what to do. What can they do? All the cheers they've done for three years are absolutely ripped from this black school but they don't have the time or talent to come up with new ones.

The film is about the Toros, and most specifically Torrance, figuring out how to handle this ethical dilemma. First they try denial, just carrying on as they have and pretending that nothing is wrong. Only this doesn't work because the girls they've been stealing from, the Clovers, confront them and refuse to be quiet about the white girls stealing their cheers. So the Toros try hiring a choreographer, and that goes horribly too. Eventually all they're left with is an attempt to actually come up with their own routine and take that to nationals. The result? Well, not to spoil a movie that came out sixteen years ago or anything, but the end result is actually the most interesting part of the movie.

See, in the end, the Toros rally and come together and make the best routine they could possibly have come up with and...they lose. I mean, they get second place which is certainly not bad on a national stage, but they don't win. And that's a really big deal. The Clovers win because ultimately they were the better team, and our band of ragtag misfits couldn't actually beat them. 

Isis, as played by Gabrielle Union, fits into all of this as the captain of the East Compton Clovers. 

For years she's watched white girls coming to her school from their nice little suburbs and filming her team's cheers to take back and strip of all cultural identity and pass off as their own. In other words, Isis has spent years watching white girls do to her cheers what white people have kind of done to all black artistic products of the past hundred years. You know, like jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop, and a variety of famous dance moves?

As the captain, Isis refuses to be the one to let her team get taken advantage of like that, and so even though our POV is pointed squarely at the Toros and their struggles, you sympathize a lot with Isis. She's the one in the right here. She has morality on her side and the audience knows it. So when she stands up for herself and her team, you kind of want to cheer a little.

If this were her only role in the film, though, she'd be a good character, but not great. As it is, her further appearances in the story solidify Isis into the kind of character I want to point young girls at and say, "Grow up like her, okay? Promise me." 

Instead of taking this appropriation lying down - because this is very literal cultural appropriation, chickadees - Isis is the one who takes the fight to the Toros. She and a few of her teammates actually appear at one of the Toros' football games and do the cheers alongside their rival team. In so doing, they make it completely clear to the audience and to the Toros themselves that they know these cheers. These cheers are not original. They actively shame the Toros on their own field and that takes serious guts.

Later on, when Torrance finds out that the Clovers didn't raise enough money to qualify for nationals, her white guilt kicks in and she brings them a check from her father's company, a charitable donation that's more than enough to cover their expenses. What does Isis do? She tears it up and says they don't want Torrance's blood money. That takes guts too. Isis isn't interested in a privileged white girl handing her a check because she feels bad. 

She wants her team to make it to nationals because they made it to nationals. Because they were good enough and smart enough and they made it happen. Isis doesn't want anyone else to be able to take credit for her team and their success.

And, to their credit, they didn't need the money after all. Isis organizes a plan to appeal to a talk-show host, sort of like a take-off on Oprah, and ask her to sponsor their team. Said host does, and it's a really interesting moment seeing these girls from a predominantly black inner city school appeal to a black talk-show host with a predominantly black audience so that they can go win a competition and show the value of their (black) creative products. In other words, a big subplot in this movie is about the black community working together to help this team.

Anyway. Isis doesn't need Torrance's help to get the Clovers to nationals. And she doesn't want Torrance's guilt money. What does she want, then? What is a good recompense for the years when the Clovers were disqualified from competing because some white team had already trademarked the Clovers' own cheers? Isis has one request for Torrance: Bring it.

Actually, I'm going to put the whole quote in here, because it's basically the best: "You wanna make it right? Then when you go to Nationals... bring it. Don't slack off because you feel sorry for us. That way, when we beat you, we'll know it's because we're better." 

Let's just take a minute and let that sink in. The reason I love Isis as a character is because she values herself and her abilities this much. She knows her team is good and she knows her team can win. She has no interest in someone else making it happen for her. She wants the Toros to play fair, definitely, but she also wants to make sure that when her team wins, and they do win, they do so because they were actually the best. I think that is eminently admirable.

What makes Isis such a compelling person in this film is that she is both the antagonist and easily the most morally upright character. She doesn't resort to cheating or sabotage to get back at the Toros, and she doesn't even badmouth them that much. She just tells them to stop, makes sure that they do, and then ensures that her team will do the best they can.

Even better, this movie never tries to make Isis into the bad guy. She's the antagonist, sure, because she's the one opposing our protagonist, but she's definitely not the villain. 

Isis' goal is a good goal and Torrance respects the hell out of her. It's no accident that there's even a deleted scene on the DVD where the two of them end up at the same college on the same cheer team and we get a hint that they're going to be best friends. Bring It On isn't afraid of letting Isis be relatable and excellent and right. They don't tear her down to make Torrance look better. Instead, they have us watch Torrance pull herself up to Isis' level.

There's just so much goodness in this character that it's hard to unpack it all. Not only is Isis a fantastic athlete and an inspiring leader, she's also a creative enough thinker to find the way to fund her team and a brilliant choreographer to boot. She's a rounded, interesting, inspiring character, where any other movie would just paste in a paper thin cliche.

I guess that's the real kicker for me: Isis, in any lesser film, would not be this awesome. Sure, she might get the moral highground and even a few good lines, but a lesser movie would make her kind of a bitch too. Or really superior about it all. Or, worse, a stereotype of what white people think black people sound like.

It's worth noting here that the only reason that Isis and her friends don't sound super alarmingly like a white person's idea of inner city slang is because the writers wisely let Union and her castmates rewrite their own dialogue. Good choice, guys. Probably served you a lot better in the long run.

In a worse movie, Isis is a cheap stereotype of a "hood" character, an inner city girl who wants to fight Torrance for stealing their cheers or who plays dirty or whatever. Or she's a snotty girl on her high horse insisting that Torrance pay for what she did. In a worse version of this movie, Isis isn't a person, she's a caricature. Here, she's a compelling figure who makes sense as a person. 

The movie doesn't have time to make her super complex and flawed, but she's interesting. And she's admirable. She's the kind of woman you can respect even if you disagree with. That's really important.

I'm not going to lie and say that when I was thirteen I saw this movie and immediately wanted to be just like Isis. I was thirteen and deep in my punk phase so all I wanted in the world was to be Missy. But as I've gotten older, Isis has grown on me, and now when I see this film, I look at her and see the kind of woman I aim to be.

There aren't a lot of black girls in high school comedies to begin with, and those who are there frequently find themselves trapped by tired racist stereotypes. Isis is a new kind of character, a woman who wants to be the best and encourages others to be their best too. She's a black woman who owns her skin and who doesn't apologize for herself, instead demanding that she and her friends be taken seriously. I can't think of many people I would rather grow up to be.

Alarmingly true story.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

'Hail, Caesar!' Is Frothy, Fun, and Ideologically Alarming

I will openly admit it: I'm a sucker for movies about Hollywood. Well, not just movies about Hollywood in general, but movies about Old Hollywood, with the glitz and glamour and dark seedy underbelly. I love movies that take a long hard look at the Studio System and examine how it was amazing for creative production and awful for the creators themselves. How this exploitative management and company style created some of the best works of our our culture can boast. I think it's fascinating and I love thinking about the social implications of that.

Hail, Caesar! is a lot less interested than I am in these social implications. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie, exactly, just that if you're looking for a hard-hitting examination of corruption and abuse in a system designed to keep actors, directors, and writers disenfranchised, you should probably just watch Sunset Boulevard again. If, however, you want to see a bunch of famous actors chew the scenery and have fun playing out Old Hollywood stereotypes for two hours, then you're in luck and this is just the movie for you.

Get where I'm going with this?

The most recent film from the alarmingly prolific Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a frothy confection of nostalgia and actors playing against type. It follows a studio executive, Mr. Mannix (Josh Brolin), on about two days of his work on the job, and the joke of the movie seems to be that these aren't really the worst or the best days Mannix has had. In fact, they're pretty normal, all things considered. That's a big part of the joke: as ridiculous as everything that happens is, no one really acts like it's over the top or earth-shattering. It's just another day in the studio system and another normal day for Mr. Mannix.

Allow me to explain. The day starts with Mannix driving to a house and dragging away a movie star who's been caught taking "French postcards" before the police can get to her. He coaches her on her story, diffuses any potential law enforcement involvement and goes back on his merry way. Later we see him setting up at his office, dealing with all the various problems of the day. The studio head, Mr. Skank, needs to shift out casting on a drawing room drama and thinks their resident Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), should take over as leading man.

Meanwhile, filming is wrapping up on the studio's big new gamble, a biblical epic called, you guessed it, Hail, Caesar! It stars their biggest actor, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), and is super close to coming out and making them a ton of money. All Mannix has to do is keep the production on track and get approval from a panel of religious experts. Oh, and their big aquatics star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), needs to get married and soon because she's pregnant and the studio is banking on her wholesome image. Got all that?

Obviously everything goes all to hell, starting when Baird Whitlock is kidnapped by a group that calls themselves "The Future". The Future demands a hefty ransom, which the studio is happy to pay, and Mannix now has to deal with keeping shooting going on the studio's biggest picture while trying to track down their biggest star. This is all while he's being hounded by a pair of twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Plus he's trying to decide whether or not to take a generous job offer to go work a normal job for Lockheed and leave Hollywood behind.

It's a pretty stuffed movie, and that's not even mentioning the appearances by Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes and Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand. Everyone involved in making this is clearly having a ball of a time, and I'll totally grant that the story, while thin, is fun and engaging enough to keep you invested.

Mannix can't call in any big guns to find Baird Whitlock, mostly because he can't admit he lost Hollywood's biggest star. But he does find an unexpected ally in Hobie Doyle, who might not be much of a dramatic actor (and the scenes where he tries to go from rodeo trick Western star to serious actor are earnest and adorable and painfully bad) but is a fantastic human being. Hobie ends up being the one to bust the whole story wide open, which is great, but overall you kind of don't care what the answers to the mysteries actually are. It's more incidental to all the fun.

I should point out, though, that the trailers make it seem like this movie is one big heist film where the studio uses its actors to find Baird Whitlock and it's all screwball and everyone working together. It's not. Most of these storylines don't intersect, which isn't bad, it's just disappointing if you go in expecting everything to fit together like an elegant puzzle. This is more a mood piece than anything else.

Okay - the big highlights. Alden Ehrenreich is phenomenal as the soft-spoken Hobie Doyle, and it's impressive that in a movie with this many huge stars, the person who totally steals the show is arguably the least well-known. Hobie Doyle is a former rodeo performer, an actor who does all his own stunts, including rope tricks and handstands on moving horses, and yet finds himself baffled by the concept of a stuffy drawing room drama where his character is supposed to be "rueful" and "nonchalant". His earnest attempts to do what director Laurence Laurantz (Ralph Fiennes) is asking of him are adorable and heartbreaking, and a great example of how the studio system made its stars without paying much attention to the people behind them.

Oh and there's a scene where he's set up on a studio-mandated date with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) and they have the sweetest conversation about their respective talents. He demonstrates rope tricks and she shows him how to dance with something on her head. It's a sweet moment between two genuinely lovely people that demonstrates the skill-level and heart behind what we now consider cheesy, stupid movies.

Another highlight is Scarlett Johansson's turn as DeeAnna Moran, an actress who everyone loves for her sweet and pure mermaid movies, but who in real life is a foul-mouthed Jersey girl who runs through marriages like she runs through cigarettes. Her most recent fling has left her pregnant and single, and it's not like they can get her back together with either of her exes - one of them was a high-ranking mobster. The studio has to manage her image and make her appear squeaky-clean, and the solution they end up finding is both ingenious and completely insane. So, it's a fun story.

Frances McDormand also shows up in exactly one scene as an experienced film editor who can flip a reel in seconds but can't remember not to wear a scarf in the editing room. It's hilarious and way too short.

I mean, the whole movie is full of little vignettes like this, moments that are funny and revealing about Old Hollywood. The shots they give us of the in-film version of Hail, Caesar! are ridiculous and amazing by turns, reminding us that some of those old sword and sandals epics were actually really good. 

The musical number from some movie about sailors in the Navy both admirably displays Channing Tatum's tap-dancing skills and also reminds us of the fun of unabashed movie musicals. And all the behind the scenes drama is delicious if you, like me, really enjoy seeing the seedy underbelly behind all the glamour.


The problem with this film is that you can't really make a two-hour blockbuster out of vignettes. While these asides and peeks are fun and interesting, they're not a story, and the overarching narrative that Hail, Caesar! is trying to weave here just isn't all that good. I mean it's fine, I guess, but not spectacular. 

Baird Whitlock is kidnapped by communists who want to tear down the studio system and also get paid for their work because as it turns out all the communists are actually screenwriters. They hold Whitlock at a fancy house in Malibu only for us to be shocked by the real owner when he finally shows up. There's a Russian submarine at one point.

The whole thing is cheesy and screwball, sure, but it's also frustratingly simplistic. We don't really ever know how Mannix figured out the bad guys' plans, nor do we understand what precisely was supposed to be happening. But that's not my real problem with this plotline.

My big issue here is how the film sets up the communists as ridiculous fall-guys, a bunch of bitter writers who are just pissy they don't get paid enough and so have decided to work for Mother Russia. When Baird Whitlock comes back spouting Marxist theory about the subjection of workers and how the studio is keeping them all enslaved, Mannix ends up slapping the shit out of him and telling him to go out there and do his job. 

The problem here is that, well, the communists aren't wrong. If we learn anything from this movie it's that, yeah, the studio system really is exploiting its workers. All we have to do is look back in Hollywood history to know that to be absolutely true. No one was confused about it at the time either. Actors and directors had to sign draconian exclusivity contracts and were traded around like chattel. They didn't pick their own projects or even their own images. Everything was controlled by and owned by the studio. 

We see this most clearly with Hobie, who is pulled off of working on a Western he clearly likes in order to be in a movie he doesn't understand because "the studio is changing his image." As simple as that. They're telling him what work to do, what to wear, and who to date because they very literally control his life.

And this, the movie insists, is all right and fine and exactly as it should be. By the end of the movie Mannix feels justified in what he's done and satisfied with his work because he's a good man doing a good thing making good movies. He's righteous in his defense of the studio because the studio is always right. Implicitly, this movie is telling us that things were better when the workers really had no rights and everyone just shut up and let the studio make their choices for them.

Obviously I have a problem with this. The implicit messages of this movie praise the studio system for being a time when everything was simple and clear and easy. When white men were in charge, basically. Now, if this feels like I'm reading too much into it, let's bear in mind that the reason we can assume these implications is because Mannix is the lead character of our film. He's the eyes with which we view this world. He's even explicitly shown to be a moral, kind, good man. He's a devout Catholic, a loving husband and father, and an upright person who always tries to do the right thing. So if he's on the side of the studio, then so should we, right?

In fact everyone in this movie who doesn't side with the studio is shown to be stupid, corrupt, or immoral. Seriously. Hobie Doyle, the sweetest specialest snowflake and basically a walking representation of truth and righteousness? Completely on board with the studio even though they make him do things he doesn't want to do. Baird Whitlock, womanizing alcoholic who no one cares enough about to report missing? Falls easily for Marxist theory until he's told basically not to bite the hand that feeds him. It's alarmingly simplistic and presents the view that people who uphold the status quo are good and people who don't are bad. Plain and simple.

This is without even getting into how the film completely excludes narratives about the actual marginalized people in Hollywood at this period. The only character of color in the film, Carlotta Valdez, is only in a handful of scenes and while she's lovely, she has no storyline of her own. She's just the date Hobie is supposed to take to his movie premiere.That's it. 

There are scant few women in the movie, but the lack of people of color, even in minor roles, is glaring. Hollywood has never been as white as it pretends to be in this movie, and it adds a disturbing twist to this nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when white men were in charge, everyone did what they said, and people of color just didn't exist.

But maybe I'm being too hard on this film. It is, after all, a screwball comedy about silly actors doing silly things and acting like the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. From that perspective, it doesn't have to be a searing indictment of exploitation in the McCarthy era.

The reason I'm harping on this movie, then, is because I feel like it reflects a dangerous trend in our culture right now. We seem ever more interested in revisiting our own past and being nostalgic for the "good old days" because, it seems, we white Americans want to remember a time when we could just ignore the struggles of people of color and other marginalized groups. It's like this is a collective fantasy about the time before we all had to admit America has a race problem. The 1950s were hellish for most everyone in our country, and yet we insist on portraying it as the best time to be alive, because it was...for white men.

And before the internet bites me, I'm not saying that white men are inherently evil. I'm just saying that there's something really sketchy in dreaming out loud about returning to the days when you were the only ones in power and everyone else was labor to be exploited. Those weren't the good old days for anyone but you, and I think you're enjoying not thinking about that.

So, sure, go see Hail, Caesar! if you want two hours of popcorn fluff. But remember that this is apparently what the Coen brothers wish Hollywood could be like: a world where they don't have to share power, where no one calls them out on how they never cast actors of color in their movies, and where they can just tell everyone what to do and if the people disagree then they're awful Commies. Mmm. Nice world, huh?

I will say that I'm okay with excuses to see Scarlett Johansson exercising her New Jersey accent though.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x11 - A Conspiracy of Ladies

We are getting closer and closer to the end here, chickadees, which is a damn shame because as Strange Empire has gone on it's refined its process, developed way tighter plotlines, and generally become a really great show. I started recapping - over a year ago, which should give you some indication of my time management skills - more out of curiosity than any actual knowledge of if this show was good or not. I figured it probably was, or at the very least wasn't awful, and that as a woman constantly advocating for more diverse and compelling television about women I would watch it no matter what.

But I didn't really know if the show was going to be good. And now, I think we can all comfortably agree, it is. It really really super is good, verging on great, which makes it all the sadder to remember that Strange Empire didn't get renewed. When we hit the end of episode 13, that's it. There's no more world out there to imagine. This is especially distressing when we come to realize that we're finally coming to the best part, where these women finally break free and build their own world without the constraints of the old. It bums me out that we aren't going to get any more of this. 

Enough nostalgic whining, though. It's time to actually talk about what happened this episode and revel in the goodness while we still have it. Besides, I have to finish recapping this show eventually so that we can go on to recap Orphan Black and Outlander in April!

I've mentioned this before, but Strange Empire, like any good piece of media, operates on a seesaw stroytelling principle. After a really super intense episode we're apt to get an episode or two of buildup to help us calm down and to set up the next storyline. 

So since last week's episode saw John Slotter straight up murdering a guy in cold blood, the whole town banding together to save the miners, and an absurdly intense confrontation between father and son, this week was a bit more chill. I mean, not super chill or anything, but more of an in-between episode where we focus on character development and storytelling than literal explosions.

The plotlines this week were also more spread out, catching up with characters we haven't seen in a while and generally reminding us that there are some nuances to this story. Naturally the most far-reaching story was about what to do with confirmed murderer John Slotter, but there were also some side-plots worth mentioning. Ruby finally got her own dang story, and Miss Logan and Fiona also had some more screentime than usual. Isabelle had to deal with the way she's been playing Cornelius and John off each other all this time, and Kat had to reckon with what justice means in a time like this. Oh and Chase Sloat, minor character and occasional plot device, hit the center stage as the women realized he knew more than he was saying about the massacre that started all of this in the first place. There was a lot going on, so here we go!

The episode opens, of course, right where we left it, with John Slotter in a cage and Kat and Caleb trying to figure out what to do with him. In the world's worst pillowtalk, Kat insists that they hang him, while Caleb reminds her that they really can't. Yes, John Slotter murdered a man right outside the Marshall's station, but the man he murdered was black, and in this immediately post-Civil War era, that's not a hanging crime. It's awful, and they both acknowledge it, but it's true.

There's something really satisfying here, actually, in having two non-white characters discuss race so openly in a period piece. We so rarely get perspective like this, and the debate between Caleb and Kat is heartbreaking for its clarity. 

When Kat says that they could and should kill John Slotter for what he's done, Caleb's rejoinder is fascinating for how simply it pulls back the veil on race relations then and now: "He's white. And rich." That's all he has to say to get across how much they, two Native American keepers of the law, cannot execute John Slotter, rich white landowner.

Fortunately for justice, though, Kat is not deterred. She reminds Caleb of the massacre and he agrees that if they can find proof John was behind the massacre, then he will hang. Kat also brings up the murder charge she's wanted for - a plotline that's been hanging over our heads all season - and tells Caleb of the first man she killed. He was a white man who had come into her people's territory to try to steal their land for his own use. She shot him and she doesn't regret it. What she does seem to really regret is how she lost her people over it, because she could never go home.

It's a poignant scene and a reminder of what we've been facing all along in this show: the past is a starkly different place for marginalized people - there's no nostalgia in this show, no insistence that life was better back then. There's just a cold-eyed view that life was and still is hard as hell for the people outside existing power structures.

Okay. I'm getting too detail oriented. Time to pick it up. 

Caleb takes the young girl, Cassie, back to the station house because there is nothing worse than the idea of Cassie having to stay in Janestown, the place where she was almost raped after her father was shot in front of her. Kat sends Kelly off with them too, both because it will definitely make Cassie feel better than being alone with Caleb after all this, and because Caleb has other duties and Kelly can make sure Cassie gets home all right. 

It's a touching scene, but sad, as we realize just how much Kelly really has grown up this season. She's ready to care for her new friend and make sure she's recovering in large part because of the traumatic things that have happened in Janestown. But it's nice to see something good and kind coming from so much crap. Since they have no evidence of the massacre and Isabelle refuses to help Kat hang her husband - even if she was willing to turn him over in the first place - Kat has to set John Slotter free. She hopes that doing that will force Isabelle to turn on him and help them, but really she just has no other recourse. 

On a lighter note, this episode brings back in Fiona Briggs and Miss Logan, who have teamed up to get themselves out of Janestown (or at least a bunch of money). Fiona is writing a story that Miss Logan will use her connections to the publishing world - her brother worked in publishing - to sell. The story they're working on? The night of the massacre. Only when Fiona writes her first draft, constantly distracted by her crying babies and brushing up against her PTSD, what she comes up with isn't true. Even worse, it's cheesy. 

Miss Logan tells her so too, and it seems that the criticism plus her crying children and the strain of this life is too much for Fiona at the moment. She rides off into the woods and has herself a nice solid breakdown. Presumably while she is doing this Miss Logan looks after her children, and can I just say that I love these two being friends/life partners? I need more of this in my life. Anyway, Fiona is handling everything badly because the last thing in the world she wants to do is remember the night her husband died and her world shifted for the worse.

John goes home only to find that Isabelle has basically been shacking up with his father. He's not pleased, but then he's generally done with Izzy and the absurd drama of her life. The real kicker comes when the animosity between Ruby and Isabelle, simmering all season, comes to a boil. You may remember that last episode we were finally told that Ruby, who was a slave in the Slotter household since childhood, is another victim of Cornelius Slotter and his sexual predation. This episode saw Isabelle bringing it up again and claiming that Ruby is just angry because she's jealous Cornelius doesn't like her anymore. She accuses Ruby of being in love with Cornelius and mad because she's still just a "house slave".

We also find out for the first time that Ruby has a son, the child of Cornelius Slotter, who is currently away at school "learning to be a gentleman". Isabelle thinks this is funny and mocks Ruby for it. But there's something here in the interplay between two black women, both of whom have been abused by the same man, effectively fighting for dominance. 

One of the more interesting aspects of this scene, and their relationship, is how race plays into it. While both Isabelle and Ruby are African-American women, Isabelle is lighter-skinned and has more conventionally "white" features, which by the standards of the time makes her more beautiful. She's almost "passing" and because she married into a rich family is treated as white. 

Ruby, with her darker skin and more traditionally African features, is treated badly and not afforded the same opportunities as Isabelle. Ruby's child was sent away, while Isabelle's child is nurtured and held close by Cornelius himself. That the child in question is actually a white child bought from a white mother makes it all the more interesting, as then we have the suggestion that Cornelius loves this child all the more for being so obviously white.

Ugh. Racism.

Anyway, their confrontation leads to Isabelle demanding that Ruby leave the house, a thought that's anathema to Ruby. Ruby's been there a lot longer than Isabelle, and as a touching scene upstairs with John makes clear, Ruby considers herself part of this family. She's not going down without a fight.

When John won't intercede, Ruby pulls out the big guns. She brings Cornelius a photograph, one that Isabelle has kept well hidden, that shatters Cornelius' dreams of bringing Isabelle and the baby boy back to New York with him. Said photograph? A picture of Isabelle with her dead baby girl. Cornelius goes insensate with rage and even digs the little coffin up just so he can see for sure that it's true: Isabelle had a baby that died, and this child he's been holding isn't hers.

He's understandably not okay with this.

So Isabelle is forced to face the truth that she's been playing John and Cornelius against each other, trying to get the best position for herself. John even realizes that there's almost no way that Isabelle is actually pregnant again - she's totally lying - and he is even more angry. Between the two of them they beat her until she can barely walk and literally throw her out of the house. 

Isabelle tries to get up on her own, her pride insisting that she not cave, but Kat gives her a helping hand anyway. For all that Isabelle has done and the way she's always put herself before any nascent sisterhood or something, she's still a woman who needs help. Kat is there to provide that help.

Rebecca sees to Isabelle's injuries, and after a bit of posturing while she tries to figure out who she is now, Isabelle caves and tells them all that, yes, there is evidence John ordered the massacre. He kept a glove from one of the men, with a name stitched inside it, and it's in a specific place in the house. Only problem? It's not like Isabelle can go in and get it now.

They end up sending Rebecca, which is a fair point as she's pretty much the only woman left who John Slotter doesn't straight up hate. Of course the side problem of that is that he really doesn't hate her, instead he kind of likes her a lot and happens upon Rebecca before she can get the glove out and away. He gives her a long speech about death and killing and how he kind of likes how it feels, all while Rebecca is literally trembling, then he tells her to leave the glove and go. Obviously she does, but it's a sign that John Slotter is still crazy as all bugnuts when he reminds her that Rebecca is welcome in the house any time. 

I don't think she feels that welcome.

Since John now knows they know about the glove, it looks like all hope is lost. He's almost certainly destroyed it, or at least hidden it better, so there's no use looking. Ruby refuses to break ranks and help them, so they're back at square one. Or, then again, not...

While all this has been happening, the women have discovered - because of Robin and her magical psychic powers - that Chase Sloat, one of Slotter's henchmen, is tormented by guilt and haunted by the ghosts of the people he's killed. In particular we see the ghost of little Georgie, Kat's adopted son, and we learn once and for all that Chase is the one who cut his tongue out, on Slotter's orders, causing Georgie to bleed to death.

The women obviously all want to destroy Chase and John Slotter for this, but they need to go about it subtly. When Robin follows Chase into the woods and sees him interacting with the clearly not murdered Mary Colacutt (who is living in an adorable tent and clearly happy and well), she finds the key to making Chase Sloat talk. 

He wants peace from the ghosts? Well then he must confess his sins to them. He has to come out and confess what he did, who he killed, and who told him to do it. So he does, only the ghosts he confesses to are none other than the women left behind, dressed up in their men's clothes and choking back tears. Then they write down what he said in a confession and compel him to sign. There. Now they have written proof and a witness who attests to what was done. It's also the moment when we see Fiona, Miss Logan, and Mrs. Briggs finally finally get some closure. At long last they know what really happened that night. Fiona can finally look at what happened without having to turn away.

Kat locks up Chase afterwards, insisting that justice must be done and he has to pay for his crimes. More than that, they need him to stick around so he can testify and so that John can't get to him and make him change his story. But Robin knows that if he stays he'll almost certainly hang, even if John Slotter doesn't. So she goes her own way, stealing the keys to the cage and letting Chase go free. Ruby is there too, and presumably she is the one who, upon realizing that Chase never killed Mary after all, gives him Mary's baby to keep safe.

So in a weird turn of events, at least three people got a happy ending this week. Chase took the baby out into the woods, met Mary, and together the three of them walked off into a probably happy future. Mary and Chase make a good match, as it turns out, and Mary is thrilled to give her baby a real father and a happy home. It's weird, but it totally works.

Back in camp, everyone is trying to get used to the new status quo: Isabelle is out of the big house and Cornelius and John are kind of reconnecting. Kat is still searching for justice and she has a lot more ammo now. All the women are reeling from their grief and also feeling the new possibility of closure. Miss Logan is happy to tell Fiona that her new version of the story is great and moving and totally worth selling - she's so glad that Fiona decided to tell the truth!

The funny thing being, of course, that we the audience know Fiona still wasn't telling the truth. It certainly makes Fiona a more interesting character, but it also sheds light on the idea that people don't want the truth truth, they just want a more believable fiction.

And Isabelle has recovered from her injuries enough to be up and around. Her first stop is with Ling, who is happy to see her until she says she's not there to take up with him or choose him or anything. She's there to take down the Slotters, that's it. Fortunately for her, Ling is totally okay helping with that. 

Like I said above, while a lot happens this episode, it's still much slower than it has been. From a pacing standpoint this is good, as it gives us a chance to catch our breath, but it's also good from a storytelling point. This episode was all about the far-reaching ramifications of the massacre that started the season. It's completely wrapped up in people reacting to this event which was months and months ago. So much has happened since then, and yet it's still at the front of everyone's minds. Finally we saw people get some peace, and finally we saw the possibility that there will be justice.

I think this show, for all that it has a hell of a slow start, is at its best when looking at how race and gender intersect in our understanding of the past. It's a great critique of those narratives we accept so blindly, like the Western or the Period Drama. In this story, the people at the forefront are the people who have been most pushed to the side on our usual depictions of the past. Women of color. Neurodivergent women. Women in sex work. They're all portrayed as people with complex inner lives and their own stories to tell. 

And by showing these stories, the show has reminded us that the past really isn't something worth glorifying. Strange Empire hits home precisely because of how much I don't want to live there, and because it's a world that I know all too well. That's good writing, and it's writing that really needs to happen.

Yes. There are only two episodes left. But I feel comfortable saying that they're going to be two really good episodes, and any way you slice it, even though the show has been cancelled and won't keep going on, we're lucky to have gotten it in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, this show will inspire others like it.

I would also like to buy a drink for whoever did the lighting on this show. It's so gooooood!