Month: September 2017

The Munshi: Why “Victoria and Abdul” should focus more on Abdul Karim and the colonialism he faced

This post is about Victoria and Abdul, the latest in a long line of “special person of color befriending or otherwise humanizing a cold white woman” films. From the outset, this, a film based on the biography by Shrabani Basu, looks like a Driving Miss Daisy version of a small moment of Queen Victoria’s life. In actuality, equating it to Driving Miss Daisy isn’t actually saying the movie is bad, necessarily—there are plenty of reasons to like Driving Miss Daisy, and I’m sure there are plenty of reasons to like Victoria and Abdul. However, with that said, we’re getting a bit long in the tooth for films that make white characters out to be the classic “good white person.” Therefore, this post will be solely about Abdul and the man who plays him, Bollywood superstar Ali Fazal.

First, in case you’re interested in Victoria and Abdul, here’s the official description:

The extraordinary true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s (Academy Award winner Judi Dench) remarkable rule. When Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young clerk, travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, he is surprised to find favor with the Queen herself. As the Queen questions the constrictions of her long-held position, the two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity.

Reading that last line—“As the friendship deepens, the Queen begins to see a changing world through new eyes and joyfully reclaims her humanity,” seems as sappy and innocuously racial as anything from Driving Miss Daisy, and after reading more about Abdul himself, it seems like much of the film’s viewpoint will be from the value Abdul brought to the Queen, not what Abdul himself thought about his situation, his standing, or England’s volatile “relationship,” if you will, with India, a place colonized and subjugated by the English monarchy, which includes Queen Victoria’s reign.

Even in Queen Victoria’s own words, it seems like she’s more enthralled by his exoticism and his being an outsider with different opinions than all the other cronies she’s used to dealing with in her circle.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in “Victoria and Abdul.” (Focus Features)

According to Abdul’s biographer, Sushila Anand, the Queen’s letters about her conversations with Abdul were one of “[b]oth head and heart,” focusing on philosophy, politics, and other topics close to the Queen’s heart. However, Anand also writes that Queen Victoria was fond of Abdul, her munshi or teacher, because of “a connection with a world that was fascinatingly alien” and because she viewed him as “a confidant who would not feed her the official line.” One line she wrote in her journal, “I am so very fond of him. He is so good & gentle & understanding all I want & I a real comfort to me,” says everything I need to know.

She did see him as a value to her, but she’s still seeing him from a very colonial-centric viewpoint. Abdul was a fine man to talk with and befriend, but did Queen Victoria really view him as an equal as much as biographers and historians might like to make it out to be? I’m no historian, but coming from my personal viewpoint as a person who has lived under the remnants of slavery, I don’t see how she could view him as an equal and still keep India under colonial rule. She could have most certainly viewed him as a friend and confidant and most loyal of subjects, but at the end of the day, he was still a subject—someone under her law who, in his case, benefitted from the shadow of her power. Slaveowners also had dear confidants who were also slaves, but at the end of the day, they were still slaves.

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in “Victoria and Abdul”. (Focus Features)

This is just my point of view. But take the point of view of Ben Croll, who reviewed the film for IndieWire. His entire review speaks to how much colonialism shadows the film and becomes the elephant in the room the film doesn’t want to address. Croll writes that the film wants to be the breezy, Downton Abbey-esque costume drama, “[e]xcept it can’t be, thanks to that damned question of colonialism, the legacy of which is still being felt today.”

“In the film’s formation, both Abdul and Victoria are innocent actors, two parties on the far extremes of a troubling system run by callous white men…But that structure never stands up because the film never grants the slightest interest in Abdul’s perspective,” he writes. “While Dench gets a number of speeches and confrontations, dramatizing Victoria’s position as both all-powerful and basically powerless, Fazal is just asked to smile. Abdul is good-natured and charming, happily there to serve. He’s eager to teach her Urdu, or recite for the Koran, much to Victoria’s delight and her advisor’s dismay, but what’s going on inside his mind? What’s it like to go from the basement of colonial prison to a seat of Imperial power? Well, aside from the fact that he seems to appreciate the wallpaper, we never really know.”

Other reviews have reiterated the same concerns.

“[Lee] Hall’s script mildly pokes fun at courtly pomposity, while eventually treating the relationship between Victoria and Karim as a balanced friendship—when surely the truth was more difficult,” wrote Dave Calhoun for TimeOut London. “It’s pretty obvious where the power lies here, yet most of the complexities are sidelined…This is kid-gloves historical storytelling.

“…[T]he central relationship in ‘Victoria & Abdul’ never pretends to be one of equals,” wrote Owen Gleiberman for Variety. “Abdul, as a man, remains dutiful, devoted, saintly, obsequious, servile. Maybe that’s accurate, maybe not, but in a mainstream middlebrow drama coming out in 2017, it gives one a bit of pause, because it reinforces a point-of-view toward the British colonization of India that comes off as myopic, and, frankly, a little too old-fashioned for comfort.”

If there’s any reason for me to watch this film, it’d only be to support Fazal in the hopes that my watching the film would keep Hollywood interested in him and could eventually propel him to other American films. Fazal has already starred in Furious 7, which has cemented him as an international star, but a film like Victoria and Abdul could push him even further in the stratosphere. Fazal himelf seems to agree.

“I definitely feel they [Hollywood] have an eye and they have a democratic eye for talent. We’re making some great stuff here as well,” said Fazal to “I speak for a lot of Indian actors—the new actors and the actors who have been there and doing their job and who [are] far better than so many others, that yes, Hollywood is opening up and globalizing.”

“I’m not giving them credit because they were closed up for a long time themselves but I think now because they follow protocols, they know they can’t mess with stuff. They can’t have a blonde play a Chinese woman! James Bond today can be a black person playing or a person of any colour playing. They’ve become open to that world.

What would be great if there could be a film exploring the life of Abdul as a person instead of the role he played in Queen Victoria’s life, as if he’s a talking object. However, maybe Victoria and Abdul is the launching pad for Fazal in a number of exciting roles, such as James Bond, a Star Wars Jedi, or anyone else that has been relegated to white Hollywood. So it goes.

Victoria and Abdul will be in theaters in NY and LA September 22, and will expand to more theaters September 29 and October 2.

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Trailer and poster from Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” released

The first images and trailer for Dee Rees’ next film, Mudbound have finally been released. I feel like this one could very well be a fantastic Oscar contender.

The film is Rees’ follow-up from her first two films Pariah and Bessie. Mudbound had great success at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and when it launches on Netflix and in select theaters Nov. 17, you can expect even more great word of mouth to come.

The film is one that is set in the past, but is bound to have lessons that will reflect today’s times. Here’s the official description:

Set in the rural American South during World War II, Dee Rees’ Mudbound is an epic story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta.

Mudbound follows the McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. Meanwhile, Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige) – sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations – struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face.

The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), forge a fast but uneasy friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South in which they live.

Mudbound stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks and Garrett Hedlund.


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“Neo Yokio” is the anime tailor-made for the quirky black kids

Anime fans are going to have an interesting time with Jaden Smith’s latest project, Neo Yokio.

The project itself is delightfully weird in that classic Jaden Smith/alternative black kid way—the show was created by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, which is the first clue that this show is tailor-made for black alternakids—as a college student, I used to listen to Vampire Weekend non-stop.

The second black alternakid bit of catnip—Neo Yokio is an anime. According to Shadow and Act, the name is an Americanism of “Neo Tokyo,” the cyberpunk city in Akira and, as the name suggests, is a mix of New York and Tokyo. In this anime, New Yokio is a “cultural oasis mix of New York and Tokyo at the forefront of fashion, finance and culture.” Smith stars as the main character Kaz Kaan, who is the youngest of a family of demon slayers called “magistocrats” who had once saved the city. Even though Kaz only demon-slays when his aunt Agatha (Susan Sarandon) sets them up for him, Kaz eventually realizes there’s more to Neo Yokio than just his favorite hobbies—playing field hockey with his friends, endless shopping, and hanging out with his robotic butler. However, in true affected rich kid fashion, he learns more about his city thanks to a former fashion blogger.

Comedians and TV/social media personalities Desus Nice and The Kid Mero voice Kaz’s friends Gottlieb and Lexy, and Jude Law voices Kaz’s butler Charles. Jaden’s sister Willow and Amandla Stenberg will also lend their voices, which leads me to the third black alternakid sign: Amandla Stenberg is in this show.

I don’t know what role Stenberg will have in this show, but Stenberg is no stranger to genre media. She was a part of FOX’s Sleepy Hollow for two seasons before launching her indie comic book Niobe: She is Life, which focuses on a young black elven girl who would become a savior . Yes, Willow being in this show is also black alternakid catnip, but we should’ve known Willow would be in a show her brother’s a part of; what’s the point of having nepotism powers if you can’t use them for good?

Check out the trailer below and see what you think. Neo Yokio, comprised of six episodes, will drop on Netflix Sept. 22.

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“The Powerpuff Girls” gains new member, and she’s black

Are y’all ready for a new Powerpuff Girl?

Big news coming out of Cartoon Network is that their popular characters, the Powerpuff Girls, will get a new sister, and she’ll be black.

According to Geeks of Color, the new character, which sports blue hair, can be seen in the international marketing reel for Cartoon Network.

There’s no word on what her name will be or what her powers are going to be, but the character’s voice actress, South African singer Toya Delazy, has released this image of her in the recording booth.

I’ll be honest—it’s been a while since I’ve last seen The Powerpuff Girls; I haven’t touched the reboot yet. But I am intrigued to see how this new Powerpuff will interact with the other characters and how she’ll positively influence current fans and new ones alike.

The newest Powerpuff Girl will make her debut Sept. 17.

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Afrofuturistic film “Brown Girl Begins” coming to New York’s UrbanWorld Film Festival

Have you heard about Brown Girl in the Ring? Well, you’ll start hearing about it more as we head into the fall.

According to Shadow and Act, Brown Girl Begins, inspired by the 1998 afrofuturist novel Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson will make its world premiere Sept. 23 at New York’s UrbanWorld Film Festival. The film’s description, as Shadow and Act states, reads:

“In 2049 the poor are confined to an island off the mainland of Toronto renamed The Burn. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant priestess, must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother or her people will die.”

The Atlantic further described the novel as taking place in “a walled-off inner city filled with crime, drug addiction, and poverty where the causes of the city’s downward spiral are economic.” The economy plight eventually becomes used for political gain.

The film is written and directed by Sharon Lewis, and was successfully crowdfunded to 116 percent in 2015. Check out the trailer below, and see more pictures at Shadow and Act!

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“Aladdin”: Mena Massoud posts first cast update, Billy Magnussen casting draws ire

Some quick Aladdin news to report—some of it is good, and some of it is, of course, controversial (as seems to be the case with this particular movie).

First the good—Mena Massoud, who has been tapped to play the titular role, has posted to his Twitter page a picture of himself, Will Smith (tapped to play the Genie), Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar).

“Agrabah just got a lot hotter,” said Massoud. “Gonna be keeping you posted on everything Aladdin peeps.”

It’s great to know that Massoud is going to keep the fans up to date on what’s happening, since it’ll probably provide those of us who cover movies and are film fans to read the tea leaves. That’s always fun.

Now the not-so fun stuff: the film is courting controversy yet again with the hiring of Billy Magnussen. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Magnussen is playing a character that has never been a part of the original Aladdin, so for many, this sounds like this is yet another way to shoehorn in a white character in a non-white storyline. Why is this important and aggravating? Because for many, this feels like Disney saying that a non-white storyline can’t exist or be monetarily credible without a white character.

This isn’t the first time the film has been at the center of controversy—Scott’s casting as Jasmine brought ire from folks who felt like the character was being cast with a non-Middle Eastern actress. This also goes to the original root of the casting issue—the fact that Disney asked for both Indian and Middle Eastern actors when the fictional country of Agrabah is considered to be Middle Eastern (Scott, for instance, is of British and Indian background). Even before the announcements of Aladdin and Jasmine being cast, Disney was facing angry fans for insinuating that there weren’t any Middle Eastern actors to cast in the roles.

We’ll see more about this latest controversy as it develops, since there will be more news coming down the pike, I’m sure.

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Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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“One Day at a Time” co-creator bringing new Latinx comedy to CBS

Earlier in the week, I wrote about John Leguizamo’s op-ed in Billboard calling people to action to support and uplift Latinx voices in the media. If you’ve been wondering how to do that, here’s the perfect opportunity—a new show centering on Latinx characters is coming to CBS, and it’s going to need your support.

One Day at a Time co-creator Gloria Calderon Kellett has announced that she’s bringing a new multi-camera/hybrid comedy to CBS called History of Them. According to Remezcla (via Deadline), the show will revolve around a “Latinx and white” multicultural relationship “told through the eyes of the couple’s future daughter as she navigates their social media feeds.” As Remezcla writes, the show is, like One Day at a Time, “semi-autobiographical to Calderon Kellett’s life.”

CBS has gotten tons of flack for not having enough diversity in their line-up, particularly for how their current line-up of shows failed to have women in leading roles or directing/behind-the-scenes roles. With History of Them, CBS seems to be trying to mitigate their bad press and do right by underrepresented groups.

History of Them currently doesn’t have a filming date, much less a premiere date, but whenever the show does premiere, we need to do our best to support it in whatever way we can. The second season of Calderon Kellett’s One Day at a Time premieres in 2018, another chance to throw our support behind Latinx talent.

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Lana Condor finally becomes the rom-com lead she always wished to be

You’ve seen Lana Condor even if you don’t remember her. If you’ve seen X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ve seen her as Jubilee, even though the film did her dirty and didn’t actually let her speak. But you’ll not only hear her speak in her latest film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she’ll be starring as the love interest, a dream she never thought possible.

Condor spoke to NBC Asian America about her role in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel. In the film, Condor stars as Jean Song Covey, a biracial Korean/white American teenager who lives with her two sisters and widowed dad. The book and film will follow Covey’s love life, which gets completely turned upside down when the letters she’s written to boys she’s liked are taken from under her bed and sent.

“A few months ago when I was on a plane, I was daydreaming about how fun it’d be to act in a romantic comedy, because I don’t know of any rom-coms where Asian women are the leads,” she said. “And now here we are.”

Han herself gave Condor her blessing with the role. “That is truly groundbreaking,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t seen Asian American women centered on the screen since Joy Luck Club which was nearly 25 years ago. Representation is so important, and this means the world to me. More than anything, I hope that the success of this movie will lead to more opportunities for Asian American actors and writers down the line.”

Condor said she hopes her work career can change the landscape for the Asian diaspora in Hollywood, something she started thinking about after landing her role as Jubilee.

“It got me thinking, if I can just put a little dent in the wall that is Hollywood in terms of race, then I’ve done enough,” she said. “Now, I’ve been so lucky in my career that I might be able to put an even bigger dent in that wall than I thought.”

You can read more at NBC News.

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Adam Beach calls for “Yellowstone” boycott over Kelsey Asbille cast as Native character

Usually, POC lovers of media are quick to call out moments of whitewashing. However, now comes the time when we have to police how POC actors take roles from other POC.

Adam Beach, one of the most prominent Native actors in Hollywood, is calling on people to boycott the Paramount Network’s first scripted series, Yellowstone. The show, starring Kevin Costner, focuses on Costner’s character John Dutton, who owns the biggest contiguous ranch in the country. The ranch under attack by Yellowstone National Park itself, as well as land developers and a nearby Native American reservation who, I’m assuming, see it as a threat to their way of life since the rest of the synopsis, according to Coming Soon, reads thusly:

“It is an intense study of a violent world far from media scrutiny—where land grabs make developers billions, and politicians are bought and sold by the world’s largest oil and lumber corporations. Where drinking water poisoned by fracking wells and unsolved murders are not news: they are a consequence of living in the new frontier. It is the best and worst of America seen through the eyes of a family that represents both.”

The controversy comes in with the casting of Kelsey Asbille, formerly known as Kelsey Chow, as the Native American character Monica. Asbille is half Chinese, according to Wikipedia. As Clevver writes, “the 25-year-old actress is half-white/half-Taiwanese ‘with some Cherokee ancestry.’ Others state that she was born to a ‘Chinese-Taiwanese father and a mother of English and Cherokee descent.’” Wikipedia’s entry on Asbille states nothing about any Cherokee ancestry. At the end of the day, there seems to be a question surrounding her possible Native American ancestry.

This isn’t the first time she’s been cast as a Native American, which is troubling, since her recent role before Yellowstone, a Native American character named Natalie in the acclaimed film Wind River, is probably what allowed her to secure this Yellowstone role.

According to Clevver, Beach wrote on Instagram that the Yellowstone casting was “failure in diversity.”

“I’m asking my Native Actors to stay away from this project. ‘Yellowstone’ is telling the world that there are no Native actresses capable of leading a TV show. Unless your great-great grandparents are Cherokee,” he wrote.

“I speak on behalf of all my woman Natives who work so hard to get noticed and they wake up to this,” he wrote.

#hollywooddiversity #diversityinfilm #integrity #yellowstone

A post shared by adam beach (@adamrbeach) on

Will more speak out against Asbille’s casting? We’ll see what happens as Yellowstone ramps up.

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