TV shows featuring African-Americans are doing well and since I’m African-American I figured it made sense for me to go on TV to talk about it. “Empire,” “Blackish” and all those shows Shonda Rhimes puts out like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are scoring high ratings. The big question is whether this will be the flavor of the month–African American Swirl!–or something lasting. It’s important to have open discussions about race and pop culture, but it’s crucial to not just talk about race when it comes to black shows. I’d like to see more folks have race-based discussions about programs that don’t feature ethnic minorities. How does “Girls”–a show partially set in Brooklyn–get away without having a single minority in its core cast? Certainly creator Lena Dunham has every right to write what she wants–she’s super-talented, and I watch the show every week–but viewers have every right to think she should get out more.
Only a few months ago, I thought podcasts were trendy thing from the late 00s, like Uggs, Crocs and *NSYNC. But the megapopular podcast “Serial” has made the form relevant again, and I recently paid a visit to Jeff Rutherford’s “Reading & Writing” podcast to talk about my new fantasy adventure book “Game World.” Kick off your Uggs, your Crocs, slide a CD of “No Strings Attached” into your boom box and check out my appearance on the podcast.
It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and “American Sniper” is topping “Selma” to be the No.1 movie in America. Yes, there’s irony there, but it’s also a good time to talk a bit about pop culture and the philosophy of nonviolence.
Gawker has a great article reprinting a long 1965 interview King once gave to Playboy and Alex Haley (who would go on to write “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”). King’s comments on music leaped out at me. I’m gearing up to read from my novel “Game World” at various schools for African American history month, so King’s words about the power of culture have fresh resonance.
“In a sense, songs are the soul of a movement,” King says in the article. He adds “Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. Steal Away and Go Down, Moses were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage. We sing out our determination that ‘We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.'”
“Selma,” which tells the story of King and the 1965 march he led from Selma to Montgomery, was mostly shut out at this year’s Oscar nominations. All twenty of this year’s Oscar acting nominees are white, and there are no women nominated for writing or directing (“Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who had been widely expected to become the first African-American woman to be in the running for best director, was shut out). “Selma” notched just two Oscar nominations, one for best picture–and another for best song.
This weekend, “American Sniper” pulled in an estimated $89.5 million, while “Selma” took in $8.8 million according to the tracking website Box Office Mojo. Perhaps the best way for people to celebrate the rest of MLK day would be to actually go see “Selma.”
Here I am talking about the “Selma” snub on MSNBC:
The producers of Sting‘s Broadway musical “The Last Ship” announced this morning that the show will be closing on Saturday, January 24.
When the production finishes its four-month run, it will have played 29 preview performances on Broadway and 105 regular performances.
The show had gotten mixed reviews, but many of them were positive. USA Today named it the best musical of 2014. Still, sales had been weak until Sting, the former frontman for the rock band the Police who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, decided to put himself into one of the starring roles. Ticket sales picked up sharply, but it wasn’t enough to save the show.
Along with Wall Street Journal theater reporter Stefanie Cohen, I recently interviewed Sting and co-star Rachel Tucker for the WSJ Cafe, the live arts and culture showcase that I run. Sting told us then that he couldn’t stay in the show past the end of January because he was set to start a tour with Paul Simon. He wouldn’t back out of that commitment because he honored his contracts. Ironically, Simon, who had helped write the Broadway flop “The Capeman,” had once given him some advice about the Great White Way–if the show went south, Simon said, get as far away from it as possible.
Sting didn’t take that advice. He tried to save “The Last Ship” by putting himself in it. Now the show is closing anyway.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the show cost roughly $14 million to mount and took in $8,634,097 over the course of its run.
I saw “The Last Ship” twice. Once without Sting, and another time with him in it. It was a better, more layered show with Sting. I could see and hear his emotional connection to the material, which is about his hometown of Wallsend, a shipbuilding town in England, struggling to come to terms with economic change. He told me he felt the spirits of his parents onstage with him every night.
Sting, in real life, escaped that town and became a rock star. His show pulled him back in, and now, with the end of “The Last Ship,” he must be feeling some of the pain his hometown felt when the shipyards closed.
He was willing to go down with the ship.
My novel “Game World” has a new car smell.
I read in the New York Times that New York City police, in what some reports are calling an apparent work stoppage, have sharply cut down on their actions on the street, with parking and traffic tickets dropping more than 90 percent. This weekend, I went with my 12-year-old son to see “Selma” at the Magic Johnson theater on 125th street. I came out of the theater to a $35 traffic ticket.
The movie was worth the price of all the tickets I had to pay. In recent months, there has been a wide range of films in theaters with African-American themes–“Selma,” “Belle,” “Top Five,” and “Beyond the Lights” among them. None of the films has been a blockbuster at the box office, but “Belle” and “Selma” both have a shot at revenue-boosting Oscar nominations.
Several friends of mine have complained that some of the humor in “Top Five” is too crude for their tastes, but for the most part all of these films are the kinds of offerings that audiences, particularly moviegoers of color, have been hungering for Hollywood to make.
James Baldwin, in his collection, “The Price of the Ticket,” once wrote that “It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less.”
I think my son understood a little more about his own history after seeing “Selma.”
Now it’s time for more people to go see these projects so that studios will be encouraged to make more.
Just be careful where you park.
Check out my new novel “Game World.”
The long-time ESPN anchor passed away today at the age of 49.
We’ll remember his catchphrases–like “as cool as the other side of the pillow”–but he was more than the sum of his taglines.
One of hardest things to do in any medium is to speak in your own voice. There’s constant pressure to talk like everyone else, to speak in the corporate voice if you want to be heard and respected.
That’s not quite how Scott played the game.
What I admired about Scott–and what lots of people loved about him– is that he didn’t sound like every other broadcaster on ESPN.
But a lot of broadcasters now sound like him.
Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson said on ESPN today that, after he left football to become a commentator, Scott helped give him the courage to be himself on the air. “He was able to bring the hip hop culture, that urban feel to television sports broadcasting–something that’s never been done before–[and] gave me the hope that I didn’t have to be some corporate guy.”
I never thought of Scott as hip, let alone hip-hop, but he brought some of the flavor of the way people actually speak, some of the rhythms of the music many sports fans listen to, to sports broadcasting.
“He was a role model for me,” former NFL player turned broadcaster Cris Carter said today on ESPN. “He talked, on SportsCenter, like me and my friends talked.”
Lots of times, I turn on ESPN radio, and I hear about brothers on the court, but there are no black broadcasters talking about the action. Lots of times I turn on ESPN on TV, and I see brothers on the field, but I don’t see a single person of color giving their views about what’s going on.
In the book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” former ESPN executive Keith Clinkscales is quoted as saying “Sports journalism’s record on hiring minorities is abysmal, and network television’s record is abysmal.” He calls Scott getting vernacular on the air at ESPN one of black America’s “great cultural moments.”
Scott’s voice will be missed. He was much cooler than the other side of the pillow.
He was the other side of the story.
Please leave your thoughts about Scott in the comments.
Check out my new novel “Game World.”
“Downtown Abbey” is back–and I recently sat down with a star of the show to get a preview of the coming fifth season of the series.
“Downton Abbey” co-star Laura Carmichael stopped by the WSJ Café–that’s the arts and culture interview and performance series I run at the Wall Street Journal–to talk about what’s next for her character Lady Edith Crawley and other secrets of the show.
The show captures a period when the horse-and-buggy 1800s were giving way to the more technology-driven 1900s, and Lady Edith is at the center of that change, seeking out new roles for herself as a writer, a mother, and a member of a turbulent family. She’s arguably the most interesting character in the series, because she promises to show the most growth, and may prove to be the Crawley who is best suited for a new century of suffrage and superhighways. Plus, previews for the fifth season showed Lady Edith being overcome by a fire raging through Downton, so I had to find out what that was all about. And what’s the deal with Lady Edith’s baby daddy?
Watch a video of my chat with Carmichael.
The fifth season of “Downton Abbey” will premiere Sunday, January 4, 2015, on Masterpiece on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.
Check out my new book “Game World.”
In the 1989 sci-fi comedy “Back to the Future Part II,” Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) time-travels from 1985 to 2015 and finds that the future is filled cool stuff like hovering skateboards and flying cars.
Now, in real-life, 2015 has arrived but the flying cars and whatnot have not–and to some people it feels as if part of the future has slipped away as well.
It’s hard when a hoped-for future fails to materialize. The 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” featured Pan Am space flights to the moon for civilians. The real 2001 not only didn’t feature moon voyages for paying customers, it didn’t even feature Pan Am, which folded in 1991.
The truth is that the future is always there in front of us to be remade, reshaped, reimagined.
That’s part of the reason I launched this blog today, to have a platform to talk about the past, the present and the future of pop culture, and offer some perspective.
In many ways, the real 2015 features some things that are way better than the gizmos that McFly came across in the movie version.
Who needs a flying car when you’ve got the internet?
Sometimes the future you actually make can be better than the ones others imagined.
Check out my new novel “Game World.“
[Originally published in TIME magazine Monday, Sept. 17, 2001]
By Christopher John Farley
Bob Dylan is flipping through his own back pages. He has finally started writing an autobiography. It began as liner notes for rereleases of his back-catalog albums; he has finished about 200 pages, or perhaps 150–he’s not exactly certain. “My retrievable memory, it goes blank on incidents and things that have happened,” says Dylan. He has trouble, sometimes, remembering events from decades past, when he was conjuring up albums like Highway 61 Revisited and unleashing songs like Maggie’s Farm. So he is collecting anecdotes about himself that other people have told and weaving them into his narrative. Here’s the touch that’s pure Dylan: even if he knows a tale isn’t factual, if it sounds good, he’ll use it anyway. “I’ll take some of the stuff that people think is true,” he says, “and I’ll build a story around that.”
[Originally published in TIME magazine on Monday, Jan. 19, 1998]
By Christopher John Farley and James Willwerth/New Orleans
For some reason, I’ve sat here and prayed to the Lord for answers on why this is happening. Since Miss Babin took the stand, I knew I was gonna get found guilty. Down in my heart, I truly believe that the Gerardi family knew I didn’t do it, and I know I didn’t do it, the Lord knows, y’all know, my defense team knows, the State knows, and everyone else. But that’s not the answer. We will never get an answer as to why this is happening to us. But as I write this letter to you, I did not and will not shed a tear. So please don’t cry for me or over me. I must go because the Lord awaits me.”
–Shareef Cousin, in a letter to his family during jury deliberations at his murder trial