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When I started this job roughly nine months ago, the task before me felt at once exciting and herculean. I am a completist with a background in books and constantly evolving tastes in film and television. In previous jobs, I usually wrote about things that piqued my interest. I was leery of making sweeping claims or doling out hot takes. So, for my first assignments at The Hollywood Reporter, I found myself occasionally hiding behind citations and scholarly language to mask a creeping fear (not, I soon learned, unique to me) of expressing completely unvarnished thoughts. I approached each essay or review with as much trepidation as curiosity.
It took a few months for me to realize the beauty of my role — to embrace its amorphous nature and reorient accordingly. I sought out the recommendations of other critics and scholars, fans and haters alike and shamelessly gorged on films, television shows, visual art projects and music to not just grow my base of knowledge but also further explore my own preferences and predilections. In a painfully taxing year, this elementary approach to culture — figuring out what I loved, what I liked and what wasn’t for me — became a balm. I emerged with a deeper appreciation of what counts as culture (nearly everything) and new ways to read it.
Below is a list of projects, in alphabetical order, that moved me, stretched my imagination and pushed me to embrace different ways of seeing.
Two years into a pandemic that has unearthed new levels of anxiety and exhaustion, I’ve pivoted from astrology to affirmations. Specifically, @afffirmations, an Instagram account whose garish posts disrupt more conventional uses of the platform. Positive declarations like “I will not self-diagnose” or “I will not die while scrolling” paired with, say, an image of Kim Kardashian (the former) or the TikTok star Khabane Lame (the latter) cheekily spoke to the atrophied brains of the perpetually online and commented on sad conditions of modern life. Yet there’s a satisfying earnestness to these messages, which offer alternative ways of reading the present that I ultimately found comforting.
Directed by Moses Sumney, this hour-long concert film (now available on YouTube) features Sumney and his band performing songs from his first two albums, græ and Aromanticism, against the vast expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. The lack of a live audience stretches the film’s purpose, transforming it into a study of how loneliness and isolation can provide space for profound self-exploration. “Majestic,” “euphoric” and “aching” were all words that came to mind as I watched Sumney, surrounded by verdant hills and under the gaze of a piercing blue sky, belt his notes into the landscape and writhe his body in the soil.
Lucas Hnath’s harrowing one-woman play takes as its source material interviews conducted with his mother, Dana Higginbotham, a psych ward chaplain who was abducted and tortured for five months by a man we only know as Jim. Deidre O’Connell delivered a gripping performance that made this show (which ended its Broadway run at Lyceum Theater in November) one of the best I saw all year.
High on the Hog
Based on the groundbreaking book of the same name by Jessica B. Harris, this four-part Netflix docuseries offers a brief but illuminating examination of the history of African American cuisine. Hosted by the charismatic Stephen Satterfield, the show opens with a gracious tour of Benin before making its way through Black communities in parts of Texas, South Carolina, New York and other American locales. There’s a delightful focus on the different ways food nourishes Black people around the world, allowing them to connect their pasts to their presents and unwritten futures.
LOUD: The History of Reggaeton
Created by Spotify and Futuro Studios, this ten-episode podcast series is an impressive feat of oral history and cultural commentary. Hosted by the legend Ivy Queen, LOUD chronicles the origins of reggaeton, starting with its Panamanian roots and tracing it to the underground clubs of Puerto Rico and the streets of New York. As one of the genre’s progenitors (and one of the few women working in it), Queen provides invaluable insights into reggaeton’s ascension to mainstream popularity. Did I mention that she’s hilarious, too?
Love Life (Season 2)
The second season of Sam Boyd’s HBO Max anthology series follows Marcus Watkins (William Jackson Harper) as he stumbles through post-divorce romantic life in New York. It’s a sweet, charming, funny set of episodes further buoyed by Harper’s chemistry with Jessica Williams, who plays one of Marcus’s love interests, Mia Hines. I came to Love Life late, but I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
Ayamma (Sandra Okuboyejo) wants to be a star, so when she gets the chance to audition for a role in a new film by Nollywood’s most popular director, Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III), she jumps at the opportunity. Joycelyn Bioh’s hilarious off-Broadway play chronicles Ayamma’s journey and the fierce competition between her and industry veteran Fayola (Emana Rachelle). Directed by Saheem Ali, the show (which ended its run at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in November) glittered with sharp jokes, impressive performances and a dazzling set.
notes towards becoming a spill (2021)
This experimental opera by the artist Shikeith was — and this is no overstatement — one of the most moving performances I have ever seen in my life. Staged on Rockaway Beach in New York for two days during sunset in October, notes towards becoming a spill is a beautiful investigation of Black masculinity and a mesmerizing study in spiritual music (composed by Rashad McPherson), ecstatic movement (choreographed by Morgan Bobrow-Williams) and exquisite costuming (designed by Carlos Soto). The four-act show is also a coming-of-age story — a rapturous tale of a Black man, whose history is marked by American colonialism, becoming.
Haile Gerima’s electrifying film technically came out 28 years ago, but thanks to a partnership between the Ethiopian filmmaker’s company Mypheduh Films and Ava Duvernay’s Array, it’s now widely available on Netflix. The gripping tale of Mona, a vain model who, while on a photo shoot in Ghana, finds herself transported to the past and living as a slave, recasts enslaved people’s history as one of resistance and not passivity. The scrupulous editing style and liberating nonlinear storytelling are marvelous, but it’s how languages and dialects are used to help us understand the characters’ relationship to rebellion that makes Sankofa unforgettable.
We Are Lady Parts
Amina Hussein (Anjana Vasan), the protagonist of Nida Manzoor’s excellent Peacock series, spends more time with microbes than people. So it’s funny when she becomes the newest member of Lady Parts, an all-woman Muslim punk rock group in London. The tightly conceived six episodes offer a sharp and warm rendering of sisterhood, religion and the making of a kick-ass band. During another year of isolation, Manzoor’s absorbing tale served up a tender reminder of how community keeps us afloat and alive.
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