Connect with us

New York

Bo Burnham and the Possibilities of the Cinematic Selfie

Published

on

The quest for a personal cinema—for making films that reflect the first-person voice of a novel or an essay along with the gestural immediacy of a painting or a drawing—finds its apotheosis in directors turning the camera onto themselves. Filming oneself is a monologue, but filming oneself filming oneself creates a virtual dialogue, which is why reflexive cinema is the essence of modernity in movies. And, with film production sharply limited because of the pandemic, cinematic selfies were a natural thing to do the past year. Now, in the comedy special “Inside,” which dropped on Netflix on May 30th, Bo Burnham has made one—with fascinating but ultimately disheartening results.

The special’s premise is pandemic-induced isolation—the absence of public performance, the social distancing that has largely prevented film crews from gathering on sets. Burnham has previously directed live-performance films and the dramatic feature “Eighth Grade,” and he puts both his sense of form and his technique on display in “Inside,” which the head credits say he wrote, edited, shot, and directed—and did so, according to the end credits, in his house. The show is rooted in his songwriting and singing, alone, in the course of the year—and it suggests that he has spent the year confined at home. He doesn’t say the words “pandemic” or “COVID” or anything related, but he charts the passing of time, through the length of his hair and his beard. At the start, when he enters his long, narrow, trailer-like home through its low door, his hair is clipped, his face clean-shaven, his workspace clean and uncluttered; he then sings a song about a year spent sitting at home working on this very special (“writing jokes, singing silly songs . . . it’s a beautiful day to stay inside”), with his hair scruffy and long, and the area around his electronic keyboard hemmed in with cables, lights, and other equipment.

The song starts with him looking into the camera wearing an exotic-seeming headpiece—which eventually delivers a few moments of movie magic, in the form of a powerful beam of light that he streams from it and that, with a well-aimed tilt of his head, he targets at a disco ball rotating on his ceiling, turning his cramped home into a faux cornucopia of spectacle (which he mocks by referring to his work as “content,” singing the line “I made you some content”). He did this brief blast of wizardry himself, and he reveals—ever so slightly—how he did it, with snippets of a camera test and of other technical preparations showing himself in different outfits and different stages of hair and beard, suggesting the ongoing experimentation that went into his solo production. This brief early interlude is exemplary of the entire show: it conveys the idea of firsthand, first-person work but in a way that communicates only a bit of backstory and a slight, elusive sense of Burnham’s actual presence. His direction emphasizes the pictorial over the physical.

This is not to say that we see little of Burnham in the course of the show. He’s onscreen pretty much constantly throughout, and his topical songwriting, in the vein of a current-day Tom Lehrer, makes frequent reference to the very fact of his celebrity and its amplification online. Burnham is fixated on—or, perhaps, against—the Internet, at least in its current form. (He waxes nostalgic for how it used to be, in the late nineties—at times, he seems like Tom Lehrer meeting Andy Rooney.) The platforms and the codes of online existence are his primary target of commentary and satire, and the result is that a work about being “inside” feels neither inside nor outside but, rather, caught in an infinite sinkhole of discourse on discourse.

The spectre hovering over the current cinema is “Sullivan’s Travels,” from 1941, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges and starring Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan, a rich and successful comedy director who, embarrassed to be making comedies while the Depression still rages, is planning to direct a socially significant drama about poverty—a subject he has no experience of. In order to learn about the hard-knocks world that he plans to film, he (in a fictional plot that brings to mind the real production of “Nomadland”) takes to the road disguised as a hobo in order to mingle with real ones. In “Inside,” Burnham, like Sullivan, is driven by doubts about the value of comedy in troubled times. The show is a work of self-questioning and self-doubt, in which he takes to the screen with an air of self-deprecating guilt and proceeds to search for a way to redeem it. “A white guy like me who is healing the world with comedy . . . making a literal difference metaphorically,” he sings sardonically. He frets about the real calamities that his viewers might face—a fire at home, or the Ku Klux Klan in the street—and sarcastically offers, in response, to tell them a joke. He wonders, “Should I be joking at a time like this?” Yet he also mocks his presumptions to do good in his work, showing a Venn diagram in which he’s the intersection of Malcolm X and Weird Al Yankovic while praying to “channel Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side.’ ”

The self-deprecation of his virtuous intentions is a mere gesture of self-awareness, one that Burnham quickly waves away, in a scene that’s one of the most accomplished and provocative in the show: his impersonation of a children’s-show host singing a sentimental ditty about “how the world works,” in which every living thing “gives what they can and gets what they need” (an “Animal Farm”-like twist on Marx’s slogan about “from each” and “to each”). But Burnham then displays a white sock on his left hand—his puppet, Socko—who sings, to the same tune, a crucial corrective: the world is unjust, education is filled with whitewashing falsehoods, capitalism is predatory and bloody, the world works with “genocide” for the benefit of “the pedophilic corporate élite,” and a white guy like Burnham wrongly uses such political affirmations for his “self-actualization.” (The sequence ends with a whiplash-witty Möbius twist of politics and personae.) The other strongest sequence in “Inside”—not coincidentally, the other one that turns into a virtual dialogue through a cinematic trick of video self-multiplication—features Burnham singing a song on the subject of unpaid internships and then watching himself singing it while commenting on what he has sung. The loop runs long, and his commentary then becomes doubled, and then tripled, as he reacts on-camera to his previous on-camera reaction and explains that, in singing about “labor exploitation,” he’s trying to express “deeper meaning” and to be “seen as intelligent”—and then criticizes his own reflexive self-critique, adding, “Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.”

Absolution is the point, because Burnham is intent on doing good for the world, not merely for himself—while admitting that the special is essentially a matter of his own well-being. Burnham has been miserable, he says, about being “inside”; after a four-year hiatus from performing onstage (which, he says, he quit because of panic attacks), he was preparing, in January, 2020, to make his return—and then the pandemic happened. He is making his special as a desperate quest for emotional stability amid the crisis (which he doesn’t name), and with the hope that it will do for viewers what it did for him: “Distract me from wanting to put a bullet into my head with a gun.” (He later says that he does not intend to harm himself, and exhorts viewers not to kill themselves, either.) He says that he dreams of not finishing it, so that he can just keep himself busy by continuing to work on it; the show gives him something to do while he’s stuck inside.

It’s here that the show’s apparent self-revelation bumps up against its actual self-concealments. For the past year, people have been stuck working inside—except for the essential workers who have been working uninterruptedly, at whatever risk that entails, and for those who haven’t been able to work at all. Staying inside has been a largely class-based privilege; it has also been a basic mode of civic responsibility (people have been dying to see their friends, except for those who have never stopped doing so), and the Venn diagram that connects the privileged and the socially responsible is the demographic that’s targeted in “Inside.” Maybe a bunch of good laughs is enough to buoy Burnham and his viewers, but it wouldn’t be enough to burnish his self-image—or theirs.

That mutual self-selection is the underlying fiction on which “Inside” is based. In the course of the show, Burnham’s home studio gets filled with filmmaking equipment that wasn’t there in the first shot—how did it get there? He eats a bowl of cereal while working in the studio—where did he get it? Even if the entire production was made “inside,” it couldn’t have been made if the outside hadn’t somehow come in. Did he go and get his things or were they delivered to him, left at his doorstep, paid for online, giving him boxes of gear to unpack, food to make or heat or even just put on his shelf? There were friends and family to connect with somehow. (He does a song mocking his mother’s trouble using her cell phone for their FaceTime calls.) The end credits offer a dedication: “To Lor, for everything,” presumably a reference to his reported relationship with the writer and director Lorene Scafaria. Where was she while he was stuck inside? The part of Burnham’s life that he shows is narrowly confined to his working life, and a narrowly defined version of it at that—he displays finished products, with only a hint of the practicalities and efforts on which they depend, and with no sense whatsoever of everything material and emotional that his life was made of while he was doing the work.

In that sense, “Inside” isn’t so much about Burnham’s public image, much as it worries him; it’s instead an act of shaping that image. His caginess about the real-world specifics that he confronts while being inside is matched by a reticence about the substance of his life during the time he was working on “Inside.” The special provides the illusion of being a documentary-like record of its own production, but in the end it is merely a polished product of its own production. Nonetheless, “Inside” is an exemplary template, not only for the kind of movie that filmmakers and performers could and should have been making while standard productions were shut down but also for what can be done, beyond pandemic times, in the absence of a cinematic infrastructure that independent filmmakers can reliably access. “Inside” doesn’t merit comparison to the towering masterworks of personal cinema, such as Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” and Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film,” which offer perspectives of self-discovery and exploration far beyond Burnham’s narrow purview. But he deserves recognition for engaging in a mode of firsthand production more extreme—and extremely constrained—than what many filmmakers would dare.


New Yorker Favorites

New York

“Kevin Can F**K Himself” and “Feel Good” Rethink Relationship Comedy

Published

on

On paper, “Kevin Can F**K Himself,” a new meta-series on AMC, is a tempting stylistic cocktail—one part Jekyll, one part Hyde, garnished with a zesty feminist twist. Onscreen, it’s a bizarro centaur with a horse’s head and a man’s hairy ass: the concept is there, but the assembly is all wrong. Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a standard-issue sitcom wife living a multi-cam sitcom life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her dopey slob of a husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). For ten years of marriage, Allison has tolerated Kevin’s antics, which tend to involve guzzling booze, worshipping the Patriots, and evading all adult responsibility, but she’s finally had enough of the long-suffering shtick. She begins to dream of escape—stabbing Kevin in the jugular with a broken beer mug is one happy fantasy—and, as her thoughts turn dark, so, literally, does the show. The corny music drops out, and the bright studio lights dim to a bruised, greenish tinge, as if the camera had been dropped into olive brine. In sunny sitcom land, a laugh track yuks along to plots that revolve around, say, Kevin’s scheme to prank his killjoy boss at his and Allison’s “anniversa-rager.” In the gloomy grit of drama-ville, we watch as Allison Googles “perfect murder” at the public library and tries to finagle an opioid prescription in the hope that she can induce her husband to shuffle off his mortal coil by accidental overdose.

A dark pastiche of network sitcoms that avenges years of sexist sludge pumped into the American psyche by shows such as “Kevin Can Wait” (the callout is so direct that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, had been challenged to a duel): what’s not to like? The pastiche itself, for one thing. Playing with two genres, you potentially double the reward, but you also risk winding up with a sitcom drained of comedy and a drama stripped of power, not to mention sense. Far be it from me to suggest that Kevin, a lukewarm can of Bud Light in human form, deserves to live, but why opt for murder when divorce entails considerably less jail time? Allison offers up a jumbled grab bag of justifications for her desperate behavior. The truth is that she’s a pawn, not a character, freed from one set of absurd genre constraints only to become shackled to another.

A sitcom’s breezy rhythm is exacting—one missed beat and the whole thing goes splat. Here, the thud is the point. The show’s first episode opens in the McRobertses’ living room, where Kevin is playing beer pong with his doofus neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), as Kevin’s dad (Brian Howe) and Neil’s bullying sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, doing a Rosie O’Donnell thing), look on from the couch. When Allison enters, carrying a basket of laundry, she disrupts the fratty equilibrium; “Mom,” as Neil calls her, can’t hang. “Neil, what is our one house rule?” she asks, hoping he’ll apologize for the neg. “Yankees suck!” the group shouts in unison. The laugh track roars; Allison is crushed, and the air is briefly sucked from the scene. A sitcom wife wields her humor as both dagger and shield, doing domestic battle with a wink and a smile. But Allison is turned into another stereotype, the tedious, finger-wagging shrew. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang. Honey, don’t I believe it.

Maybe I’m not the right audience for this show, but who is? “Kevin Can F**K Himself” dissects a product that its target viewers likely already hold in contempt. The baseline of condescension is elevated, in the course of the four forty-five-minute episodes that I watched, by the show’s insistence that these working-class people—Kevin is a cable guy, Allison an employee at a liquor store—are not merely obnoxious and stupid but also bad. Kevin wages a war on the couple’s neighbors, “foreigners” whose favorite football team is Manchester United. Patty brags about getting a mailwoman deported. Presumably, we are meant to recoil in horror, not to pause and wonder at the likelihood of an undocumented person being employed by a federal agency in the first place.

Murphy had a big success playing Alexis Rose, the ditzy sister with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” a sitcom as sweet as “Kevin Can F**K Himself” is sour. She was nominated for a slew of Canadian Screen Awards, and won an Emmy in 2020. Still, comic actors often worry about proving their prestige, and it’s understandable that Murphy, who can crack up a room with a raised eyebrow, wanted to test herself with steelier stuff. But serious doesn’t have to mean no fun. Saddled with a bad wig of a Boston accent, her shoulders hunched in a posture of perpetual defeat, Murphy seems lost. This is supposed to be Allison’s show. Why does it feel like the joke is on her?

If you want to laugh without the assistance of a track, I suggest you hop on over to Netflix, where the second season of the underappreciated gem “Feel Good” has just been released. The series, which now totals twelve perfectly paced, gloriously funny half-hour episodes, was co-created and written by the Canadian comedian Mae Martin, who based the story on her own life and plays a version of herself.

Mae, an expat in London, is jittery, wiry, and waxy pale, with the sharp features and big eyes of an anime character and a boyish swoosh of cropped blond hair that makes her look like Peter Pan crossed with a baby chick. She’s thirty but, bundled in her oversized hoodie, could pass for a preteen. A macho Dane Cook type she meets at the comedy club where she does standup pegs her as “some sort of androgynous Muppet,” though she prefers “anemic scarecrow.” Strangers call her “sir,” and her girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), has Mae saved in her phone as “Corn.” (It’s the hair.) “I don’t really identify as a woman these days,” Mae jokes. How does she identify? “More like an Adam Driver or a Ryan Gosling. I’m still, like, working it out.” That deadpan waggishness is typical of the show’s low-key, anti-doctrinaire approach to the big questions of selfhood. “Feel Good” sends up a familiar brand of generational self-righteousness, but gently, with love.

In the first season, Mae and George meet at one of Mae’s sets. An ecstatic sequence has the couple kissing, screwing, and moving in together at the speed of a stop-motion flower unfurling from bud to bloom. The sex is hot, and often hilarious, but the intensity of the attraction papers over the pair’s compatibility issues. George has never dated a woman before, and her reluctance to come out to her snobby friend group eats at Mae’s confidence. Meanwhile, George learns that Mae is a recovering drug addict; when she was a teen, her parents (Adrian Lukis and a wonderfully imperious Lisa Kudrow) kicked her out of the house, and she wound up on the street, then in jail. Mae grudgingly agrees to join a support group, but, by the end of the season, she has relapsed, and the couple splits up.

The current season opens with Mae back at the rehab, outside Toronto, where she spent time in her youth. She has regressed, in more ways than one. Mae is suspicious of the contemporary tendency to classify feelings with a diagnosis. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam War vet,” she tells a doctor who suggests that she might have P.T.S.D. But she can’t explain why she sometimes needs to lie under the bed rather than on top of it, or why a ten-year period of her life has been wiped from her memory. The show, closing in on Mae’s past, demands that she reckon not only with the harm that has been done to her but with the more confusing question of her own complicity; two confrontations with sketchy dudes, with very different outcomes, are marbled with ambiguity. (Self-styled good guys are in for a tweaking, too. “Here’s a chapter on the link between the male orgasm and war crimes,” George is told by a male lover, who hands her a book called “Feminist Sexuality” after she confesses to a filthy fantasy involving priests and nuns.) Beneath the surface charms of this clever, entertaining series, Martin wants to show us how difficult it is to be a moral person, and how beautiful it is to try. ♦

Continue Reading

New York

The Rise of Black Homeschooling

Published

on

Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.

The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”

The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”

Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.

“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”

Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”

I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”

Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”

Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”

Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.

Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”

Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”

Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”

When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.

As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.

The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.

The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.

“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”

She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.

The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.

“You’ve been in child’s pose for almost three weeks. Just checking that everything’s O.K. . . .”
Cartoon by Becky Barnicoat

A mother, Jeanetta Riley, recounted how, at the beginning of lockdown, she had discovered that her daughter, Skye, a freshman in high school, was performing two grades behind in math. After she joined Bernita’s group, she found a tutor, and now, using Khan Academy, Skye had caught up to her grade level.

Continue Reading

New York

Touring Harlem, Then and Now, with Dawoud Bey

Published

on

The photographer Dawoud Bey, whose work is currently the subject of a tight and topical retrospective at the Whitney Museum, stood on a Harlem sidewalk the other day and peered into the window of a Wells Fargo branch. Pedestrians streamed around him in both directions. “This is the former location of Lenox Lounge,” Bey said, referring to the blues-and-jazz club that showcased Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. He watched someone use an A.T.M. inside and frowned. “It was a major social and cultural center,” he said. “But you would never know.”

Dawoud BeyIllustration by João Fazenda

Bey, who was born and raised in New York, was in town from Louisiana, where he is shooting photographs that explore the legacy of plantations; the Sean Kelly Gallery, in Hudson Yards, will show the images in the fall. His day’s itinerary included visits to personal monuments in a Harlem that is vastly different from the one he frequented as a struggling artist almost fifty years ago. “This is where all my formative experiences took place,” he said. He wore a sky-blue blazer, a black button-down, and white jeans.

His second stop was St. John’s Baptist Church, a red brick building on 152nd Street. “This is where my mom and dad met,” he said, and took a seat on the steps. “After service, we’d go across the street and spend some time with the McMillans.” He pointed to a nearby building and wove in and out of vivid narratives: his aunt Louise’s membership in the parish’s women’s group; a dubious dry cleaner whose store may or may not still be around the corner; and a friend of his parents named Jimmy who used to work there.

“A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater,” from 1976.Photograph © Dawoud Bey / Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery / Stephen Daiter Gallery / Rena Bransten Gallery

“Jimmy was always in the back,” Bey said with a laugh. “It didn’t take me long to realize that that’s where the real business was happening! The place was probably a numbers joint.”

As Bey reconstructed his memories, an older man wearing a plaid shirt and a flat cap exited the church. Bey asked him if he knew the McMillans.

The man said “Oh, yeah!” and introduced himself as the Reverend Dr. John L. Scott, a pastor at St. John’s. “I’ve been here forty-eight years now,” he said. Scott ran through the McMillan family tree, recounting their move to North Carolina twenty-five years ago, but then he got distracted by a teen-ager walking by in a shirt that said “A Bathing Ape.” “Hey, man!” Scott shouted. “What that shirt say?” Having snared the boy’s attention, Scott took the opportunity to spell out the benefits of organized religion. The boy gave a polite smile and walked away.

Next, an elderly woman named Delores Lee, who wore a hat adorned with rhinestones, walked up, and Scott urged Bey to share his memories of the McMillans.“Oh, yes, the McMillans,” Lee said, beaming. “They used to have the boys in one room and the girls in the other after Sunday school.”

“A Man in a Bowler Hat,” from 1976.Photograph © Dawoud Bey / Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery / Stephen Daiter Gallery / Rena Bransten Gallery

“That was beautiful,” Bey said, setting off to his next stop. “It’s nice to know some of that history is still alive.” On West 132nd Street, between Powell and Douglass Boulevards, his gait took on a determined quality. He was trying to find a spot where he had photographed someone forty-five years ago, when he was twenty-three. “It was the first image I shot that I actually liked,” he said. On his iPhone, he pulled up the picture, which is titled “A Man in a Bowler Hat,” and he scrutinized the windows of brownstones along the street for a potential match. No luck.

“I used to always try to be in Harlem on Sunday mornings,” he said, taking a breather on a stoop. “Because that’s when people were out. Church service always started around ten-forty-five, so I would try to be out here by ten o’clock.” He described how he’d had to overcome his shyness before he could ask the man in the bowler hat permission to take his photo. Then he took out his iPhone and posed for a photo of himself in front of an apartment building.

The last stop on the tour was the Loew’s Victoria Theatre, on 125th Street. Or, rather, what used to be the Loew’s Victoria. The site is now home to a twenty-eight-story tower containing apartments and a hotel, with room for arts and cultural spaces. In 1976, Bey shot an iconic photograph of a stylish young Black boy posed cockily in front of the theatre’s ornately tiled box office. The grand exterior is now mostly hidden behind a mess of construction tarps and scaffolding. Taking all this in, Bey charged across 125th Street, undeterred by the whoosh of traffic, to get a better view. He shook his head and peered at the neoclassical building front, flanked by Ionic columns, which anchored the new glass tower. “Well, at least they didn’t tear down the façade,” he said. ♦

Continue Reading

Trending

Copyright © 2017 Zox News Theme. Theme by MVP Themes, powered by WordPress.