Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): The other day, I went to “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, which reexhibited collected works from the gallery Just Above Midtown, or JAM. Organized and led by multimedia artist and gallerist Linda Goode Bryant between 1974 and 1986, JAM was a self-described laboratory for and by Black artists, who were given total creative control when working with Goode Bryant. The art featured in the MoMA retrospective is in turn innovative, beautiful, and sometimes strikingly labor intensive. I took a long time walking through the rooms of the exhibition, absorbing the breadth of the work on display. Howardena Pindell’s bricolage of individually painted hole-punches fixed to a canvas with string and adhesive, Senga Nengudi’s hanging sculptures of nylon stockings filled with sand (“reminiscent of both breasts and testicles”), and David Hammons’s designs made from paper pulp and hair represent only a fraction of the diverse media and subject matter in the collective’s work.
The exhibition is also forthright about how funding was a constant challenge for JAM: One wall is papered over with all of the overdue bill statements Goode Bryant received over the gallery’s life, which she had kept in storage since its closing. At another point, the curators pair a timeline of JAM’s debts and evictions with MoMA’s asset accrual and expansion. The exhibition offers a view into what was possible, artistically and communally, thanks to the ambition and labor of JAM’s artists. It also encouraged me to imagine what the art world could have been had JAM received institutional backing and kept its doors open through the 90s and into the 2000s. This exhibition is on view until February 18th; if you’re in or passing through New York, definitely go check it out!
Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Last Sunday, JC Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel staged an intervention with me, her husband, and a couple of our friends, all former theater kids of one stripe or another: None of us had seen the movie Fame, and this had to be fixed right away. Fame, released in 1980, is set at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, a prestigious public conservatory then located in the city’s theater district; the movie was a big enough hit that in the years after its release, the high school was nicknamed “the Fame school.” I was expecting high camp: ballerinas bashing each other’s kneecaps, voice teachers undermining their most talented students. Instead, Fame turned out to be a beautifully made, hyperkinetic but almost understated love letter to arts education.
Fame is full of pathos, of course: There are dancers in an interracial love triangle, a babushka-wearing Jewish mother who doesn’t want her actress daughter to change her name from Doris to Dominique, a sad clown of a repressed young homosexual who lives alone in a neon-soaked Broadway apartment while his mom flies to Hollywood to make pictures. The students’ senior year melodrama includes an actor named Ralph Garcie turning his bottled-up insecurity and rage into a rapid rise and fall as a standup comic.
But the film’s nervous system is made up of its scenes of rehearsal and performance, from its hilarious opening audition montage to Irene Cara, who, in a breakout role, pounds out her ballad “Out Here on My Own” on the piano. (Cara passed away late last year; sadly, one of the film’s other brightest stars—Gene Anthony Ray, who plays the defiant, lovable dancer Leroy Johnson—struggled with addiction and died of AIDS complications in 2003.) One of the best sequences in the movie takes place at a packed screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show—no drama unfolds, it’s just theater kids having fun.
Mari Cohen (associate editor): Nearly a decade since the explosive debut of season one of Serial, the genre of the narrative journalism podcast has begun to seem almost like a cliché. There can be no doubt that the market is oversaturated, and that the proliferation of true-crime imitations is not just annoying but arguably harmful. Still, I continue to find certain facets of the form intriguing—namely, the way the figure of the host makes visible the journalist as a character in the reporting process, signaling to the listener that the findings are being channeled to us through a specific individual. Of course, the extent to which this is true varies—plenty of podcast and radio hosts play the “neutral” straight man—but at the very least, hearing the host’s voice, and their participation in conversations with sources, reminds us that they, too, are a persona in the story, rather than some omniscient authority hovering above.
The “Trojan Horse Affair,” Serial’s fourth season, released about a year ago, plays on this dynamic to great effect. The story begins with Hamza Syed, a doctor-turned-journalism-student, on a quest to report on the provenance of the Trojan Horse letter, a mysterious letter that turned up on the desks of Birmingham, UK officials in 2014 professing to be the communication between two Islamists plotting a takeover of local schools. The letter seemed like an obvious hoax, but it still spurred a series of investigations and interventions that led to the rollback of a number of reforms that had made Pakistani Muslim students more successful in public schools. It also prompted changes to British counterterrorism policy that disproportionately targeted Muslims and other minorities. Hamza, himself a British Pakistani Muslim living in Birmingham, is disturbed by the extent to which this bogus letter prompted so much outrage and policy change, and hopes that if he can uncover where the letter actually comes from, he might persuade British politicians and journalists to reconsider their response. Syed manages to enlist Brian Reed, a white American reporter known for the successful Serial productions podcast “S-Town,” to take on the story with him.
More interesting than what Hamza and Brian do find is what they don’t find. While they turn up compelling evidence that the Trojan Horse letter may have been written by a peculiar school head teacher desperate to turn attention away from her own misconduct, their efforts to fully grasp why the Birmingham City Council and UK Parliament ignored this obvious link is mostly futile. The answer is maddening and illuminating in its banality: It’s a lot easier for even well-meaning officials to fall in line behind an Islamophobic status quo than to commit to doing due diligence. No one in charge can really explain why they didn’t try harder to get it right, because no good answer really exists. Along the way, throughout their multiple years of reporting, Syed and Reed’s reporting partnership—and their charming “buddy comedy” dynamic—showcases the tensions between two diverging approaches to journalism. Reed, despite his stature in new media, hews closest to traditional journalistic “objectivity.” He never wants to make assumptions about what he’s going to find, and he’s in it for the “good story.” Any impact his story makes is just icing on the cake. Hamza, meanwhile, finds it impossible to divorce his approach to the story from his own experiences of racism and Islamophobia. How can he not have certain suspicions about where the story is headed, he wonders, or frustrations with certain sources? And if his reporting is not going to make an impact, what’s the point of doing it at all? It’s intriguing to hear Brian admit that that impact is not his primary motivator—and that, until now, he hasn’t had to think much about what is. The podcast reveals Brian to be a sharp, dogged, likable reporter, and one obviously, at times, emotionally caught up in the work. Could he really not be politically invested in what his story might do in the world? Or does he just not want to admit that he is?
Major NYTimes investigations and smash-hit podcasts are known for often provoking real change. But the aftermath of the release of the “Trojan Horse Affair” has been anticlimactic. Rather than consider its own damaging role in the original scandal, the British press has doubled down, running hit pieces on the podcast. Local journalists have mostly declined to pick up on the reporting, and politicians who came off looking shady in the podcast are mostly back to their regular posts. The primary school head teacher who was implicated as a potential author of the hoax letter is still at work—it’s unclear if anyone even tried to interview her after the podcast came out. A few months after the release of the podcast, Hamza admitted to Vulture that this was disappointing: “My motivations are at the level of the politicians. To make them face stuff. And if something I do has no bearing on them, then I’ll always be in some form of mourning regardless of the collateral benefit it brings, because it means we continue to have the same people in charge of us.”
I can relate. Often enough, the reporting work I do fails to produce real accountability. I can point out when institutions and politicians are engaging in harmful behavior and expose contradiction after contradiction, but often enough, these actors’ reputations and credibility remain largely unscathed, the status quo weighing heavily on their side. Does it matter if you keep trying to scream the truth if no one’s listening? Hamza, at the end of the podcast, expresses doubt that he wants to continue in journalism, if this is what it’s like. For now, though I’m still here, doing my best to nudge the rock up the hill.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): This year’s New York Jewish Film Festival started yesterday and will be running through January 23rd. Here are some highlights:
I usually enjoy the challenge of keeping my weekly recommendations under 500 words—my version of an Oulipian constraint, like Georges Perec writing a novel without using the letter E. But to properly treat Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s breathtakingly original film Charlotte Salomon: Life and the Maiden, I would have to explode this limitation. Instead, I will simply say that this film brilliantly blends period movie footage with Salomon’s masterwork, Life? or Theatre?—a series of hundreds of paintings she made about the story of her family and of her love for her stepmother’s singing teacher. These works, which included dialogue painted onto the images, serve as a kind of animated telling of the story; in the film, selections of her words are read by some of France’s greatest actors.
The Polish director Krzysztof Lang’s March ’68 is a love story between two students, the tale of the 1968 Polish student protest movement against censorship, and finally, a recounting of the horrific antisemitic campaign carried out by an ostensibly socialist country in the wake of the Six-Day War of the previous year. Lang braids the stories together with great skill. Hania, the aspiring actress at the film’s center, is the daughter of a neurosurgeon who loses his post because he is a Jew, despite having hidden his identity. She is also actively involved in the protests that arose after the censoring of a play by Poland’s national writer, Adam Mickeiwicsz. Hania’s love interest, Janek, is the son of a colonel in the country’s security forces, who is a key player both in crushing the student protests and in executing the campaign against the few remaining Jews in Poland. Lest anyone think director Lang is exaggerating the antisemitism of the time, in the background we can see and hear anti-Jewish speeches given by supporters of the government—and even from Władysław Gomułka, the head of state. March ’68 is an important history lesson.
Amanda Kinsey’s Jews of the Wild West is not great cinema, but it does tell a story that is not very well-known: that of Jews who settled in the American West. Though some of the stories it tells are fairly familiar—like those of Levi Strauss and of Josephine Marcus, the wife of the lawman Wyatt Earp—it also features forgotten figures like Bronco Billy Anderson, a Russian Jew who starred in the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. Kinsey interviews ranchers, rabbis, historians, and descendants of settlers in the West, who provide a loving picture of this alternative to life in the slums of New York and Chicago.
It’s impossible not to be captivated by the 11 minutes of the uncredited Yiddish film Jewish Life in Lvov, made up of simple street scenes shot in that Polish city shortly before the war. It’s a nothing of a film that history turned into a heartbreaking document. When it was made, it was just a sentimental reminder of the old world—within a decade, that world was no more.