I don’t have a long preamble for this. This list is just my way of trying to pull together a lot of disparate pop culture moments that struck me in some profound way during the year. I think the more you engage with pop culture the more it can feel like you’re always having the same conversations, with the same people, in the same way. So when something disrupts that monotony, frustrates the dominant ways we think and talk about our relationship to one another, I think it’s important.
Here are the 13 moments this year that made me sit up and look at the world just a little bit differently.
Somewhere during the back 9 episodes of Season One of Arrow, the show became the best superhero television show of all time. What started as an episodic exploration of a man’s desire to right his father’s wrongs eventually evolved into a really sharp deconstruction of what it really means to be a hero. There were consequences to Oliver’s violence and his secrets. He didn’t actually stop the Big Bad by the end of Season One and the repercussions of that loss are felt in ways great (those who survived in the Glades are pissed) and small (Moira’s trial) in Season Two. It’s a show of remarkable depth, tight plotting and really fine acting from the entire cast.
2. ‘The Best Man Holiday”s treatment of its black female characters and respect for black male emotion
On the surface, The Best Man Holiday is a sprawling, slightly unwieldy, gift to Black audiences that adored the first movie. The film did a remarkable job of making this feel like watching the same characters we love 15 years later. It made sense to me that Jordan and Robin wouldn’t have necessarily gotten close just because Robin and Harper married. It made sense to me that even though the characters had matured and grown, that some essential traits and insecurities (particularly among the men) would remain.
But what I most appreciated about the film was that it did a really good job fleshing out the Black women characters that were largely ciphers or archetypes in the first film, which did not in anyway diminish the film’s matter-of-fact depiction of complicated Black male emotions. It was important that Jordan realized her knee-jerk “I don’t [need you]” response to Brian was really about her fear of intimacy not an expression of her workaholic nature. It was incredibly important that Malcolm Lee gave Mia that moment toward the end where she articulates that she slept with Harper knowing full well that it would be the thing that would hurt Lance the most. It matters that, in that moment, she stops being this thing between the two male leads and becomes a woman with a history and agency of her own. And it was incredibly important to be reminded that the heart and soul of these films is the deep connection between two Black men who love one another. Watching Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut, in particular, getting to play these subtle (and sometimes big) emotional beats that they’ve never had the opportunity to play before was overwhelming and powerful. If you didn’t tear up when Harper runs to Lance at the gravesite, I don’t know what to tell you.
3. Beyoncé’s decision to release her album without any warning
Beyoncé is not an artist that has the luxury of getting people to really enjoy her work without all the mess of Beyoncé The Cultural Force. I can imagine how, for her, that can feel like people never really even get to hear her as she intends. So I love that she made this boss move to record an album (and shoot videos for every track) in secret and then release it without any advance publicity. It is really the only way any of us would be able to listen to the album without any industry hype affecting how we react. The album itself, messy and inconsistent as every album since Dangerously in Love, is really beside the point. The reactions, the conversations, the debates, borne from people trying to grapple with what the work is trying to convey, is.
4. Earl Sweatshirt’s recognition that rape culture is not an abstraction
In a year when a lot of attention was paid to violent and misogynistic black men like Chris Brown and R. Kelly, I don’t know that enough attention was paid to Earl Sweatshirt’s really beautiful interview in the August issue of GQ. In that interview, he talks about the way seeing a young girl who had been raped changed how he approaches the themes in his music. And, not surprisingly, that recognition of a woman’s humanity helped him to be more open about, and aware of, his own humanity and all the things that plague him. Doris is a profoundly sad listening experience – it actually reminds me more of Nirvana than hip-hop – but there’s a clarity of purpose and self-awareness that is powerful. Earl is only 19. It’ll be interesting to see what he’ll be creating at 25. And 30. And 35.
5. ‘Fruitvale Station”s focus on Oscar Grant’s humanity, not his symbolic importance.
We don’t have enough Black movies that take for granted the humanity of black people. That are about race and yet about more than race. That just tell a story about Black people goin about their daily lives. What’s brilliant about Fruitvale Station is that rather than trying to situate Oscar Grant’s murder in the systemic, it chooses to reconstruct that last day of his life so that you understand why his murder matters. Yes, it’s about a system that doesn’t give a damn about Black life, but it’s also about what our lives are really like. Predictably, Fruitvale Station‘s luster has dimmed a bit in the five months since it was released the same week that the Zimmerman trial was winding down, I think partly because a lot of Americans just aren’t all that interested in the minutiae of Black life and humanity. And that’s a large part of the reason I think Ryan Coogler’s decision to tell the story this way is the most radical, insurgent film choice of the year. Oscar Grant and all the brothers like him are more than a statistic.
6. Jennifer Lewis’s powerful speech about purpose at the ‘Baggage Claim’ premiere
SO many quotables here.
Listen, Jenifer Lewis is a national treasure. And that was never more clear than when she took the mic at the Baggage Claim premiere and gave a sermon about passion, drive, hard work, and – most importantly – the reality of how HARD it is for Black folks to make it in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. What’s is most striking to me about this moment is that it’s not really a “bootstraps” point she’s making. It’s about how your passion should make you want to do all that it takes to succeed, because the passion itself is the point. There are no shortcuts if you really love it. “Your job is to do the work!”
Season Three of Lost Girl aired at the beginning of 2013 and it remains one of my favorite television shows of the year. Bo fell in love with Lauren and it was every bit as emotional as her relationship with male werewolf detective Dyson. And, interestingly, the show began to deal with what it means that Bo is a succubus and, over the course of that story, found really interesting ways to explore female (sexual) power and our anxiety about it. The storyline gave everyone more to play from Dyson resigning himself to the loss of Bo, to Kenzie’s own ambivalence about Bo’s power and her thirst for power of her own, to Hale’s struggle to be acting ash of the Light Fae and still be friends with the team. If Lost Girl keeps mining rich emotional and philosophical terrain in Season Four, it’ll rightfully join Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica as one of the best genre shows of all time.
8. Lupita Nyong’o in ’12 Years A Slave’
It’s true that this film is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s. But it is Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsy who stayed with me long after the film was over. Her work was so incredibly detailed and lived-in that it was sometimes hard to watch. It was through her experiences that we really understand the extent to which the system of slavery was immoral. Slave narratives to date have almost exclusively focused on the experience of Black men, but Steve McQueen wisely chose to make Patsy almost a co-lead and, as a result, tell a fuller story about the horrors of American chattel slavery. I certainly hope a Black woman’s slave narrative gets made into a film next.
9. Mister Cee, Breeze and Funkmaster Flex discuss Black male sexuality on Hot 97
As I said in my essay at the time, it bothered me tremendously that people (especially black queer/SGL/gay men) missed that this was one of the most profound expressions of Black male love and mutual respect that we’ve seen in a long time, particularly in hip-hop. For 30 minutes, Breeze and Flex show Mister Cee tremendous care, empathy, love and compassion as he grapples with how to define his sexuality and how to go about living his life as he chooses. We don’t have language for how Black men who are non-heterosexual engage with sexuality and we certainly don’t have language for any man who has a particular attraction to gender non-conforming men. That the dominant discourse pretends that “gay” can encompass all of this is absurd. I still hope someone helps Cee see this because it’ll make it a lot easier for him, I think. Either way, this conversation between these remarkable Black men was yet another example of why the dominant beliefs about what Black people support and don’t support when it comes to sexuality is just. wrong.
10. ‘The Originals’ shifting anti-hero structure
There’s been a lot of conversation about the shifting focus of The Originals, from Klaus to Elijah to Rebekah, as if this choice dilutes the power of the narrative. I’m not so sure that’s true. I think the point is to remind us that all three of these people, though sympathetic in their own ways, are still villains. We are supposed to be constantly aware that we are experiencing the story from the bad guys’ perspective, not the heroes. At best, the Original Family is made up of anti-heroes. I quite like the strangeness of this approach. I like that this means I never really know what Marcel is up to – and whether or not I should support him or the Originals. And it gives everyone so much fun stuff to play. It’s worth noting that in just 10 episodes The Originals already feels like an entirely different show from its parent show, The Vampire Diaries, and is a bit more forthright and honest about race (though it could improve a lot on that last point).
11. The re-imagining of the relationship between Lois and Superman in ‘Man of Steel’
I didn’t love Man of Steel as a whole, but the one thing I thought worked really well in the film was that Lois was an active participant in the narrative. And as a result, the relationship between her and Superman was almost an afterthought. This Lois tracks Superman down to the Fortress of Solitude, writes the story blowing his spot up (though it doesn’t run), and then plays a vital role in the third act win over Zod and the Kandorians. The dynamic actually plays up something that has always been a running thread in the comics – that Lois is the aggressor, the pursuer in the relationship. It was incredibly fun to watch, even as the film itself collapsed under its own dour weight.
12. “Seven Fifty-Two”, Guillermo Diaz’ showcase episode of Scandal
I stopped watching Scandal after the end of the Defiance story arc because I found the plot driven nature of the show (at the expense of character consistency and nuance) to be incredibly frustrating. But I definitely had to jump back in for Seven Fifty-Two, which was Guillermo Diaz’ big Huck episode. We learned a lot about Huck that helped us understand why he (along with Mellie) is the only true human being who makes a lick of sense on this show. And we also learned a bit about what it must be like to give yourself over to causes bigger than you, causes run by people who cannot be controlled or policed. It’s amusing, if predictable, that Diaz hasn’t gotten any award recognition despite giving consistently what is easily the best performance on the show.
13. ‘Veronica Mars’ and Spike Lee Kickstarter success
There was a lot of hand-wringing about whether or not established stars with connections in Hollywood “need” Kickstarter and whether or not it was “fair” that we consumers have to pay for stuff we want to see. I’m sympathetic to these arguments, but I do think it’s worth admitting that large institutions aren’t always conducive to a variety of voices, even voices it supports in other more controlled contexts. Studios are not interested in funding Spike Lee all that much anymore because despite the fact that he’s a respected voice most of his films haven’t made any money. Studios have no way of knowing if the audience that watched Veronica Mars, rabid, but small, would turn out for a feature film nearly a decade after the show ended prematurely. So if people want to support this stuff so that they have more of what they’d like to see out in the world, I think that’s a good thing. I look forward to both these films and I do look forward to seeing Kickstarter fund other projects like it and the smaller ones that we aren’t necessarily all talking about.
UPDATE – Also, Taye Diggs WINS Vine
Can’t believe I forgot about Taye’s hilarious vines all year.