11 Ways I Escaped Reality This Year
Our critic was haunted, in a good way, by the performances she saw in movies, theater and TV that offered glimpses into other worlds.
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By Salamishah Tillet
In a year when so much, including our democracy, felt topsy-turvy, I was drawn to entertainment that took me out of our real world to another realm. Be it the supernatural, the surreal, the spirit world, or just a superb performance: Here’s my list of 11 otherworldly movies, TV series, actors and plays that brought me joy and centeredness amid the chaos.
In Sam Gold’s take on “Macbeth,” I loved the lustful love story between Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, but is it weird to say that I also really dug the stew? When we entered the theater, the three witches, dressed in sweaters and jeans, were already onstage stirring their pot, and later they utter the lines that seal Macbeth’s fate. But at the end of the play, when everyone in the cast sits together and shares a bowl, this update, along with one of the witches (Bobbi MacKenzie) singing Gaelynn Lea’s ballad “Perfect,” enacted healing. It reminded me that despite the setbacks that befell the cast and our country, being alive and in the community of theater was something to celebrate. (Read our review of “Macbeth.”)
‘The Woman King’
With “The Old Guard,” the filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood proved she had the chops for a feminist superhero flick. But with the Viola Davis-led “Woman King,” she went epic in scale and story. She wove in the history of the Agojie, the all-female army in the West African kingdom of Dahomey; produced brilliant fight scenes with actors who performed their own stunts; and explored war, sexual assault and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Here, prophecy is protection, and though it is never named as such, the Dahomey religious practice of Vodun is a guide for Davis’s character, General Nanisca, as she prepares to take on enemies, foreign and domestic, and confront her own demons. (Read our review of “The Woman King.”)
Set at a strip club in Mississippi, the Starz series “P-Valley” is a “love letter to all women who are scrapping it out, but particularly for the Black women that I think a lot of people thumb their noses at, even Black folks,” according to its creator, Katori Hall. It is a sentiment channeled through the veteran dancer and aspiring gym owner Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and the up-and-coming Keyshawn (Shannon Thornton), who is trapped in her career and abusive marriage. But it is Hoodoo, the spiritual practice introduced to them by the club’s security guard Diamond (Tyler Lepley), that might save them. Based on the Season 2 cliffhanger, I’m hoping Diamond’s efforts worked or that he will be there to ward off evil spirits and people in the future. (Streaming on Starz.)
A coming-of-age tale told through four Indigenous teenagers — Elora, Bear, Cheese and Willie Jack — in the fictional town of Okern, Okla., “Reservation Dogs” masterfully pokes fun at Hollywood stereotypes and acknowledges the nuances of Native culture. While William “Spirit” Knifeman (Dallas Goldtooth) is a bumbling spirit guide who gives Bear unsound advice, he is also the counterpoint to ancestral “spirits” such as Elora’s grandmother or Daniel, a friend of the four teens whose suicide prompts them to leave their reservation (or at least attempt to). In the wonderfully rich ninth episode, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) seeks advice from her aunt and Daniel’s mother, Hokti, who is incarcerated. After Willie Jack makes an offering of Cheez-Its, Flaming Flamers chips and a Skux energy drink, Hokti (Lily Gladstone) reveals that the many spirits surrounding Willie Jack will help her in time. (Streaming on Hulu.)
‘The Piano Lesson’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’
Ghosts came in different forms this Broadway season. In her revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Piano Lesson,” LaTanya Richardson Jackson decided to literalize the ghost of the white slave owner, Sutter. Though we never see him, his haunting of the Charles family becomes all too real, making the family’s battles over a piano a deeper allegory of race, property and American history. Equally compelling is Miranda Cromwell’s revival of “Death of a Salesman,” whose all-Black family includes Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman and Sharon D Clarke as his wife, Linda. Willy’s older brother, Ben (André De Shields), is not just a ghost but a griot, too. Sporting a white cane, a white suit and bedazzled shoes, Ben plagues Willy with his success while his spirit beckons his younger brother to the other side. This infuses the play with a new sense of ambiguity, never justifying Willy’s final decision but adding a layer of empathy and compassion. (Read our reviews of “The Piano Lesson” and “Death of a Salesman.”)
Regina Hall showed her versatility this year with two wildly different performances. In Mariama Diallo’s horror movie “Master,” she plays Gail Bishop, who, as the first Black dean of a residence hall at the elite Ancaster College, must constantly contend with racism and its impact on her and on Black students. In Adamma Ebo’s comedy “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” she is Trinitie Childs, the wife of a disgraced Southern Baptist pastor (Sterling K. Brown) and a woman obsessed with climbing back to her former state of church glory. The way she evokes Trinitie’s pity, pettiness, petulance and pride gives this film its most memorable and haunting moments. (Read our reviews of “Master” and “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”)
The cinephile in me was pleasantly surprised that Jordan Peele’s “Nope” was a movie about movies. Peele not only pays homage to early film and photography technologies, and the suspense and terror brought on by Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Jaws,” but he also does so while remembering those African Americans whose early contributions to the motion picture industry have been forgotten or ignored. Thanks to Peele’s clever writing, creative directing and smart casting of his frequent collaborator Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) as well as the magnanimous Keke Palmer, this movie about gentrification, U.F.O.s and racial discrimination ended up being just an old-fashioned, feel-good movie, the kind we still desperately need. (Read our review of “Nope.”)
‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’
It was a bold move to follow up on a sci-fi classic starring David Bowie as an extraterrestrial. Rather than compete with such memorable casting, Showtime’s 10-episode series “The Man Who Fell to Earth” humanized its protagonist, Faraday (Chiwetel Ejiofor), by doubling his outsiderness: He arrives in the United States as both an alien and a Black man. In an electrifying sixth episode on jazz music, Faraday and other characters discover a sound of their shared humanity and a possible key to salvaging both of their planets. (Streaming on Showtime.)
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
I can’t stop raving about this movie — the costumes, the makeup, the editing (oh, the editing!). The fight scenes, the I.R.S. scenes. The marvelous Michelle Yeoh, playing the laundromat owner and cosmic warrior Evelyn Wang, and Stephanie Hsu, playing her disenchanted daughter, Joy. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who work under the name Daniels, have said that this is mostly a film about the confusion that arises when its characters believe they are in different movie genres from one another. I also admire how this genre diversity (thriller, sci-fi, martial arts, domestic drama) perfectly captured expansive cultural identities (immigrant narratives, Asian American families, queer children) and the depth of our earliest love story (between mother and daughter) — all of which still seem to be unmined in Hollywood. (Read our review of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”)
Brian Tyree Henry
The surreal TV series “Atlanta” started off focused on the Princeton dropout (Donald Glover) who became his rapper cousin’s manager, but in its final season it was mainly about the rapper, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and his journey to define himself beyond the trappings of fame, wealth or the music industry. His textured performance gave Alfred more emotional depth as his character confronted feral hogs, white privilege in hip-hop and his own mortality. Henry’s onscreen brilliance led Lila Neugebauer to rewrite and reshoot key scenes in her debut film, “Causeway,” now on Apple+, devoting more time to the friendship between his character and Jennifer Lawrence’s. The result is a moving portrait of grief and hope, in which Henry lights up the film. (Read our review of “Causeway.”)
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