Slate's Culture Blog

Jan. 23 2015 10:33 AM

The Nightly Show Feels Fresh and Exciting, Even Though Its Structure Is Anything But

One week in, The Nightly Show, the new Comedy Central news series hosted by Larry Wilmore, feels both necessary and obvious—a fix for the enormous hole in the roof that’s been leaking into your living room for years and years. Wilmore, the longtime “Senior Black Correspondent” on The Daily Show, took over Stephen Colbert’s time slot on Monday night, seated in front of a map of the world turned upside down. Each episode of The Nightly Show has a theme: the state of black protest, Bill Cosby, Obama’s State of the Union, and Cuba filled out the opening week. Wilmore begins with a Daily Show/Colbert Report-style comedic monologue on the central subject, before segueing into a Politically Incorrect-style panel discussion on the same topic, with guests like (so far) Corey Booker, Talib Kweli, David Remnick, plus a handful of comedians to keep things punchy. The panelists then stick around to participate in the show’s final segment “Keep It 100”— as in “keep it 100 percent real.” Wilmore asks them to truthfully answer a tough question, or otherwise be showered in “weak tea,” a highly entertaining exchange that bears some resemblance to “Plead the Fifth,” a recurring bit on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live.

As a host, Wilmore positions himself as a straight talker. Keeping it 100 is the goal of every part of every episode. Wilmore says exactly what he means, wringing humor not so much from jokes as from honesty.

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Jan. 23 2015 9:30 AM

How Accurate Is American Sniper?

On Feb. 2, 2013, former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas, while attempting to help fellow veteran Eddie Ray Routh. He had gained notoriety during the Iraq war—with 160 confirmed kills out of a possible 255, Kyle remains the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Almost two years later, actor-director Clint Eastwood has transformed the 2012 memoir American Sniper from a best-seller into a box-office hit.

Controversy over Kyle’s credibility casts doubts over the film, however—claims that he engaged in a bar fight with former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, sniped looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and killed two carjackers all remain unsubstantiated. (The first was the subject of a $1.845 million defamation lawsuit Ventura brought and won against Kyle.) This, coupled with a New Yorker piece exploring Kyle’s tendency for embellishment, may make audiences ask: Does Eastwood’s American Sniper stick to the narrative as presented by Chris Kyle or to the known facts—or does it blend the two?

The answer is not an easy one. More than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life. Questionable episodes (including those mentioned above) are excised. Eastwood de-emphasizes training and non-Iraq sequences to grant profound breathing room to a handful of military operations, building a film around Kyle’s tense decisions to pull the trigger or grant mercy. What emerges is a morality tale—one that, unlike the memoir, reflects on what simmers beneath the surface. Below, I probe the film’s key moments for inaccuracies.

Jan. 23 2015 8:04 AM

How to Feed Your Children Shellfish

This post originally appeared on Food52.

There is a long list of foods no child would ever eat that this column has told you to feed your children. Let’s not relive all the failures right now. Let’s just acknowledge it is possible that your children now live at a separate address with an intercom system. Or that they have installed parental controls that prevent your computer from accessing this site. Or that they now distrust everything you put before them and eat nothing but cereal without milk, because who knows what you have done to the milk.

But if all members of the family are still on speaking terms, then it is time for shellfish.

Because I am exceptionally dense, I have always thought that shellfish should be on the kids' menu. Right after grilled cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, the menu should read: a dozen mussels. (If the kids eat the whole dozen, they get the shells to take home for the sandbox.)

As far as I can tell, after an exhaustively non-scientific survey, there are a couple of objections to this plan.

Jan. 22 2015 9:29 PM

Pete Doherty’s “Flags of the Old Regime” Is a Raw, Poetic Tribute to Amy Winehouse

The friendship between Amy Winehouse and Libertines frontman Pete Doherty always made sense: They were two sides of the same coin, precocious, tabloid-prone British musicians whose sheer talent was marred by constant struggles with drug abuse and depression. Winehouse tragically succumbed to those struggles in 2011, but Doherty, thankfully, is now clean after several months of rehab. He’s marked his return with ”Flags of the Old Regime,” a poignant tribute to Winehouse that pairs his poetic lyrics with some sublime orchestration.

Jan. 22 2015 4:09 PM

People Shouldn’t Ask Why I’m Not Drinking—but They Do. Here’s How I Respond.

This is one in an occasional series of posts about Drynuary, the practice of not drinking alcohol in January.

The conventional wisdom in social situations is that you shouldn't ask someone why they aren't drinking. For one thing, it’s not any of your business. For another, there are a host of record-skippingly awkward answers to that question that you probably don’t want to hear. Do you really need to know that someone is in recovery, or taking scary drugs that have dangerous interactions, or very early in their first trimester—or to put someone in the position of making up a cover story for one of these conditions? Sure, they may simply be on antibiotics or the designated driver that night, but you really don't need to risk it. The rule of thumb is that you just don’t ask.

Despite the very good reasons for this rule of thumb, lots of people do ask. During Drynuary, I'm often fascinated by the reaction people have to me ordering a post-hockey cranberry-and-club-soda at a bar with my teammates. Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I'm not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction usually an eye-rolling "Again?!?!?" as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them. (It never works.)

The reactions get more interesting during business functions.

Jan. 22 2015 2:56 PM

Tina Fey’s New Netflix Show Looks Both Funny and Insane

Tina Fey has always forged her own path through the world of comedy—so it makes sense that for her first show since 30 Rock, she’s opted to go the nontraditional route of streaming. Her new series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was originally meant to air on NBC (whose arguable last great comedy, Parks and Recreation, is on its way out). The show has since been picked up by the executives at Netflix, who know a thing or two about the kind of quirky humor Fey’s known for (see: Bojack Horseman). And judging from the show’s first trailer, it’ll be right at home on Netflix.

Jan. 22 2015 1:03 PM

On His New Album of Sinatra Covers, Bob Dylan Pays Tribute to an Era He Once Derided

In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan wrote, “Things were pretty sleepy on the American music scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Popular radio was sort of as a standstill and filled with empty pleasantries.” In an interview a few years earlier, he was a bit more caustic about the music that came over the radio when he was growing up:

Like, you know, all those songs on the Hit Parade are just a bunch of shit, anyway… . You know, ‘If I give my heart to you, would you handle it with care?’ Or, ‘I’m getting sentimental over you.’ Who gives a shit?

Those comments are just one reason why the contents of Dylan’s new record, Shadows in the Night (to be released Feb. 3), are surprising. The disc might appear to be just another entry, following Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and many others, in the long-established genre of an aging rocker putting out an album of standards from the Great American Songbook. But Dylan always does things his own way, and his songbook has none of the George Gershwin or Cole Porter chestnuts one might expect. It’s made up, instead, of 10 torch songs and ballads, many of them in a minor key, most of them rather obscure, and all of them recorded, at least once, by Frank Sinatra. And that’s the second surprising thing about the record. It was Dylan, along with the Beatles, who turned the Sinatra performance model—a singer interpreting songs written by other people—on its head.

Jan. 22 2015 11:44 AM

Chimamanda Adichie’s New Story Is Gorgeous. I Wish It Weren’t Also Propaganda.

A new short story from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author who wrote Americanah and can be heard dropping feminist truth-bombs on the Beyoncé track “Flawless,” appeared Monday in Matter. Possessed of Adichie’s usual poise and clarity, it has a very beautiful opening paragraph:

How softly the rain fell that Monday morning when my water broke. Because I was used to the raging downpours of Lagos, this quiet patter calmed me, filled me with peace. My husband Omoregie was at work and so our neighbor took me to the hospital, my dress slightly damp, my heart full of expectation. My firstborn child.

From this moment of hope and rest, the story, “Olikoye,” winds gently back, as if to fill in how we got here, why the world is so soft and harmonious. It is, in large part, because the narrator feels secure in the Nigerian healthcare system implemented by Minister Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, after whom both the story and her newborn are named. Olikoye—a real life figure—introduced free vaccines and family planning classes in health clinics throughout the country in the 1980s. Prior to his reforms, infants and children were almost as likely to die as to live. The woman in “Olikoye” says her parents lost two of her baby siblings before she was born; she describes Muslims, Christians, and tribal doctors praying to no avail. In the 1985 of the narrative, her father finds work as Olikoye’s driver and alerts him to the plight of his particular village. The minister—his “big sleepy eyes” reminiscent of “another time in the past when old-fashioned integrity was easy”—wheels in with immunizations, part of his vision of primary healthcare for all Nigerians. From there, Adichie writes, “it took mere moments. A baby’s small open mouth and a drop of liquid. A baby’s warm arm and a small injection. It took that to save the lives of the babies born that year in my village … It took that to save my life.”

The graceful and moving “Olikoye,” which goes on to praise the official for treating people “like human beings,” for refusing gifts, and for being the “best health minister this country has ever had,” is propaganda. It is a story raised in captivity rather than in the wild. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned Adichie, along with more than 30 other international writers and artists – including Geraldine Brooks, Mia Farrow, and Lang Lang—to participate in a project called The Art of Saving a Life, which sets out to educate people about the power and value of vaccines. According to Jacque Seaman, who represents the campaign, Adichie was provided with “2-4 storylines to choose from,” based on the Foundation’s judgments of what “would resonate most with the artist.” Her task: To fashion a narrative that might “break into new audiences who may otherwise not be paying attention to the issue” of vaccination. As for how it ended up online, the Foundation reached out to Matter, the longform arm of Medium, with the story. “I leapt at the chance,” Matter’s Mark Lotto wrote in an email, “to publish such a gorgeous, moving, illuminating piece of fiction—our first!—from a writer we admire hugely.”

It is gorgeous and moving, and I, too, admire Adichie. So I hope my misgivings about “Olikoye” aren’t churlish. After all, Adichie is backing a noble cause; she’s created an affecting piece of writing; her story is easily as worth your time as whatever else you might be reading on the Internet. But were the issue not vaccines—were it, perhaps, the war on terror, or climate change—would we be so enthused to see a beloved author selling an organization’s party line? (Matter responsibly included a tag at the bottom of the piece noting its origins and funding.) External agendas have a way of eliding complexities and flattening interactions: At one point, Adichie describes a no-nonsense nurse weeping at the mere mention of Olikoye’s name. Elsewhere, the narrator holds a present from the minister “tighter than I had ever held anything in my young life.”

The protagonist of Adichie’s award-winning novel Americanah, writer Ifemelu, is independent and strong-willed, resistant to myths and hero worship. You can easily imagine her penning a fierce, passionate argument for vaccination on her blog. But how would she feel about her creator’s latest short story, about the way it deifies its subject in the service of an admirable cause? I’m not so sure.

Jan. 22 2015 11:20 AM

You Can Stream Transparent for Free on Saturday

Fresh off the show’s big Golden Globes wins, Amazon has announced that the first season of Jill Soloway’s acclaimed series Transparent will be free to stream for just 24 hours on Saturday, Jan. 24. Amazon recently picked up the show, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman named Maura, for a second season scheduled to begin filming this May and debut later this year.

Jan. 22 2015 11:07 AM

Marvel’s Secret Wars Initiative May Have a Secret Agenda

On Tuesday, Marvel previewed its major comic initiative for the summer, Secret Wars. A full reboot of the Marvel Universe along the lines of DC’s New 52, Secret Wars (a throwback to the Marvel of the 1980s) will merge a constellation of different stories and characters into a single narrative world. It’s tempting to wave this away as minutiae for nerds, but it’s  a change that could reverberate through the Avenger films and other Marvel properties, i.e., the products ordinary people actually care about.

For years, Marvel Comics has maintained two separate continuities for its wide array of stories and characters. The first, officially called “Earth–616,” is the mainstream Marvel Universe effectively launched with Fantastic Four in 1961. It features the most well-known versions of the characters that define the company’s 50-year history, from Captain America and Iron Man to Black Panther and the Hulk.

The second continuity, called “Ultimate Marvel,” is a modern retelling of those original stories, launched in 2000. Basic elements stayed the same—the X-Men were still mutants and the Fantastic Four were cosmic explorers—but most of the details were jettisoned in an effort to broaden the company’s base and appeal to people turned off by a half-century of narrative cruft.

But fifteen years in, the “Ultimate” universe has also grown large and unwieldy, with convoluted plot lines and unclear narratives. What’s more, the emergence and wide popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—which borrows from both classic and Ultimate Marvel—has made things confusing for new fans who want to follow the comics. If all you want to do is catch up with Wolverine, what do you read? Read one of the gaggle of classic X-Men titles? Read Ultimate X-Men? Read Ultimate Wolverine?

Marvel tried to untangle this knot with its Marvel NOW re-launches in 2013 and 2014, which reset titles in both continuities and offered an easier entry point for new readers. Secret Wars is a much larger overhaul. According to Nerdist, Marvel will use the storyline—which involves heroes trying to stop an incursion from a parallel Earth (it’s…convoluted)—to end both continuities and establish a new one, where classic and Ultimate heroes co-exist. Think of it this way, says Marvel vice president Tom Brevoort,; “The Ultimate Universe, the Marvel Universe, they’re going to slap together. Imagine two pizzas: They’re going to combine toppings, some toppings are going to drop off.”

Given the fact that Marvel Studios is, at this point, far more popular and profitable than its print counterpart, it’s impossible not to wonder if this is an attempt to fully align the two, and make a seamless transition for viewers interested in reading. There’s also the question of one particular character who looms over this entire project, with huge stature in film and on the page—Spider-Man.

Thanks to a deal made in 1999, Sony Pictures owns the right to the Spider-Man film franchise. That’s why the Spidey movies since Sam Raimi’s original haven’t featured other Marvel heroes —which aside from the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are owned by Marvel Studios—and why the recent wildly popular run of Marvel movies haven’t featured Spider-Man in their constellation of heroes. But in recent years—and with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in particular—Sony has run the property into the ground. A critical bomb and the lowest-grossing Spider-Man movie ever, ASM 2 may have completely derailed Sony’s plans for the character.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics has two Spider-Men to play with. The first is the classic Peter Parker, and the second is Miles Morales, the current Ultimate Spider-Man and one of the most popular characters in the company’s stable. Introduced in 2011—and partly inspired by the fan campaign to cast comedian Donald Glover as Spider-Man in the first Amazing Spider-Man film—Miles Morales is a half-black, half-Latino successor to Peter Parker, and an explicit return to the character’s roots as a vulnerable, heroic teenager facing the world for the first time.

It’s no secret that Marvel wants Spider-Man for its movies, but while reports say Sony is open to a partnership, neither side will budge on casting. Sony wants actor Andrew Garfield, who played Peter Parker in the last two films; Marvel wants a clean slate.

Enter Secret Wars. Outside of Marvel, no one knows the relationship between this reboot and the films. But it’s possible that this new continuity will lay the groundwork for bringing a different Spider-Man—Miles Morales—to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, of the characters to integrate into this new comic continuity, Morales makes the most sense: He’s popular and already present across different media.

Of course, whether we see Morales in theaters depends on the terms of the contract with Sony. Does the studio own the rights to Spider-Man in all of his forms, or does it own the rights to Spider-Man as Peter Parker? If it’s the latter, then Marvel has a chance to make a splash with another big screen black superhero.

Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrated that Marvel can be daring and forward-thinking with its movies. It’s hard to imagine a more daring move than rebooting the Spider-Man films with an entirely new character. It’s hard to imagine a more forward-thinking one than introducing a character to the movies who—perhaps more than Peter Parker—resonates with the whole range of Marvel’s audience.