Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Aug. 27 2015 6:01 PM

Lin-Manuel Miranda on Jay Z, The West Wing, and 18 More Things That Influenced Hamilton

This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (which opens on Broadway on August 6 after a much-praised run this past winter at the Public Theater), the founding father emerges as an immigrant striver and Constitution architect, one who struggles with his own sense of ambition—and the odd duel—and does it while rapping and singing complex and historically accurate lyrics. Ron Chernow’s biography was a key influence, but, as Miranda told us, far from the only one.

1. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Obviously the whole thing starts at the now-defunct Borders at the Time Warner Center, where I picked up Chernow’s Hamilton book. My girlfriend at the time, now wife, and I were going on my first vacation after [his 2008 musical] In the Heights, so I just wanted a big book to read on the beach. Ron’s book seemed like a really interesting beach read, and it ended up changing my life. The first two songs are lifted directly from it; the opening number is basically the first two chapters of the book.

2. Founding Brothers and American Creation, by Joseph J. Ellis

He does this thing where he just goes deep on an event. He circles the duel, he circles the farewell address—he throws everything at you on these certain events, and they were events I cover in my show.

3. Director Thomas Kail’s Mom

She’s a historical archivist in D.C., and she pulled up a ton of materials for me that I never would have gotten otherwise. With white gloves on, she showed me Hamilton’s condolence letter to Martha Washington. And she made me sandwiches every day! One of my favorite parts of the process.

4. Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita

Structurally, in terms of the shape of the musical, you can see their influence, in that we have a killer telling his story, like Che in Evita and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

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Aug. 27 2015 4:39 PM

John Oliver Really Loves Making Fun of How Terrible Americans Are at Geography

Anyone who watches Last Week Tonight even semi-regularly might have noticed that John Oliver loves giving geography lessons—except if his show were a geography class, Oliver would be the teacher from Hell. Is the highlighted country on the map actually the country he’s talking about, or will it turn out to be on another side of the continent entirely? As bad as Oliver presumes us Americans are at geography, these little tricks are not helping! “I don’t know when I’m going to get tired of this game,” Oliver grins, “but it’s definitely not now.”

Aug. 27 2015 4:02 PM

By Grabthar’s Hammer! Amazon Is Developing a Galaxy Quest TV Show.

The NSEA Protector and its trusty crew might once again fly onto our screens, this time with a TV reboot of the beloved 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, courtesy of Amazon Studios. Entertainment Weekly first reported this morning that Amazon is developing the series, though it also noted that development is still in early stages, and it’s unclear if the show would bring back the original cast or start over from scratch.

A lot of the original creators are on board for the new series, however.

Aug. 27 2015 3:25 PM

Spike Lee Is Finally Getting an Oscar

Whatever one’s thoughts on Spike Lee as a public figure—his views can be polarizing, to be sure—it seems absurd that in his nearly 40-year career, he’s only been nominated for an Oscar twice. (He was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing, which was famously shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories, and Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls.) But this year, the Academy will (sort of) make up for Lee’s past snubs by bestowing him with one of this year’s Honorary Awards.

It’s long overdue. While the director’s output has been spotty lately, he’s made some bona-fide classics, including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, along with tons of other acclaimed, original films, such as The 25th Hour, She’s Gotta Have It, and Inside Man. The Academy also has a terrible track record of recognizing the work of black directors, with none ever winning Best Director. That said, Lee is in good company: Alfred Hitchock also won an honorary award after failing to ever win the Oscar for Best Director.

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Actress Gena Rowlands will also receive an Academy Honorary Award, and Debbie Reynolds the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the Governor’s Awards in November.

Aug. 27 2015 2:37 PM

Miley Cyrus Disguised Herself As a Reporter to See What People Really Think of Her

As she prepares to host the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Miley Cyrus took a page out of Drake’s book and went undercover on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to find out what America really thinks of her—and the results are about what you’d expect. Disguised as an Australian reporter (with a highly questionable accent) Cyrus nodded in agreement as people expressed their distaste for her—and, in one case, “her whole family.” Some responses were more reserved (“I just like Taylor Swift better”), though even some haters admitted that they’d never listened to her music. Other respondents were more harsh, such as one man in a cowboy hat who asserted, “I think she’s starving for attention.”

Cyrus’ response? “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Aug. 27 2015 1:47 PM

Netflix’s Narcos Is Harrowing, Surreal, and Exactly the Portrayal of the Drug War We Needed

The recent prison escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman makes for an undeniably good story. But there’s reason to be suspicious of the way drug lords use stories to cement their political power and historical importance. If watching political candidates relentlessly underscore their humble beginnings can teach us anything, it’s that all politics, the legitimate and the seedy, are as reliant on the myths of the self-made man as they are on actual policy. Narcos, which premiers on Netflix on Friday, dramatizes the relationship between myth and politics. The series is set during the 1980s Colombian drug war, but it’s more generally about the myths that drug lords, politicians, and cops tell the communities they serve.

Narcos, directed by José Padilha, follows the rise of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, which gains unprecedented power with Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) at the helm. On Escobar’s heels are DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who is the gravelly-voiced narrator of the series, hardened by years of disillusionment. For viewers, he connects what seem like disparate events into a complex network of cause and effect. But his poetic, soaring narration also suggests that Murphy might be bending reality to fit the framework of a good story.

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Narcos defines its story as a “magical realist” one, blurring borders between the fantastic and the harrowingly real. Themes of luck and fate are juxtaposed with the very entrenched structural failures of government and law enforcement. The cinematography contrasts striking views of Colombia’s lush landscape with images of bloody bodies strewn in the street. Reality constantly disrupts fiction, as archival footage and photos are woven, often jarringly, through the plot.

But what Narcos might call magical realism is actually an old storytelling tradition: “narco cinema,” a Latin American genre comprised entirely of B-movies about the drug trade. Narco cinema hinges on a deep romanticization of the power and violence of drug lords. It turns cops into villains, drug lords into heroes, and beauty queens into narcos.  Underneath all the excessive violence and sex, though, it deftly exposes the weaknesses and corruption of government systems. In the movies La Banda del Carro Rojo (The Red Car Gang) and Salvando Privado Pérez (Saving Private Pérez), getting involved in the drug trade allows men to acquire the economic resources and manpower necessary to escape poverty and certain death. Films like Lo Negro del Negro (The Black of Blackie) and La Reina del Pacífico (The Queen of the Pacific) illustrate how the rise of drug kingpins like Arturo Durazo and Sandra Ávila is a direct consequence of inept law enforcement.

Narco cinema is so valuable because—by sneaking nightmarish images of violence into dazzling displays of wealth and power—it has become a crucial site of transgression and critique in a country where the stakes of speaking out against the cartels are high. By glorifying the cartels just enough to flatter them, narco cinema is the rare safe space where the complex relations between Latin American citizens and the drug cartels can be negotiated publicly.

American narco films, on the other hand, tend to heavily privilege myth and drama over realism. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic prioritizes the domestic melodramas of Wakefield, whose daughter is an addict, and Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant wife of an American narcotrafficker, while ignoring the larger political implications of the drug war. As newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), says, maybe fixing the problem just requires “thinking outside the box.” In the end, the film suggests that the biggest threat the drug war poses may be to the American nuclear family.

Narcos’ Escobar offers a striking contrast to the Escobar of Pablo Escobar: Paradise Lost, in which Benicio del Toro plays the eponymous drug lord. In that movie, through the eyes of the naïve Nick, played by Josh Hutcherson (who has fallen in love with Escobar’s niece, Maria), Escobar is a master myth-maker—an unknowable, unpredictable, and alluring man. But the movie fails to capture the realism of the drug war, even in moments when Escobar’s magical charisma gives way to his brutal side. Because Nick seems unaware of any socio-political context for Escobar’s violence, the film’s pivotal action sequence, in which Escobar’s hitmen kill a handful of innocent people, plays like a one-off surreal dream instead of the kind of daily occurrence regularly witnessed by communities in the midst of the drug war.  

Narcos is the first production in the true narco-cinematic vein to come to American screens. Unlike most American movies about the drug trade, it manages to glamorize its protagonists while still revealing the devastating structural problems they are working within. It understands a key dynamic in our real drug wars: the way drug lords and the cops and the DEA agents are all involved in the project of creating and fortifying the powerful myths around them, and they will do whatever it takes to secure their legacy. In the show, the DEA, as well as Escobar, are shown bowing to economic pressures and making unwanted compromises with government officials, all the while fancying themselves heroes and vigilantes.

In his narration, Murphy seems especially intrigued with exploring this conflation of “dreams and reality” in his storytelling. He explains Escobar’s lofty political aspirations—to become a congressman—as an inevitable byproduct of his meteoric rise out of poverty. (“Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country and by the time you were 28 years old you had so much money you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.”) Murphy cannot help but use the language of mythology to ominously foretell Escobar’s fate, comparing him to Icarus trying to fly too close to the sun. In the end, he warns: “Even magical realism has its limits.” 

Aug. 27 2015 1:14 PM

Kristen Wiig Plays an Egg Donor for Her Gay Best Friends in the Trailer for Nasty Baby

The premise has become a familiar one in indie rom-coms of the last few years: A gay couple asks someone of the opposite sex, sometimes their best friend, to have a baby with them. Conflicting emotions, wacky misunderstandings, and personal revelations ensue. There was The Kids Are All Right in 2010, and Gayby in 2012, and now there’s Nasty Baby, starring Kristen Wiig as the best friend, alongside writer-director Sebastián Silva and actor (and TV on the Radio lead singer) Tunde Adebimpe as the gay couple.

Not that Nasty Baby is without its twists.

Aug. 27 2015 12:55 PM

Difficult People May Not Be a Great Show, but Its Jewish Jokes Are Perfect

The Amy Poehler–produced Hulu original series Difficult People stars real-life pals Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner playing the meanest possible versions of their pop-culture loving selves. The show’s shtick revolves around their struggling comedy careers and how they can’t figure out why other people are succeeding where they’ve somehow failed. As a result, their alter-egos aren’t the nicest of people—their insults may be buried in references to Smash, but they still hurt—which sometimes makes the show a bit, well, difficult to watch. (The first episode featured a much discussed, criticized, and not particularly funny joke about Blue Ivy Carter.) The show overall is uneven—it feels like it would make a funny Web series that you’d share with your friends and enjoy telling people you liked before HBO bought it and ruined it—but there’s one thing it does perfectly: Jewish jokes. The jokes are just Jewish enough to feel like they’re not superficially offensive even as they unabashedly mock Jewish culture, and yet they somehow still straddle the line between “too Jewish for goys to understand” and funny enough for that not to matter.

 

The first episode—five episodes are currently available on Hulu and new ones are released on Wednesdays—features Julie’s mom, playing a classic Jewish mom on steroids (she’s a therapist, of course), asking her daughter: “Did you get that article I sent you about Palestine, because I’m about to resend it.” (Don’t worry, it’s not just Israel; she also has thoughts on Lena Dunham.) Later on in that episode, Billy’s ex-boyfriend shows up to an Oscar party wearing a yarmulke and tells Billy he “started going to shul more.” SHUL! Shul is like the in-word for synagogue. (It’s actually the Yiddish word, but what’s more hip than Yiddish?) Just hearing that word on a TV show is unexpected and exciting, but the context it’s used in is perfect—a guy decides to become more religious so he starts wearing a yarmulke and calling synagogue shul. Sure, the jokes broadly target Jewish culture—for example, a mom obsessing over when she’ll have grandchildren—but they also spoof the minutia of actual religious practice.

Aug. 27 2015 10:11 AM

Watch Taylor Swift Bring Out Justin Timberlake and, Most Amazingly, Friends’ Phoebe Buffay

“This singer, she’s only ever played in coffee houses before,” Taylor Swift told a cheering audience in Los Angeles Wednesday night. “She’s never played a big venue like this. Please make her feel welcome. You guys, her name is Phoebe Buffay.”

Sure enough, Lisa Kudrow joined Swift onstage to play every Friends fan’s favorite jam, “Smelly Cat.” Kudrow, ever the character actor, stopped Swift mid-performance for a quick music tip: “You have to really feel the lyrics, you know?”

Selena Gomez also dropped by for a solid duet with Swift of “Good for You.” To top it all off, Justin Timberlake showed up to perform “Mirrors” with Swift—and dropped the mic at the end.

Aug. 27 2015 8:43 AM

The Story Behind the One-Pan, Nine-Minute Pasta Recipe That Took Over the Internet

This post originally appeared on Food52.

This genius pasta makes its own sauce, all in one pan, in 9 minutes—you’ve probably already cooked it (or at least thought about it). After Martha Stewart Living magazine published the recipe in June 2013, it splashed all over the internet (including right here, sploosh), and got a lot of people out of their weeknight cooking ruts. It meant that cooking pasta no longer had to start with waiting for a big pot of water to boil, or end with trying to meld plain noodles with a cohesive sauce. One pan. 9 minutes.

The magazine had precious little space to detail the recipe’s origins—explaining simply that an editor had picked up the tip in Puglia. But there’s nothing to stop me from giving you the full scoop. So where did the recipe really come from? How did the minds behind Living come to abandon all the rules of proper pasta cookery? And are there more ways we can do it?

Like lots of recipes, before this one was published in a magazine, it was tasted and honed in a test kitchen, and before that pitched, and before that sparked from somewhere. This particular somewhere just happened to be the back of a restaurant in a tiny town in Italy, a few glasses of wine deep.

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