Category Archives: American Culture and Movies

Representing’Race’ in recent American movies

Nimen Hao,

today we will use the films Green Book and BlackKKKlansman and some critical responses to the films to talk about representation, using some of the key concepts we’ve learned so far this semester.

Elements of Movie reviews

  • Creative craft elements (including, for example, quality of script, direction and performances, visual design and cinematography,  lighting, set design, costume, hair, make-up, special effects, sound, music, editing.
  • Story, plot, genre, style.
  • Social themes and significance.

Group discussion one: Craft Elements (at the denotative level)

Let’s start with a bit of nuts and bolts (basic mechanics) reviewing.

Working in your small groups discuss the craft elements of each movie (or just one if the people in your group only watched one of them). Try to discuss them at the descriptive (denotative) level, without moving onto the wide (connotative) level. So please avoid talking about the social themes and their significance, the story, plot, genre and style.

What kinds of languages (broadly defined) are the movies communicating with?

Group Discussion two:the films’ denotative-connotative level

  1. Identify the films genre and styles. How are they communicated (including through which languages, or combination of languages)?
  2. Tell us what happens in each movie (summarize the story/plot)?
  3. Identify the social themes and tell us how they are communicated.
  4. Discuss the films’ social significance.

Reading one and two

Now please take 10 minutes to read the following short review article.

(article to be sent to our wechat group during the lesson).

Discussing the review articles

Let’s discuss the review articles.

The films in terms of representation concepts

Now let’s have a final look at the films in terms of the representation concepts you’ve learned this semester.

IELTS spoken word practice exercise (time permitting)

Let’s do one or more IELTS exercises. These are useful practice for later English assessments (including TEMS 4).

Next week’s class.

Next week we’re going to look at representations of gender in American superhero movies.



Make American Great Again. Political Discourse and the principle of difference

Nimen Hao,

today we going to talk about Donald Trump’s political discourse, the ideologies it is based on and the effects of some of that discourse in society.

First a few loose/broad definitions

  • Discourse: a way of talking about things (political discourse, a way of talking about politics)
  • Counter-discourse: an oppositional way of talking about something.
  • Ideology: a social belief system
  • hegemony: dominance by consent. A discourse is hegemonic when most people believe in it/agree with it. A politics is hegemonic when it rules by majority consent/with majority support. An ideology is hegemonic when most people believe in it.
  • Myth: imagined form of reality.

For example, The American Dream is a myth, containing the idea that anyone can make it in America if they really try (we talked about this last semester).

  • A myth is not necessarily false, in fact it isn’t really accurate to talk about a myth being true or false. The American Dream true or false? is a nonsensical question precisely because myths are imagined;  the myth itself is not trading in empirical facts subject to truth claims and their measurement.
  • The valency of a myth, the degree to which it is live and meaningful for people, however, does bear a relationship to facts.

Q: Is the American Dream really meaningful for American citizens in general?

A1: Well, yes, if you mean its an aspiration that many American believe in. Studies suggest many Americans continue to believe in the idea of the American Dream (I can have my own rags to riches success).

A2: But no, if you measure it in terms of the degree to which people doing realize their American dream. Why? Because since the 1980s American has become increasingly inequitable.

The chances of people progressing from rags to riches have got smaller and smaller.

The chances of a small minority of very wealthy people dominating society by virtue of the power gained through their wealth, of arranging society to maintain their power (keeping thins radically inequitable) has increased and become entrenched.

How do they do that?

Well, they use their money to influence politics. Wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers make massive donations to political parties or individual politicians and those politicians support their interests. They pay consultants to lobby politicians to vote in accordance with their interests.

So for example, the wealth behind the gas and oil industry has a massive effect on American politics and society.

Q: Should America recognize the dangers of global warming and enact a radical green revolution right now?

A: Yes, if we want a chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.

Q: Do the politicians know this?

A: Yes.

Q: Do they say that they know this?

A: No. Politicians like Donald Trump claim global warming is ‘fake news’.

Q: So will they enact a Green Revolution, changing power and transport to renewables?

A: Well, not Donald Trump and the Republican party, no.

Q: Why not?

A: Not because they don’t believe in the reality of global warming (Trump previously admitted he did, before running for President). But because they owe a lot of their political power to the wealth and influence of the gas and oil lobby.

How do citizens read/understand political discourse.

Citizens access the discourse of politicians through the media (including, for example, tv news, newspapers in print and online, social media like Twitter).

The mainstream media is dominant in America, and is owned by just a few very wealthy individuals (like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner). They way the media asks its questions/tells its stories of or about politicians is dominated by their views. Often, in recent times, that has meant that the questions are asked or the stories told in a way that supports Donald Trump and his discourse claim the he is “Making America Great Again”.

There are also many media outlets not owned by these wealthy Trump supporting individuals. We could say they are representing a counter discourse: something like, “Trump is Making America Worse Again”. Donald Trump counters this counter-discourse in a variety of ways. One of those is the claim that the counter-discourse is ‘fake news’.

Q: How does this work in practice?

A:Let’s take the example of the Paris Climate Agreement. Barack Obama signed it in 2016, thus requiring America to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, along with many other countries. Donald Trump withdrew Americas signature, thus allowing America to continue with high greenhouse gas emissions. When he was criticized for damaging the environment by un-signing, he argued that global warming is ‘fake news’.

Making American Great Again: some strands of Trump’s political discourse


  • “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Trump, 2016).
  • Trump blames undocumented (Mexican) immigrants for “the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one”.
  • At rallies and in TV interviews, Trump charged that Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, was incorrigibly biased against him because “we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”

Trump, Muslims


Black people

I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen.”

  • Barack Obama

Trump repeatedly suggested that Obama was not American (not one of us), but African.

He has held Barack Obama responsible for black crime, explicitly because Obama is black. “President Obama has absolutely no control (or respect) over the African American community” Trump wrote in 2014 during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. A year later, Trump jeered, “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”

  • Black people from other countries

Trump complained that Haitians coming to the United States “all have AIDS.”

He also warned that people from Nigeria, if they were allowed into our country, would never “go back to their huts.”

Trevor Noah responds to the President

During a discussion about migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, Trump fumed: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He specifically asked, “Why do we need more Haitians?” He demanded that Congress “take them out” of a list of immigrant populations temporarily allowed to stay in the United States. Instead, he said the United States should accept more people from countries such as Norway.

USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly,” he wrote. “I want a merit based system of immigration”. What Trump is proposing, as sketched in his own tweets, is not a merit-based system. Trump is saying that applicants should be accepted or rejected based on country of origin. He’s saying that the individual should be judged by the group.

  • Trump on White Supremacists
  • David Duke (former leader of the Ku Kux Klan)

When asked to criticize the KKK leader for his racism Trump refused to comment

  • People joining with the Charlottesville white supremacist rioters

‘Some very fine people”

Discussion 1. Characterize Trump’s political discourse

  1. Using these examples, how would you characterize these examples of Trump’s political discourse.

2. If these statements indicate ways of making America Great again, what kind of America is trump trying to make?

Discussion 2. Discussing American terrorism

1. What kind of terrorist threats do you think America suffers from? Which kind of terrorist threats are most dangerous? How dangerous are they compared to other forms of violent death and injury in America?

2. What do you think of Trump’s discourse in relation to the threat of terrorism?

3. Now read the articles I will send you on Wechat. Consider your answers to q1. and q2. Is your opinion the same, or has it changed?

Discussion 3: find a topic for your podcasts discussions on the theme of representation.

Time permitting today you should work in your small groups and begin to choose a topic for your end of year assessment piece.

You are going to provide an informative and critically reflective (not just descriptive) discussion of the way something is represented. Your range of choices for a topic are unlimited, but I will give you guidance on whether an idea seems workable or not once you’ve developed your idea (or ideas).

Three themes that we’ve talked about so far in the semester are race, gender and class. You might want to use them for discussing your specific text/object/event of discussion. For example, you could discuss how women are represented in games, or how class is represented in Chinese romance movies, or how race/class is represented in American movies about Chinese/Asian people. You don’t have to use these categories of analysis, but they might be good to work with as tey provide a lot to talk about.

Each speaker should contribute between 3-6 minutes (no longer than 6 minutes please) to your discussion.

You can send me the recordings and the transcript on wechat, by or before June 14.

TNU Activities: An introduction to American culture through the Movies

Dear Students,

this semester we’ll learn about American culture by watching and discussing American movies. We’ll focus on the some of the key categories of cultural studies analysis, ‘race’, class, and gender, as well as faith.

So, we will be learning a little bit of the craft of movie reviewing, and a little bit of theory and method of cultural studies.


Culture and film

An introduction to the concept of culture, and the craft of movie reviewing.


American Race.

Birth of a Nation (original, remake), 12 Years a Slave

The Hate You Give, Black KKKLansman


American Heroes

Captain Marvel and other superhero movies


Brokeback Mountain, Westworld, Deadwood

American Youth


American immigrants


American Fear

US (horror)

Each week I will give you a movie to watch (you can copy them all at the beginning of semester, or week by week, bring your usbs). Some weeks I will give you some readings, and we will have quizzes on these, and on your knowledge of the films.

With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee Sounds the Alarm About America’s Past and Present

A still from 'BlacKkKlansman'
On August 11, 2017, about a year before the release of Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, various white-nationalist groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to kick off their so-called Unite the Right rally. Racist demonstrators marched proudly in support of white supremacy, resulting in violence and the death of a counter-protestor. At the time, Lee was getting ready to make his next film, a 1970s-set true story of an African-American Colorado Springs cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The director decided he couldn’t ignore the contemporary echo of hate groups roaring back into public life, so he made that connection as loud as possible in BlacKkKlansman—to wrenching effect.

This is a film loaded with broad comedy, bold speechifying, blunt depictions of racism, and astonishing visual flair; it is a Spike Lee movie, made with the kind of artistic and political verve that recalls his best work. BlacKkKlansman has all the subtlety of a mallet to the face, but Lee’s argument begins and ends with the fact that this is an unsubtle moment in America. Why else would he conclude his movie (otherwise a period piece) with footage of the Charlottesville rally, the fighting that broke out, the intentional car crash that killed the counter-protestor Heather Heyer, and Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the white nationalists afterward?

Lee’s straightforward approach might cause some viewers to blanch and others to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the point being made. But the white nationalists’ brazenness is directly relevant to BlacKkKlansman, which hums with energy as it essays the strange and specific tale of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), whose memoir the film is based on. Stallworth’s investigation of the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK led him to interact with David Duke (Topher Grace), the then–grand wizard of the Klan who was spearheading an effort to give the group a sheen of legitimacy in the public eye.

Duke’s desire for mainstream attention, and his willingness to operate in the open, is one of the biggest parallels Lee draws to today’s hate groups. But it’s not the only thing about BlacKkKlansman that feels trenchant. Central to Stallworth’s story is his alliance with his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Jewish cop who attends meetings in Ron’s stead, wearing a wire and taping member activities as the duo uncovers a terrorism plot within the local KKK cell. Zimmerman’s growing acceptance of his own Jewish identity (which he has sublimated for years) is as important to Lee as Stallworth’s embrace of his blackness. BlacKkKlansman exults in the power these two men find in solidarity, with each other and with their communities; the film frequently contrasts scenes of KKK meetings (peppered with racial epithets and talk of violence) with rousing gatherings of the local Black Student Union.

The film’s best sequence comes early on: After Stallworth is hired as the first black police officer in the department’s history, he’s tasked with attending a speech by the civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael (by then known as Kwame Ture) to monitor it for subversive activity. Lee films the scene as a lightning-bolt moment of awakening for Stallworth, the camera cutting back to his face (and individual shots of other faces in the audience) repeatedly as Ture (Corey Hawkins) tells the audience to “stop running away from being black.”

BlacKkKlansman celebrates black pride as a necessary weapon against the Klan. Not long after the transformative meeting, Stallworth returns to the office and picks up the phone, calling the number listed on a KKK ad in the local paper. Adopting a friendly, avuncular “white voice,” he tells the person on the other end of the line how much he hates black people, Jews, Catholics, and every other target of the Klan’s animus, dropping in slurs any chance he gets. The ploy is brutal in its simplicity, and it works. Stallworth’s shamelessness over the phone is all he needs to join the club—but to actually appear in person, he needs Zimmerman to become “Ron Stallworth,” a card-carrying KKK member.

Much of the film’s action follows Zimmerman as he tries to blend in with the Klan, whose members include the disarmingly friendly Walter (Ryan Eggold); the nasty and aggressive Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen); and the hulking and thickheaded Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser). Many of their antics border on the comical, and their efforts to sniff out potential treachery are amateurish (suspecting that Zimmerman is Jewish, Ivanhoe asks to look at his penis). But the group is also buying weapons, making bombs, and associating with people in the Mafia and at NORAD. Any time their idiocy might make them seem nonthreatening, Lee leans in to remind viewers that even the most idiotic people can be dangerous.

That simple fact is why the BlacKkKlansman’s reference to the Charlottesville rally doesn’t come off as forced. Last year, the sight of men wielding tiki torches initially drew derision from some, as many were processing the larger, frightening significance of the demonstrators’ actions. In the film, Grace plays Duke with an unctuous sort of charm, and Hauser is frequently hilarious as Ivanhoe, but Lee has no qualms about letting their incessant hate speech illustrate the reality of who they are. As BlacKkKlansman draws to its tense final showdown, it’s equally slapstick and terrifying. And rather than letting the audience reassure themselves that the story is rooted in the past, Lee firmly points the film’s conclusion to the present, and to the future.Atlantic article privately shared for student discussion. Please contact the Atlantic for supscriptions.

How Mahershala Ali Changed Green Book’s Pivotal Scene

the toughest scene i wrote

How Mahershala Ali Changed Green Book’s Pivotal Scene



Mahershala Ali (left) and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book. Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

… Today, Green Book writer-director Peter Farrelly … unpacks his difficulty plotting a key scene in which jazz/classical pianist Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is turned away from a whites-only hotel dining room, putting his driver-cum-bodyguard Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) in a tricky situation. The scene is then excerpted below.

Early on in the trip, the Christmas concert in Birmingham, Alabama, is set up as the final destination. This is the last show. And by that point, the characters have bumped heads, they’ve had their ups and downs, and they’ve bonded. They just have to get through this last performance and Tony Lip gets paid his back-end salary. But it was also the scene where Doc Shirley has had enough. By then, he’s already been pushed around, arrested, treated poorly, and had this big come-to-Jesus moment in the rain and is talking about, “Who am I? What am I? And what do I stand for?”

So when Doc’s told he can’t eat at this restaurant — even though he’s the guy everyone there has come to see — we wanted him to stand up and finally say, “That’s it!” And it was very complicated because there’s a lot going on.

Photo: Office, Awards (501907803)

If this had happened earlier on in the movie, Tony wouldn’t have blinked. At the beginning, Tony’s a guy who’s stealing hats for money. He’s eating hot dogs for money. He’s a scammer. But now he’s walked a couple of miles in Doc Shirley’s shoes and sees it from his point of view. And he does not approve. But on the other hand, we can’t have Tony be the one to say, “No, you’re not going to play here if you can’t eat here.”

I know there’s been a lot of discussion about the white savior and the magical negro, all these different tropes. We discussed them at length with Mahershala Ali and [executive producer] Octavia Spencer — with everybody involved. We didn’t want to fall into that. And by the way, the white-savior trope is an easy trope to fall into if you take your eye off the ball. So we were very clear that we were walking a tightrope there, because we didn’t want you to think Tony Lip hadn’t learned anything and that he would be okay with Doc playing there. He shouldn’t be. He learned too much.

On the other hand, we didn’t want Tony talking him out of it. It has to come from Doc Shirley. He says, “I’m not playing here unless I get to eat in this room.” And he’s not going back on that. But if Doc Shirley just insists they leave, they’re back where they started — he’s going against Tony. So it has to be a mutual decision. That made it a difficult scene to do: to make sure that Doc Shirley made the decision while allowing Tony to save face and to show that Tony Lip has grown.

Photo: Office, Awards (501907803)

So my co-writers, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, and I went around and around in circles. In New Orleans, about six weeks before the cameras rolled, that was one scene we rewrote with Mahershala. We had a draft early on where Doc Shirley is pissed that they won’t let him in the restaurant. And he wants to leave. But then he realizes Tony is going to lose money and recognizes it. Tony says, “Come on Doc.” He goes, “This is the last show. I’m gonna lose my back end.” And Doc Shirley is torn on it. So he says, “Okay, all right, let’s play.” And Tony’s conscience hits him and he realizes what he’s doing is wrong.

In that early draft, as Doc Shirley’s about to go onstage, Tony grabs him and says, “No, I don’t give a fuck. You’re not doing this. This is wrong.” And Doc Shirley smiles because he is proud of Tony. But the problem was, it was Tony’s decision and we didn’t want that.

Mahershala never used the term “white savior.” But he said, “This isn’t right.” He goes, “Tony can’t be the one. This must be my decision. I’m the one calling the shots here. Doc Shirley wouldn’t play there.” When he brought it up, I immediately realized, “Oh, yeah, that is fucked up. What he’s saying is exactly correct.” It was never a debate.

Photo: Office, Awards (501907803)

But that created another problem: If it’s all Doc Shirley, then you look at Tony and go, What an asshole. He didn’t learn anything through all this time. So Brian, Nick, and I had to find a way to make it Doc Shirley’s decision, allowing Tony to piggyback on it, to show they’re both in sync at the end. They have to both agree. It’s not one convincing the other.

I know it’s pathetic, but one of my favorite shows of all time is The Andy Griffith Show. Andy was the God figure. Andy was smart and forgiving. Andy never made decisions for people. He let people make their own decisions, but he led them to their decisions. He helped people grow without saying, “Hey, Barney, you should do this or that.” He let Barney learn with a gentle touch. And in this scene, that is what Doc Shirley is doing.

So in the final scene, we worked out a balancing act. Tony is about to punch the maître d’. And Doc stops him and says, “Tony, I’ll play … if you want me to.” But he knows Tony’s not going to want him to, even though Tony’s going to lose his back end by not playing the thing. And Tony is willing to walk away from the money at the end because he has grown.

Photo: Office, Awards (501907803)

The integrity of the characters was the most important thing to us. Listen, I wasn’t avoiding the white-savior trope because I don’t want to be criticized for the white-savior trope. I didn’t want it because it’s been done a million times and it’s the wrong thing to do. It also steals integrity from the black character. It steals character from the black character. It wasn’t like, Ooh they’re gonna criticize us for that. They should criticize us if we do that!

What I’ve learned over the years is that no script you write is going to be 100 percent perfect. You have to open your eyes to its flaws. Give it to good readers. Have a really creative producer and trust your actors. Now that doesn’t mean you do everything they come up with or else it gets muddy. But listen and keep your heart open to ideas. Because if you think you know everything, it’s never going to be as good as it can be. If you open your heart and let other ideas come in, then you’re allowing the universe to come in and take hold. And then it becomes something special.

Now see how the scene plays out in the finished film:

Below, read the scripted version of the scene:

  1. 1 / 6
  2. 2 / 6
  3. 3 / 6
  4. 4 / 6
  5. 5 / 6
  6. 6 / 6

Who Was Green Book For?


hollywood signs

Who Was Green Book For?

Photo: Dreamworks

Do American audiences still want a movie like Green Book? To many, the answer seemed obvious back in September, when, following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Peter Farrelly’s odd-couple seriocomedy won the Audience Award and was deemed an Oscar front-runner by the small set of prognosticators who are now the first line of assessment when it comes to fall contenders. The fact-based story, about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist, and his white driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (60-year-old Viggo Mortensen, an odd fit for a character who was 32 at the time) bonding on a southern concert tour in the racist South of 1962, offered life lessons, learning arcs, feel-good moments, and a happy ending. It might not charm all critics, the early thinking went, but it was clearly going to be a crowd-pleaser.

Two weeks ago, the movie arrived. The crowds did not. Following a disappointing opening on 25 screens, Green Book expanded to 1,000 for Thanksgiving weekend and finished a somewhat wan ninth. According to IndieWire box-office analyst Tom Brueggemann, its cumulative gross of under $8 million makes it “a work in progress, with a struggle ahead.” That struggle may offer a lesson that after 50 years, a particular kind of movie about black and white America has, at long last, run its course.

To understand why, it’s necessary to take a closer look at Green Book’s strategic and timeworn take on racism — a “we all have something to learn” approach that, on paper, may mark it as both a reaction to the polarization of the Trump era and a symptom of the both-sides-ism that often defines it. Tony is a tough working-class-Italian family man who applies for a job driving Don Shirley through the South. That might be a reasonable setup through which to explore some of the, what’s it called again, “anxiety” that many white people felt when Obama was elected, except that the movie stacks the deck against Don from the first time we meet him. Chilly, aloof, and so refined that he literally lives above Carnegie Hall, Don conducts Tony’s job interview in gold raiment, sitting on a thronelike chair on a raised platform. So tense he cannot smile, so stiff that he barely permits himself to use contractions, Don is an emperor, albeit of a kingdom of two (he has a manservant).

Another movie might have explored Don’s costumed hauteur from within, understanding it as a defense, a calculation, even a performance. (The real Shirley was also a psychologist, a fact about which Green Book expresses virtually no interest.) But this film uses his remoteness geometrically; it’s one point on a triangle, exactly as far from the apex that represents a warm and human ideal as the other point — Tony’s unregenerate coarseness and frank racism — is. Green Book sometimes feels less imagined than measured with a protractor. Tony needs to stop referring to black people as “jungle bunnies,” but also Don needs to stop saying highfalutin things like, “It is my feeling that your diction, however charming it may be in the tristate area, could use some finessing.” Tony needs to broaden his horizons and learn how to write his wife a nice letter (he ends up taking dictation, Cyrano-style, from Don, who naturally has nobody to write nice letters to), but also Don needs to learn to enjoy fried chicken and Aretha Franklin and be more comfortable in his skin. Tony needs to grow up (because racism is, in movies like Green Book, primarily a sign of immaturity), but also Don needs to loosen up; he’s so constricted that he owns a chess set with only white pieces! Tony needs to get a little smarter, but also Don is too smart, like Obama was. “It don’t look fun to be that smart,” Tony — so unrefined yet so observant about deeper truths! — writes home. (Don didn’t need to help him with that sentence.)

Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.

The character Mortensen plays in Green Book takes that same journey, in that familiar way. (Accordingly, Mortensen is being given a Best Actor campaign, while his co-star Ali, whose job in the film is to assist him in his evolution while benefiting from his salt-of-the-earth common sense, will be pushed for Supporting Actor.) Tony learns to stop being a racist by two means that haven’t changed a bit in the decades since In the Heat of the Night set them up: He decides to make an exception for someone exceptional (Don’s talent as a musician helps the scales fall from his eyes), and once he does so, he learns to feel revulsion at, you know, the bad kind of racist — the kind that won’t sell you a suit or that makes you use an outhouse or that wants to beat you to death. And he proves himself capable of change by pulling the delicate, almost alien creature in his charge out of one jam after another, becoming the film’s white (and, in a notably under-explored twist, straight) savior.

This character type has been so irresistible to some white moviegoers for half a century that it’s little wonder Green Book’s distributor Universal assumed it would work again. A white main character in a story about racism can himself be racist (as Steiger’s character is in Heat of the Night) or old-school and gruff (as Gene Hackman’s ex-sheriff is in 1988’s Mississippi Burning) or prone to making offensive jokes (as Jeff Bridges’s lawman does in 2016’s Hell or High Water) as long as fundamentally he’s a good guy. And there’s just as long a tradition, from the television series I Spy (which premiered just a few years after Green Book is set) to 48 Hrs. and beyond, of black-white partnership comedies in which the two heroes need each other to be complete.

Green Book knows all this. It alternates big-picture oblivion with aching self-consciousness. It asterisks and footnotes itself obsessively, like a problematic tweet preceded by five tweets trying to anticipate objections to it. A scene in which Tony and Don drive down a road to see silent, onlooking sharecroppers tilling a field has an exact antecedent in In the Heat of the Night. Another, in which Tony insists on pulling over because he needs to use the bathroom, replays in intentionally more vulgar terms a famous scene in Driving Miss Daisy in order to remind you that a white driver could put his need in terms that a black driver wouldn’t have dared. The film even has Don explain to Tony, “You only win when you maintain your dignity” — a word and idea everyone involved has to know has a stunningly loaded racial history, one that defined and constricted much of Poitier’s career.

What Green Book may not know is who it’s for. The portion of the white moviegoing audience that needs to be handled with this much care and flattery is getting smaller every year, and the nonwhite audience, at this point, seems justifiably wary of buying a version of someone else’s fantasy that it has been sold many, many times before; besides, it has other options. Underlying the bet that Green Book would be a crowd-pleaser is a long-outdated presupposition about the composition of the crowd — a belief that racism can only be explained to white audiences via a white character, and a concurrent belief that those white audiences are pivotal to the success of any movie. But they’re not. This weekend, two movies directed by black men, Creed II and Widows, made the top ten and handily outgrossed Green Book. While that’s not a common occurrence, it’s no longer a headline-worthy exception — and in a year that also includes Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and (shortly) Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, moviegoers in search of black characters no longer need to look over the shoulder of a white director or co-star in order to find them. One might look at these movies as among the first to belong to a post–Get Out era, in which audiences want their views of race in America served up with slyness and/or dystopic skepticism rather than inspirational teachable moments. But even a historical drama by a white director that trafficked in exactly those moments, 2016’s Hidden Figures, did so by centering three women of color without a white character to explain “them” to a presumed white “us” (or, worse, explain them to themselves). It grossed $169 million in the U.S., a figure Green Book is unlikely to come anywhere near.

None of this means that Green Book’s Oscar campaign has derailed. Mortensen and Ali lean into their carefully diagrammed characters with everything they’ve got, and an A+ CinemaScore suggests that their audience (at least the primarily older, largely white audience that showed up) is loving what it sees. The precedent the studio is hoping applies is last year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which made more than half its money after its ninth week of release and earned Academy Awards for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. There were loud critical complaints that in Three Billboards, the black characters were plot devices, abstractions designed to facilitate the growth curve of the white protagonists. That didn’t matter to Academy voters, nor will it matter to some of them that Green Book is a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. But Academy voters themselves, almost 30 percent of whom have joined only in the last four years, are changing, too, so who knows? It used to be a certainty that you’d never go broke selling white people stories of their own redemption — and that may still be true. But in 2018, it suddenly seems possible that you’ll never get rich that way either.

The Truth about Green Book

Vanity Fair, Critic’s Notebook

The Truth About Green Book

The feel-good, awards-friendly dramedy is built on a shaky “true story” foundation that both clarifies and exacerbates its problems, writes our film critic.

Ali and Mortensen star in Farrelly’s Green Book.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Participant/DreamWorks.

A surprising word keeps popping up on the press tour for Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. The word is “truth.”

The movie hasn’t exactly been a runaway hit—its box-office take-home has been slow but steady, with encouraging signs of growth over the past couple of weekends. Maybe awards momentum has something to do with that. Last week, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honored Green Book with five Golden Globe nominations, in acting (for both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali), writing, direction, and for best musical/comedy. The National Board of Review had already dubbed it best picture of the year, and the American Film Institute ranked it among their top 10 for the year. Audiences at the Toronto Film Festival, meanwhile, had already given it the People’s Choice Award over a crowded lineup of movies that included Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born.

Some of that is undoubtedly thanks to the movie’s subject matter—and its veneer of truthfulness. “There’s a lot of stories about racism that have been told, are being told, and should still be told,” said Nick Vallelonga, one of the film’s screenwriters, in one interview. “It happened to my father the way it happened.” Vallelonga is son of the film’s protagonist, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga—an Italian-American bouncer played by Mortensen who gets hired to escort a black pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), on a tour of the Jim Crow South in 1962. They travel in a delectably suave teal Cadillac befitting Shirley’s kingly stature and brisk demeanor.

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The idea is that though Shirley is an esteemed cultural figure, this status won’t mean much to the era’s “sundown towns”—all-white municipalities with strict legal and social codes dictating who belongs. Tony Lip is there for protection. “I don’t want to manipulate that,” Nick Vallelonga said of his approach to the script. “I don’t want to do anything but the truth.”

Every single event in this movie actually happened,” writer and producer Brian Currie told The Hollywood Reporter—including an astonishing incident in which Shirley leans on Robert F. Kennedy to get him and Lip sprung from prison. “Everything was real. I’ve known Tony Lip for 25 years. I’ve heard the stories. They’re all true. This is a true story.”

So Green Book isn’t merely inspired by history, we’re told, or based on a true story: it is the “true story,” written by family, and furthermore, it depicts a “true friendship.” Certainly there are nuggets of historical reality to acknowledge here: Tony Lip really was an Italian-American bouncer from Paramus, New Jersey, who worked the Copacabana before being hired to escort Dr. Shirley on a tour of the South. Dr. Shirley, meanwhile, really was a concert and jazz pianist—an outright prodigy, who, as the movie depicts, lived with regal splendor in an apartment above Carnegie Hall. That 1962 road trip undergone by the two men? That really happened too, though it lasts about two months in the film while, in real life, it lasted about a year. Importantly, the two mens’ friendship is said to have lasted until they died four months apart in 2013.

You’d think that would give Farrelly and his team a lot to work with. This is a decades-long friendship we’re talking about, with a script written by the son of the lead character—who, though he was only 5 years old in 1962, has said he remembers visiting Shirley atop Carnegie Hall as a kid. There should be ample opportunity for intimate familial realities to sneak their way into the movie. Vallelonga still has tapes of his father recounting incidents he ended up including in the script.

It should be no wonder, then, that Mortensen had a decisive leg up when it came to fleshing out his character. “I brought [Mortensen] in to my family, and he hung out with us,” Vallelonga told Screen Rant. “We ate at my brother’s house. We ate at my uncle’s house. . . . He had the audio tapes of my father, video of my father.” Linda Cardellini, who plays Dolores Vallelonga—Tony Lip’s wife and Nick Vallelonga’s mother—was decked out in her character’s actual jewelry, including her wedding band.

But by all accounts, Mahershala Ali had no such real-life contact with Dr. Shirley’s family. “I had a documentary (Little Bohemia), where I saw him, that was about Carnegie Hall,” Ali told The Hollywood Reporter. But that, and Shirley’s music, seem to have been about it. “There are these tapes that exist that are about 25 years old of Tony Vallelonga speaking at length,” Ali said. He, on the other hand, “just pulled and gathered whatever I could.”

This disparity has its advantages for a skilled actor like Ali; by relying only on vague clues, Ali could reimagine the character through his own performance. Which is, for the record, beautiful: his Shirley is monied, erudite, and slickly sophisticated, with a sly sucking-in that make his cheekbones sharp with superiority. Despite being a black man in the 60s, Shirley, as Ali plays him, has no qualms about his social status.

As depicted in Farrelly’s film, though, Shirley also feels alienated from his own blackness, and from other black people—perhaps thanks to the mostly white audience his immense talents have earned him, or perhaps because of his sexuality (he is, we discover, a gay man), or maybe because of his relative class privilege compared to the Southern blacks we see throughout Green Book. He is, we’re told, completely divorced from his own family: a lonely, isolated genius, and an alcoholic to boot. When staying at a black-friendly motel, he holds himself apart from other blacks, wearing his fine clothing and turning up his nose. It isn’t until an Italian guy with a Bronx accent practically shoves it into his mouth that he eats fried chicken for the first time (another incident Vallelonga says happened in real life as it does in the movie).

Perhaps most outlandishly, Dr. Shirley—a pianist with ties to Duke Ellington, who was admired by Sarah Vaughan and Igor Stravinsky, and whose style combined American popular music with his own classical interests—is not familiar with Aretha Franklin or, most surprisingly, a piano player known as Little Richard, until their music plays on the radio during his and Vallelonga’s road trip.

Much of what is wrong with Green Book can be attributed to these “truths”—and most of all, to our willingness to believe them.

Not that they’re automatically un-true. Really, the problem is more specific: Tony Lip drew an impression of Dr. Shirley for his friends and family, and in the making of Green Book, no one seemed to question whether those impressions were honest. No one ever seemed to wonder if Shirley’s family might want a say, too. (At TIFF, Nick Vallelonga said he interviewed Shirley before making the film.)

Then the film came out—and the Shirley camp began to speak up. In November, Maurice Shirley, Dr. Shirley’s only living brother, sent a strongly worded missive to publications nationwide, dismissing Green Book’s abundance of counter-factuals. Some of the claims dismissed seem minor (“My brother NEVER had a teal blue Cadillac, it was always a black limousine”); others are major. For one thing, Maurice said, Dr. Shirley was not cut off from his family. He was the best man at Maurice’s wedding in 1964, two years after Green Book is set.

And he’d definitely eaten fried chicken before. At the very least, his brother said, he never would have let a white man egg him into eating it. As the movie rightly knows and attempts to dismiss with good humor and a playful wink, loving fried chicken is a black stereotype. As the film also knows and harps on, Dr. Shirley was a man of strict social propriety. Eating the chicken to overcome racial friction in that teal Cadillac makes for a good story, but it severely undercuts the politics of respectability that Shirley otherwise, and much more interestingly, goes out of his way to embody.

The most telling counterclaim of them all: Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley were not friends. “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend,’” wrote Shirley. “He was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”

The artistic and political success of any film “based on a true story” doesn’t hinge entirely on absolute historical accuracy. But the debate over the truth of Green Book fascinates me because of all of the unquestioned assumptions—and the presumptions—undertaken by Farrelly and crew in their design of Dr. Shirley’s character.

It’s really something. Everyone seems to agree that Tony Lip had a, shall we say, limited view of black Americans before meeting Shirley. According to his son, he was “a product of his times. Italians lived with Italians. The Irish lived with the Irish. African-Americans lived with African-Americans.” The trip with Dr. Shirley, Vallelonga said, “opened my father’s eyes . . . and then changed how he treated people.

Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga in Green Book.

By Patti Perret/Universal Pictures/Participant/DreamWorks.

Yet it is this man’s account that became the basis for an entire film—this account which, from his screenwriter son’s own admission, is informed by a limited, very 1960s, very white understanding of race. Though unreliable on its face, this understanding becomes our lens into the history of this specific black man.

But what, really, could Tony Lip have possibly known, or understood, about Shirley’s alienation from his own blackness? A quick glimpse at Shirley’s biography provides some hints. Shirley, per The New York Times, “had a love-hate relationship with jazz,” according to a friend. He refused to be called a jazz musician; he was a hybrid. If what we’re dealing with are black stereotypes as ways of understanding black people, maybe this is what Tony Lip sensed: a rejection of jazz as a rejection of blackness. (This, even though Shirley was also a student of black American musical forms, such as the Negro spiritual).

And maybe what Tony Lip read as Dr. Shirley’s reticence about his family—believing he was completely isolated from them—was really Shirley’s careful insistence on maintaining a boundary between himself and his employee. Maybe class dictated that boundary, and rather than reckoning with or subjugating himself to it—rather than confronting the ability of a black man to have such power, in the first place—Tony Lip thought up an alternative explanation.

Maybe this, maybe that: there are many gaps here. You can see why Vallelonga and his co-writers felt they had to fill them in. Inevitably, the material they chose to do so resulted in a less prickly and, frankly, less interesting movie: I would love to see a version of Green Book that confronted Dr. Shirley’s class privilege head-on.

Even then, knowing all of this deflates my consternation with the film to some degree. Once you realize Green Book is really just Nick Vallelonga’s attempt to make a film out of the nifty road-trip stories his dad shared with him as a kid, the movie’s myopia is somehow harder to be mad at. It’s boneheaded, perhaps, but it’s not malicious.

Rather, that’s how I feel until I remember the sickening ways that the film fabricates Dr. Shirley’s feelings towards other blacks, his lack of black cultural knowledge, his utter racial isolation—falsehoods, according to his brother. Then I’m taken aback. It’s one thing to get historical facts wrong, or to massage them for the sake of dramatic coherence. It’s another thing entirely to take something so essential as racial identity—as the inner life of a person of color—and revise it. And to bypass due diligence. And to think, as a white filmmaker, that questions of this sort are things you can blithely make up or change outright.

Black performers touring the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century faced fearsome amounts of racism, not in the abstract, and not just in the South: Nat King Cole was attacked onstage, in Alabama, by members of the Ku Klux Klan. That was in 1956. Dr. Shirley himself faced such an incident in 1963, in Wisconsin, when he encountered a sign at the town’s limits that advised him and other blacks not to stick around after dark.

Imagine, then, revising a black man’s feelings about his identity relative to such violent currents and racial antagonism. You are fundamentally revising an essential political fact of who that black man is. You are re-writing the story of how he feels about his race at a time when that race could not be more of a cultural or physical liability. You are, in effect, re-writing that identity. This is, to my mind, a fairly brash thing for a white filmmaker to do—and to do it so casually, so unknowingly, to boot.

It’s a different form of historical malpractice than the kind we usually complain about—one far more dangerous than getting the color of Dr. Shirley’s car wrong. And in the first place, it’s worth remembering that of these two men, Dr. Shirley has a substantially larger claim to true historical significance. This is the biting irony at the heart the film’s premise: Tony Lip may have gone on to have a walk-on role in The Godfather and a recurring mob-boss role in The Sopranos, but Dr. Shirley was a virtuoso recording artist—albeit under-acknowledged and not widely-enough known. He’s the guy with Robert F. Kennedy’s phone number. His is the story here that has history, writ large, to contend with—he’s here because he was exceptional, not because he told his future screenwriting son the right bedtime stories.

Tony Lip is the historical footnote—not, despite the awkwardly rejiggered emphasis of this movie, the other way around. This doesn’t mean his life isn’t worth a movie—if anything, movies routinely prove that the footnotes and side-stories are where the juice is. But getting Shirley’s story wrong is getting something bigger than one character wrong, even if he isn’t the focus here. It’s a token of bad faith. It’s his historical peculiarity, after all, that makes this particular tale of racial reconciliation stand out from a crowded field of similar Hollywood stories. He is what makes this tale worth telling, what makes it an enticing sell. Who will tell his story?

Green Book purports to be about racial reconciliation, a popular sentiment among people who want everyone, holding hands, to take responsibility for ending white supremacy—not just its beneficiaries. It’s a troubling, tedious idea, but a very common one—rooted, I think, in a desire to be forgiven. A desire for a leveled playing field, wiped clean of guilt. One way to do that is to make films like this, which make a show of progress in the same instant that they ultimately evince the opposite. I keep thinking back to Maurice Shirley’s claim that Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley were not friends. It’s a profound idea: that, by implication, there was nothing for the two of them to reconcile. That there was nothing to be forgiven for—that the ties between us could just as well not even exist.

This article has been updated.

Editor’s Note: Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga has previously discussed having interviews ahead of Green Book with both his father and Dr. Shirley.

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Green Book’s Oscar shows Hollywood still doesn’t get race

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in Green Book

It’s now four years since the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag put Hollywood movie-making in the dock over its failure to acknowledge black achievement. A lot has happened since: Moonlight memorably won the best picture Oscar two years ago; Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis have won supporting actor prizes; and Jordan Peele has a best original screenplay gong. Alongside them, several other black artists have been nominated.

But the OscarsSoWhite campaign was not meant merely as a tick-box exercise in counting the number of nominations. It was meant to make Hollywood rethink how it tells black people’s stories, and to reward black artists in the best possible way – by giving them the chance to have their voices heard.

So it feels like a major step backwards that this year Hollywood gave its most prestigious Oscar – best picture – to a nostalgic tale of a racist white driver somehow “saved” by his black passenger. Though the driver (Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen) is a former bouncer, and the passenger (Don Shirley, played by Ali) a concert pianist, it’s Mortensen who is centre-stage, and received a nomination for best actor. Though Ali did win an Oscar, it was in the supporting actor category. The movie is written by Vallelonga’s real-life son and the award was accepted on stage by its white-dominated producers.

The movie, set in the early 1960s, much of it in the racially segregated southern states, fits almost perfectly into the Hollywood template. That is, black movies should be set a long time in the past, when things were really bad for black folk, so the audience can leave with a nice warm feeling: “Haven’t we come a long way? Aren’t we doing so well today?”

Their enduring message is that racism is all about bigots who beat up black people and shout “nigger”. Everyone who doesn’t do that is some kind of woke hero. There’s never any lesson for modern audiences on how they may be perpetuating racism, or be blind to its subtleties. For Green Book read: Selma, Fences, Loving. Even the more enlightened movies (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) can leave the audience feeling, “Gee, it must be miserable being black!”

That’s why it was so great to see Peele’s Get Out break the mould in 2017 (the white girlfriend’s creepy white friends all told the central black character, “You know, I voted for Obama”). Building on this, last year’s standout movie was Black Panther. Its celebration of black culture, and African-ness, has catapulted the spirit of Wakanda through the black diaspora.

Above all, what makes Green Book such a bad choice is that it’s a full 30 years since its road trip predecessor, Driving Miss Daisy, scooped the best picture Oscar. That similarly saccharine take on racism – this time using a white passenger and black driver – at least had the excuse that the world was far more ignorant then. Does Hollywood really consider a crude re-run the best it can do? It sends a message that, three decades on, it has learned nothing.

Joseph Harker is a deputy Opinion editor

Watch This! English-language movies and tv series list

Dear students,

here is a list of movies and tv. series you might find enjoyable, and useful for your English language learning. The main genres are horror, crime & thriller, romance, sci-fi. There are also cross-genre films and series in the relaxing and social issue categories.

Be Afraid (Horror _+ Dystopia movies and tv series)

Get Out


Funny, scary, and thought-provoking, Get Out seamlessly weaves its social critiques into a brilliantly effective and entertaining horror/comedy thrill ride.

Early on in “Get Out,” Chris, a talented young photographer (played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya) is getting ready to spend a weekend with the family of his beautiful girlfriend Rose (“Girls” co-star Allison Williams). Packing his “cozy clothes,” he asks, “Do they know I’m black?” — a question she finds laughably outdated. Her dad, after all, would have voted for Obama three times if he could have. But even before they arrive at the house, Chris begins to comprehend that Rose’s lily-white suburb holds terrible secrets.

At first, Chris believes his discomfort to be just an affirmation of what he already expects from wealthy, self-identified liberal white people. Rose’s family — led by her parents Dean and Missy (played with just the right amount of creepy warmth by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) — call Chris “my man!” and speak enthusiastically of Jesse Owens and Tiger Woods.

Chris has clearly seen it all before, that privileged condescension from people whose only regular interaction outside their race is with the people who serve them. But in this case, the relationship Dean and Missy have with their docile black maid and groundskeeper has a more ominous energy. And when a lone black guest shows up at a family party, the man’s similarly odd behavior raises Chris’s suspicions that something seriously weird is going on in this pumpkin spice latte, Gilmore Girls” town. In time, a conspicuously locked door is unlocked, bad people start doing bad things and Chris finds himself desperately trying to heed the film’s titular warning — “Get Out!” (full review, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon).

The Handmaid’s Tale


Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a feminist dystopia for modern American times. The story occurs after a fundamentalist military coup in America, when environmental damage has decimated fertility rates with the result that childbearing women have become an exceptional minority. Gilead’s new male-led government forces fertile women to work as child-bearing handmaids for the nation’s governors. The discipline of the new state is enforced violently, and the surrogate-mother ‘handmaids’ are really slaves. The Republic of Gilead sweeps away the freedoms of liberal America, and strict religious belief, patriarchy and violent punishment become the ‘new normal’. Terrifically well-acted, thrilling, and moving, the series is highly relevant to the new-old politics of Trump era America. Reviews from the Guardian here, indiewire here, and Detroit Free Press here.

Intrigue yourself (crime and thriller  movies and tv series)

Killing Eve


Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s spy thriller could be the best show of 2018. Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh gets to show that she can do awkward hero shtick as well as a mainstream soap stalwart. Jodie Comer is excellent as the cold-blooded assassin whom Oh has to track down. Their relationship as hunter and hunted is the main draw as Waller-Bridge easily transitions to life behind the camera. She brings her fantastically puerile sense of humour to bear, as well as building nail-biting suspense. Reviews from The Guardian here and Vulture here.

Sharp Objects


Sharp Objects, a Missouri-set whodunit concerning the brutal murder of two young women in an American small rural town called Wind Gap, is based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, author of the equally thrilling novel Gone Girl.

The series’ antihero, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) is a troubled journalist, and part of the mystery of the story is the unravelling of her complicated secrets. As we watch Camille return to the claustrophobic community in which she grew up to report on a girl who’s gone missing and another who’s been murdered, the series investigates how race and patriarchy are central to Wind Gap’s power structures and traditions. The pretense of being a genteel white community, complete with a Confederate flag–filled celebration of the area’s Civil War history, informs what’s tolerated and what’s not in Wind Gap, from the high school football team’s tendencies toward rape to the unacknowledged segregation that shapes the town.

An effective thriller that keeps the viewer guessing right through till the last episode, the series offers punchy social commentary for Trump Era America. Reviews from Buzzfeed here and Vulture here.

The Wire


“The greatest ever cop show that isn’t actually a cop show”. David simon’s complex crime drama follows the thread of a single police investigation, from the perspectives of both law-enforcement officials and the criminals they’re pursuing. Focused on the city’s illegal drug trade it’s waterfront corruption in the second, and then the press and the court system and politicians in the third and fourth series.  The Wire is a dense, Dickensian drama about “those on both sides on the law caught up in the whirlpool of an entropic, near-suicidal society where dark reality is fast outpacing hope”. The series makes Baltimore “something like a central character”, showing us “a city in its death throes, fighting to hang on to its very soul”. Synopsis partially  abridged from the Guardian review (read here). Funny, thrilling and moving, the series gives a complex social critique of Obama era America.

The Deuce


Produced by Maggie Gyllenhal and some of the team who produced, directed and wrote The Wire (David Simon, George Pelecanos), The Deuce is a 1970’s New York-set examination of the rise of America’s porn industry from street based hustling and brothels to the beginnings of the porn film industry. “A gritty, grimy (but rarely grim) tapestry of pimps and hoes, cops and pornographers, feminists and misogynists, crusaders and deadbeats”, the Deuce vividly portray the world of Manhattan’s streets, bars, brothels and police to examine the intermingling of sexual power and financial power. Great character performances from Franco as twin brothers Vince and Frankie, Gyllenhal as single mother Eileen, who progresses from streetwalking to filmaking, the pimps, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), Rodney (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and C.C. (Gary Carr), and the sex workers, including fresh-off-the-bus Lori (Emily Meade) and the clever and inquisitive Darlene (Dominique Fishback). Read the Vanity Fair review here, the Guardian review here, and the Hollywood Reporter review here.



Set in present-day London, Jed Mecurio’s series Bodyguard centers on British military veteran David Budd (Richard Madden) who, after returning home from Afghanistan, struggles to adapt to “normal” everyday life while working as a protection officer for the London Metropolitan Police Service. Separated from his wife, Vicky, Budd begins to question his self-worth until he’s assigned to protect a controversial politician, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes).

Having witnessed the horrors of war firsthand, Budd is staunchly against Britain’s military campaign in the Middle East, while Montague’s seeks to advance her own political career by promoting a crackdown on terrorism and civil liberities (such as internet privacy). Their conflict is deliciously dramatic due to their attraction for each other. Bodyguard is an exciting and moving thriller that thoughtfully engages with terrorism, government corruption, and post-traumatic stress disorder in six punchy hour-long episodes. Guardian review here.

Line of Duty


Line of Duty (series 4) sets off at a scorching pace into the murky shadowland where crime, punishment, ambition and corruption mingle treacherously. Detective Roz Huntley (played by Thandie Newton) is a fascinatingly complex character, and its hard to know whether to admire her courage, tenancity and quick wits, or shudder at the ice flowing through her veins. Part of the fascination lies in her confrontation with the masculine world of London’s police, where motherhood is career-death,  older male colleagues try to trade patronage for sexual favours, and male officers underestimate women because of their gender.

Huntley investigates a series of violent crimes against women and quickly identifies a likely culprit, winning the praises of senior colleagues. However all is not what it seems and the cat and mouse chase between the detective and the team of investigators who suspect her of framing the arrested young man is thrilling and compelling. Guardian review here.

Relax (easy-watching movies and tv series)



Everyone knows this one I think, so I won’t explain more than this: a bunch of attractive and likeable young Americans hang out and flirt in a coffee bar and their apartments. Funny scripts and great comic timing  (especially Rachel) make this a satisfying comfort-watch.

The Big Bang Theory


This nerdy and geeky Friends-like sit-com has been hugely popular in America. The broad comedy trades in nerdy-geeky stereotypes; Penny is a ditsy aspiring actress, Leonard a nervous neurotic, and Sheldon is a fussy know-it-all with a possible undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Howard is poorly dressed and perpetually horny, while Rajesh Koothrappali is embarrassingly shy. But the show does more provide cheap laughs, providing satisfying plotlines and character development over the long (12 year) term, like Sheldon becoming disenchanted with theoretical physics, and Leonard and Penny falling in love and getting married, and all of the main characters becoming more fully fleshed and flawed, while remaining funny.

Parks and Recreation


Critics write that the cast is phenomenal, the writing inventive and genuinely funny. This hugely popular American sit-com garnered particularly positive reviews from series 2-7. In series 3, eternally optimistic government employee Leslie Knope (Poehler) sets her sights on a new goal: revitalizing the town of Pawnee by throwing a harvest festival. Meanwhile, there’s love in the air for just about everyone in the cast: Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) begins dating health-conscious city manager Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe); April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) enter into a whirlwind romance; and Leslie falls for Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), despite the fact that as coworkers, they aren’t allowed to date. Reviews from Slant Magazine here, and the New York Daily News here.

Chinese Burn


A punky and fiesty comedy about three Chinese friends  living in London. Punky, feisty would-be actor Jackie (Yennis Cheung); the struggling Elizabeth (Shin-Fei Chen) trying to compensate low self-confidence with a string of disappointing affairs, and the kooky, naive Fufu (Yuyu Rau) – who’s from a wealthy family and newly arrived in the city, in awe of all its attractions. The series challenges stereotypical views about Chinese youth from its beginning voiceover: ‘Chinese girls …sweet, innocent, submissive Chinese girls. Conservative and virginal. good at maths, ping-pong and looking after men… (long pause)  “Screw that”!

Fresh Off the Boat


“11-year-old, American-born Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), his two brothers, and his grandmother are being transplanted from Washington, D.C., to Orlando by his Taiwanese-born parents, Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu), because Louis has opened a struggling steakhouse there.

Eddie is so alienated by the dominant white culture that the only way he can relate to it is through hip-hop and other signifiers of black culture. “If you’re an outsider,” an older Eddie voice-overs, “hip-hop is your anthem.”

Fresh Off the Boat blows up the idea of a racial binary to contend instead with something more complicated: a world where Asian, white, and black identities are constantly rubbing up against each other”. Synopsis partially  abridged from the Slate review (read here). The New Yorker also has a review here.



Girls, a female point of view comedy, portrays “four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas”. The show’s main charactars are white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds. Hannah, whose professor parents have cut her off from their financial support; her responsible friend Marnie; her irresponsible buddy Jessa; and Jessa’s innocent cousin Shoshanna. Funny and realistic, the series brings a refreshing honesty to stories of post-college romance, friendship and growing up. Season one review from Grantland here. and from San Fransisco Gate here.

Feel (romance/anti-romance/soap opera movies and tv series)



Classic British humour gets a feminist and ballsy update in Phoebe Waller-Bridges black and baudy comedy. Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridges)  introduces herself “as a woman in control of her own story: an urbane singleton living in London, who beds whom she chooses, dropping wisecracks in the midst of the act”. The charactar’s funny-tragic narrative involves her mourning over the death of her best friend and trying to fill the void with sex whilst breaking up with her boyfriend, being unable to connect with her father and sister and conflicting with her manipulative stepmother.

The show is “smutty-giggly, caustic, observant about the ugliness of both sexes, and occasionally surreal”. Its also deeply moving as the protagonist tries to work through her grief and self-loathing and find the capacity to connect with another person. Synopsis partially  abridged from the Telegraph review (read here). The New Yorker also has a review (read here).



“Ross Poldark is the protagonist of a beloved series of historical novels  by English author Winston Graham. The character is a kind of anti-establishment brooder who returns home to Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War to a meager inheritance and to the distressing news that the woman he loves is marrying another. His betrothed, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), fearing him killed, is now engaged to his cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller), and Poldark’s father is also dead, his only legacy an ill-maintained estate house and a struggling tin mine. This is hardly anything to base a living on, but the stubborn Poldark perseveres through all manner of challenges, aided by the destitute waif Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)”.

An 18th century historical romance full of heroic sacrifice, romantic affairs and class conflict, Poldark’s coastal Cornwall and its actors (Aiden Turner, Heida Reed and Eleanor Tomlinson) look beautiful, while the series provides a thrilling and moving account of rural life within a melodramatic format. Synopsis partially  abridged from the Boston Globe review (read here). Reviews from the Guardian here, and Hollywood Reporter here.

Downton Abbey


Chocolate box comfort-viewing for those who like to fantasize about upper-class British lives and their superiority to those of the lower sorts. A melodrama of masters, mistresses and servants, full of silly romantic and gossipy plotlines. Does a good job of presenting British love for the aristocracy, rising middle classes, and values of respectability and dignity during the early 20th century.  Great for learning how to pronounce received English (the accent that Britain’s southern wealthy elite speak with), and for listening to the Yorkshire accent used by most of the show’s servant-class. Easy-watching good fun for those that like grand houses and expensive frocks.

Vanity Fair


Based on William Thakeray’s famous (1848) satirical  novel this recent ITV version portrays its social-climbing anti-heroine Becky Sharp as charming, cunning and calculating. Vanity Fair shows a sumptouus world of undeserved wealth and luxury, and encourages the viewer to root for its protagonist who will use her youth and beauty by any means in order to escape the miserable prospects of an unmarried woman lacking money, connections (guanxi) and prospects. Part comic satire of the pretensions of 19th century English society, part reflection on our current times, this version of Vanity Fair is pretty and witty and (to some degree) wise. A review and an interview with Michael Palin from Radio Times here and here, and a review from the Guardian here.

Wonder (Sci-fi movies and tv series)



A sci-fi drama set in an Wild West theme park, Westworld is a reinvented American frontier Western for postmodern times.

The “Westworld” theme park  has “hosts” – very life-like androids – which guests pay top dollar to interact with. Guests can do whatever they wish to hosts without fear of repercussion, for they are just robots, just as enslaved people were regarded as objects in frontier times. Hosts follow a pre-programmed script, cannot harm guests, and have their memories wiped clean after each story so they can be used again in the next.  However, the hosts are very sophisticated androids, capable of great intelligence and the full range of human experience from, for example, grief and dying through to lust and the love of a parent for her or his child. Over time, they begin to recall memories and reflect on their experience, despite being reprogrammed after each story.

Westworld is in part the story of the hosts’ struggle towards consciousness and what that means for human-host relations. That storyline raises philosphical questions about what it means to be human in an age of artificial intelligence and capitalism, and, conversely, what artificial intelligence and capitalism mean for our understanding of human nature and social relations.

All of the series’s complex philosophical-political questions come wrapped in thrilling and intriguing narratives set in the three worlds of the Wild West park, the laboratory and the “real’ world outside. Great writing, directing and performances, and an adrenelin-shot storyline make series one and two entertaining and thought provoking rides for modern and future times. Reviews from New Republic and Pop Matters and Den of Geek here, here, and here.



Humans (seasons 1-3) is a “mature, high-octane thriller offering emotional intrigue and thought-provoking suspense that should prove irresistible to sci-fi fans while remaining accessible enough to lure in genre agnostics”.

Humans is set in a near future London “where strikingly realistic-looking androids called synths are increasingly being called on to perform menial or degrading work, from home care to housekeeping to prostitution”.

In season one, Joe brings  a “synth” called Anita — later known as Mia (Gemma Chan) — into the family home, with repercussions that change their lives forever. As Toby, Sophie and Joe become enamored with Anita, Mattie and Laura realize something is amiss. Meanwhile, Niska, a conscious synth, seeks help from her human brother Leo  after an incident places their unusual family in danger; and Pete, a police officer investigating Niska’s actions, is shocked when his partner Karen reveals her secret past. Elsewhere, retired scientist George struggles to keep his aging synth Odi from being decommissioned; and Laura and Mattie assist Leo as he tries to uncover the truth behind his father’s work. Reviews of season one from Culturefly here, and of season two from Hollywood Reporter here.

Black Mirror


To what extent could the pressures of social media distort a society? In Charlie Brooker’s darkly comedic Black Mirror stories (the black mirror the shiny surface of our devices), the answer tends to be ‘to a great extent indeed’. Brooker combines farce within an effective thriller format to reflect on British society in the age of information technology. This series is not for the feint-hearted as the subject matter is sometimes highly vulgar, but does a thrilling and moving job of making its audience reflect on our immersion in the world of social media. Reviews from Vogue and the New York Review of Books here and here.

Empathise (social issue movies and tv series)



Sean Bean is mesmerising as Father Michael Kerrigan, a small-town priest trying to spare his flock from the horrors of gambling addiction, sexual abuse and police brutality. And Muna Otaru is brilliantly stong and tender as Helen Oyenusi, the mother of a mentally damaged son, a women who, as Father Kerrigan suggests would have made a far better priest than he. A tender exploration of working class lives in the UK today, Broken is ultimately heart-warming in the fashion of Its a Wonderful Life – the movie that inspired writer-director Jimmy McGovern.If you like privilege-worshipping shows like Downton Abbey you will hate this. If you can’t stand them, then Jimmy McGovern’s Broken may just be your cup of tea. Guardian review here.

The Night Of


“Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) plays Nasir Khan, a Pakistani-American college student from Queens who impulsively borrows his dad’s cab so that he can attend a party in Manhattan. A young woman named Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) gets into the cab, and because she’s pretty and teasing and troubled, he drives her to her Upper West Side apartment, spends a debauched night with her, and wakes up to find her dead beside him, drenched in blood from stab wounds. Did he kill her? Although nearly everyone assumes he did — why wouldn’t they, since he fled the scene with the bloody knife in his pocket? — we just don’t know.”

The Night Of “is hypnotic, like reading a fat crime novel filled with memorable characters and atmospheric details”.

Synopsis abridged from the Vulture review (read the full review here).

New York Times review here.

12 Years a Slave


“Based on the 19th-century memoir of Solomon Northup (adapted here by screenwriter John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave follows the tribulations of an educated carpenter, musician and family man from New York state who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south – a shockingly common phenomenon. Stripped of his past, his identity and even (in the eyes of the law) his humanity, the renamed “Platt” becomes the property of plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose comparatively benign and sympathetic demeanour belies his slaver status. But after incurring the ire of sadistic farmhand Tibeats (Paul Dano), “Platt” is sold down the river to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a broiling cauldron of psychotic rage whose desire for slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) appears to be pushing him ever further into an abyss of uncontrollable cruelty.”

Critic Mark kermode writes that “if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave”.

Brilliantly directed with great performances, this film is a key part of the recent re-historicising of America slavery and race-relations. Whether it does a good job of engaging with that history has been questioned by some critics (see the Screenrant review here.)

Synopsis abridged from the Guardian review (full review here).

The Hate U Give


Amanda Stenberg plays Starr Carter, a teenage girl living with her parents and two brothers in the tough (fictional) neighbourhood of Garden Heights. Her father Maverick is a former gang member turned community leader keen to impress on his children both the importance of black pride and the dangers that being a person of colour in an institutionally biased nation brings. Starr is a high-performing student at an elite and mostly white high school. When she becomes involved in a police shooting she learns just how difficult it is to negotitate her way through the different worlds of Garden Heights and the elite school.  Great teen movie engaged with the issues of the “Black Lives Matters” campaign, based on a bestselling book by Angie Thomas.



American high school life isn’t Chinese zhong xue life, but it is interesting. Greta Gerwig’s rites of passage story stars Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, a final year student looking foward to escaping from her staid homeotown of Sacramento. Lady Bird is”decked with a messy blood-red dye job, a smattering of acne and thrift-shop chic sensibilities, she is thoughtful and impulsive, sharp and naïve in equal measure. Lady Bird at one point declares that “the learning part of high school is over.” And, yet, there is still much to be absorbed when it comes to losing one’s virginity, cheating on quizzes, settling for being in the chorus of a drama club production, ditching a guy who clearly has no special feelings for you, breaking up and making up with your bosom buddy and finding out that smoking and drinking are not all that they’re cracked up to be”.

Synopsis abridged from Susan Wlonszcyzyna’s review on Roger (read the full review here).

Big Mouth


Like Lady Bird, Big Mouth is a coming-of-age story, but one that focusses on the last year of middle school rather than the last year of high school. Jen Chaney from Vulture writes that she “can’t say enough about how explicitly and sensitively Big Mouth depicts adolescent sexual exploration. These characters reside right in that freakish spot where adulthood and childhood overlap. On one hand, they are grown-ups with grown-up desires and the ability to conceive children if they acted on those desires. On the other, they are still babies who are too anxious about the act of making babies to actually get anywhere near attempting it. (In one particularly sweet touch, Andrew is still very much attached to a tiny pillow he’s had since infancy, one he nicknames Pilbo Baggins.) There are a lot of jokes about penises and vaginas and weird sex acts in this show. A LOT. But there’s also a surprising amount of poignancy”.  So, a funny and moving window into the world of growing up in contemporary America.

Synopsis abridged from the Vulture review (read the full review here).

Indulge your Fantasies and Nostalgia (Historical movies and series)

Game of Thrones


Based on the much-loved novels of George R.R. Martin (A Song of Fire and Ice series), the series is a medieval fantasy about power struggles among the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Westeros, an imaginary land that bears some resemblance in geography, technology and population to King Arthur’s Britain and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The climate appears vaguely supernatural — there is much talk of generation-long winters — and though the dragons and demonic White Walkers of yore are now believed extinct, the northern border is still protected by a great wall on which men of the Night’s Watch stand guard against Wildings and other fell creatures.

Game of Thrones is a seven part series of “political and psychological intrigue bristling with vivid characters, cross-hatched with tantalizing plotlines and seasoned with a splash of fantasy and quite a lot of sex and violence”.

Synopsis abridged from the L.A. Times review. Empire review here.


Fiction + Faction Podcasts (American, British, Japanese)

This page provides links to podcasts you can listen to to help your English language listening skills. The podcasts have all received strongly positive as well as critical reviews. The podcasts are mainly either fiction or faction (stories based on facts, like “true crime stories”). The genres include science fiction, romance and crime stories as these are the genres people expressed interest in during the classes so far. As well as the stories a few provide more of a discussion than an actual story (like True Crime Japan). We’ll update the list during the year, so any suggestions are welcome.

All of the links below have been tested for use on a standard Chinese mobile. If you’re listening on your phones you will probably need to download each episode of the podcast (if anyone finds a better form of access let me know).

I hope you find something you find interesting and enjoyable, and might tell us your thoughts about it as the year goes on.

Chinese perspectives

Wo Men


Science Fiction Stories


Adventures in New America is the first sci-fi, political satire, Afrofuturistic buddy comedy, serialized for New Americans in a new and desperate time.

Set a few years in the future, Adventures in New America follows the escapades of two mismatched African-New-American best friends — fat, lonely curmudgeon IA and lesbian sneak-thief Simon Carr — who take on a series of increasingly high-stakes heists to get quick cash to pay for IA’s medical treatment while attempting to survive the wilds of New New York City… and a secret cabal of Tetchy Terrorist Vampire Zombies from outer space. Intrigued? Good! Frequently, there will be musical numbers — and radical reflections on our dangerous, beautiful, heart-pounding world.


Someone is changing all the streetlights in Pepper Heights, Cleveland. The color of nighttime is shifting. Everyone thinks they know what happened at the Pepper Heights Zoo… But do they, really?

Dane, a spun-out musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio, has two main goals: keeping his job at the Pepper Heights Zoo and trying not to waste all his time on Grindr. What he doesn’t expect is to get swept into a story about dreams, about forevers, about flickering lights, about unexplained deaths, about relentless change, and about the parts of ourselves that we wish other people knew to look for. Oh, and also a murderous zebra.



Limetown is an audio drama that straddles the line between science fiction and horror. Framed like an investigated journalism podcast a la SerialLimetown follows a reporter trying to find out what happened to a town where everyone suddenly went missing ten years ago. Limetown packs so much character development into its first season, with most episodes following a specific interviewee, but it balances character with one of the most riveting plots I’ve ever heard. After several years, Limetown is returning with its second season on October 31st–yes, Halloween–2018, as well as releasing a prequel novel set when Limetown was founded.



Kaitlin is a young artist struggling to make great work and find great love. She believes that the love depicted in Hollywood movies is real and that she will be one of the lucky ones to find it. When Kaitlin falls for someone who challenges her romantic ideal, she is faced with an impossible choice and a decision that can’t be unmade.


Crime stories


About Season One

A high-school senior named Hae Min Lee disappeared one day after school in 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland. A month later, her body was found in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig sorted through thousands of documents, listened to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talked to everyone she could find who remembered what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. She discovered that the trial covered up a far more complicated story than the jury – or the public – ever got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence — all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers.

True Crime Japan


The team at True Crime Japan discuss a different crime case every episode and shed a light on Japanese society in the process, from an American point of view. They live in Japan and clearly have a great love for Japanese society and culture, and true crime stories.



S-Town is a new podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed, about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But when someone else ends up dead, the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.