Is Beyonce Fit to Portray Etta James? On today's bloggers' roundtable, NPR's Tony Cox guides a discussion about singer Beyonce playing blues legend Etta James on the big screen, a recently released photo showing Barack Obama dressed in Somali garb, and Bill O'Reilly's comments about Michelle Obama.
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Is Beyonce Fit to Portray Etta James?

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Is Beyonce Fit to Portray Etta James?

Is Beyonce Fit to Portray Etta James?

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Tony Cox. On our bloggers Roundtable today, the Democrats played nice in Texas last week but what a difference a weekend makes. Charges and countercharges are flying between Clinton and Obama, and the latest involves a photograph. And it's official, there is now another candidate in the race for president and he's no newcomer. Plus the Oscars may be over but Hollywood has another biopic in the works staring Beyonce as none other than blues diva Etta James.

Is that a good fit? We'll find out. Joining me on today's roundtable is Amber Nicole - Nicole - excuse me, Ambra Nykol. She blogs at Also, Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik, creator of And Robert Redding. He publishes the Hello everybody, how are you?



COX: Let's start with this. Last Thursday, of course, Senator's Clinton and Obama faced off in Austin for a presidential debate. And Hillary and Barack both kept their cool as they went back and forth over immigration, healthcare and Clinton's allegations that Obama has plagiarized in his speeches. Now, at the end - well, to give you an idea of the tone and how cordial it was, we have two clips. We're going to play them back to back. The first one is Clinton and then we'll hear Obama and then we'll come back and talk about it. Here's Hillary Clinton.

(Soundbite of debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): There are comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between us, and it's important that voters get that information. So yes, I do think that words are important and words matter. But actions speak louder than words.

(Soundbite of debate)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): If we can't inspire the American people to go beyond the racial divisions and the religious divisions and the regional divisions that have plagued our politics for so long, then we will continue to see the kind of gridlock in Washington that is resulting in families suffering in very real ways. I'm running for president to start doing something about that suffering and so are the people who are behind my campaign.

COS: So Patrice, that was Thursday. Now, after those civilized debates, the Clinton campaign is stepping up its criticism of Obama. The Obama campaign is angry about the release of this photograph. What happened from Thursday to Monday?

Ms. PATRICE ELIZABETH GREL YURSIK ( I mean I think the people who are behind the campaigns are giving some tips on how to be more tactical. I agree with Barack Obama that Hillary's anger, the shame on you, Barack Obama, and the finger shaking seemed extremely tactical to me, especially in light of those two clips that you just played from the debate. And in these last stages we're going to see a lot more of the ugly side of that kind of politics, splitting hairs over policies even though as similar as they may be, they are going to try to prove why what they are saying is the right thing.

COX: There is another debate, Robert, coming up in Ohio. What tone would you expect in that debate?

Mr. REDDING: A vicious one, because this picture that they have been circulating, the Clinton administration, I would say, you know, and I still think they are an administration, they are trying to get back into power here. You know, Clinton is still in office, Hillary is. So they are trying to, of course, seize the White House and they would do anything to do that. And this is the reason why I'm not a Democrat anymore. That's the reason why I'm an independent, because you have racists in both parties. You have racists in the Republican and racists in the Democrats. And I think this is an issue where they are using a picture to, quote-unquote, to say a thousand words, and it says nothing about Barack Obama and where he stands.

COX: Let's talk about that photograph, Ambra, with you because for people who are not aware, this is just circulating today, and it is a photograph taken in 2006 in Barack's home - in Kenya, and it shows Barack in Somali elder garb. And I'm looking at a photograph of it right now and I'm trying to describe it. I guess the thing that stands out most about it is that he has a white turban around his head, which sends all sorts of signals. What is your take, Ambra, on this photograph?

Ms. NYKOL: Well, you know, I think the thing that's really interesting about this particular picture, and in general about this election, is the amount of distance that Obama has attempted to keep between himself and his Islamic heritage. And I think given, you know, the state of our country right now, I feel like one of the - you know, I think what this image evokes in people as far as the emotion is concerned, and I think it brings sort of to light, that attachment that he does have, you know, a heritage that he has tried to pretty much avoid during this election.

COX: You know, one of the things that we should point out to our listeners - to see the image that we are talking about, you can go to our blog,, to see it for yourself.

Now, the Clinton campaign and their new manager, Maggie Williams, issued a statement in response to the criticism from the Obama camp about the photograph, and without reading the entire statement, it basically says, enough - that's a quote, actually - and it talks about the fact that this is - that if Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing a traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. There's that word ashamed again. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely. So the question, back to you, Robert, is this fair game?

Mr. REDDING: Well, again, they are trying to say that a picture says a thousand words. And I agree with you. He is a little fuzzy on race. He's a little not very I guess on a point in terms of race when he talks and when he talks about being a presidential candidate and when he talks about what he wants to in America; I agree with her on that. But at the same time, this picture is being promoted as if he's a Muslim, and that is a little bit misleading.

In addition to that, one of the reports on this, which this all emanates from The Drudge Report, Matt Drudge one of our chief competitors, he says in this article, editors note here, and this is interesting wording, other leaders have worn local costumes. It is not correct to call this a costume. This is a traditional African garb that these folks in this part of the world wear and it is not correct to characterize it as a costume. I think that has to be pointed out as well.

COX: Patrice, last question on this topic before we move on. The impact that this photograph will have, particularly coming up to Texas and Ohio, how will you characterize it. Will it be something that will count or will it not?

Ms. YURSIK: I mean it depends on of course which side of the fence you stand on. I think the people - the people who support Barack Obama, I think, are willing to overlook this kind of thing as a vicious attack, and he needs to be particularly careful with how he fields this attack. I think that there are a fair number of people who do believe the inaccurate reports that he has, you know, this very strong Islamic background, and you know, it's very, it's poli-tricks as usual. It's very interesting that they are releasing this photo at this time, especially in a state like Texas. It will be real interesting to see how it goes down.

COX: Another thing that happened over the weekend that could have an impact on the race, although what impact it could have is still to be determined, is the entry into the race of none other than Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, third party candidate now, who has thrown his hat officially into the presidential race. Ambra, what do you think of Nader getting in?

Ms. NYKOL: I think it's hysterical. I always love it when Nader gets in the race. It kind of makes things a little bit more interesting. But I mean I think the biggest implications that, you know, that we are looking at here is for the Democratic Party, because generally that's where he tends to shake things up a bit. So I'm kind of interested to see, you know, where the Clinton and the Obama people fall on the Nader issue.

COX: You know, he was considered to be a spoiler in the race in 2000. Do you think, Robert, that he can play that role again this time around?

Mr. REDDING: Yes, I think that he can play the spoiler, and you know, Barack is in a Catch-22 here because he was asked what do you think about Nader getting in earlier this weekend, and basically the camp said that, you know what, we are not concerned about him because of course, duh, they have a race in front of them they have to win first before they even get to that race. In short, I would say about Ralph Nader is most of the - 50 percent of the people that are in the Green Party are black, and this is a very big blow to Cynthia McKinney, who would have locked up this nomination. If he intends to run as a Green Party person, more likely than not he's going to win this nomination now, and I'm sure that infuriates a lot of people.

COX: Patrice, what do you think?

Ms. YURSIK: I mean, I agree with Ambra. It's very - I love when Ralph Nader gets involved. I really don't feel like he has the strength behind him that he had, you know, during the Bush/Gore days where he could be a strong and viable spoiler. I think people kind of are so afraid of that right now. But the topics that he brings to the table and the kind of debate that he brings to politics, I think it's important. I'm very, very interested to see how Clinton and Obama address him when the opportunity comes.

COX: One of his arguments, Ambra, was that he speaks for the independents who are not being spoken to, in his view, either by the two Democratic challengers or by the Republican candidate, and that he feels that legitimizes - he being Nader - his attempt to get into the race to have those issues brought to the fore. Legitimate or not legitimate?

Ms. NYKOL: Probably. In my opinion I would say not legitimate. I mean I'm an independent and I don't feel like Nader speaks for me. Nonetheless, I think he does speak for a large, you know, a certain percentage of Americans who are disgruntled in a lot of ways and don't, you know, aren't happy with either party. So I don't know. For me, I don't think he speaks for me, but I do think he is a valid, you know, player in this race.

COX: Let's move on to one other thing. Barack's wife, Michelle Obama, made headlines with a statement about patriotism recently, and it's been back and forth and back and forth, and just recently to that, we had Bill O'Reilly talking about her. Now, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News is not someone that is traditionally identified with supporting black causes necessarily, but in this case he came to the defense, or it could be construed that he came to the defense, of Michelle Obama, who made the comment about feeling really proud to be an American for the first time as an adult.

Here's what Bill O'Reilly had to say.

(Soundbite of television program, "The O'Reilly Factor")

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host): I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama, unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels, that America is a bad country or a flawed nation or whatever, then that's legit.

COX: Now there have been some who have taken issue with the word lynching. Do either of you take any issue with Bill O'Reilly's use of that term in this context?

Mr. REDDING: I don't. I don't think he meant it in the conventional sense. I think that it is a slip of the tongue because what's interesting about - before that, right before that, right before that part where he said what he said, was people have been seizing on all of these crazy things that people have been saying and kind of taking them out of context, and I don't think that's fair to them. And then he's turned around, and he's taken out of context on his lynch remark. So I'm not one that typically defends Bill O'Reilly. I don't think he meant it in a conventional sense.

COX: Amber, what do you think? Is this word, lynching, becoming - are we overly sensitive to that word?

Ms. NYKOL: I don't think we're overly sensitive. I think it's a pretty racially charged word, and I think people who use it are either (a) you know, not being wise, or they're very calculated. In O'Reilly's case, I think he's very calculated. He's a - in some sense of the word, he's a shock jock. So he knows what he's doing, and I believe he was very calculated in using that particular word.

COX: Do you share that view, Patrice?

Ms. YURSIK: I completely agree. You know, even if you do want to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was defending Michelle Obama, you would think he would've learned from the recent Golf Channel incident with Tiger Woods, and you know, I mean, I can't imagine somebody who paints himself as the pulse, of being on the pulse of the news cycle, is completely unaware of the weight of that particular word. I think at best, he was courting controversy, and at worst, he was revealing an aspect of his character that might be sadly unsurprising. I don't know.

COX: Well, he certainly said that he wanted to get to the bottom of it, and I suppose the proof would be in the pudding if in fact they do get to the bottom of that. It all began with a woman who called in and said that she knew what was in Michelle Obama's heart and called her a militant, etcetera, etcetera, and that prompted O'Reilly to respond in the fashion that he did.

All right, we'll wait and see what happens with that. We're going to move on to Hollywood because although the Oscars are over, Hollywood is now involved with a new film, a biopic about none other than Etta James, and this is a person, in case there's anyone out there who is not familiar with the great Etta James, this is her.

(Soundbite of song, "At Last")

Ms. ETTA JAMES (Singer): (Singing) At least my love has come along...

COX: Okay, Patrice. Beyonce is going to play Etta James, and Beyonce is certainly good. No one would argue with that. Etta James is a classic and a very different kind of classic than Beyonce. Can she pull this off?

Ms. YURSIK: I mean, Beyonce's talent is undeniable. She's a great singer. She's a great dancer. It's the acting that I'm really worried about, and Etta James' story is so big and so powerful, and I really wish we'd get back to letting actors do the acting. There are a lot of incredibly talented black actresses that can't find this kind of work right now.

COX: Well you know, Robert, the issue here, one of the issues, is class and style, and Etta James herself has said that, you know, she called Beyonce bougie, and I don't think she meant it in a derogatory way, but she was saying it in contrast to herself, that she was a hard-driving, you know, former heroin addict and not a bougie person at all.

In fact, Etta said she was the kind of woman who went in the bathroom to smoke. So how would you distinguish the two, and do you think that Beyonce's acting would be good enough to overcome that cultural divide?

Mr. REDDING: No, and I don't think that she will do a good job in this role. I think that there are better people. I think that let actors do the acting. Just because she looks the part doesn't mean she'll actually be good in the part.

As far as her versatility in the kind of mindset of Ms. James and thinking about her own career, I think you know, when you make so much - I'm starting to lose respect for Beyonce because she spent shaking her rear end to make money, and I don't think she has to do that. So you know, we're talking about night and day in terms of these two different people.

COX: You're probably one of the few people who I've ever heard say that, Robert, to be quite honest.

Mr. REDDING: She's a beautiful woman. I don't think she has to continue to...

COX: That she has to do that? Okay, Ambra, what do you say about her playing this - I mean, this is a hard-core role for her.

Ms. NYKOL: Yeah, I mean, I was talking with my husband about this this morning, and the first thing I said was I don't think she's grimy enough, for lack of a better word, but I agree with what the previous people said. I think that there are tremendous black actresses right now who could kill that role, and I don't think Beyonce is a black actress. I think she's an entertainer and a singer, among other things, but she's not an actress, and she hasn't shown that to us in really any way, in my personal opinion, and I agree. I think that - I mean, it's unfortunate, and I hope that she can do well in the role and do it justice, but I just don't have the faith that she will.

COX: I'm not comparing her talent as an actor to those of Denzel Washington, but do you remember when Denzel played the character, the villain, in "Training Day," people were upset because they didn't like the fact that he had gone to the other end, so to speak, but he felt that it was a good thing for him as an actor. Maybe this will be a good thing for Beyonce as an actor. What do you say, Ambra?

Ms. NYKOL: We'll see. I mean, I guess we'll see, but I just - I don't know. I have to say that. I can't speak for the actors in Hollywood right now, but I grew up - my mom's an actress, and I mean, there's a professional craft there that I feel like a lot of times is being passed over, and I don't know that I would put Beyonce on the level of Denzel Washington. I think he went into character for that, and I don't know what she'll be doing when she takes on this role.

COX: Robert, you've got 10 seconds to respond. I cut you off.

Mr. REDDING: Real quickly, again we're talking about him, Denzel Washington, going from being a good guy to being a bad guy, and that was stretching him as an actor. But she's got to be an actress first.

Ms. NYKOL: Right.

COX: Tough words. Tough words, absolutely. Ambra Nykol of, she's on the line from KUOW in Seattle; Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik, the creator of, she joined from member-station WLRN in Miami; and Robert Redding publishes, he's with me from Radio People Studios in Monroe, Louisiana. Everybody, thank you very much.

Ms. NYKOL: Thank you.

Mr. REDDING: Thank you.

Ms. YURSIK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, a Los Angeles artist talks about coping with autism in the family.

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