#CriticsSoWhite : Code Switch The reckoning that is reshaping Hollywood is finally making its way to the critic's perch. Bilal Qureshi joins us to talk about exciting movies coming this fall, and who gets to judge.
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#CriticsSoWhite

#CriticsSoWhite

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Heads up - the following podcast contains language that some people may find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDDIE WALTMAN'S "GRAND TETONS")

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And if you follow any celebrity on Instagram, you already know award season is here - the dresses, the parties, the selfies with the famous people, all that. But the Oscars aren't till February.

DEMBY: So far away...

MERAJI: So far.

DEMBY: ...Which is plenty of time for people to start picking favorites for all the big trophies and then time for there to be backlashes to the favorites.

MERAJI: And then backlashes to those backlashes to the favorites.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Speaking of the Oscars, Shereen, didn't you get invited to the Oscars last year?

MERAJI: I sure did.

DEMBY: Were you nominated for something?

MERAJI: (Laughter) No, not yet - not yet. But that is in the plan for the future.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: No, i was supposed to help some NPR colleagues cover the ceremony. So it wasn't, you know, sexy like taking shots with Guillermo del Toro - or Benicio del Toro, for that matter, who I love.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Anyway, I got really sick. I couldn't go. It's a sad story. My dress is still hanging up in the closet collecting dust.

DEMBY: That was supposed to be an opportunity for you to flex. But I guess this is not really - (laughter)...

MERAJI: I'm flexing right here in the studio. Can you see my guns?

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Maybe you'll get the dust off your dress this year.

MERAJI: I hope so.

DEMBY: Like we said, the Academy Awards are in five months. But film critics have already seen a lot of the movies that will probably end up being nominated. One of the places they converge is north of the border at the Toronto International Film Festival, which recently wrapped. It's where the so-called critical consensus begins to cohere. But the people who decided what's buzz-worthy in Toronto - and for the film industry in general - the critics, those people are mostly white.

MERAJI: Surprise.

DEMBY: Surprise.

MERAJI: And joining us to talk more about that is Bilal Qureshi. He covers film for NPR. He's not white.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And he's been thinking a lot about race and film criticism over the years.

Bilal, welcome back to CODE SWITCH.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

MERAJI: So we're friends.

QURESHI: That's right. Disclosure....

MERAJI: I talk on the phone with you all the time.

QURESHI: ...Disclosure, yes.

MERAJI: (Laughter) And I've been listening to you talk about going to Toronto for it feels like years now. Tell the audience, who's probably never been, like me, what's so great about the Toronto Film Festival. Why is it so important?

QURESHI: Well, you know, as Gene was just saying - the fall film season, the sort of prestige season when Hollywood has its serious movies that are sort of designed to be seen in blazers and scarves come out.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

QURESHI: That's sort of - this is that time of year. And the Toronto Film Festival (ph) is the biggest of these three big festivals - Venice, Telluride and Toronto.

DEMBY: Do you wear a blazer and scarf when you watch these movies?

QURESHI: Exact - well, it's usually cold. But this year, it was kind of hot. So thanks, climate change.

But the broader point is that this is when these movies that we're going to be talking about for the rest of the year are first shown. And Toronto has just become so much bigger because it's close to New York; it's close to LA. It's the North American premieres for a lot of the big films of the year. You have huge events. All the celebrities are there. All the directors are there. And yeah, as you were saying, Gene, it's where you get to see a lot of these films for the first time and critics and get to sort of sit around and talk about - well, this is great. This is what's going to win best picture. This is what's going to have the best actor nominees. All that consensus sort of begins to form at this festival.

DEMBY: OK. So how does this work? Like, after the screenings, are y'all sitting around, like, having conversations about, you know, the latest Barry Jenkins movie? Like, are you just sitting around drinking coffee and just, like, gaming out what might happen in the next couple months?

MERAJI: Barry Jenkins name-dropping always.

DEMBY: Yeah.

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, you know, you'd think that might be it. There's a lot of binge-viewing going on. You're usually in three to five films a day. And you're running from screening to screening and occasionally trying to catch a press conference or somebody talking about a film. So it's not as sort of, you know, wine and sort of cheese after a movie as you might have thought.

But I think what ends up happening is that you see very quickly - people tweet right out of the screenings about what they think the best thing was of the year. Or the big dailies like Variety and Hollywood Reporter - which are the big Hollywood, you know, sort of journals - they'll have their reviews up right away. And you begin to see very quickly, too, marketing begin to take shape. You know, those blurbs that you see - most amazing film ever, best performance I've ever seen, crying in my seat...

DEMBY: Riveting.

QURESHI: ...Like, riveting. Like, all that kind of hyperbolic adjective language, that all begins to sort of materialize.

DEMBY: (Imitating film trailer voiceover) Viola Davis is a force.

QURESHI: Yeah. Yeah. That's right - in that voice. Exactly.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

QURESHI: And I think it happens right there at the festival. You see it happen so quickly because people want to be first in. They want to break the news, as it were, about a certain film.

MERAJI: That sounds anxiety-producing to me.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Do you plan out everything you're going to do in advance, your agenda?

QURESHI: Well, you know, for a long time - when I started going to Toronto, part of it was - it's also an amazing festival to see a lot of small films, independent films, international films. For a long time, the so-called diverse films...

DEMBY: Diverse films.

QURESHI: ...Were not really in the main program, you know? They would often be on the sidelines, or they'd be playing in smaller theaters. And so, for me, that was often less anxiety-producing because I wasn't interested in catching, you know, the next sort of Bradley Cooper "Silver Linings Playbook" screening before everybody else could get to it.

So it made it less anxiety-inducing to me. But I will say that, yeah, it's delirium central. There's, like, so many movies going on. And you have FOMO all day about - did you miss something? Could you have done this? Could you have seen this differently?

DEMBY: Is the popcorn good at least?

QURESHI: Yeah, it's really good. Toronto is - I mean, the Canadians have really good snacks. And...

(LAUGHTER)

QURESHI: There are lots of good - you know, you have to have cash with you at all times. So it's fun.

DEMBY: It's like poutine and popcorn.

MERAJI: Yeah, exactly - all day...

QURESHI: Yeah, there's a lot of poutine. Exactly.

MERAJI: ...Poutine all day long.

DEMBY: Right.

So in an essay you wrote for us on the CODE SWITCH blog that's called "Widening The Lens," you wrote that, in the past when you've gone to these screenings, you've been one of, if not the only, brown face in the room.

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, in 2012 - that was my first time at the Toronto Film Festival - I mean, the film critics were kind of elite. The festival screenings were also - people were often, like, on their BlackBerrys or iPhones, like, sending notes right away to their editors. It was a very particular vibe in the movie theater that you may not be accustomed to usually. And concurrent to these press screenings that are happening are all the public screenings of the films. And Toronto itself is a very diverse city, so you look out in the city - it's very, you know, brown, Asian, mixed race. It's very much the sort of Toronto demographic. But the screenings where these critics were gathered and where I would often be sitting at some of the screenings, you'd see, like, it was almost entirely white at most of these screenings and also much older and kind of very seasoned crowd that has their game on sort of criticism and their blurbs down.

MERAJI: BQ, let's talk numbers.

QURESHI: OK, so not just my feelings, you mean.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Yes, give us some data.

QURESHI: OK.

MERAJI: What do the numbers look like in terms of critics?

QURESHI: Yeah, this summer, USC - the University of Southern California out in LA where you are, Shereen - has just released actual numbers for the first time on film criticism and what it looks like. And they surveyed films over the last few years, looking at the top 300 films that are released and their Rotten Tomatoes scores and basically looking at what feeds into those aggregated scores that films get. And they found that basically 80 percent of film critics were male, and the vast majority were white, and you had a very small percentage of reviews that were written by women of color - 4 percent.

DEMBY: Wow.

QURESHI: And so the numbers of people who were actually weighing in on the films, whose consensus is even being taken into account in those aggregated scores, is really not representative at all of the country. And this was the first time that you had hard numbers to show that. I spoke to one film critic, Monica Castillo, who said that when she first read those numbers - she's a Latina-American film critic, she's really had a hard time herself getting some of her reviews out - she told me - she said, you know, for the first time, I had a number to my experience.

And another thing that came out, actually, in an updated version of the study, which was released during Toronto this year, is that there's also a discrepancy between how critics rate and review films based on who the central character is. They found that when critics review movies with white male characters at their center, they tend to rank them similarly across backgrounds. But when you begin to see a difference that, say, a movie has a woman of color at its center, then the white male critics don't tend to rank it as highly. So what they were finding was that there was actually a discrepancy between how those movies are then received and that there, in fact, is a connection between how you relate to a story and perhaps even review it, which is not to say, of course, that every black critic likes every black film but to say that there is a discrepancy that they're finding in the numbers that were given to films.

DEMBY: So, Bilal, you write that mainstream criticism itself is at risk of becoming irrelevant if it doesn't address this issue, right?

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, I think the reason that I was mentioning this issue is even more important now is that movies, in fact, have become - are much further along than the critics are. And that's the biggest thing that I've been noticing in Toronto. And while I experience at some of these theaters would be, you know, as white as the Canadian winter, you know, the problem was that the films themselves are becoming more and more multicultural, multiracial. The big stars of the last few festivals have been Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins. You know, Ava DuVernay's films have shown at Toronto. You have a kind of sense that the actual culture that's being made now is moving much further along. You know, if you look at last year alone, you had huge hits - "Girls Trip," "Coco," "Black Panther," of course, and "Crazy Rich Asians" now, which each then lead to some kind of discussion like, well, actually, people of color go to the movies. Why don't we have more movies...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: Happens every time.

QURESHI: Happens - every time it comes out, it's like, wow, we didn't know they were all there. But as you...

MERAJI: I am doing - I just have to break in here. I'm doing a story about "La Bamba." And I've been reading all these articles from, you know, I think it's 30 years ago. And they were saying the exact same thing because, you know, "La Bamba" had come out, "Stand and Deliver." And it was like, oh, Latinos go to the movies, and Latinos are on screen in Hollywood. Maybe this is going to be a renaissance. And here we are having the same conversation 30 years later.

QURESHI: But I think the kind of back-to-back successes of these films, the fact that, you know, the industry itself is changing and a new generation of artists and filmmakers are becoming much more the stars of these film festivals, to not have criticism, you know, accompanying that shift is becoming more and more of a problem. And so Toronto this year actually did something really different, which is that they invited almost 200 journalists of color and underrepresented backgrounds to the festival, paid for them to come there, and accredited them and gave them a chance to have access to these screenings and these interviews.

I mean, the reason I've been really enjoying going there for many years and have written so much from the festival is because it's actually curated by this really, I think, progressive, interesting film curator Cameron Bailey, who's the artistic director of the festival. He's black. He's Canadian. His wife is Chinese-Canadian. He's very much talked about sort of how an inclusive festival in an inclusive industry is central to kind of his mission for the festival. He's also a former film critic himself. And so he's been really a big part of bringing these big films like Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" or Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" into the festival program as big, red carpet events. So you know, there's tiers of screenings, and these have been given the big, full kind of treatment in the last few years.

And Cameron Bailey, you know - I spoke to him this year about this initiative and why they wanted to do this. So I wanted to play you guys a little bit of what he had to say.

CAMERON BAILEY: The reactions that came out of film festivals was often different and was challenged sometimes on social media when the films went into general release, films especially where there was some kind of specific racial threat in the narrative or, in many cases, a gender threat in the narrative. And you began to get different reactions from at least my social media feed and many people's others, I think, than you would from the critical reaction.

And so we began to pay attention to that. And as soon as we began to have those debates internally at TIFF, I was thrown back to my own experience. I was a film critic for many, many years, beginning in the late 1980s. And in Toronto, I was nearly always the only person in a room full of critics watching a film at a press screening who wasn't white. So I was very aware on a personal level of what that felt like, and sometimes having different opinions than the consensus opinion around films and how bringing a wider range of people to the table would generate a wider range of opinions.

MERAJI: Did you notice, Bilal, if this initiative made a difference at the film festival this year?

QURESHI: Well, you know, I think a lot of the articles that people are going to be writing - and essays - will come out as some of these films are released, so they're being shown pre-release at the festival. But yeah, you know, definitely the screenings to me felt - they were more diverse than they had been before. I also think that some of the big films that came out at this year's festival - you saw reactions to them on Twitter and such that immediately took into account that they were engaging with questions of race, identity, what's happening politically in America. They're not sort of context-free, which I think is really nice to begin to see that films are being viewed, you know, in the prism of what we're going through right now as a country and as a society.

So I think that's something where critics of color were really weighing in when they saw in a movie that it was speaking to our time. And one of the big movies of the festival this year was Barry Jenkins' follow-up to "Moonlight," who I know is a favorite of Gene's. Right?

DEMBY: Yeah, "Moonlight," oh God. He was on the podcast before "Moonlight," yeah.

QURESHI: Yeah, that's - when he wrote "Moonlight," he also wrote an adaptation of James Baldwin's "If Beale Street Could Talk." And that film premiered - had its world premiere at Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK")

REGINA KING: (As Sharon) We are drinking to new life. Tish gonna have Fonny's baby.

QURESHI: I can say that that movie - you know, being in the audience there and the reactions to that movie, the standing ovation that it received - just the feeling in that room was really different and palpable. The debate that that movie generated was very much emblematic of the shift at Toronto where you had, you know, more critics of color weighing in, saying that they saw in that movie, you know, things that I think maybe the white critics weren't seeing. And to that point, actually, Cameron Bailey talked about programming this film at the festival, and I wanted to play a bit of what he said.

BAILEY: It springs from the cultural production of black America in terms of the Baldwin source material, Barry's work as a writer and a filmmaker, the actors who were there, and there's some, you know, details, some texture, some nuance that I think a black audience is going to respond to in a stronger way and black critics will as well. And so it was really refreshing to see the debate, and it doesn't mean people are going to like it any more, but there's just going to be a kind of a depth of insight that you will get from people who are also already immersed in that culture.

DEMBY: It's funny listening to Cameron there because so much of movie viewing in a theater is very communal experience, right? When "Girls Trip" came out, I was very - I, like, wanted to see that with black folks. I wanted to hear black people react to it. I wanted to hear - like, there's this humor that plays differently in a room full of black folks and that is when humor is aimed at black people, right? So...

MERAJI: I felt the same way about "Coco," by the way. And I did see it in a theater full of Latinos - Latinx folks.

QURESHI: When - if "Beale Street" - what Cameron Bailey was suggesting was in that movie screen at Toronto at the world premiere - it was a public screening. People were - had a rapturous kind of reception. And some wrote - people wrote, you know, it was one of the most beautiful portrayals of black love that has ever been put to screen. And, you know - as you know, if you're a super fan of Barry Jenkins, I mean, he makes movies...

DEMBY: About - yeah.

QURESHI: ...That just, like, light up the screen in a way that nobody else really does. And then some critics, of course, the next day who were seeing it in the press screenings were critiquing the film for not being as great as "Moonlight" was, for seeming slow and dragging at times, so there became kind of structural responses to it that were different. And so I think that there was a kind of divide that that movie had. But Barry Jenkins himself gave an interview after the film and said, you know, I made this for black people, and this is a movie that's about sort of black life and black love. And to him, he understands that those audiences will react to it differently. I think what's great about this year is a lot of black critics were there, too, to be able to write their reviews and who will probably be writing a lot of the think pieces that you will read about this film once it comes out later this fall.

MERAJI: More on movies and race with Bilal Qureshi after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH, and we're back here with Bilal Qureshi.

MERAJI: Tell us about some other movies that are getting a lot of buzz.

QURESHI: Well, you know, the movie that won the equivalent of the prize that "Three Billboards" won last year is a movie called "Green Book..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREEN BOOK")

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Don) I'm a musician. I'm about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South. What other experience do you have?

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tony) Public relations.

ALI: (As Don) Do you foresee any issues in working for a black man?

MORTENSEN: (As Tony) You, in the Deep South? There's gonna be problems.

QURESHI: ...Which is directed by Peter Farrelly, who made - he's one of the Farrelly brothers who made "Dumb And Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary," but this is his kind of serious turn, and it's a movie about a...

DEMBY: Wait, green book like the books that black people needed to use to navigate through segregated spaces when they're traveling?

QURESHI: Yeah, exactly. This is a period film set in the 1960s before the Civil Rights Act is passed, and Mahershala Ali - "Moonlight..."

DEMBY: The great Mahershala.

QURESHI: ...The great is playing...

MERAJI: From the Bay.

QURESHI: ...Yeah, playing a jazz musician who has to go on a tour through the Deep South and his sort of white driver is played by Viggo Mortensen, and the two of them have to navigate these spaces, learn to deal with each other. And it's really supposed to be the race sort of feel-good movie of the year because they come to terms with each other and learn about each other and about America in the interim. I didn't see it because it screened later, but people who saw it at Toronto really loved it. And the Canadian audiences really loved it. Now, I have a sinking feeling that this movie is going to generate a lot of backlash when it comes out or just a lot of debate.

DEMBY: A few people have tweeted at us about this movie. A few people that were at Toronto said that, yeah, I don't know, man, I don't know. It sounds like reverse "Driving Miss Daisy," from what you just described.

MERAJI: "Driving Mr. Ali."

DEMBY: "Driving Mr. Mahershala."

QURESHI: Yeah, I mean, exactly. I think that it was not expected to be one of the big movies but then it had this great response to it, and I think, you know, it'll be interesting to see how that lands, as you said, in the culture. But the other, you know, big movies of the festival are not only "If Beale Street Could Talk" by Barry Jenkins but Steve McQueen, who made "12 Years A Slave" has made his most commercial film to date, "Widows," which stars Viola Davis among an ensemble of actors playing a group of women whose husbands, you know, sort of are killed in a heist, and then they have to take on this mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Veronica) Our go date is in three days - the night of the debate. Now, all of our work is worth nothing if we don't move this money and fast. The notebook says five...

QURESHI: It's a real thriller. It's a real kind of genre movie but embedded in Chicago, in the Black Lives Matter movement, in police brutality and all kinds of social questions that Steve McQueen has always been interested in. So it's kind of a very, very smart popcorn movie. Again, I think some of the critics of color thought the film had a lot more to say about society, and I think a lot of the white critics were sort of responding to it more at the level of like, well, this is a good genre movie. Good work, Steve, on getting us sort of a great thriller.

MERAJI: What about for you? What are your personal favorites coming out of Toronto?

QURESHI: I think - you know, one of the movies I really love which you guys will all hear about is Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," which is set in Mexico City. It's kind of a memoir movie for him. It's about his own childhood in Mexico City. And it kind of actually gets into the questions of class and race within Mexico.

DEMBY: OK.

QURESHI: And - because it's about his family, who are privileged, upper-middle-class family in Roma, this neighborhood in Mexico City, and the housekeeper who kind of raised him who he's made this film about. And it's a really incredible film. It's in black and white. It's very much a festival - it seemed like a festival film, very artful. But I also think it will really connect with people because it really is a coming-of-age story and a way of looking at Mexico that we haven't really seen in a big movie in our screens before.

DEMBY: It sounds like a departure from his other movies - right? - like "Gravity" which is, like, this big spectacle, right? This big...

QURESHI: Or "Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban," like...

DEMBY: Right.

QURESHI: Alfonso Cuaron makes, like, whatever he wants to make and yet also is just a real - I mean, he's a real technical director. And so I think it's going to be a big deal when it comes out. And I loved it just 'cause it's a really lovely way of telling a personal story through film. The other film that is the huge film that you must have heard about already is "A Star Is Born," which is the Lady...

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: The trailer is so intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Jackson) Can I ask you a personal question?

LADY GAGA: (As Ally) OK.

COOPER: (As Jackson, singing) Tell me something, girl. Do you write songs or anything?

GAGA: (As Ally) I don't sing my own songs.

COOPER: (As Jackson) Why?

GAGA: (As Ally) I just don't feel comfortable.

COOPER: (As Jackson) Why wouldn't you feel comfortable?

GAGA: (As Ally) Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded but that they didn't like the way I look.

COOPER: (As Jackson) I think you're beautiful.

QURESHI: The trailer's really intense. The movie's really intense. I mean, some people were saying that this is going to end up being a bit like the "La La Land" versus "Moonlight" fight between the very artful film and the very commercial film. "A Star Is Born" would be like "La La Land" in that one is sort of a love letter - one is a love letter to - you know, to Hollywood and the entertainment industry itself, and the other is this very kind of innovative, imaginative film. But that said, "A Star Is Born" is very good. And what actually might surprise you which surprised me is that aside from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, the rest of the film is a quite diverse cast. And so Bradley Cooper's best friend is played by Dave Chappelle, who kind of emerges in the movie to give his very prophetic speech about fame and your relationship with fame which feels very...

MERAJI: Which he knows a lot about.

QURESHI: ...Which he knows. And so it seems like he's just speaking to us after a long time.

DEMBY: You know what? Let me tell you some shit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")

DAVE CHAPELLE: (As Noodles) You know, man, in the old days I always knew, like, you were going to do something, that you'd be all right. It's the first time I'm worried about you.

QURESHI: And then the other character, who is Lady Gaga's best friend through her whole journey to becoming this star as she's born, is played by "Hamilton" star Anthony Ramos.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah.

QURESHI: And so, you know, it's got a pretty kind of - and then they're, like, central parts of the film, and they appear, you know, in major sequences. So that - even a movie like that weirdly felt more inclusive than it could have or needed to be. And I think that maybe speaks to how some of these conversations are beginning to influence a lot of cinema that's being made now. So I think both of those films were great sort of fun and I think will be best picture candidates.

MERAJI: A reminder - you called me the day that you got back to D.C. from Toronto to rave about a film that I haven't heard you mention yet. It's called "The Hate U Give," and it's a film based on a YA novel that was a New York Times best-seller written by Angie Thomas. It's about a 16-year-old girl named Starr whose friend Khalil is killed by a police officer, and Starr takes her anger to the streets in protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HATE U GIVE")

AMANDLA STENBERG: (As Starr) It's about more than just Khalil. It's about black people, poor people and everybody at the bottom. I need to speak for him.

MERAJI: Bilal, I've just watched the trailer to "The Hate U Give." And it, like, brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. Tell us why you loved this film so much.

QURESHI: Well, I have to first explain that I saw that trailer also before the festival and did not put it on my list because it did not seem like it was...

MERAJI: What?

QURESHI: It did not seem like it was meant for me. And I also...

MERAJI: It was obviously meant for me.

QURESHI: Yes, exactly. And it just looked a bit on the nose and a bit sort of like Black Lives Matters 101, sort of the teen edition. And that's OK, but I think that, you know, I didn't really - it wasn't really on my roster. And then I started reading reviews going back to festival consensus. And through the midweek point people were saying, this is the surprising film of the festival. It's actually incredible, really powerful. People were raving about it. And so it was the last movie that I saw at the festival before I left. And what really struck me about it was how well it works over its two hours. It really - you know, it brings you into this wonderful family life, to her character and her coming-of-age experience.

So she is CODE SWITCH via experience personified. She is - you know, is growing up in this black neighborhood, goes every day to a very posh white school and is navigating these things. It's told in kind of diary - you know, her experiences. And then she has these experiences that really politicize her. And, you know, it's - again, it's designed for teenagers, so again, maybe wasn't made for me. But I'm always struck by how hard it is to make a movie work that well and how many don't work.

And this film works well from beginning to end. And by the end, you're really - you know, really shifted by it. And I thought that was incredible. And I think it's going to be a huge commercial success because it has all the elements to both be politically, you know, embedded in what we're going through and I think understands how to relate to its audience and move its audience. And so this cinema that I saw it in - you know, most times critics don't say anything - people were crying. People were getting emotional in a press screening, which is very rare to see. So I was impressed by the film for that ability.

MERAJI: I'm so glad. See, I knew it was going to be good just looking at the trailer.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I should be a film critic.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I mean, he did say that the press screenings are super white. So I wonder what that means that they were, like, this is crazy. Did it read as 101? Did it read as the kind of thing that would play well with them because they're super white?

QURESHI: No. But actually, in my case, going back to the diversity of the festival, there was actually - it was a row of critics sitting behind me who were all black who were sitting together. And I think they were there and probably thinking that this movie needs to be skewered and sort of, like, called out for its basicness. And actually, that didn't end up happening because I think everybody was sort of crying, you know, over the course of the film.

MERAJI: Interesting.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Shereen.

QURESHI: I think it also speaks to, like, how marketing works, you know, because trailers like this are cut to appeal to a wide range of people. And I just hope it finds its audience and that doesn't sort of, you know, just gloss it over because it looks like a teenybopper film. But let me just say, it's pretty amazing that we now have a high school coming-of-age story that's centered on a black young woman's experience. I don't remember ever seeing a film like that growing up where a high school movie was not about Drew Barrymore or Julia Stiles or "Can't Hardly Wait." Like, those are my only high school movie memories. So I don't even - I was, like, kind of thinking about how this is, like, actually the first high school movie I've seen that shows how your racial consciousness and your awakenings happen at that age. That's when you're formed. And I think the movie's really smart about showing how that kind of happens in that period. And like I said, I think it'll be, like, seen by high schools and by school groups and things, which is good. I mean, it's not bad. But I'll be curious what you think, Gene, when it comes out. Please do write about it.

DEMBY: I'm really, really interested to see it.

MERAJI: I'm sure he'll hate it.

DEMBY: (Laughter) So you are obviously a brown critic. Who else are you reading? Which other critics of color should we be reading as well?

QURESHI: Well, you know, I found through your, actually, work and network as well Soraya McDonald's work, who used to write for The Washington Post...

DEMBY: (Unintelligible).

QURESHI: Yeah. And she writes for The Undefeated now. And she's an amazing film critic and cultural critic in general. I've always really enjoyed reading Wesley Morris, who's obviously been around for a long time. But he's at The Times, won the Pulitzer Prize...

DEMBY: He won Pulitzer.

QURESHI: ...Yeah, one of the first sort of I think, you know, black queer critics to be at such a big sort of post. And I think he often looked at films through this angle. I remember producing an interview, which maybe, Shereen, you might remember, we did an ATC interview - an All Things Considered interview about "Fast And The Furious" and why those movies were actually some of the first truly multicultural diverse films.

MERAJI: Yes.

QURESHI: And Wesley Morris wrote a big think piece about that, which, again, he brought to bear this way of seeing cinema. So he's somebody. And then the two critics I interviewed for this essay for CODE SWITCH, Monica Castillo, who wrote an amazing piece for The New York Times about "Coco" and ways that different cultures look at death and how important that is in understanding that film, and then Kate Young, who's a wonderful feminist writer from Trinidad and Tobago, who I interviewed for this piece as well. So it was really interesting to see, you know, how they're thinking about film and culture. And so I think the wider range of people that are taking the time to write about film, to reflect on why a film works and doesn't work, interviewing people, it makes a huge difference to the kind of conversation we have and the kind of cinema we have as a result of it.

MERAJI: Bilal Qureshi, longtime film nerd who covers arts and culture for NPR, thank you so much.

QURESHI: Thank you guys for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So going back to "The Hate U Give" and my excitement around it (laughter) the woman who wrote the novel that the film is based on, Angie Thomas, she went to Belhaven University, which is in Jackson, Miss. And she calls Belhaven a mostly white, upper class, private Christian school in conservative Mississippi. And code switching was a big theme at that time in her life, and it's a big theme in the novel and the film. And in an interview with theGrio, Angie Thomas said that during college, she felt like two different people in two different worlds, right? She'd leave her house playing Tupac. And by the time she rolled onto campus at Belhaven, she was playing the Jonas Brothers (laughter) because, you know, that's what she thought she had to do to fit in. So I think that we should go out with something for Angie Thomas. And we should go out with not the Jonas Brothers but Tupac's "Changes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself, is life worth living? Should I blast myself? I'm tired of being poor. And even worse, I'm black. My stomach hurts so I'm looking for a purse to snatch. Cops give a damn about a negro. Pull the trigger, kill a - he's a hero. Give the - to the kids. Who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare. First ship them dope...

DEMBY: You don't need to be pressed too hard to drop Pac in here, just, you know.

MERAJI: Tupac, you're always giving us life.

DEMBY: Wait, so "The Hate U Give," that comes from Tupac, right?

MERAJI: Oh, right. It does. Yes. "The Hate U Give" does come from Tupac. It's the hate you give little infants fucks everybody. It's actually his thug life tattoo that everybody knows.

DEMBY: I feel like in the '90s, hip-hop artists always, like, reverse engineered the acronym they needed to make the thing make sense.

MERAJI: Do you think that's what happened? The hate you give little infants fucks everybody, thug life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

TALENT: (Singing) That's just the way it is. Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: That is our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line ask CODE SWITCH. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcasts can be found.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez and Sami Yenigun produced this episode. It was also edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: Shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Leah Donnella, Kat Chow and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Andrea Henderson. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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