TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers spends much of his time reading and watching. Every year at this time, he chooses a few books, films and TV shows that he thinks deserves special attention. This year, he says he wants to highlight seven things that he knows will stick with him as we go into the new year.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Like many people, I've spent the lockdown months looking for distractions. But even as I enjoyed watching Inspector Morse solve murder after murder in Oxford, what I want to highlight about 2020 are some books, films and TV shows that didn't simply distract me, but delved into enduring questions of freedom, dignity and survival. First up is "Square Haunting," Francesca Wade's fascinating portrait of five groundbreaking women - Virginia Woolf, Imagist poet H.D., classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power and mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who all lived in London's bohemian Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars.
In telling their stories, which collide, overlap and echo one another, Wade follows the messy, inspiring destinies of women who fought to rise above social restrictions, oppressive notions of femininity and the condescension of men who were nearly always their inferiors. You find a similar trajectory with filmmaker Agnes Varda. She was long treated as something of a lesser outlier of the male French New Wave. Hit by her death last year at age 90, the world recognized that this natural-born feminist was actually a New Wave precursor and a major artist. Her career as captured in the year's best boxed set - Criterion's "The Complete Films Of Agnes Varda," topped by her Parisian masterpiece, "Cleo From 5 To 7," about a chanteuse who learns to see the world instead of worrying about how the world sees her. What made Varda great wasn't simply her formal daring, but her boundless curiosity. She made movies about everything - artists and drifters, peasants and the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, her family and even her cat.
I've already ordered gift copies of the year's most revelatory book, "African American Poetry: 250 Years Of Struggle & Song." Superbly edited by Kevin Young, this astonishing collection runs from Phillis Wheatley, an African-born slave who learned English and wrote elegant verse, to such present-day luminaries as Terrance Hayes and Claudia Rankine. While the poems are steeped in the sorrow, pain and rage you'd expect from people treated so inhumanely, their writers - most of whom I didn't know - aren't propagandists. They're poets who explore the whole range of human experience - love, death, jazz, food, menopause, fatherhood, gentrification, moon landings, even jive artists who wrap themselves in Black suffering just to get ahead. In different ways, they celebrate, in Lucille Clifton's words, that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.
Slavery itself lies at the heart of Showtime's "The Good Lord Bird," a sly African American riff on "Huckleberry Finn." Based on James McBride's novel, this miniseries is narrated by Henry Shackleford, an orphaned Black tween taken under the wing of the grandiose abolitionist John Brown. Here, Brown, traveling with Henry, his sons and a freed slave named Broadnax, talks with a military officer who wants to arrest him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MINISERIES, “THE GOOD LORD BIRD”)
ETHAN HAWKE: (As John Brown) Let me ask you a question.
WYATT RUSSELL: (As J.E.B. Stuart) Yes, sir.
HAWKE: (As John Brown) Do you believe - do you believe that Jesus Christ is our Holy Lord and savior?
RUSSELL: (As J.E.B. Stuart) Yes, sir.
HAWKE: (As John Brown) And do you think that Jesus of Nazareth thinks my friend Broadnax here is three-fifths human being? Hmm? Do you imagine that Jesus thinks you more important than he?
RUSSELL: (As J.E.B. Stuart) Well, I believe that Jesus sees us all as his children.
HAWKE: (As John Brown) And yet you would oppose us in our fight to free your enslaved brothers and sisters.
RUSSELL: (As J.E.B. Stuart) Mr. Brown, you have been charged with murder, theft of property and treason.
HAWKE: (As John Brown) How much money do I have left, Salmon?
ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Salmon Brown) Two dollars, 50 cents.
HAWKE: (As John Brown) Two dollars and 50 cents. Gentlemen, (shouting) I hereby offer $2.50 for the head of President Buchanan. He presides over a barbaric institution that does not answer (speaking normally) to the throne of our most holy savior.
RUSSELL: (As J.E.B. Stuart) Bravo.
POWERS: Hopscotching between travesty and tragedy, "The Good Lord Bird" offers an irreverently multifaceted take on historical figures, including Frederick Douglass, usually portrayed with unalloyed seriousness. In Ethan Hawke's dazzling performance, Brown is by turns tender and violent, righteous and absurd. And though he makes a hash of the Harpers Ferry raid, Henry knows that Brown is right to insist that white men had the moral imperative to fight slavery.
Our moral challenge is climate change, and it's the subject of a great new book - "The Ministry Of The Future" by Kim Stanley Robinson, a crack political novelist dressed up in the spacesuit of a science fiction writer. His hero is Mary Murphy, the Irish head of the UN's Ministry of the Future, whose mission is to protect the planet for the generations to come. But how can she or anyone else possibly do that? The book's elaborate fictional answer involves everything from developing a new form of currency to eco-terrorists using drones to take down jets. Bursting with ideas on every page, the novel raises inconvenient questions about overcoming climate change. Can it be done without violence? Can the rich stay rich? And how will our daily lives need to change to have a sustainable carbon output? The happy news is that Robinson is utopian enough to think that it's not too late to revolutionize our way of living.
And speaking of revolution, the great American radical, Emma Goldman, once said that she didn't want to be part of one if it wouldn't let her dance. In that spirit, I want to end this list on an upbeat note by praising the year's two most ecstatic movies, which both use dancing to offer a glimpse of utopia. In HBO's film of "David Byrne's American Utopia," directed by Spike Lee, an exuberant multicultural cast responds to our troubled times by dancing into the audience singing the great Talking Heads song "Road To Nowhere." And in Steve McQueen's "Lovers Rock," on Amazon Prime Video, young people of West Indian heritage escape the racism and violence of 1980s London at a house party where they dance and sing and fall in love. Both films remind us that even in dark days, we can find transcendent joy in something as evanescent as a pop song.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large. You can find John's year-end list at freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Maggie Haberman about her four years covering the Trump presidency for The New York Times. She started covering him before he was president when she was a reporter for The New York Post. She's broken many stories about the Trump White House, and she has incredible sources. Until last year, Trump was one of them. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRES VIAL'S "BLUEHAWK")
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