This photo essay is part of The Big Ideas, a special section of The Times’s philosophy series, The Stone, in which more than a dozen artists, writers and thinkers answer the question, “Why does art matter?” The entire series can be found here.
Art matters because artists matter.
For years I used to get up early and walk to the corner store to grab my weekend fix: a Sunday edition of The New York Times. (My Sundays today still include The Times, albeit the one on my iPad.) It’s the best newspaper in the nation, and I loved it even during those long stretches when I don’t remember seeing a single story on black or brown artists for weeks on end. There was nothing in the Arts section, nothing in dance, nothing in film, nothing in the Book Review and, astonishingly, very little in music. The lack of representation was stunning.
Then again, that absence wasn’t limited to The New York Times. It was woven into our social fabric and existed across all our cultural landscapes. The entire country, along with its cultural institutions, was behind.
Dumbfounded, disappointed, angry and hurt, one day I sat down and cried. I worked in the shadows, and had been waiting for the coming of a new day.
But then, coupled with our changing demographics, came a sudden shift: Network television was freed up, its narratives ceded to those who historically couldn’t afford cable — the black and the brown. Shows like “Empire,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Scandal” emerged, and the game began to change. These shows upended old notions of what was important and what could be seen, positing something that was dynamic and that grappled with the notion of representation in a new way. I was thrilled.
As with much of my work, “Scenes & Takes” grew out of that crack in the cultural armor. I thought it would be important for me to stand in front of, and in, the sets of these shows, to think about what was shifting within the worlds of contemporary expression and popular culture.
Scenes & Takes
SHE HAD ARRIVED IN HOLLYWOOD ON A WING AND A PRAYER, AND THE CLOCK WAS TICKING. SHE’D SPENT YEARS SEARCHING THE BACK LOTS OF STUDIOS PRAYING FOR A BREAK, FOR A WAY OUT OF THE ABYSS.
SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, SHE’D STUMBLED ONTO THE SETS OF “ZOE,” “EMPIRE,” “SCANDAL” AND “HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER” — AN ENTIRE BLOCK OF STUDIOS GIVEN OVER TO SHONDALAND.
IN SUSPENDED DISBELIEF, SHE FLOATS FROM ROOM TO ROOM AND SET TO SET, MARKING THE SHIFTS THAT SEEMED TO RESET THE BAR WITH SHOWS EXPLORING THE OUTER LIMITS OF BLACKNESS AND ITS ABILITY TO HOLD THE IMAGINATION.
THE DIRECTOR’S CUT
SCENE 4 – TAKE 7
THE PLOT: SHE’S MADE THE ENDLESS ROUND OF RELENTLESS AUDITIONS, PRESENTING HERSELF BEFORE VARIOUS CASTING AGENTS, AND AWAITS A CALLBACK.
NERVOUSLY, ALLEN SAID, “ARE YOU CRAZY?”
LAUGHINGLY, THE COEN BROTHERS SAID, “FUNNY.”
DRYLY, CRONENBERG SAID, “NOT AT THIS TIME.”
DISTRACTEDLY, DEMME SAID, “WHAT …”
DISMISSIVELY, SODERBERGH SAID, “WHO?”
SOFTLY, VON TRIER SAID, “I PREFER SOFT BLONDES.”
THOUGHTFULLY, MANN SAID, “HMMM.”
FRANKLY, SCORSESE SAID, “FORGET ABOUT IT!”
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
SCENE 1 – TAKE 3
THE PLOT: BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL, A YOUNG WOULD-BE STARLET IN HOLLYWOOD SEEKING FAME AND FORTUNE. ALONG THE WAY, SHE ENCOUNTERS ERRONEOUS ASSUMPTIONS, BAD LUCK AND DANGEROUS MEN.
SHE AND THE DIRECTOR HAD A “THING,” SHORT-LIVED, BUT SWEET. HE’D TAKEN AN INTEREST AND INTRODUCED HER ABOUT TOWN. SQUEEZING HER THIGHS, KISSING HER LIPS AND HAVING SEX WITH HER LIKE THERE WAS NO TOMORROW, HE SAID, “YOU HAVE THAT CERTAIN … JE NE SAIS QUOI. THIS IS A TOUGH TOWN, A TOUGH BUSINESS, SO I CAN’T MAKE ANY PROMISES, BUT REMEMBER, THERE ARE NO SMALL PARTS. TAKE WHAT YOU CAN GET AND BE GLAD.”
LAUGHING COYLY, SHE SAID, “WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? I WASN’T BORN YESTERDAY, SILLY.”
EMBITTERED, THE FORMER FLAME STALKS THE WOMANIZER.
IN THIS CAREFULLY CONSTRUCTED FUSION OF THE REAL AND THE IMAGINED, SHE MARVELS AT THE GLAMOROUS SETS FILLED WITH MIDCENTURY DECOR, ENGAGING CONTEMPORARY ART, STUNNING FASHION AND AN ALL-BLACK CAST. AT OLIVIA’S, SHE WAS SHOCKED TO FIND HER OWN IMAGE. CLEARLY SHE’D MISSED THE BOAT BY A MILE.
SCENE 5 – TAKE 9
THE PLOT: A LARGE AUDIENCE GATHERS FOR A MOVIE, BUT FINDS ITSELF UNSETTLED BY THE APPEARANCE OF AN UNKNOWN LEADING ACTRESS.
THERE IS COMFORT IN THE FAMILIAR; A MOTHER’S REASSURING SMILE, THE SOOTHING VOICE OF A PILOT BEFORE TAKEOFF AND LANDING, THE CONFIDENT VOICE OF A DOCTOR BEFORE DELIVERING A PAINFUL SHOT OR THE CODIFIED LOOK OF A LEADING ACTRESS.
THE AUDIENCE TAKES IMMENSE COMFORT IN THE FAMILIAR. THE UNFAMILIAR HAS LIMITED APPEAL; IT UNDERMINES EXPECTATIONS. THUS, THE DREAM IS BROKEN, THE ILLUSION SHATTERED.
ON THE VERGE
DIRECTOR: LEE DANIELS
SCENE 4 – TAKE 6
THE PLOT: AS THE WORLD TURNS, LOVE, LUST AND THE WILL FOR POWER ARE THE FORCES DRIVING A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY.
RECENTLY RELEASED FROM PRISON AND WITH A KNACK FOR TURNING A PHRASE INTO GOLD, COOKIE LEADS “FATHER KNOWS BEST” AND “MY THREE SONS” INTO THE BIG TIME OF HIP-HOP CULTURE. NO ONE SAW IT, OR HER, COMING.
FOR YEARS, IN HER MIND, IT HAD BEEN “SEINFELD” THAT WAS THE CLOSEST THING TO GREAT BLACK TV; SHE WATCHED THE RERUNS NIGHTLY AND CONSIDERED ALL THE GREAT THEMES BURIED IN SMALL LIVES. NOW THERE IS A SHIFT TO COOKIE’S CLIPS, AND THE NETWORKS ARE FINALLY ON NOTICE.
SCENE 12 – TAKE 9
THE PLOT: REMEMBERING EVERYTHING SHE HOPED TO FORGET, A FADING BEAUTY REALIZES THAT TIME HAS PASSED HER BY.
SHE IS NOW A WOMAN OF A CERTAIN AGE, WITH FINE LINES GATHERING AND CROW’S FEET MARCHING. HER BEST YEARS ARE BEHIND HER. LADY LUCK HAS GONE TO TALLER, SMALLER, MOSTLY BLONDES. A REAL SHOT AT FAME HAS ELUDED HER AND SHE IS SPINNING FROM THE FALL.
WHILE STANDING IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, CONTEMPLATING A WAY OUT OF THE ABYSS, SHE’S ATTACKED BY BIRDS.
TO LOOK BACK IN ANGER
DIRECTOR: SHONDA RHIMES
SCENE 3 – TAKE 5
THE PLOT: TIRED AND EXHAUSTED, A JEALOUS WOMAN ADOPTS A MURDEROUS WAY TO SEEK REVENGE.
TO LOOK BACK IN ANGER WON’T GET HER FAR, BUT ENVY HAS A MIND ALL ITS OWN. SHE WAS NO HOLLY GOLIGHTLY, NO CROSSOVER GIRL, NO KERRY, NO LUPITA, NO THANDIE. YOUNGER WOMEN WHO HAD EMERGED OUT OF THE SHADOWS ARE TAKING HER RIGHTFUL PLACE. AFTER ALL SHE’S BEEN THROUGH, SHE IS A TAD UPSET, TO SAY THE LEAST.
Source: NY times