For this week, we discuss the professor who lied about being Black, mull over the Oscars’ new diversity requirements and look at the flooding in Sudan. Plus, recommendations: an excellent 1996 film on Netflix and a book full of joy.
This week’s culture conversation: When Blackness becomes cosplay
Brandon: I was on vacation last week, and generally managed to unplug. But the one story I couldn’t escape: Jessica A. Krug, the former George Washington University professor (she resigned on Wednesday) who spent her career pretending to be Black.
I just felt you roll your eyes, I think?
Leah: You definitely did. What a mess, especially in the midst of this so-called racial reckoning we’re all supposed to be going through.
B: One thing the fiasco made me think about is the harm done to students.
L: Yeah, I spoke with one of Krug’s former students for CNN’s article about the situation. She told me about how Krug would mentor many students of color. Imagine being one of those students, only to find out that she was deceiving you the whole time?
It’s just so destructive, especially considering that higher education isn’t exactly known for having an abundance of Black professors and mentors. Not only did she potentially take a spot from a Black academic – she magnified damage to students.
B: What you’re saying about academics is interesting. In her own way, Krug breathed new life into the notion that it’s somehow easier to be a Black person in the academy. As if it isn’t routine for Black academics to have to stake their claim in an environment that tends to view them and their ideas as unfit or unworthy.
L: The whole thing is just wild. For years, Krug treated Blackness like a costume that she could slip on, and she exploited it for her own advantage – and with a terrible fake accent!!!
B: Ooof. The stereotypes she employed. In an old bio, she allegedly described herself as “an unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood.” There’s a lot going on there, in how that’s how she tried to “legitimize” her supposed Blackness.
L: Right! Also, to say “unrepentant and unreformed,” as if being from the hood requires repenting or reforming, as if upper-class White America is the reformed … WHEW. Big yikes!
But anyway! In trying to shed her Whiteness, she showed just how much privilege she has. What do you think?
B: I agree. For Black people, being Black isn’t optional. They get the joy and the trauma that comes with their skin.
Also, given the knotty history of colorism in America, it stands out to me that Krug chose to be a light-skinned Black woman. Basically, she wanted the privileges and palatability of being a certain type of Black.
Has inclusion come to Hollywood?
Why we’re excited: On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new representation and inclusion requirements, to take effect in 2024, for the Best Picture category.
The Academy has long struggled to elevate movies with diverse casts and crews (remember the #OscarsSoWhite campaign?), and in recent years has committed to increasing the number of women and people of color among its members.
The announcement represents the Academy’s latest push for diversity. How will the new standards, which you can read here, affect studio films versus indies? Given that the standards aren’t especially rigorous, will they really fuel change? Or maybe, as some critics have pointed out, shaming films that don’t meet the low standards is precisely the point?
Come 2024, we’ll find out.
Recommended for your eyes and ears
Brandon recommends: ‘Set It Off’
F. Gary Gray’s 1996 movie “Set It Off,” which arrived on Netflix this month and which I’ve seen a bajillion times, isn’t just a compelling heist story with an En Vogue-infused soundtrack. It’s a compassionate, sharp story about inequality, about opportunity denied – about Black America.
Or put it like this: The movie stands out because it grants its Black characters, and in turn Black viewers, empathy and complexity, two things that shouldn’t feel as rare as they do.
“Set It Off” opens with a gruesome bank robbery. A White detective blames Francesca “Frankie” Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) for it because she happens to know one of the men involved “from around the way.” She explains that the two just “live in the same projects, is all.” But her innocence doesn’t save her from being fired from her bank teller job.
“Wait, wait. That’s not right,” Frankie says, her voice catching. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I can’t help who I know.”
I can’t help who I know. The strength of “Set It Off” is that it understands Frankie’s situation. There’s a whole system that has directed its powers against her, against all Black Americans. This system doesn’t just put Frankie in a certain section of town. It punishes her for being there, too.
In Frankie’s orbit are her friends, three other Black women: Lida “Stony” Newsom (Jada Pinkett), Cleopatra “Cleo” Sims (Queen Latifah), and Tisean “T.T.” Williams (Kimberly Elise).
One by one, society betrays them, takes everything. So they decide to rob banks.
But the movie doesn’t sketch these struggling characters and then throw up its hands as if to say: That’s just how things are. Rather, it gives them dimension, exploring their reasons for stealing without necessarily endorsing their actions.
“Set It Off” debuted during a wave of “hood films”: John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” and “Poetic Justice,” Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice,” Allen and Albert Hughes’ “Menace II Society.” For audiences at the time – in the aftermath of the videotaped Rodney King beating – these movies were revelatory, illuminating Black suffering without coming off as didactic or dismissive.
Sure, these films can be violent, and maybe reinforced some stereotypes about Black life to White viewers. But the brutality never feels cheap or exploitative. It’s grounded in context.
As America wrestles again with the role of race in society, I’m reminded of how movies like “Set It Off” transformed the way Hollywood views Black America – and how important it is to see that transformation in the real world, too.
Leah recommends: ‘The Book of Delights’ by Ross Gay
I’ll admit this freely: I’ve been struggling to find joy recently. Which is why Ross Gay’s 2019 collection “The Book of Delights” has been such a blessing.
The poet spent a year writing mini-essays every day on the things that brought him delight – from the bounties of his garden and seeing a hummingbird, to watching as two people shared the burden of a heavy laundry basket. Some are barely a page, others span multiple. But each one is dated and focused on a singular thing: delight.
“It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar,” Gay writes in the preface for the book. “Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
I can attest to that. Just over the course of reading this book, which I did last year and now find myself revisiting, I began looking at everything differently. Getting a parking spot right in front of the grocery store? A delight! A small child smiling at me while on my evening walk? Another delight!
In the midst of a pandemic that requires relative social isolation, the continued genocide of Black and brown people, millions out of work – and all that’s before even getting to the international headlines – it’s easy to slip into despair. I can also attest to this.
Yet Gay’s book serves as a reminder. There’s still, he notes, sorrow, fear, pain and loss. But there’s also – even if we have to search deeply to find it, even if it’s simply the sharing of sorrow with another – joy and delight.
Around the office
The fires and smoke on the West Coast of the US aren’t the only environmental extremes we’re seeing in the world right now.
In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and more than 100 have died – just in a matter of days – from floods from the rising Nile River, which has reached its highest levels in more than a century. Many have lost their homes, and the rising waters are even threatening the ruins of Al-Bajrawiya, an ancient archaeological site.
CNN’s Nima Elbagir has the story, saying, “People are coming together to do what they can, but the rising waters are unrelenting. For a country already struggling with crushing debt after years of dictatorship under former President Omar al-Bashir, this is almost too much to bear.”