CBC Arts columnists survey the year in Black arts, queer culture and the warm bath of nostalgia

We asked Amanda Parris, Peter Knegt and Anne T. Donahue to pick their best of the worst year.

We asked Amanda Parris, Peter Knegt and Anne T. Donahue to pick their best of the worst year

Still from Beyoncé's Black is King. (Disney+)

We don't envy CBC Arts columnists Amanda Parris, Peter Knegt and Anne T. Donahue having to regularly try and make sense of this strange year with words. It was hard enough just to exist in 2020, let alone publicly reflect on said existence through the many, many words that came via Amanda's Black Light, Peter's Queeries and Anne's Anne-iversaries. We asked each of the columnists to look back at the year (mostly in horror, we assume) and pick their top five editions.

Amanda Parris

2020 was a perpetually bleak year, but one site of persistent joy for me arrived in the moments where I was able to utilize my platform to share and amplify critical stories, histories and voices. My favourite editions of Black Light enabled me to do that through interviews, listicles, oral histories and exposing forgotten histories.

Rosie Douglas in the film Rosie, the Fearless Rebel. (Sonia Godding Togobo)

Here are my top five:

Canadian cultural institutions have silenced Black voices for years. Can we write a new chapter?

"Realizing that you are living through history — the kind of history that ends up in textbooks — is a bizarre and somewhat disconcerting feeling. In the midst of a global pandemic, millions of people around the world are taking to the streets, risking their lives to express their anger and fight police brutality and anti-Black racism. [...] Seeing this overwhelming wave of courage, I have been reflecting on the risk involved. Each individual who steps forward faces potential consequences if/when the momentum of this moment passes. Black artists and activists in Canada have a long history of speaking truth to power and calling out anti-Black racism, from its most overt forms to its most passive micro-aggressions. But their acts of bravery reveal a history of institutionally enforced silencing, erasure, defamation and suppression." Read the whole colum here.

An oral history of the Black Film and Video Network

"The late '80s and early '90s were a truly exciting time for Black film around the world. In the United States, filmmakers including Spike Lee, Julie Dash and John Singleton were creating works that would forever reshape the concept of American cinema. In the U.K., the activism of groups such as the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and the Black Audio Film Collective became the launchpad for a new generation of Black British filmmakers to emerge. And here in Canada, Black artists were challenging the status quo in more ways than one." Read the whole column here.

7 African artists share their feelings on the glory — and missteps — of Beyoncé's Black is King

"Black is King is a visual masterpiece that is overwhelming and grand and excessive and extra in all the ways we have come to expect from a Beyoncé project. But alongside its eye-popping visuals, Beyoncé's love letter to Africa has drawn some eyebrow-raising critique. Reading review after review, I became hungry to hear the thoughts of African artists. The first time I viewed the film, I was watching with one of my best friends, Muginga António, an architectural designer from Angola who also attended school in South Africa. Her observations helped me to realize just how many cultural references I was missing. And I wanted to learn more." Read the whole column here.

Black artists come first: Lessons from Philip Akin after 20 revolutionary years at Obsidian Theatre

"I recently had the immense pleasure of interviewing Philip Akin, the widely celebrated artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company. After co-founding the organization in 2000 and taking over as AD in 2006, Akin is stepping down from the position after nearly 15 years. Many have and will continue to sing his praises, and Mr. Akin undoubtedly deserves all of the flowers. Under his tenure, Obsidian has nurtured, developed and supported thousands of Black theatre artists across the country. I know this because I'm one of them. My debut play was co-produced by Obsidian back in 2017." Read the whole column here.

31 Black Canadian female playwrights you need to know

"There's very little digital documentation of the women who introduced me to theatre, and over the years, I've become increasingly perturbed by this observation. Google searches produce little to no evidence of the many productions, programs and companies that predated the internet era. And because so few plays have been published, and even fewer have been remounted, these works — and these women — are in danger of disappearing from memory. In a small attempt to rectify this, I've crafted a list of 31 Black Canadian women playwrights. This list is not comprehensive, but it does reveal a pattern: many of these artists have had to wear multiple hats, and some have had to build their own platforms to show their work." Read the whole column here. 

Peter Knegt

I was very grateful just to have a job in 2020, let alone a platform in Queeries to highlight some of the things that weren't horrible about this year ... and rant about the many things that were. Hopefully some of said highlights and rants proved worthy of your quarantine time, and here's to next year's columns eventually being about how amazing queer life after the vaccine is!

Larry Kramer in the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger. (HBO)

Here are my top five:

Gay culture has grown toxic with unchecked privilege. It's time for us to reset

"When I decided to put this column on a brief hiatus, I was working on a reflection on the life of legendary gay activist, writer and shit disturber Larry Kramer, who passed away of pneumonia on May 27th. (If you don't know much about Kramer, please change that immediately by watching the documentary Larry Kramer in Love and Anger — currently available on Crave and HBO Max.) Kramer's legacy was forged during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, during which he played a pivotal role in combating governments and institutions who could not give less of a fuck about the lives of the marginalized people that disease was killing. I thought the fearlessness Kramer showed in the face of HIV/AIDS might teach us all a little about surviving in these times. But 'these times' looked very different on May 27th than they did on May 29th, or June 2nd, or pretty much any day since." Read the whole column here. 

10 ways to use our quarantines to become better people through queer film, TV, books and music

"There are so many things we can be doing right now to help our LGBTQ communities. [...] There are also so many virtual performances and parties and festivals going on every day that our participation in and support of goes a long way. But we also have to look out for our own well-being — and I think the best way to do that might be to turn toward the decades of LGBTQ art that have led up to this moment. So I've decided to offer this little guide to how we can use the plethora of content already out there to make us stronger, better queers when it comes time to take on post-COVID existence." Read the whole column here. 

Long live The Beaver: A celebration of Toronto's most beloved queer space

"The Beaver was a space where everyone felt welcome. And that inclusivity had been its mission ever since Lynn McNeill and the late great queer artist Will Munro opened The Beaver on Queen Street West in 2006. While Toronto's queer nightlife is most closely associated with the Church-Wellesley Village, The Beaver was notably the first LGBTQ bar west of Yonge Street in a very long time; until this weekend, it was the last one standing." Read the whole column here.

Rain on me: Navigating the five stages of pandemic grief through the pop music of 2020

"Like pretty much the entire world, I experienced a vicious new kind of grief this past year. Mine was, admittedly, of the relatively privileged variety: over the past nine months of pandemic life, I did not lose my job or apartment, and I thankfully have yet to have anyone close to me become seriously ill from COVID-19. But I did experience an unprecedented loss of normalcy and connection ... and, you know, a fear that we were maybe legitimately at the beginning of the end of human civilization. So it's been a bit of a ride. Obviously, pandemic life is far from over. But 2020 almost is. And, as frivolous as it may seem, I would like to engage in one of my favourite annual pastimes: looking back at the year in popular culture, and how it came to define my existence during that time. And in this year's case, I feel no subset of pop culture will go on to forever provide a grim memento for how I was feeling more than music." Read the whole column here. 

Cheers to the queers: 20 LGBTQ folks who were a beacon of light in 2020

"You've read enough of these year-end pieces (and lived through this year, for that matter) to know the deal by now: 2020 was a relentless, abhorrent beast of a year filled with basically every horrible thing you can think of. But (and you've read enough of these year-end pieces to know where I'm going with this too), there were good things too if you were lucky enough to find the mental capacity to enjoy them! And given that this column has spent the last year mostly trying to find queer lights in the endless tunnel of a dark pandemic, I figured why not round up those lights and celebrate them all in one sparkling place?" Read the whole column here. 

Anne T. Donahue

What a long, strange trip it's been — and yes, I'm referring to 2020's Anne-iversaries. I was very lucky to have a place where I could revisit the past and unpack the parts I hated and loved about pop culture over the last 10, 15, 20, and even 30 years. Evidently, the movies and television you cling to in youth tend to remain just as important as you get older. And not only that, they help you to understand who you used to be a little bit more — which I think can help you be a little kinder to your tiny baby angel self. Or at least blame her a little less for paying full price to see Sex and the City 2, easily one of the worst movies ever made ... ever.

Toy Story. (Disney)

Here are my top five:

You're not replaceable: What Toy Story can teach us about surviving the gig economy 

"The first time I saw Toy Story, I was nine years old — and, like most viewers, completely changed and delighted. Not only was the movie novel in its shiny new use of computer animation, it also reaffirmed my (privately held) belief that toys were real and lived lives of their own when we weren't around. And most importantly, it delivered one of the greatest dialogue exchanges (between two animated characters) in cinematic history — one that applied even more the older I got and the more entrenched I found myself in the gig economy." Read the whole column here. 

The Social Network is a horror movie — one that only gets scarier over time

"Upon its release in 2010, I (hilariously and very uniquely, of course) referred to and wrote off David Fincher's The Social Network as 'The Facebook Movie.' At the time, I thought building a film around a social media phenomenon was absurd, and that the forgettable-seeming Mark Zuckerberg hardly seemed like a compelling cinematic protagonist. And I was half right: while The Social Network went on to establish itself as one of the most relevant movies of the 2010s, Mark Zuckerberg was never a hero — in film or in real life. Instead, Fincher accurately painted him as the monster making calls from inside the house; as the predator whose lust for notoriety outweighed his moral compass. Because in the end, that's exactly what The Social Network was: a horror movie — and one that only gets scarier over time." Read the whole column here. 

Why Frances McDormand's Elaine Miller is the true heart of Almost Famous

"The first time most of us saw Almost Famous upon its release back in 2000, it was obvious who the story's antagonist was meant to be. Uptight, anxious, overly honest, and frustratingly all-knowing, Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) was the mother of our nightmares. While she may have allowed her sweet baby son (15-year-old William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit) to galavant across America with a bus full of rockstars, she continuously ruins his fantasies of freedom with check-ins, pep talks, and 'Don't take drugs!' From hotel rooms to backstage hallways, she permeates the free-wheeling feelings of rock 'n roll's death rattle with her love and intensity. Which actually ends up making her the hero of the film." Read the whole column here. 

How Sex and the City 2 singlehandedly destroyed the entire franchise's legacy

"By 2010, Sex and the City's subject matter was no longer a big deal. Many other shows had come to deal frankly with issues of sex and independence, and did so in more socially aware and respectful ways. Plus, increased discourse about the entertainment we were all consuming (thank you, social media) meant that we'd begun to push back on lack of representation, irresponsible language, and plot points that only perpetuated damaging stereotypes. Ultimately, viewers had come to expect thoughtful art from the people who made it — so two-ish hours of fake problems, unapologetic white privilege, and straight-up Islamophobia was embarrassing and shameful. And it broke the legacy of Sex and the City in two." Read the whole column here. 

In defence of Twilight, a teenage dream of excess and melodrama 

"As far as critics were concerned, Twilight was both a phenomenon and a cinematic franchise that was laughably unique in its corniness, nonsensical plot devices, and strong Mormon parallels (author Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon). And, of course, they weren't entirely wrong. But what's easy to forget as an adult is that to its young audiences, the series dared to explore the agency of an ordinary-ish young woman who is being desperately sought after by two boys whose sole focus is on her (and lest we forget how invisible so many of us feel during our teens). It made being a regular person seem magical and full of possibility — and then amplified these feelings with the highs and lows that accompany Meyer's interpretation of love, loss, and what you may (or should, according to her) be willing to fight for." Read the whole column here. 

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