From Beychella to the Beale Street soundtrack, Amanda Parris on the best of 2018
Here's to the TV, movies, music, art and theatre that helped us make it through an overwhelming year
I am not the first person to remark on how incredibly long this year has felt. The news has never felt so overwhelming, the amount of content has never seemed so excessive and the issues of the day frequently felt insurmountable. At a time when the world is so divided, it takes a lot to cut through the noise and get people to take notice.
My list of the best art and culture moments of 2018 includes creations that inspired hashtags and became historical phenomena alongside smaller projects that may not have had a wide audience but made a deep and transformative impact on me. This year has been a lot to take — but these films, books, plays, exhibits and TV shows provided spaces of escape, a language of analysis and a vision for a future that helped me push through.
According to my calculations, there have been approximately 17 quadrillion news items about Black Panther since it arrived way back in February. So one cannot be blamed for temporarily forgetting the monumental anticipation for this Marvel movie. From the jaw-dropping trailer to the Wakanda-inspired official (and unofficial) premieres, the hype around Black Panther was unlike anything I've ever experienced outside of the Star Wars and Star Trek universe. But my fear that the movie could never live up to all the buzz was vanquished once I realized Ryan Coogler had crafted a story that set a new standard for the superhero genre. Beyond its epic world-building, the movie engaged with questions of Black diasporic identity, the enduring impacts of colonialism and the responsibilities of nation states in an increasingly globally connected world. As if that weren't enough, it invented new technologies (thank you Vibranium), introduced an X-marks-the-spot greeting and gave us one of the most complex and fascinating villains in comic book history. Black Panther was groundbreaking and that hasn't changed just because nine months later everyone (including the cast) is sick of saying "Wakanda Forever."
Despite 12 years of Catholic school education and my love for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, I haven't spent much time contemplating the fate of Judas, the infamous apostle who betrayed Jesus. However, that's the subject matter of this ambitious and rule-breaking play by Leighton Alexander Williams, who also served as its director and star. This Biblical re-imagining tosses aside historical accuracy and revels in a mash-up of cultural cues. The characters dance to Lady Gaga and Drake and saints are dancehall queens. Satan (played by Williams) vogues in the club, and Pontius Pilate identifies as trans-racial. This play represented an exciting new generation of Toronto theatre artists willing to take bold and brilliant risks — and I am so here for it.
If Beale Street Could Talk: Original Motion Picture Score, Nicholas Britell
There are many things to love about Barry Jenkins's adaptation of this James Baldwin novel, including the singular performances of Regina King, Colman Domingo and Brian Tyree Henry, the captivating cinematography of James Laxton and the rare gift of a Black period romance making it to the big screen. However, I've decided to single out the soundtrack, because it includes one of the most beautiful scores I have ever heard in a movie. The film straddles divergent realities: romance and tragedy, love and injustice. Using brass, horns and strings, Britell has composed the story's masterful and emotional sonic equivalent. The songs "Eden (Harlem)," "Agape" and "Eden (LES") literally bring tears to my eyes each time I hear them.
It's hard for me to articulate how much joy this television show brought to my life. The writers managed to find that sweet spot between romanticism and sensationalism where unfiltered joy and unmanufactured authenticity meet — and it was remarkable.
Pose is heartbreaking and hilarious, over the top when necessary and poignantly insightful when you least expect. And the show schooled me in ball culture without ever feeling didactic. Some of the performers may have been a little shaky at first, but the show found its rhythm. Standouts include the luminous Indya Moore (Angel) and Billy Porter, who has the role of a life time with Pray Tell (his character is the heartbeat of the entire series). And Mj Rodriguez gives her everything to our Mother of the Year, Blanca. From the costumes to the soundtrack, by the season finale, Pose had me wrapped around its little finger.
Nanette, Hannah Gadsby
Stand-up is not something I regularly consume, but I remember scrolling through my Twitter feed the weekend Hannah Gadsby's Nanette hit Netflix and realizing that this was something beyond the typical fare. Some may consider Nanette to be a one-woman show, not stand-up comedy, but that debate seems more distracting than fruitful when you consider the brilliance of its structure, the insight in its content and the emotional resonance that lingered long after it was done. Nanette takes you on a rollercoaster of emotion and leaves you stunned into reflection. In a year of headlines about women speaking truth to power, this singular show seemed to illustrate exactly why women finding their voices had been feared for so long.
Femmes Noire at the AGO, Mickalene Thomas
In 2008, Wangechi Mutu became the first Black female artist to have a solo exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It would be ten years before another Black female artist would be granted the same space. Neither of them are Canadian. Nevertheless, the Mickalene Thomas exhibition Femmes Noire — currently up at the AGO — is a beautiful tribute to the nuances of Black women's lives and the ways they are excluded from and made invisible in the Western art world. Her work is a welcome addition to an institution that has rarely put Black women at its centre.
To All the Boys I've Loved Before
I don't want Netflix to ever tell me how many times I have watched this film. Right after I saw it, I downloaded the Jenny Han book that it's based on; a week later, I had finished Han's entire series of YA novels. I blame my obsession on the lack of quality teen rom-coms out there. To All the Boys I've Loved Before has an awesome soundtrack, stand-out production design, incredible styling, a great script and almost perfect casting. Even more importantly, it portrays a relationship that isn't riddled with many of the problematic tropes that define the genre. Peter Kavinsky is a love interest who listens, respects boundaries and drinks kombucha at a party when he knows he has to drive. Lara Jean is a smart girl with great style, loves her family without shame and has no desire to leave her true friends for popularity. It's no wonder the two actors who played these characters immediately became household names and the obsession of teen girls (and grown women) everywhere.
I'm Afraid of Men, Vivek Shraya
It took me months to finish this book. I was gifted an early copy and began reading it almost immediately, excited to read the latest work from an artist I admire deeply. But as I settled into Shraya's words, her stories triggered memories — painful ones — and I put the book down, uncomfortable with what it was bringing up.
I repeated this process a few times over the next few months, only able to read a few pages at a time because each recollection or insight would open a Pandora's box of emotions. Shraya shares stories about interactions with the boys in her childhood and the men in her adult life — experiences that have shaped her understanding of self, the way she moves through the world and her relationships with other people. Her writing is intimate yet analytical, theory-based yet deeply personal — a powerful combination that I sincerely appreciate, even when I need to take a break from it.
There's a certain generation who will always remember exactly where they were when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" premiered on television. I'm a little too young for that music history moment — but I know that for the rest of my life, I will always remember where I was when Beychella happened. I've attended several Beyoncé concerts and watched almost every one of her award show performances, but what Beyoncé did at Coachella this year was beyond all expectations. She gave us "The Black National Anthem" (a.k.a. "Life Every Voice and Sing"), Malcolm X quotes, Nina Simone and Fela Kuti samples, stepping crews and marching bands. There was even a Destiny's Child reunion and a dance-off with her sister Solange. If there's any question that she's the greatest living performer, the debate was settled on that night.
Canada's A Drag
Disclaimer: this is a CBC Arts series, but it's not here because of that fact. I loved this series. It captured so many of my favourite things in one. The show offers intimate portraits of individuals who rarely get seen in the mainstream, and a sneak peek into their routines and creative practices. Plus, there's the glorious (often bedazzled) spectacle of it all, as we get to watch performers work their magic on stage. Each mini doc left me wanting more, which is exactly what a web series should do.
Random Acts of Flyness
Numerous reviewers have struggled to find language to adequately describe the HBO show that crept onto our screens this past summer. And I'm about to join them. Eschewing almost every tradition in the television landscape — including a writing room made up of artists who had little to no TV experience — Random Acts of Flyness is a surreal Black experimental film adventure unlike anything I've ever seen before. A visual collage of short films, archival images, staged behind-the-scenes footage, talk shows, animation and more, its exploration of contemporary Black life — and constant wrestling with the push and pull of centering whiteness in that exploration — is as complex, absurd, layered, contradictory and overwhelming as its subject matter. Watching it is perplexing and destabilizing, sometimes horrifying and other times hilarious. It's a thrill of a ride that left me asking more than once: "How in the world did they get this on television?" My imagination is ever so thankful that they did.
It's a story about struggling with the shock of grief — where a character might break into song at the grocery store. This film could only come from the world of theatre, where creators push the suspension of disbelief as far as possible. Directed by Canadian filmmaking legend Patricia Rozema and adapted from the award-winning stage play of the same name by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, MOUTHPIECE is a unique and emotionally resonant whirlwind.
Negro Swan, Blood Orange
This year, no album had as many plays on my Tidal account as this one. Negro Swan is a genre-defying, haunting yet head-nodding sonic triumph. The multi-talented Blood Orange (a.k.a. Dev Hynes) has crafted an album that explores a number of politically potent and intimately personal themes, but tucks into sounds that borrow from jazz, R&B, alt-pop and downtempo rock. Working with collaborators including Puff Daddy, Janet Mock, A$AP Rocky and Steve Lacy, Blood Orange has carved a space all his own in this music industry — and I am so thankful we get to dance in it.