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New Aretha bioseries dramatizes singer’s turbulent life

Cynthia Erivo shines as legendary Queen of Soul

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Aretha, gay news, Washington Blade

“Genius: Aretha,” a new seven-episode installment of National Geographic’s “Genius” series is a feast for the eyes and ears. With stellar performances, stunning cinematography, impressive period detail and rousing musical performances, there’s a lot here to like. 

The long-delayed return of the series follows previous seasons “Einstein” and “Picasso.” “Aretha” debuts Sunday, March 21 on the National Geographic channel at 9 p.m. Subsequent installments will be made available the next day. 

Pushed back from a May 2020 premiere due to COVID-induced production delays, the series stars Cynthia Erivo — who’s only been acting since 2011 and is already just an Oscar short of EGOT status — as adult Aretha while Shaian Jordan plays young Aretha in a stunning debut. 

Each episode pivots between “young” and “adult” Aretha. She works on her breakthrough 1967 Atlantic debut album “I Never Loved a Man” in first episode “Respect” while troublemaking husband Ted White (Malcolm Barrett) creates needless drama with the famed Muscle Shoals musicians. 

Young Aretha goes off with her father (Rev. C.L. Franklin, a famous pastor of his day, played by Courtney B. Vance) in second episode “Until the Right Thing Comes Along” on a summer gospel tour and comes home pregnant. 

One of the series’ best passages follows young Aretha and singer Sammie Bryant (Tonya Renee Banks) as they sneak out to a nightclub to see Sam Cooke and get busted by her dad on the way back. 

Episode six, “Amazing Grace,” is named after her double-platinum (the biggest seller Franklin ever had in a long career) gospel album and relays its — according to the series — turbulent creation. 

Everything, though, is turbulent in Franklin’s adult life in “Genius,” the effect of which, the series contends, is the loss of the singer’s mother at age 6 and a loving, nurturing but also overbearing and larger-than-life father. 

Franklin, who died in 2018, would undoubtedly hate this series. Although the singer longed to have her life story made into a biopic, she was famous for sugarcoating her past (her memoir “From These Roots” reads like a self-penned hagiography). Anyone who dared to challenge her recollections, such as David Ritz in his 2015 book “Respect: the Life of Aretha Franklin,” incurred her wrath. 

So that’s not a criticism. It’s sad to say, but it’s probably best that Franklin did not live to see this series or the upcoming biopic “Respect,” due for a summer release, in which Jennifer Hudson will star as the Queen of Soul. 

Much about the series works. The period detail is almost as good as “Mad Men.” Erivo, who does her own singing, is one of probably very few people on the planet who could both sing and act the demanding part and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Vance is especially good as Rev. Franklin as is Omar J. Dorsey as Rev. James Cleveland, a towering — and closeted — gospel figure of the day. 

And the back and forth between child/adult-period Aretha also works better than you might think. The technique, a common one in the Netflix era, feels ping-pongy on some shows, but not here.

There are two problems and sadly they are significant. The writing and pacing by showrunner Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer in 2001 for her play “Topdog/Underdog,” often feels leaden and unrealistic. 

Although brief, there are several scenes that make no sense dramatically. 

Listening to another singer tackle “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in the “Amazing Grace” episode, Cleveland, who’d mentored Franklin as a teen, says, “You can’t just outsing ‘em, you gotta outshine ‘em too,” to which Erivo’s Franklin gives a wry smile. 

It’s a bizarre non sequitur that feels like Parks flipped through a quote book and sprinkled in a down-homey proverb as an attempt at character development. Aretha has just pulled the plug on the project and we’re not told what she’s thinking or feeling. We know Cleveland, who already invested time on the arrangements, is hoping she’ll change her mind (which she does) but in the moment, the scene makes little sense.

In another scene, young Aretha is twirling around the room singing into hairbrushes with her sisters, Erma (Aubriana Davis) and Carolyn (Sydney Hunter). Grandmother Rachel (Pauletta Washington), who raised them, calls them for church. Her sisters leave and young ‘Re dissolves into tears. Nothing prompts it. We’re supposed to realize that music is Franklin’s only real joy. When it stops, she could collapse into tears at any moment. Despite solid execution, it feels forced and clunky. The pacing also drags at times. 

Erivo also fails to bring Franklin fully to life, but it’s more the fault of the writing. Her Aretha is an imperious bitch who usually doesn’t react to good news, scowls when anyone dares challenge her, rarely raises her voice except in song and seems utterly devoid of joy. 

One might argue that’s appropriate for that period in Franklin’s life. One of the main takeaways from Ritz’s book was there was the life Franklin wanted the public to think she had and the one she actually had. It’s obvious Parks and the team here did their homework. Artistic license is to be expected on a project like this. 

But despite the great cast, the gleaming cinematography and the show-stopping soundtrack, the actual dramatization is missing something. The real Aretha, it’s no secret, could be an imperious bitch. That’s all fair game. She was also, at times, her own saboteur. She was a complicated person. Parks and company do a noble job trying to peel back the layers, they just never quite get there. It may be an impossible job but a good biopic — especially at this luxurious length — should leave you with a tad more insight. 

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Television

‘And Just Like That’ is clunky, but shows promise

SATC reboot suffers without Samantha’s irreverence

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‘And Just Like That’ reunites three of the original four from ‘Sex and the City.’ (Screen capture via HBO Max)

Just in time for the holidays, “And Just Like That,” the 10-part “Sex and the City” (SATC) revival has premiered on HBO Max.

The first two episodes of “And Just Like That” aired on Dec. 9. One episode will air weekly until the show’s Feb. 3 season finale.

I have only seen the first two episodes of “And Just Like That.”

The reboot has its awkward, clunky, annoying moments, but shows glimmers of tenderness, wit, and promise.

It’s not a lump of coal in your stocking. Yet, it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a gift from your loving, but clueless aunt or an awesome present from your BFF.

But, it’s definitely worth putting under your tree.

How I miss “funky spunk” “Father Fuck” and “The Rabbit!”

If you’re an SATC aficionado, you’ll know that while Samantha couldn’t abide “funky spunk,” she longed to canoodle with a hot priest. (Naturally, he was “Father Fuck” in Samantha’s fantasies.) And, you’ll remember how much pleasure “the Rabbit” (a vibrator) gave Charlotte and Miranda.

Those are just a few moments that “Sex and The City” fans have missed since the arch, fashion-trend maker, sexual-taboo-breaker, HBO show’s 2004 finale.

What we’ve pined for wasn’t just the sex. It was the wit and friendship of the four bright, badass, professional, witty and, it can’t be denied, privileged women, who were the stars of SATC: writer and sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), art dealer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and public relations pro Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

We missed hearing the ladies talk openly, and wittily, sometimes tenderly or thoughtfully, about everything from “funky spunk” to “shortcomings” to their affairs with married men to threesomes to their abortions.

After the SATC finale, there were two “Sex and the City” movies. The first, released in 2008, was mediocre. The second, released in 2010, was beyond horrible.

After all these years, it’s lovely to see Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte (along with their husbands: Big, Steve and Harry respectively).

But, there’s a gaping hole! There’s no Samantha!

It’s no secret that Cattrall and Parker weren’t getting along off-screen. Cattrall didn’t want to be in “And Just Like That.”

You can’t blame the SATC folks for forging ahead with “And Just Like That.” Interest in the SATC characters has remained high, and shows with female characters in their 50s are few and far between.

Now that Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte are in their mid-fifties, “And Just Like That” could become “The Golden Girls” of our era.

But that’s not likely without Samantha, who was the essential queer sensibility of SATC.

Samantha’s irreverent, she loves sex, quiets babies down with vibrators, and though she’d never cop to it, has the proverbial heart of gold.

“And Just Like That” needs an infusion of irreverence.

SATC had problems of representation. Its characters were too white and too privileged. For its time, it had a queer quotient. Carrie’s best friend Stanford Blatch (the late Willie Garson) was gay, as was Charlotte’s best friend Anthony Marantino (Mario Cantone). But its depictions of bisexuals, lesbians, and trans people were stereotyped at best – bi and transphobic at worst.

“And Just Like That” works hard to correct those problems.

There are several characters who are people of color — from a law school professor to an upper-class mom.

Stanford and Anthony are now a bickering married couple. And there is Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) a “queer, nonbinary, Mexican-Irish diva,” a podcaster, who is Carrie’s boss.

It’s great that the show is trying to do better with representation, but it’s trying too hard.

We face serious issues – from parenting to grief – as we age. But, as any “Golden Girls” disciple knows, you don’t lose your sense of humor or lustiness as you grow older.

If “And Just Like That,” learns that, then it’ll be a great show.

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Television

MTV ‘True Life Crime’ host reinvents genre

Dometi Pongo puts focus on victims of anti-LGBTQ violence

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Dometi Pongo hosts MTV’s ‘True Life Crime.’ (Photo courtesy MTV)

The last place most of us would expect to find a true crime show is on MTV. Yet that’s exactly where you’ll find “True Life Crime” and its host Dometi Pongo, who on Aug. 24 will take a journalistic deep dive into the Mississippi murder of trans teen Mercedes Williamson – just one of the brutal, tragic stories covered by the show since its debut in 2020.

They are the kinds of stories, of course, that make fans of the genre eagerly stay up late to binge watch old episodes of “Cold Case Files” or the latest Netflix serial murderer doc. But while those shows content themselves with being a guilty pleasure for their viewers, this one aims a little higher.

To begin with, it primarily covers violence against people from marginalized communities; and though it examines facts and evidence, those take a back seat to discussion of the social issues around the crimes. Instead of placing all the emphasis on the “how” and “who,” the show puts it on the “why,” taking the spotlight from the killer and shining it on the victim instead – a far cry from the kind of truncated treatment usually bestowed by mainstream news sources when covering crimes against marginalized people.

Pongo – a charismatic host whose passion for amplifying the stories of marginalized communities is tied to his roots in Chicago’s south side – spoke to the Blade about the intentions behind the show, and the need to include the stories of LGBTQ victims.

BLADE: Besides the upcoming episode about Mercedes, this season has already covered two other cases involving anti-LGBTQ violence: the murders of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, who were a lesbian couple, and Muhlaysia Booker, a trans woman of color. Did you come into the show wanting to bring visibility to these kinds of cases?

DOMETI PONGO: It’s my connection to marginalized communities that made me want to do it, to talk about other marginalized communities that I’m not even a part of, but which deserve a voice as well. I’ll be honest with you, at a high level I understood the dangers of homophobia and transphobia in our communities, but I didn’t know the numbers. I didn’t know how often victims were dead-named, how under-reported anti-trans violence goes. I didn’t realize how deep this really got, until I was in the thick of it, reporting on these issues.

The first season we did the story of Kedarie Johnson, who was a gender-fluid teen that was killed in Iowa. That story really helped to open my eyes, and so for this season we wanted to double down.

BLADE: The show differs from other crime shows because it’s more concerned with exploring motives and issues around the cases than it is about the facts. Is that a conscious choice?

PONGO: There’s a conscious idea of either answering questions that the family never had answered, or looking at elements of the person’s identity, or the world around the crime, and figure out how we can tell a fuller story. You know, in some states they can secure a murder conviction without proving motive, so you can have a family go through the entire litigation process, all the way up to the killer being convicted, and they’ll never know why their loved one was killed. The pain that comes from that is gut-wrenching. So, aside from just taking you through the crime and how the person is caught, what can we add to the conversation that can give some solace to the families?

BLADE: As a host, you bring a lot to the show. You’re great on camera and your passion really shines through – but you always deflect the attention toward the family and the community around the victim.

PONGO: Thank you, I appreciate you noticing that. I’m the lens through which the subject gets to tell their story. If I share something about losses and experiences that I have, it’s because I know that human-to-human connection will help the subject open up. As journalists, we’re told never to become the story – and now we’re in this age where you have to have a social media presence, you have to have some charisma about you, you have to be a host of sorts. But I want to make sure that I’m a human first when I’m talking to these families, and I’m glad if that shines through.

BLADE: It does, and so does the fact that your show doesn’t sensationalize the way others do. There’s nothing tabloid about it.

PONGO: We do want to differentiate ourselves. Why would you come to MTV for a true crime story rather than other networks that have been doing them for years? We’ve got to put our bent on it. We’re focused on talking to young folks who live in the pop culture space, and the “True Life” franchise is the perfect avenue for that, because it’s all about the true lives of the subjects, and we wanted to be sure that that was highlighted.

BLADE: The focus on social justice issues certainly gives the show a youthful perspective.

PONGO: They say the young have the energy, and the elders have the wisdom, and we want to arm the energy of these young people – these bright, action-oriented young people who mobilized with the racial reckoning of 2020, who are leading the charge – we want to arm them with context and information about more stories, and how everything in our society kind of folds into what happens. Many of our episodes end with a call to action. Who do you call to change this law? Who do you email? As effective a tool social media is, so is voting, so is emailing legislators, so is getting involved in advocacy groups. We arm our audience with the information that they need to keep doing the great work they’re doing.

BLADE: It’s really activism taking the form of entertainment.

PONGO: That’s it, 100 percent. I started out at a Black-owned radio station on the South Side of Chicago. Al Sharpton held the afternoon slot for his show, each host was very community oriented, so I cut my teeth at that intersection of information and social justice – but I’m also a fan of hip-hop, I’m a fan of music, so when I’m not doing “True Life Crime” I’m doing MTV News interviews with my favorite artists. Investigating that intersection of social justice and pop culture is where I think a lot of our power lies. I think that’s where the young people are sitting right now.

BLADE: What do you hope they take away from these stories?

PONGO: If there’s anything that I want people to take away it’s this: After the show, whatever social justice issue we talk about, research it. Dig into it. That guilty pleasure feels a little bit less guilty if you do the work after that TV cuts off. 

“True Life Crime” airs on MTV at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays. All past episodes are available to watch on the MTV website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Show must go on- Lil Nas X’s embarrassing wardrobe malfunction on SNL

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Lil Nas X performing on NBC's SNL May 22, 2021 (Screenshot via SNL YouTube channel)

NEW YORK – Montero Lamar Hill, known by his stage name Lil Nas X, was performing his latest hit single ‘Call Me By Your Name’ from his album MONTERO on NBC’s Saturday Night Live when his pants ripped at the crotch.

The openly out singer-songwriter- rapper glanced down then back up at the audience, covered the affected area with his hand and kept singing in what reviewers and commentators are calling “the gayest performance ever on national television” and “iconic.”

WATCH:

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