Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

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ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA. — Cannons boomed, shaking the leaves off 50-foot trees. “Ready, I need fire on that hill!” an urgent voice yelled. Weapons were reloaded. Exhausted infantrymen — black, white, young, old — were splayed around a muddy pit. “Watch your muzzles, gentlemen,” their leader called. “Don’t blow your friend’s face off!”

In a wooded grove in this town near Baton Rouge, La., a television crew was meticulously recreating the brutal Civil War battle of Fort Pillow, for a remake of “Roots,” the seminal mini-series about slavery. The carnage in the fight was significant: After Union soldiers surrendered, the Confederates disproportionately took white soldiers hostage as prisoners of war and slaughtered hundreds of black soldiers, sending survivors into the slave trade. This massacre was not in the original “Roots,” broadcast in 1977, which is exactly why the producers of the new one chose to include it.

It is one of many unexpected historical details put onscreen in “Roots,” which will air over four nights starting on Memorial Day. It will be simulcast on the History, Lifetime and A&E channels, with a sprawling cast that includes Laurence Fishburne; Forest Whitaker; Anika Noni Rose; Anna Paquin; the rapper T.I.; and the English newcomer Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, the central character. The revival aims to deliver a visceral punch of the past to a younger demographic, consumed anew by questions of race, inequality and heritage. With a crew of contemporary influencers — Will Packer (“Straight Outta Compton”) is a producer; Questlove oversaw the music — the hope is to recontextualize “Roots” for the Black Lives Matter era, a solemn and exacting feat.

After Roots first aired on television in 1977, a number of scholars and journalists questioned the veracity of Alex Haley’s story, some even suggesting that Kunta Kinte was in fact a fictional character, not related to Haley. When I took on the job of serving as historical advisor to the new Roots, I asked only this question: Could a person named Kunta Kinte have lived in Juffure, a town on the Gambia River, and been enslaved and carried to Annapolis, Md., on the Lord Ligonier in 1767? It didn’t take much research to answer each of those questions with a resounding yes. So with that in mind, I set out to describe what Kunta Kinte’s world was like.

Matthew Mason is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.

As a historian and abolitionist, I found Sharon Haddock's May 13 review of the film "The Abolitionists" both discouraging and revealing. She found this documentary about the work of Operation Underground Railroad "hard to absorb" and "difficult to watch" because so many of the group's "efforts fail after being so carefully set up." It violated her expectation as a viewer "that everything will wrap up more neatly and quickly." The reason this is both revealing and discouraging is that it rests on a false — but widely shared — assumption of how real change has been and is effected in society.

The history of previous abolitionists has much to teach us on this point. Organized, group efforts to abolish slavery began in the era of the American Revolution, both in Great Britain and in the new United States. Those early activists understood they were in it for the long haul, and accomplished their work in stages. First was the gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern United States, beginning with Vermont in 1777 and ending with New Jersey in 1804. At the same time, these activists set their sights on abolishing the heinous traffic of Africans to the New World. But their work was slow and bitterly contested both in the U.S. and Britain, stretching from the 1780s through to both nations passing legislation in 1807 forbidding their countrymen from participating in the slave trade. But because nations such as Spain and Brazil smuggled African slaves onto their plantations, it was not until the 1860s that the notorious Atlantic slave trade finally came to a complete end after dedicated diplomatic and even military efforts by the British government.

[T]he tribute that 60 Minutes aired in conjunction with Morley Safer’s retirement, and his death four days later, prompted an outpouring of praise for a brilliant, 60-year journalism career in which Safer distinguished himself not only for his work on the weekly CBS News broadcast, but also for his earlier reporting in Vietnam. While some of the stories discussed how he started in journalism with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and even had the honor of using Edward R. Murrow’s desk at the CBS News bureau in London, the reports have neglected the influence that Murrow actually had on Safer’s career through the influence of one of his protégés: Charles Collingwood.

Jenny No. 76 was part of a block of four Jennies that disappeared at a stamp show in Norfolk, Va., in 1955.

Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.

Both women are starring in “Hidden Figures,” a forthcoming film that tells the astonishing true story of female African-American mathematicians who were invaluable to NASA’s space program in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s.

Ms. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a math savant who calculated rocket trajectories for, among other spaceflights, the Apollo trips to the moon. Ms. Spencer plays her supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, and the R&B star Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a trailblazing engineer who worked at the agency, too.

Biographers try to see themselves in the reclusive poet, and fail to show us who she really was.

“I couldn’t let go,” Jerome Charyn begins his author’s note to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, as if remembering a severed romantic relationship. Her seduction of Charyn implies her lingering claim on the present, but his inability to “let it go” introduces his attempt to put his mark on her. In the twenty-first century, Emily Dickinson has become very much about our selves, an interpretation that has been allowed to flourish partly because of her anonymity: The bulk of her poems, of course, were published after she died, and she lived with her parents all her life, unmarried and leaving letters that only hint at possible lovers, hardly ever leaving her home. During the last 30 years, it has been many writers’ impulse to try her on, explore the “masks,” as Charyn calls them, that she wore in her poems, and give motive to her writings through more expressive means. onship. He remained transfixed after writing a fictionalized account of Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, in which he inhabited, or vampirized, as he says, the nineteenth-century poet’s voice, detailing flings with noted scholars and tattooed handymen—all imagined of course. He spent two years on the book, culling through all the letters, biographies, studies, accounts, and poems he could. “I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” Charyn writes in his new book. “Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, and like a spider, she spun her meticulous web…”

ESPN’s five-part documentary examines race, Los Angeles and the famous pro-football celebrity-turned-convict.

Even if you were one of the millions who watched the white-Bronco chase live and followed the subsequent murder trial, or got hooked on The People v. O.J. Simpson, FX’s recent dramatized account of the behind-the-scenes ego-tripping of the legal “Dream Team,” you will be enlightened, fascinated and heartbroken by O.J.: Made in America, ESPN’s spellbinding five-part documentary series premiering in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.

Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award winning All the Way portrays Lyndon Baines Johnson in his finest hour, and its multi-media staging on Broadway was already cinematic in nature. HBO’s TV adaptation — directed by Jay Roach in collaboration with Schenkkan’s screenplay and airing Saturday — has upped the ante, giving us a leaner, less unwieldy and more intimate rendering.

The film version, which premiered in Austin at the LBJ Library last week downplays the younger, more ambitious and mean-spirited LBJ, who was not above stealing an election. It eschews how Johnson exercised legislative power and was master of the U.S. Senate. Nor does it consider that as vice president under President John F. Kennedy, Johnson was often humbled, humiliated and disrespected. Historian Robert Caro reports that some Kennedy staffers nicknamed him “Rufus Cornpone.”

When Johnson becomes “an accidental president,” as he says in the film, on that fateful day in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated, we witness the second coming of LBJ. He is back in his comfort zone. “I’ve got eleven months ‘til the election to establish myself as the man the people have chosen to hold this office.”

Germany's main national history museum is exploring six decades of migration to the country — a story of often-ambivalent but evolving attitudes that goes from the arrival of the first southern European "guest workers" to today's migrant influx from the Arab world and elsewhere.

The exhibition at Berlin's German Historical Museum, titled "Multicultural: Germany, a country of immigration," also looks at communist East Germany's use of workers from Vietnam and elsewhere, and at attitudes that swung toward fear and hostility when migrant arrivals last spiked in the 1990s, after reunification.

If I had a time machine, I’d head for Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s. At the time, Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon was world unto itself — a desert collective, bursting with counter-culture creativity, a haven for the young and the restless, for folk singers, songwriters, artists and hippies, both sitting-in and rocking out.
Henry Diltz captured all of it.

In 1966, Diltz was another young folk musician, a member of the Modern Folk Quartet, living in the Canyon.
So maybe fate played a part when he bought a $20 second-hand Japanese camera; after all, he was already nearing the hippies’ feared age of 30, and Diltz had never owned a camera in his life.
He began taking photos of his Canyon companions — Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa and Mama Cass, among them.

The remains of the Shakespearean-era Curtain Theatre, including shoulder-high walls and rectangular foundations, have been recently found and identified at a Shoreditch development site.

In an interview in the Guardian, renowned Shakespeare archaeologist Julian Bowsher, who specializes in the locations of the sites the Bard performed at as an actor and the locations where his plays themselves were performed; indicated that the Curtain’s rectangular design was a bit of a shock. As the site where the very first performances of such plays as Henry V and Romeo and Juliet might have taken place, the Curtain’s squared-off shape clashes with Henry V’s famous prologue, where the stage was referred to in shape as a “wooden O”.

Labor of Love begins with its then 26-year-old author, Moira Weigel, walking the High Line with an older man who is breaking her heart. She adores him, and he adores her attention, as well as that of his ex-girlfriend. He seems content to keep both of them around for as long as they’ll tolerate the arrangement. “What should I want?” Weigel asks him. He replies, “Doesn’t everyone just want to be happy?”

Dating, she realizes, is how she has learned to look for happiness. And the work of dating—an unending self-optimization ritual, a power struggle with stacked odds—has clouded her own desires. “As grown-ups, most of my friends agreed that dating felt like experimental theater,” she writes. “You and a partner showed up every night with different, conflicting scripts.”

So Weigel dove into the research that would become this quixotic 270-page history of dating, an activity most readers have intense feelings about, but scarcely know how to define. “Dating” is the practice of romance, but often it’s barely romantic at all.

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