My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part II

In this series, I’m recounting the years of my life when I identified with a Christian subculture, just as that culture’s music was taking off into a new phase in its history. For a time, Christian Rap (CHH) was not just my favorite music; I was The Christian Rap Guy. Part I covered my origin story. In this part, I introduce you to some of the main characters in this story through one unforgettable night in Chicago.

“Have you heard of Lecrae?”

No. I hadn’t.

“He’s supposed to be the best Christian rapper.”

So, as a CHH noob, I searched him on YouTube, and found a song called “Don’t Waste Your Life.” That was a title I was familiar with, but as the name of a book by John Piper, and the shorthand title for one of his most famous sermons.

Piper requires a sidebar. For those of you who don’t know Pastor John, he’s like the Steven Spielberg of American Protestant pastors – long career with a staggering output of work. Can captivate the masses but leave the thinking person with more than enough to ponder. A force of nature who couldn’t possibly have ever done anything else with their life. Wild hair. A pillar of their industry with legions of students and imitators. Personally, Piper has had a major influence on my own theology, though we have some significant disagreements, and I find some of his beliefs extremely problematic. But find me one single thought leader in any school of thought who doesn’t have any problematic beliefs. I’ll save you the time and let you know there isn’t one, except Jesus, but that’s a little unfair what with being God and everything. Point is, Piper is a big deal, and a name almost beyond reproach in the Christian circles I ran in.

This included my father, a Baptist minister who is personal friends with John Piper. Put a pin in that.

I wondered if the title of the song was a coincidence, and, if it was on purpose, whether this was a token nod to the theological school with which I rocked or the music was truly steeped in it. I kept exploring Lecrae’s discography, especially the recently released Rehab and Rehab: The Overdose as well as the instant-classic, Rebel. And what I found in banger after banger was that Lecrae was weaving theology that spoke to the head and heart in his music. “Don’t Waste Your Life,” was, indeed, named after Piper’s book, and, as I would find, Lecrae was not the only artist influenced by Piper. It turned out he was, in a sense, the patron saint of CHH, and the respect went both ways. This was an unbelievable discovery.

So, who else was there? Who were these other artists that were appearing on the recommended albums on iTunes? The names that kept coming up were Trip Lee, Tedashii, Sho Baraka, and Pro. I made my way into their discographies, too, and again, I was thrilled to find more artists making quality music and preaching the Gospel. If that wasn’t enough, their connection was not arbitrary – they were all signed to Lecrae’s record label, Reach Records, making them a part of the collective the 1-1-Six Clique, which is a reference to Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe.”

Understand – rap was my favorite genre of music, John Piper was my second-favorite preacher, and here are these guys making rap music I loved giving Glory to the God I loved. I don’t even know what the comp is. Like, imagine your favorite team in your favorite sport signed the best player and hired the best coach.1 Or, you favorite director made a movie written by your favorite screenwriter in your favorite genre with your favorite actor.2

My dad also took note of this remarkable alignment, and he started – for the first time – to check out the music I was into. I grew up taking after my dad in many of my interests. I read The Lord of the Rings because he read it. He introduced me to sports. I loved U2 because he was a serious fan.3 As I got older and started to develop some of my own interests, the roles would sometimes reverse, which is why he’s a fan of Everton Football Club and enjoys Wes Anderson films. The first notable example is CHH. He started listening a little, intrigued (and relieved) that his son was listening to music that was for our good and God’s glory. And he, to my great surprise, rather liked a lot of what he found. He also encouraged my listening, buying me CDs and t-shirts if ever I hinted about one (and even when I wouldn’t).

I wasn’t the kind of teenager who wanted to like things precisely because my parents didn’t, so this new bond was exciting for me. I like having someone in my family to share it with, especially because my younger brother, who was a fan of Kanye like me, hated CHH. To this day I don’t know if it was a legitimate dislike of the music, a desire to be different from, a jealousy of the thing I had with my dad, or revenge for the fact that I hated the music he loved – country. But, that rivalry aside, I was in an ideal place, with a bevy of talented artists all making music that I enjoyed and made me feel spiritually nourished, music that my dad liked but I could also blast on the way to baseball practice without feeling like a dork. And the music these artists were making was such that they weren’t just my favorite rappers – they were people I could look up to. They were my heroes. They were cool, and they were good people who loved God.

The logical next step in this head-over-heels fandom was, of course, to go to a concert.

The 1-1-Six Clique would sometimes go on tour together, calling it the Unashamed Tour. In the fall of 2012, my first year of college, they were on one such tour, and they would be coming to Chicago in October on a long weekend not too far from my birthday. My dad took no convincing – he even bought the tickets that would give us early entrance and a chance to meet the artists.

So here we were – a skinny white kid and his gray-haired father going to the Congress Theatre (which isn’t exactly on the Gold Coast) for our first rap concert. I was very excited, but also nervous. I’m introverted, and I was a stand-still-and-listen type of concert goer, so going meeting my favorite rappers and going to a concert that I assumed looked like the final scene in 8 Mile was intimidating. I don’t know precisely what my dad was feeling, but I know he was self-conscious about probably being the oldest one there. And I know he brought ear plugs in case it was too loud.

The meet-and-greet with the artists involved those who had bought the special tickets filing through a line where they could say hello and get an autograph.

First in line was Lecrae. I don’t remember much of that moment, except that I horribly botched the dap, a moment which has made me self-conscious about doing this to this day (this will come up again). After that, I just said hello to each artist and handed them my ticket to sign. As I handed my ticket to Tedashii, Lecrae pointed at my dad, who was wearing a Don’t Waste Your Life shirt – not a Lecrae shirt, but a Piper shirt – and said “I like your shirt,” and my dad, without missing a beat, said “I know you do,” meaning “I know you know this is a John Piper shirt and that’s why I like you.” And I thought I have that shirt too – why didn’t I wear that! My dad said something else complimentary, and Lecrae steepled his hands and bowed. I went on down the line and greeted Trip Lee, Derek Minor, and KB. Andy Mineo was wearing a fake mustache, and he asked me, “Hey man, would you like a beer or something?” and being in the flustered state I was, I said, in total seriousness, “Oh, no, no thank you.” He laughed and said he was just kidding. Of course he was just kidding.

I was star-struck. I was absolutely buzzing, embarrassing as it all was.

Since we got early access, we could get about as close to the stage as we wanted, but my dad thought we should head up for the balcony, in those seats that extend down around the sides until they’re almost right above the stage. He wanted to do that in part because there were chairs where he could sit down (there were no chairs on the floor), and since I, like him, was a little uncertain about the mosh pit aspect, agreed to go to the balcony.

Before the six Reach Records artists did their sets, there would be two opening acts.

First up, Propaganda.

Prop is the human incarnation of the West Coast. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he had done a spoken word piece called “The Gospel in Four Minutes / G.O.S.P.E.L.” that had recently gone viral. What I didn’t know as he rapped a couple songs while waving his dreadlocks, was that he was on the ground level of a record label called Humble Beast, a collective who will, in time, play a major part in this story.

Next up, I was introduced to Thi’sl, a big man with a gritty St. Louis accent. He walked from one end of the stage to the other with small, purposeful steps, and used basic hand gestures to accompany his driving, snarling, methodical flow. And he had the crowd on a string. He debuted, at that very concert, a song called “Snap Off,” which I would later see him perform many times. I’ve actually lost track now how many times I’ve seen Thi’sl perform.

The Reach artists performed in an order somewhat equivalent to their notoriety, which meant the first artist would be Andy Mineo, now using his real name instead of his previous stage name, C-Lite. I knew him best for singing the hook on Lecrae’s soaring “Background,” and not at all as a rapper. I wasn’t alone, as he had to that point only released one mixtape. Andy was the one white artist performing, and he seemed a little goofy to me, not just because he offered me a beer when I met him, but because he hopped around and rapped in a nasally voice very different from the first two performers. At one point he rode a skateboard around. He made too many shout-outs to Chi-Town. But then he rapped a song called “In My City,” and the crowd – nearing capacity – was roaring the hook.

Within a few years, Andy Mineo would be – arguably – the face of Christian rap.

KB followed, the other young up-and-comer on the Reach team. His debut album had just released a few months prior, and one of the songs he performed was “Zone Out,” a livewire that would go on to be one of his signature concert songs, one that allows him to perform in his energetic style. KB is as physically active on stage as anyone, and he pours sweat. He treats rapping more like boxing than singing.

The artist formerly known as Pro performed next. Realizing that it’s impossible for someone to find him through Google by searching “Pro,” he changed his name to Derek Minor. At this stage in his career, Derek was still mainly producing big, bold tracks and utilizing his growling drawl. But big things were on the way for Derek. In a few years, he would leave Reach Records, having grown to the place as an artist, businessman, and leader to start his own record label. His sound and style would evolve too, until he became one of the most consistent and versatile artists in CHH.

This left Lecrae and his two deadliest lieutenants – Tedashii and Trip Lee.

Tedashii is a big Samoan man with a deep, deep voice. He entered the dark stage wearing a custom jacket with neon lettering after the style of the cover of his most recent album, Blacklight. The crowd roared, and that was just the beginning. His hype music is as fierce as any, with his anthem “Make War,” about taking the roof off and his frenzied “Riot,” just about starting an actual riot in the middle of the floor. His Houston-influenced “26’s” started, but he stopped the song and signaled for the DJ to spin the remix version.

This drew my attention to Nelson Chu, aka DJ Official, an unassuming figure at the back of the stage on an elevated turntable. DJ Official is the DJ of CHH. Or was. Nelson passed away in 2016 due to complications with a double lung transplant. He was just 39.

Working with DJ Official on the other side of the stage was Nate Robinson, the BeatBreaker, operating a drum set where he drummed all the beats for all the artists. I didn’t know that was something someone could do. One could be forgiven for thinking that music was being made by a machine.

Tedashii’s set perfectly encapsulated who he was as an artist in so many ways, and was a testament to his ascension in the industry. His next album would be a very different thing, a project born out of the pain of losing his only son to SIDS just a couple years later. His career, like his life, would not be the same.

Trip Lee was next, the opposite of Tedashii in so many ways – short, slender, with a nasally Dallas drawl. Trip was, more or less, Lecrae’s first disciple and protégé, and at the time he was the undisputed Westbrook to Lecrae’s Durant (that analogy worked at the time). As much as any performer, Trip makes rapping look so effortless while also maintaining high levels of energy. Slight as he was, he stood tall on stage.

Not long after this concert, Trip would enter semi-retirement to pursue other ministry opportunities, and his touring days were all but over due to chronic fatigue.

And then there was Lecrae.

Lecrae was introduced through a video on the big screen – worth mentioning that the production of this concert was fairly impressive – and the audience screamed when he first appeared on the video.

Oh, I thought to myself. This is something else entirely.

From where we were sitting, we were able to see the area where the artists would stand just before coming out on stage. As the video played, I could see the silhouette of Lecrae, and he was shadowboxing. Not like a light, playful thing, but like he was actually exchanging blows with the champ. He knew what was coming. I didn’t.

Lecrae is a physically imposing person. He’s at least 6’3, with broad shoulders, chiseled arms, and an elegant swagger. He’s handsome, with big eyes and a mouth as ready to smile as it is to mean mug. His voice ranges from a deep drawl to whinier inflections in the way that some of the most dynamic rappers are able to manipulate their voice as an instrument. He’s lived all over, and so it’s tough to pin down his dirty south accent.

Lecrae’s set was a rapturous run of hit after hit after hit. Everyone knew all the words to all his songs, including all the songs from his new album, Gravity, which would go on to win a Grammy a few months later. Other artists joined him on stage for some of his notable collabs, and it just went on and on. This wasn’t just a concert. This was something spiritual, something holy. It was the height of live music.

The concert ended with all the artists returning to the stage to do a few more songs together, including Derek Minor’s “116,” the de facto anthem of the entire collective. It slaps. And it features a refrain of “Ooooone, ooooone six,” that is absolutely perfect for a call and response with the audience. They could have probably done that for an hour without anyone getting bored.

When my dad and I left the concert and returned to the car, we looked at each other and both said something to the extent of “That was awesome.” It was more than either of us could have imagined. I had had the most validating experience for my fandom, and – if there was any doubt left – my dad was now fully in on CHH.

We drove home from Chicago late that night, reliving some of our favorite moments from the concert, neither of knowing that this would be the first of many such adventures. And, though we didn’t know it, we had caught this group of artists at a major inflection point. All of their careers were about to go in major new directions, and a coming together like this was going to be exceedingly rare in the future.

I was The Christian Rap Guy, and I had just been to a concert with a few thousand other major fans. This was no longer just the music I loved. This was me. And it was still only the beginning.

In Part III: The Legacy Concerts expand my horizons, and I become The Christian Rap Guy in campus ministry.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

1. I experienced some version of this over the past year when Everton hired Carlo Ancelotti and signed James Rodriguez. It’s pretty great. 2. I spent way too long thinking about what this would be for me. Maybe a family drama written by Hirokazu Kore-eda, directed by Wes Anderson, starring Oscar Isaac and Kiera Knightley, or a societal parable written by the Coens, directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, starring Tsao Tao and Adam Driver 3. I haven’t held onto all the things my father taught me, but he did teach me to enjoy my coffee black, chocolate dark, and whiskey neat, and that’s pretty important.

My Life as The Christian Rap Guy – Part I

This blog has mostly served to do three different things – amplify my thoughts on social issues, present my opinions on art, and recount my rollicking[1] adventure into adulthood. One topic that has made the occasional appearance while serving all three objectives is Christian Rap (CHH), a subgenre and subculture that has been – though not evident from this blog – one of the most formative thingies in my life. It seemed good, then, with some space from the years when my identity was inextricable from CHH, that I write an orderly account, dearest Blogophilus, of my life as a Christian Rap Guy.

But, really, I was THE Christian Rap Guy. Among most of my friend groups, I was the only one who knew the music existed. Among most of my Christian friends, I was the one who listened the most. And among my Christian friends who were also fans, I was the one who also went to the concerts and bought the merch and got the tattoo. CHH dominated my musical sensibilities, but also affected the way I talked, the way I dressed,[2] and the way I carried myself. There are thousands of others who were bigger fans of Christian rap than I was, but my story is somewhat unique because only a fraction of those people found themselves in the position I had of being THE Christian Rap Guy in their social circles. My fandom also spans some of the most (if not the most) important years in CHH’s relatively brief history. These years were also formative for me, and my development in some ways mirrors that of CHH.

All this is preface and defense; I think I have some interesting things to say.

The self-absorption of this series will be stupendous, and the niche will be so niche-y you might wonder if there’s any point at all (that’s as esoteric as dad jokes get). But, even if you’re not interested in rap, concerts, Christian life, or, you know, me, you might still enjoy this Bildungsroman of sorts. I first got the idea to write this on a suggestion from Athena Lathos at Bertha Mason’s Attic. Athena writes the kinds of things I wish I wrote, so I’m going to try to write something she might like to read. Blame her if you don’t like this. But don’t @ her, you jackass.

“I would start at the beginning, but I think I need to go farther back.” 
Toby Flenderson

I did not grow up in a household that listened to rap. The music and its culture were Other for me from the moment I was conscious of their existence. My parents taught me it was not only bad music (“Rap music? More like crap music”) – it was bad music. Rowdy people who wore their pants below their tush did that. I don’t blame my parents – the average media outlet in the 90s and early Aughts depicted rap as a criminal world of aggressive, unsophisticated music, and a lot of rap does in fact earn its reputation (though without the thinly veiled racist critiques). So from the beginning, rap was a strange, forbidden thing for me.

As a teen and preteen, my older sister would drive me to school, and we listened to Top 40 radio, which at the time would include some rap verses on pop songs and some rap-adjacent tracks. And, without really even knowing it, I liked the music. I certainly didn’t approve of Mr. Rida talking about slapping that big booty, but the song was very catchy. And I couldn’t have cared much less about beautiful girls, but I certainly did like to hear about back in ninety-nine, watching movies all the time. And then “Boom Boom Pow” happened, which was a very important text for white teenagers.

But the artist who really got my attention was a fellow named Kanye West and his song “Heartless.” So, one day, wanting to listen to some music in the background while playing Runescape, I decided to fire up my trial account of Pandora and set up a radio station based around the song. The first thing that played was Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and it was game over. I had never, ever heard a song like that. By the time the alluring vocal sample played out for the last time, I was hooked on hip-hop. It was time for me to really and truly cross the Rubicon. I went on iTunes and bought some more of the songs off Graduation. The clean versions, of course, and only after asking my parents’ permission.

I was in love with a genre of music I knew nothing about, pre-Spotify, sans-Shazam, with no one to show me the way. I couldn’t ask my dad, “Hey, who’s nice?” because he would’ve said Fred Rodgers. If I asked him, “Hey, who were the O-Gs back in your day?” he would’ve said “Do you mean the Bee Gees?” So, somewhat blindly, I stumbled around in the world of rap music.

But Kanye remained my north star because he was objectively great and because there were glimpses here and there of his Christian faith. There’s nothing that will make a Christian’s hair stand up like a faith reference in popular music, which is part of the reason my family loves U2,[3] so the fact that Kanye had a song called “Jesus Walks” was a big deal to me. The best to do it (fight me) in my favorite genre was talking about God, meaning I could listen without feeling like I was doing something wrong.

But then My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, and I wasn’t quite ready for that.[4] Between the explicit cover and the, well, darker lyrics, I wasn’t so sure if Kanye was safe anymore. At the same time, I was getting frustrated with how much trouble I was having finding rap music that I liked that wasn’t about sex or drugs (again, I had no idea what I was doing). I wanted to be able to continue listening to rap, but I didn’t want to feel bad about it.

So I thought to myself, Well, there’s Christian music. Maybe there’s Christian rap?

I thought I knew nothing when I started exploring rap music, but I knew even less when looking for Christian rappers. To the point where I think I started my search by entering “Christian rapper” into a YouTube or iTunes search. This brought me to Da T.R.U.T.H., which is an objectively terrible stage name, and his song “Our World.” Listening to that song, I had an experience not unlike my proper introduction to Kanye. The music wasn’t nearly as good, but what entered my ears opened my eyes. Oh, this is a thing. He’s rapping, and he’s rapping about Jesus. I wasted no time and bought the entire The Faith album on iTunes. In doing so, I think I was in some way doing an act of penance, hoping that this indulgence would absolve me of my sinful love of Kanye.[5]

As further performance of my new allegiance, I added Da T.R.U.T.H. to my Facebook favorites in the about me section, which doesn’t exist anymore, kiddos. Soon after, my friend Drake (literally, my friend named Drake – I’m not referring to Aubrey as my friend here) wrote on my wall saying that he listened to a Da T.R.U.T.H. song and also found it compelling because he’d never heard anything like it before. He asked me if I listened to any other Christian rappers. And then he said something that, little could he know, would change my life.

“Have you heard of Lecrae?”

Next, in Part II: Discovering the 1-1-Six Clique, meeting my heroes, and an unbelievable first concert.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek.

2 Whyyyyyy was everything I wore so big? I also acquired some snapbacks during this year that are really cool, but they never quite looked right on me and, needless to say, that isn’t my style anymore. Also, one time, when I was telling my girlfriend that I thought I was one of the least white guys on the dorm floor, and she said, “Peter, you’re wearing a polo,” which is as hard as I’ve ever been dunked on.

3 One of the most uninteresting takes is that U2 is bad. One of the most unfunny jokes is anything about the iTunes album. U2 is great, and I won’t stand for any slander of the lads. Okay, the last album was bad, but whatever.

4 MBDTF really did a number on me. It’s now my second favorite of his albums, but I was totally unprepared for songs like “Monster.” At the time, Nikki’s verse, like, frightened me, but when I was teaching first-year comp I made a point to quote it to my students. Can we also just take a moment to appreciate that he started an album with “Dark Fantasy,” “Gorgeous,” “Power,” “All of the Lights,” and “Monster”? That’s willlld.

5 At this time I was also freaked out about Illuminati conspiracy theories. I had a legitimate fear that Kanye, Jay-Z, and others were trying to send devil-worshipping messages in their music. What an idiot.

2020 Movies: 2021 Edition

Four great performances in three great films and also Malcolm & Marie.

A few months ago I wrote about the 2020 films, knowing that I was doing so without having been able to see some of the most notable films of the year. I didn’t realize a) how many of those films there were b) how quickly after the New Year they’d be available c) how many excellent films would be “released” in early 2021 d) how much I would love so many of these films. I just finished a major writing project and it isn’t time to mark IB exams yet so yep I’m blogging about movies again.

I’ll begin with some superlatives: the films that I enjoyed/moved me/I’ve thought about/surprised me/ the most. Then, my favorite performances. Both of these sections will be spoiler-free. The last section will be about some of my favorite moments from these films, and this will absolutely contain spoilers.

If I’m not vaccinated by the time Judas and the Black Messiah comes to my little theater I’m going to cry.

Superlatives

The film that I enjoyed most:

Minari – I wrote a little bit about Minari already when I suggested it as a double-billing with Nomadland (which isn’t represented here in any way which feels wrong because it’s, like, maybe the best film of the year?). The experience I had watching Minari is basically my ideal film-viewing experience. It was beautiful to watch and listen to. It made me laugh and cry and think and feel. It punched me in the stomach but also warmed my heart. Time will tell whether or not I think this is the “best” film from this year or my “favorite,” but for now I know that I enjoyed watching it about as much as I can enjoy watching a film, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The film that moved me the most:

Sound of Metal – I came to this film knowing that it was about a heavy metal drummer who goes deaf and it was intense. Maybe I should have expected it, but the film’s real power is in the quiet moments, not the loud moments of frustration and rage. As Joe tells Ruben, for the people in the recovery home, it’s not about fixing the ears; it’s about fixing what’s between them. Ruben’s journey of healing and discovery is visceral and devastating in ways that go well beyond the terror going deaf would be for anyone – let alone a professional musician. It is the type of film that Spartan kicks you in the chest, but then reaches out to catch you. It splashes you in the face with moments of pathos and sentimentality, but that water comes from deep wells. I don’t see my own struggles through a new lens after every movie – I did after this one. I also tweeted OH FUCK which is not something I normally tweet.

The film that I’ve thought about the most:

Promising Young Woman – The thorny subject material makes it a movie to think and talk about. But since my cat doesn’t speak English, I have to just think about it. And I’ve thought a lot about it.

First, I had to think about the morality of the film – was the way it handled sexual assault appropriate? After thinking about it a lot, I think the answer is yes, but I would really appreciate women’s perspective on this if you want to hmu. After concluding it was appropriate to think more about, enjoy, and recommend, I thought about the film’s message and how it was delivered. On one level, it is similar to other films that bash the viewer over the head with “the point.” Sometimes this works for me (The Art of Self-Defense, Atlanta (the good episodes)) and sometimes it doesn’t (Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta (the bad episodes)). But as the film progresses, the overt depictions of misogyny form a much more subtle and complex essay on gender and sexuality, much in the same way that Get Out approaches race and racism and both levels.

The over-the-top nature of the film is actually what allows for its subtlety, and one of the reasons I’ve thought about it so much is that it actually intersects nicely with my thesis work on abstract aesthetics. I believe this is one of the most effective ways to subvert audience expectations and clear the space for real moments of clarity and realization that realism can’t capture.

As if to prove my point, I took a long pause before writing this sentence just thinking more about it. Hm. This is one of those times where I kinda would like to write a long, researched, in-depth essay, but given my readership I’m not sure the juice is worth the squeeze. And you know I mean that because I hate that expression.

The film that surprised me the most:

Another Round – I was confident this would be a good film because people I trust recommended it, but I was surprised and delighted by the ways in which it is good, in addition to just, well, how very good it is. There’s a very basic version of this movie that could have been made – man has mid-life crisis and decides to drink all day to be in a better mood. Things get better for a little while with his job and his wife and kids. Then they get worse. Then they get better. That could have easily been a fun, funny, somewhat thought-provoking romantic comedy. Instead, it asks honest questions about ageing, about what it means to live and to live well, about who matters to us and how we matter to others. It’s about love and friendship and inhibition. And it is still fun and funny. It’s immensely watchable, moving, and provocative. I knew it would be good and I’d enjoy it – just not like this.

Favorite Performances

In no particular order:

Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) – Flame emojis. The number of different things she has to do in this film, the range that she has to exhibit…it’s stunning. It’s a cunning choice Emerald Fennel makes to make Mulligan – through hair/makeup, wardrobe, and lighting – just really, really hot in this film, and Mulligan plays off that. She carries herself in a way that is so aware of the lascivious male gaze, but stares back with an uncanny ferocity. Oh now I’m remembering another really good piece of theory I could apply to this essay and oh no why did I leave school gahhhhhhhh….. Anyway. Just an absolute movie star performance that should announce Mulligan as one of the best in the game. I mean, I even fell for her chemistry with Bo Burnham, and I can’t stand Bo Burnham.

Mads Mikkelson (Another Round) – I had honestly forgotten that he’s Danish. It’s fun watching an actor get to use their native accent and/or language. But that’s mostly besides the point here; this is a convincing and authentic – to use tired acting clichés – performance. Each phase of Martin’s transformation is believable and Mikkelson’s drunk acting – like all four of the leads – has me wondering if they were actually slightly inebriated while filming. Mikkelson embodies this character in a way that shows a love and care for Martin’s pain and joy.

Steven Yeun (Minari) – Or, really, everyone in this film. Really great ensemble, including the kids. It adds so much when the kids are legitimately good, and not just passable. Yeun’s performance does a lot of storytelling. There is plenty of necessary exposition, but Minari also does a lot of “show don’t tell,” including in the ways the characters present themselves on screen. We know very quickly what kind of man, husband, and father Jacob is. He’s written and performed in a way that suggests Lee Isaac Chung and Yeun know this person in real life.

Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) – The desperation in Ahmed’s performance is riveting. The way he pleads with Lou to stay with him and the doctor’s to fix him. The anger as he smashes a morning donut or his sound mixing equipment. The anguish as he describes his view of the world to Joe. It’s a physical performance as big as his chiseled, tattooed body, and as intimate and subtle as his eyes and mouth. Raci is my personal Oscars victory. This is everything I want from a supporting performance, with the added difficulty of signing so much of his dialogue. His delivery of my favorite line in the film (which I’ll talk about later) destroyed me. De. Stroyt. Me. Those Oscars noms are delightfully sensible. Nice job, Academy.

Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman) – I can’t say I liked watching this performance, but I thought she actually gave birth to that baby so, yeah. The film doesn’t totally work, but the first thirty minutes or so (a depiction of a home birth) is harrowing stuff, held down by Kirby’s work. Her final scene goes in the pantheon of courtroom performances.

Zendaya (Malcom & Marie) – Speaking of films that don’t totally work. If not for the excellence of Zendaya and John David Washington, this might have been one of the worst high-profile films in recent years. Zendaya especially is just fantastic. There’s plenty of room for capital a Acting, with crying and shouting and all that, but she already has such presence, command, and subtlety. She carries herself so well as the sexy woman who is full of self-doubt, as the girlfriend who is so over her boyfriend’s buffoonery, expressing herself through her physicality as well as some brilliant line-readings. It’s so exciting how many great young actors are working right now, and I hope I’m watching Zendaya in movies for a lifetime.

Favorite Moments

Again, in no particular order:

Malcolm X and Cassius Clay pray (One Night in Miami) – Early in the film, Cassius meets with Malcolm X to pray. As they stand next to each other with their hands folded, Malcolm reaches over and gently rearranges Cassius’ hands to be in the proper position for prayer. Those legendary hands, accustomed to beating opponents into submission, are finding their way into the submissive posture of worship, worship that will play a part in making one of these men a figurative martyr and the other a literal one. The film’s premise – an extended fictional conversation between X, Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke – intrigues because it allows us to see the big ideas these men were contending with ping around the room in plain conversation, but it is a small moment like this that makes this kind of fictional depiction a treasure. It’s a reminder that these supremely famous and influential humans were exactly that – humans. The fierce radical sometimes lent a gentle hand of correction. The Greatest humbled himself to learn a new way to live. It’s a small, small moment, but one of my favorites of the last year.

Honorable acknowledgement to the “Chain Gang” scene, which is a big showy moment, but absolutely hits the right notes (literally).

Cassie’s revenge (Promising Young Woman) – This scene is incredibly difficult to watch, but it is Fennel’s masterstroke. The text itself is devastating; Cassie, on the verge of revenge, is murdered. But the subtext is genius. Cassie has done all the work necessary to enact her revenge, using her smarts and bravery to expose Al on a bed, the site of so much violence against women. It would seem to be game, set, match – she’s going to win. And then Al breaks free of a literal handcuff and overpowers her, smothering her beneath a pillow until she suffocates. In the end, it didn’t matter what Cassie did; the man could still use his natural strength advantage to break free of the handcuffs and smother any threat that Cassie still carried. He is too strong in the arm for the literal constraint, too secure in his maleness for the synecdoche. For good measure, Cassie lies dead on the bed in a fairly obvious Christ pose. Women can do all the right things, but in the end that may not be enough for safety, or even for justice. While the ending of this film is the fantasy, the “hell yeah” conclusion to a revenge movie, this first ending is the bucket of cold water. Men have terrorized women because they can – not because of any failing on the part of women. It’s brilliant, brilliant filmmaking. I don’t ever want to watch it again though.

Harvesting minari (Minari) – It’s the perfect ending to the film. The film’s true, if not literal, beginning is a scene of Jacob, with his son, David, surveying the field he’s bought. It’s an intersection of his economic ambitions, his immigrant journey, and his fatherhood. The film ends with Jacob and David crouching down over the little minari herbs, harvesting the legacy David’s grandmother brought from Korea, the plant that persists in growing even in a strange new land, each sprig a sign of hope in the wake of the destruction of the year’s harvest, another symbol of Jacob’s labors and his relationship with his son. Minari is not an optimistic movie, and the ending leaves much unexplained – especially relating to the family’s economic future and Jacob and Monica’s marriage – but this quiet little moment is hopeful in a moment as tender as the plants the father and son collect from the earth.

Stillness / I thank you / You saved my life / ending (Sound of Metal) –

RUBEN: It’s time. I gotta do something. Right? Trying to save my fucking life. So that’s what I’m doing. Okay? No one else is gonna save my life. Right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I gonna have? Nothing. Okay? And all this shit? Like, what does it matter? What does it matter? It just passes. Yo, If I disappear, like, who cares? Nobody cares, man. Seriously. Yo, and that’s okay. That’s life. That’s life. No, for real, okay? It just passes, it just fucking…fucking passes.

JOE: I wonder, uh…all these moments you’ve been in my study – sitting – have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben, the world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, the moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.

This moment left a crater in me. It’s a point of culmination, but it also begins a sequence of scenes that carry through to the film’s conclusion. After the surgery does not deliver the results Ruben had hoped for, he goes to France to reunite with Lou. Lou’s father welcome him into the home and confesses to Ruben that it took him a long time to stop feeling like Ruben had stolen his daughter from him. But now he knows that’s not the case:

“And you…you…Well, you gave her a place to go. Then, and……this is a good thing. Don’t you see, I didn’t like you much at the time, but now I thank you. I want to say to you that.”

Later, as Ruben continues to struggle with the distorted audio of the hearing device, he finally has an intimate reunion with Lou (by the way Olivia Cooke is great and I hope she keeps doing movies like this). They lay in bed and kiss, and then talk about the uncertain future. Lou looks distressed as she itches at the self-harm cuts on her arm. There’s a long moment of silence – of stillness – as Ruben looks down at her hand. Then he raises his eyes to her.

RUBEN: Hey. It’s okay, Lou.

LOU: What?

RUBEN: It’s okay.

LOU: What’s okay?

RUBEN: You saved my life. You made it…you made it beautiful. So it’s okay.

LOU: What? Why are you saying this? [they embrace] You saved my life, too, Rubi.

Ruben was wrong. Someone would care if he disappeared. And in acknowledging what Lou has done for him, he tacitly accepts that his life is worth saving.

These scenes open the door for the final moments. Out for a walk, Ruben’s hearing still distorted by the device, he sits on a park bench and finally, in frustration, takes the device off his head. The sound cuts out, and finally a peaceful, contented expression forms on Ruben’s face as the film ends.

That’s just great cinematic storytelling.

So, in short, while the pandemic flipped the world of movies on its head, it was still an excellent year of film, and it’s terrific how accessible these titles are on streaming services. I hope you’ll seek them out and let me know what you think.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Double-Billing Nomadland and Minari

Here are some of the things you can say about movies to sound like you know what you’re talking about:

  • Refer to films in the context of their director’s oeuvre. It’s not my favorite Baumbach, but I like it well enough.
  • Say you love any foreign director with a name that is – to most American ears – very foreign-sounding. I love the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda.
  • Observe that a film reminds you of another, older film. You can see here where they’re taking this straight from Battle of Algiers.
  • Lament a particularly performance did not merit an Oscar nomination or win, even if you don’t know who was nominated or who won. It’s absolutely criminal that Emily Blunt didn’t get nominated for Sicario.
  • Recommend a double-billing. A very interesting double-billing would be Nomadland and Minari.

Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari have long been on the radar, but have just in the last two weeks become widely available (Nomadland is available on Hulu and Minari is available VOD). They are two of the best films to be released in this fluid 2020-21 season, and they very well could combine to take four of the big six Oscars, so there is already reason enough to juxtapose them. But it turns out that thematically, narratively, and stylistically the two films are natural conversation partners.

They are stories of America that are inextricable from their physical settings. For Nomadland, that setting spans the southwest to the Dakotas as Fern follows the opportunities for work in her van/house. She exists on the borders of the wild and the sparsely populated municipalities, flitting back and forth between natural beauty and synthetic grime, at all times, no matter where she goes, a free spirit having to find a way to make herself valuable in a system even bigger than the land she traverses. Minari is situated in the middle of fly-over country, too, but is confined to the small home and the fifty acres the Yi family calls their own. They are isolated in a strange land that, for Jacob, represents the boundless opportunities associated with putting down roots. His American Dream is to find a patch of dirt where he can succeed; Fern’s is to keep moving without being tied down.

They are their own American portraits – one of an aging white woman in the 2010s, the other of a Korean-American family in the 80s – but both are about the opportunities and the perils of lower-class American life. An economic recession upended Fern’s life, and now she has to go from Amazon warehouses to construction sites to tourist traps just to be able to keep moving. She and her fellow nomads do not fit neatly in the constructs of American capitalism. If they are smart, committed, and a little lucky, they can make their own way. But if anything goes wrong, they find themselves up against it in a hurry. The Yi’s immigrate from Korea to California in the hopes of finding a better life, and then again from California to Arkansas to do more than just barely making it sexing chickens. If everything goes as planned, Jacob and Monica’s hard work could build something great. But there are no safety nets. If anything goes wrong, they are instantly in peril of losing what they hope to secure for their family.

Between the two films, their shared themes are examined through the story of a single woman, grieving the loss of her husband and estranged from the rest of her family, and of a family, trying to manage a fraying marriage, a sickly son, a growing daughter, and a newly-arrived grandmother. Fern finds family in the the people she meets along the way, while the Yi’s must learn to live with the few people they are around all the time.

They make a nice pair visually and sonically, and both move at a nice pace while not being driven by conventional plots. They are both sincere and heartfelt, hopeful if not entirely optimistic, realistic and grounded as they are aspirational and spiritual.

So watch these films, and – if you can – without too much time between. There are worse ways to spend an evening or a weekend.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter