2012 - %3, February

Book Review: Our Black Year

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Our Black Year: One Family's Quest to Buy Black in America's Racially Divided Economy

By Maggie Anderson, with Ted Gregory


During the 1990s, according to the National Housing Institute, less than two cents of every dollar spent by African Americans was going to black-owned businesses. Troubled by this and other stats demonstrating stark economic disparities, Maggie Anderson's family, a well-to-do bunch who attended the Obamas' Chicago church, decided to patronize only black-owned businesses for a year. In the process, they had to put up with gangsta wannabes, racism allegations, and the difficulty—shared by many a low-income urbanite—of finding a decent grocery store. But they emerged with an appreciation for how African Americans' collective $913 billion buying power, wielded with due care, might bring a little prosperity to the hood.

Be sure and read our interview with the author here.

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The Anti-Valentine Playlist for Satisfied Singles

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST

An informal survey of other anti-Valentine playlists suggests that the genre is usually interpreted as anti-love. But tales of broken hearts, unrequited desire, and lonely nights are all still very much about love. In the words of Gloria E. Anzaldúa: "All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against." And that couldn't be truer of love and its absence. Songs about love and anti-love are pretty much the same.

But, of course, Valentine's Day isn't about love—just an over-commercialized holiday celebrating one particular brand of committed, romantic love. Above all, it represents that ubiquitous cultural pressure—driven home by nearly every rom-com and pop song—to find fullfilment within a relationship. As my friend Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes on the Occupy Valentine's Day Tumblr, V-Day "often serves to remind us of the inadequacy of our relationships or the 'tragedy' of being single."

So this playlist is for everyone who's single and doing A-okay—the survivors, the ramblers, and the players. It's for those who aren't ready to settle down yet, and those who never will be. It's for anyone single and happy—whether for a brief interlude between heartbreaks, or forever. These songs tell stories that are drowned out in the saccharine cacophony of Valentine's Day—stories of breakups that come as a relief, the cost of committment, the pull of independence, and the power that comes with dancing on your own.

"Single" by Natasha Bedingfield: "This is my declaration of independence," sings British pop singer Natasha Bedingfield in her 2004 anthem for happy single people everywhere. Best line: I don't need to be anyone's baby/Is that so hard to understand?/No, I don't need another half to make me whole.

"I Will Survive" by Cake: The road back to that happy, single place after a tough breakup can be dark and long—but also make you stronger. Gloria Gaynor’s classic "I Will Survive" has been covered a bazillion times, but I'm partial to Cake's 1996 rendition. Best line: I've got all my life to live/I've got all my love to give/and I'll survive.

"Different Drum" by Linda Ronstadt: Written in 1965 by Mike Nesmith, "Different Drum" took off when it was recorded two years later by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Ronstadt flipped the gender references in the original version to tell the story of a woman who just isn't looking to settle down. Best line: All I'm saying is I'm not ready for any person, place or thing/to try and pull the reins in on me.

"I'm Free" by the Rolling Stones: Hot Chip also does a great remix of the Stones' cheerful 1965 ode to free love. Best line: I'm free to choose who I please any old time/I'm free to please who I choose any old time. 

"Marriage Is for Old Folks" by Nina Simone: The High Priestess of Soul says marriage just ain't for her in this playful 1965 ditty, and probably insulted a bunch of married couples. Best line: One husband, one wife/Whaddya got?/Two people sentenced for life!

"I'm Ridin' Solo" by Jason Derülo: In this single off his 2010 debut, Jason Derülo tells a positively joyful tale about getting back out there after a breakup. Best line: Now I made it through the weather/better days are gonna get better.

"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper: The exuberance of Cyndi Lauper's classic is hard to beat. While the cover by Starfucker is pretty stellar too, who could pass up a chance to watch this epic romp through the Lower East Side in the '80s? Best line: Some boys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun.

"The Wanderer" by Dion: Dion, who originally recorded "The Wanderer" in 1961, later said that it's actually a sad song: "It sounds like a lot of fun but it's about going nowhere." Maybe, but it really does sound soooo fun. Best line: I roam from town to town/I go through life without a care/and I'm as happy as a clown.

"None of Your Business" by Salt-n-Pepa: The pioneering hip-hop trio's defiant smackdown of sexual double standards is especially good for the ladies but really works for anyone who's been judged for bucking the norm. Best line: There's only one true judge, and that's God/So chill, and let my Father do His job.

"Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" by Led Zeppelin: Written by folk artist Anne Bredon and recorded by Joan Baez in 1962, this song speaks to that yearning for freedom that itches even in the best of relationships. Inspired by Baez's version, Led Zep put together its own take in 1969. Best line: You made me happy every single day/But now I've got to go away, oh, oh, oh.

"Since U Been Gone" by Kelly Clarkson: This song was originally written for Pink, who has the triumphant post-breakup thing down herself. But it was Kelly Clarkson who made it an instant hit in 2004. Best line: But since you've been gone/I can breathe for the first time/I'm so moving on/Thanks to you now I get what I want.

"Better Off Without a Wife" by Tom Waits: Tom Waits' easygoing, kinda sexist 1975 anthem is dedicated "to the bachelors and the Bowery bums." Best line: Yeah, you see I'm kinda selfish about my privacy/Now as long as I can be with me/we get along so well, I can't even believe it.

"One Night Stand" by the Pipettes: Rocking their signature polka-dot dresses, British indie popsters the Pipettes offer this brutally honest brush-off to a guy who seems to be getting too attached. Hey, she did warn him. Best line: Leave me alone/you're just a one-night stand. 

"One Is The Magic #" by Jill Scott: Poet, singer, actress Jill Scott elegantly turns a sorta sad premise—"there's just me"—into something uplifting. Best line: So many times I define my pride through somebody else's eyes/Then I looked inside and found my own stride/I found the lasting love for me.

Bonus tracks here from Beyoncé, Alex Chilton, Rufus Wainwright, Candi Staton, and Belle & Sebastian. Name your own faves in the comments.

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Denzel Washington Shackled in "Safe House" of Clichés

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Denzel Washington in "Safe House" (2012).

Safe House
Universal Pictures
115 minutes

Let me start by saying how relieved I am to see a Denzel Washington action film that has nothing to do with imperiled trains and wasn't directed by Tony Scott. It was also nice to see Washington play another charismatic, streetwise ass-kicker who gets his jollies up bullying a white-boy rookie—a formula Washington hasn't worked so well since 2001's Training Day.

That said, Safe House is a glut of miserably squandered opportunities.

Washington stars as Tobin Frost, a former high-ranking CIA official now wanted on four continents for selling agency secrets to Iran, China, Russia, and so forth. Just how badass is this character? We learn early on that he "literally rewrote the book" on CIA interrogation and personally convinced a top Hezbollah leader to become an informant during the Lebanese Civil War. Anyway, after finally falling into US custody, Frost is rushed to a black site in Cape Town, where relative newbie Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is waiting as a CIA "housesitter"—a job marked by long hours, crushing idleness, and, as one minor character puts it, "appalling remuneration."

Shortly after Weston's superiors begin waterboarding Frost, a gang of nameless thugs flourishing automatic weapons bust into the safe house, presumably to extract the high-value detainee alive. Suddenly, Weston and Frost are off on a mad dash to the next secure location, racing through the busy streets and shanty towns of South Africa in a blitz of gunfire, civilian casualties, and crashed getaway cars.

Book Review: Beautiful Souls

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

By Eyal Press


What compels people to resist, even when confronted with the risks of bucking authority? Eyal Press examines the cases of four dissenters—an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in occupied territories, a Swiss deputy who aided World War II Jews, a bigotry-defying Serb who saved Croats, and a corporate whistleblower who outed the second-largest Ponzi scheme in US history—and invokes the work of psychologists and neuroscientists to help us ponder the ways we respond to ethical challenges. Proving time and again that the boldest renegades are just regular people with independent minds—rather than dyed-in-the-wool radicals—Beautiful Souls underscores dissent's populist potential. Acts of conscience, as Press puts it, "have a way of reverberating."

109 Things Obama Has Declared War On

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Get your war onObama gets his war onIn case you've lost track—here are 109 things President Obama currently is or recently has been engaged in a war against (according to conservative pundits, lazy headline writers, and Google trawling):

Christmas trees
Christians and Jews
The church
Religious freedom
Free speech
The private sector
Wall Street
Investors, entrepreneurs, businesses
The self-made man
The Forbes 400
The rich
Poor people
The American farmer
Medical marijuana

Vegan shops
The Bowl Championship Series
Human excellence
Fox News
Conservative talk radio
House Republicans
Eric Cantor
Gun owners
The American military
American energy workers
Oil traders
Fossil fuels
Auto workers
Silicon Valley
The internet
Wasteful mobile devices
Mousepads and coffee mugs
Space junk
The states
Joe Arpaio
African development
Alex Jones
Transparency and accountability
The secret ballot

Voter fraud reform
Civil rights
Civil society
College internships
Education innovation
Medical innovation
The health insurance industry
Unborn babies
High school dropouts
Senior citizens
The aircraft industry
The profit motive
The American economy
American jobs
Jobs and growth
Capitalism and the Bill of Rights
Traditional American values
Marriage, federalism, and religious liberty
Liberty and property
Prosperity and freedom
The Constitution
The American people
The World
Everything (except America's enemies)

Know of more things Obama has declared war on (not counting actual wars)? Add them in the comments.

Photo illustration images via: Wikimedia Commons (Obama); roberthuffstutter/Flickr (Cheerios box); Wikimedia Commons (Texas); Thorne Enterprises/Flickr (Constitution); Salty Cracka/Flickr (marijuana leaf); Plutor/Flickr (poker chips); Wikimedia Commons (Christmas tree)

NBC's New Broadway Drama, "Smash," Might Actually Be...Good?

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Katharine McPhee in NBC's "Smash"

When watching the first two episodes of Smash, it's hard not to feel a little queasy about the predictability factor. In a serial drama centered around the casting and production of a Broadway musical, of course at least one of the two finalists for the lead female role is going to sleep with the director. But at the half-hour mark of the second episode? Really?

The new NBC series is guilty of several other blench-worthy faults: Too much of the dialogue is clunky or hackneyed. Stock characters abound. There's a pesky, croissant-fetching assistant at the center of the action who simply will not go away. The interwoven stories are weighed down by pointless subplots—some disposable (a messy divorce from a rich, bimbo-chasing husband), others even more disposable (a songwriter adopting a baby from mainland China).

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Review: Sharon Van Etten's "Tramp"

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 7:00 AM EST


Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter based out of Brooklyn, has slowly been building a reputation for herself over the past few years. First pegged as a talent to watch by TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, she won critical acclaim and a small but devoted following with her 2009 album Because I Was In Love (Language of Stone), 2010's epic (Ba Da Bing), and opening stints for the Antlers and Neko Case. Last summer, at Justin Vernon's urging, she signed with Jagjaguwar, a label with a roster of distinctive indie-folk performers, including Vernon's Bon Iver, the Cave Singers, and Black Mountain. Tramp—produced by the National's Aaron Dessner and featuring contributions from members of the Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Beirut—might be the album that finally breaks her into the (relative) bigtime.

The album opens with Van Etten’s voice languidly swooping over grungy guitars on "Warsaw," a song that was lodged in my brain for days. Though lyrics like "I want to be over you"  are standard heartbreak fare, Van Etten lingers over them in a way that suggests she might take her time about it. The repeated refrains of "Give Out"—"You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/Or why I’ll need to leave” and "It might not be I always hold on/It might be I always hold out"—likewise epitomize Van Etten's characteristic combination of simple but perceptive lyricism and powerful delivery, while the album's first single, the uptempo but ominous "Serpents," showcases her vocal and emotional range as she's alternately vulnerable and accusatory, soaring on the line "serpents in my mind" before sneering "you enjoy sucking on dreams."

Twitter Talks Back to Sexist Super Bowl Ads

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 6:30 AM EST
Fiat's "Seduction" drags out a tired car commercial cliché: automobile = sexy woman.

The Super Bowl is more than a game—it's a chance to see some of the most expensive, over-hyped, and, yes, sexist commercials on television. But not everyone cheers when bikini-clad women fawn over nerdy office workers. This year, when advertisers used stereotypes and sex to hawk cars, flowers, and candy, viewers came up with a Twitter hashtag to broadcast their disgust: #NotBuyingIt.

According to Miss Representation, the organization that launched the hashtag, women make up about half of the Super Bowl's audience and they're more likely than men to tune in for the ads, rather than the game. Miss Representation notes that while they wield more household purchasing power than their male partners, 90 percent of women think advertisers don't understand them. Super Bowl ads do an especially good job of missing the point by acting as though dudes are the only ones watching.

Thankfully, Twitter provides a place to talk back. Jenn Pozner, founder and executive director of Women In Media & News and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, says social media has "really changed the game" when it comes to challenging sexist advertising. "Last night, feminist media critics with a combined reach of literally hundreds of thousands replaced 'mindless entertainment' with active sharing of critical feedback and commentary," she told me.

Shelby Knox, women's rights organizer at Change.org, urged pissed-off viewers to create an online petition to take it beyond the Twitter-verse. "If enough voices object to an ad, then its makers will get the message that it’s not welcome on TV and it didn’t resonate with consumers," she wrote on the site. The five ads below managed to outrage a lot of tweeps who are totally #NotBuyingIt.

Film Review: A Separation

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 5:48 PM EST

When Oscar nominations were released last week, it was no surprise that the Iranian film A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, was among the list of Foreign Language Films—after all, it had already won the Golden Globe in that category in addition to being a big hit on the festival circuit. But with a second nomination, for Original Screenplay, the film has a shot at upsetting movies backed by Hollywood powerhouses.

Farhadi, who started out writing screenplays for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and directing TV shows, has slowly gained a Western audience with films like Fireworks Wednesday, which won a Golden Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2006, and About Elly, which won prizes at festivals in Berlin and Tribeca in 2009. With the success of A Separation, Farhadi is poised to break into a more mainstream audience, and in so doing, to bring a subtle, nuanced portrait of daily life in Iran to the American public at a time when relations between the two countries are particularly tense.

The film begins as Simin (Leila Hatami) is asking a judge to grant her a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), not because he's a bad partner—she calls him a "good and decent person"—but because he refuses to leave Iran with her, claiming that he instead needs to take care of his elderly father. Frustrated by the official's refusal to grant her request, Simin leaves the apartment where she and Nader live with their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) to stay at her parents' house, leaving Nader to find a substitute caretaker for his father, who has Alzheimer's and can't be left alone. So he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout woman with a young daughter, Samoyeh (Kimia Hossenei), and another child on the way—though it's hard to tell beneath her flowing chador. After Nader's father soils his pants on the first day, Razieh wants to quit. "The work is too heavy," she says; it's also underpaid and far from her home in the suburbs. But her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), is unemployed and in debt to multiple creditors, so she continues on—but in secret, as Hodjat has a hot temper and would be angry to learn she's working for a single man.

Shortly thereafter, Nader comes home early to find his father face-down on the floor, his hand tied to a bedpost, and no one else home. When Razieh returns to the house shortly thereafter, saying only that she had to go out, Nader's fear and frustration erupt, and a confrontation between the two ends with Nader pushing Razieh out the door. That action sets off a chain of accusations, defenses, and contentions that loop around and circle back over a constantly shifting moral terrain.

Film Review: The Eerie Dance Drama of "Pina"

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST



103 minutes

Pina, nominated for this year's Documentary Feature Academy Award, is a 3-D tribute to famed post-Expressionist German choreographer Pina Bausch. The film teeters somewhere between a documentary and a performance, structured by interpretations of four of Bausch’s most famous dances. I went into the film knowing nothing about the choreographer, and barely anything about dance, but somehow that didn't matter—it hooked me straight away.