#BackChannel: How Beyoncé, 'Moonlight' And More Shaped 2016

Dec 14, 2016


As the year comes to a close, popular culture experts Natalie Bullock Brown, professor of film and broadcast media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University in Durham, reflect on cultural media that stood out to in 2016.  They shared some of their favorites from the year in music, movies and television on The State of Things with host Frank Stasio.


BJ the Chicago Kid, “In My Mind”

Mark Anthony Neal: “We’d be apt to think that young black folks are not still invested in the black Christian experience or the black Muslim experience, but they are. They’re also trying to balance that spiritual life with that secular life and BJ the Chicago Kid does that brilliantly throughout the album.”

Beyonce, “Lemonade”

Natalie Bullock Brown: “Beyonce is laying out a work ethic. She is the hardest working black woman. I don’t even know if she sleeps but the level of excellence, the level of productivity that she puts out. When she talks about, ‘I work hard. I get what’s mine,’ she is not joking at all. When she calls for us to get into formation, on the surface it seems like she’s saying, ‘Be fly.’ But she is really talking about, ‘Get in line to do the work, to live up to that purpose that is in you. Forget all the external stuff. Do what is in you and do it at the highest level possible.’”

Solange, “A Seat at the Table”

Natalie Bullock Brown: “Solange is so mature and really high-level thinking going on in this album. She is pushing the envelope as far as what she is envisioning and projecting for what black people are and can be. That is part of what grounds her album and what  is going to cause it to be something that we look back to in the future.”


“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins

Natalie Bullock Brown: “This film does such incredible work in humanizing a part of our population that has been so thoroughly criminalized and dehumanized not just this year, but for centuries. The cinematography in particular, really getting in close and personal and intimate with these faces and these black bodies that normally an audience doesn’t want to deal with.”

Mark Anthony Neal: “What is important about the character Juan is that he doesn’t have to be a pristine figure. He is a problematic figure, he is a troubling figure, and even a criminal figure in some sort of context. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an experience with wisdom that could be transferred to somebody younger than him. That just opens the space in how we talk about black men as role models. You don’t have to be that perfect figure to be able to transfer information and knowledge to somebody that’s of use.”

“13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay

Mark Anthony Neal: “It helped to visualize a conversation that has really germinated within black communities over the last ten years in terms of talking about the prison-industrial context. We can go back 20 years ago and think about the work Angela Davis had been doing around prison work and of course Michelle Alexander’s book ‘The New Jim Crow.’ The film makes this so much more accessible to folks who aren’t going to read Angela Davis or aren’t going to read Michelle Alexander. They can see this film and see folks present bite-sized narratives about what this is.”

“Miles Ahead,” directed by Don Cheadle


Mark Anthony Neal: “White men have not cornered the market on troubling, complex masculinity. You might believe if we were to listen to Hollywood that there was no interest in complicated lives of black men or black people in general. Miles Davis was a very troubling figure. He was also an artistic genius. All of those figures within our community, to the extent that they have influenced our culture and American culture, deserve to be treated with the kind of hand Don Cheadle tried to treat Mile Davis.”


“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” directed by Stanley Nelson Jr.

Natalie Bullock Brown: “This film was released in February, so the presidential campaign was going on and Black Lives Matter had really been established itself in way where it was making its mark. The film is significant because it makes it so obvious in so many ways we have not come that far in terms of the conditions under which black people live and even some of the methods by which we might need to approach achieving some level of freedom and equality. Perhaps we could look to the Panthers for answers.”


“Queen Sugar,” directed by Ava DuVernay

Natalie Bullock Brown: “This is Ava DuVernay. This is her master work. She just lets life kind of unfold and happen. In our media culture where things are very quick and there is a lot immediate gratification, you got to wait and get to know these characters. But once you know them, you love them. I cannot wait until the new season starts because there is so much we are seeing about black family, sisters and the prison-industrial complex is dealt with.”

Mark Anthony Neal: “I want to hang out with Hollywood and Ralph Angel. I want a cup of dark tea with Aunt Viv. These are folks that you know. They are kin. Black folks don’t often see kin on television that way. It’s a slow-cooked blackness. It’s like taking black life and putting in a slow cooker. It’s a different aesthetic, but an aesthetic that we need to balance the other kinds of aesthetics. You have to slow it down and have folks engage with the complexities of these folks lives.”