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#BackChannel: Women At The Helm In Film To Hip-Hop And Beyond

With the new Disney release “A Wrinkle In Time,” Ava DuVernay became the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. She notes the accomplishment but calls it bittersweet, because it has taken Hollywood until 2018 to support women of color in these roles. 
The film has gotten mixed reactions, but DuVernay insists what matters most is that it speaks to young girls, like her 13-year old niece who served as the inspiration for Meg, the young protagonist.

I don't think she had to knock it out the park. I don't think that was the point ... It was not going to be 'Black Panther.'- Mark Anthony Neal

Host Frank Stasio reviews the film with popular culture experts Natalie Bullock Brown, professor of film and broadcast media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University in Durham.

[Mechell Ndegeocello] is doggedly herself. She is unique. She is absolutely not like anybody else that you're gonna hear.- Natalie Bullock Brown

They also discuss the new rhythm and blues tribute album “Ventriloquism” from artist Meshell Ndegeocello. Twenty-five years after her debut release, the artist created an 11-track LP that pays tribute to artists from Janet Jackson and George Clinton, to Prince and Force MDs. Also this month, the biopic “Roxanne Roxanne” is out on Netflix. It profiles teen battle rap champion Roxanne Shanté, who paved the way for women in hip-hop.

Neal and Bullock Brown close out the hour reflecting on the life of Linda Brown, the student at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, who died Sunday. They also preview the new New York Times series “Overlooked” and the eight-part Netflix documentary series “Flint Town” which follows the police department in Flint, Michigan from 2015-2017.

Interview Highlights:

On Meshell Ndegeocello and her new album "Ventriloquism:"

MAN: She was one of the first artists signed on Madonna's Maverick label, so she had a lot of latitude. And she's kind of quietly done it in her way, in her style ... I think she nails it with this album. It is a nostalgic look at more 1980s R&B than 1990s ... Music that has been given short shrift critically … And she highlights the songwriting craft of many of these songs, their connection to a black community in the 1980s and 1990s, and she brings new life to them.

NBB: When she first came out, just the fact that she was a queer artist of color playing the bass ... She sings and she raps. She does a little bit of both ... She always has sort of eluded being put into some sort of box, and people have tried. But this album, what I appreciate about it, is that it sounds like Meshell. Every single song sounds like her ... She's playing with gender, she's bending it, and I think she's always done that.

MAN on the new biopic “Roxanne Roxanne:”

The film in its best moments attempted to tell the story of what it means to be a girl in hip-hop in a moment when hip-hop didn't make any money, when there was no money in the industry. She basically retires from hip-hop because she could make more money doing other stuff ... It also tries to tell the story of what it means to be a young girl on tour with men ... There's no one necessarily there to protect her.

I think it means that we have to rethink these narratives about how warm and fuzzy those early days were ... Both the boardrooms of early hip-hop and the everyday-ness of hip-hop where women were subject to abuse ... These women in the industry are not protected. They're not protected from those who're close to them. They're not protected from those who exploit them and exploit their talents .. And I think the main reason why you have to tell a story like “Roxanne Roxanne,” [is] because it highlights what that looked like in the early days of hip-hop.

NBB on remembering Linda Brown, the young woman at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education case:

Linda Brown's story speaks to the sacrifice that black families made. The named ones, and the ones that go unnamed that we don't know about, because they had a vision for something much better that they didn't necessarily even think or know that they would get to see themselves. And I love the fact that there are people like Linda Brown, Ruby Bridges. Other women who were young girls during segregated times and who played a part in desegregation got to see the fruits of their effort of the labor, of their families and the sacrifices that they made.

On the new eight-part Netflix documentary series “Flint Town:”

MAN: It's an important narrative for us to be able to grapple with. We're in a country now where infrastructure's failing ... What we don't see yet is the political will to really address it. And when you're talking about communities that are largely communities of color and poor white folks, there is no political will to deal with infrastructure in that context ... We see this stuff popping up ... This documentary allows us to deal with that face-to-face.

NBB: At the end of the day, it's the communities that are suffering and that pay the cost for whatever doesn't get worked out. It's very poignant to watch the series and think about how Flint has in many ways in light of the water crisis been forgotten. The fact that this is still going on ... It speaks to the fact that in this country we really have a hard time dealing with the humanity of people of color and people who are poor. And we often allow them to sort of work their stuff out on their own. It's both disheartening but it's also eye opening.


Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.