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Barbershop: The New 'Birth Of A Nation,' Cam Newton And Beyonce


Now it's time for our trip to the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on our minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this weekend are Kara Brown. She's a blogger and writer and joins us from NPR's Culver City studios at NPR West. Hi, Kara.


MARTIN: And here with me in Washington, D.C., Farajii Muhammad. He's the host of the radio show Listen Up! in Baltimore. Welcome back, Farajii.


MARTIN: Also with us, Danielle Belton, an editor at The Root. Good to have you back, too, Danielle.

DANIELLE BELTON: It's always good to be here.

MARTIN: And especially because after the storm, we all have cabin fever, right?


BELTON: I got me out of the house.

MARTIN: Got out of the house, thank you. All right, so big news out of the Sundance Film Festival this week - the film "The Birth Of A Nation" - we're not talking about that old 1951 that glorified the KKK. This is a new movie by the actor and the filmmaker Nate Parker. It's about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion. The film made history this week for being the biggest Sundance deal of all time. It was sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. Now, most of us aren't going to be able to see it for many months. But just that dollar figure has gotten a lot of people anticipating the release. And Kara, you know I'm going to start with you...

BROWN: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: ...Because you wrote this use for Jezebel that got a lot of people talking.

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the title is "I'm So Damn Tired Of Slave Movies."

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So why, and does that mean you're not going to see it?

BROWN: No, I am definitely going to see "The Birth Of A Nation." And, you know, I want to preface, I'm really happy for Nate Parker. I'm really glad that this film is getting made and that it's getting the attention that I'm sure it deserves. The thing that I find just sort of exhausting is that almost every time you have a film with mostly black people that's lauded sort of by a more general - i.e. white - audience, it oftentimes is a movie about slavery or the civil rights movement. And so it's not that I don't want those films to be made, but I do think that there's a problem when those are the types of films with black people that are considered, quote, unquote "important" or "good." And, you know, I'm very excited for this film, but I would also be happy with perhaps giving other stories a chance to shine and to get the audiences that this film I'm sure we'll get.

MARTIN: But OK, let me just push on this for just a second, Kara, because, you know, you make the point that part of it is so disturbing. Why is it that what - you know, an important film has to be kind of founded on black people being brutalized.

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Isn't that kind of what a serious film is?

BROWN: I don't think so. And I think when you look at the breadth of movies with white people, they don't all fall in that category. Jennifer Lawrence won for "Silver Linings Playbook," which is about two people ballroom dancing. Generally, white people get a wider representation of who they are and their lives and things that they're interested in and things that they've gone through than black people do on film, in particular with these films that sort of go down in film canon as being important movies.

MARTIN: Let's hear from some other folks on this. Danielle, what do you think about this? Because I was thinking about this, have there really been that many slave movies?

BELTON: Well, I don't think there actually has been that many. I mean, if you're talking about it just in recent years, you have "Django Unchained," which was like a complete fantasy. You know, it was like a Western. It was a cartoon, practically. And then you had "12 Years A Slave," which was very serious. I think the real issue is - is that there are just so few black movies that come out. I mean, there's more Tyler Perry movies than slavery movies, and people get equally sick of those because there just isn't enough variety. There isn't just enough wide a scope of black films looking at every different facet of black life in the same way you see films about white life.

MARTIN: Are you going to go?

BELTON: Oh, I'm totally going to go see it.

MARTIN: Yeah? Farajii, what do you think?

MUHAMMAD: Definitely going to go see it. But here's the thing - you know, I feel like some of these movies - you know, I understand that there is this kind of, like, exhausting feel with it. But these movies are necessary because they continue to keep the conversation out there, especially a movie about Nat Turner, I mean, who was a rebellion leader. You know, when you have a black man producing...

MARTIN: And vilified - vilified throughout history...

MUHAMMAD: Exactly. So that's going to really change the conversation for a lot of black children I think and certainly for black people because one of the things is that our context of race is slowly diminishing. We - you know, the Black Lives Matter movement and all of the things that we see with social justice, it seems as if that this is still - race in America is still something that we want to kind of whitewash away. And when I think of, like, "Birth Of A Nation," I mean, juxtapose that to, you know, there's this larger cry for confederate statues and all of these other symbols of what has happened in America in the past to be removed. And - you know, and if it's not present, if it's not in your face, it's going to be forgotten.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about Kara's other point though in her piece, which I think was that, you know, there's something traumatic about this, about having to experience this. And there's this - it's traumatic for the actors. It's traumatic for the audience. And does it really - does it really actually accomplish, Farajii, what you're suggesting that it does, which is helping really people understand this and put it in its proper context?

MUHAMMAD: I think so. I mean, I think that if it's not traumatic - you know, what made "12 Years A Slave" such a major film was the fact that it was brutal. It was traumatic. It was in your face, and it constantly showed that look, these things truly happened. And I think - you know, I saw - I read Kara's piece, and I enjoyed it. And I feel, like, you know, I understand, but at the end of the day, we need to constantly put pieces out like this. And it's going to be very important to see - or at it's going to be interesting to see how Nate Parker's take on it is going to be.

MARTIN: All right, hang on, wait to see when it comes out, maybe we'll revisit this and see whether people feel differently...

MUHAMMAD: Definitely.

MARTIN: ...Once people have a chance to see the movie. So Kara, thanks for writing that piece and kind of raising this issue, but let's move on. The next week - next weekend is the Super Bowl, the matchup this year between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. But it turns out that there are people having feelings about Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. You might remember that earlier this year, there was this mom who wrote this open letter complaining about his...

BELTON: She was so scandalized.

MARTIN: ...Touchdown dance.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, my God, come on.

MARTIN: And it turns out - it seems like - you know, his personality seems to rub some people the wrong way. And he is suggesting that this is because he's an African-American quarterback. Now, he's certainly not the first. He's - what? - the sixth...

MUHAMMAD: The sixth in NFL history.

MARTIN: But what do you think about that, Farajii?

MUHAMMAD: I think that, you know, when the game came down to the Panthers and the Broncos, I automatically knew it was going to be, like, old-school versus new school.

MARTIN: So you don't think this is race?

MUHAMMAD: Now, this is race because this is, like, the "King Kong" effect. They're creating this view of Cam Newton as they see this big scary black creature that's going to just demolish or take advantage of this humble meek Peyton Manning. You know, retired player Brian Urlacher said that Cam Newton needed to be a little bit more humble like Peyton. Man, shut up, get out of here. Be for real. Like, this is football. It's bold. It's in your face. It's loud.

MARTIN: I sure hope we can get Farajii to come out of his shell some day...

BELTON: I know...

MARTIN: ...Tell us how he really feels. I just - I just feel like if we could just loosen him up a little bit, it would be so helpful. Kara, do you want to weigh in on this? What do you think?

BROWN: Yeah. Well, you know, speaking of the Seahawks, I'm a Seahawks fan. I'm from Seattle, and it really reminds me of a few years ago with Richard Sherman, where...


BROWN: ...You had very similar criticism, very similar language that was leveled against him. And there was an interview with him recently, I think, where he was asked about Cam Newton. And he said something like this is a game. And I just thought...

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

BROWN: ...That was so perfect. This is a game. These are grown men playing a game. And to act like there's some sort of gentlemanly decorum that is necessary at all times is just silly. Like, let him celebrate. He won a game.

MARTIN: I always think that's so funny. Like, people are mad at him for dancing in the end zone. But it's OK when you knock somebody unconscious - that's, like, OK.

BELTON: Right.

BROWN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Final thing I wanted to run by all of you is that speaking of the Super Bowl, if you're not tuning in for the game, then you'll surely tune in for the halftime show. And this year, it's going to feature Coldplay and Beyonce. And this week, the duo released a music video called "Hymn For The Weekend." I'll just play a little bit of it.


COLDPLAY FT. BEYONCE: (Singing) Put your wings on me, wings on me when I was so heavy. Soaring in symphony when I am low, low, low, low. I, oh I, oh I. got me feeling drunk and high. So high, so high...

MARTIN: OK, so what you can't tell from our playing it for you is that the video is set in India, and it features Chris Martin, the Coldplay frontman, singing through lots of scenes - you know, he's in a cab in Mumbai, he's watching kids cannonball into the Ganges. He's running through clouds of colored powder. And then Beyonce has a separate kind of location. She sings the hook, but she's kind of dressed in this lavish Bollywood-inspired gown and headdress. And people were loving it. But then it seemed like there was this - as it percolated onto the Internet, there was this whole issue around cultural appropriation. And so I wanted to ask, you know, what you all think about that. Danielle, you want to start that one?

BELTON: Well, the thing that kind of kills me about the video, it hits, like, every note of, like, this is a video about India. Look, there's color, there's spirituality, look - you know, they hit all these, like, very stereotypical notes. The only thing that was missing was an elephant.

MARTIN: Kara, what do you think?

BROWN: Yeah, you know, I saw - definitely when I first that, I was like ooh, not a good look, Beyonce. That was definitely the first thing I thought. I would want to defer to someone who's actually Indian. And I saw some people tweeting, some Indian women. And they were saying something similar, where they said, you know, this is definitely a conversation to be had about what Beyonce's doing. They - a few of them that I saw said that they don't feel the same impact as when they see maybe a white person doing it. So I would want to differ to that.

MARTIN: But why wouldn't you just not watch it? You see, that's the question I have.

MUHAMMAD: Because it's Beyonce.

BROWN: It's hard to not watch to a Beyonce...

MUHAMMAD: It's Beyonce.

BROWN: How do you not watch a Beyonce video? Come on.

MARTIN: She's the only thing watchable about that, as far as I'm concerned.

MUHAMMAD: Right, it's visually appealing.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's a beautiful video.

MUHAMMAD: The song is just not as strong.

BROWN: It's Coldplay, so there's, you know...

BELTON: The song's kind of weak. She did all she could to help that song.

MUHAMMAD: Right, right.

BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right, well, I - you've given us a lot to think about. That's all the time we have for the Barbershop this week with Farajii Muhammad, Kara Brown and Danielle Belton. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you.

BELTON: Oh, it's no problem.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

BELTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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