Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Black History Month: The Great Black Hope

Lorain, Ohio — The kind of hope Barack Obama promised to deliver was nowhere craved more deeply on Election Day than in this battered old manufacturing city on the shores of Lake Erie.

Hope got scores of local residents up before dawn to bounce over rutted streets that haven’t been repaved in decades. Hope had them standing all day outside of polling sites at schools forced to lay off 300 staff members last month for lack of funds. Hope sent them scurrying back and forth across town, picking up voters in need of a lift. It sent them past the mammoth, mile-long steel mills by the Black River, mills that once offered their own brand of hope, employing more than 13,000 workers at gritty but solid jobs with benefits and pensions. Barely a tenth that many jobs remain.

Hope got retired auto worker Joe Gonzalez, 59, over to his church, Sacred Heart Chapel on Pearl Avenue, before sunup to pilot a van to pick up stranded voters. Gonzalez put in 30 years at the vast Ford auto plant on Lake Road, alongside 15,000 other workers, turning out Falcons, Thunderbirds, and Econolines, often at a breakneck clip of more than 50 an hour. The speed didn’t help. The plant was shut in 2005, taking $2.2 million in city tax revenues with it, according to the local Morning Journal, which tabulates plant closings the way other dailies list obituaries.

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“I came out of the Army in 1967, went to apply at Ford on Wednesday, got called to work on Thursday,” Gonzalez said, sipping coffee under a basketball hoop in the church’s hall. “Once, they had so many workers at the plants that some people pitched tents because there wasn’t enough housing around.”

That’s no longer a problem. There are 1,000 foreclosures in the city of Lorain, officials say. Many of the homes belong to laid-off auto workers forced to walk away. The vacancies are a green light for scavengers, who rip out the copper piping, rendering the homes uninhabitable. Even some of the fancy new condos built along the river on the site where George Steinbrenner’s huge American Ship Building plant operated, until he closed it in 1983, have been seized by lenders.

Broadway, the city’s main strip, is neat and tidy, with stylish late-19th-century buildings. But it’s like a movie set. Most stores and offices are empty. There’s a lovely waterside park, built with federal funds, that’s dedicated to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize–winning writer who was born here, and the Underground Railroad, which offered runaway slaves a last stop before freedom in Canada on the far side of the lake.

But the most riveting sight there is the open drawbridge over the mouth of the Black River, where Route 6 links the east side of town to the rest of Lorain. Built to let the huge freighters pass through on their way to deliver ore to the steel plants, it’s been stuck open since June. Its big arms stand 50 feet high in the air facing the Great Lake, as though the city were offering to surrender. State officials say that it’s a computer problem and they’re working on it. Still, it’s too late for the Dairy Queen on East Erie Avenue, a town favorite that closed last month after 33 years because customers couldn’t get there.

The way Gonzalez and several hundred other Lorain residents figured it, the 2008 election was their last best chance to respond to these insults, to register their voices with the political powers-that-be, and to keep their own hopes alive. They would do it by turning out as many voters as possible, a show of force to be ignored at any politician’s peril.

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Obama was the big draw at the top of the ticket — the former community organizer inspiring a new wave of organizing. But their own platform was strictly nonpartisan. They made their slogan, “Reclaim Lorain,” and issued a manifesto calling for neighborhood revitalization and anti-crime initiatives. Starting in 2006, they began the grunt work of rallying their neighbors. They put their slogan on lawn signs and on bright orange T-shirts that they wore as they tramped up and down the cracked sidewalks of the poorest city wards in the months leading up to Election Day.

Leading the effort is Laura Rios, a Lorain native and mother of three, who decided to start organizing when she was laid off after 15 years as a marketing director at a nearby manufacturing firm. “It gave me the first chance in a long time to take a look at what was happening in my community. I’d be driving around, and it was like, ‘Wow, when did that building get boarded up empty?’ “

Another nasty nudge came when drug dealers moved into a rented home next door. “I live in a quiet neighborhood. It was a real wake-up call about what was going on.”

Rios received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired advocacy group that helped create Brooklyn’s famed low-cost Nehemiah homes. IAF dispatched Jonathan Lange, a former textile workers organizer, from Baltimore. “We know that the most effective way to get people out to vote,” said Lange, “is face-to-face meetings with people like themselves, who love their town and also want change.”

Lorain’s population is about 70,000. Whites — a polyglot mix of ethnics drawn to the mills — are in the majority and hold most local offices. Blacks are 16 percent; Latinos, 21 percent. A fifth of the city’s residents fall below the poverty line. There’s a large Puerto Rican population, thanks to a recruiting drive that U.S. Steel conducted on the island in the 1950s. Both of Rios’s grandfathers came to Lorain that way: “They were looking for men who could work long hours in very hot conditions — like working in sugarcane fields, which is what my grandfathers did.”

At the group’s first meetings, Rios said, people talked about the good old days. “People had a nostalgic view of what Lorain used to be — that it had jobs, movie theaters, restaurants. People were going through a grieving process for their loss of that city, like mourning a lost loved one.”

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Christina Futchko, a Lorain native who taught public school for 13 years and helped organize Reclaim Lorain, remembers visiting her grandmother who worked on Broadway at Ted Jacobs, the town’s largest apparel shop. “It wasn’t Fifth Avenue, but you could buy a nice dress there. I couldn’t believe it when it closed.”

Gloria Nieto, a soft-spoken mother of five, got involved through her pastor at Sacred Heart, Father Bill Thaden, who urged parishioners to speak out about local conditions. “When I grew up, we had everything,” Nieto said, whose father and three brothers worked in the steel mills. “We never had to worry about crime. I just feel like, if we don’t fight back, this city is going to disappear.”

Obama came to Lorain in February during the Ohio primary to visit National Gypsum, a plant where Nieto’s husband worked hauling wallboard. “It was supposed to be just the media and the workers, but I wanted to go so badly and I got in,” she said. She listened as the ex-organizer preached about creating “green” jobs and ending tax breaks to corporations that shift work overseas. A few weeks after Obama’s visit, company officials closed the plant, laying off 58 workers.

Four years ago, on election night, I stood in the rain a few miles away in East Cleveland — another of Ohio’s poorest cities — watching a different group of church-based organizers work their hearts out to get voters to the polls. The rain fell in dismal buckets day and night, but people still turned out in droves in an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a history of underwhelming turnout. The grim weather matched the mood after early returns showed Bush winning Ohio and its critical electoral votes. The day was made brighter only by echoes of the cheers that were raised at the polls every time a young man in full hip-hop regalia showed up to cast his first proud vote.

Election Day 2008 saw Ohio bathed in warm sunshine. Reclaim Lorain dispatched some 100 local volunteers — along with three dozen energetic students from nearby Oberlin College — to its base of operations at Sacred Heart Chapel and to a dozen polling places around the city. Their marching orders, in addition to turning out the vote, were to assist those whose residence or identity was challenged. “We don’t want to see people forced to vote by provisional ballots,” Rios instructed her troops. “They usually don’t get counted until days after the election.”

Outside the polling place, at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School on the city’s west side, a first-time voter named Diraus Wagner Jr. asked for help after being told he wasn’t registered. A volunteer in an orange T-shirt called the church office, where someone typed Wagner’s name into a voter database. A van was dispatched to pick up Wagner and take him to the right polling place.

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“I just know the one thing I’m going to do today is vote,” Wagner insisted. “I’m out of a job, and even the temp agencies are cutting back on hours. I’m hoping a lot of people make the right decision today for a president who’s going to bring change.”

Beside him, Kenny Gordon, 59, a big man with a graying beard wearing a Cleveland Browns cap stood in the parking lot holding a large “Obama–Biden” sign. He said he’d been dispatched by his local chapter of the steelworkers’ union. “I’m in the mills 40 years. I swore I’d never be there as long as my father; he did 42. But I’m getting there.” After high school, Gordon worked for awhile at Steinbrenner’s shipyards before switching to steel. “Back then, you could quit one job and get another that afternoon. There were 7,500 men in my mill when I started. All the closings have taken their toll. Jesus, there are so many empty homes now. One day, I’m watching TV, and it shows these people down in Texas living under a bridge. I look, and it’s one of my old neighbors. I couldn’t believe it. He told me he was going to get a job down there in oil because he heard it was busy. He ends up living under a bridge.”

Gordon said he’d been following the presidential polls closely. “I think it’s Obama. I just feel good. McCain is just an extension of Bush. We can’t keep going that way. It has to change.”

Lorain voted better than 2 to 1 in 2004 for John Kerry. But many polling sites showed turnouts of 50 percent and less. Efforts by Obama’s campaign and Reclaim Lorain helped increase city registrations by 25 percent, officials said. Final tallies of early and absentee votes from this year’s election are still under way, but preliminary results show a sharp drop in Republican votes, with dramatic spikes in Democratic votes at the city’s poorer precincts. On Election Day, the big question was whether Lorain’s many white Democrats would cancel out that surge by refusing to back an African-American candidate.

There were many surprises. Richard Schuler, a 63-year-old white man who owns a paint-contracting business, talked nothing like McCain’s Joe the Plumber. “I am happy to see there’s an intelligent candidate stepping up to run,” he said after casting his ballot at St. Cyril & Methodius Church. “I like his speeches, like what he has to say, how he handles himself. I voted for Bush the first time, then changed my mind. I felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Let’s just hope it can get turned around now.”

A few minutes later, a pair of young white men in work clothes emerged from the polling site and jumped into a mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. “I did Obama,” said Jason Hilton, 25, a laborer. “I wasn’t even registered. Someone gave me a form at the racetrack, I filled it out, and here I am. Hell, I could’ve watched those debates till 2 a.m. Obama cleaned McCain’s clock every time.” His pal, Chris Hartman, 22, an auto mechanic, nodded. “If we had another 9/11, I think McCain would freak out — have a heart attack, drop dead — and then we’d have her for president.”

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On Lorain’s southeast side in front of Southview High School, a pair of middle-aged white men stood outside the polls talking about bowhunting season. One man, who gave his name only as Steve, wore tattered camouflage pants and a bandanna around his head. The other had on a rumpled gas-station attendant’s shirt bearing the name “Bill.” Both looked like sure bets to have one of those “NO-bama” stickers — sported on cars around the state — on their bumpers. Wrong again. “I thought about McCain for awhile,” said the man named Bill. “People said Obama was from the Middle East and has Arab blood. But I changed my mind. Obama’s more the right man.”

“I’ve got 14 guns, and if I thought he was going to take away one of them, I’d be against him,” said Steve, a construction worker. “But I sorted everything out. We’ve had eight years of getting porked by this Bush, and that’s enough. I want the guy who’s going to do right by working people.”

For that matter, not every minority voter matched the Obama profile. Luis Rosario, 34, wore gold studs in his ear and an African-style necklace to the polls. “We don’t need someone with no experience in the White House,” said Rosario, an ex-Marine who’s spent five years as a correctional officer at Lorain Correctional Institution, a state prison in nearby Grafton. “We don’t need Kuwait, places like that, trying to test us.”

It was a day that tested many stereotypes. One of the leaders of Reclaim Lorain is a middle-aged black woman from Louisiana named Jo Ann Charleston, who is pastor of a local house of worship called New Birth Church. On Election Day, Charleston worked as a roving troubleshooter at the polls, helping voters and volunteers alike figure out how to cope with poll judges intent on handing out provisional ballots at the first sign of trouble.

In between answering voters’ questions, Charleston filled in the rest of her remarkable résumé. If Lorain’s problems are mired in its rust-belt past, Charleston stands for its hopes for a different future. An engineer with double degrees in divinity and chemistry, Charleston has worked for NASA for 30 years, where she helped design a battery that the agency plans to use in the next moon launch. She’s received numerous awards for her work, including being named one of the agency’s top five women employees. These days, she heads NASA’s educational-outreach efforts, coaching high school students into becoming scientists: “We’ve got a shortage of students pursuing math and science,” she said. “There’s no reason we can’t turn out a new generation of scientists right here in Lorain.”

She turned to speak to an older white man wearing plaid pants — another likely McCain–Palin voter. He’d been told he was at the wrong polling site. Charleston made a call on her cell phone. “You’re in the right place, just the wrong precinct,” she told him, directing him to the proper table. “Everyone’s vote should count,” she said as he shuffled back into the polling site.

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Yes He Did: Relive Obama’s Early Career With This Novelistic Podcast

I had just finished the final episode of Making Obama, a six-part podcast documentary miniseries on Barack Obama’s public life in Chicago from WBEZ (91.5 FM), which concluded on March 15, when I knew I’d be replaying the entire thing for pleasure as soon as I could manage. (I’ve done it a few times now.) Though there’s nothing at all in it on his presidency or Trump’s, the series depicts a period full of bilious racial division and cockeyed political hope in a way that is obviously resonant today. And the people who made it sound like they’re having the time of their lives.

Hosted by WBEZ anchor Jenn White and produced by Colin McNulty, an American who spent several years making documentaries for BBC Radio, Making Obama is a deeply reported and researched and dramatically paced look at Obama’s early career. But simply as a listening experience, it’s a feast: deeply layered but never cluttered, weaving together crowd noise, interviews, White’s voiceover, and music. The musical choices are spare but well-selected, including snatches of hits that end after just a few seconds to stay within fair use, sometimes to great dramatic effect, as with the foreshortened snippet of “Orinoco Flow” that accompanies an old Obama colleague recounting the future president listening to Enya all the damn time. Making Obama is produced, in the manner of a major-label rock album, as opposed to the no-budget indie approach of most other podcasts.

There is merit to thinking that this sort of thing used to have another name: radio. But according to McNulty, “We were never thinking about broadcast — at all.” Speaking from his office, he and White have the kind of easy, sharp back-and-forth suggested by their work. “You just have to keep people engaged and listening to it, because they will stop,” he says. White elaborates: “With podcasts, people really want to move through a journey with you as an experience that I think is different from how people listen to radio. It changes the way you think about how people are listening along. They’re not going to miss an episode unless they decide not to finish listening to the podcast.”

Making Obama is twice as long as its predecessor, 2016’s three-part Making Oprah, partly because that series was so much more successful than White or McNulty anticipated. Making Oprah, says McNulty, broke down neatly into the Eighties, Nineties, and 2000s. “In doing the Obama preparation, we discovered six pretty well-defined chapters; we knew the appeal was big enough that it would justify six full hours.” Adds White: “We had to tell that story with that degree of detail — especially talking about politics in Chicago, it required a little more in terms of the narrative arc.”

Even without his childhood, his college years, or the presidency — Making Obama concerns itself strictly with the Chicago years — it’s quite an arc. Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 and worked as a community organizer for three years; twenty years (and Harvard Law) later, he was elected president.

The series makes clear that Obama’s rise was both improbable and inevitable — and could only have happened in Chicago, a point made by the president and, in a cascading stack of quotes at the end of the final episode, about twenty interviewees. The first episode deals with Obama’s life as a community organizer — a job often made fun of by his political opponents (we hear Sarah Palin, of all people, mocking him for it during the 2008 presidential campaign), because, as White notes, its ground-level grunt work doesn’t afford the kinds of photo ops so important to many career politicians. It’s also straight advocacy work; Obama had his sights set on making bigger changes — which meant compromising more than the average community organizer was prepared to.

After moving back east to get his law degree from Harvard, Obama had been inspired to return to Chicago by Harold Washington, who in 1983 became the first African American mayor of a U.S. city the size of Chicago (at that time the second largest in the country); much of the second episode (splendidly titled “Chicago Politics Ain’t Beanbag”) concerns Washington’s epoch, as well as providing an overview of the city’s political history. About five minutes into episode two, we hear Washington announcing his run on a mini-cassette acquired from a reporter on the scene. (Washington’s righteous anger and firm commitment to progressive change — “I approach this job just like any masterful surgeon,” he said of the Chicago backroom dealing he opposed: “When you have to cut out a cancer, I cut it out with no emotion. Get it out!” — are especially tonic in a political atmosphere overloaded with double-talk.) But politics in Chicago, entrenched in the favor-trading Democratic “machine” of Richard J. Daley, have always had serrated racial edges — intra-racial edges, too, which applied doubly to a rookie politician with light skin, a Hawaiian upbringing, and an eager mien.

Nevertheless, Obama was ready to campaign. About sixteen minutes into episode three, Carol Anne Harwell, campaign manager for his 1996 run for state senate and the MVP of this series, describes her initial reaction to Obama: “He was born in Hawaii — whaaaa? —you know, that kind of thing.” He was hazed by his black Illinois senate colleagues, but when State Senator Rickey R. Hendon called Obama out on the floor for not voting with him, a seriously heated Obama invited Hendon into the break room, away from cameras, and got to “a little pushing and shoving — men acting like kids,” says Hendon recalls. Donne Trotter, yet another senator, reports that he finally “got between them and said, ‘We can’t do this.’ ”

Equally intense is the account of Obama’s sole political loss, to ex–Black Panther Bobby Rush in a 2000 run for Congress. Rush’s deeply rooted popularity with black voters in Chicago’s South Side proved the upstart’s undoing. Rush’s voice is labored — he beat salivary cancer ten years ago — but there’s no misunderstanding the tone behind his unstinting belief that Obama was a front by white bosses to unseat him. When White asks Rush how he felt after his win, his answer is simple and damning: “Victorious.”

After dusting himself off following his defeat, Obama readies himself for another go — episode five details how he won over the allies who’d help back him in his 2004 race for U.S. Senate, including Valerie Jarrett, a powerful attorney who became Obama’s senior advisor in the White House. When she and Michelle Obama tried to talk Barack out of running again after his loss to Rush, he persuaded them otherwise. As Jarrett recalls: “In the space of about two and a half hours, we all went from, ‘Don’t do this,’ to, ‘What a great idea!’ ”

One of the great archival finds of Making Obama comes in episode four (around 39:30), with “Blackout,” a radio ad targeted to Chicago’s black stations during that 2000 campaign. “He’s making the case for all of these things he’s done while in the state senate,” says White. The ad featured an African American couple whose lights go out, as was happening inordinately on the South Side at the time. At the end, following a bit of Obama speechifying, White recalls, “There’s a group of maybe five people trying to give this rambunctious cheer: ‘YAAAY!’ I said, ‘I think one of these people is Barack Obama.’ ”

“We can’t verify that that’s Obama,” McNulty makes sure to note.

“When you listen to that ad, and then you listen to the ads that David Axelrod produces for his U.S. Senate race — the difference in the sophistication, the professionalism, is telling,” says White.

According to McNulty, an even funnier vault find occurs in the podcast only as a snippet: a disastrous Obama radio appearance to promote his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. “The guy keeps mispronouncing his name the whole time: Barrick Obama,” says McNulty. “Somebody calls in and says, ‘I don’t know what this is about, but there’s a lot of noise in my neighborhood with the boom boxes and all that.’ It’s completely separate from the topic of Obama’s book. You hear him really struggling to engage with this person.

“Then a phone call happens later. I realized that voice was [Harwell]. She didn’t identify herself as his campaign manager. She says she was not his campaign manager at the time. I couldn’t tell if she was a plant or not, because the timing was kind of weird. It was funny to hear how ragtag the whole thing is. Him struggling during the interview is kind of sad, but it’s pretty revealing, just how different his life was ten years [before] he’s a United States senator.”

The Axelrod ads were where Obama first tried the slogan that would eventually help put him in the White House. In episode six, around minute nineteen, we hear the U.S. Senate campaign radio spot that introduces the slogan “Yes we can.” Obama worried it was too corny. “He turned to Michelle and said, ‘Mich, what do you think?’ ” recalls campaign manager Jim Cauley. “She had her chin in her hand and she just sort of slowly shook her head and said, ‘Not corny.’ ” His TV spots, Cauley says, made him go “from ‘Who?’ to The Man.” We later learn that Obama’s first draft of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was thirty minutes long, eventually cut to eighteen: “I struggled with that,” Obama says. “There were a lot of good lines in there that got put on the chopping block.” The excerpts of his DNC speech are still stunning, and its unbridled belief in a United States that had more in common than not, in the wake of everything that’s happened since Obama left the White House, now sounds almost unbearably poignant.

A Detroit native, White joined WBEZ two years ago. “I didn’t come to ’BEZ saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a podcast,’ ” she says. But then McNulty, who’d been hired as part of WBEZ’s expansion of its on-demand content unit, approached her to work on Making Oprah with him, promising, “It’ll be really easy.”

“He lied!” White says, laughing uproariously. “It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. And professionally it made me rethink what the future looks like for me.” Podcasting gives her the chance to “be more responsive to what the story really needs, what it’s asking for, because we don’t have to be attached to hitting a certain time post. As a person who on the other side of my job has to watch the clock, I really enjoy that freedom.”

That playfulness exemplifies McNulty’s approach. At the BBC, he says, “I made a lot of shows called The Archive Hour, which was very sound-rich, tons of layering going on.” A good example of this approach at is purest can be heard on the McNulty BBC production Sounds Up There (2015), a narrator-less 28-minute exploration (that’s the word for it) of the first-ever space walks.

“I think the tradition of doing multilayered features for broadcast in the U.K. is pretty advanced compared to the two-way model here,” he says. With Making Obama, he says, the goal was “to be as comprehensive as possible, in the way of a novel, where it’s constantly switching between clips, and building and building and building something. There’s so many friggin’ podcasts out there, thousands of them, and in order to get out of the chaos of it, you have to have a really high bar for what this thing is. I kind of go big with everything.”


Obama’s College Scorecard Plans Full Ratings, But Will Students Use Them?

Incoming college students this year had an
advantage over their predecessors when it came to choosing a school: the College Scorecard, launched by President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union speech to help prospective students figure out “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

The Scorecard, part of the Obama administration’s online College Affordability and Transparency Center, includes a bevy of stats for each school: average annual net price for undergraduates, graduation rate, loan default rate (national average, according to the site: 14.7 percent), and median monthly loan payment (national average: $172.62). Eventually, the Scorecard will list alumni job data and — in a controversial move — overall ratings for each school, expected to launch by next fall.
A Department of Education spokesperson says that the rating system is still in development and more details about the metrics will be announced soon.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Scorecard site has received more than 500,000 unique visits. Yet as it approaches its second anniversary, the College Scorecard
remains little known among college applicants.

“I have never had any students who said they looked at the College Scorecard,” says
Penelope Terry, the director of undergraduate admissions at Brooklyn College.

New York University dean of admissions Shawn L. Abbott agrees: “While students and parents are more and more curious about cost, student debt, loan default rates, graduation rates, and starting salaries, I have yet to
encounter students or families who reference the federal College Scorecard.”

Several city college students who made
college decisions over the last year and a half say they used rankings, but had not heard of
the Scorecard.

“I think it was U.S. News rankings,” says Minneapolis native Xiaoye Jiang, a sophomore photography student at NYU (net price $37,656; graduation rate 85.3 percent; loan default rate 3.6 percent; loan payment $369.29). She says she looked for urban schools where she could get a strong liberal-arts and fine-arts education.

“I’m paying for college myself,” says Dylan Campbell, a native of Bellmore, New York,
and first-year journalism student at Brooklyn
College (net price $5,485; graduation rate 53.8 percent; loan default rate 6.8 percent; loan payment $120.83). “I’m going to be one of the first college graduates in my family, so school being free was a priority.” Campbell had friends who used other ranking systems, but she settled
on Macaulay Honors College, which operates on eight CUNY campuses to offer free tuition to high-achieving students, as soon as she was admitted.

Upon its release, the Scorecard was praised by some education figures — particularly advocates for public universities, whose low tuition could earn them a better showing in federal rankings — and criticized by others as overly simplistic. Tension between the administration and college presidents grew after a Department of Education undersecretary said ranking colleges should be no more difficult than “rating a blender.” Even before the Scorecard was published, the Center for American Progress released a study calling for better market testing. In September, the Penn Graduate School of Education’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions released a report suggesting an alternative scorecard that the authors said would better benefit institutions serving
students of color, first-generation students, and those from low-income backgrounds.

A Department of Education spokesperson says that the government has reached out to higher-education organizations, guidance counselors, and others involved in helping
students choose colleges to let them know about the Scorecard. Brooklyn College admissions director Terry, though, believes students won’t change their ways until they see the federal government as a source for information about colleges, not just a font of financial aid.

“It’s going to take some kind of a marketing endeavor before people really start to use it,” Terry says.


In Point and Shoot, the Arab Spring is Second to a Nice American’s Journey

Can profundity be accidental? Marshall Curry’s documentary Point and Shoot is a study in naifdom that seems to think it’s about something else: masculinity, honor, war. But it’s mostly about the way Americans of means see the wider world as a self-help proving ground, an exotic backdrop against which to stage movie-star adventures. The difference here? The Mitty-style American actualizing himself is also filming himself — and, hey, look, now he is the movie star he daydreamed of becoming. He’s even the de facto narrator, ensuring that nothing — not even an Arab Spring revolution — distracts us from his hero’s journey.

Matthew VanDyke, Point and Shoot‘s hero/subject, can’t forget the mediated, imitative nature of his adventures even when he has dedicated himself to a grand cause. In the film’s second half, he throws in with the opposition forces who brought down Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, filming a revolution even as he’s insisting he’s a soldier, not a cameraman. Gangly VanDyke gushes, “When I saw myself in news reports fighting, it became validation that I was a real rebel fighter.” Dodging bullets in the desert isn’t enough for the experience to, like, count.

VanDyke and the men he fights with seem under near constant assault. I say “seem” because the footage, as seen here, lacks narrative context; we see VanDyke shot at in a jeep, then shot at near some houses, then in a jeep again. The focus is entirely on his danger — and how being harrowed by war helps him triumph over his once-debilitating OCD. Toward the end of the war, VanDyke is tasked with bringing down a sniper. We see him flatten himself against the wall of some dark room, peeking out a window, waiting for his shot. Finally, he lifts his gun, fires, and waits. A moment later, we hear him reflect in voiceover: “I had myself filmed trying to take another human life, and what does that say about me?”

Before his choices apparently became more interesting than the overthrow of one of the world’s great tyrants, VanDyke stewed for five months in Libyan prisons, an experience that Point and Shoot renders in evocative animation. (There’s a lesson in that: Footage may not exist of his imprisonment, but no reasonable person believes we would need it to believe VanDyke’s suffering was real.)

Here’s how he got there: After taking a find-your-smile motorcycle trip across North Africa and the Middle East, pausing to film himself popping many desert wheelies, VanDyke hit it off with a handful of Libyan men who would later take up arms against Gadhafi. The impetus behind VanDyke’s first trip was to prove to himself that he possessed the kind of manly traits he admired in the stars of action movies. Adopting a tough-guy persona helped: He started calling himself “Max Hunter,” and viewers of Point and Shoot must sit through painful footage of him practicing flipping open a knife in front of a mirror. After being Hunter for 35,000 miles, VanDyke returned to the States — and then rushed back to Libya once the revolution started, and his newish friends were seeing their friends and families murdered by Gadhafi’s forces.

There VanDyke took up arms, wound up in prison, got broken out of prison, developed stirring cross-cultural camaraderie, and with his camera captured a half-dozen or so wondrous/terrible moments: a rug with Gadhafi’s face floating in a tidal pool; that attempt to snipe a sniper; his friend Nuri saying, “If the shooting comes to you, I’ll send you in a good box to your mom”; Libyan men spotting him and saying, “American?” and then, with jubilant thumbs up, “Obama!” But Nuri and those men and Libya itself are all extras in the story of Point and Shoot, the millionth movie about an American having adventures abroad and then finding himself, or whatever. If that was the point, maybe the movie’s actually brilliant.


Lionel Richie: The Obama of Pop Music

In 2016, when Americans take stock of Barack Obama’s presidency, they may determine that he did very little to improve the lives of everyday black people. But what is indisputable is that Obama will have forever altered people’s perceptions of what a black person in America can accomplish.

Such has been the impact of Lionel Richie as well.

Back in college, Richie, a native Alabaman who attended Tuskegee Institute on a tennis scholarship, formed the Commodores with some schoolmates. Like many familiar Motown acts of the ’60s and ’70s, they dressed alike, danced alike, and harmonized in an airtight manner, merging funk, soul, and disco. But by the early ’80s, Lionel Richie had outgrown the Commodores.

Richie struck out on his own as a solo balladeer, becoming one of the best-selling artists of the decade. His rise concurred with Prince’s and Michael Jackson’s, with none of the innovation. The music Richie played was earnest and emotional, more reminiscent of Barry Manilow than Barry Gordy. Funky basslines gave way to elaborate string sections, as coked-up revelers in sockless loafers danced on stucco ceilings where brick houses once stood. By and large, the former Commodore was making white music for white people. He was no longer just another successful black recording artist; he was the world.

Back in 2004, when Richie, now 64, was at perhaps the nadir of his career, I interviewed him before a gig in Stuttgart, Germany. I asked if he’d had a dream the night prior, and whether it was awesome.

“When I tour, I have the weirdest dreams,” Richie replied. “I’m in my house in L.A., and I walk out the door, and I’m in Dubai. I cover the world in about five or six snaps now. I have what you call ‘global dreams.'”

On May 30, before an enthusiastic crowd at Seattle’s KeyArena, Richie kept most of his Commodores hits contained to a medley. His introduction and the accompanying nostalgic video footage half-mocked this era of his career. However, when Richie announced the final song of his encore, the decidedly unfunky “We Are the World,” he oozed an extraordinary amount of pride.

In the video for “Hello,” a clay sculpture of Richie’s mustachioed visage is created by a blind female. She can’t see him, but his face is familiar enough for |her to form with her hands. The resulting bust is big, beautiful, and beige — an apt metaphor for Richie’s music.

Richie took dead aim at the gooey center of ’80s soft rock and made the most commercially successful version of it, his songs serving as exultant sing-along fodder. (Richie acknowledged as much when, during his concert in Seattle, he asked the audience if they were ready for two hours of karaoke.) As a black artist who made his bones by whiting out his Caucasian contemporaries, he was stealthily revolutionary, detonating whatever box black music was contained in and leaving a landscape for future Kanyes and Kravitzes to chart whatever courses they damn well pleased.

In 2012, Richie reissued a collection of his greatest hits with an ingenious twist. Tuskegee was a duets album, featuring contributions from some of country music’s biggest stars: Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Jennifer Nettles, Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Shania Twain, Darius Rucker, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Rogers, who hit No. 1 with Richie’s “Lady” in 1980.

Tuskegee shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, Richie’s first success of that magnitude in 25 years. Nashville, like a pack of Republicans with Colin Powell among them, fell all over Richie, slapping together a tribute concert during which Luke Bryan reminisced about how he used to romance college girls over glasses of Chardonnay on the bed of his pickup while listening to Lionel. In all likelihood, that’s bullshit, but the sentiment was spot-on.

It’d be easy (like Sunday morning) to say Richie got lucky, but it’d be more accurate to say that his timing was purposeful and perfect. Mainstream country today is like soft rock was in the ’80s, and here Richie was again, reaping the benefits. But far from a mere masterstroke of opportunism, Richie wouldn’t have found such a warm reception down South had his music not meant something to those doing the receiving. The accomplishments of his prime, once derided by some, had stood the test of time — and time had come down on his side. His performing at Bonnaroo on June 14 is, perhaps, the biggest proof of this.

It remains to be seen whether history will be as generous to Obama, but odds are it will. As president, he’s played the long game, confident his legacy will overcome any passing peccadilloes. He, like Lionel, has dreamed globally, viewing the world not in black-and-white, but in beautiful shades of beige. Fiesta forever, indeed.


The City of Conversation Awkwardly Explores the Ever-Widening Rift Between Democrats and Republicans

Partisan rancor in Washington has poisoned the vine. Gone is the golden era of an American family united in spite of our differences. Today there are only conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats prevented from compromise by deeply held grudges. This conventional wisdom is the premise of The City of Conversation, a new play by Anthony Giardina about a household bitterly divided over a 30-year span. Hester Ferris (Jan Maxwell), a liberal luminary whose Georgetown dinner parties nurture bipartisan civilities, becomes distraught when her son (Michael Simpson) and daughter-in-law (Kristen Bush) embrace Reaganism.

In three acts, the play hops from the Carter administration’s twilight to Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court nomination to Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Giardina puts a finger, squarely and thoughtfully, on emotional political battles that gradually eroded any aspiration for unity in the Ferris family, as in the Capitol. Unfortunately, the awkward dialogue and scene structures leave the principals to recite far too much clunky oratory, and they don’t come off well. (Director Doug Hughes fares better with the supporting cast.) The inveterate Jan Maxwell makes a mighty effort as tenacious Hester, but there’s little charm or warmth written into the role. The City of Conversation gives us an elaborate narrative spanning epochs, only to confirm what we already knew: Distrust and misunderstanding run deep in domestic politics, and the whole nation suffers from the rift.



Chuck Close: artist extraordinaire, master of the selfie. After almost 50 years and hundreds more megapixels on the image resolution front, his Big Self Portrait is still pretty hard to distinguish from a snapshot. But photorealism was only the beginning, as is illustrated in Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration (Strand) by Terrie Sultan. From reviving ancient European techniques to working in new materials like sunscreen (it helps control light), the iconic artist has not always been recognized for his prints but often dedicates the most time to them, sometimes up to two years on a single piece. He and Sultan appear in conversation at the book’s re-release party, providing a rare opportunity to hear Close speak about the medium he’s said has “moved me in my unique work more than anything else” — and this guy’s photographed Obama and Scarlett Johanson.

Thu., May 1, 7 p.m., 2014


In Mistaken for Strangers, a Familial Hanger-On Makes a Doc about The National

In Mistaken for Strangers, filmmaker Tom Berninger uses brother Matt, lead singer of indie rock band The National, to feel better about himself. This is especially frustrating since Tom reunites with Matt while The National perform and promote their chart-topping album High Violet, itself worth a film.

But since Mistaken for Strangers is all about Tom, there’s virtually no uninterrupted concert footage. At first, Tom presents himself as a goofy, insensitive kid. He spills milk all over his and Matt’s shared hotel room, forgets to tell Matt that Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost are waiting to party with the band, and pouts when he can’t join The National when they meet President Obama. That might have been funny if Tom weren’t always pouting, like when he whines, “You’re way more famous than any of my friends,” and Matt stammers back, “That’s . . . OK.”

Tom further stokes his rivalry with Matt by having his mom compare the brothers’ childhood drawings; she abashedly insists that Matt was always her “most talented” son. Tom even comes off like a putz after he admits that Matt’s success is well-earned. He listens thoughtfully when Matt says he’s grateful that The National aren’t performing for empty auditoriums anymore.

But when Tom finally shares his brother’s success, and holds Matt’s mic cord when he dives into a packed auditorium, it’s too little, too late. Tom predictably shifts Mistaken for Strangers‘ focus back to himself in the film’s concluding scene when a friend asks if he’s done making his film: “I’m getting close. Just let me figure it out.”

Mistaken for Strangers doesn’t reveal anything about Tom but his own insecurity.



Little-known senator Barack Obama wowed America with his 2004 speech observing that the awesome God worshipped in Republican red states was also revered in Democratic blue ones. Unfortunately, during his presidency, that purple deity has morphed into the Lord of Virulent Partisanship. Enter Brian Dailey, whose past work includes portraits of everyday citizens framed before colors expressing each person’s political allegiance. Each night in February, just before the witching hour, Dailey’s three-minute video, “Jikai” (Japanese for “self-destruction”), featuring a white moth maniacally circling a brightly burning bulb, will be simulcast on 15 of Times Square’s massive digital screens. As the background segues from red to violet to blue, you might find yourself, in this month of Saint Valentine, contemplating desire and power — how Icarus flew too close to the sun, how hearts can be bruised, and how empires, like singed moths, can fall.

Mondays-Sundays, 11:57 p.m. Starts: Feb. 17. Continues through Feb. 28, 2014


Tricked is a Frank Documentary on Sex Trafficking, in Spite of Its Mansplaining

This frank documentary on some of the more shudder-provoking aspects of the sex trade wraps with footage of President Obama citing “the injustice, the outrage of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.”

And that’s pretty much the angle that filmmakers Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson are driving home, vis-à-vis prostitution and its surrounding myths. They’re successful in confirming the just-how-muchness of what we already suspected: that most young women in the trade are trapped there under threat of violence, rather than by choice.

What’s truly hair-raising, and effectively presented, is that many of the girls that Wells and Wasson profile are young — like really young, like embryonically young — 12-year-olds who are already seasoned vets. The interviews cover a wide swath of this ugly underbelly, from kidnapped suburban teens to high-end “escorts” and the pimps, johns, and police that vie for their possession, and the film is wisely sparing of melodramatic flair, allowing the inherent drama of the situation to horrify and harrow on its own.

Survivor Danielle Douglas proves the most compelling screen presence, and her post-sexual enslavement life as a mother of two and badass roller derby player fosters some hope, although for the most part the outlook on trafficking is presented as understandably bleak.

The featured authority figures, like Denver’s Sergeant Daniel Steele, clearly mean well, but their self-aggrandizing hero complexes are unfortunate next to the comparatively affable-if-crude pimps. Maybe accidentally, the film seems to suggest that the deeper ideological issue is the same on both sides of the law: a tendency to view women as capital to be traded, used, or saved.