Our reviewers recommend their favourite music, films, books and TV of 2017, including Get Out, Fighting Fascism and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and many more.
Sachin Croker recommends Get Out (Blumhouse Productions)
Black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visits the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams). Their typical liberal friendliness (“I would have voted for Obama for a third time” says Alison’s father) carries an uneasy edge that slowly unfolds into a terrifying reveal. Get Out is both a perfectly executed genre film and a razor-sharp critique of liberal politics.
Get Out turns the traditionally white horror movie lens back onto whiteness itself. Writer/director Jordan Peele cut his trade in sketch group Key and Peele, and Get Out truly deserves its horror-comedy label, but it’s the sharpness of its critique of liberal whiteness that makes it such a brilliant film.
Firmly taking aim at the myth of a ‘post-racial’ America, Get Out uses mixed-race relationships to go deep into the psychology of whiteness. Peele, raised by a white mother and married to a white woman (the brilliant Chelsea Peretti), is better placed than most to home in on the way that whiteness both fetishises the black body, and desires control over it. Its central device, ‘The Sunken Place’, works perfectly as a metaphor for the way that liberal politics desires the presence of black people, but the removal of any black thought.
Politics of blackness from Du Bois to Fanon have explored what it means to be looked at with the white gaze. Get Out’s genius is to give us the catharsis of a black gaze that truly looks back, and a plot that exposes the hypocrisy of white liberalism.
Hazel Croft recommends Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton)
My favourite read by far this year was Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It’s a vast and complex novel, encompassing gender and sexual politics, the effects of neoliberalism and right-wing Hindu nationalism, and the brutal legacy of imperialism as it is played out in the bloody conflict in Kashmir. Although told mainly through the lives and experiences of two main female characters – Anjum, a transgender woman, and Tilo, an architect and political activist, the novel features a dizzying number of characters and plot lines. Although this can sometimes overwhelm the reader, Roy’s beautiful prose and astute politics carries you through the complex layers of the plot, brilliantly showing how the personal and political intertwine in gut-wrenching and heart-breaking ways. At the heart of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are the marginalised and oppressed, the outsiders who are on the receiving end of the misogyny, gendered prejudice, class violence and corruption of Indian politics and society. I found it simply stunning.
Andrew Stone recommends The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Picrow/Amazon Studios)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an impressive new TV comedy drama created by Amy Sherman-Palladino. Like her previous big hit the Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel centres on a pair of fast-talking, witty women. In this case it is ‘Midge’ Maisel, a 26-year-old mother who has been left by her husband, and Susie Myerson, a comedy club worker who becomes her agent after she responds with a lacerating spontaneous routine on stage.
The setting, Upper West Side New York in 1958, is seemingly recreated from lavish Hollwood golden age movies, and the set design and costumes could probably bail out many struggling economies. Midge’s new-found ‘money worries’ amount to little more than being a bit short of party dresses and having to put up with the quirky wealthy parents that she has had to move back in with, but the show is still likeable because of excellent characterisation. Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards) is great in the title role. As is Tony Shalhoub (Monk) as her father. The wide cast of Jewish characters mostly avoid stereotypical tropes and if issues such as racism and homophobia are not foregrounded, they are not entirely ignored either. But in a year when the power of misogyny in the entertainment industry has been so clearly underlined, it is particularity refreshing to watch a show about a woman struggling to emerge from the shadows of societal expectations, and doing so with great humour.
Kate Bradley recommends Anna Wise, The Feminine Act II (2017, self-released)
I first got directed to Anna Wise by Spotify when The Feminine: Act II came out this year. Wise has worked with Kendrick Lamar, who heard her music and was so impressed that he sought her out to write and sing with him – high praise indeed. Both Acts I (2016) and II (2017) are artful musical renderings of some of women’s most intimate gendered experiences: workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, complex desire, self-doubt and shame about our own bodies, even forced marriage. Wise handles these heavy topics with such ease and aesthetic sensitivity that their political content doesn’t come over cringeworthy or propagandistic. Instead, her songs remain catchy, funky and musically interesting, at the cutting edge of R&B-infused pop music.
Anna Wise’s music is also a great example of the formal properties of music enhancing its political statements. For example, when she sings ‘What do I do if I’m not sexually desirable?’ on ‘Girl, Mother, Crone’, the expressive melodies leave it haunting your mind long after the song finishes, imbuing the feeling – familiar to many women as a source of deep self-doubt – with an extra strength and relatability.
Anna Wise is anything but ‘vulnerable’ (the music press’ favourite gendered word for women artists). Without sacrificing honesty, she comes over as sharp, critical and full of conviction. An artist that can combine that with such strong and catchy music is a rare find.
David Renton recommends Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism (2017, Haymarket Books)
Imagine what it was like for that generation of socialists who had lived through 1917, who had seen the working class take power and who expected revolution everywhere. But who then had to witness fascism’s rise to power in Italy and then in Germany. They were confused, demoralised, better at expressing defeat than in pointing any sort of path to recovery.
Clara Zetkin’s 1923 resolution to the Communist International on fascism, just published as a short book (Fighting Fascism) by Haymarket Books was the first coherent attempt at a theory. ‘Fascism,’ she wrote presciently, ‘is an international phenomenon.’ Fascism could not be understood, she argued, as mere revenge for 1917, or as just an attempt to shore up capitalist rule. What also needed to be grasped was its mass character.
The book is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of the advancing international right of our own times.
Arjun Mahadevan recommends Strange U – #LP4080 (High Focus Records)
The power level of extra-terrestrial overlord King Kashmere and his reptilian sidekick Dr Zygote is undoubtedly well over 9000, as the opening Dragon Ball dialogue confirms. Both have gone under the radar for years, but the infinite sounds of Strange U’s debut full length LP has injected them into your consciousness like a lump hammer to the face. #LP4080 is a nostalgic trip through 80s pop culture, brutal truths and tongue-in-cheek references delivered in Kash’s trademark punchy flow and complemented by Dr Z’s weighty beats… to make you frown. Eden’s Husk imagines a future of environmental destruction a year from complete extinction, in which the air is unbreathable, radiation unbearable, the sky is on fire and ‘the eco-system is fucked’ – a harsh description of the impending doom that awaits the planet. Guest bars from Jehst offer analysis: ‘The destruction of the planet is a matter of economics. Things turning rapidly catastrophic, but nobody’s gonna stop it when somebody stands to profit’. Mr Kill manages to personify every type of despicable Tory in just over three minutes with a near perfect illustration of their mentality, ‘the type of subhuman you would love to own the country. Mr Kill for Prime Minister – I’m gonna kill you’. And to reinforce the message, ‘this is not Jeremy Corbyn in a tie dye vest’. #LP4080 is filled with bangers and some of the finest verbals to come out of these shores. It’s my album of 2017 and ‘iller than Jean Claude Van punching a Damme alien’. SMASH.
Angela Stapleford recommends Ali Shaw’s The Trees (Granta)
The Trees by Ali Shaw is a speculative or dystopian novel with a difference. It depicts the aftermath of a crisis for humanity that no-one could have seen coming. A sudden and dramatic natural disaster creates chaos and uncertainty for the people who survive it. The narrative focuses on a small group of survivors and how they cope and grow within the changed world. Although not directly political, this is a fiction that takes natural disaster as a metaphor to explore humanity’s relationship with the environment and each other. Survival depends on co-operation and the negotiation of power dynamics when the structures of capitalism collapse.
Colin Revolting recommends Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
I’d rather be behind the curve than stalled and stuck in some dusty garage, and Orange is the New Black was one of my favourite TV shows in the last year.
I’d earlier given up on the comedy drama set in a women’s prison during season two but my son discovered the show through friends and I joined him for season three.
With the prison being privatised, a whole new agenda arose. Power exerted through hierarchies was explored in amusing detail, especially in the prison’s newly imposed extra layers of management and procedures, and the subsequent conflict caused with inmates and guards. I relished the satire of the systems, sycophants and motivational management BS.
Season five takes its inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement which features a prison riot which leads to an uprising. Prison riots are occasionally depicted in films but never last more than a few minutes on screen. To say this plays out over hours of TV time is no exaggeration and in itself ground-breaking. It’s a real “carnival of the oppressed”, with a range of complex, contradictory and inconsistent elements and experiences.
Ultimately it felt a little disappointing as a season, but maybe that in itself is an accurate reflection of the potential but limitations of the uprising. For mainstream TV to be depicting such drama is significant in itself and definitely worth watching – especially if you have Netflix and don’t have to break the law to watch it.
Neil Rogall recommends Clyde Woods’ Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (Verso)
Sometimes a book title seen out of the corner of one’s eye intrigues you. You want to read it without knowing its importance or wider significance. This was the case with Clyde Woods’ Development Arrested – The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, which I first spotted at this year’s Historical Materialism conference. I didn’t know it was a new edition of a really major piece of writing or that the author died way too young. And I didn’t know that after reading it I would never be able to listen to the Blues again in the same way. Because to Clyde Woods, the Blues are more than music. They are the “the working-class African American community-centred tradition of development thought and practice” and an attack on the entire plantation system in the Delta. The Blues critique the very methods by which the wealthy plantation owners continually perpetuate black oppression and poverty, and justify it by blaming those the planters grind down. The book is a history of the Delta, the Deep South of the Deep South, the place that slaves feared most and about which the phrase ‘sold down the river’ was coined to describe what was in reality a death sentence. The most powerful parts of the work for me deal with the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1870s and 1880s, and the Second Reconstruction, the Black Freedom Movement. Reading it I was thrown back to my earliest political memories: watching the southern police and rabid whites beat the shit out of civil rights marchers in Alabama and Mississippi on the TV when I was 14 or 15. Until I read the chapter on the sixties, I’d forgotten how important those scenes were to my growing disgust and hatred of the world we live in and my desire to change it.
This is a book to cherish and love, a work of richness and analytical depth as well as holy anger and rage. It is a weapon against not just what Woods terms ‘the Plantation bloc’ but the whole damn ruling class on both sides of the Atlantic.