Skip to main content

PS Picks: Our Recommendations for What to Watch, Read, and Listen to Right Now

This month: The Mapping Journey Project at the Museum of Modern Art; Mark Lilla's attempt to understand political reactionaries; Nate Parker's gritty new film, The Birth of a Nation; and the documentary Command and Control.
The Birth of a Nation.

The Mapping Journey Project

Stories about global immigration often describe its effects quantitatively — as a series of statistics and soundbites. But in her exhibition “The Mapping Journey Project,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City through October 10th, Bouchra Khalili highlights the human experience of journeys across borders. In the museum’s central atrium, large screens hang from the ceiling, each displaying a single map. Across these maps, a hand traces a path with a permanent marker, while a disembodied voice explains the migratory journey taken by the speaker. The stakes of this display are real: Each of the eight videos Khalili has produced for the project are drawn and narrated by an immigrant she met by chance in a transit hub in Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East.

With these testimonials, “The Mapping Journey Project” juxtaposes “official” maps with personal maps. In a striking choice, Khalili leaves the faces of the speakers off-screen, and in the absence of a face to associate with the voice, viewers who haven’t fled their countries can imagine themselves in the shoes of the speaker. With this experience, at once deeply specific and universal, Khalili challenges viewers to consider borders that we often take for granted — some of these travelers, for instance, have suffered at the hands of official religions and dominant ethnic groups. As Khalili’s exhibit suggests, people’s communities, traditions, and livelihoods don’t always conform to lines on maps.

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

In a year of obituaries for the GOP, Mark Lilla thinks we’re getting the American Right wrong. In his latest project, the Columbia University humanities professor suggests that we can best understand current trends in the GOP not by looking at conservative principles, but by considering reactionary energy. In fact, a lot of people — including those who we tend to label conservatives — are not just driven by nostalgia, but also by morbid, European-style pessimism. Political reactionaries, Lilla says, are “just as radical” as revolutionaries — but while revolutionaries imagine the future as a bright new social order, reactionaries imagine that we’re entering a new Dark Ages. The reactionary, in Lilla’s view, speaks in terms of an impending apocalypse, and Lilla looks to several prominent figures from the 20th century (including Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss), as well as currents of thinking in religion and global politics, to make his case.

If the historical approach sounds dense, The Shipwrecked Mind is still intended for the contemporary-minded non-specialist: Lilla even-handedly introduces the motivations behind radical religious actions, focusing on radical Islam. His is a bracing explainer for our current geopolitical situation — one of the most interesting chapters covers the cultural context of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and their political aftermath, including how they have re-shaped the French voting psyche. By re-casting an oversimplified binary system of political categorization — a worthy project in our era of muddled political labels — Lilla’s book gives us a new way to think about what’s going on in politics at home and abroad.

The Birth of a Nation

Film and television directors are becoming increasingly bold abouttelling brutal stories of American slavery from the slave’s perspective — from 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained to Roots. What sets Nate Parker’s gritty new film, The Birth of a Nation, apart is how deeply religion is involved in the story. Parker — the movie’s writer, director, and main actor — stars as Nat Turner, a slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and a deeply religious man. Turner, who was taught to read by his plantation’s mistress as a child, became a slave preacher, hired by plantation owners to quash unrest among their slaves.

In contrast to the Bible’s inspiring part in last year’s Selma, which cited Exodus as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, Turner’s movie shows how the text can become an oppressive tool. Depending on who’s quoting it, the Bible can alternately encourage complacency among the powerless or spur them to violence: When Turner finally comes to terms with his complicity in keeping his fellow slaves in check, for instance, he uses his strong moral conviction in part to validate a violent revolt — one that left 250 dead. Urging viewers to consider the complicated relationship between religious belief and political action, though, is just one way the film encourages viewers to examine beliefs of all sorts. With a title provocatively reclaimed from D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, racist 1915 silent film, the film even confronts Hollywood’s ongoing racial blind spots, primed for the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite.

Command and Control

On September 18th, 1980, an explosion at a nuclear missile launch facility in Damascus, Arkansas, killed one man and seriously injured 21 others. The new documentary Command and Control— an adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name — is the story of the events leading up to that American disaster. Told through conversations with the men who were there (alongside images from the time, and computer-generated renditions of the Damascus facility), the film conveys that its thriller-like stakes were inevitable. The missile housed at the facility was carrying a nuclear warhead 600 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima; and though facility operators worked hard to avoid detonation — efforts that averted catastrophe — a small human error still resulted in tragedy. As one on-screen participant notes: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine eventually goes wrong.”

Command and Control argues that it’s nearly impossible to manage nuclear weapons perfectly, conveying, ominously, that the public will always remain at risk. But the film also argues that nuclear weapons-handling is worse today than it was in the past — nuclear facilities are underfunded and understaffed, with fewer skilled workers and less public awareness of the ongoing risk they present. As one participant puts it, “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time — and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” Rather than stand by and wait for the next catastrophe to unfold, the film argues, it’s important that nuclear arms-handling become a matter of further policy and debate.