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Film critic David Edelstein

David Edelstein reviews The Pianist.

05:21

Other segments from the episode on January 10, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 10, 2003: Interview with Chuck Barris; Interview with Queen Latifah; Review of the film "Pianist."

Transcript

DATE January 10, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 NETWORK NPR
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Queen Latifah discusses her career as a rapper and
actress
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

In the new film "Chicago," Queen Latifah plays the tough prison matron Mama
who does favors for her female prisoners in return for their intimate
friendship and cold cash.

(Soundbite of "Chicago")

Ms. QUEEN LATIFAH: (As Mama) Ask any of the chickies in my pen. They'll tell
you I'm the biggest mother--hen. I love 'em all, and all of them love me
because the system works, the system called reciprocity. Got a little motto,
always sees me through. When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you.
There's a lot of favors I'm prepared to do. You do one for Mama, she'll do
one for you. They say that life is tit-for-tat, and that's the way I live, so
I deserve a lot of tat for what I've got to give. Don't you know that this
hand washes that one, too? When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you.

BOGAEV: That's Queen Latifah from the soundtrack of the new film "Chicago."
Her performance earned her a Golden Globe best actress nomination. She also
has a new album, a collection of hits released in December called "She's a
Queen." Queen Latifah's first CD in 1989 established her image as an
Afrocentric, independent woman who didn't like the misogynistic bent of some
fellow rappers. The strength that she portrays in her music has carried over
into her roles on TV and in the movies. She was one of the stars of the Fox
sitcom "Living Single" and has co-starred in the movies "Brown Sugar,"
"Juice," "Set It Off" and "Living Out Loud."

Terry spoke with Queen Latifah in 1999 after the publication of her
autobiography, "Ladies First." Let's start with a tune from her 1994 Grammy
Award-winning record "U.N.I.T.Y."

(Soundbite of music)

Backup Singer #1: Oh, oh, U-N-I-T-Y, U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity. U-N-I-T-Y,
love a black man from infinity to infinity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Who you callin' a bitch? Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You go, come on, here we go. Here we go, uh.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black woman from infinity to infinity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Come on, come on and here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Yeah, you gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black man from infinity to infinity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Instinct leads me to
another flow. Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho, trying
to make a sister feel low, you know all of that gots to go. Now everybody
knows there's exceptions to this rule.

Backup Singer #1: Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) And I won't be getting mad when we playin'; it's
cool. But don't you be callin' me out my name. I bring wrath to those who
disrespect me like a dame. That's why I'm talkin'. One day I was walkin'
down the block. I had my cut-off shorts on, right, 'cause it was crazy hot.
I walked past these dudes. When they passed me, one of them felt my booty.
He was nasty.

Backup Singer #1: Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) I turned around red. Somebody was catching the wrath.
Then the little one said...

Backup Singer #2: Ha-ha, yeah, me, bitch.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) ..and laughed. 'Cause he was with his boys, he tried
to break fly. I punched him dead in his eye, 'said, `Who you callin' a
bitch?' Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You gotta let 'em know.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You go. Come on, here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Yeah, you gotta let 'em know...

Backup Singer #1: Love a black woman from infinity to infinity.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) ...you ain't a bitch or a ho. Here we go.

Backup Singer #1: U-N-I-T-Y.

TERRY GROSS, host:

In this rap, you talk about what you don't like about `bitch' and `ho' kind of
language. Elaborate on that for me.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Laughs) Oh. You know, honestly, the record was really made in
response to--at the time, there were so many records coming out with, you
know, rappers calling women, you know, bitch this, ho that. And I just
thought it was, like, getting out of control and it was becoming a bit too
much. And I'm not saying that I don't, you know, use expletives when I'm
hanging out with my friends, you know, and, you know, I mean, we may say some
of those things, but we say it in joking. But when it's meant to be really
derogatory or to disrespect people constantly, you know, it just got to be too
much. And so I felt like saying something about it, you know?

GROSS: Did you feel that that language represented larger attitudes toward
women in the music world or the rap world or among your friends?

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, definitely some people use that word to apply to all
women, you know, and it seems like the word--I mean, I could call a guy an
M-F, but it's not gonna be as harsh as him calling me a bitch. There's a
difference. It sounds worse and it feels worse. You know what I mean? So I
felt like, you know, it was time somebody said something about it because it
was just--it's still out of control. It's still out of control, you know, but
I think that that helped bring awareness to it. And the record wasn't so much
about the word `bitch.' The record was about--the first verse is about, you
know, the respect and respecting a woman. The second verse is about abuse, a
woman being beaten by her man and finding the strength to leave. And the
third verse was about young girls, like, who wanted to be tough, wanted to be
gangsta B's. You know what I mean? I mean, the record was really about a lot
of different things. And the point of the record was unity. Let's bring it
all together. Let's put all of this stupid stuff to the side and let's be
together, man. Let's stop pushing each other away from each other and let's
be down with each other.

GROSS: The first name that you rapped under was Princess of the Posse. How
did you decide on that name for yourself?

Ms. LATIFAH: No, Latifah was my name. The Princess of the Posse was just my
little title, you know, because I was like the only girl in our crew. And
Ramsey was kind of like--Ramsey and DJ Mark the 45 King were like the heads of
the crew, you know, so to speak. They were like the heads of the crew, but I
was--I mean, I didn't go with either one of them, so I couldn't be like their
girlfriends or anything like that. So I just took the little--I was like the
little sister. So I took the Princess title.

GROSS: So what was it like being the only female in your posse?

Ms. LATIFAH: I wasn't the only female, but I was the only female rapper. It
felt good. You know, I was cool with it, you know. And then all my
friends--I introduced, like, a lot of my friends to the guys in my crew, and
some of them hooked up with the guys in my crew, so it was like--it was cool.
We had a big old family. We had a female deejay, this girl named Ginger
G(ph). She used to deejay. So she was the female deejay; I was the female
rapper. And you know, we had a couple of other people, you know, down with
us, but that was it. And it was actually a good experience for me, 'cause I
got to be around guys and see how they think and what they do, and they could
be natural around me. They didn't really hide anything, you know, in front of
me because it wasn't like I was their girlfriend, you know. So they didn't
have to front and, you know, be phony or whatever. I learned a lot.

And then, you know, I had them right there to help me practice. We all
practiced around each other. We would write and then we would bounce the
rhymes off of each other to see what the other person thought and get
constructive criticism. It was almost like a school for rap. It was real
good.

GROSS: How did you decide what you wanted your image to be?

Ms. LATIFAH: I kind of just wanted it to not be like anybody else that was
already out. So you know, when the record company gave me some money to go
shopping, you know, to get clothes and stuff for my promo pictures, you know,
I didn't have a stylist, so they basically just gave me money to go shopping.
So I went and bought, you know, a couple of outfits, you know, some stretch
pants and a nice shirt or whatever, you know. But then I was walking down the
street downtown in Newark called Halsey Street and I passed this African
store, and I had already decided my name was Queen Latifah by this point. And
then I was looking at some of the clothing and I liked the way that the pants
were made. It was like a drawstring thing. It was beautiful embroidery. I
saw this fabric and I asked the lady could she make me a suit, basically, you
know, a shirt and some pants and a hat to match, like a crown. And she said
she could do it, and she hooked it up for me and it came out real cool. So I
took my first promo pictures in it. And I was barefoot in these pictures,
squatting with this African suit on, and it was like, `Whoa, who is this?'
You know, my look was just automatically different from then on.

GROSS: It's good you had your clothes made, too, because you write in your
book that you hated the full-sized women's shops; you didn't like the clothes
in there.

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, yeah, most of the time it's just some big, you know--I
mean, things have gotten a lot nicer since, you know, then. That was like 10,
12 years ago or whatever. But yeah, things have gotten--they've come a long
way. You know, I still think that the bigger ladies need some really fly
clothes to wear, because most women--I mean, most women that I know are just
small women, you know. They need to have really nice things made for them so
they can look just as beautiful as, you know, these little size 6's. It's all
good. Share the love.

GROSS: Now you write that when you were growing up, you were uncomfortable
with your body because you were big. Is that something you had to get over
before you started performing, or had you already gotten over that?

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah, I basically had gotten over that by then. I mean, my
concern, my initial concern wasn't because I was big, 'cause I wasn't like
big, fat, you know. I was bigger than every other girl in the class, though.

GROSS: You were playing basketball.

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah, I was, like, always the tallest girl in the class, always
the biggest girl in the class until, like, this other girl came to school
named Shania(ph), and I was so happy because she was bigger than me, and I
didn't think it was possible, but I was so happy because she took the pressure
off of me for a minute, which was nice. But it was like my breasts, you know,
I developed--the women in my family are pretty well-endowed up top. So I got
pretty well-endowed pretty early in life. I was like 11 years old, popping up
with these things, and I'm like, `Oh, God, what do I do with this? What are
you doing here? Why-y me?'

And then they just grew, so my friends would, like, tease me sometimes. They
made me feel a little bit uncomfortable about it. But as I grew older, I grew
to accept them. I grew to love my body, you know, and it was reinforced by
certain people that I was involved with intimately. They loved it, too, so
I'm like, `Man.' And now I love my breasts. This is the best thing in the
world.

GROSS: You know, you use your size on stage as power, too.

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah. Why not? I am statuesque. My stature goes right along
with my personality.

BOGAEV: Queen Latifah speaking with Terry Gross in 1999. She plays the
prison warden Mama in the new film "Chicago." We'll hear more of their
conversation after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring a 1999 interview Terry
Gross recorded with Queen Latifah. She stars in the new film "Chicago."

GROSS: You have been doing, you know, a lot of acting. You were the star of
the TV series "Living Single." You've been in several movies, including
"Juice" and "Get It Off"--Is that what it's called?

Ms. LATIFAH: "Set It Off."

GROSS: "Set It Off," yeah. I saw it, but I forgot the title.

Ms. LATIFAH: "Get It Off"? What you thinking about over there, huh? Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LATIFAH: "Set It Off."

GROSS: "Set It Off." And, oh, "Living Out Loud."

Ms. LATIFAH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When you got into acting, did you--had you planned to get into acting?

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, it was something that I always wanted to do.

GROSS: Since you were a kid?

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah. I mean, I acted in school plays and stuff. I never had
any, like, really formal, formal training as in classes or anything like that,
but I felt like I had a talent, you know. And I felt like it would be
something good for me to do, and I wanted to do it, because I never looked at
myself like I'm the best rapper ever on the planet. And unless I could say
that, then I would never be comfortable just being a rapper. I needed to
have, like--I needed to diversify and have things to fall back on, so acting
was definitely a passion that I wanted to pursue.

GROSS: Your first movie was "Juice," right?

Ms. LATIFAH: My first movie was--was it "Juice?" "Jungle Fever."

GROSS: Oh, "Jungle Fever." OK. That was, like, a small role, very small
role, right?

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah, one day.

GROSS: OK. And then in "Juice," you had a larger role as a deejay, so it was
kind of pretty close to who you are.

Ms. LATIFAH: Right.

GROSS: You didn't have to, like, reinvent yourself completely...

Ms. LATIFAH: No. Exactly.

GROSS: ...for that. Was that a good way to get started, you know, in a role
that was pretty close to home?

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, you know what? It was, I guess, in a way, but then it
wasn't. You know, it was kind of like I got sick of playing what people
thought Queen Latifah was in their scripts. Like, people would look at my
image or who they thought I was, and then they'd write me in there basically,
but it wasn't me, you know? It wasn't me. I was much more rounded. I was
much more well-rounded than the linear characters that they kind of had me
playing. And they would just like this remanufactured version of Queen
Latifah. I was happy for the opportunity to be in a movie and kind of learn,
so it was good learning some of those things without having to stretch too far
from who I really am, but that's not something that can sustain you, and
that's not something that can establish you as an actor. So I was dying for
the role that was not me, that was not anything remotely like me, so that I
could really show my skills, my talent, use it.

GROSS: What's the closest you've come to a role that's not remotely like you?

Ms. LATIFAH: "Set It Off," Cleo.

GROSS: Describe her character.

Ms. LATIFAH: Cleo in "Set It Off." She was basically orphaned at a young
age. She had no one left, really, but her friends. Her friends were the most
important thing, you know, in her life to her. She would die for them. She
was very strong, but real tender on the inside. She was a lesbian and in a
monogamous relationship with someone, although she did like to flirt. And
that was basically--she just really cared--you know, she kind of cursed a lot.
She liked to drink, and, you know, she liked to smoke her cigarettes. She was
a little bit wild, but she was a very caring person. She really was really
down for her friends, and that was, like, the bottom line, so...

GROSS: Did you see a lot of homophobia surface after your performance?

Ms. LATIFAH: No. You know, I didn't. People had love for that character,
and that was what I really wanted to do. I wanted to make them really love
her. You know, that character was so great, and the script was so great for
her, because she got to really go all out for her friends. You had to love
her. If you didn't care about her, then you needed to really examine your own
emotions and your own feelings, because anybody who basically would say,
`Look, you guys go, run,' and take the heat and knew she was going to take the
heat, knew she was probably going to die and knew she was going to meet her
end, you know, but sacrificed herself so that her friends could, you know, be
free like that, that's a true, true, trooper. That's a true friend. And so I
figured that, you know, if you don't have love for this girl by the time this
movie is over, you're just twisted. So, I mean, basically, the--there's a
scene in there where I kiss this girl.

(Soundbite of kissing sound)

Ms. LATIFAH: And I have yet to watch this scene, because I can't watch it,
you know, myself. I don't think I can just watch myself be intimate, period.
It wasn't the fact that she was a girl. But it was the fact that, just, I'm
kissing somebody, you know, and I can't watch me do that, I don't think. But
it was kind of funny, because I went and saw the movie, like, eight times, you
know, when it came out. And I would see it in regular theaters, like, creep
in and just sit in the back of the theater with a regular audience and see
how they reacted. And every time that kissing scene came, people was like,
`Ah! Eww! Ooh!' You know, people--I mean, you could hear this big roar in
the theater. But by the time the end of the movie came, they were, like,
cheering for the girls, like, cheering for us to, like, get away, to win, you
know? So they couldn't remember, you know. It wasn't like their mind stayed
focused on that one thing, you know, which was good for me.

GROSS: So they're cheering or jeering, and you're turning your head from the
screen at the same time, 'cause you don't want to watch yourself being
intimate?

Ms. LATIFAH: Pretty much. Ew, ah! Pretty much, yeah.

GROSS: Queen Latifah plays the prison matron, Mama, in the new film,
"Chicago."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) Dana Owens aka Queen Latifah. Yes, I'm here to
testify. No, I gotta speak on my behalf. You don't even know what happened.
Can I just tell you what happened?

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He had it coming.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) He had it coming.

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He only had himself to blame. If
you'd have been there, if you'd have seen it, I think that you would have done
the same!

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) I mean, imagine--why was he hittin' this woman. Why
was she takin' that? Now picture her fightin' back. Think of the ass
kickin'. Think of his ass flippin' down the stairs and me at the top smilin'.
He should have stopped whilin'. Now could you picture me tryin' to finish him
off? See why? Picture me on this side of the law. High heels leave holes.
You'd have thought I was gunned. Now the cops comin'. I ain't runnin'.

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He had it coming.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) Girl, you should have seen it. Sure did bob and
weave before the cops come, got a couple of clean hits. ...(Unintelligible)
couldn't take the abuse, but I couldn't explain that to the state troops.
But you know, girl. Yeah, you go, girl, 'cause I look real cute in orange
jumpsuits. That's the story I'm tellin', and I ain't changing nothin'. I
just needed you to know, your honor.

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He had it coming.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) He had it comin'.

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He only had himself to blame. If
you'd have been there, if you'd have seen it, I think that you would have done
the same! He had it coming.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) He had it comin'.

Unidentified Back-up Vocalists: (Singing) He only had himself to blame.

BOGAEV: Queen Latifah with Lil' Kim and Macy Gray from the soundtrack of
"Chicago."

Next Tuesday, Terry Gross will talk about the making of "Chicago" with the
film's director and choreographer, Rob Marshall, and also with Paul Bogaev,
who supervised and conducted the music. In the interest of full disclosure,
he's my brother.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "The Pianist," the new film by Roman
Polanski. This is FRESH AIR

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Movie "The Pianist"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" is based on the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman. He
was a celebrated Warsaw pianist when the Nazis invaded Poland, and he survived
the war in Warsaw. "The Pianist" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film
Festival and was chosen Best Picture of 2002 from the National Society of Film
Critics. It's favorite of critic David Edelstein's. Here's his review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN:

The first time we see the title character of "The Pianist," he's playing a
Chopin "Nocturne" live on Polish radio when German bombs hit the Warsaw
station. It's 1939, and Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody, is
annoyed. He wants to finish. He keeps playing after the technicians have
fled until he's literally blown off his piano bench. And there, in those few
seconds, is the central tension in the movie. It's between the artist's
stubborn classical detachment and the violent contortions of the outside
world.

As the Nazis round up and brutalize the Jews of Warsaw, "The Pianist" pushes
that tension to the breaking point. The movie is grueling; for long
stretches, wordless. Yet nothing in its nearly two and a half hours feels
unnecessarily prolonged.

Roman Polanski and his screenwriter, the English playwright Ronald Harwood,
keep the scenes short and severe, framed by fade-outs and fade-ins like cruel
blackout sketches. Not long after bickering about where to hide what little
money they have, Szpilman and his family watch from their apartment window as
a wheelchair-bound old man in a building across the street is dumped off a
balcony, then the rest of his family shot down and run over. The sequence,
with its helplessly restricted vantage, is like a circus of horrors viewed by
someone frozen to a seat in fear. It's no wonder the Jews go collectively
insane, that they even come to prey on one another.

Szpilman's stature gives him an edge. He makes money playing in a ghetto
cafe, where the Jewish beau monde tries to act as if nothing has changed. And
he has an offer to work for the collaborationist Jewish police. The offer
sickens him, but it's the collaborator who made it, who pulls him out of the
long procession that leads to the freight train to Treblinka, where the rest
of his family will perish. Szpilman is treated as a kind of precious
commodity. He's shuttled by a small network of artist friends from apartment
to apartment while he slowly wastes away from lack of food, human contact and
music.

"The Pianist" is classical in its rigor, but radical, I think, in the camera's
eerie distance from the central action. Through windows, from a fixed
perspective, the pianist watches the Jews starved, shot and deported. He
watches the Polish resistance make a final stand. He watches the remaining
inhabitants of the ghetto mount a rebellion that is crushed. History goes by
while he peers out from his hiding place, sometimes pretending to play a piano
that, for fear of discovery, he can't actually touch.

This is a major performance by Adrien Brody. Brody lost 30 pounds from his
already skinny frame. And, no, I don't think that torturing your body and
mind and great acting go hand-in-hand, but in this case, you can feel as if
you're watching someone actually suffer and, in that suffering, hit notes
you've never heard before.

One of my colleagues has complained that the film doesn't tell you what
Szpilman learned from this experience. I'd say he learned that when people
want to kill you, you hide, and if you're starving, you look for something to
eat. I'd say that he learned that if the world is a circus of horrors, then
there's a kind of heroism in clinging to Chopin, because maybe, with your art,
you can still touch someone, even a Nazi someone, with a glimpse of a higher
order.

For those who believe that art should be a more radical force for change,
Polanski's validation of Szpilman's detachment might seem like a bourgeois or
even sentimental notion, but there's no sentimentality in "The Pianist." It's
drenched in stoicism. The detachment of the artist is a force of nature in
its own right, not a match for fascism. That would be sentimental, like the
movie, "Life Is Beautiful," but more than just a palliative.

Polanski has said that he could only tell his own story of escaping as a small
boy from the Krakow ghetto, where his mother died, through Szpilman's eyes.
That story is not so much in the movie's events, but in its tone. We can feel
in "The Pianist" the source of the cruel stoicism in Polanski's other work,
even in his early films, before the senseless murder of his pregnant wife,
Sharon Tate. He had to deaden something in himself to survive. Yet an artist
can't be deadened. And so the compromise is this rigorous detachment, which
allows him to show us, without flinching, the kind of horror and the kind of
heroism that other directors are afraid to go near.

BOGAEV: David Edelstein, a film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

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