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'Black Radical' Traces The Life And Legacy Of Activist William Monroe Trotter

Trotter was a Black newspaper editor in the early 20th century who advocated for civil rights by organizing mass protests. Historian Kerri Greenidge tells his story. Originally broadcast January 2021.

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Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 19, 2021: Interview with

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross.

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DAVIES: The protests for racial justice that swept through the country last year found support among many Americans. And they also reignited old debates about how militant activists should be and how far they should go in seeking social change. Are peaceful marches the best approach or is mass civil disobedience, even violence, called for? Do demands like defunding the police turn off potential allies and undermine prospects for reform?

Our guest today, historian Kerri Greenidge, has a book about an African American activist and a newspaper editor of another era. He fought uncompromising battles for civil rights in the early 20th century, at times earning the scorn of Black leaders committed to more gradual reformist approaches to change. His name was William Monroe Trotter. And while running his weekly newspaper, the Guardian, in Boston for decades, he organized mass protests, confronted presidents and pressed hard for federal laws to stop lynchings and to ensure the voting rights and full citizenship promised African Americans after the Civil War.

Greenidge's book is a gripping read, an account of Trotter's life and of African American activism in the Jim Crow era. Kerri Greenidge is an assistant professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University. Her book, "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter," was published last year. It's out in paperback this week. She joins me from her office at Tufts.

Kerri Greenidge, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I had never heard of William Monroe Trotter, probably like a lot of our audience. Sounds like he was about as prominent as Martin Luther King in his day. And I read in the acknowledgments you first heard the name from your grandfather. Tell us about that.

KERRI GREENIDGE: Yes. Well, thank you first for the introduction. And I'm so happy to be here. I grew up in New England. I was born in Brooklyn. But I'm a, you know, Black New England person. My family has been here for, you know, generations. And both of my maternal grandparents were activists during the 1950s and 1960s in the south end of Boston. And by the time I was born, my family had moved to the suburbs. And my grandparents were still involved in activist work in the '70s and into the '80s in Boston, despite the fact that they lived in the suburbs.

And so I can remember very, very clearly being sick, being in my grandparents' home in a suburb of Boston. And my grandfather was watching the television. And he saw a retrospective on TV about busing in Boston, one of those sort of anniversaries of the horrible time in 1974 when the city of Boston erupted in protests over a court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. And he was watching this. And I remember him just saying, as an aside, kind of probably just to himself, that if William Monroe Trotter was there, none of this would have happened.

And I remember immediately thinking, well, who is that person? - and getting up and asking, going to my grandmother and my grandmother writing it down on a piece of paper for me, the name, and showing me a book that came out in the 19 - late 1960s, early '70s called "The Guardian Of Boston." And she showed me the book. And she said that Trotter was a race man. That's sort of an old term that older Black people often use to refer to activists of a different generation.

She said he was a race man and that he was an activist. And I sort of stored that in my memory. And then when I went to college and went to grad school, I began to wonder what had happened to Trotter and why it was that our understanding of him as scholars and really the consciousness we have about Black protest, why it was that the story that was told about him seemed to lack depth, the story being that he was secondary to the freedom struggle. So that's really where I came to approach Trotter before I even went to graduate school.

DAVIES: And you found a really deep and interesting story. You know, when Trotter was active in the early 20th century, in some ways, like now, it was a time when many African Americans felt an urgent sense of needed social change. And people didn't always agree on how to get there. That's a lot of what we read in the book. And your book was written before George Floyd's tragic death and the demonstrations that followed. But as you researched this, were you thinking about activism and what lessons this would offer for how to pursue social change?

GREENIDGE: Well, yes, I was really thinking and approaching, as I try to do with all of my work, what it is that politically shapes a community, specifically African and African-descended people. How do people come by the politics that they have, and specifically this whole idea of the Black radical tradition, which is this long tradition in the Atlantic world. And so how do people come to embrace that? And why is it that communities often valorize those people once they are gone, but during their lives, those people are often marginalized in the public consciousness?

And so I was really thinking of it from that end and thinking of it from a protest end, but also taking this idea that radical protest is not simply for a changing of laws, although Trotter definitely believed in that. It's really for a reconceptualization by Black people themselves on how they see their power in the world. And so I really wanted to sort of go deeply into this community, go deeply into Trotter and how it is that Trotter was galvanizing a community that most people, including some leaders of the community, thought of as having very little political power.

DAVIES: You know, Trotter spoke to working and poor Black citizens, organizing them, wanting them to feel the power they held with coordinated mass action. But he himself was among the wealthiest and best-educated Black people in Boston. Tell us a little about his background.

GREENIDGE: Oh, sure. So William Monroe Trotter was born in 1872. He's born in Chillicothe, Ohio. His father, James Monroe Trotter, was a lieutenant, one of only a handful of Black lieutenants in the Union Army. His mother was born between the family farm in southern Ohio and the slave state of Virginia. And his father, James Monroe Trotter, for his exploits in the Civil War, was awarded a position as head of the federal post office in Boston and moved to Boston in 1868. And Trotter was born in 1872. And so he grew up in a household that was decidedly upper-middle class. His father was also a writer and a music promoter. And his father eventually was appointed to recorder of deeds in Washington, D.C., by President Grover Cleveland in the 1880s.

So Trotter came from a lifestyle, a childhood of much privilege. And he graduated from high school, grew up in a predominantly white area of what is now Hyde Park in Boston but back then was a suburb and attended Harvard University. He was a brilliant student, never ranked below third in his class, graduated in 1895, got an inheritance from his father that was worth about $20,000 - and in today's money, that's a stupendous amount of money - and really was content to become a real estate broker, but then began to see that the ways in which racism, particularly entrenched, institutionalized racism of the 1890s, prevented that from happening.

He was one of the most prominent and popular students at Harvard's campus, yet he couldn't get a job anywhere with his Harvard degree. His father had known all of these directors of the National Bank of Commerce and white liberal bigwigs in Massachusetts, and he couldn't get them to call him back. And so Trotter really began to reevaluate and look at what did it mean to be, quote-unquote, "a successful Black man" at a time when that success really bore little material rewards due to the racial structures that existed?

And so he founded the Guardian in 1981 and basically, until his death in 1934, poured his own money and his family's money into keeping the weekly alive. And that attracted a population of African American and African-descended people not just in Boston, but really across the country who were really looking for a newspaper, a weekly that spoke to their demands.

DAVIES: Right. When he started the paper, the Guardian, 1901, the Jim Crow era was really taking hold. And one of the things that motivated him was his frustration with Booker T. Washington, the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, who was perhaps the best nationally known African American leader, perhaps at least among whites. They had drastically different perspectives on the problems facing African Americans. Just tell us a bit about their backgrounds and how it shaped their perspectives.

GREENIDGE: Yeah. So I always - my worry when I was writing the book with my editor was that, you know, Booker T. Washington, I didn't want him to come across in this narrative as a villain. I really wanted him to come across as somebody who had this counter-narrative of Blackness and Black American history and white racism than Trotter had and that most Black people experience. So Booker T. Washington was born enslaved in western Virginia. He grew up in a time right at the end of the Civil War, when there's sort of immense racial violence across western Virginia and Virginia.

He eventually attended Hampton Institute, which was one of the schools founded in the aftermath of the Civil War during Reconstruction. And he really had ambitions. Washington had ambitions to become an attorney. And he was approached by a white general who was the head of much of the educational building after the Civil War named Samuel Chapman Armstrong. And Armstrong really had a very specific belief on the potential for both African Americans and for Native Americans. He really believed that they needed to work, that they needed to be wedded to the idea of labor and that that would then lead to their rights eventually being rewarded through the political system. And so Washington came underneath Armstrong's influence. Armstrong basically offered Booker T. Washington to become head of a school that was just beginning called the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. And he sends Washington out there in the late 1880s to build up this institution.

And so, to Washington's credit, he created an institution, Tuskegee Institute, that became the most institutionally powerful Black organization in the South at the time and became the one route to higher education that many Black people, most Black people in the Jim Crow South had at the time. And so he was president of Tuskegee. But through that, he became much more. He wielded a lot of political power, if not influence. And so one of the reasons he was able to do this was the way that he spoke, Washington spoke, about white racial violence in which he really believed that white racial violence, lynching, was the result not of white racism, but of Black backwardness and a need for Black people to work and get educations. And so this really flew in the face of what Trotter knew, but also, to Trotter's chagrin, it really flew in the face of what most Black people experienced.

And so when Trotter started the Guardian, he really wanted to tap into the fact that although Washington had done much for education in the South, Washington had really become somebody who was, as Du Bois said, a leader of two races, not one, that he really had to walk this fine line between support for the white racial regime in the South and support for his people. And Trotter would say and the historical record would say was that he failed in the latter point.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Kerri Greenidge is a historian who teaches at Tufts University. Her book is "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with historian Kerri Greenidge. Her new book focuses on the life of William Monroe Trotter, an African American publisher and activist who was an influential crusader for civil rights in the early 20th century. His weekly newspaper, based in Boston, was called the Guardian. Greenidge's book is "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter."

In 1903, Booker T. Washington comes to Boston to give a speech at the National Negro Business League. Trotter goes to the event. Tell us what happens.

GREENIDGE: (Laughter) One of my favorite events to research, probably because it's the event that is most identified with Trotter, at least in Boston history. Trotter by 1903 had formed a group that he called the National Equal Rights League or the Boston Suffrage League. They went by both names. And this group was of Black people in Boston and New England who really thought that voting rights and enfranchisement should be the one issue that Black communities and Black organizations rallied behind. And he was really critical of this National Negro Business League, which professed itself to be a business organization, but also professed that it did not have political machinations in either way. And so throughout 1902 and into 1903, Trotter and his league would show up at meetings that Booker T. Washington held through his Afro-American Council. They were always rebuffed. They were always told they couldn't speak.

And so finally, Booker T. Washington came to Boston for his league meeting in the summer of 1903. Trotter showed up at the meeting and demanded to read the questions that Trotter posed to Booker T. Washington that had been addressed to Washington through the Black community. So over months, Trotter had met with Black Bostonians, asked them if they could ask Booker T. Washington anything, what would it be? They came up with all these sort of questions about - questioning his leadership, questioning his what was termed then race pride. And so Trotter stood up and asked these questions. And a scuffle ensued, a riot ensued. And Trotter was arrested. And he served 30 days in prison for disturbing the peace.

DAVIES: Wow. So what was the effect on Trotter's reputation and national recognition?

GREENIDGE: Well, the - W. E. B. Du Bois called him the John Brown of this movement, that this was kind of a moment in which many people, Black people, might have disagreed with the outcome. But many people also applauded the fact that he had the courage to stand up to someone who was believed to be a leader of Black people, but that many Black people themselves, particularly in the North, had issue with. And so his reputation exploded, particularly amongst working-class Black people across the country, but also Black middle class, this burgeoning Black middle class outside of the South that really supported this idea that Booker T. Washington did not represent the needs or the desires of the Black community.

DAVIES: Booker T. Washington is obviously not happy with being challenged in this way. But he had his own connections to Black newspapers, right?

GREENIDGE: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that Booker T. Washington did brilliantly was that he really tried to control the message about himself, Tuskegee and the Black community. And one of the things he did - Washington did was with his money. And he was getting money from sort of wealthy white donors. Andrew Carnegie, for instance, would give him money as well. And so he would use that money to buy out Black newspapers and then dictate to the editors of those newspapers what could be written about him, about Tuskegee and also just about what was happening, horrendous events that were happening across the country in terms of white violence against Black people.

And so he purchased newspapers. He actually founded a newspaper in Boston that did not do very well but actually lasted and became kind of the Booker T. Washington alternative to the Guardian. He tried to buy out and bankrupt the Guardian. It didn't work. But Booker T. Washington really used all of his resources to try to silence his critics.

DAVIES: You know, Trotter, over the years, held lots of rallies and organized a lot of national conferences and co-founded a lot of national organizations with other leaders that, you know, aspired to advance the cause of racial justice nationally. And many of them didn't last. One reason was Trotter's temperament, right? He wasn't such an easy guy to get along with.

GREENIDGE: (Laughter) Yeah, that's putting it mildly. I always say when I give book talks that I don't imagine that Trotter would have been pleasant to be around more than, you know, superficially. He was, first of all, you know, horribly misogynistic. And I go into the books of his relationship to his wife and his sisters and his mother. And he was also somebody who was very uncompromising. And on one hand, that is remarkable in somebody who was out for the cause of justice. And so he received a lot of respect and duly so for his tenacity and his willingness to really confront the egregious, you know, civil rights abuses and human abuses that were happening at the time.

But that type of personality made him see the world as very confrontational, even amongst people who probably would have been amenable to his views, but who were turned off by his tendency to take things very personally. He definitely believed that - the adage that we now take for granted, which is that the personal is political. And so he had a very hard time separating these spats that he would have even with people who he knew well, like W. E. B. Du Bois, these spats that he had with them from their political commitment to Black liberation.

DAVIES: You write about his misogyny. I mean, he clearly felt women's role was to be soldiers in support of the cause. And the irony, of course, is that the women in his life were critical to keeping his newspaper, the Guardian, going.

GREENIDGE: I know (laughter). It's one of those things, like, in the - I think it's, you know - we see that in a lot of male activists, particularly, you know, in the 20th century. But, yes, he was married to an activist in her own right named Geraldine Pindell, another Bostonian, African American. They married right before he started the Guardian. Diney (ph), as she was known, was somebody who - sources point to she was the one who ran the newspaper. So when you visited the Guardian office, she was the one who was there. She was the one who asked people for their money. She was the business-minded person behind it. The irony, of course, being that Diney did a lot of her own civil rights work that Trotter was not even involved in, and that this became - you know, (laughter) he became the face. And yet she's the person who was behind the scenes doing a lot of the work.

DAVIES: So Trotter, throughout his period between 1901, when he formed the Guardian, and his death in the 1930s, advanced this agenda of mass activism to achieve change. The NAACP, the venerable civil rights organization, was formed in this period - I guess, in 1909. How did Trotter regard the organization and its approach?

GREENIDGE: (Laughter) It's a good question because Trotter was friends with, allied with many of the African American people who were at the initial meeting that led to the creation of the NAACP. What Trotter objected to was that the NAACP was founded as a white organization. It's founded by people like Mary White Ovington and others who were reformers - very sincere reformers, but people who had all of these paternalistic and racist views of Black people and their potential as political actors for their own freedom.

And so Trotter and others of his allies were appalled that this organization was created and that the white creators of the organization curated who the Black people would be who would be there. They allowed W. E. B. Du Bois to be there. But he eventually became, for a long time, the only Black - the leadership position within the early NAACP. And that didn't really change until the 1920s. And so Trotter's criticism of the NAACP was that it was a white organization, as he said, for white interests. It was not a radical organization designed to foment protest against the racial conditions as they existed. And so he continued to run his national - his Negro Independent Political League that really sought support from the Black masses.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Kerri Greenidge, author of "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter." We'll talk more after a short break. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Nomadland," starring Frances McDormand, and our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers jazz pianist Chick Corea, who died last week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

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DAVIES: My guest is Tufts University history professor Kerri Greenidge. Her new book is about a fearless and influential activist who fought for Black rights in the early 20th century. His weekly newspaper, the Guardian, published in Boston, advanced an agenda of federal laws for Black voting rights and equal opportunity at a time many considered those ideas extreme. Greenidge's book is "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter."

He had a very well-known confrontation with President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Before we get to that, maybe we should just talk a bit about his relationship with Wilson because this is interesting. I mean, this is a guy, Trotter, who runs a weekly newspaper in Boston, but he was the kind of national figure that could get a meeting with the president, in some cases. Wilson was a Democrat. Remember - most African Americans, historically, up to that point had supported the Republican Party. Give us a sense of what Trotter's relationship like - was with Wilson, what his hopes and expectations were from Wilson and how Wilson dealt with the issue of race and segregation in the government.

GREENIDGE: (Laughter) Well, Woodrow Wilson - just to preface this by saying - was a virulent, unapologetic white supremacist, was somebody who directly believed that the South had been wronged during the Civil War and Reconstruction and that Black people were sort of secondary to the American project. And this was not any secret when he was running for president.

What Trotter reacted to, though, was that Woodrow Wilson emerged as a presidential candidate after over a decade of Republican rule in the White House. And underneath Trotter's scrutiny, Trotter would argue that that had been devastating to civil rights, despite the promises made during radical reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s - the fact that the Republican Party allied itself with Southern segregationists in an effort to build the party in the South.

And so when Woodrow Wilson came along, Woodrow Wilson had one thing going for him, and that was that he did not have a history of being a nationally recognized Republican leader who had weighed into all these racial issues before. So Trotter saw him and began to publish his newspaper and talk about, you know, the platforms of the party and was impressed by the fact that Woodrow Wilson, in New Jersey when he was governor, had met with Black activists. And this was something that few governors did at the time.

And Trotter was really impressed by the fact that these Black activists in New Jersey had met with candidate Wilson, and so he organized a meeting with Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson, as the sort of skilled politician, basically said that he would be a Moses of the people, that he did not know what he felt about the racial issue, as he said, but that he believed in justice, which was, you know, a pretty remarkable thing for any politician to say at the time. And so Trotter urged people to vote for the Democratic candidate. It was the only presidential candidate that he endorsed in the newspaper.

DAVIES: Right. He typically did not endorse candidates. And I guess this is another example of Trotter saying African Americans have to be smart and use their votes for leverage, and if one party has abandoned you, consider the other. So takes a chance on supporting Woodrow Wilson, and then how - what kind of record did Woodrow Wilson establish on the issue of race and segregation?

GREENIDGE: Well, Woodrow Wilson, right before he enters the White House - he entered the White House in March of 1913. And within a month, by April 1913, he had invited avowed segregationists from across the South to be members of his Cabinet. He had invited many of those people to help him institute segregation in the federal government in Washington, D.C.

And the federal government at the time was the one area that was not segregated. So if you served in Washington, D.C., if you went into one of the office buildings there, it was not a segregated office building. And this changed literally overnight. There's stories of Black people, like, showing up for work in the Treasury Department and suddenly there's a white and colored sign that hadn't been there on Monday - a sort of very, very drastic thing that suddenly happened. He also allied himself with people who had supported or at least downplayed lynching in their own states.

And when this happened, Trotter immediately sent him a telegram saying, can I speak with you? Of course, Woodrow Wilson, as president, at first he said no. And then eventually he arranges, through a series of congressmen, to meet with Trotter and his supporters in 1914.

DAVIES: Right. And this ended up being an explosive confrontation. Tell us what happened.

GREENIDGE: This is at a time when no president has met with a group of Black people who are coming to the president as voters who are concerned. And they're approaching a man, Woodrow Wilson, who, when he met with them, at first approaches their meeting as politicians tend to do, which is that, you know, I'm so sorry. I think we've misunderstood each other. I appreciate your concern - and then send you on your way.

Trotter refused to take that as an answer. He came back a second time with another group. He basically said that what Woodrow Wilson was doing was betraying the people who had gotten him into office. And that may sound hyperbolic, but actually, you know, historical voting evidence would say that in certain Northern states, the Black vote was the one that tipped that state towards Woodrow Wilson. So he was very confrontational. And Wilson basically approached Trotter as somebody who had talked in a impertinent tone, was his way of saying it. And he basically said that, you know, segregation was not discrimination. Black people should take it as a compliment that they were being segregated in the federal government. And he then basically kicked Trotter out of the meeting.

And so it was a very dramatic moment for Trotter and a very dramatic one for African American people who were following this, of course, in the newspaper and were impressed, proud, that somebody had approached a sitting American president and held them to account for their racial policy.

DAVIES: Right. And it really increased his national standing, didn't it - Trotter's?

GREENIDGE: Yes, yes. After this, he was asked to speak places across the country. The Black community in D.C. had all these rousing supports for him. He publicly apologized and took responsibility for encouraging Black people to vote for somebody who had turned out to be a betrayal of civil rights rhetoric. So this was definitely a turning point in terms of his populist appeal.

DAVIES: After World War I, it was a time of enormous mob violence of whites against Blacks in many cities. Chicago, there was a huge riot. There was Tulsa, Okla., where an entire community was destroyed. And Trotter came to embrace the idea of armed Black resistance. He helped form a group called the African Blood Brothership (ph) to advance that idea. You know, there's this theme that runs through this period of, you know, Trotter saying, you know, an aggressive agenda of change is the way to do things. Others, Booker T. Washington, say - the NAACP saying you can't get too far out in front. You've got to accept compromise. You've got to take a step at a time. I'm wondering what your take - I mean, like, the NAACP focused a lot on lawsuits and, you know, administrative changing. I mean, was there a place for both? Should they have worked together more?

GREENIDGE: I would say that the historical record and the record of somebody like Trotter would say that, absolutely, movements need radical mass action in order to receive or propel or inspire systemic change. The NAACP ended up, by the 1920s, becoming an organization that recruited and formed a base amongst African American people in the South. That's a very Trotter way of looking at things - that you have to organize Black people where they are. There's no way that you're going to eradicate racism or bring about justice if it's people dictating to Black communities what they should do.

So I would say that has a - that has proven to be valuable. I will say that, you know, this - we tend to get caught up in this false dichotomy between, oh, radical protest versus, oh, progressive, you know, change. And they have to exist at the same time. And radical change has to be the barometer through which we make racial progress because in Trotter's case, many of the things that were considered radical at his time are no longer considered radical now. You know, the whole idea that Black people should be - that lynching should be a federal crime, you know, the whole idea that Black people who perform labor should be paid equally as white people who perform the same labor - you know, all of those things are now considered pretty mainstream.

And so that isn't to say that he wasn't radical. It's to say that because of his radicalism and his belief in the fact that Black people should be deciding these terms for themselves, it's paved the way now for Black people and disenfranchised people to make claims that the rest of the world, progressives included, see as taking it too far.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. You know, we don't - most of us don't know about him, and maybe that's partly because he didn't write a memoir and didn't give interviews much. And he didn't have children, so there weren't people writing about him. What is his legacy, his impact, do you think?

GREENIDGE: I think his impact is daring the Black community, both at home and, I would argue, globally, to decide for themselves and demand for themselves what liberation looks like and not allowing outside people or even self-interested members of your own community dictate what liberation should look like. I think that's a very powerful way of looking at justice that someone like a Trotter really introduced to his readers and definitely to the country.

DAVIES: Well, Kerri Greenidge, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GREENIDGE: Thank you so much. And this was lovely.

DAVIES: Historian Kerri Greenidge is an assistant professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University. Her book, "Black Radical: The Life And Times Of William Monroe Trotter," is available in paperback this week.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Nomadland" starring Frances McDormand. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, one of the most anticipated films of the season, "Nomadland" begin streaming on Hulu. Frances McDormand stars as a grieving widow who starts a new life on the road as a transient worker. The movie premiered at film festivals last fall. It was named best picture of 2020 by the National Society of Film Critics and has received multiple nominations for the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Chloe Zhao's amazing new movie, "Nomadland," begins with an elegy for Empire, Nev., one of those old-fashioned company towns that thrived during America's post-World War II manufacturing boom. But in 2011, in the wake of a devastating global recession, the local gypsum mine shut down. An empire became a ghost town, displacing hundreds of residents in the process. Empire was a real place, but the main character in this movie is a fictional creation. She's a widow in her 60s named Fern, and she's played in a remarkable performance by Frances McDormand. We see Fern packing her things and leaving Empire behind over the next year or so. We'll follow as she takes on work wherever she can find it, driving across the U.S. in a large van that will also be her home.

The journalist Jessica Bruder wrote about Empire and the larger phenomenon of modern-day American nomads in her 2017 book "Nomadland," from which this movie was freely adapted. The film sets Fern adrift among these real-life transient workers, several of whom were featured in Bruder's book and who tell their stories again here. It's hard to imagine another actor who could share the same spaces with them as casually as McDormand does, whether Fern is bubble wrapping packages at an Amazon warehouse or mingling with other travelers in a crowded trailer park. One of her new friends, Linda May, describes how crushing poverty almost led her to take her own life. Fortunately, the presence of her two dogs made her reconsider. Another of the movie's memorable real-life characters is a gruff but compassionate woman named Swankie, who helps Fern change a flat tire and scolds her for not having a spare. It's not the last time Fern will have car trouble. At one point, her van breaks down and she has to take it in for repairs.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) OK, what we've got is parts and labor $2,300 and tax.

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I just looked up the value on your van. With that higher mileage, you're looking about $5,000 at the most.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'd probably recommend taking that money and putting it towards a different vehicle, such as...

MCDORMAND: Well, I can't do that. I can't do that. See? All right. I spent a lot of time and money building the inside out, and a lot of people don't understand the value of that. But it's not something, like, you can - I live in there. It's my home.

CHANG: Fern's use of the word home is telling. When someone offers her a place to stay for the night, she replies, I'm not homeless; I'm just houseless. Without romanticizing a difficult way of life, "Nomadland" makes clear that not everyone hits the road due to financial desperation alone. Some, like Fern, have grown restless and tired of ordinary life for reasons they can't fully explain. As the movie follows her across the country, from Badlands National Park in South Dakota to a Nebraska sugar beet field ready for harvest, we come to understand some sense of Fern's liberation.

The America we see in "Nomadland" is vast and open, stretching on forever toward horizons that are gorgeously shot by the cinematographer Joshua James Richards. But this America can also be a surprisingly small world where Fern keeps running into the same people who are headed to the same places in search of work, depending on the season. The one she runs into most often is a guy named Dave, played by a charming David Strathairn, the only other name actor in this otherwise nonprofessional cast. Dave clearly has a crush on Fern, but she gently rebuffs his puppy-doggish overtures in a few sweetly funny scenes that almost push the movie into romantic comedy territory.

"Nomadland" may have a somber Steinbeckian (ph) grandeur, but in these moments, it also shows a disarmingly playful, even experimental streak. Some may wonder why the writer-director Chloe Zhao didn't simply make a straightforward documentary about nomadic life. But there's something about the way she uses McDormand's star power, blurring fiction and nonfiction techniques that gets at something deeper and more mysterious. As with "The Rider," her 2018 film about a Native American rodeo cowboy, she invites the people in front of her camera into a creative collaboration, taking the stuff of their everyday lives and bending it into something strange and new. It's a fittingly inventive approach for a movie about people who have dramatically reinvented themselves. "Nomadland" takes its time sinking in, but sink in it does.

When I watched the movie a third time recently, I found it emotionally overpowering in ways that I'm still trying to get a handle on. It might have been the delicate ache of Ludovico Einaudi's music that reduced me to tears or the bone-deep conviction of McDormand's performance. Or it might just be that "Nomadland" seems to understand loss - material, emotional and spiritual loss in a way that few movies do. That may not sound like comfort viewing in these times of heartbreak and uncertainty. But this isn't a despairing film. It suggests that the road less traveled can yield joy as well as sorrow, in that it can fulfill a person's need for both solitude and community. We don't know what lies ahead for Fern by movie's end, but we do know that her journey isn't over.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea, who died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA TRIO'S "OP. 11, NO. 9")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea died last week at the age of 79. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Corea's music covered a broad range of styles. Kevin has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "WHERE ARE YOU NOW? - A SUITE OF 8 PICTURES - PICTURE 1")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chick Corea, 1971. He had a crisp, distinctive touch at the keyboard and a strong melodic sense that made him a pleasure to hear whenever he sat down at the piano. He passed through a couple of Latin bands when he was coming up early in the 1960s. Spanish rhythms and the precise percussive sound of Afro-Cuban piano were key ingredients of his playing and composing ever after.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SOMETIME AGO")

WHITEHEAD: Corea was already leading his own straight-ahead jazz bands in the late '60s when Miles Davis hired him, and he became the heart of that trumpeter's unbeatable, raucous, early electric bands. There, Chick played some of the boldest, most creative electric piano of its time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "DIRECTIONS")

WHITEHEAD: After Miles, Chick Corea had a brief flirtation with the avant garde, but he wanted a broader audience. On the first album he made with his new band, Return to Forever, He tamed his electric piano and foregrounded catchy tunes like his personal standard "La Fiesta."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "LA FIESTA")

WHITEHEAD: Then, with some personnel changes, "Return To Forever" took a hard turn to loud fusion music. Depending on your taste, that style combined rock energy and jazz sophistication or was about technique for its own sake, fast finger exercises.

(SOUNDBITE OF RETURN TO FOREVER'S "HYMN OF THE 7TH GALAXY")

WHITEHEAD: By 1973, most of Chick Corea's toolkit was in place - the exquisite piano touch, the memorable melodies, the Spanish tinges, the blast-y (ph) amplified stuff - all of which he'd keep bringing back in the decades to come.

There's also his love of duets with everyone from fellow pianist Herbie Hancock to banjo player Bela Fleck. For decades, Corea performed a duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose lyricism matched his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SEÑOR MOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: They could sound like one musician with four hands. Here they are playing Corea's "Señor Mouse" in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SEÑOR MOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: In the new century, Chick Corea would include pieces from the classical repertoire in his solo concerts, playing Mozart alongside Monk. And he expanded his palette, recording ambitious works like his concerto "The Continents" for symphony orchestra and jazz quintet, including his own piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "THE CONTINENTS: CONCERTO FOR JAZZ QUINTET AND CHAMBER ORCESTRA")

WHITEHEAD: Chick Corea never gave up performing straight-ahead jazz, often an all-star bands, very much including a late period trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. This is from Corea's tune "Fingerprints."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA TRIO'S "FINGERPRINTS")

WHITEHEAD: As an outpouring of tributes from all over the jazz community confirms, Chick Corea was among the most beloved of modern improvising composers. Looking back, it's easy to hear why. No matter how your tastes run, he was likely to have played something in his long career that's right up your alley. His diversity was his greatest strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK'S "SEÑORITA")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Chick Corea died February 9 at the age of 79.

On Monday's show, we speak with Sacha Baron Cohen, who's back as the fictitious journalist Borat from Kazakhstan in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." And he plays 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "YOU'RE MY EVERYTHING")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "YOU'RE MY EVERYTHING")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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