DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Earlier this week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced this year's recipients of its annual fellowship, a generous cash award commonly referred to as the genius grant. Today's guest is one of those recipients. She's Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She covers what she sometimes describes as the segregation beat.
For the Times and before that as a reporter for ProPublica, she has investigated why schools remain segregated or have even become resegregated. She's also written about housing segregation and how in the north, it was partly engineered by local and federal government policies. And she's written about how housing discrimination has led to or reinforced school segregation. She recently wrote about why she chose to send her daughter to her neighborhood public school, which is largely attended by low-income black and Latino students.
Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Peabody Award for her story on This American Life about a school district in Missouri, the most racially segregated school district in the state. It's where Michael Brown went to school. Eight days after his high school graduation, Michael was killed by a police officer in Ferguson. Terry Gross spoke to Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier this year.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. So school segregation is an issue you've covered and investigated, it's also an issue you've had to confront as a parent. You live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, which you describe as a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones. So what was the choice you were confronted with when it was time to send your daughter to school?
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, as your listeners may or may not know, New York City is one of the top three most segregated cities in the country, and its school system is among the most racially and economically segregated school systems - large school systems in the entire country as well. So while as a reporter I have been cataloging the harms of school segregation and kind of the necessity of integration, I had done that most of my career, not as a parent but as a journalist. And then we moved to New York City, my daughter is turning 4, and we have to decide where we're going to enroll her in schools.
I live in a segregated neighborhood. The schools in my neighborhood are extremely segregated, both by poverty and by race. And so my husband and I had to decide if we were going to enroll her in one of the schools - types of schools that I write about, or if we were going to use our privilege, like many middle-class parents, and try to get her into a school that was less poor and less segregated.
GROSS: So assuming that the school - assuming if you used your privilege, you could have gotten your child into a school that had better scores and achievement and everything and more resources for students, why did you choose to keep your daughter in the public school that had fewer resources?
HANNAH-JONES: I think for me it was a couple of things. One, I know enough about the research to - that I knew that my daughter would actually be fine in that school. So the research shows that higher income families who go into high-poverty schools, the education of their students - their children does not suffer. So I knew that. But I also really believed that it was important for me to live my values. One of the things I've done in my work is kind of show the hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they're going to live and where they're going to send their children, they make very different decisions. And I just didn't want to do that. I felt morally that was not the right thing to do.
And I also think it was - that it is important to understand that the inequality we see - school segregation is both structural, it is systemic, but it's also upheld by individual choices. As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children, you can support equality as a principle all you want, but we're not going to see a change. And so for me, it was a matter of needing to live my values and not being someone who contributed to the inequality that I write about.
GROSS: So the school - the public school that you sent your daughter to, there were a lot of the things you liked about that school, including a lot of the teachers, and things were going pretty well. But then another elementary school, P.S. 8, which was less than a mile from the school your daughter was going to, that other school was overcrowded. This school - the overcrowded school - was in an affluent neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. So how did the Department of Education deal with the overcrowding in the more affluent school?
HANNAH-JONES: So what's interesting is the school that we ultimately sent our daughter to is located in an area that had seen a rapid demographic shift. And it had gone from an area that was fairly industrial and only had - the only people who lived there were people who lived in public housing projects, to a place where a lot of new housing had been built. And most of the new housing, the people living in that housing were white and they were very, very affluent. And so their neighborhood school was actually my daughter's school, many of them, but they weren't sending their children to their neighborhood school. They were sending their children to that school a mile away, P.S. 8, which had already turned into a majority white, very wealthy school. And because of that and because of how - schools where - that start to see a white population tend to attract large numbers of white parents, that school was very overcrowded. That school was considered the only option - public option for people in the surrounding area.
So the Department of Education New York City, after continuing to cram so many students into that building, finally decided they weren't going to admit any more new students, and they weren't going to expand kindergarten for new incoming students. And instead, those students were to come to P.S. 307, which was my daughter's school. So they weren't doing an intentional integration plan, they really were dealing with severe overcrowding at one school. And my daughter's school, which is also very common, being a poor black and Latino school, was severely under-enrolled. We had plenty of space. But of course, nothing is ever that simple.
GROSS: Right. So what was the reaction of parents who were told that they couldn't get their children into the more affluent school and they were going to be sent to the school your daughter was in?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, those parents were not happy at all. They called their elected officials and they began holding meetings and they went to the press and really revolted against the Department of Education's decision to send their children to that school. There were several pretty ugly meetings. And at that time, I was not sitting in these meetings as a journalist. I had no intention of writing about this issue. I think it's important not to necessarily report a personal story on the beat that you cover.
So I was just sitting in these meetings as a parent who was interested to hear what people who could potentially be coming to my daughter's school had to say about it. And it was hurtful to hear the things that parents were saying, particularly these are parents who are progressive. They live in Brooklyn because they say that they believe in diversity, often held up as being these kind of hipster people who don't see race. And I was hearing the same thing from those parents that I had heard in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was no different.
GROSS: You said that some of the things that were said at these meetings were hurtful to you. What were some of those things?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, there was lots of questions and concerns about safety. Keep in mind, these are elementary school children. These are very young kids. And there were questions about, you know, they believed our school was dangerous. They believed the children were dangerous. It wasn't that they didn't want to go to school with black kids, it's just that these kids were poor and they don't want their children around so many poor children.
They talked about the achievement of the students. So our school does have very low test scores, and so they believe that their kids will be dumbed down if they came to school with our children. There was not an acknowledgment that these children were even part of the same community as them, even though many of them lived across the street from the school and lived across the street from the housing projects that these children lived in. So I think to hear those concerns - with no evidence. The school is not a dangerous school. There were rumors about, you know, guns, just all kinds of things that clearly showed a racial fear.
And talking about our community, our community, as if these children and their families were not members of that community. And I actually stood up at one of those meetings as a 307 parent and I told them - the P.S. 8 parents - if you don't want to come to our school, that's fine. But you don't have to slander the children in the school because you don't want to come there. So, you know, make your objections known. But I think that language and to think that the families at 307 weren't hearing what their neighbors were saying about them was naive.
I mean, people knew and it was very hurtful.
GROSS: Now, you write during this debate about what to do during the objections that were raised by the parents who didn't want to send their children to your child's school, that each group - white, black, middle-class, poor - had their own concerns. What were some of the other concerns that were expressed, and what were your concerns?
HANNAH-JONES: So the concerns on the part of the parents at P.S. 307, my daughter's school, was one, of course there are a lot of bruised feelings when you had people who were talking so terribly about your children and the education and what was happening in the school who were now supposed to be coming to that school. So parents really wanted the DOE to facilitate some kind of coming together of these two communities so that they could talk through those things and that there wouldn't be tensions if those parents did come into the school. But I think the biggest concern was there is a pattern in New York City of once a school is targeted for white expansion, that school very quickly flips.
And this is what happened at P.S. 8, the overcrowded school, where these schools that are targeted are typically very high-functioning segregated schools. So they're not rezoning white children into failing segregated schools. They're rezoning them into schools that are actually serving black and Latino children pretty well. And then there's a fear that then those parents come in and they take over and that the little power that these marginalized communities have in their school, they lose. And ultimately, the black and Latino populations are pushed out of those schools.
So there was a huge fear that this school that was doing a rare thing, which was serving poor black and Latino children well, would very quickly not be their school anymore and that those children would be sent away or crowded out of the school.
GROSS: OK, so this is a dilemma right here. If integration is a goal, to have more diversity and to have more fair schools, and here is something that's going to integrate a school not for the sake of integration but because of overcrowding - but still, it would be more integration - and everybody has concerns, everybody's worried about the outcome - so what does that say about the predicament that parents and schools are in?
HANNAH-JONES: What I always say is we somehow want this to be easy and simple, and it never will be. The systems that and the actions that created this inequality took a lot of effort and a lot of time. And we want to undo them, you know, with no pain for anyone with a snap of the fingers. On my Twitter account, I say - I cover race from 1619. And 1619 is the year the first Africans were brought to what would become America as - to be enslaved. I say that so that we understand there is a very - before we were even a country, we had created this system that was going to put black people on the bottom and we created a caste system.
And to undo that, we feel like no one has to give anything up or there's not going to be any tension or it's going to be easy, and it simply won't. One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating the segregation and inequality, and we're willing to put almost no effort in fixing it. And that's the problem.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She writes about racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. It's what she sometimes calls the segregation beat. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has written extensively about why so many schools and neighborhoods today are segregated.
So you've described your daughter's school as a high-functioning kind of segregated black school, and most of the children in the school are low income. So if everybody has to make a sacrifice of some sort and if it's going to be painful all the way around to really integrate the schools, do you feel like you're making a sacrifice sending your daughter to this school because you're standing on the principle that you want to send your daughter to a public school and not put your daughter into a more - a school reserved for more privileged people? Do you feel like you're sacrificing anything in her life, the quality of her education, the resources that she'd have in a better school?
HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. You know, I really grapple with this in the piece I wrote. And I'm quite honest about the arguments and conversations my husband and I had about this decision because I know better than most how segregated schools harm children. That's why I write about them the way that I do. But I think what is important for us as citizens of this country to think about is what do we see as the role of public schools? If - do we truly believe in the original mission of public schools and that they are to benefit all children, and they aren't to - you know, it's not the market. It's not private schools. It is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.
And, no, I'm not going to - my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private school tuition. But that's kind of the whole point of public schools. I think she - I know she's learning a lot. I think it is making her a good citizen. I think it is teaching her that children who have less resources than her are not any less intelligent than her, are not any less worthy than her. And I truly - and I say this - and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent because a lot of other parents look at you a little, you know, like you're maybe not as good of a parent - I don't think she's deserving of more than other kids. I just don't.
I think that we can't say this school is not good enough for my child and then sustain that system. I think that that's just morally wrong. If it's not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools? So I would say I have concerns. I'm not everyday sure that I'm making the right decision for her. Am I being fair to my daughter? But I think that I can provide my daughter anything that she's not going to get in that public school. I have the money to pay for tutoring. I take my daughter to museums.
I expose her to writers who come to my house all of the time. And it is important for us to be in that school because we are able then to provide some of that for classmates whose parents are not going to have writers and business owners and journalists in their home. So I think that that is what is so critical is do we really believe in the public part of public schools?
GROSS: Let me quote something you say in your New York Times piece about this. You write (reading) true integration, true equality requires a surrendering of advantage. And when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.
So what's the feeling that - a natural feeling part of the equation for you? Do you feel like it's unnatural to surrender the advantage that your child has?
HANNAH-JONES: Of course. I mean, I worked to get where I am so that I could provide things for my child that my parents couldn't. And one of the few advantages that my parents were able to provide for me was to enroll me in a bussing program that got me out of my segregated schools and into high-achieving, more affluent white schools. And I am not doing that for my own child. So I think it is the most natural thing in the world for parents to try to secure advantage for their own children. And to try to give up that advantage or tell people to give up that advantage is a hard ask. I understand.
But at the same time, I don't think that she is going to be harmed by this. I think that it is only a sacrifice if you really believe that those kids are less than yours. And I don't think that that's true. With that said, one of the main reasons I write so much about segregation is because we do know that our country's education system was built on a racial caste and that once we isolate black and Latino children or poor children away from white and middle-class children, we often don't give them the same resources.
They often don't have the same level of instruction. They often don't have strong principals. They often don't have the same technology. I mean, federal data shows that. So my daughter's school is rare in that way, and I think where we see...
GROSS: In that is does have better resources than the average...
HANNAH-JONES: It does.
GROSS: ...Low-income, racially segregated school.
HANNAH-JONES: Right. But almost entirely because of a principal who was there named Roberto Davenport (ph). And when you look at these schools, it is - if they are high-functioning, it is almost always because of a single charismatic principal. And that's just not a way to get systemic equality. So I think that that is - the problem is school integration and integration in neighborhoods is not about some feel-good notion.
It really is about - there's never been a moment in the history of this country where black people who have been isolated from white people have gotten the same resources, not in schools, not in communities. And, you know, Dr. King understood that in a visceral way that integration was about the sharing of power and it was about full citizenship. And I believe that.
BIANCULLI: Nikole Hannah-Jones speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. She was just awarded a MacArthur genius grant for her writing about segregation and racism in education and in housing. After a break, we'll continue their conversation and film critic Justin Chang will review the new Noah Baumbach movie, "The Meyerowitz Stories." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her beat focuses on racism in housing and education. She was just awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for exceptional work, a cash award of $625,000 with no strings attached. Nikole Hannah-Jones lives in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and has chosen to send her daughter to the neighborhood public school, which is primarily attended by low-income black and Latino students.
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GROSS: So we were talking about how you've chosen to keep your daughter in a public school and not send her to a private school or a school for gifted children. Your parents made the opposite decision. When you were in first grade and you went to a school that you described as poor and distressingly chaotic, your parents decided to take you out of that school and sign you up for a voluntary busing program that sent you to a different school. What was the school you were sent to?
HANNAH-JONES: I was sent to Kingsley Elementary in Waterloo, Iowa, and it was quite far from my home. It was almost entirely white and a very wealthy school.
GROSS: After you became an adult and after you started covering school segregation, did you ask your mother, adult to adult, why she decided to send you into that voluntary busing program to a more affluent white school?
HANNAH-JONES: I did. You know, it's funny. At the time, when I was a kid, I didn't realize I was part of a busing program. I always say, you know, as a kid, you do what your parents tell you to do. And my parents told me to get on a bus and go to this school. And that's what I did. And it wasn't until I was much older, and I started writing about school segregation myself that I realized that - what this program was designed to do and that my hometown had to enter into an agreement with the Department of Education to do this voluntary desegregation program. So I didn't realize it. I just knew that I used to be able to walk to school, and then all of a sudden, I was riding the bus for two hours a day.
So as I started reporting, particularly this last story about my own daughter, which was the first time that I had really written about being in a busing program myself, I did ask my mom why did she decide to do that because I have very mixed feelings about my own experience. And I know from talking to a lot of other black folks my age who also went through busing programs that they also tend to have very mixed experiences because academically, it was transformative for me, but it was very, very difficult socially.
So I did - I talked to my mom when I was writing the story that published in June about kind of her decision-making and why she picked this particular school, which was kind of the furthest away from us and also probably the whitest. And for her, you know, our - my family was very working-class. My mom was a probation officer. My dad drove a bus. And this was an advantage that they could give us. They both understood that my neighborhood school was not high-functioning, and this was the one thing they could give us was a good education.
GROSS: You said academically, this school busing program worked for you really well, but socially, it was very problematic. What were the social problems you confronted?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, one, not only were we black in a very white school, but we were working-class in a very affluent school. So I remember - I mean, things that stick out to me was all the white kids lived in the neighborhood. They walked to school. This was their school. The black kids came every day on a bus. And at the end of the day, when all of our friends were playing and walking home and hanging around on the jungle gym, we were having to hurry up and get loaded on a bus and head back to our neighborhoods. So it never felt like our school.
And I was bused from second grade all the way until I graduated high school. And there were none of those schools that I went to that I felt were my schools because we were going to school in someone else's neighborhood. It always felt like those schools belonged to them. There was a particular incident when I was in middle school. And at that time, most of my friends were still white because there were hardly any black kids at the school.
And I was in talented and gifted, so I hung out with a lot of the kids in talented and gifted. And in my hometown, there's a, quote, unquote, "white side," which was the west side and all the black people lived on the east side. And we lived on the east side and were bused to the west side. And there was a swimming pool that served each side of town. And we used to always go and play and go swimming with my white friends at the swimming pool on their side of town.
And one day, I suggested, hey, why don't you all come to the swimming pool on my side of town? And everyone was down with it. We were all excited. And then that Saturday morning, I got phone call after phone call from every one of my friends who was going to come telling me they couldn't come, that their parents wouldn't let them come to the pool on my side of town, but I was more than welcome to come to Bernes Park (ph), which was where the pool was on their side of town.
And I just remember very clearly understanding what that was about, that my white friends' parents were either afraid or didn't think this was good enough. And so it was kind of constantly those types of things. I didn't ever experience really blatant racism, but it was always these things that were kind of telling you you didn't belong and you weren't good enough.
GROSS: You write that the evidence shows that integration is really the only thing that improves the academic performance of low-income children of color. So what is that evidence?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, you can look at test score data. You can look at - so there's both - so let me also be clear. Brown v. Board of Education never talks about test scores. We are hyper focused on test scores now. And the way that we have comforted ourselves with the segregation in schools is to say we're just going to get those schools' test scores up to par. Well, one, we haven't done that. But there are lots of measures of what schools are supposed to do. And, you know, when we found public schools in this country, it's not to get kids to have good test scores.
So let me just say that. But what the data shows is we know if we're looking at test scores, if we're measuring the achievement gap, which is the test score gap between black and white students, that gap was the narrowest at the peak of integration in the school integration, which was 1988. As soon as we start to see the segregation increasing again, that achievement gap increases. And we've actually never gotten back to that low point that we were at when schools were their most integrated.
But there's also great science out of University of California, Berkeley by a professor named Rucker Johnson that shows the longitudinal effects of school desegregation on black students. And what it showed is that it changed the entire trajectory of their lives, that it wasn't just about how well they scored on a test, that black students who went to integrated schools were less likely to be poor as adults, were more likely to go to college. They lived longer. They were healthier. And they passed this benefit onto their own children. And even within the same family, if one child remained in segregated schools and one child went to integrated schools, the child in the same family who went to integrated schools had these same lifelong effects.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has written extensively about why so many schools and neighborhoods today are segregated.
When writing about the schools, you often use the word resegregation. What does that mean?
HANNAH-JONES: So we had this period after Brown - so just a quick history lesson - Brown v. Board happens and kind of the way that we're taught it or the myth about it is immediately, our nation repented and, you know, went into an integrated future together. That's not what happened. There was massive resistance. And we don't see real desegregation occurring in this country until 1964 and really most rapidly from 1968 on. And then you see pretty rapid desegregation particularly in the South and - but then that changes. And in 1988, we start to go backwards.
So we reach kind of the peak of schools integrating, of black students attending majority-white schools at the highest rates that they ever have in the country. And then we start to see school districts resegregating, which means black students are starting to go to schools that are more and more segregated. And school districts that had had a degree of integration are losing that integration. So what we know...
GROSS: And why is that? Is that families moving, out is that rezoning, is it a combination of things?
HANNAH-JONES: It's a bunch of things. Particularly, I think one of the big things was, again, most of the desegregation occurs in the South. And it occurs in the South because the South was segregated by law, and therefore the way that the courts have kind of determined desegregation law, you could get court orders to integrate. It was - been much more challenging to desegregate in the North, and there was a lot of resistance to desegregation in the North.
So what happened is across the South, beginning under the Reagan administration but really speeding up under George W. Bush, was a release of many of these school districts from their federal desegregation orders, which meant that as long as these districts, once their court orders to integrate have been closed, they can do whatever they want as long as they don't say they're doing it to discriminate.
So they can rezone to create all-black schools. They can build all-black schools. But as long as they don't say they're doing it to be discriminatory, it's actually perfectly legal. So that's a big part of it. White flight out of cities was a huge part of it. You had, you know, cities like New York and Philadelphia and Chicago that lost most of their white population. And so in the North, most school segregation is between school districts, between a urban school district and the suburbs that surround it. And so that contributed a lot to it as well.
GROSS: Do you think people just take for granted nowadays that there's black schools and white schools, some schools are integrated, lots of schools aren't, there's black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, some neighborhoods are integrated, lots of neighborhoods aren't and that's just the way it is?
HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago, no one was writing, really, about segregation. I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying we're going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability. So no one was discussing integration anymore. And I think it's because, one, we never really wanted it. If you look at the great civil rights legislation that gets passed in the '60s, the very last law that's passed is the Fair Housing Act, which gets passed in 1968. That was considered the northern civil rights bill. And that's why that was the toughest one. So the '64 Civil Rights Act - very successful.
It would be very surprising if I were to try to walk into a cafe or go on a bus and be turned away because of my race. The Voting Rights Act was considered extremely successful. But the Fair Housing Act is the one that's considered the complete failure because that was going to integrate where we live. And by proxy, that would integrate schools. And Northern congressmen fought that the same way that Southern congressmen were fighting the other civil rights laws. And the only reason that law gets passed is Dr. King gets assassinated. A hundred cities riot - black, poor, segregated, Northern cities. And it's in the flames where there literally are rioters within feet of Capitol Hill that Congress manages to pass the Fair Housing Act.
And then Nixon is elected and immediately runs on a Southern strategy where he says if you support me - and he's appealing to white Southerners and white Northern ethnics - that he will stop forward progress on school segregation and - school desegregation and housing integration. And that's what he does. So we never, as a country, wanted this. It's always had to be forced. And as soon as our country lost, you know, our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that.
I think what's important to understand is the North has been able to portray the South as the part of the country that has a race problem and is very comfortable with that. So the South enforced its racial code through laws. In the North, race and racial code and racial inequality was enforced through housing. So the North is the most segregated region of the country both for housing and for schools. And the North is no better on race than the South. It was just for most of the country, the black population in the North was very small.
And as you start to see millions of black people migrating from the South starting in the early 1900s, suddenly the North is confronted with having to deal with black people and it doesn't do any better than the South. It creates ghettos, it redlines, it forces black people to stay in very small sectors of the city. So when you're looking at something like the Fair Housing Act, that is forcing Northerners to deal with their race issue. And Northerners are not any more willing to do that than Southerners were.
When you look at how integrated schools are down South - and it is true, it was because of court order - you would not see white children in - it's rare to see white children in the Northern schools that integrated. And that's the problem is that there is no one who will be pushing for this.
GROSS: Nikole Hannah-Jones, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and thank you for your work.
HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much.
BIANCULLI: Nikole Hannah-Jones speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. She just was awarded a MacArthur genius grant for her stories in The New York Times Magazine researching and uncovering endemic racism in education and housing. She helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which is dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color. We also want to recognize another MacArthur genius, singer and songwriter Rhiannon Giddens.
She received her award for the many decades of music she's recorded with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and as a solo artist capturing African-American experiences and traditions and performing songs written from slave narratives and for civil rights leaders. This is from her solo album "Freedom Highway."
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RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) Young man was a good man, always went to school. Young man was a good man, never played the fool. Young man was a good man, never had no drama. Young man was a good man, always took care of his mama. Young man was a good man, hanging with his boys. Young man was a good man, didn't know he'd made a choice. Young man was a good man, only did it twice. Young man was a good man, but now he's paid the price. Better get it right the first time. Better get it right the first time. Better get it right the first time. Better get it right the first time. Young man was a good man, did you stand your ground? Young man was a good man, is that why they took you down? Young man was a good man, or did you run that day? Young man was a good man. Baby, they shot you anyway. Better get it right the fist time. Better get it right the first time. Better get it right the first time.
BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie from writer-director Noah Baumbach called "The Meyerowitz Stories." This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. With films like "The Squid And The Whale" and "Margot At The Wedding" among his credits, the writer-director Noah Baumbach is no stranger to squirm-inducing comedies about dysfunctional families. His latest picture in this vein is "The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)," a Netflix original film starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Every once in a while, Adam Sandler shakes off all that puerile idiocy and reminds you what a terrific actor he can be. He went memorably deep and dark years ago in films like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Funny People," exploring caustic new depths of neurosis and insecurity. By contrast, he's in a wonderfully mellow mood in Noah Baumbach's enjoyable new ensemble comedy "The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)." Sandler plays Danny Meyerowitz, a middle-aged New Yorker who's newly separated from his wife and about to send his daughter Eliza, played by Grace Van Patten, off to college.
Eliza is an aspiring filmmaker, to the delight of Danny's father, Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman, a sculptor who both bemoans and relishes his status as the only working artist in the family. Harold, whose career has never gotten the respect and attention he thinks it deserves, concedes that his three children once showed flickers of artistic promise. Danny was a talented musician. There's a lovely scene in which he and Eliza play a self-composed piano duet. But he gave it up years ago and became a house husband. His quietly dependable sister Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel, was once interested in photography but now works an unglamorous job at Xerox. And then there's the youngest Meyerowitz sibling, Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, Harold's son from his second marriage.
While Danny and Jean have stayed close to home, faithfully taking care of their aging, irascible father, their half-brother Matthew lives with his wife and son in Los Angeles, where he works in personal wealth management. His success and independence are a source of pride for Harold but of resentment for Danny, who feels neglected and overshadowed by his little brother. As its title suggests, "The Meyerowitz Stories" is a collection of shaggy, loosely connected episodes that unfold in linear order, each one offering a revealing glimpse into the heart of a lively and fractious New York Jewish family. In the first story, Danny briefly moves in with Harold and his latest wife, Maureen, played by a pleasantly loopy Emma Thompson. In the second story, Matthew briefly comes to New York to meet with a client and takes Harold out to lunch so they can discuss arrangements for getting his affairs in order, which means selling off his house and artwork. The lunch does not go well.
The third story brings all the characters together when Harold is hospitalized with a long-neglected head injury mere days before the opening of a career retrospective that's being mounted at Bard College in his honor. It's an opportunity for Matthew and Danny to catch up on each other's lives. But the competitive tensions and awkward misunderstandings that have long defined their brotherly relationship keep rising to the surface.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)")
ADAM SANDLER: (As Danny) Dad says you started your own company.
BEN STILLER: (As Matthew) Yeah. A couple other guys and me decided to...
SANDLER: (As Danny) How does that work? Do you just tell your boss like, I'm going to start...
STILLER: (As Matthew) Well, I was one of the partners, so I didn't technically have a boss.
SANDLER: (As Danny) Right. No, I understand. So you got a better offer.
STILLER: (As Matthew) No, there were no offers. That's what was so scary. We were creating our own opportunity.
SANDLER: (As Danny) Because you wanted something smaller.
STILLER: (As Matthew) Bigger. Many of the firm's clients came with us.
SANDLER: (As Danny) Which was surprising.
STILLER: (As Matthew) No, we expect it. We can't legally ask clients to come with us, but we trust them...
SANDLER: (As Danny) But they don't have much choice.
STILLER: (As Matthew) It's totally their choice.
SANDLER: (As Danny) No, I know, because you have their money.
STILLER: (As Matthew) Well, their money is with the firm, but their money is in investments.
SANDLER: (As Danny) I understand. My buddy Ptolemy, who lives across the street - or lived across the street...
STILLER: (As Matthew) Dad told me about your (unintelligible).
SANDLER: (As Danny) Ptolemy is like you.
STILLER: (As Matthew) I'm sorry. But also...
SANDLER: (As Danny) He works in arbitrage.
STILLER: (As Matthew) Yeah. That's not what I do.
CHANG: That distant possibility that Harold might not make it provides a natural occasion for years' worth of buried resentments to come to the surface, followed by some tentative stabs at reconciliation. It's all familiar dysfunctional family territory. And Baumbach clearly isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here. He doesn't have to. He has mastered the art of overlapping dialogue - of having his characters talk not so much to each other as at each other, so we can pick up on every note of defensiveness and passive aggression.
His method here is to simply cram his characters into the same room and let his marvelous actors do the rest. As played by Hoffman, the demanding, self-absorbed Harold belongs in the canon of terrifically insufferable movie dads along with Gene Hackman in "The Royal Tenenbaums" and Jeff Daniels in Baumbach's semi-autobiographical drama "The Squid And The Whale." Stiller cuts through Matthew's outer slickness to reveal this prodigal son's deep-seeded daddy issues. And Sandler is simply wonderful as the lovable but long-suffering Danny, his voice rising higher and higher as "The Meyerowitz Stories" escalates toward a cathartic screwball climax.
A final word on Elizabeth Marvel, an excellent character actress who spends much of the movie on the sidelines - Jean is the least developed of the three siblings, which is partly by design. She's the quiet, unassuming stalwart in the family, the one who has arguably suffered the most under Harold's neglect and also the one who complains about it the least. Baumbach has made terrific movies about women in the past. "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" both come to mind. And while it's hard to begrudge him giving us three characters as richly drawn as the Meyerowitz men are, I can't help but wish he'd given his female characters a bit more attention.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, new research about sleep that might keep you up at night. Matthew Walker, author of "Why We Sleep," tells us why we need eight hours, the alarming consequences of the lack of it and what's going on in the brain when we sleep.
MATTHEW WALKER: During some stages of sleep, the brain is up to 30 percent more active than when we're awake.
BIANCULLI: He'll give us some tips on how to get a good night's rest, too. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: 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. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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