Joshua Alston

Stories by Joshua Alston

  • Emmy's Night of Surprises

    "The Sopranos" swan song hits a sour note as the Academy really, really likes Field, O'Quinn and—can you believe it?—James Spader more than Gandolfini and friends.
  • Fall TV Preview

    What to watch—and not watch—on Monday night.
  • Fall TV Preview

    Confused about what new TV shows deserve space in your TiVo? NEWSWEEK gives you a day-by-day guide.
  • TV's 'Hot Ghetto Mess': Too Hot to Handle?

    In October 2005, Jam Donaldson found herself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. The charge: that Donaldson had caused a man—apparently an aspiring lothario—emotional distress by putting an unflattering, metrosexual, come-hither photo of him on her Web site, "Hot Ghetto Mess." He wanted $3,000 in damages. If all this sounds a little silly—well, perhaps we should tell you that the case was tried on "Judge Judy." She decided in Donaldson's favor. But Donaldson faces a more serious judgment this week, as "Hot Ghetto Mess" prepares to go from cult Web site to a mainstream TV show.No one has actually seen the TV version of "HGM" yet—its network, Black Entertainment Television, wouldn't screen it for NEWSWEEK—and BET's programming president Reginald Hudlin insists that the show is not a literal translation of the Web site, which is basically an expansive gallery of gold teeth, neon wigs and oversize thong models that could easily be called "Blacks Wear the Darnedest Things." Donaldson, who...
  • Television: 'Better' Than a 'Mess'

    Black Entertainment Television’s controversial new show "We Got To Do Better" (formerly "Hot Ghetto Mess") attracted over 800,000 viewers when it debuted on Wednesday night, a healthier-than-expected audience presumably made up of car-crash gawkers who tuned in to see if the show was the racist, classist sideshow its critics have portrayed it as. The contretemps surrounding the show stemmed from a grass-roots Internet campaign concerned that a television show based on the "Hot Ghetto Mess" Web site, a collection of tawdry photos of blacks with gaudy hairstyles and outfits, would perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks. The show is indeed a spectacle, but not quite in the way anyone was expecting. It wasn’t very controversial, funny or interesting.The show begins with its host, Charlie Murphy, welcoming viewers to "Hot Ghetto Mess." (BET apparently thought enough of the media blowback to officially change the name of the show, but not enough to reshoot Murphy’s prerecorded segments...
  • 'Hairspray' Problem: Segregation Wasn't Fun

    If you plan on reading any reviews of "Hairspray," the new movie musical that opens today, prepare to be soaked by the word "fun." And it’s a perfectly apt description: "Hairspray" is an energetic, crowd-pleasing musical set in the swinging ‘60s, so it’s replete with bouffants, sherbet-colored culottes and the dangerous, auspicious "race music" of the era. A game John Travolta dons a massive fat suit to play repressed Baltimore laundress Edna Turnblad, who’s overprotective of her dance-feverish daughter, Tracy (effervescent newcomer Nikki Blonsky.) Yeah, there’s fun all over the place. In fact, the only thing threatening to ruin all the fun is the pesky civil-rights movement, which, inconveniently, happens to be taking place around the same time.In the 1988 John Waters film (not a musical, but the basis for the 2002 Broadway musical from which the new film is adapted), the zaftig Tracy longs to be featured on "The Corny Collins Show," Baltimore’s No. 1 afternoon teen-dance show, but...
  • Smashing Pumpkins Not So Smashing

    Between Michael Bay’s impossibly awful "Transformers" movie, Thomas Harris’s "Hannibal Rising" and the inevitable debut of trans-fat free Chicken McNuggets, it seems lately that there’s no  shortage of opportunities to obliterate our positive associations with once-reliable brands. So credit Billy Corgan of the sorta-kinda reformed Smashing Pumpkins for picking an apt title for the band’s first new album in seven years: "Zeitgeist." Corgan’s new album accurately represents the term, which translates roughly from German into "the spirit of the time," by reanimating the band that brought him worldwide fame, only to tarnish its legacy with an album that renders itself unlikable by trying too hard to be liked.Corgan’s Achilles' heel has always been his need for approval. Following the band's ambitious, practically operatic major-label debut, "Siamese Dream," in 1993, he spent the next seven years taking the Smashing Pumpkins through the standard motions of muting their sonic palette as...
  • The Trouble With Political Videos

    It was safe to assume that by now there would be numerous reinterpretations of the abrupt, clipped-off final scene of “The Sopranos.” It begs to be manipulated, mashed-up and parodied by the video-savvy merrymakers of the YouTube generation. But who could have predicted that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton would be among those with her own Web riff?Clinton’s campaign took to the Internet yesterday with a short spoof of the “Sopranos” scene, tailored to the former First Family. Hillary sits in a booth at a diner, mulling over the offerings in the booth’s jukebox. Bill breezes in and joins her, then is disappointed to learn that when she announces that she has “ordered for the table,” she’s referring to a basket of carrot sticks, not onion rings. All the while, there are cuts to the other customers in the diner, suggesting that they’re all waiting breathlessly for Hillary to find the right song. Naturally, this all leads up to that polarizing black screen, and viewers are told to...
  • Is Reality TV Over?

    Donald Trump has a natural gift for spinning bad news in his favor. When his reality competition show “The Apprentice” turned up conspicuously missing from NBC's fall line-up, he immediately pounced with a statement saying that he wasn't being fired from the show, he was quitting to work on another “major new TV venture.”Trump's “Apprentice” business partner, reality TV's eminent creative mind Mark Burnett, will have much more trouble untangling himself from the wreckage. While his biggest franchises—“Survivor” and “The Apprentice”--effectively revolutionized television and dominated ratings in their early seasons, Burnett's recent endeavors have not yielded the same returns.This summer, Burnett debuted two new series, “On the Lot,” on Fox, and “Pirate Master,” on CBS. “On the Lot,” an “Apprentice”-style competition with aspiring filmmakers, bowed to an audience of just 8.5 million viewers, which means it lost around 70 percent of the 30 million viewers who were watching the ...
  • Horror: The New Chick Flick?

    In 1980, Roger Ebert reviewed the brutal grindhouse horror movie “I Spit On Your Grave,” about a woman who takes revenge on the four men who savagely raped her. Ebert called the film “a vile bag of garbage” that is “without a shred of artistic distinction.” He said watching it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. When Hannah Forman, a 26-year-old amateur film theorist and feminist, saw the film for the first time in 2003, her reaction was quite different. “I felt really good after watching it,” Forman says.Having known about the film since her early teens, Forman was terrified to see it until, drawn in by intellectual curiosity, she gathered a group of friends to watch it. By the end, they were all cheering. “It was one of the first films I’d ever seen that showed a rape in natural lighting and from the victim’s perspective,” she says. “It’s not glamorized or sensationalized in any way. And it shows the woman getting revenge on the men who violated her, and she...
  • TV: The Last of 'Lost'--So Far

    SPOILER ALERT: This commentary contains huge spoilers about the third season of “Lost.” If you haven’t watched it yet and plan to at some point, it might be a good idea to click the handy Back button on your browser.There’s good news, more good news and bad news about this “Lost” commentary. The bad news first: if you never succumbed to the labyrinthine pleasure of “Lost,” or you, like many, threw up your hands in frustration and stopped watching, I’m about to tell you that you’ve made a huge mistake. The good news is that this is not going to be one of those holier-than-thou critic screeds where I guilt the public for what they’re watching, what they’re skipping and why. I’m not going to browbeat you for watching “Criminal Minds” when you could be watching “Lost.” If brooding Mandy Patinkin is your flavor, then by all means, eat up!And if you’ve tried to watch “Lost,” really tried, but got fed up by how generous the show is with mysteries and how stingy it is with answers and used...
  • Bjork Breaks Out of Her Shell on New Album

    Despite an international cachet and otherworldly aura, Bjork has usually created music that looked inward and created the world as a subliminal snow globe—ornately beautiful, acutely observed, but limited. Less than 10 minutes into “Volta,” her sixth full-length album, the snow globe’s glass is broken, its content spilling in every direction. “Lust for comfort suffocates the soul/This relentless restlessness liberates me,” she sings in the aptly titled “Wanderlust,” one of several new tracks that finds Bjork vaulting out of her comfort zone into the territory of the political provocateur. Although Bjork insists “Volta” is not an angry record, merely an extroverted one—she’s never sounded more defiant. On “Declare Independence,” she offers a rousing salvo about the treatment of Danes living in Greenland, but written vaguely enough to galvanize any disenfranchised group. “Declare independence! Don’t let them do that to you! Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing! Tear off their...
  • TV: Brawling Buildup to a Title Fight

    When co-workers ask me, "Who do you like in the playoffs?" or "How about them Yankees?" I usually say something like, "I'm not really into sports." But to simply say that I'm not into sports does a disservice to the depth of my ignorance of the subject. The true answer would be more like, "Actually, the part of my brain that should be occupied by sports minutiae is instead occupied by a gaping abyss so deep and dark that eons could pass before a beam of light illuminated its outer reaches." But who has time to say all that before the elevator reaches the 16th floor?Despite my total ambivalence toward all things sports, I found myself in front of my television this weekend totally wrapped up in the behind-the-scenes conflict leading up to the May 5 light-middleweight boxing match between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. For its unprecedented four-part reality series "De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7," HBO sent cameras to document the boxers as they prepare to square off for the...
  • Is YouTube Losing Its Populist Appeal?

    Somewhere in America, there's a young person with a web camera, a broadband internet connection, and an enviable surplus of free time. All that kid was missing was a brass ring to reach for, the goal of having his video—the one of him detailing the reasons why Jessica Alba should marry him—lauded with a shiny figurine and adored by the masses. Now, with the folks at YouTube having awarded their first annual YouTube Video Awards, that kid has a tangible goal. The irony, though, is that the YouTube Video Awards will only continue the popular video site's descent into being just another corporate content provider.When Google purchased YouTube in October 2006 for more than $1.5 billion, the site's most fervent fans were concerned. Would there be policing of content? Would the little guys get squeezed out? Would it be another platform for major networks and studios? By keeping the look and feel of the site intact, YouTube was able to maintain the illusion that nothing under the hood had...
  • Music: Soul on Ice, And a Twist

    Amy Winehouse takes a while to warm up to new people, and until she does, she stammers—badly. "I'm. Really. Sorry," she says, pausing for what seems like a minute between each word. "It'll. Go away. Once I. Relax." This hardly seems like the British singer who's almost as well-known for her sharp tongue and alcohol-fueled antics as she is for her emotive soul music. But in a cozy rehearsal room in New York, Winehouse tries to gain composure by telling jokes and showing off her numerous tattoos: a naked lady, an anchor—she's got, like, 13 total. The nervous energy dissipates when the conversation turns to—naturally—her favorite drinks: "If I've just finished a show, champagne. If I'm depressed, champagne. If I'm really depressed ... anything."Now that's the Amy from the British tabloids, the brassy soul siren who punches people, the one who says Madonna is an ancient also-ran, the one who heckled U2's Bono during his acceptance speech at a British awards show. Winehouse, 23, is a...
  • Film Review: 'Black Snake Moan'

    There's no polite way to describe Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan," so let's get it over with. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lazarus, an old black bluesman who tries to cure Rae (Christina Ricci) of nymphomania by tethering her to his radiator with a steel chain. Revolted? Intrigued? Amused? If you checked all of the above, Brewer would be delighted. His film "Hustle & Flow" got two Oscar nominations (and won for best song) in 2005, but it also kicked up a lot of criticism that the story of a black pimp didn't need to be told, especially by a white director."Moan" raises the stakes with both its reverse slave imagery and its disturbing depiction of sex addiction. "Having a white girl chained up at a black man's house, that definitely seems manipulative," says Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity-training firm New Demographic. Brewer understands how the film seems confrontational—that's the point. "Craig wanted this film to be provocative," says Jackson, "but it's a...
  • Rattling His Chains

    There's no polite way to describe Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan," so let's get it over with. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lazarus, an old black bluesman who tries to cure Rae (Christina Ricci) of nymphomania by tethering her to his radiator with a steel chain. Revolted? Intrigued? Amused? If you checked all of the above, Brewer would be delighted. His film "Hustle & Flow" got two Oscar nominations (and won for best song) in 2005, but it also kicked up a lot of criticism that the story of a black pimp didn't need to be told, especially by a white director."Moan" raises the stakes with both its reverse slave imagery and its disturbing depiction of sex addiction. "Having a white girl chained up at a black man's house, that definitely seems manipulative," says Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity-training firm New Demographic. Brewer understands how the film seems confrontational--that's the point. "Craig wanted this film to be provocative," says Jackson, "but it's a...
  • Fox Tries Funny

    Back when I lived in Atlanta, I spent my Sunday mornings with Ike Newkirk, host of "Open Line," one of the few liberal talk-radio shows on southern airwaves. Newkirk's format is simple: he opines on all things far-left (Diebold and Carlyle Group are among the frequently-used buzzwords), and callers either agree wholeheartedly or are treated to his wrath. While I didn't always agree with Newkirk's views, I always approved of his verbal pummeling. My favorite Newkirk exchange was with a caller who was fed up with the host's belly-aching over the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election:Caller: I'm sick and tired of hearing people talk about how Bush cheated. It doesn't matter now. We have to get past it, stop being sore losers and get behind our president.Newkirk: Sir, let me ask you something, did you vote?Caller: No, I didn't. I was busy moving.Newkirk: How long did it take you to move?Caller: About two weeks.Newkirk: Sir, you are an idiot.Caller: What? Why do we have to resort to...
  • Family: Sleeping With Dino

    Which sounds cooler: "pass the popcorn" or "pass the pterodactyl egg"? If your kids are begging you to take them to the hit family film "Night at the Museum," you can do them one better--an after-dark museum adventure of their own. Natural-history museums across the country offer sleepover events, which allow kids to be like the film's bumbling security guard, exploring exhibits armed with flashlights and their imaginations. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has been so inundated with interest that its sleepovers are sold out until April. At its events, which are scheduled through June, kids camp out under the giant blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life (ages 8-12, $79 per person; amnh.org ). Chicago's Field Museum offers its Dozin' With the Dinos event on Jan. 12, where participants will hear stories from night watchmen (ages 6-12, $47 per person; fieldmuseum.org ). Dinosaur enthusiasts will thrill at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's year...
  • Tea: Red Alert on Aisle Six

    Choosing between black, white and green teas has always been a bit confusing--but now you'll be seeing red. Red tea, that is. The South African import is gaining popularity in the United States, thanks to new launches from Snapple and Honest Tea (which debuts its blend this spring). They both follow a hit Top Shelf Foods line from 2005. "It's exciting to see it gain broader acceptance," says Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman. But while green tea prided itself on its antioxidant qualities--eventually appearing in toothpaste and shampoo--red tea's biggest selling point is its sweeter taste.The "green" party counters that red tea isn't even a real tea--it's brewed from fermented rooibos , an herb unrelated to the plant from which traditional teas originate. "Red tea has no relation to traditional tea other than that it looks like it," says Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA. There's more. The Chinese sometimes refer to black tea as red tea, and when unfermented rooibos...
  • Stepping Out of Line?

    During the making of “Stomp the Yard,” the new movie set in the world of black fraternities and their traditional style of step-dancing, producer Will Packer made authenticity his top priority. “I was on the set every day screaming about how everything had to be real,” Packer says. “I went and put up all my old pictures, paddles and paraphernalia so that everybody could get a feel for this.” As a 13-year member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Packer wanted to share his passion for the country’s oldest African-American fraternity with the cast and crew by draping the set with the symbols of his experience. “I kept saying, it has to be right, because if it isn’t, people within these organizations will know.” Yet, of all the places Packer displayed Alpha Phi Alpha’s symbols during the production of “Stomp the Yard,” there’s one place from which the symbols are now conspicuously missing—the film’s final cut.Prior to the film’s release, Packer and business partner Rob Hardy, who pledged with Packer...
  • Sympathy for the Devil

    Dexter Morgan is a natural-born lady-killer. He's suave and sun-kissed, charming, gainfully employed, great with kids and sweet to his girlfriend. All things considered, Dexter would make a perfect standing lunch date, at least for anyone who considers a congenital desire to commit murder an acceptable character trait.That's the premise of Showtime's new dramatic series "Dexter." Michael C. Hall, formerly of "Six Feet Under," plays Dexter, a police forensics expert in Miami who, in his spare time, stalks and kills murderers who have somehow escaped justice. If it sounds dark, that's because it is. It's also, surprisingly enough, funny, sweet and intriguing, adding it to an ever-growing list of television shows whose central characters traverse moral boundaries that most viewers would never cross.The TV antihero trend began, to a large degree, with the kingpin of sympathetic bad guys, the emotionally troubled mobster Tony Soprano (chart). Pay-cable channels have long had the latitude...
  • Music Collectors Rare Recordings Go Digital

    Looking for the 1986 debut of reggae band African Head Charge on Apple's iTunes? You'd sooner find Microsoft Office. To that end, avid record collector Keith Abrahamsson has launched Anthology Recordings (anthologyrecordings.com), the first digital reissue label, as a marketplace for obscure sounds. Like labels such as The Numero Group, Anthology will sell handpicked rarities, but in MP3 format only, with tracks priced at 98 cents. A market exists; Oliver Wang runs Soul Sides, an audio blog for rare funk, and boasts 40,000 visitors per month. Numero cofounder Ken Shipley is not sure digital rarities will sell to collectors, who generally like tangible objects: "To succeed at this, there has to be some physical component," he says. But Anthology may be perfect for those who don't want to buy vinyl to get into the groove.
  • Lessons of Jonestown

    In November 1978, 913 people died in a shocking mass murder-suicide, and 28 years later, the Jonestown Massacre still remains the most chilling example of faith turned against the faithful. The group was led by the charismatic Jim Jones, who started his church, the Peoples Temple, in Indiana. He then moved the group to the San Francisco area, and ultimately to a desolate area of Guyana, where the tragedy played out as a concerned group showed up to investigate. Leo Ryan, a California congressman, led the delegation, and was killed by Jones’s guards when he attempted to fly defectors out of the site. Hours later, Jones instructed the group to drink cups of grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide.In a challenging new documentary that opens in limited release this week, “Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple,” acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson reconstructs the Jonestown story. From its seemingly auspicious beginning to its horrific end, Norman uses the testimonial of 40...
  • The Man Behind the Muppet

    It’s probably silly to walk into Kevin Clash’s office expecting to see anything other than a grown-up’s office—a desk, a phone, a computer and an ergonomic chair. But because Clash has spent the last two decades providing the voice and personality of Elmo, “Sesame Street"'s wildly popular 3½-year-old red monster, there’s the expectation of something a bit more exotic, perhaps a red fur-covered chaise lounge. Instead, there are walls painted with a muted teal and an unspectacular office setup, though the huddle of eight Daytime Emmys (less the one he left in Baltimore) tends to draw attention to itself.Exploding expectations is so large a part of Clash’s life now that he could legitimately list it on his resume. Many people wouldn’t expect the person who voices Elmo to be 45 years old, or tall, or broad-shouldered, or male, or black, but Clash is all those things. Of course, he’s also profoundly successful and grateful that a certain red Muppet fell into his lap.Well, actually, it...
  • Newsmakers

    Hanks dons another creative hat to produce the animated feature "The Ant Bully." He spoke with Nicki Gostin.My son brought a book called "The Ant Bully" home from the school library, and as we were reading it I thought, "This would make a wonderful movie." So the next day I optioned it. He was 5 at the time, and now he's 10, so it's been a long process.No, but I was closely involved in the script. We had long discussions about whether the ants should be standing up.No, but I remember when we lived in Nevada there were two types of ants, black and red, and I remember putting them in a box and watching them fight.No! But I was there opening night with a bunch of roses, and I took photos of the audience from backstage.I don't think the producers would really go for that.Oh, yes, there is a cross- dressing role in my résumé.Yes, and I remember watching the original episode and thinking, "Man, that cheerleader is cute." So not only do I end up marrying the cheerleader but a leggy...
  • Newsmakers: Rufus Wainwright

    This week Rufus Wainwright re-creates Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert--right in Carnegie Hall. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Nicki Gostin.Rufus Wainwright: About five years ago they reissued the album. At the time I was depressed about the state of the world. But whenever I put this record on, I was reminded of all that was great about American culture. I also realized I was singing along and hitting the notes. So I figured, why don't I just do this?Yeah. We'll do it in the barn or Carnegie Hall. Whichever one.Right, right. Needless to say, Judy Garland means a lot of things to a lot of people, her family included. I'm definitely mucking about in shark-infested waters. But I think Liza will come around.Yeah, we're working on a film, more or less about my life.We've had dinners. Kate is definitely a force to be reckoned with, whether it's her beauty or talent or command. It takes the pressure off me. We don't work the same room.It's god-awful. It's really Biblical how...