In a late-night victory speech, President-elect Donald Trump called his base “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and he promised they “will be forgotten no longer.” His line embodied the spirit of 2016: This was the year that nationwide events put a spotlight on plights that can no longer be overlooked. Beyond Trump’s core base of white working-class voters, there was an assortment of marginalized communities making headlines, from the gay Latinos targeted at an Orlando nightclub to the black men confronted by police in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul; from indigenous peoples protesting a pipeline in the Dakotas to those fleeing climate change in Alaska and Louisiana; and from hijab-wearing victims of hate crimes to unemployed veterans.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, because where there is strife there is also powerful art to make sense of it. And 2016’s collection of books, movies, TV, plays, music and other works was no different, helping us see these groups, to understand their grievances and develop a response. After polling our staff, here is the art that most moved us at NationSwell in 2016.
Nonfiction: “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger
Why do we, in modern society, no longer share the sense of community that our species relied on for most of its existence? To answer this question, journalist Sebastian Junger delved into recent times when we’ve acted like our old tribal selves, whether that was cities responding to disaster or soldiers forming a tight-knit platoon.
Honorable Mentions: “Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family” by Daniel Bergner; “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance; “How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS” by David France
Essay Collection: “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks” by Terry Tempest Williams
Perfectly timed for the park service’s centennial, the author and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams writes about a dozen different national parks, from reminiscing about family trips to the Grand Tetons to reporting on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s effect on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, among others. As global temperatures rise, this volume proves why America’s wild spaces are so important.
Honorable Mentions: “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman” by Lindy West; “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” by Jeff Chang
Graphic Novel: “March: Book Three” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Rep. John Lewis is the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, the rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. In this final, epic installment of a three-part graphic memoir, the civil rights icon recalls the KKK’s bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, his beating by police on the bridge from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Honorable Mention: “The White Donkey: Terminal Lance” by Maximilian Uriarte
Bathed in cool blues, this beautiful film follows Chiron, a gay black boy reared by a crack-addicted mother in Miami’s housing projects, over the course of his youth: from a silent child who seeks comfort from the neighborhood drug dealer to a high schooler coming to terms with his sexuality. Based on a semi-autobiographical script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the movie depicts a narrative that rarely makes it onto movie screens.
Documentary: “The 13th”
The 13th Amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States.” In other words, the 1865 amendment outlawed slavery for every group but convicts. As Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” shows in this searing film, African-Americans remain overrepresented in the nation’s prisons due to a string of deliberate policy choices that effectively shackled a race.
TV: “Orange Is the New Black”
The Netflix original about the women locked up at Litchfield has always been a favorite of ours, but the tragic fourth season elevated this series’ importance. Culminating in a (spoiler!) revolt by the inmates and the guards’ devastating response, the show manages to tackle the worst elements of mass incarceration — overcrowding, mental illness, solitary confinement, rape, race relations — with honesty and its signature humor.
Album: “Coloring Book” by Chance the Rapper
Combining gospel choir hymns with lines of verse, Chance the Rapper’s mixtape overlays two black musical traditions, remixing faith into song with a dash of social activism. On the song “Angels,” Chance raps about making Chicago’s streets safer for his infant daughter. (He’s not all talk, either; the musician has organized coat drives, led a voter-registration drive and launched a social media campaign that resulted in 42 hours of no reported shootings in his hometown.)
Podcast: The Axe Files
David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama’s presidential campaigns, has interviewed more than 100 of the nation’s key political players, with folks like Sen. Tim Kaine, former Gov. Deval Patrick and former FCC chair Newtown Minow. Scuttling partisan sound-bites, the hour-long conversations focus on how decision-makers’ pasts shaped their worldview.
Art Exhibition: Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
The Birmingham-born painter Kerry James Marshall’s breakout picture was a crudely rendered portrait of an African-American artist: a literal black shadow of a man whose figure barely emerges from the dark background. It’s a reflection of blacks’ place in art history: hardly visible. The 77 images in this collection, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, make a valiant attempt to revise history, showing the black experience in settings like barbershops and housing projects. With these works, Marshall proves himself a worthy addition to the canon of “master” figurative painters.
Play: Notes From the Field by Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith has pioneered a form of investigative theater: She records interviews, then acts out the conversation verbatim onstage. In her latest, a tough look into the school-to-prison pipeline, she proposes that we live in an “epic moment,” in which the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police (as in Baltimore) and a white supremacist (in Charleston) afford a unique opportunity to redirect America’s investment in incarceration to education.
Honorable Mentions: The Gabriels: An Election Year in the Life of One Family by Richard Nelson; “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage
Let’s fix this country together.