Something about the way the director Jane Campion went overboard on Sunday to identify with, then insult, Venus and Serena Williams at an awards show brought to mind a night of botched fanciness that happened to me. A couple Fridays ago, I went to see some art: a Faith Ringgold retrospective at the New Museum in the afternoon, with friends; Norm Lewis singing at Carnegie Hall in the evening. (That was a solo trip.) For both, I wore a suit.
The Ringgold show requires three floors and includes her 1967 masterpiece “American People Series # 20: Die,” a blunt, bloody racial-rampage frieze that would be pure physical comedy about the era’s racial cataclysms were it not for the helpless terror in the faces she’s painted (Black men, women and children; white men, women and children). The scale of the canvas helps. It’s huge. Ringgold has always painted Black women in a range of moods, feelings, conditions, beauty. She gives them faces that feature both personal serenity and indicting alarm.
I planted myself in a tight corridor that featured three works at the alarm end of things – the “Slave Rape” trio, from 1972. Each is a warm, sizable canvas of a woman nude and agape, framed by patchwork quilting, a signature of Ringgold. I was taking my time with one called “Slave Rape # 2: Run You Might Get Away” – the woman is mid-flight, loosely shrouded by leaves, a big gold ring in each ear – when two strangers (women, white) parked themselves between me and the piece and continued a conversation I had heard them having in an adjacent gallery. They noticed neither me nor the depicted distress nor my engagement with it. I waited more than a minute before waving my hand, a gesture that seemed to irritate them.
“Is something wrong ?,” one stranger asked.
“You’re in my way,” I told her.
“Please accept our deepest apologies, ”said her friend. If a middle ground exists between sincerity and sarcasm, these two had just planted a flag. But they did move, though not immediately, lest I relish some kind of relocation victory, and kept their talk of real estate and art ownership within earshot.
After a drink with my friends I left for Carnegie Hall. A cab made sense. One pulled up, and the driver (male, brown) took a look at me, then noticed a white woman hailing a taxi up ahead and drifted her way, instead. When I jogged over to ask him what just happened – Is something wrong? – I was given no acknowledgment in the way only a guilty cabby can achieve. I chased the car half a block to photograph a plate number that you’d have to be Weegee to get just right. I’m not Weegee.
I’d never been to Carnegie Hall. And I liked the idea that Norm Lewis was going to break me in. He played Olivia Pope’s senator ex on “Scandal” and one of the vets in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.” He’s got a luscious, flexible baritone that I’d only ever encountered in recorded concerts on PBS. That night, backed by the New York Pops, he gave Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Marvin Gaye the polished jewel treatment and pumped “Ya Got Trouble” with enough breathless gusto to make you wonder, with all due respect to Hugh Jackman, why the current “Music Man” revival is not starring him.
As a solo performer, this was Lewis’ first show at Carnegie Hall, too. And people were anxious to see him and their beloved Pops. In a queue in the lobby before the show, one such person (woman, white) was making a point to push past me when I turned to ask if she was all right.
“We’re going to will-call,” she said of herself and the gentleman she was with.
“Ma’am. I think we all are, ”I said.
“We’re members. Are you? ” she asked.
I lied, hoping a yes would stanch her aggression.
“Of the Pops? ”
She had me.
“I like Norm Lewis,” I told her.
“We love the Pops.”
I was thinking about my night out a week later when one of the world’s greatest filmmakers saluted two of the world’s greatest athletes in an acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards. Jane Campion had been given the directing prize for a sneaky-deep ranch drama called “The Power of the Dog.” From the stage, Campion (woman, white) saluted Venus and Serena Williams and announced that she had taken up tennis but her body had told her to stop. In her nervous excitement, Campion was charming. She then took a curious note of her plight as a woman in the film industry by informing the Williamses that they’ve got nothing on her. “You are such marvels,” she said, through a grin. “However, you don’t play against the guys like I have to.”
The Williams sisters were in the room that evening because a smart, tangy movie about their family, “King Richard,” was in the nominations mix, alongside Campion’s. “King Richard” is not about the time in 2001 when a California crowd booed and slurred Venus and Serena and their father, Richard, at a top tennis tournament. It’s not about the many mischaracterizations of their bodies, skills and intent in the press and by their peers. It’s not about the insidiously everlasting confusion of one sister for the other, the sort of thing that, just a few weeks ago, took place on a page of this newspaper. It’s not even about their fight, Venus’s particularly, to bring women’s prize money even with men’s. “King Richard” is about how the sisters ’parents molded and loved and coached them into the sort of people who can handle sharp backhands and backhanded compliments with the same power and poise.
Even though Campion’s errant backhand had flown wide, the room lurched into cheers. Some of the applause came from Serena Williams, who has watched many a shot sail long. I had to desist further thought about the meaning of Campion’s aside. It was too confused. Was this a wish for the establishment of gendered guardrails for directors at award shows or the elimination of such distinctions in sports? Are there no men to be contended with in tennis? The line separating argument from accusation and accusation from self-aggrandizement was murky. I thought instead about the costs of the murk.
Sunday afternoon, the Williamses got dressed up to celebrate some art. And somebody stood before them and challenged the validity of their membership, here in Campion’s restricted vision of sisterhood. The next day, Campion gushed an apology. These slips and slights and presumptions have a way of lingering, though. Their underlying truth renders them contrition-proof. I had every intention of keeping my date with Faith and Norm to myself. These incidents aren’t rare in fancyland, and therefore don’t warrant a constant spotlight because standing in its glare is exhausting. But Venus. Her face does something as Campion speaks. A knowing cringe. She and her family came out to soak up more of the praise being lavished on art about their lives. They were invitees turned, suddenly, into interlopers, presenting one minute, plunged through a trap door the next. Faith Ringgold would recognize the discomfort. She painted it over and over. Run you might get away. But you probably won’t.