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Unpacking on-screen representation in 'The Godfather'


If you're interested in pop culture, here's a word you probably hear these days - representation, as in representation matters. Or maybe there's a debate or argument that you've tapped into over whether something or another constitutes misrepresentation. Anyway, this has become a recurring theme in pop culture, and so it stands to reason that's something our next guest has been thinking about. We're talking about Aisha Harris. She's the co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. And for the past year, Aisha has been in the archives, working on a special documentary series about the long history of these kinds of debates pre-social media. The series focuses on three films - "The Godfather," "Basic Instinct" and "The Color Purple."


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter's to be married and you ask me to do murder.


WAYNE KNIGHT: (As John Correli) Did you kill Mr. Boz, Ms. Tramell?

SHARON STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) I'd have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill somebody the way I described it in my book. I'd be announcing myself as the killer. I'm not stupid.


OPRAH WINFREY: (As Sofia) All my life, I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain't safe in a family of men. But I ain't never thought I had to fight in my own house.

MARTIN: The three-part series is called Screening Ourselves, and the episodes began hitting our Pop Culture Happy Hour feeds last Sunday. So we called Aisha Harris to tell us more about it. Aisha Harris, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking with us.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So lay out for us the origin story of this project and why you wanted to take pop culture backwards, as it were.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, this is a very long time coming, like several years in the making. I had this idea because we've been having these conversations about representation on screen, and they've played out over the last few years largely on social media. And I wanted to kind of look back at the way they occurred when we didn't have social media, and also to sort of be able to look at how it's not just now that we've been talking about these things. People have always been concerned about how their culture, how they feel they have been represented on screen.

MARTIN: So you've chosen three classics, beginning with a film that is widely considered to be a masterpiece, "The Godfather." So tell us about the controversy there.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think with that movie, obviously, it's "The Godfather," people think one of the greatest movies of all time. It's got Oscars. Who doesn't love "The Godfather"? But in my research, I realized that there are some people, especially Italian Americans, who feel as though "The Godfather" is kind of like an albatross. It looms over how their culture has been represented. And so it felt like a good first film to start with for this series, because it is such a classic, but it's not necessarily an unassailable classic.

MARTIN: Your next two episodes bring us to the '80s and the '90s, and you had a deep dive into the off screen drama around "Basic Instinct" and "The Color Purple." And I think a lot of people have seen both of these films, but I'm really interested in your reporting. And so why don't we start with "Basic Instinct"? And this is a clip from its most famous scene.


MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Nick Curran) You like playing games, don't you?

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) I have a degree in psychology. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

MARTIN: OK. Now, people remember Sharon Stone being interrogated in that white dress. Now, she wrote a memoir where she talked about that scene from her perspective. But tell me about what your reporting indicated about this. Tell me - flesh this out for us.

HARRIS: Yeah. So this movie had so many things going on, and so many different people were upset for various reasons. But my main focus on the film within the show is that we're talking about how this movie came out. She was - her character, Catherine Tramell, is a suspected murderer, and she's also openly and unapologetically queer. She's bisexual. And this was a time when bisexuals and queer people in general were not very visible on screen or - and if they were, they were often visible for all the negative, wrong reasons. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people were on the rise.

So while all of that's happening, you have this queer would-be murderer and all these other women around her who are also queer, who might be murderers or are proven to be murderers. And so it really played into a stereotype that upset a lot of people, including groups like GLAAD and Queer Nation. And so over the course of the production, there was a ton of protesting. And we were actually able to interview a couple people who were directly involved in those protests. So it was really fun to - and enlightening to be able to speak to people who were there and talk about why this movie affected them in that way.

MARTIN: So you've got one more piece, and it concludes the series with "The Color Purple." Tell me about that. What was the drama around "The Color Purple"?

HARRIS: Well, for the first time, "The Color Purple," this movie, was representing women - Black women onscreen in a mainstream movie where their sort of pain and their joy and just sisterly bonds were being portrayed. And that came to some extent at the expense - at least some Black men would feel this way, at the expense of them, because of the fact that if you know "The Color Purple," you know that the character of Celie, she is she goes through a lot of trauma, and all of the trauma is at the hands of the men in her life. And so you have this time in the '80s where there's a lot of hand-wringing around the Black family, the state of the Black family. Incarcerations are going up. Single Black motherhood was becoming this, like, very - concern amongst both Black people and America at large. And so when you have this movie come out, there is a lot of tension because there is this feeling that this was just kind of tapping into a lot of those stereotypes that we were seeing on the nightly news.

MARTIN: The time you spent digging into this history, do you think that it is informing or will change how you understand pop culture now going forward?

HARRIS: I mean, even now, as I'm finishing up these episodes, I'm seeing all of these parallels to things that are happening in the discourse in pop culture. And for me, it's just made it so much more stark to see how these same conversations were happening. And they may not have been happening in the same way. But they don't go away. They don't go away easily. But I also think it's just really useful to be able to look back on these things and then see how we are still wrestling with them today.

MARTIN: That's my colleague, Aisha Harris. We're talking about her new documentary series, Screening Ourselves. It's a trilogy of deep dives that began with "The Godfather." She looks at "Basic Instinct" next. And it concludes with "The Color Purple" next weekend. And you can find it in the Pop Culture Happy Hour feed. Aisha Harris, thank you so much for talking with us. This is a really interesting project. Thanks so much for talking about it.

HARRIS: Thank you, too. It was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.