South African ‘Queen Sono’ Is A Savvy Secret Agent — And A First For Netflix

by Michel Martin

Queen Sono is both a classic spy thriller and a ground-breaking entertainment endeavor. The drama is Netflix’s first commissioned script-to-screen series from Africa, and the first such show to get major distribution in the U.S.

Filmed across the continent with a diverse cast featuring multiple languages, the show stars Pearl Thusi as a South African secret agent with a complicated past.

Creator and executive producer Kagiso Lediga has a background in stand up comedy and says his jump to a crime drama is “just a graduation of storytelling.”

“Stand up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don’t require crews and lights and cameras,” he says. “It’s just you, and the mic, and a spotlight.”

There are a lot more moving parts now, and he acknowledges that being the first comes with some pressure.

“If you do stand up, you get into a room, you perform and you’re … representing yourself … ” he says. “People laugh? Great. People, don’t laugh? You just avoid eye contact and keep it moving.”

But when you’re making the first Netflix original fully produced in Africa?

“Everybody’s coming with this expectation,” he says. “It’s like what is the first African original? … What are we going to see?”

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to tell a spy story

I’ve always loved the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carré-type of spy stuff all the way to James Bond. And you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. … You get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, that the world doesn’t necessarily have like a context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there with kids that are covered in flies. And I thought: Africa’s way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through a spy story where you have like this great female agent who traverses the continent?

On featuring a female protagonist

For African women and for little girls to see a woman do that — you know, punching people in the face — because [those are] the kind of roles that men generally play on this continent. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that’s empowered and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for like a 15 year old, 16 year old seeing Queen Sono, you know, that’s a great image. That’s, I think, something empowering for them going forward. That was sort of a driving force for me.

It is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere.

On Queen Sono being haunted by the murder of her mother, an anti-apartheid activist

Our recent history is apartheid. And it kind of is like the ghost — it is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It’s pervasive in general society. And for me, it’s very important that that narrative doesn’t get lost.

You know, like for young people who … might have been born 10 years ago, for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while, you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don’t sort of explain why that is, people are just gonna think that’s how God intended it. … The universe just likes it that way, you know?

And so I felt in this piece of entertainment, it’s important to tell that history. … I thought it would be like a cool thing to imbue the story with the history and see how that goes.

On creating the first Netflix original series where the whole production is centered in Africa

So you come with a spy thing and people recognize all the tropes, then they’ll go: ‘It’s not original.’ … And then you get people who get it and they’re like: ‘Oh, my God, this is unbelievable to see ourselves, to hear our languages.’ …

So then at some point you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it, because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk, because you can’t please everybody, but you’re going to try to make something very original and fun — and I think we succeeded in that.

On how he’s doing in Johannesburg, during the coronavirus pandemic

We’re good. In my town, it’s illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old. So walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It’s winter — winter’s starting. So that could also be bad news because it’s when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation people are staying at home. We’re doing our best.

Netflix Promises To Quit Smoking On (Most) Original Programming

by Vanessa Romo

There’s a scene in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things where the skeptical police chief, Chief Jim Hopper, is at his desk chomping on an apple. He listens to a theory that a local teen may have been kidnapped by Russian spies. Fed up, he spits out the fruit, sticks a cigarette in his mouth and lights up.

But Netflix has now pledged to cut down on moments like this: The streaming content giant announced Wednesday that it will stub out depictions of smoking in future original programming aimed at younger viewers. The change won’t apply to existing shows.

The announcement comes on the heels of a new report by the anti-smoking group Truth Initiative released earlier this week. The study looked at several of the most popular programs among 15-to-24-year-olds and found that the amount of tobacco imagery in them has more than tripled in the past year.

The group’s research shows smoking and e-cigarette depictions were most prevalent on Netflix, blowing away portrayals on cable or broadcast TV. The biggest offender? Season 2 of Stranger Things. The researchers found that 100% of the episodes they analyzed of the show — a supernatural story about adolescents, set in the 1980s — included tobacco use.

The Truth Initiative timed the release of its now-annual report to coincide with Thursday’s debut of season 3 of Stranger Things.

In a statement, Netflix told Variety that it will not show smoking or e-cigarette use in future shows with ratings of TV-14 or below, as well as all films rated PG-13 or below, except for “reasons of historical or factual accuracy.” The company added that it would also limit depictions of smoking in projects with higher age ratings, “unless it’s essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it’s character-defining (historically or culturally important.)”

Netflix also said information about smoking will be included as part of its ratings.

The Truth Initiative noted that the pervasive rise of smoking on the small screen could pose a significant threat to a new generation of young Americans.

“Based on estimated viewership of these programs, results suggest that approximately 28 million young people were exposed to tobacco through television and streaming programs in these most popular shows alone,” the group said. “That exposure is a significant public health concern, because viewing tobacco use in on-screen entertainment media is a critical factor associated with young people starting to smoke.”

A 2014 report by the U.S. Surgeon General concluded “an R-rating for movies with smoking would avert one million tobacco deaths among today’s children and adolescents.”

NPR’s Andrew Limbong contributed to this story.

Rumors Of The Death Of The Rom-Com Are Greatly Exaggerated

The debate about whether romantic comedies are — or ever were — dead is an old one by now. In fact, I wrote about it five years ago.

It’s a sad but true fact that genres that fall between giant big-budget tentpoles and itty-bitty indies have receded in the last 20 years or so: the adult drama, the sports movie, the live-action family movie, and yes, the romantic comedy. It’s not a complete vanishing: Rom-coms continue to be made, and they continue to be recognized. 2017’s The Big Sick is an example that managed both a sizable audience and an Oscar nomination (for best original screenplay).

But we certainly don’t have the abundance of sunny rom-coms that we did from, say, the late ’80s through the early aughts: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, yes, but also While You Were Sleeping and Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Maybe it’s changes to the business, maybe it’s the declining quality of scripts (does the genre have a new Nora Ephron? — of course not, nor could it ever), or maybe it’s that we don’t have the durable stars we did then who want to work in such a likability-driven form.

Come to think of it, maybe we’ve even made it nearly impossible to have those stars. To quote that piece from five years ago that’s even truer now:

Take note: Jennifer Lawrence is no longer neatly on the right side of this equation. Neither is Emma Stone. In fact, Lawrence recently interviewed Stone for Elle and — guess what! — it wasn’t universally received as adorable.

Still, we find ourselves in the middle of what many of us hope is a rom-com resurgence. The current box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians is partly a romantic comedy, though it’s not the classic meet-cute kind. It’s the meet-the-parents kind. What it does have is swoon-worthy beauty, wacky friends and a makeover, all of which are classic rom-com elements.

Much of the action at the moment, though, is on Netflix, where they’re cranking out what a lot of us loved in the ’90s — straight-up, unapologetic, sparkly-eyed rom-coms.

Note well: this isn’t to say they’re all good. The runaway winner for quality is To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA romance, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. It’s impeccably cast (which is half the battle), it’s well written and directed, and it has brought out in viewers what Alanna Bennett at BuzzFeed has cleverly — and accurately — termed “radical softness.”

Set It Up, which was released in mid-June, was also chatted up favorably on social media, although it’s not nearly as deeply felt or as well executed as To All The Boys. Its story of a couple of assistants trying to force a romance between their bosses was appealing mostly because it was such pure romantic comedy, such pure artifice that you rarely see anymore in service of the real center of any rom-com, which is Cute People Flirting.

The Kissing Booth, starring Joey King as a girl stuck between a possessive best friend and his possessive older brother, has its partisans. Given that its story romanticizes both violent tempers and boys fighting for control of a girl’s sexuality, I am not one of those partisans. (By which I mean to say: It’s very bad.)

But! The good and the bad often appear together. If Netflix is going to crank out original movies along these lines — thus dropping what once seemed to be its plan to make its reputation for original films on the back of Adam Sandler — then they won’t all be successes. Theatrically released romantic comedies weren’t either, which you know if you ever saw The Ugly Truth. (I hope you didn’t.) What matters is staying in the game.

What’s more, Netflix’s first best rom-com meant a lot to another underserved audience: The one that doesn’t want romantic comedies to be dominated by white casts and writers, as they were in previous “golden ages” (which is not to dismiss films that broke that pattern, like Brown Sugar and Hitch). Jenny Han wrote a lovely piecefor The New York Times that was in part about how hard it was to find a production company that wanted to have her heroine, Lara Jean — who was Asian-American in the book — played by an Asian-American actress. Netflix does some things well and some things poorly, but it does seem to have an interest in wriggling into spaces where more content would be welcome (as with comedy specials and baking shows). If that — and the success of To All The Boys — brings a broader variety of love interests to the screen, then all the better. (So far, this little mini-run has entirely heterosexual couples; there’s no reason that needs to be the case in the long run, and I’d bet it won’t be.)

So fear not for the future of the romantic comedy — the collision in a public place where people drop their possessions, the mistaken identity, or the idea of pretending to date your obvious perfect match. Don’t worry about the encouraging sidekick, the wise older person with their own rich history, or the fight that takes place in the rain. The meaningful glance, the misunderstanding, and the fancy party where the person who seemed ordinary suddenly seems extraordinary? They will all do fine. They will all persevere. The screen might get smaller, but the heart will swell, just the same.

Here’s To The Romantic Comedy Pleasures Of ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Well, it’s safe to say Netflix giveth and Netflix taketh away.

Only a week after the Grand Takething that was Insatiable, the streamer brings along To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a fizzy and endlessly charming adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romantic comedy novel.

In the film, we meet Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), who’s in high school and is the middle sister in a tight group of three: There’s also Margot, who’s about to go to college abroad, and Kitty, a precocious (but not too precocious) tween. Unlike so many teen-girl protagonists who war with their sisters or don’t understand them or barely tolerate them until the closing moments where a bond emerges, Lara Jean considers her sisters to be her closest confidantes — her closest allies. They live with their dad (John Corbett); their mom, who was Korean, died years ago, when Kitty was very little.

Lara Jean has long pined for the boy next door, Josh (Israel Broussard), who is Margot’s boyfriend, and … you know what? This is where it becomes a very well-done execution of romantic comedy tricks, and there’s no point in giving away the whole game. Suffice it to say that a small box of love letters Lara Jean has written to boys she had crushes on manages to make it out into the world — not just her letter to Josh, but her letter to her ex-best-friend’s boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo), her letter to a boy she knew at model U.N., her letter to a boy from camp, and her letter to a boy who was kind to her at a dance once.

This kind of mishap only happens in romantic comedies (including those written by Shakespeare), as do stories where people pretend to date — which, spoiler alert, also happens in Lara Jean’s journey. But there’s a reason those things endure, and that’s because when they’re done well, they’re as appealing as a solid murder mystery or a rousing action movie.

So much of the well-tempered rom-com comes down to casting, and Condor is a very, very good lead. She has just the right balance of surety and caution to play a girl who doesn’t suffer from traditionally defined insecurity as much as a guarded tendency to keep her feelings to herself — except when she writes them down. She carries Han’s portrayal of Lara Jean as funny and intelligent, both independent and attached to her family.

In a way, Centineo — who emerges as the male lead — has a harder job, because Peter isn’t as inherently interesting as Lara Jean. Ultimately, he is The Boy, in the way so many films have The Girl, and it is not his story. But he is what The Boy in these stories must always be: He is transfixed by her, transparently, in just the right way.

There is something so wonderful about the able, loving, unapologetic crafting of a finely tuned genre piece. Perhaps a culinary metaphor will help: Consider the fact that you may have had many chocolate cakes in your life, most made with ingredients that include flour and sugar and butter and eggs, cocoa and vanilla and so forth. They all taste like chocolate cake. Most are not daring; the ones that are often seem like they’re missing the point. But they deliver — some better than others, but all with similar aims — on the pleasures and the comforts and the pattern recognition in your brain that says “this is a chocolate cake, and that’s something I like.”

When crafting a romantic comedy, as when crafting a chocolate cake, the point is to respect and lovingly follow a tradition while bringing your own touches and your own interpretations to bear. Han’s characters — via the Sofia Alvarez screenplay and Susan Johnson’s direction — flesh out a rom-com that’s sparkly and light as a feather, even as it brings along plenty of heart.

And yes, this is an Asian-American story by an Asian-American writer. It’s emphatically true, and not reinforced often enough, that not every romantic comedy needs white characters and white actors. Anyone would be lucky to find a relatable figure in Lara Jean; it’s even nicer that her family doesn’t look like most of the ones on American English-language TV.

The film is precisely what it should be: pleasing and clever, comforting and fun and romantic. Just right for your Friday night, your Saturday afternoon, and many lazy layabout days to come.