When it’s all said and done, 2016 will be long remembered as the year everything (including American democracy) went to hell. Pop culture did not go unscathed either. We said goodbye to all of our heroes: Prince, Bowie, Ali, Phife, Kanye… and hello to the worst the internet could offer. From misogynist Ghostbusters haters to problematic faves, it was the year the ugly side of internet culture went mainstream. I mean, we literally elected an internet troll the leader of the free world.
Still, the geekosystem was able to produce a few silver linings in the massive dark cloud that was the last 12 months. Here are ten… or so.
10. Gabrielle Luna and Natalia Cordova on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I wasn’t always the biggest fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong about this show. While the series started with a whimper, it has evolved into being one of my favorite superhero shows on the dial. And while the show’s depiction of people of color hasn’t always been the best, the last season and a half has gone to great lengths to rectify that.
Last season’s introduction of Natalia Cordova as Yo-Yo and this year’s debut of Gabriel Luna’s Robbie Reyes (aka Ghost Rider) are two reasons why AoS has become must-see TV — along with the elevation of Henry Simmon’s Agent Mack to a major player and Chloe Bennet’s full embrace of her Quake persona. Marvel has also deeply committed to two of its most prominent live action Latinx supeheroes. Luna’s Ghost Rider was a driving force behind the first half of season four, and Cordova’s Yo-Yo is the star of the live action digital spinoff Slingshot. You could argue that AoS has the most diverse representation in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
9. Mahershala Ali
To say 2016 was a breakout year for Mahershala Ali would be an understatement. His work on Netflix’s House of Cards as President Frank Underwood’s chief of staff earned him his first Emmy nomination this year. Though he left House of Cards at the end of the season, he didn’t leave Netflix. In September, his memorable turn as Cottonmouth on Luke Cage solidified the fact that Marvel’s Netflix division has the MCU’s best villains (the less said about Diamondback and the second half of the season, the better). He also contributed to the streaming site’s grasp of the zeitgeist as the series quickly crashed the system’s overloaded servers.
Luke Cage was only the tip of the iceberg for Mahershala Ali, though. In October, during the Toronto International Film Festival, his film Moonlight became the most buzzed about movie of Awards season and is a lock to get an Oscar nomination (or at least it better be!) for Best Picture, and likely a Best Supporting Actor nod for Ali. He also has a key role in Hidden Figures, another buzzworthy film aiming to get Hollywood out of its #OscarsSoWhite bubble.
8. Alfre Woodard
Mahershala Ali wasn’t the only one to love about Marvel’s Luke Cage. Honestly, he wasn’t even the show’s best villain. That title goes to Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the overly ambitious politician unable to keep her darker impulses at bay. Not only did Woodard play one of the Marvel Universe’s most layered women of color, she proved she could seamlessly vacillate between devious, controlled, murderous, and maternal all at the drop of a dime.
Black Mariah wasn’t Woodard’s only contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In May, she played a small but pivotal role in Captain America: Civil War as Miriam Sharpe, the character who sets that film’s plot into motion after confronting Tony Stark. Having such a renowned actress playing prominent roles in two different Marvel properties might be confusing to fans trying to connect the dots of a shared universe, but with an actress of Woodard’s caliber, it’s a good problem to have.
7. Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest on SNL
Having Dave Chappelle host Saturday Night Live with A Tribe Called Quest as the musical guest was going to be a big deal no matter what. The fact that it was the first SNL to air after Trump’s unpresidented Election Night win made the episode both necessary and therapeutic. Seeing classic Chappelle’s Show characters resurrected (than quickly executed) was more satisfying than I had anticipated. And his opening monologue — with the story about attending BET’s celebration of the Obamas at the White House — was as moving as it was hilarious.
Pairing Chappelle with A Tribe Called Quest, however, was genius. A few days earlier, Tribe had released its last album, We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. Though the album had been in the works for months, its post-election release made it even more timely and relevant. Witnessing Q-Tip, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Mohammad, and the spirit of Phife Dawg perform “We the People” center stage in Studio 8H in that moment was a reminder that hip-hop is still the voice of the resistance, and we need it now more than ever.
6. Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright on Westworld
The debut season of HBO’s Westworld was simultaneously thrilling, frustrating, predictable, and shocking. Based on the classic ’70s sci-fi film, and adapted by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the story revolves around a futuristic theme park in which rich patrons dress up like cowboys to murder and/or have sex with lifelike robots, the show exploited sex and violence while also critiquing audiences for reveling in the show’s embrace of free-flowing bodily fluids. Two characters — and the actors who portrayed them — definitely stood out from the pack of androids.
From the first episode, Jeffrey Wright was in a class above in his portrayal of Bernard, the park’s chief programmer and android whisperer. Mind you, he was clearly the best actor in a cast that happened to include Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris slumming it on premium cable. Though (more than) several Westworld sub-redditors saw the Bernard twist coming, Wright’s nuanced performance through those developments is a masterclass of acting. But it goes without saying that Thandie Newton was the series MVP hands down. As one of the first robot hosts to gain sentience, her storyline was definitely the most engaging of the show’s multiple narratives. And she’s the main reason why I’m anticipating the robot revolution signaled for season two.
5. John Cho, Constance Wu, and the team behind #whitewashedOUT
2016 was both a banner year for AAPI representation — Yay, Rogue One! Yay, Moana! Yay, Lewis Tan in Iron Fist! — and also the worst — Boo Ghost in the Shell! Boo Doctor Strange! Boo Finn Jones in Iron Fist! Asians might have gotten #EmmaStoned last year in The Martian, but 2016 took it to the next level since Asians were #ScarJoed, #Swintoned, and #Damonsplained seemingly every week. After announcement after announcement of whitewashed roles, AAPI Twitter took it upon themselves to speak out against Hollywood’s racist casting practices. After I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, I banded together with writers and scholars Sarah Park Dahlen, Ellen Oh, Amitha Knight, Sona Charaipotra, Terry Hong, Preeti Chhibber, Ilene Wong Gregorio, Thien-Kim Lam, and Aisha Saeed to launch #whitewashedOUT — with the help of Margaret Cho who got our first hashtag chat trending #2 Stateside in early May.
Around the same time, Twitter user William Yu launched the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, which imagined the Star Trek Beyond star in iconic roles by photoshopping his face on classic and popular movie posters. Soon after, #StarringConstanceWu popped up doing the same thing with the Fresh Off the Boat star, who has also been very vocal about the need for better Asian American representation. Needless to say, the conversation about whitewashing and erasure of Asians in Hollywood reached a tipping point this year. Though you wouldn’t know it if you’ve been reading Tilda Swinton’s emails. Ugh.
4. The Cast and Crew of Black Panther
— Chadwick Boseman (@chadwickboseman) July 24, 2016
Black Panther will not be in theaters until 2018. That said, the cast and crew of that movie arguably won this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and it is probably the most anticipated Marvel movie ever made. Sure, there are Infinity Wars and Homecomings on the horizon, but Black Panther has the most riding on it. First off, it will likely be the biggest celebration of Blackness in a superhero movie since, well, ever. Ryan Coogler, in his first foray into a comic book franchise, not only brought his Creed and Fruitvale Station star, Michael B. Jordan, but has filled the cast with a who’s who of Blerd Royalty, in addition to titular hero Chadwick Boseman, the movie will also star Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead), Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Forest Whitaker (Rogue One), and Angela Basset (Green Lantern).
While we have to wait another year and a half for a proper Black Panther movie to hit the cineplex, the character of King T’Challa definitely ruled 2016. In addition to a critically acclaimed run by certified genius Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the leading intellectuals writing in America today, Black Panther actually made his cinematic debut in the year’s top-grossing movie Captain America: Civil War and was clearly one of the highlights of the film. #BlackPantherSoLit, indeed.
3. Ruth Negga
I kicked off this list by saying how much I’m enjoying the current incarnation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. One of the few bright spots in the early, less good seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D. was Raina, played by Ruth Negga. While AoS never gave the actress enough screen time before killing her off, leaving the show allowed for quite a breakout year in 2016.
First, she hopped off the Marvel TV train to join the DC Television Express to give us a truly original interpretation of Tulip in AMC’s Preacher. Alongside fellow Marvel alum Dominic Cooper as Jesse, the Seth Rogen-produced adaptation of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (R.I.P.) magnum opus finally gave fans the live action Preacher they’ve been clamoring for for years. But it’s her impassioned performance as Mildred Loving in the Oscar-buzzy Loving that is all but guaranteeing 2017 will be an even bigger year for her.
And she’s also emerging as the top fan choice to play either Poison Ivy or Catwoman in the recently announced Gotham City Sirens movie. Hell, why not let her play both? An actress with her talent could definitely pull it off.
2. Riz Ahmed
What can we say about the year Riz Ahmed is having? It may have taken him ten years to be an “overnight sensation,” but Ahmed made sure this was the year everyone knew who he was. Because he was in everything. From starring in blockbuster franchises, freestyling on the Tonight Show, or fronting a prestige series on HBO — few people were as ubiquitous as Riz Ahmed, aka Riz MC, in 2016. Though his breakout role was in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Ahmed was cast alongside James Gandolfini to star in The Night Of, an HBO mini-series written by acclaimed crime fiction writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. After Gandolfini’s untimely death, however, the project was shelved until it aired this year (with John Tuturro in Gandolfini’s role) and became one of the premium network’s most talked about shows. But for me, his best television moment of the year occurred during this segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Of course, Ahmed is currently lighting up the big screen as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One. Playing an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebel Alliance, Ahmed is one of the reasons there are finally Asians in a galaxy far, far away! Not for nothing, Ahmed was also one of my picks for #AsianBond.
Ahmed also teamed up with former Das Racist emcee Heems to form the hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys. In addition to releasing a critically acclaimed album, the duo is currently on a world tour. (The fact that Ahmed can do a rap tour while also promoting Rogue One and receiving Golden Globe nominations probably makes him the busiest person in Hollywood at the moment). Oh, and he was also part of the best track on the Hamilton Mixtape!
Speaking of Hamilton…
1. Lin-Manuel Miranda
I think it’s safe to say the L-Double-M practically owned 2016 as much as — if not moreso than — he did 2015. Let’s recap. In February, Miranda and company debuted on the Grammys telecast the opening number to Hamilton for the whole world to finally see for themselves. He and the cast eventually went on to win the Grammy for best musical theater album, and I’m pretty sure that was the first time that award had ever been given out on the telecast. A couple short months later, Hamilton went on to dominate the Tony Awards with 11 wins. Oh, and he also won the Pulitzer(!).
Though Miranda left Hamilton in July — famously cutting off his Hamilton ponytail — it wasn’t the end of his affect on pop culture writ large. The last quarter of the year was practically all Hamilton, all the time. In October, Miranda hosted Saturday Night Live before moving to London to shoot Mary Poppins for Disney. That same month, Hamilton’s America, a documentary about the making of the musical, debuted on PBS and became one of the highest rated and most streamed documentaries in PBS history. In November, LMM gave us the Drunk History version of the Alexander Hamilton story, and Disney released Moana which featured songs co-written by Miranda, and will almost guarantee EGOT (or is it PEGOT?) status for him next year. Finally, the December release of The Hamilton Mixtape debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts — meanwhile, the original cast album was certified double platinum this year, and will probably become the best selling musical cast recording sooner than later.
And if hip-hop musicals about historical figures and animated Disney Princesses isn’t nerdy enough for you, Lin-Manuel Miranda has signed on to executive produce and write music for live action adaptations (for TV and film) of The Kingkiller Chronicle series, Patrick Rothfuss’ bestselling fantasy novels.