'Beale Street' Is A Heart-Stopping, Beautiful Story Of Love And Injustice

Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne and Regina King star in If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel.

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I can’t imagine a harder act for a filmmaker to follow than Moonlight. That movie, a quietly shattering portrait of a young black man wrestling with his sexuality, held you rapt with its intimacy; it left you feeling as if you’d stared deep into that young man’s soul.

I don’t know if the writer-director Barry Jenkins has matched that achievement with his new movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, but at times he comes remarkably close. This is a heart-stoppingly beautiful movie, a love story so tenderly directed, exquisitely photographed and lushly scored that every scene seems designed to make you swoon.

The story, adapted from a novel by the great writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, takes place in Harlem during the early 1970s. KiKi Layne plays 19-year-old Tish Rivers, who’s in love with 22-year-old Fonny Hunt, played by Stephan James.

The two are childhood sweethearts; he’s a sculptor, while she works at a department store. The movie begins with an impossibly gorgeous shot of them walking through a park scattered with autumn leaves. It’s an idyllic moment, and we already sense that it can’t last. By the next scene, Fonny is in jail, talking to Tish through a sheet of glass.

Fonny has been accused of rape by a woman, we later learn, who was pressured to name him as her assailant by a racist cop with a grudge against Fonny. As if that weren’t enough, Tish has just found out that she’s pregnant.

The timing is unfortunate, but Tish at least has her family’s unconditional support. Regina King gives a wonderful performance as her steadfast mother, who learns about the pregnancy first. She knows exactly how to break the news to Tish’s father and older sister, played by Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris. That night at dinner, she busts out the liquor and makes the announcement, and gradually their shock and disbelief give way to quiet acceptance, even delight.

Fonny’s family isn’t nearly as understanding, especially his fundamentalist Christian mom, played with jaw-dropping bitterness by Aunjanue Ellis. Still, you can see why both families are under a great deal of strain. Tish’s mother and sister, in particular, are working day and night with Fonny’s lawyer to get the charges dropped.

But this isn’t one of those uplifting dramas where a brilliant legal strategy saves the day. There isn’t even much of a plot to speak of; the movie shuffles backward and forward through time, almost woozily, as if it were still drunk on early memories of Tish and Fonny together. We see them walking the streets, enjoying a meal at a Spanish restaurant and making love for the first time in their dilapidated West Village apartment. The scene fully captures Tish’s description in Baldwin’s novel: “We held each other so close that we might indeed have been one body.”

In one flashback we meet Fonny’s old friend Daniel, played in a brief but profoundly affecting performance by Brian Tyree Henry. They’re having a conversation in Fonny and Tish’s apartment. Fonny complains about how few landlords want to rent to black tenants, while Daniel recalls his own run-in with police officers who tried to frame him for a crime. If Beale Street Could Talk places Fonny’s arrest within an entire history of systemic oppression — a history the movie overtly references with old photographs of black men being arrested en masse.

Those are ugly images, and they stand in direct contrast to the softly caressing light of James Laxton’s cinematography and the ecstatic swells of Nicholas Britell’s score. Jenkins has acknowledged the many international filmmakers who have influenced his work, especially Wong Kar-wai, the great Hong Kong director of such intoxicating romances as In the Mood for Love.

But while If Beale Street Could Talk may invoke Wong with its intensely saturated colors and glamorous swirls of cigarette smoke, it isn’t simply paying homage. There’s a political dimension to all this cinematic poetry. It’s as if Jenkins were trying to show us the world for the harsh, unjust place that it is — but also the more hopeful, beautiful place it could be.

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University Of Ghana Removes Gandhi Statue After Faculty Outcry

A statue of Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi was installed on the University of Ghana campus in Accra, Ghana, in 2016. The statue has now been removed from its plinth.

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A controversial statue of the Indian civil rights leader Mohandas Gandhi has been removed from the The University of Ghana campus, two years after it was installed and faculty promptly began protesting for its removal.

The lecturers opposed to the statue pointed to what they called, Gandhi’s “racist identity,” highlighting remarks in which he repeatedly referred to native Africans using a slur and indicated that Indians were superior to Africans. Gandhi is famous for leading India’s independence movement against the British and for pushing for other reforms across the country, but he spent more than two decades in South Africa working on civil rights issues.

A petition from the faculty members also noted that the University of Ghana’s campus did not have statues of African heroes and heroines.

As NPR previously reported, the statue was installed on campus in 2016 and controversy over it was almost immediate:

“The statue was unveiled in June [2016] by Indian President Shri Pranab Mukherjee during a state visit to Ghana, and professors began rallying against it in September [2016].

“In a statement, Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was following the controversy with ‘deep concern,’ and added: ‘While acknowledging that human as he was, Mahatma Gandhi may have had his flaws, we must remember that people evolve. He inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.”

The ministry stressed that the ‘unfortunate verbal attack’ against Gandhi could potentially ‘create disaffection not only at the level of Government relations, but also between people not only in our country but all over the world.’ “

In its initial response to the protests, the ministry said it wanted to “relocate” the statue, to tamp down the outrage while also protecting the artwork itself.

But it remained in place until this week.

The statue “was removed in the middle of the night on Tuesday, leaving just an empty plinth,” The Guardian reports. It’s unclear exactly where it is now.

The university told the BBC that Ghana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration was responsible for the statue’s removal.

However, Agence France-Press reports that an official at the ministry described the removal as “an internal decision by the university.”

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Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl To Step Down, Leaving McCain's Seat Vacant Again

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., departs the weekly Republican policy luncheon in September.

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Arizona will soon have another new senator, with Republican Jon Kyl — who accepted a temporary appointment in the wake of GOP Sen. John McCain’s death — stepping aside.

Kyl, who first retired from the Senate in 2013, had indicated he never planned on sticking around long, committing to serve through the end of the current congressional term. Kyl’s resignation is effective Dec. 31. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who has won reelection since Kyl’s appointment in September, will now name another replacement to serve until a special election is held in 2020.

Kyl served in the Senate for 18 years, where he had been the Republican whip, and in the House for 8 years before that. Kyl entered the private sector after his retirement.

“When Jon Kyl returned to the Senate in September, our country faced many critical issues,” Ducey said in a statement. “Arizona needed someone who could hit the ground running from day one and represent our state with experience and confidence – and that’s exactly what Senator Kyl has done.”

During the four months he came back to the Senate following McCain’s death in August, he did take some consequential votes — including for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Before he came back to the Senate, Kyl advised Kavanaugh through the confirmation process. That was before Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle turned testy, however, after he was accused of sexual misconduct as a teenager, an allegation Kavanaugh denied.

The 76-year-old Kyl had taken his job back amid a bruising fight for Arizona’s other open Senate seat, which was won by Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

Sinema’s unsuccessful challenger, GOP Rep. Martha McSally, has been in the mix to succeed Kyl, though reports in recent days have said her chances of being appointed are waning over concerns about her 2018 campaign performance. Former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams has also been floated. Adams is Ducey’s outgoing chief of staff.

McSally lost to Sinema by about 56,000 votes, conceding after additional counting of absentee and provisional ballots took almost a week. McSally stepped aside gracefully, adding to speculation she could be headed to the Senate anyway. Sinema’s win flipped the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, and once she takes office in January she’ll become the first female senator in Arizona’s history.

McSally was elected to Congress in 2014 after a distinguished military career. A retired Air Force colonel, she was the first woman in U.S. history to fly in combat. During her tenure in Congress, McSally was seen as a more moderate member and had spoken out against President Trump during his 2016 campaign. But when she announced her Senate campaign, she faced several more conservative challengers and began to move to the right, embracing Trump and moving away from her more centrist views on immigration. Analysts believe that’s something that could have hurt her in the general election.

Adams has also been seen as a rising candidate given his closeness to Ducey. In his resignation letter as the governor’s chief of staff, Adams wrote that he is “looking forward to new opportunities outside the of state government,” further stoking speculation.

Adams has been with Ducey since he took office in 2015. Previously, he’d served in the state legislature for almost five years, eventually rising to the top job as Arizona’s speaker of the House. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012, losing in the primary.

Whoever is appointed will have a busy electoral quest to stay there. The newly-appointed senator will have to run in a 2020 special election to complete the final two years of McCain’s unexpired term, and then would likely run in 2022 again for a full term.

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Iranians Are Converting To Evangelical Christianity In Turkey

Pastor Karl Vickery prays for the Iranian refugee converts in a makeshift church for the United Pentecostal congregation in Denizli, Turkey.

Fariba Nawa


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Fariba Nawa

In a hotel conference room in Denizli, Turkey, about 60 Iranians sing along to songs praising Jesus mixed with Iranian pop music. When the music stops, American pastor Karl Vickery preaches with the help of a Persian translator.

“I’m not famous or rich. But I know Jesus. I have Jesus,” he says, with a Southern drawl. The Farsi-speaking Christian converts shout “Hallelujah!” and clap.

Vickery, who’s part of a visiting delegation from Beaumont, Texas, then offers to pray for each person in the room.

Women with hair dyed blond and short skirts and clean-shaven men in slacks stand up to pray in unison. Vickery puts his hand on one woman’s head and speaks in tongues. One man closes his eyes as tears fall. Another woman raises her hand and shouts “Isa,” Jesus’ name in Arabic and Persian. The room smells of sweat.

Among the parishioners are Farzana, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Tehran, and her daughter Andya, 3, who runs around, taking photos with her mother’s cellphone.

“It feels good. Our relationship to God becomes closer,” Farzana says. She doesn’t want to give her last name because she says her family in Iran might face persecution for her conversion. Her family knows she is a convert and they’re scared for their own safety inside Iran.

In Turkey and across the Middle East and Europe, evangelical Christians are converting Muslim refugees eager to emigrate to the West. The refugees in Turkey escaped Iran, where conversion to anything but Islam is illegal.

There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Those considered part of the native Christian communities are permitted to practice their religion with restrictions, but a Muslim converting to Christianity is considered an apostate. The Iranian government jails converts, especially those who proselytize. The authorities see it as a Western plan to turn Iranians against Islam and the Islamic regime, according to converts in Turkey.

It is also illegal to convert from Islam in several other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, and punishable by jail time or death.

The converts in Turkey apply for asylum to a third country through the United Nations, claiming they would face religious persecution if they return home. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians and other migrants escaping war and conflict.

But Turks are becoming increasingly intolerant of refugees. While the Turkish government allows freedom of religion and even protects churches in many cities, refugees are assigned to live in small conservative towns where they may face discrimination from the local population wary of evangelicals.

Despite local objections, evangelical pastors say they will continue to preach the Bible because Turkey’s constitution gives them the right.

Many foreign evangelicals left Turkey after a botched coup attempt in 2016, when American preacher Andrew Brunson was jailed and charged with terrorism. The high-profile case strained Turkish-U.S. relations until Brunson was released in October.

But refugees have continued to come, and demand for more churches has grown.

Sebnem Koser Akcapar, a sociology professor at Istanbul’s Koç University who has been studying refugees and their change of faith, says she has witnessed the rise in conversions.

“The numbers of Iranian refugees converting have grown tremendously over the years. A small church consisting of 20 to 30 families has become a much bigger congregation housing 80 to 100 people on a regular Sunday,” she says.

Akcapar believes only some of the refugees are genuine converts. Others are using religious persecution as a way to get to the West, which may be the only way for them to lead a normal life, she says.

With more U.S. sanctions on Iran, Iranians are facing economic hardships and political pressure.

The United Pentecostal Church in Denizli can’t keep up with the demand, says the church’s Turkey representative Rick Robinson, who has lived in the country for 13 years. It has churches in eight Turkish cities and refugees are calling on them to open more.

He says the church provides a spiritual outlet for refugees, not financial support, and that he welcomes anyone regardless of whether they are genuinely converting or not.

Robinson thinks many of the congregants may not be believers, at least not at first. “There might even be some who start with the help just for the refugee status and become sincere,” he says matter-of-factly.

Robinson, a tall pastor with silver hair, welcomes the Iranians into the church with hugs and laughter.

Farzana says one reason she converted was the way Iran’s interpretation of Islam treats women. When she divorced an abusive husband, she says, an Iranian court granted him custody of her older son and daughter. Under Iran’s Sharia Islamic law, fathers get custody of older children.

“Mostly because of this I became disillusioned with Islam,” she says. “That judge sitting there and giving orders was completely siding with men. Everywhere in Iran men come before women.”

Farzana says she was shattered and felt lost after her children were taken away.

But a year later, Farzana married her current Iranian husband and they had Andya. She hired a high school friend to assist her in her thriving beauty salon, and soon her friend, a Christian convert, began to recruit her to Tehran’s secret churches.

“Once she began trusting me, she gave me photocopied writings and said, ‘I’m giving these to you as a gift. Go read them. These are the word of God,'” Farzana recalls.

Christian groups report that secret home churches are growing in Iran and one reason, says an award-winning Iranian athlete who converted to Christianity, is to rebel against the Islamic regime.

“The system of authority in Iran has put Iranians under a lot of pressure, and they don’t see any hope. They are in search of God, but they want to find another path because they’re discontent with the options they’ve been given,” says the athlete, who is part of the Denizli congregation. He didn’t feel safe sharing his name.

Pastors Karl Vickery and Rick Robinson baptize Iranian refugee Sabah Allahvardi, 22, in a Turkish bathhouse in Denizli.

Fariba Nawa


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Fariba Nawa

Many of the Iranians in Turkey say they converted in Iran and had to flee. Farzana says after three months of attending a home church, two men from the Revolutionary Guards who were watching her church detained her when they found a Bible in her car.

“The interrogator sat in front of me … he said you’re an apostate, you’re not ashamed of that. You’re creating problems in the country. I got scared and began to cry,” she says.

Farzana says she was released after her husband signed a form that she wouldn’t return to church. But her church advised her to leave Iran. A smuggler helped her family escape to Turkey, where they settled in Denizli, a city of 600,000 in southwest of the country. Farzana got a job at a Turkish beauty salon, found the Pentecostal church and applied for asylum, waiting to resettle in the West.

But the odds are against resettlement.

Selin Unal, the spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Turkey, wrote in an email that the U.N. doesn’t aggregate the number of religious persecution cases filed. They just process the most vulnerable, and only a handful of Iranians have resettled in the U.S. this year.

Other aid workers involved with refugees say religious persecution cases among converts have become so common that the U.N. has become distrustful.

Lanna Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.N. International Organization for Migration, urges refugees to be honest on their asylum applications.

“If during the process, inconsistencies or inaccuracies in their stories are uncovered, then their case and application actually may be deemed inadmissible and they may not get another chance to apply,” Walsh says.

Anti-immigration policies sweeping the West also crush refugee hopes. President Trump and Vice President Pence said during their presidential campaign in 2016 they would allow Christian refugees to immigrate to the United States. Instead, Trump enforced a travel ban against citizens of seven Muslim countries, including Iran. The U.S. even denied entry to a group of native Iranian Christians in limbo in Austria, who had applied under a law that gives religious minorities the right to asylum. Those Iranians are suing the U.S.

Pastor Robinson backs Trump’s refugee policy. He says Turkey should allow Iranian refugees to live and work here. That way, Iranians can be closer to their families in Iran because the two countries share a border.

“I can tell you what I tell a lot of our people here. If you can make a life in this country, and it’s not a bad country … the chances of you seeing your family every year are almost guaranteed,” he says.

Yet refugees are only allowed to work in Turkey if a Turkish employer sponsors them, and that’s rare. Most have under-the-table jobs earning half of what Turks do. They also face a backlash from local communities, especially if they’re Christian converts.

Some Turks in Denizli complain that refugees are taking their jobs. One shop owner hung a banner that says “No Syrians, Iranians and Afghans are allowed in this shop.”

Yasin Sarikaya, a Turkish cab driver in Denizli, is dismayed at the visible number of refugees working and living in his neighborhood. When he realizes that some of them are Muslims converting to Christianity, he becomes visibly upset.

“It’s a mistake to know Islam and what a widespread and pleasant religion it is, and then change to another religion,” Sarikaya says.

Many of the congregants say they have faced workplace discrimination. Farzana says her Turkish boss at the salon gave her cleaning work and refused to let her take a break after she shared that she was a convert.

“Before she found out I was a Christian, her interaction was different. It was much better,” she says.

Farzana eventually quit and is looking for another job.

Despite the challenges, the Iranians say the church is a place to release their sorrows and feel part of a community. But the church keeps its location and activities a secret for safety reasons. Some churches in Turkey request protection from local police.

For converts to prove they’re Christian for the asylum process, they have to get baptized. On a recent Friday, the pastors enter a swimming pool inside a Turkish bathhouse and help parishioners dressed in colorful robes dunk their head under the water. Behind a clear glass in the adjacent room, a half-naked man gets a rubdown from a bathhouse attendant.

Sabah Allahvardi, a 22-year-old university student, is excited about her baptism. She moved to Turkey six months ago. She and nine others exit the pool beaming and dripping wet. They will receive a certificate that documents their change of faith with hopes that they can live in a country with freedom and acceptance.

“I never thought this would happen to me in Iran, but now I’m really happy because my life is changing,” Allahvardi says shyly.

Fariba Nawa reported in Denizli, Turkey.

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The Dove & The Wolf Bring Playful Mayhem In 'Queens' Video

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Paloma Gil and Lou Hayat have a knack for world-building. You hear it in the lucid dream-pop they make as The Dove & The Wolf, where intertwining guitar arpeggios and vocal harmonies transport you effortlessly to the duo’s atmospheric plane. You see it in the band’s visual identity: Portraits where Gil, Hayat, and their backdrops are color-coordinated to harbor blue or crushed velvet with a touch of Coke bottle red; stage attire set to matching white denim.

The creation of such immersive spaces is no surprise given the duo’s geographically nomadic identity. The Dove & The Wolf formed as teenagers in France; they lived in New York in their early 20s, then spent some time in Philadelphia. Both halves of the duo are now 28, and split between Nashville (Hayat) and Paris (Gil). Every traveling artist needs somewhere familiar to return, and The Dove & The Wolf simply make their home a portable one.

After a well-received string of EPs, including last year’s excellent I Don’t Know What To Feel, The Dove & The Wolf will self-release its full-length debut Conversations on May 3, 2019. The album was produced in Philadelphia with Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs, and includes contributions from fellow WOD member Charlie Hall on percussion, Japanese Breakfast‘s Craig Hendrix on drums and Severin Tucker on keys.

The effervescent slow-burner “Queens” is the album’s first single, and has been kicking around in the band’s live set since 2016. Between warm-tone amplifiers and a pattering pulse, the song documents The Dove & The Wolf’s East Coast sojourn, while anticipating an ever-changing future: “Once again he’s leaving Queens, but this time he’s going east / closer to where the sun rises, moving on to new phases.”

The vibrant Pantone universe of the band’s visual side comes to life in the vivid, new music video for “Queens,” premiered on XPN and co-directed by the duo with Rocco Avallone and Colin Kerrigan of Philly’s Out of Town Films. We see Gil sitting in a Granny Smith-colored kitchen with two mysterious drama mask-clad companions, munching on a mossy-tinted bagel and mashing a lime Jell-O mold with her hands. Hayat wears a gold dress in a canary room, breaking lemon plates on the floor. Other sequences are rose-colored and confetti-dappled, or chilled in a steely azure.

At first glance, the video comes across as absurd, even disconnected from the gravity of the song. But noting the very real emotions that surface throughout – sneers of frustration, tears of despondency – we are indeed seeing reality in its playful mayhem. With their sense of place in constant flux, The Dove & The Wolf rely on colorful, comforting worlds like this to stay grounded.


Conversations is out May 3.

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Michael Cohen On Trump: 'The Man Doesn't Tell The Truth'

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, says he is being forced to take responsibility for Trump’s “dirty deeds.” In an interview with ABC News, Cohen says that not only did the then-candidate direct him to arrange hush-money payments to two women — but that Trump knew it was illegal.

Noting that the hush-money payments were made “two weeks or so before the election, post the Billy Bush comments” about Trump’s treatment of women, Cohen tells Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, “so yes, he was very concerned about how this would affect the election.”

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, says Trump directed him to arrange hush-money payments to two women during the closing weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Cohen spoke about the president and real estate mogul one day after being sentenced to three years in federal prison for his actions as Trump’s attorney during the 2016 presidential campaign. He says Trump was well aware of his actions to arrange payoffs to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playmate Karen McDougal, to keep them from publicly accusing Trump of having affairs.

Asked if Trump tried to hide what Cohen was doing, the lawyer replied, “Correct.” As for whether Trump knew it was illegal, he said, “Of course.”

Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong, saying early Thursday, “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”

To that, Cohen responded:

“I don’t think there’s anybody that believes that. First of all, nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me — as I said in my allocution and I said as well in the plea — he directed me to make the payments he directed me to become involved in these matters, including the one with McDougal, which was really between him and David Pecker, and then David Pecker’s counsel.

“I just reviewed the documents in order to protect him. I gave loyalty to someone who truthfully does not deserve loyalty.”

Pecker, the CEO of American Media, met with Cohen as early as August of 2015, when he offered to help Trump muzzle women who might accuse the candidate of affairs — a plan that included buying exclusive rights to their stories, prosecutors said this week.

Trump also said Cohen admitted to the criminal charges — which range from campaign finance crimes to tax evasion and bank fraud — “to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence.”

….guilty even on a civil basis. Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook. As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2018

Cohen responded to that accusation in his interview, “It’s absolutely not true. I did not do it to embarrass the president. He knows the truth. I know the truth. Many people know the truth. Under no circumstances do I want to embarrass the president of the United States of America.”

Growing visibly angry, Cohen added, “The truth is, I told the truth. I took responsibility for my actions. And instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do? He attacks my family.”

When he was reminded that Trump had also repeated those claims in an interview on Fox News, Cohen called it “inaccurate.”

He added, “Here’s the truth: The people of the United States of America — the people of the world — don’t believe what he’s saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth. And it’s sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”

Repeating something he said in court Wednesday, Cohen said he feels unburdened by acknowledging what he did for Trump.

“I have my freedom,” he said, adding, “I will not be the villain of his story.”

As part of his agreement with prosecutors, Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress when he said negotiations he and other Trump aides held with powerful Russians about a potential real estate project in Moscow had not continued well into the 2016 presidential campaign.

When asked why the American public should now believe Cohen is telling the truth, he replied, “Because the special counsel [Robert Mueller] stated emphatically that the information that I gave to them was credible and helpful.”

“There’s a substantial amount of information that they possess that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth,” Cohen said.

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Scientists Are Fighting For The Stricken Pickle Against This Tricky Disease

Every summer, downy mildew spreads from Florida northward, adapting to nearly every defense pickle growers have in their arsenals and destroying their crops.

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Bernd Settnik/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The pickle is in peril. Each summer since the mid 2000s, Florida winds carry downy mildew to cucumber fields north. By summer’s end, the disease reaches Michigan, leaving a trail of withered leaves and thwarted pickling plans.

With failed harvests, fewer growers are taking a chance on cucumbers. According to USDA records, pickling cucumber acreage declined nearly 25 percent between 2004 and 2015. Globally, downy mildew threatens fields as far flung as India, Israel, Mexico and China.

“This is the number one threat to the pickle industry,” says vegetable pathologist Lina Quesada-Ocampo of North Carolina State University. The growers, she says, lose money on failed crops and pricey fungicides. “It is a really bad double whammy.”

Fortunately for pickle lovers, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek of Cornell University is close to releasing varieties that resist downy mildew. “It’s been one of our proudest David and Goliath stories,” he says. But his success hinges on funding at a time when public support of agricultural research is declining.

The story of saving the pickle, then, is not just about preserving the deli sandwich’s sidekick. It’s a story of how much we value our food supply. And who we think should pay to protect it.

Trying to hit a moving target

Cucurbit downy mildew, caused by the fungal pathogen Pseudoperonospora cubensis, was once a minor nuisance. Starting in the 1960s, a Clemson University plant breeder, Carroll Barnes, produced a series of cucumber cultivars containing a strong resistance gene known as dm-1. For more than four decades, this gene helped keep the disease in check.

But in 2004, the pathogen overwhelmed the defense. In North Carolina, pickling cucumber growers were a third of the way through harvesting when downy mildew arrived. Within about a week, the crop “almost melted,” says Thomas Joyner, president of Nash Produce. “It burned the leaves and there was almost nothing left.”

That year, downy mildew struck cucumbers from Florida to New Jersey. The following year, it reached Michigan, the number one pickling cucumber state. And it has spread from Florida every summer since.

“I have never seen something that moves this fast and is this devastating,” says Quesada-Ocampo. “You see a lot of brown, dead leaves on the ground, and cucumbers … almost becoming bleached white because of the sun scalding.”

Growers turned to fungicide, but downy mildew quickly adapts faster than the industry can release new ones. “Some that were very effective just a few years ago are absolutely ineffective now,” says Phil Denlinger, vice president of agricultural procurement for Mt. Olive Pickle Company. “It is a serious situation.”

Breeding in resistance

“Every year we wonder, will our tools hold up?” says plant pathologist Mary Hausbeck of Michigan State University. As extension specialists for each of their states, Hausbeck and Quesada-Ocampo test fungicides and advise growers on methods that remain effective.

In 2014, Hausbeck was becoming increasingly concerned about running out of means for growers when she approached Cornell’s Mazourek with a personal plea for help. As she saw it, the industry was at terrible risk and, having grown up in Michigan pickle country, she hated to see it collapse. She recalls Mazourek listening politely and then saying, “You know, we might be able to do something.”

Mazourek had already developed a downy mildew resistant slicing cucumber, the kind we eat fresh on a salad, by crossing two cultivars with moderate levels of resistance and then selecting the most hardy offspring over multiple generations.

Vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek is working to develop cucumbers that have both the best pickling traits and are most resistant to downy mildew.

Carolyn Beans/NPR


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Carolyn Beans/NPR

But a pickling cucumber is a different cuke altogether. Unlike the much smoother slicers, pickling cucumbers have enough bumps on the skin for brine to pass through, and seed cavities that don’t disintegrate during that process. And those destined to become pickle spears must fit neatly in jars.

Accepting the challenge, he crossed his slicing cucumber with pickling cucumbers already on the market and selected the most disease resistant and pickle-like offspring. He tested plants in Florida, New York and Michigan to select for cucumbers that could resist downy mildew across the planting range.

In 2017, Hausbeck invited a few pickling cucumber growers and processors to meet Mazourek and assess his progress. Downy mildew had already swept through the MSU experimental farm, but the leaves of Mazourek’s plants were mostly green. “The growers were just about ready to hoist him on their shoulders and carry him through downtown East Lansing,” says Hausbeck.

But they also told him that many of his cucumbers weren’t quite pickling ready. Some, for example, had pockets between the seed cavity and flesh that could cause the center to fall out of a sliced pickle. Others were simply too short to make enough crosswise slices to top hamburgers.

Mazourek took cuttings of the plants the pickle experts liked best. He then crossed some and self-pollinated others to make the next generation of new and, hopefully, improved pickling cucumbers.

A growing threat

If downy mildew prevails, the pickling cucumber wouldn’t be the first crop lost from a region. A century ago, a related downy mildew helped drive commercial hops from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest. In the second half of the 19th century, coffee leaf rust wiped out the plantations of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, pushing growers to switch to tea.

Crop pathogen problems may only get worse. “I’ve been doing plant pathology research for more than 30 years, and we’re seeing more threatening plant diseases now than in the past,” says plant pathologist Jean Ristaino, who directs N.C. State’s Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security program.

The change stems, in part, from global trade. “Over the past 100 years, there has been more movement of plants, and the volume is much higher, so it is harder … to monitor all the pests and pathogens coming in,” says Ristaino. Climate change is also a factor. Fungi could move to where it was once too cold. And with milder winters, seasonal pathogens could become year-round residents.

Faced with these challenges, Mazourek recognizes that any pickle fix may be temporary. “The last resistances that were deployed lasted for decades. While we hope that’s true, more and more we’re seeing new diseases, faster evolution of diseases,” he says.

A fall in funding

Despite these threats, U.S. public spending on crop protection is declining. According to the USDA, total federal and state funding for agricultural research and development fell between 2002 and 2015 from about $6 billion to $4.4 billion. Meanwhile, Brazil, India and China increased spending, with China surging to about twice U.S. levels.

Agricultural researchers at land-grant universities like Cornell, MSU, and NC State once received enough set federal and state support to cover their programs. With this funding declining, they must apply for competitive grants from the USDA and other institutions to make up the difference. In the competition for funds, crops like the pickling cucumber are often passed over for crops that cover more acreage, says Quesada-Ocampo.

N.C. State plant breeder Todd Wehner says there were many more publicly funded cucumber breeders when he began his program nearly four decades ago. But today, with less funding, there are far fewer jobs. In fact, Wehner and Mazourek are among the last few still breeding.

Private industry steps in

Though public funding is waning, private investment in agricultural research and development, not including food manufacturing, increased from about $3.2 billion to $6.3 billion between 2002 and 2014, according to the USDA.

And the pickle has profited. Nischit Shetty, a geneticist for Seminis, a Bayer Crop Science vegetable seeds brand (formerly of Monsanto), led efforts to develop the first two commercialized pickling cucumber hybrids resistant to downy mildew. Released two years ago, Shetty says that they remain the only two such hybrids on the market. But they don’t fend off downy mildew completely, so growers must still use at least some fungicide.

Private fungicide research has also protected pickles. When downy mildew first struck, the pesticide producer Valent stepped in with a new fungicide called Presidio that was initially very effective. Unfortunately, the pathogen evolved resistance to Presidio within a few years. Other companies also developed fungicides. The industry advises growers to rotate sprays to limit the pathogen’s chances of adapting to any one of them.

But one consequence of our increasing reliance on agriculture companies is that growers foot a larger portion of the bill, says Wehner. Companies must charge growers enough to make a return on investment. Alternatively, public research expenses are spread across society, and the results of that research are shared openly. “It really comes down to: Do Americans want to help with their food production system, or do they want it to fall on the shoulders of the growers?” says Wehner.

The future of the pickle

In late September, Mazourek sat in a room on an MSU experimental farm with his graduate student and lab technician, laying out their pickling cucumber vision for seven growers and processors that Hausbeck invited, including some who assessed Mazourek’s plants last year.

Breeders often cross two plant varieties, each genetically uniform, to make a new “hybrid” variety that boasts the best genes from each parent. But because downy mildew is quickly evolving, the best genes for resistance in 2018 may not be the same for the years ahead.

Rather than a hybrid, Mazourek described developing what are called open-pollinated varieties. Each of these varieties is really more like a population of plants that each have slightly different sets of genes, all growing together in a field. Mazourek observes which cucumbers are the most disease resistant and have the best pickling traits and then chooses those to keep in the gene pool for the next generation. The plants are uniform enough for repeatable results, but genetically diverse enough to resist whatever tricks downy mildew might devise next.

“By having that mix of plants, the disease can’t really get a foothold,” said Mazourek. “And if it does, it can’t wipe out the whole field, and we can continue to, every year, find the most resistant plants and select from that. And it just keeps evolving.” A seed company could continue this process, but so could a grower, just by saving some seed from the best plants for the next year’s planting.

Later, the group arrived at the field where Hausbeck was testing Mazourek’s progress. Before them lay about 500 cucumber plants, most with barely a hint of downy mildew.

The growers and processors spread out, cutting open “pickles,” as they dub them even before brining, and staking pink flags by promising plants. One cucumber got flagged for a seed cavity without pockets. Another’s boxier ends meant squeezing more slices out of a pickle. After much enthusiastic cucumber slicing and squeezing, the pickle experts left and the Cornell team and Hausbeck stood gazing at their glowing assessment — 30 pink flags across the field. There was still room for improvement, Mazourek concluded, but it was time to scale up. They were close enough that some growers could test the plants next year.

Against the clock

He’s eager to release something fast. Downy mildew isn’t getting weaker. And the funding clock is ticking — unless renewed, USDA support for Mazourek’s pickle program ends in 2020.

But for now, pickle prospects look good — at least according to grower and fermenter John Swanson’s evaluation of Mazourek’s plants. “They’re alive,” he says. “And they’re pickles.”

Carolyn Beans is a freelance science journalist living in Washington, D.C. She specializes in ecology, evolution, and health.

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