So this might be a very New York way to open this, but the Public Theatre's current tag line is "radically inclusive." Those words are strewn across rainbow flags on the facade of the East Village castle that gave birth to Shakespeare in the Park, Hair, and Hamilton, all bastions of subversive popular culture. It's a good tag, I'm sure their big donors are very happy with it. But, as one of the people they would be so proud to radically include, I'm pretty insulted by it.
The Public's always been inclusive, Joe Papp and his spirit children have pushed mainstream American theatre further and fuller than probably any other institution. But to them, there was nothing radical about it, these were just the stories their audience needed (even if they didn't know it yet). And the idea that the New York theatre going community (an [obviously] predominantly white and monied group) is tickled by the idea of rainbow faces speaking the words of rainbow playwrights is not at all a strange one. But attracting the donations of Upper East Side blue hairs with such a simple hashtag feels really off. The entire point of these movements is that it shouldn't be radical to include these "other" people, and calling it that in an attempt to make seasonal subscribers feel that much more woke is most certainly still exploitation. And, like I said, the Public's always been inclusive, there's something about this new tagline that seems to overlook that too.
Which brings us to "Black Panther."
First, let me say that the primary focus of this is not the films themselves, but the marketing and discussion around them. Because once the binary code of Marvel's DCP drives demagnetize and the radically inclusive minds behind the mega hit, and any eye that saw it are dust, it's the journalism that will tell history how we reacted to it, what it meant to us, and thus what kind of film it was.
Any google hit would have you believe that Black Panther is the wokest, dopest, bestest for african america, mostest feministest bit of cinema since, at least the live tape of Hamilton. And that's kinda confusing to me. Overall, enjoyable origin story, it's got all the epic hero beats, some great space ships, real nice use of intimate close ups, especially for a Marvel, but that's not what the press releases are about.
First off, pretty much everything about Wakanda is pretty much straight up unamerican. And there are very few things I would apply that to. But you want me to believe that the bastion black heriosm (from american minds for an american audience). Is a KING, of an ISOLOATIONIST, TRIBAL MONARCHY, of the UBER RICH? No. The idea that T'Challa's arc is a godsent moment of agency and limelight for African Americans is not only wildly inaccurate, it's dangerous.
From the moment the first African slave stepped foot in the Americas there has been the myth of "mother africa." And as relevant as that may have been for the first few generations, by Lincoln's time, or Marcus Garvey's (a founder of the "back-to-africa" movement) it served little purpose other than to increase the cultural divide between "black" americans and both "black" africans and really all other americans. Black Panther is a lovely cinematic step in that mythologization. But to hold it up as representation for African Americans, that's more than dangerous.
African America is an utterly unique diaspora all its own (a word I haven't seen in Variety headlines, maybe ever) and to say that these people and the history of this oppression is served by the romanticization of the continental diaspora makes little sense. Why would my great hero be the leader of a (pretty much) hereditary monarchy? I'm an American, I wanna vote. Why would my great hero be an isolationist? I'm an American, I wanna save the world (and he starts to come around to this in the end). Why would my great hero preside over a culture that stagnated millennia ago? The only thing more talked about in the exposition of this film than their traditions, is the alien tech. I'm an American, we were forged in change, and Americans of color all the more so. And for that tech to be a centerpiece of our half baked liberal symbolist excitement is probably the most insulting piece of it all.
Robert Downey Jr. walks into an Afghan cave with shrapnel in his chest, and walks out having invented the most advanced piece of technology the world's yet known, setting in motion events that will (this May) force the human race to begin a new chapter among the cosmos. But you expect me to get excited about a nation whose only distinguishing factor is that a MAGIC ALIEN METAL crashed on them once upon a time. That's not an FU to Eurocentricity, and it doesn't raise the problematically homogonized idea of "Africa" to a new level. It says the rest of world history happened the way it happened and these couple black people got lucky, and then got selfish. That doesn't seem particularly pluralist to me.
And I'm fine with all that as part of the story, Wakanda's always been dope AF, but our simplistic deification really frightens me. Claiming T'Challa, african king of the alien rocks represents African America is like saying "the hell you need Captain America for, we got Captain Britain!" (who actually is a character yes). And as terrifying as the community of (predominantly white) film journalists supporting the fallacy is, I'm even more paralyzed by the idea that African Americans are buying it.
But I guess why wouldn't they? White people get an asshole anti-hero arms dealer while we're all kings of a magic land with magic rocks. But that's always been the flaw of Black Zionism (or any Zionism really). Mystic homelands are great when you're trying to make it through a desert in 40 days and 40 nights, but when trying exist in an established, evolving, and geographically centered society it has the same effect as any fairy tale taken too far. Confusion and a deep seated, immortal, existential ennui.
Which is to say nothing of this "first black superhero" idea. Yes, totally the first leading MCU hero of color, great. But as I'm sure at least of few of you have been reminded by now, this isn't even the first african-american Marvel hero let alone first big screen larger than life african american hero to kick ass and take names across the silver screen. We don't need to list them all, that seems like it'd be pretty insulting (though I might be getting that feeling from an episode of 30 Rock where Tina Fey refuses to list funny women.) That said, Shaft, Foxy Brown, Superfly (and definitely in the third installment of his story when he stops dealing drugs, possibly biased on that one though). SPAWN (omg Spawn) Halle Berry as Storm (who marries T'Challa), Michael B. Jordan's star turn as the Human Torch, about half of Will Smith's career, and, of course, Blade. Which incidentally is what I went home to watch as soon as I left my showing of Black Panther having been so down for a hero who represents an African American struggle and not gotten it. Spoiler Alert: Still as cool as you remember.
And yeah, maybe none of those quite captured the imagination of America the way our journalists claim Black Panther has, but to build the mini "movement" of this film around a lie can't be good. Though it's become a popular thing to do now that being cool to people who look like me and not at all like me is a great way to sell tickets. Look at our new Star Wars, kicked of by the force aWOKEning. It seems that the majority of coverage of those films (both good and bad) is about how newly diverse and radically inclusive the films are now. Except that they always were. Leia was always the badass with a handle on the situation, Padme's a master of "agressive negotiations," Mace Windu's the greatest warrior in the galaxy, and Lando BLOWS. UP. THE. BIGGER. DEATHSTAR!
Not that I'm trying to knock Finn's useful tokenism in posters, slight anger about horse racing, and employment of maybe the only racially questionable line spoken by a (non-cgi) actor of the ENTIRE FRANCHISE. "Droid Please!" (Clearly I was knocking Finn). Look, it's fine to bill these films off of their pluralism, in fact I might even say that it's imperative to make that a part of the conversation, but it can't be at the expense of all that came before it.
Though it could be said that Rey is the only female lead to give into the bane of the Star Wars Universe, dogma, whether or not the minority characters of contemporary Star Wars are actually respectable icons is another matter. But I think the whole thing can kind of be encapsulated in one question."Where's Lando?" Either in the narrative history that he is a crucial figure in, or our collective conversation of the Force's new found Wokeness. It's not whitewashing per se, but it does feel like an attempt to cleanse the ethnic victoires of yester-film to make room for even bigger headlines this time around. And this year-zero line of thought is dangerous for us all.
I don't know if it's an attempt to grab headlines, retweets, or a leg up on their "white-guilt" but the more all of our tastemakes (regardless of race) uphold this fallacy of a newly woke american cinema the weaker a foundation we build our future on. Whether it's the "newly" rad inclusivity of Shakespeare in the Park, or the idea that we *finally* have an african american superhero worth having, none of this is the answer. All of this, every slogan, every headline, every woke-ass think piece subjugates and separates all of us all the more.
A truly inclusive movement would showcase the "other" existing outside of their "otherness." It's not a black guy trying for his life to Get Out of the "inherently white" world of suburbia, and it's not a marketing campaign to name an African monarch with alien toys and a stagnated culture the future of African American representation on film. That's just keeping the lines drawn broad and thick. My Cinema of Color can't be a hashtag.
So was Black Panther a solid ride with a lot more heart than the last many Marvel outings, ok yeah sure. Does it do some good for pluralism, ok. But is it a super serum filled leap forward toward African American representation in tent pole Hollywood? Hell no, the very idea of that's insulting.
But if you're interested in seeing the film, Black Panther is playing in theatres every half hour for the foreseeable future, and likely long past Black History Month.
Taylor A. Purdee is a filmmaker, actor, writer, folk singer, and editor of the Yippie Ki-Ay! Do Cinema. He's currently in the middle of making a film that he hopes won't prove the racial elements of this article hypocritical. If you feel like getting in on that you can join in on post production here. But if you're just looking to hang out with Taylor try here, or over here.
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