Politics has overstepped its bounds into the realms of society and culture, and Americans are caught up in social debates that they think can be politicized. Politicians, recognizing the opportunity and not being sufficiently qualified to actually write good policy, take advantage of this moment and attempt to ride herd on such social and cultural issues. This has gone on long enough to be mistaken for ordinary politics. It is not, and sooner or later people will tire of it.
In the meantime we are stuck with identity politics and errors of judgment, ie current affairs and personalities taking place of principled ideology. Somehow people believe that the person of Donald Trump actually represents Conservatism. Somehow people believe that the person of Hillary Clinton actually represents Liberalism. So while people march against a person believing they are attacking a wayward ideology and the idiots who support it, only a few people negotiate the difference. And so with the same masses of people who believed that the person of Barack Obama represented a particular ideology the noise will continue.
Apart from that on the purely social and cultural side, I have much to say about the role of superheros and such movies in American culture. In short, we’ve gotten cartoony. I think it says more than a little when our cinema is most predictably popular around Disney animations and Marvel comics. We can’t hope for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, nor should we, but we should notice how much our role models in film have become two dimensional.
And so it stands to reason that many black Americans, although they might know better, want everything the mainstream gets. Therefore we have dark ‘skinned’ emojis and browsers that remember which ones we choose. Similarly, we have superheros painted into ‘inner-city’ tropes, like Luke Cage. I happened to think Luke Cage was not so super at all, nor were his contemporaries ‘The Defenders’. For me, Daredevil had potential, but in the end failed miserably. Only Gotham held my attention for more than one binge. To the extent Gotham had rich plots and characters, it was much more satisfying to watch Jada Pinkett Smith’s deliciously evil and devilishly charismatic portrayal of Fish Mooney. But her’s was the year of ‘Oscars Too White’ or some such hashtag noise and people want to racially represent. Some political mouthing off from certain quarters are inevitable.
Without having seen much more than an exciting trailer complete with stereotypical rap beats, and knowing Marvel Studios’ ability to deliver, I expect just what has been promised, an excellent action film that goes a bit deeper than the norm. That deeper bit, as demonstrated with Wonder Woman, is certainly enough to get the multiculturalists among us standing on their hind legs and yelping. Yes you too can learn from the example of someone who can bend steel with their bare hands! Heaven forbid Marvel has any superhero who eats laundry detergent like candy as well. And so it will be predictable that if Black Panther is as least as good as Wonder Woman then perhaps in the minds of such people who really really care, it might make up for the failure of Idris Elba’s Dark Tower. Then again, I don’t think even most political black Americans really cared. They wanted Elba to be James Bond, or so I’ve been told. Wasn’t he good enough in Pacific Rim?
Black Panther however, raises the whole black nationalist and pan-africanist notions above the level of academic debate. And though I don’t know how much the original comic dealt with some concept of Malcolm X with vibranium claws, its got an appeal that is at least as relevant as the Jewish origins of Superman and the reasons we Americans have superheroes in the first place. Which again, I must emphasize, is not inherently political as it is explicitly social and cultural as is any serious literature. Can superheroes be serious literature? It depends on the filmmaker. Western films can certainly include cowboys and indians and not be experssly about cowboys and indians. So too superhero action films can transcend the simplistic genre formulas. Witness this year’s extraordinary Hostiles and Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. Maybe Black Panther can do a better than average job, which won’t be so hard given what Marvel has (not) done before.
There is a contingent of political black Americans who play the race game which sometimes tries to be more politically significant than it can possibly be. We don’t know who BLM is, it has no one the caliber of even the second and third tiers of the Civil Rights Movement. But we live in a social mediasphere where that’s not important. And from that corner that represents itself as representing the stereotypical downtrodden oppressed black American, there will issue a call and expectation that Black Panther be an important lesson for all Americans, and as a bracing role-modeling experience. I daresay it cannot be taken so seriously as much of Spike Lee’s work. But that’s another generation. I can only tell you that my son and daughter, millenials who do cosplay, are hyped to the max. But they have no need for role modeling any more than I did. It was really something for me to have Richard Pryor and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s when I was in high school and in my early 20s it was a comfort and an honor to meet Guy Bluford. But those were real heroes not superheroes.
So I cannot possibly take seriously the idea, even if perfectly executed, that the politics of identity and all that could have Black Panther as its platform. It’s not a race film. Do The Right Thing was a race film. It’s a black cast film, and that’s plenty. As such, Black Panther may stand a chance to compete with Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time video as a showcase for beautiful people. God knows these baldheaded women in the preview are stunning. Black Panther may stand a chance to even approach Hall & Murphy’s Coming to America, although that’s a very high bar. I expect it to be at least as fun as Mo' Betta Blues and maybe as good as Boomerang which is saying a lot. And I am quite frankly relieved to see a new generation of actors and filmmakers take the stage. They didn't need Denzel. (and his Equalizer's nail gun (cringe)) Good on them.
If it comes to pass that some fragment of America wants to go there and make Black Panther into a vehicle for their political agenda, I won't be surprised or impressed. Such a move will indicate yet another example of post-modern symbolism eclipsing reality-based politics. So what. At this moment there are so many other more significant films dealing with reality. I could throw Remember The Titans at them and see if they can do that well. Antwone Fisher. Fences. Sometimes the hardest thing to explain is how nobody represents black Americans’ social, cultural and political diversity but themselves, but it’s just that simple.
"Ain't no man or woman, no beast alive that can beat me, cause I was born to fight" -- Tracy Chapman
There are few phrases that manage to connect with my synapse loop and cascade my eyeballs into a backwards roll like 'self-esteem'. When I grew up in the 1970s it was called 'ego' even though it was more like monsters from the id. We called it the 'bogard', but that's a long story. Actually, it's not. You see as young men we were raised to be good sports and to compete. Compete HARD. And if you weren't competing against your toughest rivals, then you weren't actually competing. We called that 'chickenshit'.
Sometimes I wonder, but only in the past couple of months when I have been compared to Morgan Freeman by several waiters and strangers, if I am in the first generation of African American men to reach maturity without possessing a sense of utter defeat. It's nowhere in me, I assure you. And I've always known what it looked like by looking to my parents and family elders. Although when the song 'Sister Rosa' became very popular, I didn't get excited about revisiting her heroism and myth. I already knew a grandmother who would not take guff from anyone, white or black, much less some cracker ass bus driver. In short, I have managed to keep my balls in place, and yes I take it for granted.
My dignity has come at a price, a price I was willing to pay and take pride in. I have often said that I have never been anybody's 'fair-haired boy', by which I mean in my life I've only gotten one or two scholarships. Never more than $10,000 worth. I've never had a financial sponsor. I worked for everything I got. How American is that? And I've paid more back taxes and legal fees than a little. But I've never had to wrestle for my self-esteem, and I certainly never came to expect that I would get it from movies or television. I always had books and my own imagination working with the power of ideas.
So this afternoon, I saw a headline saying 'Marvel's Black Panther Marks a Major Milestone', and it almost sounded like the ghost of T. Coates when I read:
Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.
Aww. I used to think that it was a waste of money for any television producer to tell the stories of the Brady Bunch. You see I had black authors to choose from. All of them in fact. All of literature from Mark Twain to Arthur C Clarke to Richard Wright to Jean Toomer. I read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (a little) and Danny Dunn without shame. I knew the little world of my neighborhood. I was destined to compete with everyone in the whole world. I wasn't chickenshit. So I read everybody's playbooks. After all, they were free. I had my library card. I would go to the Baldwin Hills Public Library on La Brea and check out the books with the rockets and the cars of the future. I just knew I was going to get a Fierbird III when I grew up. And why wouldn't I? I was going to grow up.
Somewhere around 1990 just before I turned 30 I was painfully reminded that everybody wasn't ready to fight for things that made sense. There were people standing in 'a cipher' bobbing their heads to Public Enemy thinking that the story of an ex-con was the light at the end of a dark tunnel of black life underground in America that had yet to see the sun. And I pitied the man who didn't know his father or found nothing to respect in his own family or neighborhood. I felt sorry for the man who felt an obligation to kill for his block, but was afraid to look for a job where he might face rejection. I listened with hard eyes to the man who wept in sympathy for the debilitating anger of Chester Himes. Every time I think of Chester Himes, I think of a drunk man throwing empty gin bottles out of the window of his tenement window hoping to hit the policeman, but ducking behind the curtains in case he actually does. I was reminded that everybody doesn't know the sound of the righteous drum, and maybe they heard it but stood up against the wall anyway, afraid to dance. Never learned to swim. Can't catch the rhythm of the stroke.
I was unleashed. I did all the things. And I moved to the Big Apple and stood in the shadows of the Colossus, and I was humbled. New York humbles men. But then I realized the NYC didn't understand what was going on in LA. Not at all. The New York Times blasted this congressman named Bruce Hershensohn as if he were running the state of California. So I started reading the Observer. I went another way, unashamed of my path. And I watched all the kids wear their X hats backwards waiting for Spike Lee to once again Do the Only Thing, because the Jews couldn't do it, and a black man needed a black movie made by a black man to truly be a black man. But I was already there and I didn't need the movie. I already read the book seven years before.
And I realized that the man on the street needed those television producers to tell the stories of the Brady Bunch. Because if my name was Joe Smith and I looked like an ordinary whiteboy, who actually gave a shit about me? I'd have to prove myself against all the other whiteboys, because there is nothing that matters less to a whiteboy than another whiteboy. James Baldwin wrote that. Who made Holden Caufield into somebody? A bunch of anonymous chickenshit whiteboys and their sorry parents, that's who. And Bill Clinton got elected because he went on TV, like he was dancing at the Cotton Club. Looky looky who has got soul! And I realized I had to get out of the street. I raised a family in the suburbs. Some in the South. Most on the West Coast. And I've watched the generation watch me watch TV and I wasn't taking it seriously. But now the expectation is that everybody has to have their own blockbuster movie superhero.
There's something strange about needing superheros and watching superhero movies in peacetime. The President said that America should have a big ass military parade. I thought about it, and it occurred to me that it's about time we stopped looking at Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis and bushy faced actors portraying Navy SEALS getting shot. Could we actually face the faces that march for once? The actual soldiers? Could we stop producing Brady Bunch stories and stop merchandising snapback ballcaps for once? Could we just for a moment or a generation if it's not asking too much, stop depending on millionaire producers to tell the stories we so desperately need for our self-esteem? Or is it too late for that?
I used to get 1000 hits a day on this blog. A decade ago it was poppin' off. I don't need the hits. I'm happy to have self-published. All of this blog never cost more than $2,500 to produce, and it's all still here. Comments and every word. Free. But now people speak in emojis. It's never to late for people who were born to fight. So these words are for you. You're not alone. And I'll go watch Black Panther and be entertained, but I won't need the fulfillment, and I won't need to wait for the next superhero story.
So let this be my black history story. Look at all of the heroes in the Tracy Chapman video. They didn't need an injection of multicultural vitamin M administered to them in their safe spaces. They didn't need warning labels on their food. They didn't express themselves with cardboard and Sharpies. They didn't beg you to like them or say something comforting in the comment section. They weren't chickenshit. They didn't squabble over slights and insults. They had dignity because they grew it in themselves, and they proved it every day to everybody. They competed HARD. That's a history worth remembering and replicating. It takes character. It takes you understanding the price of dignity.