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.