My Take on Black Panther

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post originally written around March 2018

I was about ten years old. For weeks, I had been building up the nerve to cross over into the adult side of the public library. My mom was over there searching for a book. I still remember the slow walk across the taupe tiled floor. I cast a furtive glance over at the librarians at the circulation desk. My small hand touched the cool door frame. No one yelled “stop” or “adults only.” I took a deep breath and I pushed against the glass door.

The silence. Even know, I remember the silence that pressed against my ears. I shot a glance at the librarian behind the desk. He didn’t stop me. I took in my new, unfamiliar surroundings. Wooden and metal bookshelves taller than me. Taller than anything in the kids section. The 70s style furniture. A room awash in shades of brown. One section, to the right of where I stood, reminded me of a living room as two men sat reading the paper. To the left of me were large, long tables. I stepped further into this new space wanting to run away, flee back to the kids section but then I saw my mom. The sight of her made me feel better so I went to her.

She was still looking for her book and slightly in a huff because I had ventured over to the adults side. She told me to keep myself busy but not to touch anything. I didn’t roam far from her instead I scanned the shelves looking at different titles. Bored out of my mind.

Then I came to these plastic bins. There were so many. They were full of laminated white card stock. As I flipped through them, I saw new titles. I pulled out a card stock to see the image of a movie poster. I grinned.

I hungrily flipped through them trying to find something, anything that looked interesting. I had almost given up hope until I came to “S.” Star Wars: A New Hope

When my mom found me again, she mentioned that it was part of a trilogy so there were three movies total. She helped me find them. I pulled the card stock and walked with my mom to check out Star Wars.

I went home and watched all three in one sitting.  

By the time I was 12 years old, my mother was dropping me off at the mall to see movies by myself. Between 10 and 12, my momma went with me. Something to keep her rambunctious youngest child busy following church when my entire family wanted to eat Sunday dinner and then nap. Every Sunday, like clockwork, we went to the movies. By the time I was 12, she deemed me old enough to be dropped off. She gave some change to use the payphone to call home when I was ready.

When I would get home, I would take the movie tickets and put them in a red velvet earring box that I kept for the occasion. I’d place my movie stubs in there and clap it shut.

Cut to nine years later, I was returning home for the last time to sort through my childhood belongings. The house filled me with sadness. My mom had died a year earlier and now I had one chance to grab what I could from my room before my dad threw it all away. That velvet box still sat on my dresser. I opened it to find it stuffed with movie stubs ready to explode out. I marveled at all the movies I saw as a kid. The low prices of movies. But also my mom.

She sparked the creativity inside of me and stoked the flames throughout my childhood.

Why should you care? Context. It gives invaluable context to what I will say next.

From an early age, I drank up movies. I greedily absorbed them. And in them, I learned the art of storytelling. What it means to tell a story. What worked, what didn’t, and how that mediocre story could have been improved with changes. Some read books. I watched movies.

Within that, I absorbed the Hollywood image. The white leading man or woman. Seldom did I see myself or anyone I know portrayed on screen in any substantive, meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed Color Purple, Harlem Nights, and Waiting to Exhale but I experienced those movies between childhood up to my early 20s. There are things, jokes, and situations you don’t fully grasp because of your age.

Then came Black Panther.

In a crowded, family-owned Mediterranean restaurant, I wanted George, my fellow cinephile and white male friend, to shut the fuck up. We had just come from seeing Black Panther. I sat in the small maroon-colored booth bedecked in my long orange and green African print skirt paired with black power earrings and a black shirt with white words emblazoned on my chest:

“We Out.”

-Harriet Tubman, 1849

He jabbered on about the elements of the movie and the performance of the actors. I heard snatches of it. My ears momentarily perked up at the mention of T’Challa or Okoye but I had retreated inward. Processing and reflecting on what I had experienced. Not watched. Experienced. It wasn’t the cinematic experience of seeing Star Wars as a kid or even the first Avengers movie.  This was something else.

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In Okoye, I saw my sister. Her determined stance and stern face but also the compassion that belied it. Interestingly, my sister is a soldier with over 10 years in the U.S. Army. My sister has seen war. My sister graduated in 2000 and promptly enlisted in the army. Then September 11, 2001 happened. I sat in my 11th grade English Lit class taking a test when my A.P. History teacher, Mr. Ervin burst into the room.

“Turn on the tv, now,” he barked at my teacher. We chuckled amongst ourselves thinking what craziness is Mr. Ervin doing. My teacher turned on the TV to the channel Mr. Ervin specified. We sat watching. The plums of smoke emanating from one of the towers.

Then the second plane hit. Silence.

Somewhere, right at that moment, my sister was on a plane.

It was two days before we heard from her. She was OK. Her unit had landed at their layover in Ireland when they heard the news. Soon after, my sister was deployed to Afghanistan and then Iraq. She missed my 2003 high school graduation because of it. When I was a freshman in college, I remember her crying on the phone because all she wanted to come home. The bubbly (still mean) sister changed. Still my sister but different. She had seen some shit. That’s what I saw in Okoye.

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In the playfulness of T’Challa and Shuri, I saw my brother. I think of summer time. Summertime is when we had our fun. At 16, with his first paycheck from Burger King, my brother bought himself a SuperSoaker and two smaller ones for my sister and I. We had a water gun fight in the house.

I remember the inflection of his voice when he calls me “nerd” or, his personal favorite, “beanface.” A few months ago, I saw my big brother and sister. In those moments, where it was was the three of us (no kids underfoot or spouses), I relished in being their little sister. I missed it.

That is why I needed George to shut up. I wanted to luxuriate in the magic, the glory of being seen. To distinctly see the people I know, love, and respect reflected on screen. Not only that, black people thriving and not suffering (for the most part). I didn’t know how much I needed to see that.

It’s that image that drew black audiences to see it multiple times. I kept saying I wanted to see Black Panther a second time. I blamed my failure to do so on the fact I was busy. Friends, that’s not it.

I wanted (and still do) to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can because I know, once I see it a second time, my inner cinephile will come bursting forth. Over 20 years in the making, I can spot a good story. I can spot the holes. I can see the cracks in the foundation.

I want to admire the house for as long as I can before I notice that it may not be as perfect as I think it is or hope it to be.

As a people (speaking to my black folks), we’re still striving to be included at the table, in the conversation. That for one person to succeed is a success for us all. But all too often, we can overlook the cracks. The problem spots. Only the brave speak out on it early. Sometime after seeing Black Panther, I listened to an episode of #StillProcessing, a culture podcast. The two hosts raised the issue of critiquing black art. When will we get to that point where we [meaning black people] critique our work? Not to tear it down but to learn from it and as a result improve upon it.

I nodded along because in their conversation I realized the aforementioned point. I staved off watching the movie because I knew I would have a more critical, less emotional eye on it. And if I did find the cracks, what the fuck was I suppose to do with them?

Critique a commercially-successful move with such meaning to the black community. Deal with the potential blowback. The misygnoir that would (inevitably) rear its ugly head. Yet have black people who will slide in my mentions or DMs to say they privately agree with me. Have my words twisted and weaponized used by white people to say “see this black person didn’t like it.”

Or, more personally, say to my family, I liked it but...and prepare for the clowning I would get. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m overthinking it but reality tells me I’m not.

Black Panther gave us a glimpse of a world where black people are prospering and thriving. It imagined a different way of life. It gave hope.

Who am I to undermine that?

At least, I mean, for now.








A History Lover's Lament: TV Show fuckups

TV writers from NBC to ABC to AMC to Netflix gather in a small conference room awash in shades of calming blue. Some are seated. Most are standing shifting from one foot to another. Silence settles over the group as I stand up. A wry chuckle escapes my lips. My gaze shifts to the pack of Newport 100s in my hand. Ripping the plastic off, I open the pack and slide out one cigarette while looking at them. My unblinking, piercing stare unnerves them. The corners of my mouth flick upward. I like it. I drink in their nervousness.

I take a long drag from my cigarette reflexively closing my eyes. I gently push out the nicotine air. My eyes open once most of the smoke starts to dissipate. Now is the time I open my mouth to say why I gathered them. Why they are standing here?

If you’re not going to study fucking history, don’t write it.

After finishing Season 2 of Anne With an E, I felt annoyed. I took to Twitter and wrote the following tweet:

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My main grievance was the modernization of a historical show. I acknowledge that the show is a work of fiction. However, it draws from history and a very real place: Prince Edward Island, specifically in the 1900s. The first season was solid. The writers utilized our expansive knowledge of the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to flesh out Anne Shirley. While her fortunes may have changed, at the heart, she was a 13 year old orphan who had a traumatic childhood. That does not simply go away. A moment conjures up painful memories of abuse in the orphanage at the hands of the other children and foster parents.

Anne is not the only character explored with greater depth. Over the course of Season 1 and Season 2, the show spends considerable time fleshing out brother-sister duo Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Theirs is a story of familial grief, resilience, and hopes deferred. Who could they have been had their older brother Michael not died? His death was a tremendous impact that obliterated their family.

It is through Anne’s experience that the lens expands to touch on the social mores of 1900s rural Canada. Avonlea, for all its homespun, lighthearted glory, is a close-minded, deeply conservative town. Despite being a child, Anne is regarded as defective, troublesome, and broken. From Marilla’s childhood friend Rachel Lynde to the good minister, they are all too eager to believe the worst of her and to shun her. Much of the show consists of Anne having to prove herself worthy, in some way, to this town.

Taking all of the Season 1 groundwork into consideration, the show (and its writers) blow all of that up in Season 2. On the pillars of race and sexuality, the show makes a bungled foray into historical territory that exists on the margins. This is tackled through the introduction of Sebastian (aka Bash), a Trinidadian man, Cole, an artistic Avonlea farm boy, and Josephine Barry, a wealthy relative of the Barry family.

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In the case of Bash, the show relied on obvious racial discomfort and shock of seeing a black man and overt racism. It is then we learn, interestingly, that black people do live in an area called "The Bog." The Bog is referred derisively by white characters as a place for “criminals and the wretches of society.” Yet, that is not what Bash experiences. In this space, Bash finds rest from the white gaze and enjoys kinship. Season 1 demonstrated that Anne, a white female orphan had to prove herself over and over to these judgmental townies that, despite what they thought, she was good. Bash does not follow a similar trajectory. He is, more or less, accepted.

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Then there is Cole who is relentlessly bullied by an asshole kid Billy and often scolded by his teacher, Mr. Phillips, who struggles with being gay as well. On the show, being gay is demonstrated as being artistic and a preference for hanging with the girls instead of the boys. When he reveals his sexuality to Anne, he finds acceptance. When his world comes crashing down and everything ripped away from him, he finds a solution. He gets his happy ending no matter how implausible.

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Josephine Barry, given what little we know of her financial background other than “well off,” likely lives a life slightly truer to history. With money, she can go to Paris and have extravagant parties. Essentially, live her life out loud. Yet, it circles back to whether or not she would have been ostracized by her family, specifically her relatives in provincial Avonlea.

All of these questions swirl around these characters and yet none tackled to any sufficient degree. This show did not shy away from showing the harsher aspects of life in regards to Anne. However, when they introduce characters of color and queer people, suddenly, their experience is different, better. Warm and inviting. A modern corrective on a likely abysmal but historical experience. Frankly, these characters are written as white, male characters where bad things happen to them but they still win out in the end. Historically, when you exist on the margins, a true happy ending was the exception not the rule.

Yet, when I pull back the curtain, the treatment of history among TV shows is wanting. As a student of history, I cannot suspend my disbelief and gloss over historical experiences. From the practically nonexistent sexism and racism toward Betsy, a black female sex worker in Damnation to the problematic, sloppy Season 2 of Underground, television writers have demonstrated they take too much creative license and paint history with a modern lens. Try as I might I still give them a chance.

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Only one show succeeded in creating a nuanced take on history and that’s AMC’s Hell on Wheels. It is a masterful study of an interesting time in America’s history beginning soon after the Civil War. This show depicted the realities of life not only in that time but in general. A perfect happy ending is rare but you can still find a good ending. I did not watch the show much after its second season. I tuned out when the protagonist made a choice that was far afield of his character. I could not believe everything that resulted from that decision. That colossal mistake aside, the show kept me captivated. Underground started out on that trajectory and then bungled the play in the second season. I stuck with it but left underwhelmed.


 

23 years later why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Paradise still bugs the fuck out of me

According to the episode synopsis, Paradise (S2E15) of Deep Space Nine is as follows:

While surveying nearby star systems for M-Class planets, Sisko and O’Brien locate a planet that already supports a colony of humans.

I originally started my rewatch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as part of a bi-weekly blog for Black Girl Nerds. That project has fallen by the wayside but I continued watching old episodes out of nostalgia. DS9 was my first foray into the Star Trek universe. I remember seeing syndicated episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series but they didn’t stick in my mind. They captured my attention for the length of an episode but then I quickly forgot about it afterward.

Deep Space Nine captured my imagination.

The show premiered in 1993 when I was 9 years old. I vaguely remember my mother being excited to see it. It wasn’t until I saw Commander Benjamin Sisko, a black man, on screen that I actually sat down and watched the show. DS9 became a weekly bonding experience with my mother. We would watch it and then during commercial breaks discuss what happened. Then, after the episode was over, we would talk about it at length. I attribute by scifi nerdom and love of Star Trek to my mother. Sometimes when I hear of a new science fiction show or movie, I wonder if my mom would like it and, admittedly, I miss her because I want to talk to her about it. But, I digress.

During my rewatch, one image, one episode kept coming to mind. It was the sight of Sisko crawling into this sweatbox on this planet as punishment. I couldn’t remember the details surrounding it only that the image in my head stirred such strong emotions in me. Emotions that still existed some 23 years later.

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I remember being angry. Angry at the circumstances surrounding the punishment. Proud of Sisko for standing his ground. Lastly, I felt pity because of the physical toll the punishment took on this character I had grown to care about. That is what I remember.

Then, this past Friday, I reached that episode which originally aired on February 14, 1994. It was surreal watching an episode that I first saw at 9 years old versus being a 33 year old woman now. Unlike when I was younger where I waited a week in between, I am binge-watching so I’m easily watching 2-3 episodes in one sitting.

Seeing this episode as a child is a wholly different experience than watching it as an adult, especially now in 2017.

The first themes to grab me was the racial dynamic at play. While the colony was composed of people of different racial backgrounds, the main person in charge, dispensing the rules, was a white person, specifically a white woman. Her name was Alixus. Not only that, her antagonist to this status quo was a black man, Commander Benjamin Sisko.

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What struck me was how dehumanizing the whole experience was for Sisko.

Her treatment of him was an exercise in stripping him of his Starfleet prestige and breaking him down into a contributing member to “her colony.” For example, she initially called him Commander but quickly settled into call him Ben. This may be a trivial, but I strongly believe it was intentional. Her way of saying who you are doesn’t matter to who I want you to become. She often broke the touch barrier. Reaching out to invade Sisko’s personal space without asking. She demanded that he adhere to her rules partly knowing that as a Starfleet officer that aspects of the Prime Directive were at play. Non-interference is ideal but if there is an interaction and potential impact to keep it minimal. She couched her rebuttals in this language.

Her tone of voice was more abrasive with Sisko than O’Brien, especially when Sisko showed his defiance to her rules and rejecting that this way of life should become his. For example, he chose to stay in uniform than to put on the clothes of the other community members in spite of Alixus demands.

It is telling to me that Alixus never takes the time to understand Sisko. To get to know him. She spent more time dominating the conversation and pontificating her ideas. I bring this up because, at this point in the series, Sisko has been established as a strong but fair leader, a widower, and devoted father to his son Jake. Nowhere in this episode is Jake mentioned. It’s all part of the dehumanizing process. Alixus does not take the time to learn about Sisko. I wonder if that would have changed her behavior toward Sisko to know that he has a son. I firmly believed it wouldn’t have impacted her actions toward him.

Much of the above could have been dismissed as a warped sense of leadership until we get to “the box.” A person who committed a crime that negatively impacted the community was punished. That punishment was to be placed in “the box” for however long without food or water. The box was, from what I could tell, situated directly in the noonday sun.

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This is where the racial dynamic, the white supremacy of it all, pushes Alixus and her fixation on Sisko to another level. O’Brien, in his own way, tries to help cure a woman in the community using technology. Alixus deemed this a crime because that was time he could have spent contributing to the community. (So, saving a woman’s life isn’t helping the community? Um, ok.)

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At this point in the story, Sisko has been a little too “uppity” and non-conformist. So, she defers O’Brien’s punishment onto Sisko. The one prominent black person is being placed in a box as punishment by a white person. This 24th century punishment parallels 19th century punishment of enslaved peoples.

Add to this the statements of Alixus to Sisko to work in the fields, I was close to done y’all. That anger I experienced as a child all clicked into place. As much as I loved science as a kid I was also a big fan of history. So even if I didn’t have words for it, I understood on some level what was happening. The underlying racial tension. As a 33 year old black woman in 2017, I seethed with anger. This time I had the words.

All I could see was the trope of Alixus as the slave master and Sisko cast as the obstinate enslaved person. She was trying to break him into submission. Alixus even wielded her power to get another member of the community to seduce Sisko. She thought (incorrectly, of course) that by appealing to Sisko’s sexual desires would help him to conform but he saw through that. I was even more appalled that she sent the only visible woman of color to do it. That power dynamic with heavy racial overtones.

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Ultimately, Sisko didn’t break and I felt vindicated but I left deeply unsatisfied by the ending.

It turns out that Alixus engineered the group being stranded on the planet in order to live out her philosophies. She impacted the lives of a group of people, lied to them, and derived power from it. In the ten years they were stranded, people died y’all so this woman could get what she wanted. The show undermined this idea by saying that they had better lives because of her. The group accepts that premise and decides to stay. The whole thing was wrong and terribly unfair. In that sense, Alixus (and the show) had stripped these people of their own individual humanity.

They had families. They had friends. What of the anguish of their families not knowing that their loved ones were alive?

Alixus goes to face her punishment as the white savior/tragic hero that the show unintentionally (or intentionally) painted her. The people stay.

The last shot is of the two children born on the planet looking sadly, regretfully at the box. I pitied them. Where was their choice? Out of a group of 30 some odd adults they were the only children. What would happen to them when the adults died? Likely, it would be the two of them left stranded on a planet that they didn’t need to be stranded on in the first place.

The Arrogance (and Humiliation) of Dr. Julian Bashir, a DS9 Review

In The Passenger (S1E09), the first five minutes of the episode puts Dr. Bashir's arrogance front and center. Growing up, I don't remember Bashir being so arrogant but I too rolled my eyes along with Major Kira as she listened to him. Up to this point, the show depicts Bashir as arrogant, persistent (when attempting to woo Jadzia Dax), smart, and someone who knows how to spit game. Weren't ready for that last bit were you? There are at least two moments in past episodes where you see see how Bashir is a smooth operator. Spittin' some lines and getting the ladies.

I digress.

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What best way to undercut Bashir's arrogance and, hopefully, lead to a meaningful transformation as a character? Have this man's consciousness hijacked by an even more intelligent (and dastardly) individual named Rao Vantika who is willing to kill to stay alive. How well does the episode execute this? Not effectively I'm afraid. How can a man be transformed if he is unaware that he is a pawn in another player's game? There are no moments where we see Bashir puzzle out/explain away certain atypical behavior. Does he wake up and wonder how did he get somewhere while Vantika used his body to attack Quark? This is a route left unexplored.

Ultimately, the big reveal is underwhelming. I figured it was Bashir-turned-Vantika the minute he attacked Quark. Although we don't see him, there is no mistaking Bashir's whispered voice. Bashir has a distinct way of speaking that really can't be masked even if whispered. Perhaps it would have been more effective if Vantika spoke in his native Kobliad language. That would have given the reveal a lot more pop.

The episode attempts to conjure up some secondary conflict between Chief of Station Security Odo and the new Starfleet Security Chief Commander Pimmin. The tension exists all of five minutes before its resolved and Odo and Pimmin are okay. Why even bring this up then?

The episode is neatly tied up in 43 minutes and ends how it began about Bashir. He articulates humiliation but I couldn't help but wonder how are you really humiliated? This person did evil things unbeknownst to you. Or is it possible your arrogance to help a man that you were warned was extremely dangerous is what you bothers you. The emotional work wasn't there to lead to a substantive character transformation.