Sunday, December 23, 2018

Causing Trouble with Odienator: Shirley, You Can't Be Serious!

by Odienator

Sometimes the gods toss me a pitch straight down the middle, one so blatant and so clear that my near-sighted, half-blind ass can hit it out of the park without even trying. Today, I'd like to thank whichever god sent me Green Book, the Peter Farrelly Jungle Fever Cookie Buddy Movie* that has White critics dancing the Hucklebuck in the aisles while twisting logic into pretzels in order to justify its existence. This is a movie where a racist (but not TOO racist) Italian man drives a regal Black musical genius across the South in 1962, realizing along the way that perhaps he should reserve the word mulignana for eggplants only. Yes, folks, in 2018, Hollywood has deemed that we need yet another "one of the Good Negroes" movies to soothe the savage breasts of insecure racists everywhere. In the year of BlackKklansman, Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther, did we really need a race-based throwback so musty and old that even Stanley Kramer would have found it too dated?

Of course we did! This is how Hollywood has always worked. As soon as Black folks started running around crossing their arms and saying "Wakanda Forever," basking in films made for us and by us, Hollywood was like "hey, they're gettin' too big for their britches again! Gotta show 'em their place." It happened in 1967 after Sidney Poitier, then the top box office draw, slapped the everlasting gobstopper shit out of a rich, racist White man in Norman Jewison's Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night. That had never been done before, and Black audiences responded accordingly with whoops of joy. Finally, Sidney had shaken off the shackles of years of playing characters who "knew their place" and come out literally swinging! Plus, he was smarter than everybody else in that movie and he knew it. Hollywood responded by completely neutering Sidney in his next film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? His brilliant doctor character was as practically perfect as Mary Poppins yet still wasn't good enough to marry some well-below-his-league hippie White chick. I can only imagine how quickly Black audiences felt deflated by this.

I guess the Hollywood powers-that-be thought two movies with "Black" in their titles were inspiring untenable levels of African-American pride and confidence in 2018. As the Bible says, "pride goeth before destruction and an uppity Negro before the fall." So we needed to be reminded of how Hollywood likes its people of color. Enter Green Book, a movie where the Black character has to be taught how to be the White audience's interpretation of "Black." Dr. Don Shirley (an excellent Mahershala Ali) may play the piano with amazing skill, have multiple degrees, speak eight languages fluently and live above Carnegie Hall, but he apparently knows nothing about what this film thinks is Black culture, nor does he know many of the fundamentals for survival as a person of color in 1962. "I know more about your people than you do," says his driver, Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, sporting a questionable Brawnks, Noo Yawk accent as thick as this film's bullshit). 

That line is the biggest pander for the type of audience who'd sop Green Book off the screen with a biscuit of cluelessness. But let's start at the beginning and work our way up to that excruciating sequence where Tony Lip gets to play Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's Nygmalion. I called this film a "Jungle Fever Cookie Buddy Movie," which is my term for a film like 48 Hrs. where a Black guy and a White guy become friends and/or allies while the film perpetrates a false sense of equality between them. In the majority of these films, the Black character is always beneath the White character despite what the plot dictates, and everything is filtered through the White character's eyes. Ask yourself, how much do you actually know about the personal lives of Hoke from Driving Miss Daisy? Or Viola Davis in The Help? Or, Lord help me, Bagger Vance? You know practically nothing, right? Let's explore this phenomenon.

And what exactly is a "Jungle Fever Cookie" you ask?

 The coloring is equal on the cookie, but not in the movies! 

Green Book is co-written by Tony Lip's son Nick, and he's more intrested in glorifying his Daddy than giving Don Shirley any realistic humanity. (That's a good son for you!) Dr. Shirley doesn't even show up until almost half an hour into the film. Until then, we're following Tony Lip through his paces as a bouncer for the Copacabana. Tony's got a bit of a racket going on there, stealing hats for money and earning favors with the local mob guys who frequent Barry Manilow's favorite hangout spot. Currying favor with the local Mafiosi is as far as Tony Lip's willing to go--he has no interest in joining. He'd rather enter eating contests, but those are few and far between. So when the Copa has to close for renovations, Tony's suddenly at a temporary loss for work, one that could easily be supplemented by the far heavier and more dangerous work he's not willing to do for the Don. Don't worry, folks, another Don is willing to hire him.

The Vallelongas live in the northernmost borough of New York City. Tony Lip wakes up one morning to find half his in-laws and a quarter of the neighborhood in his house. His wife, Dolores (the lovely, talented Linda Cardellini) reminds him that this was the morning the sink was being repaired. The reason the goombah squad is currently present is simple: The plumbers are a couple of Black guys trying to earn a living. Dolores offers the gentlemen water in glasses, and once the men have finished, Tony Lip tosses the glasses in the trash.

Let's stop right here. This entire scene is the first sign Green Book is going to be dishonest, half-assed, Caucasian-congratulatin' bullshit. Tony Lip and his buddies converse in Italian, which is helpfully translated into English on the screen right up until the moment they get to the word mulignana. The subtitles use the literal translation of the word, which is eggplant, rather than its slang translation. You don't have to be from my beloved home state of New Jersey to know that, in a certain context, mulignana also means nigger.

This is why I would never order eggplant parmigiana at an Italian joint.

Viggo Mortensen doesn't get to say the N-word in the film, but he felt quite comfortable saying it at a post-screening Q&A in Los Angeles. "Nobody says nigger anymore," said Mortensen. When the Twitterati went up in arms, Mortensen and his defenders demanded everyone look at the context in which Mortensen used the word. Believe it or not, I agree! Context is everything here, and while I'm rather stunned Mortensen felt ballsy enough to drop the word while surrounded by two Black men, he was attempting to make a point, no matter how misguided his point actually was. Viggo's comment was wrong as fuck because people still say nigger! Read my hate mail sometimes! Or the comments under my pieces.

But context is everything, right? Too bad the subtitlers didn't follow this rule. And you know why? Becuase they didn't want to make Tony Lip and his crew seem "too racist." They needed to be Avenue Q-level racist, not Hilly-Holbrook-in-The-Help-level racist. Dolores digs the plumbers' glasses out of the trash and shakes her head the way Edith Bunker probably did, but I just have one question: Who the fuck called all those people over when the Black plumbers showed up in the first place? I have a good guess!

Anyway, these are trivial matters compared to what comes next. Tony Lip gets a bead on a job. Some doctor is looking for a driver to take him through what Timbaland referred to as the "dirty South." Oddly enough, this doctor lives atop Carnegie Hall. And he's BLICK, to use the Lethal Weapon II pronunciation.

"I was Black Moses YEARS before Ike."

Our first look at Dr. Shirley is amazing. Here's this beautiful, dark-skinned Black man with a voice so mellifluous it would shame the gods, and he's decked out in regal garb that looks as if Wakanda and Zamunda had a baby. If the makers of Green Book put out the Don Shirley Line, I'd max out my credit cards buying his threads, his throne and his shoes. I'd be dressed up at critic's screenings, throwing shade and saying "bitch, don't sit next to me! You COMMONER!!"

Speaking of shoes, Tony Lip is on board with doing the drive until he hears that he has to shine Dr. Shirley's shoes. "Youse supposed ta be shinin' MY shoes!" I said, reading Tony Lip's mind. The guy says he has no problems working for a Black man, but that shoe thing's a bridge too far! Secretly, I hoped Shirley would offer him a drink and then toss the glass into the trash after Tony Lip finished. "You people have cooties!" the good doctor would have said. But no, Dr. Shirley's gotta remain noble nad magical.

Tony Lip takes the job. Otherwise we'd have no movie. At this point, nearly an hour in, we finally see the item that gives Green Book its title. Dr. Shirley's manager hands it to Tony Lip and explains its purpose. What we learn about them in this movie is in stark contrast to what I learned about them. (Full disclosure: I actually own a few that were bequeathed to me.) Since Green Book has a White martyr complex, it says nothing about how the book explained sundown towns or how useful and important it was for Black travelers. Instead, we learn that the Green Book listings were all rundown and dangerous places where Black people have never seen anyone who looks like Don Shirley. The movie hasn't done enough damage, so now it has to piss on the thing that gives it its title.

Have a good look at it, because Farrelly and Co. aren't gonna give you one.

Dr. Shirley is smart enough to know that having muscle like Tony Lip is a good idea in the deep South. And there's a very believable scene where his bodyguard intervenes to make sure his contractual demands of a Steinway piano are met. But most of Green Book is Tony Lip trying to "loosen up" and "Blackify" Dr. Shirley. Nowhere is this more cringe-inducing and blatant than in the movie's centerpiece, an interminable scene that involves Kentucky Fried Chicken. You know the filmmakers thought this scene was important, because the trailer for Green Book highlights it, as does every single commercial. I'm absolutely stunned that KFC didn't do a movie tie-in, complete with an endorsement from their "Crispy Colonel" incarnation of Colonel Sanders. Because fried chicken is on screen so long it deserves consideration in the Supporting Actor category at this year's Academy Awards. It shows up again later at a ritzy dinner, sticking out like a sore thumb on all that that good china!

This is George Hamilton as "The Crispy Colonel"--I did not make that shit up.

The fried chicken-eating scene occurs while the duo is driving through Kentucky. Tony Lip is excited that he can buy Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky! I lived in Florence, Kentucky for four months, and I'll be honest, I went to KFC just to say I bought it in Kentucky. So I get Tony Lip's enthusiasm about this. However, the scene quickly goes awry when Tony Lip tries to get Dr. Shirley to partake in the eleven herbs and spices-infused subject of a hundred thousand racist Black jokes.

Dr. Shirley declines, and for a second, I thought the movie would make a sly dig at the idea that some Black folks would NEVER eat fried chicken in "polite company." I was instead reminded that this is a film written by three White guys who know as much about Black people as I do about open-heart surgery. Dr. Shirley responds with a line that I guarantee you the writers thought was a means of bypassing stereotype:

"I have never eaten fried chicken in my life!" protests Shirley.

"Shirley, you can't be serious!" I thought. "Nigga, you from FLORIDA!"

Now I hear you muthafuckas reading this. "Odie, you a racist!! All that 'we are not a monolith' talk, and here you are painting this poor man with stereotype." Well, y'all can kiss my natural Black ass two times! Unlike the makers of Green Book, I actually looked into what Don Shirley's relatives had to say about him. His brother, Maurice said Shirley "had definitely eaten fried chicken before" he went on this road trip. So the only reason this scene exists is to show Tony Lip teaching his boss to be "more Black." Hell, this is the scene where he says "I know more about your people than you do."

Of course, Dr. Shirley discovers he likes KFC. I bet he'd like Popeye's, Bojangles or Church's even better, but Green Book doesn't have time for taste tests. Tony Lip is too busy teaching this classically trained pianist about other Black musicians like Little Richard. He asks if Shirley can play in a similar vein, which is obviously foreshadowing the moment when Shirley goes full boogie-woogie on an upright piano in a juke joint later in the film. "Now, you're truly Black!" the movie seems to be saying as the juke joint audience applauds the performance. I suppose Farrelly would have had the patrons looking at the camera all confused, saying "what de FUCK is dat shit?!" had Shirley played them some Chopin or Scott Joplin.

Green Book is an incredibly offensive film, but its decision to isolate Shirley from Black people and Black culture is its most egregious sin. The assumptions it makes are uninformed and harmful. It posits that Black people would not appreciate an educated man like Dr. Shirley because they share more in common with a racist Italian with a sixth-grade education who knows how to play cee-lo. It never gives thought to the notion that Dr. Shirley might be someone his people could be proud of, or could aspire to be. Dr. Shirley is presented as noble for playing for rich White assholes, but also problematic because he's too "White-acting" to fit in within his own community.

Dr. Shirley is never allowed to tell us what he really thinks about his life. The question of why he's even interested in playing in the segregated South isn't answered by him. Instead, it's answered by one of his fellow musicians, who says a bullshit line that's so cliched that I'm not even going to print it. Instead, Shirley gets a rain-soaked monologue where he asks Tony Lip "where do I belong?" Ali plays the hell out of that monologue, but I couldn't believe for one second that his character would deliver it.

In order to elevate Tony Lip's White Saviorism even further, Green Book also isolates Don Shirley from his own family. He tells Tony Lip that he has no idea where his brother is and that they're no longer in contact. (This is a lie.) One would be forgiven if one assumed this had to do with Shirley's homosexuality, but it does not. There's a scene here where Tony Lip has to save his boss after Shirley gets caught having sex with a gay White man in a deep South YMCA. All I could ask myself was "is this man really this stupid? Does he not know of the dangers of being horny, Black and outside at night in the deep South?" Tony Lip's nonchalant reaction to learning Dr. Shirley is gay is actually more believable than the situation in which he discovers it; he basically says he's seen this stuff before at the Copa and that, if it got out, "this could ruin your career."

Green Book bills itself as the story of "an unlikely friendship." According to the film, however, this friendship is built completely on Dr. Shirley's need to be constantly saved and educated. Tony Lip not only gets a lost lamb, he also gets his own personal Cyrano de BergerBlac to help him woo his wife. But what does Dr. Shirley get out of this "friendship"? A Guardian angel who shows him how to keep it a hunnert with Black folks?

They even had a "Tell us about your one Black friend, White people!" contest!

When Shirley shows up at the Vallelonga residence for Christmas dinner at the end of Green Book, there's the expected initial shock from everyone. But then the guys who were formerly racist against the plumbers welcome him in practically with open arms. They're gonna have to throw away an entire place setting after he leaves, including silverware! I thought. That's gonna be expensive. And Mrs. V. even thanks him for helping her husband write better love letters, which I can believe she would do. Her comment is the last line of the film, in fact, a sweet sentiment designed to send the audience out beaming over the end of the racisms!

Green Book won the Audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and is being positioned as the salve we need in this era of neo-Nazis and the president who loves them. You'd be forgiven if you got this impression from the reviews, the award nominations and the critics awards. (As of this writing, it won the National Board of Review's Best Picture and Best Actor awards.) Earlier, I said White critics were dancing the Hucklebuck over this movie, and there are plenty of reviews that support my point. But to be transparent and truthful, not everyone was fooled:

A.O. Scott wrote: "As I said, there’s not much here you haven’t seen before, and very little that can’t be described as crude, obvious and borderline offensive, even as it tries to be uplifting and affirmative."

The always elegant Richard Brody wrote: "“Green Book” offers a vision of racists changing their views, but in a way that doesn’t in any way threaten racist prejudices" and ends his review with the word "bullshit."

And my good friend Sean Burns wrote that Green Book "plays like a bizarre Trumpist’s anti-Obama empowerment fantasy, in which a proudly ignorant white prole is constantly humiliating an erudite, sophisticated black man and showing him how the world really works."

Speaking of conservative fantasies, if those folks really wanted to own those Northerner Libs and call them on their racial hypocrisy, all they'd have to do is look at some quotes from the director himself and critics like David Edelstein. Farrelly gave a very telling interview to Vulture where he kept pulling executive producer Octavia Spencer's name out whenever the question leaned toward "why the fuck are you making this dated embarassment?" But this is my favorite part of the interview:

You’re talking about the scene where Viggo can’t believe that Mahershala’s character has never eaten fried chicken and basically browbeats him into trying some for the first time. It is great. But when it started, I’ll admit I got queasy, thinking the scene might go in a racist direction.

Yeah, well, the strength of it is that when [Viggo] says, “Hey, if you told me Guineas like meatballs and spaghetti, I wouldn’t get insulted.” He kind of is opening it up and saying, “This is bullshit. Don’t bring up this race shit. I know what you like.” And there’s so much humor in there with it, you know? “You have a narrow assessment of me, Tony,” Don says. And Tony Lip goes, “Yeah, I’m good, right?” It’s that kind of stuff. When she was in the editing room with me, Octavia was howling, and it just gave me such encouragement. 

I imagined Spencer in the editing room rocking back and forth while chanting "Minny don't burn chicken" like a mantra. And I don't recall any Prince Spaghetti Day commercials causing Italians to be discriminated against. So this is major-league false equivalency. Plus, Farrelly's comment proves my exact point about how his entire movie is some White guy doling out Blackness advice to an African-American: "Don't bring up this race shit, I know what you like." Really, now?

Also at Vulture, film critic David Edelstein got in as much hot water as Prince Spaghetti when he ended his glowing review like this:

"And I have to confess that in the current, insanely divisive political climate, I enjoyed Green Book’s spoon-feeding mightily. The movie taps into a kind of nostalgia for when everything — even racism — seemed simpler, and ready to be legislated out of existence."

It took him 2 days, but Edelstein eventually tried to clean that shit up, saying: "I find to my horror that my closing line reads as if I have nostalgia for a time when racism was even more pervasive and deadly than it is today. I don’t." Rather than question the sincerity of his apology, I'd like to quote an earlier line from his review as the last point in this thesis:

"After abrasive hits like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’s The Butler (as well as flops like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit), the thinking is that audiences will be in the mood for a warmhearted, mismatched-buddy, racial-bonding drama-comedy that spoon-feeds you everything and goes down real easy."

THE BUTLER IS ABRASIVE?! I reviewed it and there's a Black Man Talk on it right here at this very site. It's far from a "let's scare de White People" movie. But what the three films Edelstein singled out have in common is that they all show Black people interacting outside of the gaze of White people. No matter what one thinks of the quality of these films, they show things other than what the White characters see or know about these people. In The Butler, it's even a comic counterpoint--we see how the servants (led by my doppelganger Cuba Gooding Jr.) interact amongst themselves as opposed to how they act in "polite company."

Apparently, that's abrasive to the good White viewers who don't consider themselves racist. This thinking is why shit like Green Book still gets made, and why any complaints from critics of color are being met with protests that we're "ruining its Oscar chances!" (I still say it'll win Best Picture if its box office picks up.) Well, if "abrasive" racism onscreen makes you uncomforable, try dealing with it in real life every fucking day of your existence. Sharing a bucket of KFC isn't gonna fix that.

"Write this down. Why was I the only person who had to apologize to Dr. Shirley's family?"

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Black Man Talk: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, or Please, T'Challa Don't Hurt 'Em

by Steven Boone and Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(The following is a conversation between Big Media Vandalism founder Steven Boone and Big Media Vandalism's proprietor Odie Henderson. It is the latest in the Black Man Talk series. Other installments include American Gangsters, Tyler Perry, Django Unchained, 42, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Dear White People, 12 Years a Slave, Sidney Poitier and Get Out)

Post #1: Odie

Brother Boone,

Have all the Black Man Talks we've done in the past been leading up to this one?

Since its announcement, Marvel's Black Panther movie has had Black folks, to use Tim Curry's pharsing, shivering with antici...PATION. The optimism hit fever pitch when it was announced that Ryan Coogler would direct it. What a perfect choice for this material! With Creed, Coogler bent a beloved White creation at a right angle and refocused it on the character he rooted for as a kid. And he did it without diminishing Sylvester Stallone, the creator of the franchise. Coogler returned Rocky to the underdog status that made viewers shed tears for him back in 1976, yet he also made the movie a showcase for his own themes and characters within Stallone's universe. Here was a guy who had proven he could step into something and make it his OWN. BLACK. THING.

Had they announced that J.J. Abrams was directing it, Black folks would have still been dancing in the streets, but it would have looked like the two Black dudes in Billy Joel's Uptown Girl video instead of the wedding dance number in Coming to America.

What kind of fire are you starting with these Negroes, Billy Joel?

Speaking of Coming to America, ten years ago on this very site, I proclaimed that film "the Blackest movie ever made." I took a lot of shit for that, but I stood by my words. Now, methinks I must run a retraction. Is Black Panther the Blackety-Black-Blackest movie ever made? Let's discuss that!

Speaking of people named Abrams, you and our mutual pal Simon Abrams (no relation to J.J., verdict still out on affiliation with Colonel) did a Black Panther piece over at The Ho'Wood Reporter. I'm glad you got to jibber jabber with someone who knows about comic books and universes and all that shit. Because, as you know, I'm pretty clueless in this department. I was not allowed to read comic books as a kid. My mother said they were "only for stupid people" and had them banned from the home. The only superhero I can speak about with any historical context is Spider-Man, who was rather ubiquitous in our childhood era. He was on The Electric Company and in those cartoon reruns with the bomb-ass theme song. Spidey's comics were the only ones I snuck into the house for years. In fact, Spider-Man is responsible for one of the more memorable childhood ass-whippings I received. But that's a story for another time.

Since I'm digging back here in my chlldhood, let me show you a memory. When I was a kid, my male cousins and I would tuck my aunt's towels into the backs of our t-shirts and play superhero games. Unlike me, they had superhero Underoos, so their outfits looked more "realistic." My Mom said we were too broke for Underoos, and my therapist will tell you that my being deprived of said fancy kiddie underwear is why I'm willing to spend 90 bucks on a pair of drawers today.
I discovered that they make these for adults now. I'll pass.

Back then, I just had my towel-as-cape and my imagination.

Like all kiddie games, the ones we played had some wacko rules. The one that affected me dealt with the fact I wore glasses. When we played Superman, I was only allowed to be Clark Kent. "Superman doesn't wear glasses," my cousin Al once told me. The fact that all of the superheroes we portrayed were White never struck us as a reason we couldn't play them; it was a given that all superheroes and villains were White. I mean, as far as Blackness goes, we had the Verb guy from Schoolhouse Rock, and later, the Brown Hornet on Fat Albert. On the villain side, we had Eartha Kitt's sexy Catwoman--and the shoddy animation on The Adventures of Letterman made the turban-clad Spellbinder occasionally look like he might be a redbone. But we knew nothing of Black Panther, who'd been around since 1966 but had never been in a medium that trickled down to us.

I bring this up because a lot of responsibility has been thrust upon Black Panther in terms of representation. Coogler and his cast can't just deliver the standard issue superhero movie. Like Patty Jenkins before him, the director had to shoulder the burden of the hopes and dreams of those who finally feel their time in the sunshine had finally come. For Jenkins, it was all about women and for Coogler, it's Blackness. I don't think either of these added pressures were fair to the filmmakers or the movies themselves. Chris Rock said--and I used this same line in our Black Man Talk on 42--that we'll have finally "overcome" when Black folks are allowed to be as mediocre as their White counterparts.

So, the initial theory was that Black Panther would have to be absolutely perfect in its execution in order to satisfy all of the souls yearning for something like Wakanda. Which is why I welcomed you and Simon's carefully measured takes on the material. Specifically, I want to focus on this statement of yours:

For all its concessions to modern style, Black Panther is a very '60s movie whose hero may be royalty, but whose burdens and pitfalls are ultimately those of a Pan-African revolutionary. It leaves T'Challa and his genius sister right where Newton and Seale began: making plans to shepherd self-determination and innovation in America.

I love this and want to use this to begin our discussion of T'Challa's ideologies vs. Killmonger's ideologies. More than one White film critic has tried to position this as a Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X "battle royal," which to me is not only rather ignorant but also forgivable because the schools don't teach Marcus Garvey (or either of the names you site in the above quote). How would you describe the differences between Killmonger's ideas of world domination and the Wakandian ideal of isolation and Swiss-like neutrality?

Please be as Black as possible and show all work.

Also up for discussion as our talk progresses: What interaction, if any, did you have with Black superheroes as a kid? Did Coogler's vision of Wakanda, made real by Rachel Morrison's ace cinematography (she knows how to light and shadow brown skin in ways that evoke Gordon Willis in The Landlord) and Ruth E. Carter's jaw-droppingly tactile costumes--did this vision speak to you both as a filmmaker and as a viewer? Whom would we side with? Killmonger or T'Challa? And most importantly, did the beautiful, smart and dangerous Dora Milaje make you wish for a kickass reunion of Zhane?

We should also discuss something The Hollywood Reporter piece went into at length, the film's battle sequences and its violence. I gave Black Panther four stars over at Roger's, but that doesn't mean I think it's perfect. I liked the scenes more than you guys did, but I'm gonna have to take Col. Abrams behind the woodshed for some of his ideas. And I'm sure you'll be taking me behind the woodshed for some of mine. It's gonna be our ass-whuppingest Black Man Talk yet! Let's break off some switches and get started, shall we?

Post #2: Boone 

I'm glad my tete a tete with Colonel Abrams at The Hollywood Reporter provoked such a rich response.

I'll get to the most important issue first: I never pay more than ten bucks for drawls (TM), but if somebody comes out with adult Wakanda Underoos, an exception shall be made. [Ed. Note: They got some Chewbacca Underoos for adults, but no Lando Calrissian ones, the bastards.]

You mentioned that Coogler and Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins "had to shoulder the burden of the hopes and dreams of those who finally feel their time in the sunshine had finally come." I agree with this, though I still yearn for creators of color or underrepresented gender to take up an even heavier and riskier burden: make your own universe.  Now that Black Panther has put some heat and shine on Afrofuturism, let's have a renaissance. When I hit the lotto, I am going to give Andrew Dosunmu and Bradford Young $200 million to make a sci-fi epic out of whatever they damn please, with no supervision. If they go over budget, thas they problem. I'll slide Janizsca Bravo, Khalil Joseph, Hiro Murai (our great ally), Malik Sayeed, Shaka King, Arthur Jafa $10 million each to make something that, to their individual satisfactions, fits the description "next level." And I'll let Charles Burnett name his price for any lingering lost project or quixotic dream he wants to put onscreen. And I will fight to get them all in the multiplexes and on major streaming platforms.

Look, if politicians can make empty promises, why can't a random blog weirdo? But I do hope somebody who can move some cash around is listening. What I've learned during the past decade of Marvel Studios' ascendancy is just how vast is many grown black folks' knowledge of that companies' comic book properties. I've listened in on perhaps hundreds of passionate debates about Marvel storylines that tend to get as raucous as sports, politics and religion talks. And if you happen to praise any aspect of the Bryan SInger/20th Century Fox renditions of X-Men, brother, PREPARE TO GET CUT.

Is Black Panther the blackest movie ever made? Naw. But it is the blackest mainstream fantasy film since The Wiz. (In my worthless opinion, Coming to America shares the crown with WATTSTAX.) It is indeed blackety-black, most def. There are many indexes of its blackety-blackness, but my favorites are the simple exhilarating closeups of African women with short, natural hair (or no hair), stunning all to silence with their beauty--the ecstatic truth so long denied. Images that answer centuries of slurs and falsehoods against the great wondrous wellspring of our people. Of all people. All this to say: Lupita I love you, we can be happy!!

Lupita responds "New phone. Who dis?"

So anyway, I'm with you on the Chris Rock-inspired notion that we will really have overcome when we no longer expect a director hired by a major corporation for a popcorn movie to deliver us to the promised land while tap dancing like the Nicholas Brothers and pounding the keys like Oscar Peterson. Coogler is indeed some kind of burgeoning genius, but let's let that brother breathe. Right now he could probably use the gift of a small, intimate film. It would be great to see all the international attention drawn by his association with a blockbuster lured over to some amazing, life-affirming story of an ordinary Black Life. Or whatever Coogler wants. We have to show this brother love by letting him be. I was going to say "setting him free" to make a corny reference but no: the whole point is that there is no liberator more powerful than one's self.

One of the interesting aspects of the Killmonger character is that his Field Nigga cynicism and siege mentality could have been harnessed for revolutionary muscle but it didn't "free" him. You are not free when you live in constant unresolved trauma and rage. And on the flipside, you are not any more or less a prisoner of a white supremacist system if you adopt non-violent resistance. Malcolm and Martin died the same way, and for the same reasons: they had reached a place of boundless mental freedom that, given their international influence, ran the risk of contagion effect. 

Garvey's Pan-Africanism, Huey's 10 Points, Kwame NKrumah's socialism, Elijah Muhammad's capitalism, Lumumba's reforms--all these efforts boil down to free men attempting self-determination and, acquiring, be it on the economic or diplomatic level, some standing in the international community. Garvey probably saw most clearly that the international community was no community at all but a collection of self-interested colonizers and exploiters. Like Killmonger, he preferred the relative honesty of his sworn enemies (Garvey's pact with the KKK; Killmonger's with Klaw) to the hypocrisies of "friends" who gave public endorsement to reforms while plotting coups and sabotage through their intelligence agencies. His beef with W.E.B. Dubois was a matter of approach (capitalism vs socialism, segregation vs "equal opportunities") and style (Garvey's brawling grandiosity, Dubois' "Talented Tenth" finesse).

T'Challa's Wakanda reminded me a bit of Haile Selassie's Ethiopia, only with sick tech. A proud, strong country that sets itself apart from the rest of Africa, astonishingly impervious to colonialism... yet, during the revolutionary era, more than willing to back up African nations resisting colonial powers.  At the end of this origin story, Wakanda is guardedly joining the UN, but mainly as a set up for its participation in the upcoming Infinity War. In the Marvel imagination, the impending threat to all humanity that Thanos poses makes all that colonial/slavery/tribal infighting/Jim Crow/redlining/COINTELPRO/Tuskeegee stuff water under the bridge.

But there are no neat parallels for the T'Challa vs Killmonger conflict. Each has attributes of legendary Field Niggas and infamous House Niggas. (And who is which depends on how one interprets their actions in the context of history and one's level of cynicism.) The film wants us to get past labels and remember that "our" conflict is a family conflict. In its climactic sequence, a few characters are suddenly seized by that awareness. They get woke to the simple fact that carrying out vendettas for wrongs within the family while the house is being robbed brings only the robber satisfaction.

As for the Dora Milaje and going behind the woodshed, I would... well, never mind.

Let me hear your thoughts on the movie's battle sequences before I do my usual obsessive "go-in" on technical matters that only me and three nerds somewhere even care about...

Post #3: Odie

I can just see you stepping to Okoye and she flings your ass over that waterfall. I love Lupita and Danai, but my science major heart belongs to Letitia Wright’s Shuri. Not only is she Wakanda’s resident Q from James Bond, she is as nimble with her brain as the Dora Milaje are with their weaponry. “Just because it works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved,” she tells her brother. Wakanda runs as smoothly as it does because her technology game is tighter than good cornrows. Her brother may be King, but it’s Shuri who’s keeping the lights on in Wakanda. Behind every great man there’s a great woman, as the saying goes. Behind every great Black man there’s a great Black woman—at least until he gets some money and decides to get a White girl.

But I digress.

Ain’t no White girls in Wakanda!

But there is a White dude in the kingdom, Martin Freeman’s CIA agent, Everett K. Ross. I like how his character was used—he got the Black role! That is, the guy who makes a difference but isn’t the hero. He’s thrown in as a token, but not a racial one. Ross is what’s tethering this beautiful, self-contained Ryan Coogler Universe to the much larger and more traditional Marvel Universe. We need to be reminded that Infinity War’s coming, y’know!

I got some hate mail that claimed I’d left Freeman and Andy Serkis out of my review because I was a racist who didn’t want to give any praise to White actors. If only I were that devilishly evil! I left them out because motherfuckers are always whining about spoilers and other bullshit I don’t believe in, and I was trying to err on the side of caution by not revealing too much. I start talking about Klaw, and then I have to explain that he knew where Wakanda was and how he ties in with Killmonger and Ross.

The letter writer didn’t point out that I also didn’t talk about Winston Duke or his character M’baku’s great line about vegetarianism. That, and Shuri’s “Colonizer!” line, are two of the best moments in the script. I also like that M’Baku’s people drown out with noise the people they don’t want to hear. They kind of sounded like the audience on The Arsenio Hall Show. We need to adopt that noisemaking philosophy the next time a GOP politician speaks, or when one of the relatives starts drunkenly talking shit at the cookout.

Your analysis of T’Challa’s philosophy vs. Killmonger’s was great (and you really took my “show all work” to heart—thank you!). So I want to focus on another aspect of their duality. Both of them undergo the same spiritual baptism when they become king, and both visit the fathers who have left this mortal plane for the afterlife. T’Challa’s visit to his Pa takes place in a land that, forgive me, looked like the origin story sequence of Paul Schrader’s Cat People. T’Challa yearns for wisdom while expressing his fears about his new role as successor. It’s a positive experience for the most part, fitting in with other comic book movie style visits to “a home planet.” (See the Christopher Reeve Superman movies for another example.)

"Ain't this a bitch? They sent me to the wrong goddamn Heaven!" -Richard Pryor

Killmonger’s vision, which takes place in the realistic setting of Oakland, is a scarier mirror image of T’Challa’s. He’s trapped at the scene of the most traumatic event in his life, the death of his father. This development haunted me, because it seemed to be saying that even at our happiest moments of achievement, we as Black folks still carry tremendous psychological baggage. It’s here that Coogler makes his most direct connection between the two characters who represent Africa and America. Both T’Challa and Killmonger know they are descended from royalty (as we all were), yet like the slave, Killmonger’s birthright was snatched away from him, leaving him to ultimately stew in poverty.

In his vision, T’Challa’s father tells him “a man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.” That line resonates throughout Killmonger’s vision; he has not been prepared for this death, but his father’s true failure was making a deal with the wrong people. On his spiritual journey, Killmonger is visiting Hell, or at the very least, Limbo, whereas T’Challa is experiencing Heaven. This goes a long way in humanizing Killmonger, making him a very complicated villain worthy of empathy despite his vicious nature.

This brings me to Colonel Abrams’ comment about the film’s violence:

“Don't get me wrong: Coogler and his fight/stunt choreographers and second assistant directors arguably never really break the Marvel mold, but rather impressively build on it. But the one area that they deliver too much of the same ol', same ol'? The fight scenes.”

I don’t agree on this one. Granted, some of the scenes (like the Korean section) have characteristics of other Marvel (and DC) movies, but I could follow the action for a change. Coogler and his editors are nowhere near as good at clearly staging frenetic action as the master of this, George Miller, but their staging is far more coherent and interesting than the standard fare. Many of the battles are on a smaller scale, especially the fights for the throne. Additionally, I liked the way the climactic battle played out, with Coogler hopping from the epic attack on Wakanda to T’Challa and Killmonger fighting for dominance on a literal Underground Railroad.

You as a filmmaker have a better eye for layout and framing than I do, so can you sum up what bugged you about these scenes?

One more thing: Did you see that video of fans meeting Chadwick Boseman? Under normal circumstances, I’d never subject you to Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, but you gotta see this.

One guy bows to Boseman like Vondie Curtis-Hall does to Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. The importance these fans place on Black Panther is ingrained in the movie. That Coogler stages Killmonger’s youth and T’Challa’s outreach in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland speaks volumes about this; in a way, Coogler is aligning the Marvel Universe with the place where he probably played his own versions of the superhero games. He probably couldn’t afford Underoos, either.

Let’s talk about the performances and our favorite scenes. And since you think Coming to America still holds the crown for Blackety Blackest Movie, let’s do a Zamunda/Wakanda comparison! I might be leaning back in this direction, but I’m with you on Wattstax being #2. Convince me, bruva!

Post #4: Boone 

I'm sorry-- I want to get into my technical peeves, but the clip of Chadwick Boseman meeting Black Panther fans just short circuited my critical faculties. That video is what popular movies are all about, leaving people inspired and encouraged to dream. Not feeling left out of visions of the future. All the Coming to America parallels folks you've noted are quite apt: Both are fantasies that link African-Americans and Africans through sheer charm and imagination. Impeccable casting in both cases makes the films fly high above more mundane filmmaking concerns.

Yet all that collective charisma is why I yearned for better, less programmatic editing. (As I wipe tears and collect myself after the Fallon video.)  In the fight scenes, such is at least in line with contemporary hectic-affectless film editing practice. But in the intimate scenes and dramatic turns, such cutting feels like being rushed out of the restaurant while there's still coffee in your cup. T'Challa's return from the void at M'Baku's compound was a thrilling moment, but the filmmakers didn't juice it, build to it with all the patience and grace it deserved. It was just, Okay, Next!

Type "You Are the Pan" into YouTube to see a scene from Steven Spielberg's worst movie, Hook, that nevertheless drinks deep of a pivotal moment. Or even that scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bruce Wayne finally climbs out of that goddamn prison tunnel thing, with all the goons chanting and Hans Zimmer's score building to a heart attackgasm. That silly shit was granted more room to unfurl than any of the lovely flourishes and grace notes in Black Panther.

Of course, this probably all reads as a typical Old Man Complaint, since, in the Age of Meme, folks are now quite comfortable with experiencing the Cliffs Notes/Last-week-on-Hill-Street-Blues version of screen events. But so long as humans are still capable of appreciating the deeper pleasures of time-based storytelling, there's always an opportunity to relate moments as something more substantial than a screenshot of same. The beautiful thing is, audiences remain so open and willing to engage with what speaks to them in the material that their enthusiasm often bridges the gap. It's like a relationship where the one who's in love does most of the heavy lifting. In this case, Black Panther would have had to be reeally poorly told in order to defeat the excitement the fans had going in. And with Coogler's own Oakland-kid enthusiasm at the helm, that wasn't gonna happen. I just wish the ghost of an African griot (or Sally Menke) had invaded the editing room.

I can't pick out favorite scenes from Black Panther but there are many, many images that stirred the soul. 

I was just out of high school when I saw luminous closeups of Tisha Campbell and Adrienne-Joi Johnson in the movie House Party. That was my first full-on view, on a movie screen, of what the Internet now calls Black Girl Magic. Maybe I'd had glimpses of it on TV, in blaxploitation clips, Josephine Baker or Carmen Jones dance numbers or a Grace Jones music video. But I hadn't seen the crush-inducing everyday black girl glamour I experienced in reality reproduced in a movie theater. Usually black girls were on the margins, bickering or sobbing. Not since House Party have I had as strong a revelatory big screen crush-jolt, not until Danai Gurira's bald, majestic profile in Black Panther. She and the bald Dora Milaje warriors, along with Shuri's (Letitia Wright) and Nakia's (Lupita Nyong'o) natural hair are an answer to hundreds of years of Eurocentric Fair Maiden programming. While it feels a bit harsh when Okoye (Gurira) calls the straight wig she's forced to wear during an undercover mission "a disgrace," the induced shame black women have had for what naturally grows out of their heads is indeed a disgrace, and its time is up.

Of course, we can't forget Gurira's appearance in the wondrous Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George, an Africans-in-America film whose use of skin and fabric color must have been a reference point for Black Panther's night interiors and royal court pageantry. If Coogler ever taps out of the Black Panther franchise, Dosunmu and his cinematographer on George, Bradford Young, have my vote for next at bat.

As for M'Baku's Dog Pound, I'm just waiting for the inevitable supercut of it alongside Arsenio's, Snoop's, She's Gotta Have It's and Baha Men's Dog Pounds.

Anyhow, friends of mine are already calling this film a Black Classic for all time. But where do you place Black Panther in the short long history of Black Fantasy? Or is it silly to draft that history at this early stage? 

Post #5: Odie

Ah yes, House Party! The subject of the first piece I ever wrote for our Black History Mumf series here at Big Media Vandalism. The cinematography in that was by David Lynch’s cin-togger Peter Deming, who made those beautiful ‘round the way gurls glow. He made them look the way my heart felt when I gazed up at them from my theater seat. Rachel Morrison has taken this a major step further: Her lighting of the Dora Milaje conjures up all sorts of emotions, from conflict to joy to excitement to, aw hell, I’ll say it, full on arousal. The way Okoye is lit when she decides to adhere to tradition no matter what the cost is different from the way she’s lit in any of her action sequences. If only Pam Grier had these cin-toggers to highlight the halo around her ‘Fro!

I hear you about wanting more patience within scenes. I didn’t really give it much thought while watching Black Panther, but you do have a point worth considering. It made me think about how much slower movies of our generation (and before) were. For example, I recently watched WarGames, a movie I adore, for the first time in years and was struck by how long it takes to get to its central plot. Director John Badham takes his time letting the viewer get to know the characters, to live with them for a bit before they get in trouble. We had much longer attention spans back then—MTV and Nintendo hadn’t yet started short-circuiting attention spans. Whatever crimes  of pacing Black Panther commits, they are sins that cater to the impatience of today’s audiences.

Hell, I’m willing to congratulate folks who have made it this far reading this conversation. I’ve had people complain that these pieces are too long. My response is “bitch, you don’t have to read it all at once!” So thank you if you've made it this far. I’m tempted to give you a reward!

So here’s a Jungle Fever cookie!

You said:

“I can't pick out favorite scenes from Black Panther but there are many, many images that stirred the soul.”

I agree about the soul-stirring imagery, but I can think of a few scenes I loved. The scene where Okoye removes her wig of oppression and uses it as a weapon in the casino; any scene with Winston Duke; Killmonger’s final scene; the arrival of those kick-ass rhinos in the climactic battle. And lest I forget, the moment we first get a glimpse of the spectacle that is Wakanda.

Seeing Wakanda realized onscreen immediately made me think of the opening credits of Coming to America, when images of the Kingdom of Zamunda were accompanied by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It was the first time I ever wanted to just climb into the screen to live--can somebody give us an IMAX screening of Coming to America? I was too chicken to mention Zamunda in my Black Panther review, so I’m glad Kam Collins mentioned it in his. These are two places that live in Black viewers' hearts, places that evoke such joy and freedom because the Black folks there aren’t worrying about racism in any form (colorism might be another story, but that usually doesn’t get you shot). 

So I gotta ask you where would you rather be? Zamunda or Wakanda?  I’m too old and out of shape to be on Wakanda, so unless I can get a job as one of those rhinos, I’ma have to ask King Joffee to adopt my Black ass and get me some royal bathers.

Come visit me at my new address, y'all!

You asked where Black Panther place on the Black Fantasy and/or Black Classics lists. I’m not sure yet, but I will say it’s perhaps the biggest game-changer we’ve had in Black cinema. But while we’re on the subject of Black Fantasy movies, I saw A Wrinkle In Time at an advanced screening held by the Walter Reade. Disney hyped the hell out of this movie, which I think will hurt it. The reviews have been less than kind (some have been outright racist and hostile), but I really liked it. It’s a kids’ movie, to be sure, but Ava DuVernay cast a strong young Black actress as her lead. Storm Reid is excellent here, and will surely inspire some young girls to get into science. And it has a gigantic Oprah, whom I’m sure will stomp the shit out of Mister’s son, Harpo when she finds him.

There’s a scene in Wrinkle that’s as subversively Black as anything Disney has done (those crows in Dumbo don’t count—those muthafuckas were RACIST). Reid’s character, Meg, is being tempted by an evil force that wants her to succumb to the dark side. The temptation takes the form of Meg being transformed into a more “popular” version of herself. Her naturally kinky hair gets straightened out and her dorky attire is replaced by more revealing clothing. The evil force tells Meg this new look will make her the top dog at school. My jaw dropped. “The Devil is giving out free ULTRAPERMS!” I thought. Meg’s rejection of this image of herself sends the same message Black Panther does: Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. And I ain’t changing.

I would love to see Bradford Young work with Coogler on a small scale movie, or with Wendell Harris if he ever decides to come out of retirement. Just don’t make it science fiction. Young shot Arrival and that looked like shit! Of course, he got an Oscar nomination for it instead of Selma or Mother of George. Shit, now I’m starting to sound like you!

Did you notice that Stan Lee’s cameo was a huge swipe at his image? At the casino, he takes the winnings won by a Black character in a franchise he helped create. They do all the work and he gets the money. Talk about symbolism!

Enough of me! If you could influence Black Panther 2, which I’m sure Coogler will direct, what would you suggest? And can we live with T’Challa being sent back to supporting character status for Avengers: Infinity War? Wouldn’t it be fucked up if he were just the Sidekick Negro in this?

Take us home, bruva!

Post #6: Boone

In his cameo, I half expected Stan Lee to say something like, "Lemme bet on black this time around"--or whatever folks say when they "always bet on black" ((C) 1992, Wesley Snipes).  And then lose his shirt and start yelling at his black assistant. But that would have slowed the movie down.

Speaking of slowing down (oh brother, Jeezus Crys, Boone, shut up!): I fundamentally, respectfully disagree with the "attention span" defense of modern film editing practice. But lazy editors get away with it cuz it goes down easy and studios/producers don't know the difference between holding an audience's attention vs. superficially averting potential impatience by simply cutting around to shit. And when relatively slow-burn films like No Country For Old Men or Django Unchained or Sicario manage to keep folks engaged, it gets chalked up to some mystical auteur magic rather than the director and editor simply giving the story room to pull us along of its own momentum rather than superficial inducements. We're so many years into this status quo that this is largely my problem, not the world's. 

Mr. Boone, after the aforementioned editing status quo drove him insane

I do agree that old school first acts now tax the patience of even codgers like me! That's where modern screenwriting has actually improved some things. We no longer need to spend a half hour establishing the "norm" that will be uprooted in order to begin Act Two. In Black Panther, we get arguably the most elegant and mesmerizing expository passage in Marvel movie history in that opening flight through Wakandan tribal history. As you say of the film's first landing in Wakanda later in the film, it reminded me of the soothing, soaring approach to Zamunda in Coming to America. Can't front: the first Wakanda approach put a lump in my throat. Metaphorically, it is the "promised land" and the view of it that T'Challa grants Killmonger as he dies is from "the mountaintop."

Where would I rather live? I was with you on voting Zamunda, with its fairytale charm, until I thought about what it must be like for the lower classes there, as opposed to in Wakanda. The regular folk in Wakanda seem to have at least a decent amount of leisure time and disposable income, judging by the occasional cutaway to a Wakandan marketplace. In Zamunda, everything is lovely if you're the prince. But I doubt my broke ass is getting rose petals and Victoria Dillard Executive Cleaning Service (TM) over there.

I guess we are stuck here in America for the time being, bruhman. As long as I can say "we," anyplace is about as good as any other place. That's the Wakanda that we've learned to fold up and take with us, through all our troubles. If we can keep laughing together and dreaming together, we'll be alright.

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