Black Superheroes + Black Leadership + The Responsibility of Building Societies in World-Changing Times
Last week I had the privilege to see three films — of course, Black Panther, Canadian filmmaker Sharon Lewis’ Brown Girl Begins inspired by Nalo Hopkinson’s book, Brown Girl in the Ring, and Martinique-based filmmaker Khris Burton’s S0.CI3.TY.
Watching these three films, I saw a common theme in that all three explored the complexity and difficulty of creating or maintaining a society, the difficult decisions that leaders and heroes have to make for the “greater good” (and what is that “greater good” and is the means worth it?) and how human politics, fallibility and emotions affect the progress of a society. And all was done through the focus on people of the African diaspora, something that is not highlighted as often as it should, allowing us to envision what Pan-African societies could be and societies not centered in Americanness or Western orientations.
In Black Panther, I saw characters in various leadership roles; they were complex with both positive and problematic qualities, which humanized them for me. It explored how tough it is to bring together various groups of the African diaspora. We often idealize Africa, much in the same way that Wakanda is, as the way Erik Killmonger does, and don’t stop to think it is a continent filled with nations of various people with their own politics and histories. And that goes for people all over the diaspora.
So when the film opens, we receive a back history of how even Wakanda, which is a monarchy by the way, started with trying to bridge various groups together and even had conflict with the Jabari tribe leaving to go live in the mountains because they disagreed with the worldview. We see this continue with more clashing worldviews — Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest and a spy, wants Wakanda to open up and help other members of the diaspora who are suffering all over the globe. But T’Challa as well as previous Black Panther leaders had isolationist and self-preservationists views; they wanted to protect Wakanda’s way of life from colonialist West. We also see how this isolationist view makes Wakandans somewhat nationalistic and slightly wary of outsiders. They fear outsiders will disrupt their society.
That begins to change with the introduction of Erik Killmonger. I have read a few reviews of the movie that either hail or critique the character; people either see him as a hero or that he represented a thuggish and villainous portrayal of Black American men. I see Killmonger as a tragic hero and antagonist; he’s somewhere in-between the two extremes. His character is there to challenge T’Challa and other Wakandans isolationist views. Why? Because he is an outsider of Wakandan descent and that complicates things and so he is a complex character. That’s what made him interesting to me. I understood his anger as someone of African descent and he would say things throughout the movie that I felt deeply. He was clearly educated (he is a CIA operative).
However, my issue with Killmonger was how he used his anger. It was destructive. Although I understood it and it was justified, he was trying to use master’s tools to get revenge. He was so immersed in his wound and anger over his uncle killing his father and Wakanda abandoning him, that it blinded him from being a true leader. His leadership method was selfish, shortsighted and misguided. He did things by any means without caring of the consequences. When he comes to Wakanda, he comes with the same colonial mentality as the imperialist American government he trained under. He takes over, he chokes one of the priestesses growing the vibranium garden and tells them to burn the entire garden down. He lets his anger make him into an extremist.
Killmonger’s hurt and anger turns him into an oppressor like the ones he is claiming to fight. He uses black politics to further oppressive systems. This is the most visible in his violent reactions to the Black women in the movie. In the scene where he chokes one of the priestesses and tells everyone to burn down the garden, I am reminded of Luisah Teish’s book Jambalaya in which she said her interactions with some Black male leaders in the 70s showed a militaristic and dominating worldview and her interest in Black spirituality was disregarded and seen as trivial or a drug. Like Killmonger, it became about the fight and struggle, not about nurturing and cultivating one’s self and culture. Which is why I had an affinity for M’Baku, the leader of the Jabaris, who clearly was against the current structure of Wakanda society, but doesn’t let that cloud his decision-making skills. He is clearly level-headed and is secure in who he is. He represented another option outside of the toxic masculinity I saw in Killmonger.
While I was odds with Killmonger about his methods to liberation, I did like that his character and his father challenged Wakanda’s elitism and isolation. But Nakia also challenged that as well. How can Wakanda live in this privileged bubble of a world and ignore all those across the globe who are suffering? I liked that the film referenced the Black Panther Party, which started in Oakland, and the party did stressed the importance of inter-community relations, not superiority or nationalism. We see throughout the movie how T’Challa is challenged to right the wrong of his previous ancestors by opening up Wakanda to create satellites around the world and absorbs some of what Killmonger at his core was fighting for, which was black liberation globally.
One last thing to mention about this film was I loved the roles of women in the Wakanda society — Okoye is a general, T’Challa’s sister Shuri is a teenage inventor and technologist (and is the one who is directing the CIA agent Everett Ross in how to drive the ship at the end), Nakia is a spy and the Dora Milaje are strong warriors. All the women had a great balance between being strong, nurturing, cultured and intelligent. Although Wakanda is a male monarchy, the women were as much the heroes as anybody else and some of that I believe gets ignored in reviews of this film. I hope the next film explores the women more and I’m curious to see how Wakanda will change and the complexities that come with them expanding their borders and engaging with the rest of the world on a global political scale in the next film.
As with Black Panther, great power comes with great responsibility and one’s leadership ability and style changes as they personally grow and interact with others. As I mentioned before I look forward to seeing more movies with Black women in leadership and superhero roles and I saw that when I watched Brown Girl Begins at BAM last week. Based on Hopkinson’s book Brown Girl in the Ring. Sharon Lewis, the creator of the film said she loved Hopkinson’s book and the childhood girl game in which one girl in the middle takes control and her actions affect those in the ring. She sees the role of Ti-Jeanne as someone learning to embody leadership.
The film is a prequel to the book, which I didn’t realize until mid-way through watching it. In the film, Ti-Jeanne is a Caribbean-Canadian teenage healer living in an apocalyptic Toronto community of exiles called The Burn with her grandmother, Mami. Ti-Jeanne is reluctant to become a priestess of Papa Legba after watching her mother die during a ceremony. But no matter how she tries to avoid him, Legba follows her everywhere, even when she runs away from Mami and goes to live with her love interest Tony. Ti-Jeanne soon learns that she must surrender to the gifts she possess as she sees her community racked with the effects of Rudy and his right hand Crack, who use drugs to turn members of the community into slaves.
One thing I liked about the film is the balance between various elements. The gritty, cyberpunk, apocalyptic world was balanced with the colorful feathers and costumes of Caribbean carnival and rituals. I appreciated in this film that the main leader of this community is Mami. Mami is shown as both tough and nurturing. She is a healer too and follows the main goddess, Mama Ache, who is inspired by Yemaja. The feminine influence is strong in the film but also male lead characters who deviate from stereotypical masculinity. One of my favorites in the film was Nigel Shawn Williams, who plays Papa Legba, Bruk Foot Sam and Jab Jab, who seem to be variations of the same personality. Bruk Foot Sam is a character who walks with a cane much like Papa Legba and is the character who helps her get back to healing and to Papa Legba, to stop fearing him and that power through his fatherly-like and caring guidance.
As I mentioned before with Teish’s book Jambalaya, the character Tony embodies this kind of masculinity that disregards Black spirituality. Having experienced an Aunt who was misguided with her spiritual powers, he tells Ti-Jeanne not to bother with all that spirit stuff. With Ti-Jeanne having experienced her mother’s death at a ritual ceremony, she could have easily felt the same, but as the Jamaican proverb that opens the film says “what fe you, can’t be un fe you.” Seeing the effect Rudy has on the community and with Bruk Foot Sam’s guidance (and his shield he creates for her), Ti-Jeanne learns to overcome her fears and the good and dangerous sides of spiritual powers to fulfill her purpose and to help her community.
The last film, S0.CI3.TY, explores how humanity would lead its life if there is no society to control or regulate it. The main character, J0.hn, mysteriously ends up on a deserted island with only his REG, a computer watch on his wrist that monitors and controls his body and every interaction with the environment. After losing his REG, J0.hn. finally gets to directly interact with the island and nature in ways that he was unable to do when he was in the city. When another human joins him on the island, unknown to them and in a kind of shady fashion, he removes their REG too, leading them around on how to now survive in this new environment. Obviously conflicts arise and the second person misses the security and safety of the city as well as the added benefits it gave them. The film ends as mysteriously as it began and the creator, Khris Burton, is planning on developing the film into a series. But one of the main points of this film that I think relates to the other two is that leadership and creating a society is often done on the foundation of hope and having courage to go into the unknown. All three show leaders who are forced to brave, sometimes on their own, an outside or another world that threatens everything they’ve known whether that is physically or spiritually and that is heroic.
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