My love and minor discontent with the new Black Panther film

*****Warning: Spoilers****** (both cinematic and philosophical, lol).

Let me start off with this initial statement: I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I will see it again (and again, and again). It is right up there with Wonder Woman, Captain America, Deadpool, etc. in my list of over-the-top comic book movies. I also love the fact that there was a superhero movie featuring African American actors, an African American director, and so much African music. I think it is awesome that African American kids will see a superhero that looks like them and white kids will see a superhero of color.

What I have struggled with is white liberal hype around the movie.  First and foremost, the white liberals praising that “finally” Hollywood made a move with a black cast and black director and black music. Ok, let’s be clear here. That is just not factually true. There have been lots of “black movies” over the years. Now, they were aimed at a black audience almost exclusively and were seen almost exclusively by black audiences. So they aren’t considered “blockbusters” because the majority white audience never saw them. So I’m not surprised that a group of privileged white liberals don’t know that they exist.

Black Panther is the first black superhero movie (from a major comic book entity and Walt Disney) and will therefore hopefully appeal to a white audience as well. But that is the limit of its firsts. The only people claiming this as a “first” are either too young to know who Foxy Brown and Shaft are or they don’t understand the history of blaxsplotation films. (And so many never heard of Black Panther before this for the same reason they never heard of Foxy Brown.) For those unfamiliar with this term, this is when a white Hollywood production company hires a black director, black actors, and uses black music to make a film for black audiences. It started in the 1970s and has continued in many forms through today. The money from these films largely comes back to the white production companies. They also have ignored the entire genre of films it has spawned that includes comedies (Don’t Be a Menace to South Central and the Madea series.) Things white liberals are generally uncomfortable watching because it includes a lot of cultural humor they don’t get. But a superhero film doesn’t have as much of that. (Although there are a few hilarious quips in it – like the “colonizer” line.)

So is Black Panther a blaxsplotation film? I see an argument that it is an evolution of the genre. In some ways, it does fit and in some it doesn’t. It certainly appeals to black audiences to try and make money for a white production company. It uses black actors and black music to do so. It tells a story of both African American life and black culture. If it is a blaxsplotatoin film, it is the biggest budget one of all time (I am guessing) and it is the first superhero one and the first Walt Disney one.

So is Black Panther a superhero film? Yes, I think it is firmly grounded in that genre. As such, my complaint is in how they changed the sub-text of the original comic book series to be more palatable to a wider audience and did some damage with that. The original Black Panther stood up for African Americans. He was a crime fighter. He protected black communities when police wouldn’t do it.

I think my other struggle was with Killmonger. (This part might not make sense if you haven’t seen the movie.) Killmonger works for himself and wants to overthrow governments and rule the world. If memory serves me right, in the comic book series, the bad guys were always corporations trying to steal African treasures and resources. And the bad guys always worked for these corporations in some way. Anti-global-capitalism is the theme that comes to mind. Instead, they create a new story line that is closer to a blaxsplotation film. Killmonger plays out a deep philosophical conflict concerning what kind of activism is appropriate in the African American community. (I do love a philosophical problem. Hence, I like him more than we are probably supposed to.) It asks the question, should the oppressed rise up with violence and threats of violence or should they aspire to non-violence means and forgiveness of their oppressors.

So is Black Panther a socialjustice film? No. Not beyond the “look at all the money Hollywood put into a film made by African Americans” sort of way. I think the superhero genre bent to meet a blaxsplotation genre in a couple ways. First, Killmonger’s story of his father being killed for his involvement in crime results in Killmonger turning to killing and crime despite clear intellectual ability. This sub-plot reinforces white conservative story lines about the problems of inner-city violence. Second, much of the story is about black-on-black violence that is core to blaxsplotation films. Lastly, you still have a tribe of black “ape-like” people who come to the rescue while grunting like apes. Yes, in the end they build a community center and yes, they tell the UN they are there for everyone that doesn’t undo the previous hour.

If this is not a blaxsplotation film, designed purely for an African American audience you have to consider how these plots points will be received in conservative rural America. The same people who pass around memes of the Obamas comparing them to apes now think it is acceptable. The same people who blame problems in the African American community on “black-on-black” crime will see that here too.

If this film was designed as a superhero film for everyone, I think these plot points could have been smoothed out and addressed in better ways. They don’t ruin the film but they don’t help it as a tool for social justice that my liberal friends seem to think it is.

I realize these aren’t popular things to bring up. If you are mad at me by reading this far, I apologize. Remember – I like the film. Please don’t hate me. But I was told be a well-meaning liberal family member that if I was going to bring these points up, I probably shouldn’t engage in discussions about the film with people. In other words, liberals don’t care how racists might see the film. Especially with our liberal friends, most of whom are falling all over themselves talking about what a great movie it is and what a break-through it is for Hollywood. I think it is a break-through but it can have some problems too and that’s okay. It’s a paradox I am comfortable with, even if they aren’t.

I still think it is a great movie. I still want to see it again. But for now, I’m keeping my plot point criticisms to myself (and the three people who read this blog.) But I look forward to seeing what film critics say of it over time. I also hope this opens the door for more blockbuster films with people of color in lead and supporting roles and featuring their music and culture.

 

 

Advertisements

My problem with pronouns

There is a trend in certain liberal circles right now to put “your preferred pronouns” on your email, on your business cards, on your name tag at conferences, etc. I don’t do it. Yet, I live in fear of being challenged for not doing it, in part because I’m a cisgender hetero white male who  runs in multiple liberal circles. And I’m sure I get perceived as being a “cranky old white dude” not willing to give up power. But I actually have two other reasons that I don’t do it.

First: Privilege. Note that the only place you see this trend is among educated elite and like-minded groups of liberals. You don’t see the cashier at Taco Bell or the grocery store worker doing this. You don’t see this trend with school custodian or manufacturing workers. And if Taco Bell did allow this, could the staff get mad at customers and correct them when they didn’t use the right pronoun? I mean Starbucks can’t get some people’s names right but I have to get their pronouns right? The reality is that advertising how they want people to interpret their gender isn’t a luxury they have. I’m not claiming to be one of them. In fact, the opposite. As a privileged straight white male, I’m not going to use my power and privilege to further dictate to people what they call me. I feel like dictating what pronouns you use to describe me is like the professor who insists you call them doctor or professor. As if you need to constantly remind them of their special place in society. Telling people to refer to me as “he” is just saying “remind yourself of my privilege.” Even the military gets tired of using ranks with people you work with all the time. On this note, I’ve noticed that it is largely women and non-gender binary folks who participate in this trend which makes me wonder how many other white males feel this way.

Second: It doesn’t function in practice. At a conference, I had a speaker pass out pronoun stickers and tell everyone to put it on their name tag. Then during her session, two minutes later, she started repeatedly said “I can’t see your name tag from up here, so I’m going to assume you use _____” from the front of the room. Not only is this the case at conferences, but we also don’t walk around with our email signatures pasted to us every day. If you really want to be inclusive in your language, don’t modify it for each person – practice saying “they” and using people’s names all the time, not just at conferences and on email. I feel bad for non-gender binary folks who have a preferred pronoun but often find people using the other one. I just don’t think telling people what pronouns you prefer is the answer to changing several thousand years of language programming. Encouraging society to adopt a single non-gender specific pronoun for every single person seems the better linguistic and practical route.

Why does free speech only matter on college campuses?

I’m not dumb. I’ve seen the news. I realize that college campuses are a hotbed of free speech issues right now. And the backlash has primarily been directed at conservative speakers. Hence every Republican led state government is looking at some sort of “campus free speech” bill. But that is part of my point I think.

The “shout down,” “physical disruption,” and “mass intimidation” tactics that liberal students are using against conservative speakers are the very tactics many of them learned from the conservatives. Head over to your local Planned Parenthood and see how the religious zealots are handling things there.

Despite the focus on campus free speech issues there have been many more protests, counter-protests, and acts of violence related to off-campus free speech issues. But now, conservative state legislatures are suddenly worried – only because they see themselves as the victims – about campus free speech. When the crazy preacher guy is screaming at their daughters for being “sluts” for wearing shorts to class and gets shouted down by fellow students, they don’t seem to care.

What really set me off was an article about the Wisconsin legislature who wants to impose state mandated “sentencing” for those found guilty of violating free speech. Second offense gets you suspended and third gets you expelled. Yet there is no other law or campus code that has such a thing. Men found guilty of rape don’t get such a thing. Fraternities that cause the deaths of their members from hazing, drinking, and cover-ups don’t get such a thing. Let that sink in. Conservative law makers care more about not getting shouted down and harassed than they do about campus sexual assault or fraternity deaths.

The “free exchange of ideas” is a fundamental bedrock of higher education. But so is campus safety. If you are going to impose state mandated sentences, do it for all crimes and code violations. But then your rich white kids you send to those schools and join those privileged fraternities might face consequences…..better to just aim at the liberals and hope that your kids education doesn’t turn them into one of them.

 

Update: Nikki Haley, form South Carolina Governor and now Ambassador to the UN was heckled at the New York Pride parade. The woman who once defended the gay marriage ban was shocked she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Maybe we will soon outlaw create free speech laws for parades as well.

Can straight white males be progressives?

It’s a question that as a straight white male, I have struggled with. Not to mention adding in the additional layers of being a parent, a veteran and a regular “church-goer” (to those outside UU, we are typical church). There are several lens with which to view this question. (Leave it to a philosopher to correct his own question.)

First, can I overcome my straight white maleness to see the issues of people that are historically marginalized by a society run by straight white males?

I think I’ve tried. I don’t know that I will ever be perfect at it. I don’t know that anyone is ever perfect at overcoming themselves and their own experiences. I read, watch, and listen to feminist, GLBT, and racial/ethnic minority perspectives as well as attempt to include them in my thinking. I agree with them most of the time. I’m historically literate and know that there is bias in history that leads to present-day issues.

Second, if I use my straight white male privilege to amplify the voices and perspectives of marginalized persons, am I not invoking the very privilege I’m trying to dissolve?

For instance, a couple years ago, a group of older white males were repeatedly dismissing the issues my twenty-something female colleague was bringing up in a patronizing sort of way. I fired off an emotionally charged email (rarely a good idea) about their unwillingness to deal with the problem because of who was voicing the concern. After some chastisement from my supervisors, the issue was immediately addressed and resolved. They have since listened to her repeatedly but at least initially, it was more out of fear. (They seem to listen now out of both habit and respect.) But often I don’t have the longevity to see if my use of my privilege has a lasting impact.

Third, and maybe the toughest, when it comes to employment, when I do I allow my career ambitions to take a back seat to the promotion of historically underrepresented persons?

It happens that I work in a field with a strong collection of women, racial minority, and GLBT persons. So when an opportunity for promotion comes open, there have always been candidates from these groups also applying. When I am selected over them, regardless of qualifications, I hear remarks about the persistence of the straight white males in positions of power and privilege and how it is a shame I was hired over an equally qualified person who was not a straight white male. At times, knowing a qualified colleague who was not a straight white male was putting in for a position, and wanting to support them, I have chosen to not apply and openly supported them. But how often do we expect, encourage, or accept, straight white males who are willing to do such a thing? Even when it means passing up a career opportunity or a financial incentive for a working-class family. And has mentioned in the previous question, how you do such things also has career ramifications.

Last, is the question of voice. Is my voice less valuable in the diversity conversation?

When I work with people from marginalized groups, I find I am often shunted into a role of limited agency. When I write about the history of women or African Americans, there is the inevitable question “Why is a white guy doing this work?” As if straight white male historians are limited to only straight white male history. Isn’t that the problem?

I don’t say this out of seeking some pity or “woah is me” attitude. I say it out of answering an earnest question from a colleague about why aren’t more straight white male allies of women and minorities.  There are still more straight white males in this country than any other single group. And as a whole, they are more conservative and hold more power than any other single group. It isn’t easy for a straight white male to try to offload some of that either philosophically, physically, or financially. Hence, the limits to what many are willing to do.

Lessons in Protesting: Malheur and Standing Rock

I find it interesting to compare the treatment of Standing Rock protesters in North Dakota to the Malheur Wildlife Protestors in Oregon. Both are cases of people occupying land they don’t own but to which they claim some entitlement. Both are occurring in relatively remote areas with limited mass media and public perception of the issue. There are also a number of differences (race and cause being two) but I believe there are two very key differences that aren’t being addressed.

1) Our country has a history of dealing with people who stand in the way of corporations much more harshly than those who stand in the way of the government. Historically, police and the military (usually the National Guard) are called upon to get rid of such protests as quickly as possible and by whatever means are necessary. As opposed to those strictly protesting the government (without inferring with commerce) who are often given a “wait and see” approach. The government is typically not seen as losing anything when people protest it; where as corporations are seen as losing money and therefore urgency is required. Plus corporations have the political power to ensure their concerns are heard and acted upon. For a related example, look at how the Occupy movement was often allowed into parks for days and weeks as opposed to other protests that stayed on the streets impacting businesses and commerce. The message here is that disrupting the government is apparently an American right but disrupting other Americans, particularly corporate Americans, is not.

2) I have seen several discussions about Malheur being an exercise in white-privilege, which I generally agree with. The Standing Rock protesters are not armed like the Malheur protesters were. Force is less often used against those that can readily return that use of force. Not that I am calling for them to arm themselves, but it is worth noting that I think there would be much less interest in using force on them if that were the case. Imagine how different it would have been if the Freedom Riders or Stonewall patrons had been armed. There is something to be said for how law enforcement approaches the issue when their lives are at considerably higher risk.

I will be interested to see what happens one day when a large group of non-white Americans stages an armed protest in the same way as Malheur. Hopefully, when that happens, it will end with fewer deaths than Malheur did, which only had one death associated with it.

Image courtesy of Savege #KSAV at https://goo.gl/images/Wv0l7n