It seemed to happen just like that for me. POW! Marvel got black alla sudden! Realistically, comic books have had characters of colors (Storm), I just didn’t pay any mind. I’ve seen EVERY SINGLE BATMAN FILM in theaters since I was five. But I’ve never seen myself or anyone I know in the wealthy white Bruce Wayne (or any of the auxiliary characters). I have watched all the X-Men, Captain America, Spider-Man, ect. movies because I’m compelled to. Summer blockbusters are like that, you have to watch them because it’s an American pastime. They can get a little stale though. . .
And then, POW! Something about 2016 woke me up. It may have started with Captain America: Civil War and my introduction to Black Panther. Soon after that, Netflix announced the Luke Cage series that would follow in the same vein as other gritty New York superheros. Finally, when there were murmurs of an all-black cast for the 2018 Black Panther film. It all happened in a quick rapid-fire of “black people are going to be doing this, and this, and that!” It was a lot for me to catch up with.
When I found out that my favorite Atlantic journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was writing the Black Panther comic books, I took this trend seriously. I went down to my local comic book store and sought out the things I’d seen on the big screen. Now I’m a black comic book nerd. Or a comic book Blerd, if you will.
It was a forum that I never felt I could enter. It seemed like a sphere that was dominated by white males who took shit way too seriously, but I’m finding my own community of black comic fans who recognize the intersection of race, gender, and heroism. Here’s my current comic reading that helps me feel pretty powerful:
1. Black Panther
As I said, this series is written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist of The Atlantic. He’s written amazing articles about race in America and I knew he’d bring something interesting to the table. I’m not too familiar with the Black Panther story, but what I’ve read in this newer series is fascinating. We’re dealing with the complicated nature of leadership, colonialism issues, the role of women, insurgent uprisings (that may have some legitimacy). This shit is real.
2. World of Wakanda
Speaking of the role of women, please check out the spin-off of Black Panther. World of Wakanda is co-written by feminist essayist, Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) and poet, Yona Harvey. Along with Coates, the trio put together an exciting first issue. In this series, we get a closer look at lovers and female warriors, Ayo and Aneka, as they struggle with the changes in their country. They break rank and travel the land, empowering oppressed women. They’re enacting my dream: Building a female army to topple a patriarchal institution. There’s also another female character who is a trouble-making sorceress with revenge on her mind. The LGBT perspective is refreshing and long over due. We’re dealing with black female protagonists who are complex in their love and motivations.
3. The Invincible Iron Man (RiRi Williams)
I might be the most excited about this series. RiRi Williams is a 15-year-old black girl from Chicago and she’s a super genius who engineered her own Iron Man suit so she can fight crime. Holy shit, she’s everything I wished I could be when I was 15! There are some real-life complications in Williams’ life, gun violence in Chicago kinda solidifies her motivation for seeking justice in the world. The writer, Brian Michael Bendis, used a real world fear that young black kids have and wrote about it in an even-handed manner. I really appreciated that. In a powerless situation that kids find themselves in, Williams’ is a really empowering figure. I also appreciated little RiRi’s ambition for learning and innovation. GIRLS IN STEM!
I’m certain I’ll find other comic books that will feed my new obsession. I’m making regular trips to my local comic book shop and the owner knows my titles (which makes me feel more legit). I’m excited that this is how America reacts to racial violence in our day-to-day lives. I sincerely appreciate the activists who take it to the streets, but I also enjoy seeing art that reflects what America really looks like. Who knows what kind of woman I would have been if I had RiRi Williams in my life when I was a kid? I’m glad that little girls, of today, have her. They need to see someone, who looks like them, doing extraordinary things.
It’s a new year and things look very uncertain under a Trump administration. I don’t know what’s going to happen with policy, economics, or race relations. It’s not looking too hot right now. . . But reading about these black characters, who are taking control of their destinies, is having a positive affect on me. I don’t have an Iron Man suit, but the panic attacks over an uncertain future have ceased, lol!
My first in-theater film for 2017 was Moana and what a way to start the year! It’s been ages since I’ve made the effort to see an animated film in theaters, but I made an exception for this one. If you haven’t seen Moana yet, please take time to see an inspiring story about a girl who kicks ass. I’ve got my reasons for pressuring you; here they are:
1. The sheer amount of Pacific Islander voice actors
Actors: Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Jermaine Clement (Tamatoa, Crab Guy), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui, Moana’s dad), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina, Moana’s mom), and Oscar Kightley (fisherman).
All of these actors are Hawaiian, Maori, or Samoan; because who better to tell this story than the people of this area. Also, please check out Rachel House and Oscar Kightley in the New Zealand film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it was beautiful, hilarious, and so heart-warming. For the 16-year-old, Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), this was her first acting role ever. She’s a native Hawaiian who was thrilled to represent her people in a film like this. Watch her react to the news that she got the part here.
2. The music is amazing
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and Opetaia Foa’i (Samoan singer) contributed to the soundtrack and you can hear their vocals in the main song, “We Know Our Way.” It definitely encapsulates the message of the film: going beyond what you know, exploring new paths, and the history of the Pacific Island voyagers. Also, Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Concords) sings a David Bowie-esque song as giant freaky crab!
3. Moana is not just a princess
And she makes that clear when Maui teases her for it. True, she is next in line as her people’s chieftain, but she’s not like any other vintage Disney Princess. In preparation for her eventual crown, Moana is shown training for the job by seeing to the community’s needs. She solves problems about her village, advises her people, and ultimately sets out into the unknown to save them. She does this without any real knowledge of the water or navigation, but she’s a quick learner when she meets Maui.
4. Understanding your past
Moana’s grandmother’s storytelling and guidance is the major catalyst for the film’s plot. Gramma Tala acts as the Polynesian griot by providing Moana (and the audience) with creation stories about Maui, the land, and the seas. It’s always a good idea to study other society’s creation stories, since they’re a great insight into a their present-day language, ecology, and values. More concretely, Moana must understand her people’s past (island exploration), in order to understand her own purpose and solve village’s present-day problems.
5. An environmental message
From the very beginning, when baby Moana helps a baby sea turtle make its way into the ocean, you can tell this is a character who values the land and the animals that inhabit it. Her sidekick, Hei Hei, is another good example of her empathy. She cares for the dumb chicken, who pecks at random things, while people warn her that the chicken is kind of useless. I hope that children watching this film, believe that any animal, regardless of its looks, can be valued as a sentient being.
Call me a “close watcher,” but when Moana is confronted by the volcano monster, she doesn’t fight back. Instead, she offers empathy. I took this as an illustration of our relationship with the natural world. Much of the industrialized world sees the environment as a hindrance to our production. Which is why we’re in trouble today (deforestation, polluted seas, and shrinking ozone). Moana knows what the land offers her and her people, so she works with the natural world so that they can peacefully coexist.
6. Get out of your comfort zone
Anyone can understand the Chief’s response to his daughter’s desire to be on the water. He wants her to be safe and rule on an island where nothing can hurt her. Looking closer, we can see what happens when you have “island mentality.” Staying within the boundaries you create, doesn’t guarantee your safety (as we saw in the film). You’re also unlikely to learn anything new. We live in a country where people share a strong sense of “island mentality;” we fear new challenges, new people and exchanging new ideas. I could say a lot about our lack of meaningful exploration, but I think you get the idea. When you leave the confines of your island, there is risk, but you will learn something about the world and yourself.