In our so-called postracial culture of ever-new media forms and accelerated change in production, distribution technology, and viewing experiences, what is the role of black film criticism? Are its politics obsolete and its hundred-plus years of analog analysis now anachronistic? The recent relative profusion of black images on screen and across the internet (new media has been disproportionally good to aspiring black artists) suggests otherwise: that, rather, black moving images and black film criticism remain, as they have been since the turn of the last century, vital forums for critique of white hegemony and violence. Films like Selma (2014), 12 Years A Slave (2013), Red Tails (2012) and Fruitvale Station (2012), shows from Scandal (2012-) and How to Get Away with Murder (2014-) to Netflix production Orange Is the New Black (2013-) and webseries The Mis-Adventures of An Awkward Black Girl (2011-),and even networks like OWN, cater to ever-growing audiences interested in consuming black-character-centered entertainment, often with explicit and politicized references to contemporary U.S. race relations. With the advent of digital cinema and media, these shows have been delivering new kinds of imagery and engaging new methods of reception—but nonetheless remain, along with the literary and social publics they produce, part of an old and still-relevant black cultural tradition.
Black film criticism is integral to this tradition; it is at once as old as black cinema and, along with ever-changing black moving images, persistently new. And its defining feature continues to be its relationship to the social—and society’s whitewashing of racial violence. As Anna Everett’s seminal study, Returning the Gaze, reminds us, even the earliest black film critics regularly tasked themselves with going beyond generic reviews of cinematic content, aesthetics and reception; they also offered pointed, frequently prescriptive assessments of films’ socio-political import. For instance, in the 1910s and 20s, along with shaping an increasingly worldly black public sphere, black film criticism was instrumental in organizing nationwide protests against The Birth of a Nation (1915). In the 30s, critics like Camera Eye and Platt used their columns in The Liberator to educate black publics in politicized viewing strategies, ones they hoped would help inculcate viewers against Hollywood mythology and bias. And in the 40s, amidst wartime pressures and propaganda, black film critics like Rayford Logan, Lawrence Reddick and Melvin B. Tolson worked alongside the NAACP in waging an effective campaign for new kinds of racial representation on the silver screen. To a large extent, neither the role nor the goals of black film criticism have changed over time, though with the precipitous decline of the black presses in the 60s, critics have found themselves with smaller (and more academic) spheres of influence.
That said, in the last couple of decades, black film critics have largely focused their attention on three fundamental concerns: 1) drawing attention to the persistence of racism and racial violence in society and the media; 2) reconsidering, particularly in light of the rise (and, perhaps, fall) of identity politics, what, in Stuart Hall’s famous words, “is this black in black popular culture;” and 3) rethinking the significance and effects of media aesthetics, distribution and reception on black cinema, given the shifts from film to digital media and online formats.
The first of these—raising awareness of racism—has been an ongoing struggle for critics, one most evident across the broader world of black cultural studies (in debates about Obama’s race relations, for instance), but also in moving-image-focused blogs like “Shadow and Act,” “Black Box Office” and Ingrid LaFleur’s “Afrotopia” project.
The second—Hall’s question—has been famously addressed in three seminal anthologies, Gladstone Yearwood’s Black Cinema Aesthetics, Manthia Diawara’s Black American Cinema,and Michael Martin’s Cinemas of the Black Diaspora. Though still crucial texts for film studies today, each of these collections performs a (then) timely anxiety about how to define black cinema as a category of meaning without essentializing blackness. Diawara’s volume, in particular, also endeavors to redress canonical film theory and its white-centered readings of representation and reception. The most recent assessment of black film studies, a special issue of Cinema Journal (Volume 53, No. 4, Summer 2014), engages in debates quite similar to those of the 1980s and 90s, suggesting that though the answers may have changed with time, the guiding questions of black film criticism have remained the same.
The third concern—theorizing the consequences of new media—has brought us works like Beretta E. Smith-Shomade’s Watching While Black, articles and volumes on Afrofuturism (most famously, Mark Dehry’s “Black to the Future”), and many essays on webseries, gaming and online fandom. Though of course their content is novel, these works’ preoccupation with emerging media is nothing new for black film studies—or film studies in general. As Anna Everett writes in her 2014 essay on what she calls BAMMs (Black American Media Moguls), “It is not news...to say that technological innovation and social change power most of the cyclical changes in black film. We can easily trace these cultural and technological shifts back to the silent-era black independents” and in each iteration of black media following. In other words, film criticism has always been chasing a moving target, and black film criticism even more so; because of their frequent exclusion from mainstream modes of production and distribution, black media artists have often been at the vanguard of emerging media creation.
So, today, the role of black film criticism is at once the same as it was some hundred years ago—when The Chicago Defender decried the lack of black representation on the moving picture censor board—and fundamentally changed. While black film critics must continue to track the content, aesthetics and methods of new media, and contextualize, theorize, debate their impact, they now also struggle against being rendered moot by the increasingly prevalent belief that we live in a colorblind society (a Google search on the term “colorblind” brings up seven articles from the New York Times in 2014 alone). And they have to wage nearly constant warfare against the mainstream media’s appropriation and manipulation of black bodies—for instance, those of Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Grey—battling for their safety and freedom from police brutality and economic oppression.
Or, put differently, the double consciousness into which black film criticism was born persists and continues to render black film criticism at once symptomatic and terribly necessary. In the early years, black film critics nurtured and developed the public sphere for its separate cinema; with integration, they policed the silver screen; and identity politics saw critics carve out—from an academic hegemony—a conversation about black viewing experience. Today, we find scholars, cultural critics and activists alike joining together in blogs (Shadow and Act), conferences (Allied Media Conference), TV talk shows (MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry”) to assert that race still matters; that our society is still shaped by structures of racial oppression; and that to use Nicole Fleetwood’s term, images of race still create “troubling vision” in our world and on our screens. And so, today as before, black film criticism maintains its political mission: analyzing powerful images and images of power, both.
Elizabeth Reich is assistant professor of film studies at Connecticut College. Her monograph, Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism and the Transformation of American Cinema, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in 2016. She is co-editor of a special issue of Film Criticism entitled, “New Approaches to Cinematic Identification.” Her work has been published in Screen, African American Review and Women and Performance.
Anna Everett, "Black Film, New Media Industries, and BAMMs (Black American Media Moguls) in the Digital Media Ecology" Cinema Journal 53, 4 (2014): 128-133.
Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Cultural Studies?” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 468-478.
Gladstone L. Yearwood, ed., Black Cinema Aesthetics (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for Afro-American Studies, 1982); Manthia Diawara, Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993); Michael T. Martin, ed., Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995).
Beretta E Smith-Shomade, ed., Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013); Mark Dery, "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose," in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 179-222.
Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 128.
See Roopali Mukherjee’s contribution to this issue.
Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Have you heard about the little movie that tells the story of a royal man-feline named T’Challa who is powered by vibranium and defends a secret African paradise named Wakanda?
’s “Black Panther” is not just an epic comic-book action flick — it could approach the $1-billion mark globally after its opening in China this weekend — the movie is a full-blown cultural phenomenon, generating a cottage industry of cultural criticism that touches on a spectacular array of topics, including racial politics, geopolitics, gender issues, beauty standards, design and urbanism. (Hello, Wakandan municipal transit system!)
In fact, there are so many takes on “Black Panther” that New York-based educator Roberto Soto-Carrion has helpfully compiled dozens of analytical stories related to the film and the “Black Panther” comics in general into a 14-page Google Doc called “The Black Panther Reader.”
For those who don’t have a spare month to pore over that excellent document — or to seek out additional worthy reading on the subject — we’ve come up with our own abbreviated Pantherpedia. (Warning: spoilers, ahead.)
The roots of the fictional Wakanda — a utopic African nation untouched by slavery — lie, to some degree, in the Americas, writes historian N.B.D. Connolly, of Johns Hopkins University, in an engaging essay in the Hollywood Reporter.
He refers to the autonomous settlements of escaped slaves known as “maroons” that established themselves in corners of Jamaica, Suriname and Saint-Domingue (otherwise known as Haiti) during the colonial era. And there’s the slave-led uprising that led to Haiti’s independence in 1804 — a free black nation decades before slavery came to an end in the U.S.
“Wakanda might not be Haiti, it's true,” writes Connolly. “But it's what Haiti was before such a place even existed. It's a dream and a wish spoken into the wind.”
An African present
The idea of Wakanda also echoes the history of the few African nations that were never colonized by Europeans, such as Ethiopia.
In an enlightening article on Longreads, Eritrean American writer Rawaha Haile considers how “Black Panther’s” narrative of liberation might read in that country, currently plagued by civil unrest.
“In Addis Ababa,” she writes, “‘Black Panther’ spent its opening weekend sold out five times a day out of a possible five showings. A question I repeatedly found myself asking is where Africans watching this film fit within the Afrofuturist possibility of Wakanda? How do you watch the dream of Africa, set within the real Africa, created by filmmakers in the diaspora, and then emerge to martial law?”
Connecting to Afrofuturism
The film dwells in science fiction: a feline superhero, impossible technologies, the powerful vibranium from which Wakanda draws its power. In an exquisite piece in the New York Times Magazine, essayist Carvell Wallace looks beyond the sci-fi to examine how “Black Panther” embodies the fantastical in relation to the black experience.
“The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination,” he writes. “It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. ‘Black Panther’ cannot help being part of this.”
Killmonger as a villain has inspired endless theorizing: the Wakandan boy who is abandoned in the U.S. after his father is murdered, he returns to seize the throne and turn the secretive kingdom into a tool for black liberation.
At the Boston Review, Johns Hopkins scholar Christopher Lebron takes issue with the character’s depiction: “Rather than the enlightened radical, he comes across as the black thug from Oakland, hell bent on killing for killing’s sake... The abundant evidence of his efficacy does not establish Killmonger as a hero or villain so much as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism.”
But political writer and editor Adam Serwer at the Atlantic says that’s a mistaken reading of the character.
“Killmonger is not a product of the ghetto, so much as he is a product of the American military-industrial complex,” he writes, noting the character’s imperial ambitions.
“‘Black Panther’ does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation — to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated,” he writes. “It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.”
Americans in Africa
On a related subject, numerous essays explore the ways in which Killmonger’s journey mirrors the ways in which black Americans seek to reconnect with Africa, a continent that is no longer their own.
“Our AncestryDNA results don’t exactly lead us into the open arms of our ancestral cousins,” writes novelist Brooke Obie on the cinematic website Shadow and Act. “We are a homeless people, not welcomed anywhere. If Wakanda is the Black Promised Land, then we are its forgotten children, sold away, left behind, rejected, condescended to.”
Huffington Post opinion editor Jolie A. Doggett expresses a similar idea (with a touch of humor): “I know it’s not a real place, but if Wakanda were real, would its people actually let my black ass in? According to every Wakandan in this movie, not likely.”
If “Black Panther” has been hailed, its every last second of screen time has also been critically parsed.
American historian Russell Rickford, in an essay on the website Africa is a Country, states that Wakanda may serve as a beacon of hope, but it is also a symbol of “conservative nationalism.”
As blacks in the diaspora are brutalized, “Wakandans remain detached, surrounded by luxury and comfort in what amounts to an enormous gated community,” he writes. “In other words, they behave like any other modern capitalist elite.”
On the same site, writer Boima Tucker, whose family hails from Sierra Leone, notes that “‘Black Panther’s’ depiction of the African continent is not any more complex than any other in the history of Hollywood.”
“The Africa of Wakanda,” he adds, “resembles more an undifferentiated African stew floating in the red, black and green universe somewhere between Kwanza and Kente.”
Coogler’s vision of Africa may be an invented, slightly homogenized one. But it raises the question of how the real Africa is perceived by the Western imagination.
“Black Panther,” writes New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb, “exists in an invented nation in Africa, a continent that has been grappling with invented versions of itself ever since white men first declared it the ‘dark continent’ and set about plundering its people and its resources. This fantasy of Africa as a place bereft of history was politically useful, justifying imperialism.”
In its creation of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film also takes stereotypical symbols of Africa and inverts them, says Zambian novelist Namwalli Serpell — who analyzes the weaponry employed in the film in the New York Review of Books.
“‘Black Panther’s’ speculative fantasy does not simply reverse these stereotypes about Africa; it complicates them,” she writes — noting the way in which one character dismisses guns as “primitive.” “We see plenty of Wakandan weaponry that might be considered ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’: swords, daggers, scimitars, shields, and even beasts — trained, armored rhinoceroses that seem part horse, part tank.”
But in Wakanda, it’s the weaponry of choice.
The strong female characters in “Black Panther” have not gone unnoticed. Essays about about the Dora Milaje, the female warriors that protect T’Challa, abound. But as writer R. Eric Thomas notes in a column in Elle, the presence of women goes beyond simple butt-kicking.
He describes a crucial moment in which Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) discuss the uncertain future of the Wakandan state.
“It's a rare moment in film and almost unheard of in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: two women speaking alone about ideas and framing the film's central themes,” writes Thomas. “Their conversation plays like an AP Bechdel Test; even as Wakanda falls, these two women are able to engage in passionate, intelligent debate that involves men but is actually about the women themselves, and actually speaks not only to who they are, but what they want their country to be.”
And the fact that it’s two black women makes it even more potent. Writer Jeneé Osterheldt of the Kansas City Star notes, “It’s rare to see black women so dynamic and dimensional in a mainstream movie.”
“The women don’t play to Hollywood stereotypes,” she writes. “White is not the beauty standard. The melanin is poppin’ in all shades of chocolate. There’s no long, straight hair flowing in the wind. There are braids, Afros, twists, locs, headwraps and beautiful bald heads.”
Which brings us to the film’s fashion, which cannot go ignored. On the academic website The Conversation, fashion scholar Henry Navarro Delgado writes not only about the importance of “Black Panther’s” costuming but about the dressing of the cast at the film’s premieres. All of it speaks to the importance of style as a form of expression.
“Dress style has long been one of few accessible forms of self-expression for North America’s marginalized groups,” he writes. “For the African Diaspora in North America, dress has always had political connotations.”
The urbanism angle
Wakanda’s glimmering cityscape was bound to inspire some poetic waxing from the design nerds — so much so that Brentin Mock at Citylab has an entire roundup devoted to stories that explore the very narrow topic of Wakanda’s urbanism.
On Curbed, design writer Patrick Sisson examines the country’s visual connections with the Afrofuturist aesthetic — connecting it to several decades worth of graphic design. “‘Black Panther,’” he writes, “shows a sci-fi version of what a city designed by and for Africans could be.”
Meanwhile, on Citylab, transportation reporter Laura Bliss explores Wakanda’s streetcar system, which she deduces employs a magnetic levitation technology that allows cars to hover over the surface of the Earth as they travel at high speeds.
“Maglev” technology, she notes, is real — it just hasn’t been widely deployed. “Routes have been proposed in the U.S. (most recently between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.),” she notes. “But they’re a tough sell, especially these days.”
Bliss also helpfully notes that the Wakandan train design was inspired by the the train cars of the — Coogler is from the Bay Area. Except, since this is fantasy, the trains always work.
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