Thursday, March 16, 2017

Battle of the Redheads: How Ageism and Patriarchy Have Damaged The Best Actress Oscar

If you have spent enough time with me you will hear my pet theories. Some of them are young, some are decades old. I shared my take on George Lucas’ shifting identification from Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader and how it ruined the Star Wars Saga with my wife on one of our first dates. Another theory revolves around how the true subject of Godfather Part III, should’ve been Michael Corleone masterminding the assassination of President Kennedy.

But the theory I am most prone to share revolves around the predictable voting patterns of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Once again, the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role was the most safe bet of the 2017 Oscar pool. The Academy, famously made up of largely old white men (though that is changing), always gives acting awards along the same patterns. For men: pretty boys need not apply. Hunky, handsome dreamboats, irrespective of their talent, don’t win Oscars (40 is the magic number, handsome men can win once the crow’s feet and gray hair show up). For women: cute, young women always win. Meryl is the only wild card (she can sometimes overcome this tendency).

I can already hear the MRA types nodding, as if this tendency shows how men are the real victims of sexism. Let me quickly reject this view. Yes, the tendency to vote this way does unfairly hurt handsome male actors under 40 (sorry, Fassbender), but that’s because patriarchy hurts men as well as women. One of the dazzling aspects of Mad Max: Fury Road was how it understood that toxic masculinity damages men in different but no less poisonous ways than the ways it hurts women, quite literally in the case of the tumor-ridden warboys who made a religion out of dying too young.

Last month’s Academy Awards were a perfect example. Natalie Portman had once been viewed as the favorite but Pablo Larrain’s direction of Jackie proved to be too off-puttingly artsy for the Academy. Plus Portman had already been a beneficiary of the Academy’s cute young thing sweepstakes. Ruth Negga was nominated for the little seen Loving, but the paucity of other nominations for Jeff Nichols’ film doomed her nomination. And then there was Meryl, nominated for another little-seen, under-nominated film.

It was clear the Best Actress Oscar was really between two redheaded actresses: American Emma Stone, 28, and from France, Isabelle Huppert, who turns 64 today. This matchup brought a smile to my face because I knew it would once again prove my theory correct. Indeed, Stone was triumphant though Huppert, who had won a Golden Globe in January and an Independent Spirit Award the night before, gave the younger actress a run for her money.

Emma Stone, it should be said, is a fine actress. But Huppert is beyond that. Aside from her body of work which goes back to the 1970s and contains scores of great performances, Huppert is an auteur. That is to say, when you see a film starring Huppert, you know it will reflect her sensibilities as much as the director’s. Paul Verhoeven, the iconoclastic director behind the film for which Huppert was nominated, confessed that Huppert self-directed herself and made her own choices where her character was concerned. Verhoeven is not exactly a shrinking violet as a director but he knew that working with Huppert entailed a true collaboration of equals, not the typical director-actor hierarchy.

By this score alone, Huppert should have won: many other actresses could have played Emma Stone’s part in La La Land without changing the movie significantly, but without Huppert Elle cannot exist. There is no other actress alive that could pull off the character at the heart of Elle or her make choices believable. The depiction of rape won Elle many enemies, but regardless of your feelings about Verhoeven’s take on rape, Huppert’s performance is a triumph.

Huppert may not have won the big prize (this was her first Academy Award nomination ever, which is shocking) but she certainly received plenty of accolades for being the most formidable and fearless film actress on the planet. I can also attest to Huppert’s stage bonafides as I saw her perform Sarah Kane’s Psychosis 4:48 at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA. Huppert stood onstage alone for 100 minutes nearly immobile and was utterly riveting.

This kind of performance speaks volumes about Huppert. She does things that would terrify almost any other actor and does them with inimitable cool. The Oscar clip for Emma Stone offered a striking contrast. When I saw this moment in La La Land, I knew this would be the clip played when her name was called at the Academy Awards. In it her character, at her personal and professional nadir, confesses to her boyfriend that maybe she has been fooling herself like the rest of the doomed hopeful legions who come to Hollywood filled with big dreams. He tells her she is wrong but her huge expressive eyes indicate that she isn’t buying it. I can’t really imagine Huppert playing this scene, even as a young woman. This scene, which earned Stone the Oscar isn’t in Huppert’s vocabulary.

Though diminutive in stature, Huppert is the kind of woman that terrifies Hollywood. Icy, confident, unapologetic, Huppert has no place in the universe created by American filmmakers (a few exceptions: David O. Russell and Hal Hartley worked with her in the last 20 years and she was in the late Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate- she sat next to her co-star from that film, Jeff Bridges, on Oscar night). Terrifying is the last word that comes to mind when thinking about Emma Stone. So even though Huppert’s distinguished career exceeds Stone’s lifetime, and even though hers is a singular and seasoned talent, Huppert lost to the charming ingenue.

But we knew this would happen. Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love in 1999, the Academy has rarely missed an opportunity to fête a blushing pretty young (white) woman who has shown some talent. The numbers speak for themselves: since Paltrow, the number of women under 40 who have won the Best Actress trophy is at 71% (14 out of 19). Eight out of that 19 were under 30 when they won the award (that’s 42%). Meanwhile the youngest man to ever win Best Actor, Adrien Brody in 2003, was 29 when he won. He is the only twentysomething to win Best Actor. Ever. Going backwards in time, the next youngest Best Actor winner was Richard Dreyfuss who won at age 30 in 1978. And neither would count as a pretty boy (Brody’s win was a shocker and likely only happened because his competitors Cage, Nicholson, and Day-Lewis split the vote).

Looking over the list of Best Actor and Best Actress winners, it will come as no shock that the women on average are younger than their male counterparts, but this trend has intensified in the last 18 years. And yes, there are exceptions (Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore) but nevertheless the trend is there. As for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, the male actors skew older but the women are more ethnically diverse and not nearly so ingenue heavy. Clearly the Academy has a very different approach to the two actress categories.

So what do we do with this knowledge? For one thing I think this noxious combine of patriarchy and ageism has to be added to the list of grievances that fit under the hashtag movement #OscarsSoWhite. That bit of clicktivism has been incredibly effective and moved the needle, but clearly more needs to be done. And discussing this trend in the awards leads us to the more important discussion: why can’t our 64 year old lionesses get parts as juicy as Huppert gets? Of course the answer is rooted in our culture, our misogyny, and the Death of Adulthood. But change is possible.

Standing outside all of this is Kristen Stewart. Surely she must know that all she’d need to do is star in the next earnest romcom with festival cred and she too would be cradling the Oscar, but she isn’t interested in playing that game, clearly. Like Brando, Stewart was doubtlessly offered a look inside a studio machinery that filled her with such revulsion she ran away and never stopped running.

Like a lot of people I dismissed Stewart as vacant and dull, but she’s acquitted herself in a succession of fine performances, two for no less than French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Stewart should be commended for seeking out challenging work with auteur filmmakers but I suspect doing work she cares about is reward enough. She’s won a Best Supporting Actress Cesar Award in France (the first American actress to do that) but has thus far received no Oscar nominations. My guess is Stewart will hear her name called someday but if it isn’t right away that’s probably for the better. Winning the top acting honor at a young age can be a burden. We’ll see how Emma Stone manages it. If she’s lucky, she’ll find herself collaborating with directors the way Huppert did with Verhoeven. That power can’t be endowed with an award, it comes from creating a body of work that towers above everyone else’s and saying “yes” to parts that everyone else says “no” to. We can’t know today which young actress will achieve Huppert’s master status 40 years from now, but if the bet is between Stone and Stewart I think I know whom I’d put my money on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Get Out, Logan, and the Persistence of Genrephobia

This past weekend, the number one film was a perfect specimen of Hollywood’s new paradigm. I have not seen the latest attempt to bring King Kong into the 21st century, so I cannot comment on its quality. It is directed by a young white male director whose only previous feature credit is a coming-of-age story that premiered at Sundance. This strategy of pairing newbie directors with hoary properties is Hollywood’s newfound religion. It has produced mixed results. I like to imagine the bewilderment golden age producers like David O. Selznick would express over this current state of affairs.

But the big story of this still young year are the wild successes of two genre pictures that offer lessons the movie business is loath to learn. The first thing that unites them is both films are focused, specific, and adopt a minimalist approach to their subject. These films work because they try to do one thing, not everything, and they don’t try to wow us with spectacle. The second lesson is simpler still but nevertheless, often rejected.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and James Mangold’s Logan have plenty of differences. One is original, the other is the 10th film of a loosely grouped cycle. Both were released by major studios but Peele’s film (his first feature after a successful TV comedy series and last year’s action pastiche Keanu) cost around $5 million whereas Logan cost just under $100 million. That last sum is vast but for a studio superhero film that’s a low budget film.

Both films made a lot of money in their first weekend. Logan made its budget back, Get Out made 6 times its budget that first weekend and has gone on to cross the $100 million mark. And once again, people marveled that genre films can be more than just diverting entertainment.

Peele’s horror film especially was met with near-disbelief that a horror film could also have something to say. Fans of horror have been quick to point out that this is absolutely nothing new. Horror has always been about real things. Confronting what we’re afraid of is serious business. And from the beginning of storytelling, we have always told stories that tap into our greatest fears. It is easy to forget what horror is capable of when so much of it is so poorly done and aims so low. But the moment Night of the Living Dead cruelly dispatched its Black hero by having racist lawmen kill him as a matter of reflex (a stunning moment slyly invoked with the final scene of Get Out) it should have become clear that horror is no less capable of reaching the grand level of art as any earnest parable made by Stanley Kramer.

Night of the Living Dead came out at the tail end of 1968. So why do we still treat genre filmmaking and literature as second class? From whence does this middlebrow instinct emerge and why is it so persistent? It should be said that most genre filmmaking/fiction is not, by and large, good. The expectations that create a framework all too often reduce storytelling to paint by numbers. Genre storytelling is looked at as comfort food because we know what to expect before the story even begins. At its worst, genre storytelling feels entrepreneurial, like an investment scheme determined to see a return; and this offends the earnest sensibility of the middlebrow.

Genre may be a vulgar mode of storytelling but when you really come down to it, perhaps genre storytellers are simply more honest and upfront about their intentions. They want you to invest in their story based on the genre, and when the story itself is executed badly, without any personality or originality, the result is indefensible. But it’s unfair to suggest all genre storytellers are the same. Some try to sneak in just a little originality or social commentary while taking care to give the audience the sex and/or violence it dutifully shows up for. But then we have the category Get Out falls in, where the filmmaker clearly is utilizing a genre for a range of reasons.

Peele brilliantly taps into the anxieties and fears that come with being Black in modern America. Get Out works because he clearly loves the genre (he doesn’t treat horror as simply a vehicle for his exploration of race), while simultaneously filling the genre with themes that resonate with him. That’s the tightrope Peele successfully walks. I initially thought Get Out, which invokes the paranoia of crypto-Jewish narratives crafted by Ira Levin and Stanley Kubrick, was effective but instantly dated. The Obama era is over. As elected members of Congress increasingly become comfortable using white nationalist rhetoric, the threat of white liberalism almost seemed quaint. But, as my brilliant wife pointed out, the election of Trump actually serves Get Out well. The paranoia that fuels the film has become even more profound as we process how many of our white neighbors, co-workers, and family might have voted for a man in spite of the fact that he gleefully turned racist dog whistles into air horns. They smile, they give us small talk, they voted for Obama even, but what exactly are they capable of? The horror of Get Out is mined from that question.

Hugh Jackman’s final outing with the claws is not as overtly political but the degree to which the future Logan imagines seems like a post-Trump America is well, uncanny. This is an America that long ago did away with hope or lofty ambitions. This America is about survival. The borders are filled with deportees, casinos have terraformed every Red State city into an ersatz Vegas, and big faceless entities tower over the lives of regular people. It’s striking that the grandest feat of computer generated imagery in Logan is not dedicated to awesome spectacle, but instead comes in the rendering of gargantuan farming robots, seen from a distance, that symbolize the futility of one farming family’s attempt to sustain itself.

Something terrible has happened. Actually many terrible things have happened. The X-Men are all dead, the mansion is gone, and Logan ekes out a living as an Uber driver while caring for a dementia-addled Professor X with help from the mutant detector Caliban. Borrowing from Alfonso Cuaron’s nearly-prophetic Children of Men, mutants have stopped being born and the man who was once Wolverine grapples with the reality that he is the last of his kind. Until he realizes he isn’t the last. He is given the charge of a young girl with powers suspiciously like his own and embarks on a cross country trek with cybernetically enhanced mercs dogging their heels (from the U.S.-Mexico border up to the Canadian border, not unlike the path taken in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey).

One of the breathtaking details of Logan is the detail that the titular mutant is carrying a bullet made of the same unbreakable alloy that has been fused to his skeleton and is likely killing him slowly. Superheroes are expected to make grand sacrifices for the rest of us, and sometimes that includes taking on missions that all but guarantee their demise. But that’s not why Logan is carrying that bullet. He’s carrying it because he wants to die.

This immediately brought to my mind Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon which was released almost 30 years to the day that Logan hit the theaters. I know this because when I saw Lethal Weapon during its opening weekend I was one week into my new life of being a son without a father. I’ll never forget the jaw-dropping moment when Martin Riggs, established in the previous scene as a uniquely dangerous individual with an almost preternatural skill at killing that he can barely control, puts his gun to his head. I had just lost my father a week earlier to suicide.

It was quite a moment for me. It was not a moment I was prepared for. I had been watching action films for a few years at that point and I thought I knew what to expect. But at that moment Shane Black, the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, crossed a line. A suicidal hero violated the expected machismo of the 1980s action film. Riggs doesn’t pull the trigger but he weeps, holding his dead wife’s photo to his face. What Shane Black did could be looked at as violating the rules of the action film genre, but I think what he did was show us that the genre was more elastic than we ever thought. He showed us that an action film could own the fact that the hero’s derring-do might be a cry for help as much as sign of strength because deep down, we had suspected that some of our heroes might not be the most mentally/spiritually sound individuals.

So rather than leave the theater shaken or upset by what I’d seen, I was somewhat agog over the fact that something as entertaining as Lethal Weapon could also deal with something as serious as suicide. My personal life and my passion had converged.

Learning that Logan is considering suicide isn’t as shocking as Martin Riggs’ attempt but it owes a debt to it. Shane Black’s script changed forever what an action film could do and I think we’ll see that Logan has done similar things for the superhero genre. The analogy is apt. Superhero films are every bit as derided as action films of the 80s were. In a wonderful bit of irony, Richard Donner, director of Lethal Weapon and Superman: The Movie, recently joined in on the widely held condemnation of superhero films as being shallow and childish.

If anything, action films were viewed as more disposable than comic book movies, which on average get better reviews than even the high profile action films of the Reagan era. The closest cousin the superhero film has is the western. The western has been a big influence on superhero films and Logan wears that on its sleeve. Laura, the mute mutant girl who Logan must get to the border, watches Shane with Professor X (Shane was my father’s favorite film, by the way; a perfect encapsulation of his own baby boomer childhood and a foreshadow of his short-lived fatherhood).

The western has certainly given us great films, a few Best Picture winners even (Logan is profoundly Eastwoodian: it is the Unforgiven of the superhero genre and owes a debt to Outlaw Josey Wales as well). Same for horror (in a just world, The Exorcist would’ve won Best Picture). But nevertheless, genre storytelling continues to have second-class citizenship and it likely always will. For whatever reason, human beings create dichotomies easily and often cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Sadly, this kind of dogged illogic may be what makes us what we are. Having a Black First Family that represented us with class and dignity without a whiff of scandal should have dealt a deathblow to racism but instead the opposite has happened. So if evidence can’t combat racism, I don’t think it will do anything to change the perception that genre storytelling is the narrative equivalent of junk food. So we will be forever amazed by the genre films that show the framework of that narrative mode can be used to explore social ills or dramatize existential crisis as well as any non-genre film.

Both horror and the superhero film will continue to be held up by people who profoundly lack imagination as exhibits A & B of our cultural and moral bankruptcy, and films like Logan and Get Out will be dismissed as exceptions to the rule. Genrephobia is attractive because it is puritanical. And it places those who embrace it into a warm and luxuriant bath of smug superiority. Much like the Obamas, exceptions can be dismissed as either not that great or simply ignored. As a species, we excel at that.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Top 30 films of 2016 (the year we will never recover from).

The word for this accursed year seems to be gotterdamerung. Google it if you aren't familiar. The parade-rainers amongst us get an erotic rush from reminding us that every year contains death and tragedy, and that in the end 2016 is just another number (years are artificial things anyway, right?). I don't think that offers consolation to anyone (which is what makes it so annoying). I will say that in my 5 and 40 years I have rarely seen such steady procession of deaths in a 12 month period. These aren't just passings that hurt, these are passings that signal an end. An end of an era. An end of a movement. An end of an attitude or way of looking at the world that liberated legions.

And without belaboring a point already explored on this blog, American liberal democracy appears to be one of the casualties of the year; or at the very least the end of the ability for America to reasonably pretend it was a shining city on a hill above all others.

This year took so much from us all. But one of the few areas where 2016 was not a prolonged trauma was the cinema it offered. Nostalgia has its own powerful hold on people but anyone insisting movies just aren't as good as they used to be is not paying attention (or needs to venture further than the nearest multiplex at the nearest mall).

The middle years of a decade are often the most interesting. The prior decade has loosened its hold, the one to come is still too distant to loom large. This is the point at which a decade defines itself. It is also I think the moment when the films based on a decade's public dialogue(s) hatch. This year we saw some stunning works that take on many issues, but in my mind the best films grappled with the twin headed beast of identity & economics. Intertwined though they are, the events of the last year have set the stage for a battle royale on the left between camps that believe one is more important than the other. I predict that in years to come we will see some great work come out of this particular debate. Let's hope the debate yields more than great cinema.

As 2017 grimly approaches like a prison sentence, let us hope, if we can still stand to hope for anything, that the loss of so many greats portends that another dynamic era is on the horizon. I'm not saying that living under a fascist dictatorship will be good for film, but rebirth cannot occur without a season of death preceding it.

1. Moonlight - USA - d: Barry Jenkins
2. Paterson - France/Germany/USA - d: Jim Jarmusch
3. Cameraperson - USA - d: Kirsten Johnson
4. Toni Erdmann - Germany/Austria/Romania - d: Maren Ade
5. O.J.: Made in America - USA - d: Ezra Edelman
6. 13th - USA - d: Ava DuVernay
7. Silence - USA/Taiwan/Mexico - d: Martin Scorsese
8. I, Daniel Blake -UK/France/Belgium - d:Ken Loach
9. I Am Not Your Negro - USA/France - d: Raoul Peck
10. Certain Women - USA - d: Kelly Reichardt

11. High-Rise - UK - d: Ben Wheatley
12. Jackie - USA/Chile/France - d: Pablo Larrain
13. The Lobster - Greece/Ireland/UK - d: Yorgos Lanthimos
14. Hell or High Water - USA - d: David Mackenzie
15. Elle - France - d: Paul Verhoeven
16. American Honey - UK/USA - d: Andrea Arnold
17. Love & Friendship - Ireland/France/Netherlands - d: Whit Stillman
18. Kubo & the Two Strings - USA - d: Travis Knight
19. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - USA - d: Gareth Edwards
20. Arrival - USA - d: Denis Villeneuve

21. Loving - USA/UK - d: Jeff Nichols
22. The Fits - USA - d: Anna Rose Holmer
23. La La Land - USA - d: Damien Chazelle
24. No Home Movie - France/Belgium - d: Chantal Akerman
25. Fences - USA - d: Denzel Washington
26. My Golden Days - France - d: Arnaud Desplechin
27. Chevalier - Greece - d: Athina Rachel Tsangari
28. Manchester by the Sea - USA - d: Kenneth Lonergan
29. Sunset Song - UK - d: Terence Davies
30. Weiner - USA - d: Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg

Honorable Mentions: Eye in the Sky, The Invitation, DePalma, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Me, Wiener-Dog, Deadpool, Green Room, Everybody Wants Some!, Hello My Name is Doris, Knight of Cups

Best Performances, in order
1. Isabelle Huppert - Elle
2. Sally Field - Hello, My Name is Doris
3. Lily Gladstone - Certain Women
4. Sandra Huller - Toni Erdmann
5. Naomie Harris - Moonlight
6. Hayley Squires - I, Daniel Blake
7. Kate Beckinsale - Love & Friendship 
8. Michelle Williams - Manchester by the Sea
9. Natalie Portman - Jackie
10. Viola Davis - Fences
11. Sasha Lane - American Honey
12. Ellen Burstyn - Wiener-Dog
13. Ruth Negga - Loving
14. Royalty Hightower - The Fits

1. Mahershala Ali - Moonlight
2. Denzel Washington - Fences
3. Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea
4. Trevante Rhodes - Moonlight
5. Peter Simonischek - Toni Erdmann
6. Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water
7. Ben Foster - Hell or High Water
8. Joel Edgerton - Loving
9. Lucas Hedges - Manchester by the Sea
10. Shia LaBeouf - American Honey
11. Issey Ogata - Silence
12. Tom Bennett - Love & Friendship
13. Patrick Stewart - Green Room
14. Ryan Reynolds - Deadpool

Acting Purple Heart goes to Aja Naomi King who managed to create a complete human being in Nate Parker's disastrous Birth of a Nation, a film concerned with her character's suffering only as a plot point.

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: James Laxton for his beautiful work on Moonlight.
Runner-up: I actually recognized Bradford Young's camerawork on Arrival before I saw his name in the credits. He is becoming a true cinematographic auteur.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Tony Gilroy, the man who saved Rogue One from being a debacle. Let's hear it for experience over just being the hot new thing.
Runner-up: Dan Trachtenberg for his taut work on 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The Samson Raphaelson Screenwriting Award: Whit Stillman for his adaptation of Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan (which became Love & Friendship) & Taylor Sheridan for his original screenplay for Hell or High Water.

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: Mark Tildesley for his work on High-Rise, a film that beautifully captured the entropy that leads to Brexit and Trump. Not since Verhoeven's Total Recall has Brutalism has served a film so well.

The Theodora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Madeline Fontaine for her work on Jackie.
Runner-up: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh for Love & Friendship.

The Masaru Sato Composing Award: Mica Levi for her expressive work on Jackie. She's pretty much my favorite new film composer.
Runner-up: Sqürl (a group comprised of Jim Jarmusch, Carter Logan and Shane Stoneback) for their work on Paterson.
Best use of existing music: the jaw-dropping use of Antonin Dvorak's exuberant New World Symphony in O.J.: Made in America for the verdict sequence.

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws for their stunning work on Cameraperson. The documentary is clearly about witnessing and recording but the power often comes from how those images are juxtaposed. I think that's referred to as cinema.

The Alan Splet Sound Design Award: to the sound department of Silence.

The David O. Selznick Producing Award: no award this year.

Best Revival of the Year: the complete Frederick Wiseman retrospective at Cinefamily. Only the first leg of the retrospective played this year (they're breaking his filmography up into chronological sections and playing one section a year over the next few years) and it really stunned me. I had only heard about Wiseman's work before this year but seeing it left a profound impression on me and confirmed him in my mind his status as one of our greatest living filmmakers.

The Grant Tinker Television Award: Black Mirror has done what many shows inspired by Rod Serling have failed at. It gives us a peak into dystopias just within our grasp and is at once ahead of its time and of it. This year feels like we're all trapped in one of its episodes. Special mention to the "San Junipero" and "Nosedive" episodes of season three.
Runners-up: Atlanta, Fleabag, Search Party, Horace & Pete, The Get Down, The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Westworld, Marvel's Luke Cage, Game of Thrones, Insecure

Comeback of the year: 35mm film stock (although to be honest the best looking films of the year were shot digitally).

Special Mention for a 2015 film seen after 1/1/2016: Jafar Panahi's Taxi is simple, gorgeous and contains multitudes. He continues to be the great real life story of artistic triumph over state idiocy and we in America will need to follow his brave lead in the years to come. No filmmaker anywhere can throw in the towel when Panahi perseveres and fights for us all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Magneto Was Right": Recalibrating the Comic Book Movie for the Trump Age

"Maybe an asshole is what we need!" I heard variations of this sentiment throughout the utterly dispiriting, anomic 2016 presidential election cycle. This was the rationale of a segment of the population who had come to view themselves as an embattled minority. It also explains why this voting bloc convinced themselves that a man who emblazons his name on skyscrapers was the savior they'd been waiting for.

I won't pretend that the outcome of this election was easily foreseen. I was as wrong about this election as I've ever been about anything and I am not alone. But hindsight is 20/20, and one of the indicators that we were in for a Trump victory are the comic book movies of 2016.

I've pointed out many times to friends, colleagues, and students that the 2016 crop of CBM featured an interesting trend. This was the year of the anti-hero and also the year of heroes fighting heroes. "Maybe an asshole is what we need" could've been the tagline for Deadpool or Suicide Squad. This was the year where supervillains got a chance to act heroic or erased the line between hero and villain altogether.

It might be a stretch to say that Batman v Superman also presaged a Trump win but nevertheless the argument can be made. Superman, both an immigrant alien and a member of the media (two of Trump's favorite betes noires), is portrayed by Zack Snyder as cold, self-centered, and not at all living up to the values of truth, justice, and the American Way. And worse than all of that, he's smug about his own omnipotence and imperviousness. In short, Superman is a stand-in for one of those coastal elites that have been ruining a once proud nation (the Last Son of Krypton is a well-documented metaphor for Jewishness so there's that too). And of course, you can almost understand Trump supporters if you attempt to see Trump as a Bruce Wayne figure: a man of wealth who is using his vast resources to help the common man (we might also pin Trump's success on comic books that all too often equate wealth with heroism). It's certainly clear that Trump's fans see his defeat of Hillary Clinton as a satisfying humbling of someone thought to be unbeatable, just like Superman, incredulous as a mere mortal blocks his punch.

The President of the United States is a fixture of the comic book movie and makes many appearances in comic books. As a kid I remember reading a Superboy comic where he stopped by the White House to give JFK a pager to summon the lad of steel whenever he needed to. Of course, superheroes and presidents are natural allies. Both are our protectors. They reflect the best of our values and the potential we all have to become great leaders and serve our fellow man. Or at least that held true until two weeks ago.

Whether you revile Trump or applaud his victory, one thing that cannot be denied is that he is a break with every thing that has come before in the Oval Office. There have been crooks and charlatans atop the executive branch before, but none have so proudly embraced their shadow self like the next president. As his follower said "maybe an asshole is what we need". We shall see.

[Side note: in January 2009 Marvel published a Spider-Man comic in which Peter Parker, covering the Obama inauguration for the Daily Bugle, has to don his tights and save the president-elect from a supervillain. The bad guy, Chameleon, shape shifts into Obama and Spidey has to figure out which one is the real Obama and which is the imposter. Fascinating.]

One thing that's clear is that the comic book movie will have to adjust for this new kind of president. Already the implications of the Trump election cast a harsh and unfavorable light on some of the best comic book movies of the post-Iron Man era. I keep thinking about Heath Ledger's Joker whose idee fixe is that "good people" will become monsters with the slightest nudge. Batman disagrees and Nolan does too. As the Trump era dawns and we watch Americans perform the Nazi salute, dismiss bigotry as trivial and generally give themselves over to their reptile brain, The Dark Knight feels like a lie. Of course the nameless self-righteous prick would've detonated the bomb on the prison ferry. I don't even think anyone would stop him today. Ledger's Joker would view this election cycle with the glee of a child waking up on Christmas morning.

One cannot discuss comic book heroes and the presidency without mentioning the jaw-dropping "Secret Empire" Captain America storyline of 1974. You can read about it here, but to summarize writer Steve Englehart had Cap take on President Richard Nixon and bring him down. Cap is so disgusted with what America has become at the end of the tale he drops the Captain America mantle and becomes "Nomad" (a man without a country), a character without any patriotic/nationalist identification.

Unlike his movie counterpart, the Cap of the comic books came out of the ice in 1964 to a nation still grieving a slain president. He also watched his beloved homeland nearly rend itself asunder over race and imperialism. Englehart and other writers shrewdly knew Cap couldn't become a fossilized avatar of a nation's best intentions. They turned Captain America instead into the nagging conscience of a superpower. That take on Captain America has been adopted by the recent spate of Marvel-based films known to aficianados as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Though he's never come face to face with the president (played by William Sadler in Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD), Captain America has spent much of his trilogy defying the will of corrupt organs of the state. The trilogy takes on a prescience as a lead up to a Trump presidency. It begins in America's great test (World War II, a time presumably when -according to Trump- America was great) before jumping to a modern day where the mythology of Captain America: The First Avenger has been used to hide a cancer that becomes exposed in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this year's Captain America: Civil War our hero once again becomes an outlaw when he disobeys what he sees as governmental overreach. And now Cap's point, (that you cannot cede too much power to the state because if you like the leader today, what about the next one) is driven home by Trump's ascendancy. If you doubt that Steve Rogers would refuse to answer to President Trump, take a look at Chris Evans' Twitter feed. His passionate plea for basic decency could be written by Cap himself.

Part of me almost needs to see the fictional American avatar slug out Trump as he once did another nation's dictator, but the Captain America trilogy has already warned us of a worst case Trump scenario. The other comic book franchise obsessed with government overreach is the X-Men series. The second X-Men film began with a teleporting mutant nearly assassinating the president and subsequent films have featured the head of state, including Tricky Dick himself.

I've thought a lot about the X-Men since Trump won. He shamelessly vilified different minority groups and has touched off a tidal wave of bigoted bile in our country. Once, when we were a more gentle nation we had to create metaphors for the kind of hate that can be seen in earnest on social media today. Mutants (characters born with their superpowers who sometimes have an unusual appearance that marks them for mob violence) were a stand-in for all these despised groups that once again many Americans feel safe to deride openly.

Trump pretty much validates the entire ideology of the X-Men's great antagonist, Magneto. A child of the Shoah, he uses his vast powers to protect mutantkind from the kind of bigotry Trump has trafficked in. Magneto knows war between humans and mutants is inevitable and has vowed to meet it head on. "Never again", indeed. In an interview Sir Ian McKellen once shared that Black males had become his biggest fans since he took on the role of Magneto. His character has been positioned as the Malcolm X to the X-Men's MLK, and the fact that there's truth in his worldview has made him one of Marvel's most compelling villains. Since Trump's election, I've thought of this t-shirt and considered buying it.

We could really use a great X-Men film now. Specifically one where the antagonist is anti-mutant hysteria itself. Sadly the current custodians of the property are lost in the past, have forsaken the present and have thereby betrayed what made the X-Men essential reading for so many of us who grew up feeling different from those around us. The X-Men should be a bulwark against Trumpism.

So where do comic book movies go from here? Do they comment on Trump's break with traditional leadership and American values? Interestingly the MCU won't have to deal with this question for some time as the storyline is set to take the films out of America and bring to the narrative an extraterrestrial warlord seeking omnipotence. It is interesting that two of the MCU's grand gestures to diversity, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are set to shoot in the next two years. The push to get these heroes on screen now seems at odds with the times and more's the pity.

I suspect the producers at Marvel are relieved they can steer clear of the Oval Office for some time and focus on deep space, the multiverse, or Wakanda instead. The presidency was once a part of the superhero genre, but it will be take some time to see how Trump handles the office for that to become true again. Some brave soul may try to have their fictional hero take on the next president. If Trump succeeds (not even sure what that means but let's say he delivers a booming economy, keeps us out of war, and doesn't strip too many civil liberties away) perhaps the superhero will drift towards him. But if he isn't a success, if it turns out that in fact an asshole is never what you need, then we may need the superhero to remind us of those values lost in the name of moral shortcuts and political gamesmanship.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again"

There's not one machismo, there are many types. There are people who like to brag about their ability to eat spicy food. There are people that love to inform you that sitting for an 8 hour movie is no big deal. You name it, there's someone bragging about their insouciance and subtly shaming you for your lack of it. One of the more noxious and obnoxious forms of this is shock machismo. This is when something terrible happens and the first response is to shrug with heavy eyelids.

Of course, shock machismo is just an adolescent pose. It is an attempt to control chaos, to tell it you are still in charge even when that's clearly untrue. And in some quarters we have seen a tiny bit of shock machismo in action with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.

Even typing those words sends a wave of nausea through my body. I suppose it would be comforting to not allow myself to be horrified by this. For some that resistance takes the form of shock machismo ("What'd you expect from AmeriKKKa?"), for others it takes the form of normalization ("I know Trump destroyed every value we claim to hold dear in this country to win but it's time to give him the benefit of the doubt."). To give one's self over to the apocalyptic horror of this election is harrowing. I suppose I should be patient with people trying to not look this particular Medusa in the face. But I am not.

Whether Trump institutes a fascist dictatorship like something out of an 80's dystopian sci-fi movie directed by a British commercial director or turns out to be an ineffectual bumbler, we have lost something we will never reclaim. We have lost the ability to say that in America truth matters. We have lost the ability to say that in America basic human decency matters. We have lost the ability to look at ourselves as different from the backwards nations we have deemed cruel and inferior. We have lost the ability to say that competence and qualification matter more than identity and celebrity. And these losses should haunt us all for the rest of our lives.

But how do we make sense of this so we can ward off the paralysis that comes along with facing the abyss? That will takes us a long time to do. And even though very smart people have already isolated some of the key factors in this historic election it fails to make this event seem like anything more than a nightmare that should never have happened.

The beauty of history is how it puts everything into perspective. Nothing that happens has never happened before. It doesn't ease the pain of a calamity, but it at least offers an important reminder that life will go on. There are many obvious historic precedents for the Trump election. The first is Reconstruction and Redemption. After the American Civil War, the federal government attempted to make good on its promises of full citizenship to the formerly enslaved. That progress was real until the southern whites, who viewed themselves as redeemers of the south and not despoilers of liberty, stopped that progress and put Jim Crow in place for a century.

The 1990s were another time when minority groups made great strides only to have that answered with the George W. Bush era. Whenever we see equality coming to America's minorities, backlash follows. And for me, the first time I saw that happen was when I was 8 years old.

On July 12, 1979 in Chicago, radio DJ Steve Dahl hosted an unusual event. In the interval of a White Sox doubleheader, Dahl organized a ceremonious burning of disco records. Dahl hated disco and branded himself the general of an "anti-disco army" (he showed up to the record burning in military regalia). The deal was you'd be admitted to the game for only one dollar if you brought a disco record to be thrown on the pile. Dahl and the White Sox organization feared the night would be a flop. Their fears were unfounded. The crowd was so large Comiskey Park hit capacity and an estimated 20,000 were unable to be admitted to the park.

If you google "Disco Demolition Night" you can read the accounts and see the photos of what happened. Once Dahl started literally blowing up heaps of disco records, his mostly white male army lost control of themselves and a full scale riot ensued. The second game planned that night had to be forfeited. People were dismayed by this gleeful act of incivility on the hallowed grounds of America's pastime but Dahl was unrepentant and reveled in his achievement.

I was 8 when this happened and nowhere near Chicago. But what I remember is seeing this in the news and thinking "how could anyone hate dance music that much?" But of course, this wasn't about music. It was about culture. It was an act of white male cultural reclamation against a musical movement that threatened their dominion.

It doesn't matter how you personally feel about disco. It had detractors from many quarters (some producers of soul music rejected disco as a white bastardization of Black music). But the facts are these: disco brought the races together, offered female vocalists a position of power, and threatened norms of gender and sexuality. It was in short the musical analog of all the social liberation happening in the glorious 1970s; a decade when Blacks, Latinos, women and gays made a bid for the mainstream.

And within a year of Disco Demolition Night, it had all evaporated. The targeted music scene collapsed. Disco was never going to have a long life but Dahl's spectacle certainly legitimized and accelerated the backlash. It told the guy who never could dance and found disco alienating that he wasn't alone. And he was emboldened. So disco fell. Shortly after that Ronald Reagan was elected president. This ushered in an era of swaggering conservatism where the strides made by the women, the gays, the Blacks and the Latinos were almost erased.

And here we are, once again. In truth I've wondered more than once during the Obama era when that "Disco Sucks" moment would arrive. I even began to think that maybe we wouldn't see a grand backlash from conservative white America. But Tuesday it came, led incongruously by a man known to frequent Studio 54 with his gay Jewish mentor on several occasions.

So what do we take away from this? First we take that backlash is almost the natural order. For the democratic candidate to prevail would have gone against persistent trends. It could have happened, but I think many including myself underestimated how much a Clinton victory would've upended historic pattern (I don't mean that she was a woman- though there is that). This defeat should not be read as proof that liberalism cannot succeed, but more that America tends to act as a pendulum between left and right especially when identity politics are thrown in.

For me one of the most maddening aspects of the Monday morning quarterbacking is all the handwringing over the Democratic party's perceived failure to woo the white working class. Imagine on July 13, 1979 a group of disco producers and club DJs looking at Dahl's spectacle and asking themselves "maybe we should've thought more about rock fans when we made disco." That seems absurd, right? I know many will find this to be a hyperextended analogy but this is what I think of when I hear that the Dems failed the white working class (and can we also remind ourselves that said white working class abandoned the Dems for the GOP after the Dems decided to secure civil rights for non-whites- how does one woo someone back who is offended by equality?). Every political party has to concern itself with outreach, but the notion that the Trumpist white proletariat would ever see anything that spoke to them in the Democratic nominees is delusional and an unproductive avenue of discussion. They could no more support a Dem than Dahl's soldiers could trade in Rush for Chic.

If you think I'm being dangerously dismissive or glib let me remind you that the Democratic candidate got more votes and her electoral college shortfall could've been more easily avoided if stopping fascism was more important to some lefties than rejecting so-called "neoliberalism".

Finally, the most important lesson to take from Disco Demolition Night is that its success was limited. Yes, disco disappeared, but while they were blowing up records in Chicago they were scratching records in New York City. Hip Hop, not quite as disturbing to rock fans perhaps but a musical idiom that would one day overthrow rock's cultural primacy nonetheless, was already hatching. And somewhere in Chicago as Dahl and his anti-disco army rioted was a Black gay DJ the world would come to know as Frankie Knuckles who later fathered house music which he called "disco's revenge."

In other words, the door to progress seemed to have been shut and bolted in 1980 with the ascendance of Reagan, but it was only for a time. Disco Demolition Night didn't kill disco forever. Reagan didn't prevent the election of Obama. The murder of Harvey Milk didn't prevent Transparent from winning Emmys. Backlash doesn't last forever. It only puts some drag on forward momentum, it cannot completely reverse it.

This election is a catastrophe. There is no softening or sugarcoating it. People are going to suffer and some will die because (white) America chose a leader who made fascist overtures his remedy for what ails us. But history teaches us that this is part of the eternal cycle of history. The pendulum will not stay in one place forever.

It reminds me of the ending of Bernardo Bertolucci's delirious Marxist epic 1900. After the peasants celebrate the fall of fascism and the victory of the proletariat, the film ends with communist Olmo and padrone Alfredo (played by Depardieu and DeNiro) as old men scuffling like little boys. The greatness of Bertolucci was in recognizing that the film, despite its earnest belief in a workers' revolution, could not end with a pageant of proletarian victory. No it ends with the peasant and the landowner locked in eternal combat which is as much comic as tragic. And so it goes for the left and right in America. We will never have a progressive utopia. We will have progressive eras that give way to backlash before they are restored. Whether that fact is depressing or encouraging is a matter of perspective, or perhaps, an act of will.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Goodbye, Vine (a eulogy for an app in 6 paragraphs)

Goodbye, Vine. It was short run but that seems appropriate. It may make us uncomfortable but the apps in our phones are shaping us in a profound way. They're shaping how we think, what we think about and the way we see the world. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. It's been barely 4 years since the app was released but it has had tremendous impact even as it clearly spent the second half of that life span in decline. 

One of the things that marks digital filmmaking is the lifting of restrictions in shot duration. In the analog days you knew a take had to end sooner than later because eventually the magazine would run out of film (the time varied depending on the format). Beyond that film was frankly too expensive to regularly push the length of a shot to the limit. But along came digital video and suddenly the limits were gone. You could film an entire feature in one take digitally (from Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark to last year's Victoria from Germany).

But Vine put a strict limit on you. Six seconds. Perfect for an attention deficit afflicted populace to be sure but also an incredible challenge for the Vinemaker. Many rose to the challenge and mastered the medium. Of the many "Vine stars", a phrase both whimsical and ominous, most achieved that notoriety through comedy. Six seconds is also roughly the time span of our most elementary jokes and these Vinemakers understood that deeply. Moreover the looping of these videos became a formal restriction that many turned into a virtue. How many times was the one-two punch of an abrupt end smashing into the beginning what made a Vine funny?

Of course it ain't a successful app unless porn becomes an issue. Unbeknownst to many, Vine was quickly awash in DIY pornography. Much of that "adult" content was posted by the young, including minors, who have been so shaped by the omnipresence of Internet porn they leaped into this breach with barely a thought. Eventually Vine (which was purchased by Twitter- another app with a decidedly laissez-faire attitude to porn- before it was launched not dissimilar to Facebook's purchase of Vine's rival Instagram) had to clean up its act and purge the elicit material. Or at least most of it. But what will become of all this homegrown smut let loose in cyberspace? It will no doubt live on past the app itself. 

Beyond porn and comedy, Vine also became a tool for social justice. In Hong Kong, America, or anyplace where the people stood up against the powers that be, Vine was there too. Black Lives Matter luminary Deray McKesson spoke this morning on how Vine's limitations forced the Vinemaker to be very judicious with what they shot so that the essential moment of a protest would be captured. I'm sure that trained the protestors how to keep focused and be concise. Valuable lessons. 

But when I look at my own Vine account, I see something else. I see my son (the one who doesn't mind being filmed). And as I scroll down my Vines it becomes a Benjamin Button movie: he ages backwards from the little boy I see now to a toddler to a baby taking his first steps. I get emotional looking at my Vine account and I cannot say that about any of my other social media accounts on other platforms. More than the other apps Vine was about time: it froze one moment into eternity, erased long intervals, and it allowed you to travel back to things like a living digital memory. It was serious. It was funny. It was pervy. It was us. Goodbye, Vine.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards a New Black Masculinity: Obama, Luke Cage, Nate Parker and Chiron.

The joke has returned. I’m speaking specifically of the Obama Joke. If you watch Black standup comedy you probably know what I’m getting at. Though it may not get the respect it deserves, standup is always a fascinating peek into a group’s collective unconscious. At its best, it verbalizes unspoken knowledge a culture carries silently in its gut. And in November 2008, once the shock of Obama’s election had been processed into acceptance that history had been forever altered before our eyes, you heard a certain joke all the time. 

It went like this: now that Obama had been elected, we would soon see “the Real Obama”, the authentic Black man that the junior senator from Illinois had been skillfully hiding from (white) America on his year long odyssey to the Oval Office. This was not the stuff of great comedy. It was low-hanging fruit. It was instantly hacky. But more and more comics took their turn at this particular piñata as November became December and the inauguration approached. 

I can’t remember specific jokes but they ran along the lines that his speech and mien would become more recognizably Black now that he’d secured power. It was as if Obama’s election was such a seismic event the first response was to cast Obama in the part of the wiley trickster who had put one over on America. It was an understandable reaction. And yet it is a little unsettling when we view these jokes as a foreshadow of the far more sinister birtherism to come. In other words, some Black people questioned the veracity of Obama’s identity first, then a type of white person did it too in a far less playful manner. But in the end these were both flawed ways to reckon with this man who had changed history.

President Obama has always been viewed as some sort of Trojan Horse. But now, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, none of that came to pass. The Obama that ran for office, the Obama that wrote two beautifully written books, the Obama that made people believe in hope again, was the Obama we got. 

But just as birtherism has proved impossible to kill, the Obama Joke too has come back to life. In Cedric the Entertainer’s new Netflix special Live from the Ville he makes jokes about Obama quitting “like that Black lady on the news” after dealing with Republican obstruction for years. Cedric dives deep back to that 2008 bit saying Obama “won’t put on a suit on that last day, he gon’ walk to that helicopter in pair of Jordan flip flops…a wave cap on”. The Entertainer goes on to acknowledge that Obama’s near-Vulcan demeanor enabled him to succeed at such a public, high pressure job (and separates him from African-Americans of a more choleric disposition) but then points out when Obama's patience is short “every now and then that Negro shows up and we see it first.” He wraps up the bit by likening Obama to a thug (citing Obama’s kill list as president) despite his calm manner.

There is a lot to parse out about the Obama presidency but his impact on Black masculinity is fascinating. Blacks and whites alike are still recalibrating what a powerful Black man looks and sounds like and some old ideas die hard. This presidency has been transformational and the final year of it has been a tumultuous one. 

2016 has taken so much from us all. But perhaps we can view the year in a new way. Rather than looking at it as a year of loss and collapse, it might be better to view it as one of transformation and a prelude to rebirth. As the year draws to a close, this is what seems to be unfolding. And no aspect of this is more clear than the way 2016 has affected our ideas about Black masculinity. 

At the beginning of this month, something else collapsed: Netflix. The streaming service was literally crashed on the first of October. The cause was clear: Luke Cage had come to Netflix. The third of their original series based on Marvel Comics properties, Luke Cage focuses on one of Marvel’s singular creations. Created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, Luke Cage was Marvel’s transparent bid to capitalize on the Blaxploitation movement of American film. Cage was a Black hero but he was not Marvel’s first. That distinction belongs to Black Panther, who turned 50 this year (debuting three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party). In 1969 came Marvel’s first Black American hero, Falcon. 

But Cage was a significant break from what had come before. He was not an aristocrat from an exotic land, nor was he a social worker from the Black middle class (this was Falcon’s original origin before later being retconned). Cage was an ex-convict, given powers by an experiment gone awry in a hellish prison. It is important to note that Cage was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison, but he was a Harlem gang member who had committed crimes in the past. 

A word about those powers: Luke Cage undergoes a painful transformation that makes his skin and bones virtually unbreakable and grants him super-strength (his might is dwarfed by the physical strength of Iron Man or Thor, but still far stronger than a normal human being). Luke Cage becomes bulletproof. It should be noted that neither Black Panther nor Falcon had been endowed with super powers. The former, like Captain America, was at the peak of human strength and speed but not superhuman. And aside from a connection to his falcon Redwing, the Falcon had no powers at all (his flying rig was originally created in Wakanda, the technological titan ruled by Black Panther).

The idea of a bulletproof Black man in comics obviously came directly from the violence directed at Black bodies in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is uncanny that Cage finally makes it to our screens after decades of failed attempts at a time where again the violent murders of Black men are a weekly part of our news. But the creators of Luke Cage did one more thing to distinguish him from other Black heroes: they made him decidedly working class and fairly apolitical. Cage was a “hero for hire”. This put him squarely in the Blaxploitation tradition which in turn had been influenced by American hard-boiled detective fiction. Luke Cage didn’t even bother with a nom de guerre like Falcon and Black Panther. He was simply Luke Cage (though that name was an alias) and he used his powers to get paid, not out of altruism. 

For these three reasons, Cage occupies a special place in the hearts of Black comic book nerds, especially men. The reaction I get when I wear my Luke Cage t-shirt from Black men is pretty striking. My Black Panther t-shirt does not elicit the same response. Cage is a Black everyman and has become a totem of Black masculinity like no other character in comics. His origin smacks of Malcolm X but rather than set out to change the world after his jailhouse transmutation, Cage sets out to survive in a cruel and harsh world and that struggle connected with his readers. 

As the 70s progressed Cage became Power Man and was a given a partner, a hero similarly created to capitalize on another genre of film popular in the early 70s with African-Americans. But his mission stayed the same. “Hero for Hire” became plural but Cage never became a corny do-gooder. 

His signature yellow disco shirt, tiara and hot pants hung on into the 1980s until Cage was given a new look. His head was now shaved, the disco shirt became a t-shirt and only his heavy metallic gauntlets survived. He now had a look that fit his workingman persona. This is the look Mike Colter’s portrayal of Cage in the Netflix series is based on. 

Colter’s Cage first appeared a year ago in Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for the similarly powered titular heroine. One oft-repeated line is that the Cage featured in Jessica Jones is superior to the Cage featured in his own series. I don’t agree but I get where that comes from. The Cage in Jessica Jones is more in line with the comic books. He’s an everyman who rejects costumed adventuring as foolishness (even though he lives in a city saved by such action). But when Cheo Hodari Coker (showrunner for Luke Cage) takes over the character from Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Cage does shift a bit. 

In Luke Cage, he has fled Hell’s Kitchen after the events in Jessica Jones and gone uptown to Harlem. The show makes some changes to the character’s established origin. He is no longer a Harlem native. He is an avid student of Black culture and history. And while he is still an ex-convict he is also now an ex-cop instead of an ex-gang member. That last one is big. It takes away some of Luke Cage’s street cred and makes him a figure of the establishment similar to Black Panther and Falcon, albeit a fallen one.

I think the possible reasons why might have something to do with Coker’s approach to the character. Luke Cage features a postlapsarian view of Black culture. While the show lovingly showcases Harlem and its history, it also takes the position that for all the gloriousness of Black culture in America, we fell from grace. The drug epidemic and attendant nihilism of the 1980s have left scars on us and the show deals with that. 

And though Hip Hop is central to Luke Cage he is not presented as blinged out and street as some of his more recent incarnations. Instead he’s old school and timeless; a man of the moment who is shaped profoundly by the past. In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us. 

Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.

On the heels of Luke Cage came a theatrical release also purporting to tell the story of a Black hero. Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his passion project which he called in a breathtaking act of subversion The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in this look at the life of Nat Turner who led a violent slave revolt in 1831 that shook the slave states to their cores. Parker, a Virginia native like Turner, viewed this film in the same light that Turner viewed his plans for rebellion: as a divine mission. Leading up to the film’s debut, Parker spoke of this as more than a film. He chose Fox Searchlight as a distributor in part because he wanted the film to be a big screen experience. He also got Fox Searchlight to create teaching guides and plan a tour of colleges as a condition of the sale. Like Coker, Parker was taking Nat Turner and fashioning him into the hero he believed we need. 

But, of course, things didn’t go as Parker planned. 

Parker’s 2001 rape charge (for the record he was acquitted though he did have sex with the victim that he maintained was consensual) supplanted the film itself. Suddenly the conversation Parker wanted to have had become something else and his attempts to address the charge only added fuel to the fire. The word “boycott” entered the conversation. 

Though I respect the decision to do so, I chose not to boycott. In my view, Birth of a Nation is a failure and a curious one at that. Never mind that it is mediocre, that it modeled itself after Braveheart when it should’ve aimed higher. The unpardonable sin is that Birth of a Nation seeks to turn Nat Turner into a Marvel hero. It fabricates a rape as if slavery wasn’t sufficient motivation. It reduces women to suffering motivators rather than giving them agency (something called “fridging” in comic books which Nate Parker has clearly never heard of).  But most intriguing is how thoroughly retrograde Parker seems to be from the choices he has made and the hero he has created.

It has never been clear to me what Parker’s aim is beyond making Nat Turner a more recognizable figure. Does the film have anything to say for the post-Obama era? What directives are we to take from seeing a violent resistance to the horrors of white supremacy? Perhaps Parker had intended to speak to this more directly before his past overtook him.

I don’t use “retrograde” to insult Parker. I use it to refer to his point of view which seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know Parker’s exact age but the ideas he espouses through word and deed seem to belong to a much older man. Even his choice to turn down Netflix’s much bigger offer for Fox Searchlight reflects someone thinking in an outmoded way. Or perhaps it suggests personal ambition was more of a motivation than simply bringing Turner’s story to the public (Netflix would’ve put the movie in every living room in America but it would have also ended any hopes for an Oscar). 

Similarly, Parker’s view of a Black male hero is of another time. I suppose Parker wanted to make Turner into a classical hero not unlike a man Mel Gibson or John Wayne might play but it missed an opportunity to either create an alternative to those Western models or critique the ways in which the oppressed can come to resemble their oppressor in the act of rejecting that oppression. 

But all such nuance is ignored. Parker refuses to show the brutality his army dealt to whites in a way that is frankly an act of artistic cowardice. Showing the brutalization of white people in equally unflinching terms is necessary in a film that lingers on how whites brutalized their slaves. But that’s messy. That’s disturbing. And that’s not what Parker wants you to feel. Exhibit A: the use of John Williams-style choral singing on the soundtrack clashes with the brutality of Nate’s first kill. But the score more than editing or camera, is often the clearest window into the soul of a director and Parker wants you to see this murder as not tragically inevitable but ennobling. I could accept that if the subsequent murders were handled more frankly. 

Parker’s Turner dies surrounded by a scornful horde (an uncanny foreshadow of Parker’s public excoriation prior to the film’s release) but the director wants you to know he didn’t die in vain even though the rebellion failed. Parker allowed Nat Turner to settle a few personal scores before the gallows. He accepts death beatifically. Now that the film has failed and Parker’s reputation is in ruins one can’t help wondering if the hero narrative he’s constructed has sustained him through this ordeal or if it has caused him to reflect on how he might have handled things in another way. 

Parker famously said he refused to play a gay man because “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons” and “to preserve the Black man…you will never see me take a gay role.” Nat Turner took an eclipse as a divine signal to lead his rebellion and Nate Parker should similarly view the auspicious arrival of Moonlight as an omen to rethink his outdated homophobic nonsense. 

Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight focuses on three moments in the life of Chiron, a Black gay boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City. We see Chiron at turning point moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he tries to come to terms with the abuse, homophobia and toxic masculinity he’s grown up with. The film has set records in its first weekend of release for per screen average (meaning even though it is only playing on a handful of screens it is making a ton of money). I saw it Friday night at a screening that had to be moved to the Cinerama Dome to accommodate the demand. 

Moonlight, without a ton of paid ballyhoo from a studio, is the film Parker wanted Birth of a Nation to be. It has comes to the screen with a sizable audience hungry for it, who have been waiting to see it for most of their lives. And Moonlight is revolutionary in ways that Birth of a Nation is not. We’ve seen Black men stand up and violently resist oppression. Not a lot, but we have seen it. But we’ve rarely seen a film about intimacy between Black men. We’ve rarely seen a film show how toxic masculinity can destroy Black men as quickly as racist oppression. We’ve rarely seen a film where the great act of masculine courage is not acting out violently, it is learning to feel worthy of love. 

What’s so striking about Moonlight is that for the first half of the film, Chiron’s queerness is more or less beside the point. He could be straight and still suffer the same soul crushing oppression and emotional brutality and it would be no less deleterious. But he is gay and the film will force many to question what being gay looks like and what it means. Chiron responds to his oppression by fashioning himself into the very picture of Black masculinity. The actor who plays him as an adult looks every bit the superhero and could easily play Luke Cage or Black Panther. But that kind of manhood, the kind that Nate Parker seems to think is so precious and sacrosanct is not Chiron’s salvation. It is an imperfect solution that the culture he’s grown up in has led him towards. 

These are trying times but they’re also remarkable and exciting times. We are once again on the verge of making history at the ballot box. We are seeing some amazing strides toward social justice taking place. And we have lost many dear figures along the way (namely Prince, who violated codes of Black masculinity when he felt like it and on his own terms setting a whole generation free in the process).  Taking it all in we see that all of this loss only portends that a new era is coming. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is the destroyer deity; but in Shaivism, Shiva is the creator, destroyer, and regenerator. 

I see that pattern in this year. I see this pattern with the receptions of both Birth of a Nation and Moonlight. And I see aspects of that in how Black masculinity has unfolded in the Obama era. He has changed forever what a Black man can be and what a Black man can believe. He shows us that being a feminist, supporting marriage equality for LGBT people and being photographed with a tiara does nothing to diminish your masculinity. And if it does, leave it behind this year and allow something else to replace. 

If you’re brave enough, of course.