White People and Black Art, Part 2: Black Panther, Black Leadership, and White Submission

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

On February 4th, I began the series with a post about Jordan Peele’s Get Out and how the film can encourage white people to confront our microaggressions and other harmful behaviors towards people of color. Today, I will be talking about Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther and how the film can encourage white people to see ourselves as followers and people of color as our leaders.

This post contains mild spoilers for Black Panther.

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Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Like most of the American population, I saw Black Panther this weekend.

It was pretty damn great.

The costumes and visuals were stunning. Shuri is my new favorite Disney Princess, and Erik Killmonger is the most well-rounded Marvel villain yet (deal with it, Loki-stanners). Chadwick Boseman played his role perfectly and looked beautiful as ever. And the Dora Milaje kicked major butt.

What made this Marvel film attract so much attention was how it centered the African/black experience, while the white people served as “token characters” who supported the main African and black characters, in a role reversal rarely seen in film. In doing so, this film is not only prophetic for people of color, but for white people, too.

In Black Panther, we are shown a world in which white people are not calling all the shots or even controlling the narrative. Instead, they are following the lead of the people of color.

Black Panther’s Dora Milaje — Photo: Marvel Studios

From its aesthetics to its story, Black Panther is greatly influenced by the genre of “Afrofuturism,” which is a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts. Stories which fall under this genre reimagine a world in which colonialism did not occur, and they also project what those affected by the African diaspora can do as active agents in their own futures.

The heroes and heroines in Black Panther, and other Afrofuturist tales, do not wait for a white savior to come to their rescue. Instead, they are their own saviors. They are their own queens and kings, princes and princesses, presidents and generals, warriors and politicians, representatives and resisters. They are not tokens or model citizens. Without the oversight of white supremacy, they have the dignity to embody the whole range of the human experience.

As such, the film features both black excellence and black pain, which results in an empowering form of representation for Africans and the African diaspora (the global communities descended from the movement of African peoples from their homeland).

White people, on the other hand, participate in the “token roles” normally designated for people of color in predominantly white films. They go from the leaders and the storytellers to the followers of black leadership.

CIA Agent Everett Ross is one of the two “token white guys,” and his role as a white person in a superhero franchise is subversive for the genre. Ross is the butt of several jokes in the movie…[and] exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. He’s even called a “colonizer” in a semi-joking, semi-serious manner, going for the heart of the long arduous relationship between the two cultures.

But Ross is such an important character for white people to watch, primarily because he is not the main player. He serves as T’Challa’s ally who saves and is saved by Wakandans. During his time in Wakanda, Ross submits to African leadership. When he dares to speak out of turn to a tribe’s leader, he is immediately and hilariously shut down, further confirming the centrality of black leadership in the film.

And despite his nickname, Ross subverts the white trope of colonizer and white savior not only by taking on a less significant role but by following black leadership. He does not demean their leadership or demand that he play a bigger part. Instead, he recognizes and accepts his place in the Wakandan story, and as such he serves as a helpful ally.

For the first time in a Marvel movie, and in one of the few instances in American film period, white people are not the ones in charge of shaping the story. That role and responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of the black characters. Instead, white people serve as allies who follow their lead and their codes.

This is why Black Panther is an important film, not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for our global culture. In a culture that consistently labels white people as the heroes and leaders of this world, it is important for people of color to see a hero who looks like them.

It is also as important for white people to remember they are not the only ones in charge of this world.

We need to be willing and able to humble ourselves before our siblings of color and let them lead us, because they have dreams for a future which requires us to lay our power down.

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Church Runaways, Meet Marvel’s Runaways

Runaways

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This year, I didn’t go to church on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday.

Instead, I binge-read 3 volumes of Marvel’s Runaways, the comic series about “a group of young teens [who] find out their parents are actually supervillains and do the rebellious thing…they become superheroes.” (Read the whole article if you’re a new fan to graphic novels and comics, while you’re at it!)

The group consists of 6 individuals: Chase Stein, the oldest and a stereotypical jock (with a penchant for lasers and vehicles) despite having mad genius parents; Alex Wilder, a lonely MMORPG lover with firm but loving parents who is considered the brains of the group; Nico Minoru, the daughter of two sorcerers who wields the Staff of One, a magical device which can do any spell but only once; Karolina Dean, a Majesdanian alien whose parents hid and suppressed her powers for her whole life; Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes, whose time-traveling parents gifted her a dinosaur with whom she shares a telepathic link; and young Molly Hayes, a precocious pre-teen mutant with the power to lift all the big things.

The series sees the teens coming to terms with their parents true selves, the motives behind their actions, familial and fraternal betrayal, coming of age without the parental guidance they expected to receive, and living with and leading each other through these difficult and new days.

It’s the perfect read for people struggling with the Church, those who have left the Church, those who are thankful they left, and those who still feel remorse over leaving.

There’s Molly Hayes, the youngest Runaway, who is perhaps the most confused over her situation. She is still in that stage of life where adults can still be trusted. She doesn’t have her house, her bed, or her parents, and while she knows they did something wrong, she never witnessed it herself, because the older kids didn’t think she could handle seeing it. She is a runaway, but a reluctant one.

There’s Chase Stein, who rather willingly abandoned his abusive household and came into his own as a member of the Runaways, providing them with a hideout (albeit it literally unstable), fighting baddies with his parents’ technology, and piloting their Leapfrog ship. Being a runaway, in some ways, saves him, and he finds a true family with the rest of the gang.

There’s Nico, Gert, and Karolina, who are aware of their families villainous ways and know they have no choice but to flee them, yet they continue to be haunted by the lives and legacies from which they left behind.

And there’s Alex, the group’s leader, who seems to easily leave his family and lead the Runaways but refuses to cast off his familial identity indefinitely, hoping instead to redeem them.

We’ve seen Big Church, the Christian Machine, act in ways they believe will save us but harm us more. And we’ve become runaways as a result.

But it’s not an easy decision to make, even if it’s a necessary one.

It’s not easy to leave our church homes, our comfy beds of unquestioning faith, the warm hugs from the Christians we love and who love us but suddenly become cold and false, the routine traditions. Sometimes, even after we’ve been gone a while, we still dream of those “good ol’ days” and want them back. Even when we understand that staying would have meant falsehood or even death, returning to business as usual is appealing. At least it meant a home was involved.

Runaway status isn’t always fun. Not having one place to call “home” can wear on you after a while. Rootlessness isn’t the safest way to live. We are creatures of habit and security, and while having nowhere to settle gives greater freedom to make nests in other places, there really is nothing or no place like home.

But Runaways reminds me that realizing the home you once loved is no longer there, and perhaps never was, can be the Good Friday which eventually moves into the Easter of finding family in the ones who have also fled.

Running away is sacred and scary. It can involve putting down roots for a time only to yank them up again. It is being honest with the beauty and the brokenness of our upbringing and figuring out what’s left to salvage. It is dropping our nets and leaving our tax collector booths like Jesus’ disciples and following the One who calls us into a new way of life, one more risky and more fantastic than we care to imagine.

Most of all, running away can remind us we are the Church, and we make home wherever we go, on the run or otherwise.

To the runaways, take comfort and know you are in good company, and even though some may say you’ve fled God, God is with you through the wilderness and in the homestead.

Also, may you find out you have an 87th-century dinosaur with whom you share a telekinetic bond. Because that would be freakin’ awesome.