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.

MLD-24087_R.JPG

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.

Advertisements

White People and Black Art, Part 1: How Jordan Peele Taught White People Voting for Obama Doesn’t Make Them Less Racist (Or: Why White People Need to Watch Get Out)

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. Since I am one of the whitest people to ever be white, 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.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.

*****

Film Title: Get Out

CDN.Collider

After Get Out received four Academy Award nominations, I took out the Amazon gift card we received for our wedding and finally bought the movie.

I hadn’t seen it since the weekend after it came out, all the way back in late February of 2017. The first time I saw the film, I went in not knowing what to expect. Why were all the white people acting so weird around Chris? Why were all the people of color acting so strangely? What would happen to Chris? What did this family have to do with all of it?

In true white feminist form, I even had the audacity to think Rose would be an innocent in all of this. Watching the film a second time, I wondered why the hell I ever thought this to begin with.

What I remember most from that first movie-going experience was how uncomfortable I felt. I recounted my past interactions with people of color and all of the microaggressions I had committed. I remembered my “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” quips, my awkward attempts at “blackcent,” and even my “I’m a middle class white woman with an Arabic father whose struggles I have never dealt with, but I STILL know and understand oppression!” attitude.

I also left better informed not only as to how people of color feel when I and other white people make those blunders, but how those microaggressions can quickly shift from small to full-scale attempts to whitewash people of color.

Some of the microaggressions we see in the film are pretty obvious once they are displayed to us in all of their awkwardness. When we hear Mr. Armitage say “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” and call Chris “my man,” we see how he demeans Chris’ blackness by acting on stereotypes. When we see the woman feeling up Chris’ arms and the Japanese man asking Chris to speak on behalf of all black people about the African-American experience, we understand how wrong it is to make one person a spokesperson for their race and to remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Jordan Peele also uses this film to show white people how these microaggressions can very easily become something more malevolent.

The whole plot of Get Out revolves around a science that’s meant to create black bodies without blackness, black minds devoid of black consciousness. The Armitages literally round up black people via their daughter Rose, and then auction off their bodies to their white friends and family. They do this with no sense of irony or shame. They do this not caring about the fact that they are ripping black people from their bodies and planting their white friends and family in them. Because of this operation, the white people get all the “benefits” of blackness without living any of the experiences. They get to put it on like it’s the latest fashion accessory and not the lived experiences of another people.

In Get Out, we see not only how we humiliate and discomfort people of color, but how we rob them of control over their bodies and culture.

Let’s look at the guy who “buys” Chris: Jim Hudson. Jim explains how he will control Chris’ body while Chris himself is confined to becoming a passenger in his own body in the Sunken Place. As he explains himself, Jim tells Chris how it was his photography skills that captured the attention of the art dealer who is blind, and he even goes so far as to tell Chris, “I could give a shit what color you are…I want your eye, man.”

In this moment, Jim tells Chris, “I want your physical eye, but I don’t want the embodied experiences that made this eye possible.” After all, physical vision is not the only thing necessary to make thought-provoking and emotion-inducing art. What makes Chris’ photography so fantastic is how it reflects his experiences, joys, sorrows, and whole human story, from the absence of his father and his mother’s loss all the way to where he is when the story starts. To remove Chris from his body is to take away from the story he tells with his photographs.

Therefore, not only is Jim robbing Chris of his body; he is robbing him of his story and his authority to tell it. Even if Jim could see through Chris’ physical eyes, he would not be able to capture images as Chris once did, because he would not feel the beauty and pain Chris experienced. Chris and his stories would be trapped in the Sunken Place, safely out of the way of white people like Jim and their own desires.

This desire to whitewash the black experience causes us to turn a blind eye to the plights of people of color. It’s why we chant “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” It’s why we complain about “reverse racism” when people of color call out systemic racism. It’s why white feminists accuse other women of being divisive when they bring up issues women of color, trans and queer women, and women with disabilities encounter. We fear dealing with the experiences of people of color, because we fear dealing with our own racism. As such, in these seemingly insignificant everyday actions, we attempt to confine people of color to our own Sunken Places.

And we need to stop.

White people can understand that black people and other people of color not only have different skin colors but different experiences as well. This is not only allowed but necessary if we are to do the work of dismantling white supremacy. Once we acknowledge that people of color experience America in a very different way than we do, we can actually work on making change happen in our own interactions and in the systems with which we engage daily.

As uncomfortable as this movie may make us, it is good for white people to realize our racist tendencies, regardless of how “colorblind” we claim to be. When we see other white people acting out our own patterns and feel Chris’ discomfort and witness attempts on his life, we might be inspired to think more before we speak and act when interacting with those of different races.

If you’re a white person who hasn’t seen Get Out, I highly recommend it. Jordan Peele is a master storyteller, the pacing is solid, and the scares can be endured by those adverse to the horror genre.

But more than that, it’s a story about how our good intentions can become harmful actions if left unchecked, and we owe it to our siblings of color to wrestle with and understand our own selves so we can work to dismantle white supremacy forever.