To be alive is the most extraordinary thing there is. To be Black and alive is to be stalked by danger. To be Black, alive and daring to love is to court that danger. To be Black, alive, in love and fighting for freedom is the most powerful danger to be in. This is what Barry Jenkins understands from James Baldwin, and he delivers, in picture, word and tone. A melancholy masterpiece.
This month not only marks the first anniversary of the release of “Black Panther,” a.k.a. The Film That Won’t Go Away. What will be little noted is that this February is also the 40th anniversary of another well-remembered African/African-American moment.
On the small screen in February 1979, James Earl Jones, fresh from his then-uncredited voice-over role as Darth Vader in the first “Star Wars,” was seen in a safari shirt and glasses on every ABC-tuned television in America, stabbing his pen into a pad, shouting the following into the then five-channel television universe: “You old African! I found you! I found you! Kunta Kinte, I found you!”
“Roots: The Next Generations,” the mammoth 1979 sequel to the groundbreaking 1977 original, ends with Haley’s (Jones’s) journey to the Gambia to search for the young ancestor who was captured when, as the Haley family legend goes, he went into the woods to make himself a drum.
The search for Haley’s fantasy-ish Juffure resonated with African-Americans (in fact, it’s partly how we eventually accepted that term for ourselves in the late 1980s), and with millions more who wanted to find out about themselves. It’s the core story, the central idea that, in 2019, spurs those Ancestry.com commercials and has given Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Africana Studies professor, a new career in public television.
Haley’s historical novel and the vision of comicbook legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hold more similarities that one thinks. Aren’t both the imaginary product of 1960s magazine content producers? Isn’t Killmonger just a version of Kunta Kinte who finally makes it back home and reclaims his birthname and birthright? Isn’t the Juffure showed in “Roots: The Next Generations” a low-tech Wakanda of sorts—a (relatively) unspoiled, seemingly un-interrupted Africa?
Although “Roots” was created for television as an American family tale, it nevertheless brought home the central tenets of Black Power and Afrocentrism—that we are an African people. ABC broke through with a depiction of Africa that defied the “Tarzan” movies from the 1930s through the 1950s that were a staple of Saturday afternoon viewing on local television channels. For a people that had recently abandoned “Afro-American” for Black, the contrast was jarring. I was 9-years-old when the first “Roots” miniseries aired, and it shook me to the core. But not completely: I still loved those Tarzan films, watching them for years afterward, but I began to wonder why I couldn’t understand the Africans, and why they kept dying consistently.
What happened between “Roots” and “Black Panther?” More knowledge. Africana Studies—now in its 50th year, struggling to survive, but back then growing and expanding as a discipline. Sci-Fi-era technology that allows us to see Africa and converse with Africans every day. World travel not being a big deal anymore. A growing Afro-futurism movement that is including all people of African descent, regardless of geography, gender or gender orientation. So “Panther” came right on time, as a production of visual African/Black nationalism, a visual sense of Black/African victory, to counter the white nationalism of Trump and Brexit.
The very idea that the African Union has set out to create a Wakanda shows that even Africans are searching for the Africa they see in their own minds. Imagination serving its highest role—as inspiration. (I hope and pray that the AU, thus inspired, will turn down requests for the Chinese to build it.)
For better or worse, Black History Month now has an imaginary element. We have merged with Kunta Kinte, and have turbo-charged his drum with Vibranium. Using American mid-20th century fantasy, we have gone in our minds from victims of colonization to superheroes forging our own destiny. In 2019, we have checked our DNA, and know more fact than fiction about ourselves. Of course we are of African descent, we now say, confused how anyone could think otherwise.
Whether “Black Panther” wins any Oscars later this month is much less important than this truth that might double as fact: Ryan Coogler, T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri have killed Tarzan, for real this time.
In my new book on the Black Panther, I say this about Stan Lee and Marvel:
Growing up as a superhero-obsessed tyke in the 1970s, I saw the 1967 Spider-Man animated series (the one often called Spiderman, mistakenly without the hyphen between “Spider” and “Man”) and the Batman and Superman live-action series every weekday in second-run syndication and watched every version of The Superfriends every Saturday morning on ABC. I even devoured those gawd-awful Spider-Man live-action specials on CBS, as well as the two almost-as-bad Captain America and Dr. Strange movies that aired on that network. The fact that CBS aired quality live-action superhero shows like The Incredible Hulk and, in its second and third seasons, Wonder Woman (a refugee from ABC) almost made up for those terrible also-rans. And of course, I loved Superman: The Movie.
During that decade, I slowly discovered comicbooks. Marvel became my favorite. I think that was due to my all-time favorite characters, The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, with Captain America as a runner-up. (I count the FF as one character.) My fifth-grade teacher had a copy of Bring On The Bad Guys, the third volume of the Simon and Schuster trade paperbacks that reprinted early Marvel stories with writer Stan Lee’s introductions. That’s where I discovered the FF, The Surfer and Cap in separate epic tales.
I still remember my shock when I found out that my favorites had been animated! Hanna-Barbera decided to syndicate, as a weekday “wheel,” all its 1960s Saturday morning superhero-action fare. Hanna-Barbera’s World of Super-Adventure, as the syndication wheel called itself, became my all-time favorite animated series, right next to Marvel Men, the second-run syndication of the 1966 Marvel Superheroes animated show (happily, Cap was a feature), and Superheroes!, the syndicated daily run of the Filmation 1960s DC animated cartoons of the same time. The H-B series, I quickly found out, had a Fantastic Four cartoon! I sat in front of the television every weekday, waiting to see if The Fantastic Four would come on. I was often disappointed, but I learned about great Hanna-Barbara superheroes like Space Ghost, Birdman and other characters. When I saw the FF and my other all-time favorite character, The Silver Surfer, fight some giant named Galactus, in front of another giant named The Watcher, I lost my mind and became a one-person [San Diego Comic-Con] Hall H, a certified Marvel Zombie. I never looked back.
But there was more. A few years after that, into the ’80s, I enjoyed Stan’s narration of “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends,” Marvel and NBC’s answer to DC and ABC’s “Superfriends.”
And then there was that time in 1990, when, now the ripe old age of 22, I wrote a Star-Ledger feature on the first Todd McFarlane Spider-Man issue. I interviewed The Man himself on the phone. Being new to the pressures of daily journalism, I actually asked him to slow down while he was talking! He said directly that if I couldn’t keep up he wouldn’t continue the interview. That was GREAT training for me, for at the end of that conversation, I learned how to take notes over the phone. He sent me a form letter after the article appeared that of course I cherished.
I really, really, really wish he had stopped being in denial about standing idly by, playing innocent, while his cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman, cheated and reneged on Jack Kirby. I really wished he would have asked Jack to use the Silver Surfer, instead of taking it from him. Although I think many people forget that Stan was Jack (and Steve Ditko’s) boss, I think these questions are more than fair, and should not be shunted out of politeness.
Stan, along with Jack and Steve, were responsible for three out of every five of my childhood smiles. That is how I will always remember all three of them.
An American Odyssey: The Life and Work and Romare Bearden.
Mary Schmidt Campbell.
Oxford University Press, 464 pp. $34.95.
As the third decade of the 21st century swiftly approaches, it might be difficult for some fine artists under 35 to understand a time when the self(ie) was not unapologetically at the center of the artistic experience. The first biography of Bearden in almost 20 years, and clearly the fullest, Campbell–who knew the author, trading letters with him going back to the 1970s–has crafted a quality book about 20th- and 21st-century Black ritually- and visually-based aesthetics through American history’s prism. (The fact that, as Campbell writes, “Bearden seemed to delight in exploring the use of color” has a acute, and subtle, significance.) With a lack of dangerous 20th century socio-political action and adventure to reconstruct, Campbell, president of Spelman College and a former leader in the New York City artistic community, must go around and through the topic, briefly profiling the many artists in his orbit, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. She documents well, and with great care, his artists’ organizing efforts, his many important writings and his forgotten early-political cartoonist career. What was most important to this reviewer is her detailed, and thoughtful, placement of Bearden at the slow-but-perfect storm of the development of 20th century American media, technology, popular culture and racial struggle. Although Campbell’s theme of the Black American Odysseus is sound, this book is actually about how someone fed on the European art classics and the organic African-American experience (of Harlem and Pittsburgh) slowly realizes something when the latter becomes in vogue in the 1960s (perhaps not-so-coincidentally), allowing him to ultimately collage his being fully as both an artist and a Black man: that being and presenting one’s Black self in New York City, the then-new center of the art world in the center of the century, forever seeing and remembering, is more than profound enough.
So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized History of Battlestar Galactica.
Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross.
Tor Books. 718 pp., $27.99.
No, it wasn’t the record-breaking-rated, universally-loved show it is now seen as, almost ten years after it ended. No, it wasn’t unconditionally loved and cherished by its network–until the awards and critical acclaim came in, and the showrunners announced that the fourth season would be its last. From its beginnings 40 years ago as an often ill-fated attempt to bring the visual and spiritual power of Star Wars to ABC primetime screens every week, to its let’s-kill-every-rule-Star-Trek-ever-had-and-hold-up-a-mirror 21st century Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel revival during the post-911/War on Terror years, Battlestar Galactica was almost always an acquired taste, a pleasant, almost-mainstream discovery. But how powerful the concoction! Altman and Gross, who interview as many cast and crew members that a human mind can absorb on a given page, take us step by step through the mythology as it developed, the last three words being key; perhaps the biggest shock of the book–practically its thru line–is how much of the new version was editorially done on the fly, and how its showrunners, Ronald D. Moore and the series’ often-unsung hero, David Eick, trusted its writers to fly Galactica–a complex series about race/identity and its connection to current politics, ancient Earth history and world religion–to a powerful, albeit controversial to many, end. What a great way for Altman and Gross to end a trilogy (four books, technically) of fan-favorites–Star Trek, then Buffy/Angel, and now BSG. These kind of books, especially with its oral history formats, take the rabid deep into the rabbit(-ears) whole, allowing the reader to see into the experience, and stay there. For a BSG fan, this is essential, since the series presented much but purposely answered little.