Monday, February 19, 2018

Black Panther, Cinematic Milestone


This weekend brought the debut of Ryan Coogler's newest directorial triumph, Black Panther,  a Marvel Studios production distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Based on the eponymous Marvel Comics character, Black Panther, which features a black director and a nearly all-black diasporic cast, raised incalculable expectations for black moviegoers, comics fans, critics and the film industry, and, having seen it yesterday, I can say hesitation that it more than satisfies them. It manages to be a thrilling fantasy movie based on a comics foundation, a visually arresting and movingly acted wok of cinema, and a politically aware, multilayered film that keeps the viewer thinking even after the final credits and post-credit clip have rolled.

The film's plot mirrors similar superhero tales, but is, as has been widely remarked, anchored in and deeply informed by an African(ist) futurist aesthetic. The story's hero must assume the mantle of his father, and shoulder the profound responsibilities for his people, but the script, by Coogler and John Robert Cole includes twists, include two villains, one far more significant than the other, and a tale of familial revenge, linked to differing ideas of cultural socialization (African vs. African-American) and liberation, that I cannot say I have ever seen in any other superhero film. (One sees echoes of this, however, in a TV show like Black Lightning, which I wrote about last week.) Indeed, the deeper conflict in the film, rooted in the idea of family, now underpinned by the DNA testing industries and genealogical research, about the relationship between those in the Diaspora and those, like the Wakandans, who have remained in the African homeland, may pass over some moviegoers' heads, but to me was one of the most stirring aspects of the film. Another was the film's baseline feminist perspective; Wakanda may be presided over by a king, and Black Panther may be a cis-heterosexual male, but this is no patriarchy, and women are equals--as warriors and citizens--to the men, the ruler notwithstanding. As a template for the new century, and for black children and children of all races, this is a powerful model to internalize.
Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick
Boseman, & Danai Gurira
What underlines this portrait is the fictional Wakanda's almost singular status as an uncolonized and unconquered country; it and its people, the comics' and films' writers tell us, avoided the fate of almost every other non-Western country in the world. (Watching the film, I immediately thought of its closest African model, Ethiopia, a site of ancient knowledge and civilization, a religious center, the home of a proto-Enlightenment preceding that of Europe, and more, which nearly withstood all attempts at subjugation, until Benito Mussolini's firepower briefly won control of its territory (1936-1941).) What if Ethiopia, in addition to all of its advances, had possessed an element so powerful it might transform the world? Another analogue I thought of is the contemporary Republic of Congo, whose lands contain a host of precious and invaluable resources now used in the high tech industries. Centuries of slavery, colonialism and empire, however, have created tremendous challenges for the people of Congo, and other resource-rich African nations, to pursue their destinies to the fullest, though a cursory glimpse at the economic, political and social developments in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa underline that advancements of all kinds are underway.

To give just a glimpse of the plot, Black Panther unfolds with a quick prologue, set several centuries back. In a world parallel to our own, a meteor bearing the fictional metal vibranium, the rarest and most powerful element known to humankind, strikes central Africa. As five tribes wage war over the magical resource, a member of one of the tribes ingests a "heart-shaped bulb" that has been transformed by the vibranium, giving him special powers that lead him to become the first Black Panther. He unites four of the five tribes as the nation of Wakanda, with the fifth, the Jabari, remaining semi-independent in a loose confederation in the snowy mountains above. (A scene later in the film gives us a mini-tour of this aerie-perched nation; what was not clear was where most its women were, as if it were a kind of black Sparta in the clouds.) Rather than exploiting this remarkable resource, Wakanda chooses to guard it, presenting itself to the outside world as an impoverished, sleepy "Third World" member of the international community, while inside its borders, it is a technological powerhouse.
Lupita Nyong'o and
Letitia Williams
The film's real action opens in 1992, in an apartment in a housing project in Oakland, California. Outside, a group of black boys are playing basketball. Inside the apartment, two young black men, whom we think are African Americans, appear to be plotting a revolution, stockpiling firearms. We soon learn that one of them, royal Prince N'jobu (Sterling K. Brown), really a Wakandan with aims of arming oppressed black people worldwide, is the brother of Wakanda's King, T'Chaka (Atandwa Kani), has arrived to bring his brother back for violating one of Wakanda's chief tenets: betraying the country by working with an outsider, arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, exuding malevolence), who has stolen a cache of vibranium from Wakanda. N'jobu's co-conspirator Zuri (Denzel Whitaker, related directly to neither of his namesakes!) turns out to be a fellow Wakandan and spy who has ratted him out. When N'jobu attempts to kill Zuri for snitching, the King slays his brother, and departs with Zuri for Wakanda. As their airship zooms away, one of the boys on the playground looks up at the apartment, and notes the fleeing spacecraft.

We flash forward to the current moment, which includes references to our contemporary world, in which the noble Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to assume the Wakandan throne after the assassination of his father, T'Challa (now played by veteran South African actor John Kani). We meet his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), Wakanda's resident tech genius; his mother, the grieving Queen Ramonda (a suitably regal Angela Bassett); and the head of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan state's all female guard,  General Okoye (Danai Gurira, embodying an electrifying blend of brilliance and ferocity). Before T'Challa's coronation begins, he and Okoye retrieve his ex, Nakia (a radiant Lupita Nyong'o), now a deep operative in Nigeria, the sparks still evident between them. As part of his ritual installment, before a royal audience outdoors, above waterfalls, and presided over by a much older Zuri (Forest Whitaker), T'Challa must face a challenger from any of Wakanda's tribes, all of whom, including his best friend, W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), beg off. The Jabari tribe's head, the strapping (6'5" and stoutly built) M'Baku (Winston Duke), does raise a challenge, only to eventually tap out after being subdued by T'Challa. This is one of several rituals the viewer witnesses, giving a sense of the depth of the culture and the reverence with which power is transferred.
T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) facing off
against Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, at right)
The plot then moves first to South Korea, where the trio of T'Challa, Nakia and Okoye seek out Klaue (and Black Panther's creator, the legendary Stan Lee, makes a brief cameo), with a brief detour in London, before returning to the familiar confines of Wakanda. In the British capital, in a museum displaying African artifacts, we encounter another of the film's major characters, the oddly named but cinematically galvanizing Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who devours the screen every time he is on it. In fact, he moves through the script as a literal antithesis to Boseman's T'Challa. Where the new king is restrained, dignified, almost placid, personality traits Boseman portrays effortlessly, Jordan's Killmonger is all confident swagger, a mental and physical paragon (he nearly scorches the screen when he takes off his shirt for battle), pulsating with rage born of vengeance and, the viewer eventually learns, a sense of profound abandonment. Why, he asks, was he--like Black America--left to fend for himself, a question that the film suggests is the question of the entire Diaspora; yet, as we know, Africa itself has had a centuries-long battle on its hands too. When Killmonger reaches Wakanda, he upsets the social and political cassava cart, a civil war included, and the heart of the movie turns on whether his vision of the world, or T'Challa's, will prevail. (No spoilers!) As I noted above, their senses of duty are parallel; each seeks to rule, but in the service of an idea, and communities, beyond themselves. For Killmonger, is is black and other oppressed people of color across the globe; for T'Challa, it is his birthright, Wakanda. In the end, we see how the visions merge.

The acting is uniformly strong, and the viewer gets the sense that everyone in the film is enjoying themselves. Winston Duke and Letitia Wright are among the many breakout stars, if there are rolls for them down the road, and it was invigorating to see Boseman, Jordan, Nyong'o, and Gurira in roles other than biopics, historical narratives or realist tragedies, important and necessary as such films are. In 2006 and again in 2012 I wrote about the increasingly Diasporic cast of black Hollywood, and this film fully represents that shift, drawing its talent from across the globe, while bringing together venerable figures like Kani, Academy Award winners like the senior Whitaker, and beginners like the younger Whitaker. As other commenters have noted, the films is that rare Hollywood product that also seems not beholden to colorism, particularly for its leading actresses. How rare--and needed!--to see dark-skinned women not relegated to the background, but in the forefront of a story, yet this felt organic, not forced, like most of what the film offers its viewers. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison deserves praise for the rich imagery and her skillful blending of realism and CGI, and the score, by Ludwig Göransson, with contributions by Kendrick Lamar, and others, complements and enlivens what the viewer sees.
Michael B. Jordan, as Erik
Killmonger; Daniel Kaluuya,
as W'Kabi at right
I have so far not commented much on any of the film's white characters; in addition to Klaue, who functions mainly as a plot feint and device, there is another, CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman, who occupies a pivotal place in the plot. Ross appears in the original comics as a fairly timid, low-key character, I believe, but the filmmakers expanded his role and pumped up his personality, making him not just essential to what unfolds, but memorable as well. As a thought experiment, I asked myself, what if he had been played by a Latinx actor, say, or, given China's growing role in Africa, by a major Chinese-American or Chinese star? Would Hollywood ever have allowed that? I then wondered about future iterations of Black Panther, which because of its box office success (like $200 million earned over the opening weekend, with receipts set to keep rising, and a fan base that dots the globe); will the original comics' template, and Hollywood's desire for viable white stars, shape the storylines, or will the films' directors and screenwriters delve a little more deeply into other parts of the world, considering South Korea, for example, not just as a scenic backdrop, but Korean and Korean-American actors--and other Asian American and Asian actors, actors from Latin America, and so on--for key roles? What would a big budget but decolonized, Afro-futurist and Diasporic, plural cinema look like? Would Disney, let alone Marvel Comics, allow it? Black Panther certainly provokes the question.
T'Challa (Boseman) again
facing off against Killmonger (Jordan)
I will end this review am not familiar enough with all of the past iterations of Black Panther to know which Coogler and Cole drew from, but I believe in one of the newer versions, Okoye, in addition to being womynist, is a lesbian. In this film, her love interest is W'Kabi, however. (They generate little heat on camera, unlike T'Challa and Nakia.) Also, and this is just a minor quibble, but there is a pro-monarchist ideological strain in the film, connected to a quite different but related notion of Afrocentricity--"we are descendants of kings and queens"-- that perhaps only I among all the filmgoers find a little unsettling. Of course some of us are descended, however distantly, from royals, and African Americans may find, upon receiving their DNA results, that our royal roots go in multiple directions (Africa, Europe, etc.), but the reality for most of us is that we come from the people who did the work to build most societies and cultures up, that is, from the bottom up, and there is nothing in this to be ashamed about. Moreover, at a time when democracy feels especially precarious, in the US, in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and across the globe, I hope that the writers of Black Panther's sequels can figure out a way to weave a vibrant representative democracy and republican structure into their portrayal of Wakanda's government. I have nothing against noble black kings and queens, but everyone needs to see decent, dedicated politicians, black and of every hue, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, etc., taking the right and judicious steps, on behalf of the people they represent and the globe, which may include not only keeping each other, but kings--and presidents--on the just path.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Carnaval in Recife (AfroPop Worldwide)

Carnaval in Recife, 2018
It's that time of the year: Carnival in the Caribbean, Hispanophone Latin America, and Europe, Carnaval in Brazil and Portugal, Mardi Gras in parts of the US, all marking the rise of the Lenten season. Over the years I've periodically blogged about Carnival celebrations, with the last such post, a search tells me, coming in 2012, my final year in Chicago. Those snowy Midwestern winters often provoked thoughts of getting far away and celebrating at a Carnival celebration, but the scheduling has never panned out. Glancing through news sites during the last several weeks, I've begun noting photos of preparations for Carnival and the big events themselves, fermenting once again my desire to attend one.

In lieu of doing so this year, I am posting a few photos from a Carnaval celebration in Recife, one of the oldest and major cities in Brazil's northeastern region. The Recife Carnaval is an important and culturally distinctive Carnaval in Brazil (the other key ones are in Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro), with the ethos that all attendees are participants, an Afro-Brazilian religious performance, Maracatú, at its core, and a drag parade to open it. Recife's local frevo music also serves as one of many soundtracks for the Carnaval blocos.

Since I'm in cold--and snowy (sigh!)--New Jersey and not Recife, the photos are courtesy of Banning Eyre, and are featured on AfroPop Worldwide.  I'm only going to share a few of the photos, all of which are copyrighted and belong to AfroPop Worldwide and Banning Eyre, so please do head over to AfroPop Worldwide's blog to see the rest. Banning Eyre says a bit not only about the Carnival events, with a bit of background about Recife Carnaval, but also notes how Brazilian's faltering economy is effecting the celebration.

If you have photos of Carnival or Carnaval celebrations, in Recife or anywhere else, please do share the links in the comments section here!

Side street maracatu!
Frevo on parade
No means no, My body is not
your plaything. Women's empowerment
is surging in Brazil, as elsewhere.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Brazilian Notes: Quilombo Decree Upheld + Borba's "Black is Beautiful (#BLVCKSBTFLL)"

The signs read, "Brazil is quilombo residents;
not one less quilombo"
All over the Americas, when fugitive slaves had the opportunities to escape and set up maroon (marrons in French, cimarrones in Spanish, maròn/mawòn in Kreyol/creole, etc.) communities, beyond the administrative and military grasp of the settler-colonial and slave system, they did so. These communities took different forms in different parts of the hemisphere, but their legacies continue, sometimes in name (palenques in Spanish, maroon towns or free towns in English), sometimes in traces and foundations that are mostly forgotten but still inspire the descendants. In Brazil, these communities were often known as quilombos, the most famous of which remains Palmares, in the interior of the northeastern state of Alagoas, north of Bahia, established by a group of fugitive slaves and warriors led by the great Imbangala (Angola)-descended Zumbi (1655-1695).

Quilombos, from the Kimbundu word kilombo, dot rural areas far from the major metropoles across northern and northeastern Brazil. As anti-colonial and anti-imperial, black-centered zones of resistance, they were targets of the Portuguese and later Brazilian governments in the colonial period, and the state's administrative, bureaucratic, legal, social, and economic war against them has not relaxed in the 20th and 21st centuries. From attempts to seize title to quilombo land to the murders of quilombolas (residents of the quilombos), these communities have had to engage in continual struggle to stay whole, and free. A ruralist coalition of lawmakers, some allied with agribusiness and other powerful interests, has repeatedly attempted to gain control of the increasingly valuable quilombo territory. In 2003, however, then-President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva signed a decree that expanded the quilombolas' rights to title and demarcated their land, empowering the residents to gain legal title in order to keep them.

Brazil's current president, the profoundly unpopular Michel Temer, took office after a soft 2016 coup in which he and the Brazilian Congress impeached and ousted popularly elected president Dilma Rousseff, Lula's successor, over technical budgeting violations. Temer subsequently began instituting a range of neoliberal policies, under the aegis of pro-market rhetoric, yet Brazil's economy has continued to sputter, and the once expanding lower middle class of the Lula years has increasingly tumbled back into poverty. Among Temer's actions that threatened the quilombos was an order to suspend the titling process for the quilombos, which are supposedly protected by the Brazilian Constitution, until the Brazilian Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal, or STF) could rule on the validity of the decree Lula signed, which the conservative Democratic Party challenged.

After over five years in court, an overwhelming majority of the justices voted, 10-1, to uphold the decree, finally leading the Democratic Party's leader, Senator Agripino Maia, from the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, to end his opposition. The STF ruling represents a major victory for the quilombo communities and Afro-Brazilians in general, as well as for indigenous Brazilians, who have seen their lands seized and rights threatened, and a significant defeat for the powerful conservative rural interests, and their allies, including overtly racist, homophobic leading far-right presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro (of Rio de Janeiro state), who have strongly supported Temer.

As Black Women of Brazil blog reported (translating a report from the Brazilian media site iG):

Members of the National Coordination of Articulation of the Quilombola Rural Black Communities (Conaq) celebrated the [decision].”This is a first step in the recognition of the debt that the Brazilian State has with the quilombolas, as it also has with the natives,” said Denildo Rodrigues, a member of the association at the end of the trial.

Conaq was one of many associations engaged in lobbying the STF in voting. Among other actions, it organized the undersigned “Not one less quilombo”, which had more than 100 thousand signatures requesting the maintenance of Lula’s decree.

“There is no motive, reason or circumstance today for the policy of titling quilombos to be or remain paralyzed. What is expected now is for the public administration to continue and complete the regularization processes,” said Juliana de Paula Batista, a lawyer at the Socio-Environmental Institute, also involved in the case.

It would be foolhardy to believe that this successful ruling will completely halt outside interests' attempts to gain control of the quilombolas' land, but it does give them an even stronger legal foundation to defend themselves in the courts, even as they battle ongoing violence and other forms of predation.

* * *

Photo © Thiago Borba
Black Women of Brazil Blog (BWBB) is always a trove of current, informative news about Black Brazil. One recent article I enjoyed featured the work of Bahian-born and based photographer Thiago Borba, whose current project, "Black Is Beautiful," so appropriate for Black History Month, is featured at Revista Trip. On that site, in an article entitled "A coisa tá preta" (The thing is black), writer Giulia Garcia discusses Borba's route to the project, which uses the respective English title and hashtag Black is Beautiful (#BLVCKSBTFLL). After turning to photography in 2006 and studying in Spain, Borba could find no jobs in Bahia, so he pursued a commercial career in São Paulo to make ends meet.
Photo © Thiago Borba
In 2016, however, he reconnected with an earlier interest in exploring the topic of blackness in relation to beauty, still so fraught in Brazil, and started a photographic project entitled Paraíso Oculto (Hidden Paradise), melding images of black beauty in human form and natural landscapes. As BWBB regularly points out, contestations over beauty, and valorization of Eurocentric standards, constantly play out not only in interpersonal and intrafamilial spaces, but in the Brazilian public sphere. A number of spectacular, overtly racist incidents, involving denigration of Afrobrazilians' hair, features, color, style, and intelligence, have occurred over just the last year. One irony in all of this is that Afrobrazilians now constitute a numerical majority in the country, with sizable populations in Brazil's north, northeast and southeast.

Photo © Thiago Borba
He returned to Bahia from São Paulo last year, and began focusing on images of Afrobrazilians, particularly darker-skinned ones, who remain the most discriminated against in Brazil--not unlike in the US, where colorism within black communities, and within the larger US society, persists. Bahia is the traditional African heart of Brazil, with the highest percentage of self-identified black ("negro") and brown or mixed race ("pardo") residents, but hierarchies of color, class and ancestry exist there as well. As the Brazilian saying goes, "Quanto mais preto, mais preconceito sofre" (How much blacker you are, the more prejudice you suffer"), as true in Bahia as in pats of Brazil far smaller black populations, like Santa Catarina, in the far south.

Photo © Thiago Borba
Photo © Thiago Borba
The new project centers "pretos retintos" (dark-skinned blacks), those people who are "mais preto," amid a range of hues; Borba draws his subjects mostly not from the ranks of models, but from his personal and broader social network. (Looking at the photos, though, any of these subjects could or should model, and some, like Vanderlei Nagô, clearly are modeling!) Borba began posting the images on his Instagram page, and from there they gained wider notice and were selected for the state of Bahia's Novembre Negro (Black November) campaign. (November 20 is Dia da Conciência Negra, a holiday celebrated since the 1960s and officially established as a legal holiday in 2003 to honor the death, in 1695, of none other than Zumbi do Palmares, mentioned above. In Bahia, the entire month is beginning to assume the cast of honoring black Brazilian history.)
Photo © Thiago Borba
According to BWBB and Revista Trip, one of the images was even promoted on billboards, on buses and in the metro, among other public spaces. For Borba, this expanded reach was important in helping to amplify, in the eyes of minds of Afrobrazilians and all Brazilians, the representation and representativeness of black people in Brazilian society. It is a battle we continue to fight in the US, in similar and different ways.
Photo © Thiago Borba
Photo © Thiago Borba

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Parkland Massacre & the Pressing Need for Gun Control

16 of the 17 fatal victims of the
Parkland school shooting
(From NBC News)
Another day, and extremely saddening and confounding to have to say, another school shooting, this one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida. Yesterday, on Valentine's Day, a 19-year-old expelled student, Nikolas Cruz, arrived on the school campus at 2:19 pm and, according to reports, began his terroristic assault  using a AR-15 assault rifle, ultimately killing 17 students and teachers, several of whom sacrificed their own lives to save others, and wounding over a dozen more. Cruz managed to escape with the fleeing students, walking to a nearby Walmart and then a Subway, but was later apprehended by police at 3:41 pm that same day as he strolled down a nearby residential street.

Reports suggest that despite Cruz's deeply troubled history at home and in school, the young man was able to purchase the AR-15 legally, in February of last year. Orphaned after the death of his adopted father, Roger Cruz, roughly ten years ago and his adoptive mother, Lynda, of pneumonia last November, he had been living at the home of a former schoolmate, whose parents apparently knew about the assault rifle and other weaponry he possessed. Cruz also had been working at a local dollar store at the time of the attack.

In addition to his expulsion, Cruz apparently was known for virulently racist and anti-Semitic postings online. Cruz has been pictured wearing a pro-Trump red cap, and a white supremacist leader also came forward to say that Cruz was linked to his group and had trained with them, though that assertion remains under scrutiny. One neighbor had videotaped Cruz firing off a BB pistol, and classmates stated that, before the murderous assault, they were concerned that Cruz might commit such an attack. Indeed, one teacher came forward to say that the school had been warned not to let Cruz bring a backpack onto campus. The FBI had received a warning about one of Cruz's disturbing social media posts on YouTube, in which he supposedly wrote that he wanted to "be a professional school shooter," but their followup produced no leads. The Bureau has since expressed regret for not being able to do more.

New York Times reporters Julie Turkiewicz, Patricia Mazzei and Audra D. S. Burch note in their roundup of news about the Parkland incident that "with this shooting, three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have come within the last three months." Since Adam Lanza's 2012 mass murder of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 438 people--children, adults--have been wounded in over 200 school shootings, and 138 have died. Moreover, there have been eight school shootings through the first seven weeks of the new year; to put it another way, as the Guardian points out, "guns have been fired on school property in the US at least 18 times so far this year."

School shootings since Sandy Hook, in 2012
Gunshot victims in school shootings:
Red dots = killed; pink dots = injured
(from New York Times)

Under any measure, this is a horrifying and unacceptable situation, though the persistence of such attacks, going back decades (remember Columbine?), and the continued inaction of the US Congress in tightening a range of gun laws--or even severely restricting access to firearms--underlines why these mass tragedies have become almost routine. Indeed, Congress and many stage legislatures, in thrall to the National Rifle Association and similar groups, have moved in the opposite direction, to loosen gun laws, allowing concealed carry provisions, guns in college classrooms, and so on.

At the time of the time of the Newtown massacre, then President Barack Obama vowed to address the crisis with legislation, and received support from many Democrats in Congress. But Republican leaders and legislators in the House and Senate refuse to enact new strictures, or even reauthorize lapsed ones, like the assault weapons ban. Early last year, Donald Trump even signed away the gun check regulation President Obama had put in place to make it harder for mentally ill people to acquire firearms. I should note that while violent crimes have plummeted in the US since the 1990s, other forms of violence, ranging from police killings of suspects to these mass murder events have not slowed. The US remains more armed than some entire foreign militaries, and guns, especially ones than can kill large numbers of people, are too easy to sell and purchase.  One parallel I noted on Twitter was the US's barely discussed but extensive wars across the globe, which continue under Trump's watch as they did under Obama, who inherited a number of them from George W. Bush; these external, almost shadow wars mirror the ones occurring inside our borders, where certain kinds of violence and, as we witnessed yesterday, slaughter have essentially become normalized.

One difference this time may be the outspokenness of the young survivors, who have not been silence since this incident. From outraged parents to students calling out Congress, Florida's governor and legislators, and Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, the outcry looks like it may have some effect. The key word, of course, is "may"; again and again after these unspeakable tragedies, which do not occur anywhere else in the world outside of wartime conditions with the frequency they do here, we have heard calls for regulation gun access, but the NRA and Republicans--and even some Democrats--stall meaningful legislation. Let's hope that this time is different, and that those slain and injured in Parkland receive at least one tribute they merit, which is to spur those in positions of power to do something, beginning with reinstituting sane gun laws and eventually going much further, to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to acquire a human-killing machine, in order to prevent any more massacres of this kind.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Obamas' National Gallery Portraits Unveiled

Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald
Yesterday ago a public ceremony, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled their official portraits for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The artists who painted the portraits, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively, were present at the event, and, like the Obamas, each artist spoke about the process and experience of painting these works, which, as the images reveal, will not only honor the first African American US President and First Lady, but also mark a distinctive aesthetic shift in terms of the ways they represent these major historical figures. It should also be noted that Wiley is the black man and first out, black gay artist to paint a presidential portrait, and Sherald is the first black woman ever to paint one. Amidst the foliage surrounding him, Barack Obama's portrait contains flowers with specific reference to and resonance for the 44th President of the United States. Michelle Obama's image shows a dress specially designed by designer Michelle Smith, under her company Milly, for her Spring/Summer 2017 collection. The dress has the aura not only of a unique flag, but also evokes the long African American and American tradition of quilt-making.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Obamas selected the artists who painted them. As both Obamas shared, they had discussed their portraits with the artists before the painting process, so neither was a surprise. Each artist had two sittings with the Obamas, and from those the created the portraits revealed yesterday to the public, each taking roughly one year. Both portraits went on display today, though they will not be shown together. President Obama's will become part of the official presidential portrait gallery, while Michelle Obama's will be visible through November 2018 in the National Portrait gallery's corridor of recent acquisitions. Wiley, 40 and a native of Los Angeles, is already quite well known as one of the leading painters of his generation, with shows and work in collections at museums and galleries all over the US and world. Moreover, Wiley had already received a US Department of State Medal of Arts in 2015, which meant that his work would be displayed in US embassies across the globe. Amy Sherald, 44, is less well known, but has had an ascendant career in recent years, winning the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Gallery in 2016. She has suffered from congestive heart failure, which was diagnosed at the age of 31, and successfully received a heart transplant in 2012.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley
I don't have an elaborate critique of either portrait, but in the case of Barack Obama image, I wish it had featured his beautiful smile. The encroaching foliage also struck me as having the potential for parody, though I read it as symbolic of his steps, often forgotten, to address the pressing challenges of environmental conservation and climate change, both of which are targets of reversal by the current occupant of the White House. In the case of Michelle Obama's image, I understand Sherald's recourse to grayish color for black skin tones, which she has discussed in various interviews and profiles, but I do wish she had nevertheless mixed things up and featured the former First Lady's beautiful hues. The dress fascinates me; its flatness and intersecting planes remind me of Gustav Klimt's and Ferdinand Hodler's work, as well as other Art Nouveau artists (is there a resurgence of interest in their work?), and folk art in its muted color and solid background, and both paintings, in certain ways, put me in mind of the work of peer artists Mickalene Thomas while also harkening back to their earlier black predecessor Barkley L. Hendricks. In both cases, I think we have portraits for the ages, and new standards for all subsequent presidential artists to aim for.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Shakespeare, Plagiarist?

A page from the George
 North manuscript that
starts the poem about
Jack Cade. The last stanza
lists terms for dogs,
which Shakespeare used
in King Lear and Macbeth.
(New York Times)
In a field as deeply explored as textual studies of William Shakespeare's work, it might seem as there were little more to be said. But if you think that, you would be wrong, as independent scholar Dennis McCarthy demonstrated in conjunction with Professor Emerita June Schlueter of Lafayette College. In the forthcoming "A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” by George North: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare’s Plays (D.S. Brewer, an imprint of Boydell & Brewer, with the British Library), out next week, they discuss how they used WCopyfind software, which English, composition and other faculty members sometimes employ to find out whether students have committed plagiarism, to discover that the source of at least 11 of Shakespeare's plays, including several of his most famous, such as King Lear, Richard III, Henry V, and one of my favorites, the verbal and dramatic masterpiece Macbeth, was the eponymous tome by the obscure writer George North.

According to Michael Blanding's New York Times report, McCarthy does not believe that Shakespeare actually plagiarized North's unpublished work, which he somehow acquired, but as was the case with other sources of his borrowings, North's text served as a crucial guide and source, down to words deployed in the exact same order, but repurposed in style and often, it seems, meaning.  A self-taught Shakespearean and magazine journalist, McCarthy was inspired both by the idea of evolutionary development, which he had already written about, and practically by former ETH Zurich Professor Sir Brian Vickers' use of similar software in 2009 to establish that Shakespeare had co-written Edward III. McCarthy began sussing out the sources of Shakespeare's work, and followed that led him to George North's volume. Next, the Times notes

To make sure North and Shakespeare weren’t using common sources, Mr. McCarthy ran phrases through the database Early English Books Online, which contains 17 million pages from nearly every work published in English between 1473 and 1700. He found that almost no other works contained the same words in passages of the same length. Some words are especially rare; “trundle-tail” appears in only one other work before 1623.

In the past, some scholars have identified sources for Shakespeare from a few unique words. In 1977, for example, Kenneth Muir made the case that Shakespeare used a particular translation of a book of Latin stories for “The Merchant of Venice” based on the word “insculpt.” In recent years, however, it’s become rare to identify new sources for Shakespeare. “The field has been picked over so carefully,” [former University of Chicago Professor David] Bevington said.

I would add that back in 2013, I blogged about Saul Frampton's assertion that the Renaissance scholar and translation John Florio not only edited Shakespeare's works, but enriched them linguistically, adding to the Bard of Avon's already rich trove of innovative language. I found his argument quite convincing, and when I have taught the foundational course in literary studies, it is one of the essays I share and discuss with students.

Before Florio got to Shakespeare, though, Shakespeare was gleaning all kinds of gems from North, and polishing them up, McCarthy and Schlueter will suggest in their study. In the Times article, McCarthy points out how North's preface contains a unique series of terms, many familiar to us today--"proportion," "glass," "feature," "fair," etc.--to urge those who seem themselves as unattractive instead to create an inner beauty, against the stamp of nature; as it turns out, Shakespeare uses the exact set of words, in the same order, to make a different statement in the opening soliloquy of one of his unforgettable villains, the hunchbacked and unloved Richard III. What McCarthy and Schlueter divined was that this is not a one-off case; Shakespeare repeatedly not only borrowed exact terms from North, but also employed in similar series and scenes, as well as similar figures from history.

For example, in Macbeth, Shakespeare has his protagonist declaim,
"Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs (Macbeth, III, 1)
In King Lear, Edgar says:
Tom will throw his head at them. Avaunt, you curs!
Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite;
Mastiff, grey-hound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or lym,
Or bobtail tike or trundle-tail,
Tom will make them weep and wail:
For, with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled. (King Lear, III, 6)
This list, McCarthy and Schlueter argue, is almost a mirror of North's text, with the ultra-rare "trundle-tail" a term appearing only in the source text, Shakespeare's play and one other early 17th century text. The playwright spins these borrowings out into something memorable in both plays. In another example, the reference to Merlin's speech in King Lear diverges from any previously known prophecy by the wizard, yet McCarthy and Schlueter found a version of Merlin's speech in North's text, and that it not only influenced what Shakespeare later wrote, but also the figure of the "Fool," who delivers it.

In Henry V, McCarthy finds many correspondences, as Quartzy demonstrates in the following chart:


According to reports, including one in Atlas Obscura, scholars have praised McCarthy and Schlueter's work, and it suggests that digital humanities scholars and students looking at texts might do well to utilize all the software at hand, including a tool often used to catch potential miscreants, to learn even more about the roots of key works of the past. Mr. McCarthy, it appears, certain intends to do so. His book hits bookshelves this Friday, February 16.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Music of Florence Price

Florence Price
The treasures of the past may seem lost, but often enough, they are merely forgotten, or hidden. Such is the case with the music of Florence Price (1887-1953), an African-American composer whose work has never entered the mainstream canon, but which was very much in the current of the classical music of her time. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performer her "Symphony in E," making her black woman to have her work performed by a US symphony orchestra. Yet, as Micaela Baranello reminds readers in today's New York Times, Price probably never receive a reply to her repeated requests for consideration from Serge Koussevitzky, the famous conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and champion of new music, who commissioned or premiered works by the likes of Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Albert Roussel, Bela Bártok, and Leonard Bernstein, just to name a few.

All were white men; Price did not register on Koussevitzky's radar, nor on that of many other major conductors. Baranello states, however, that she was well known among the major African American intellectuals of her era, corresponding with W. E. B. DuBois, among others. She also set poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar to music. Price's background, in fact, primed her for success as a member of DuBois's "Talented 10th." Born the daughter of a prominent dentist in Little Rock, Arkansas, she showed musical talent early on, and enrolled in the New England Conservatory at the age of 14. Because of the widespread racism of that era, she passed as non-black person, claiming that she was from Pueblo, Mexico, and studied with the head of the NEC, the famed composer George W. Chadwick.

Yet numerous struggles marked her life from this point forward. Eventually she settled in Chicago, where she continued her studies in music and other disciplines at a number of institutions, including the University of Chicago and the Chicago College of Music (now a division of Roosevelt University), and, after a divorce, raised her two daughters as a single mother and worked as an organist for silent movies and under a pseudonym, wrote advertising jingles for radio. In addition to pieces she composed on her own, she also collaborated frequently with her former student, fellow composer and pianist, and frequent collaborator Margaret Bonds. It was a first prize win and public recognition for her Symphony in E in the 1932 Wanamaker Foundation Awards that led to conductor Frederick Stock's premiere the subsequent year of her orchestral piece.

Though Price's music did receive performances during her lifetime, including Marion Anderson's delivery, at her landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, of Price's arrangement of spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in De Lord," in the years after her death from a stroke, a good deal of her work was thought to have been lost. In 2009, as critic Alex Ross relates in his recent New Yorker discussion of Price's life and work, homeowners Vicki and Darrell Gatwood found a cache of her manuscripts in what was her former summer house, in St. Anne, Illinois, outside Chicago. This has led to a mini-resurgence in interest in Price's work, including new recordings and performances, among them Janacek Philharmonic's  premiere recording of her First Violin Concerto, with University of Arkansas professor and violinist Er-Gene Kahng as soloist.

Price's oeuvre draws from a number of aesthetic springs, chief among black spiritual and vernacular music traditions, as well as American and European early 20th century Modernism. Her Second Violin Concerto "reflects the richly chromatic language of [American] composers like William Schuman and Roy Harris," and, as musicologist Douglas Shadle recently learned, she even studied with Harris briefly in 1940. To quote Baranello:
Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University who specializes in Price’s work, said in an interview that she “uses the organizing material of spirituals. You may not hear direct quotation, but you will hear playing around with pentatonicism, playing around with call and response, some of these organizing principles that African-American scholars like Amiri Baraka have pointed out as indicative of black musical discourse.”

“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm,” Mr. Carter added. “How do we, through that, create a sound that sounds our culture, sounds our experience, sounds our embodied lives?” 
“Everything she was doing was musically mainstream but at the same time idiosyncratic,” he said. “Her music has kind of a luminous quality that strikes me as her own. Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without Price’s contribution.”

Price's compositions are numerous, and despite recent interest, the question remains: who will perform, let alone premiere, many of these works? Baranello argues, and I agree, that if US symphony orchestras are serious about diversifying not just their audiences but their repertoires, composers like Price and Bonds--and María Teresa Carreño García, William Grant Still, R. N. Dett, Adolphus Hailstork, Anthony Davis, Tania León, and many others--offer a direct and corrective option. According to Baranello, the Fort Smith Symphony plans to record all four of her symphonies for Naxos, but far more orchestras need to step up, now and in the future. Yesterday, NPR featured Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 on its "Songs We Love" page.

Here are YouTube links to Florence Price's music:

Excerpts from Florence Price, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952), dedicated to Minnie Cedargreen Jernberg, excerpts with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Er-Gene Kahng, violin, Ryan Cockerham, conductor

Karen Walwyn, piano, New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, Leslie B. Dunner, conductor, from Albany TROY1295

New Black Repertory Ensemble, Leslie B. Dunner, conductor

Night by Florence Price, Amy Petrongelli, soprano, Blair Salter, piano, Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, MI

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Black Lightning, the Series

Cress Williams as Black Lightning
When I was a pre-teen, I read comics avidly, but by the time I reached junior high, I shifted mainly to books, alongside movies and records. This preference has continued into adulthood, though I enjoy reading graphic novels and comics for adults, especially if they're formally experimental, from time to time. But the comic book character families, networks and lore that so many nerds and blerds    hold dear to their hearts were not really part of my adolescence, which probably accounts for why now in adulthood, I tend to be mostly uninterested in movies and TV shows based on standard comic book heroes or teams. Netflix's Jessica Jones (2015) and the subsequent Luke Cage (2016) were rare exceptions. Certainly Hollywood's formulaic approach to most of the comic book franchises does not help things, in my opinion, though I have occasionally gone to see some of the Batman and Spider-Man films on occasion, and loved the Batman TV series as a very small chill. Non-comics derived TV shows involving characters with supernatural powers sometimes do draw me in: Charmed was a favorite during its early run, as was Heroes. But speculative narrative shows and comics are two different things.
Black Lightning, DC Comics version

Black Lightning, the new series on The CW channel, is based on a comic book series, but intrigued me. I knew only a little bit about its origins: writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor von Eeden issued the first Black Lightning comic book in 1977, and as it turns out, he was the first black superhero to have his own DC Comics book. A little more reading up on the forthcoming series let me know that the metahuman hero was middle-aged, as opposed to a youngster, which I found appealing, and it did not hurt that Cress Williams, an actor I remembered and enjoyed from many shows in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Living Single, Beverly Hills 90210 and Prison Break, and the film Doom Generation, was going to star in it. The basic storyline I could have predicted with my eyes closed; after a stint cleaning up his town, Black Lightning gave up his crime-fighting for a career as a principal and educator. More compelling was the fact that his superheroic efforts had destroyed his marriage and divided his family, leading him to retire in part to heal the frayed family ties. In addition, the show's creator, Salim Akhil, has a strong track record as a writer and producer. Husband of the prolific writer, showrunner and producer Mara Brock Akil, writer for Moesha and Sparkle, and creator of the popular show Girlfriends (2000-2008), the Akils co-developed the successful, provocative TV shows The Game (2006-2015) and Being Mary Jane (2013-). The show's alluring ads, I'll admit, did the rest of the work.

Jill Scott and Marvin "Krondon"
Jones III in a scene from Black Lightning
The Black Lightning series is set in an alternate universe (though filmed in Atlanta), and opens with the superhero, known in semi-conventional human form as Jefferson Pierce (Williams) serving as principal of Garfield High School. He lives with his two daughters, first-born Anissa (Nafessa Williams), who is in medical school and a part-time teacher at Garfield High School, and Jennifer Pierce (China Ann McClain), younger daughter, who is a student at Garfield and dating one of the school's track stars, Khalil (Jordan Calloway). Jefferson remains divorced from his wife, Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams), but they maintain a connection for the sake of their daughters. He seems eager to initiate a romantic rapprochement. As Jefferson, he attempts to guide his students on the proper path, but one result of his work as a principal and teacher is his acquaintance with many locals who have gone off the rails, including various thugs and dealers linked, directly or not, to the area's major criminal organization, The 100. Jefferson also stays in close contact with Peter Gambi (James Remar), his oldest friend and an inventor and tinkerer of Italian ancestry who serves as Jefferson's--and Black Lightning's "tailor"; Gambi creates the superhero's suits and devices, which he continues to improve as the series proceeds.
 Marvin "Krondon" Jones III in a
scene from Black Lightning
Black Lightning's and the town's major antagonists are Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III), who heads up the 100, and, viewers learn in the second episode, Lady Eve (Jill Scott), a diabolical, platinum-tongued mortician who serves as a coordinating link for all of the major power interests in the city. In the third episode, she harangues Whale, who had previously claimed to have killed Black Lightning, to follow up and rid the town of the beloved superhero forever, threatening him with a dethroning, or worse. Krondon, a hiphop artist and actor in real life, is albino, a rarity on US TV, and one of the show's fascinating conceits is that he will only allow white or very light-skinned people to work for him. In other words, his malevolence is manifest in his colorism, yet surprisingly for TV, the series does not overtly state this, forcing the viewer to figure it out. Another of Black Lightning's antagonists is Inspector Billy Henderson (Damon Gupton), a police officer who also is friends with Pierce but has strongly opposed to the "vigilantism" of Black Lightning, blaming him for disruptions in the police force's ability to maintain order. As quickly becomes clear and perhaps as a subtle critique of the inadequacy of police, the citizenry hunger for Black Lightning's intervention because of the authorities' complacency and failures.

Cress Williams, in a scene from Black Lightning
I've given the background information about Black Lightning's world, but I have said little up to this point about his particular superhero powers. As his name suggests, his chief gift, beyond supernatural speed and the ability, it appears though it hasn't been stated outright, to pass through solid walls and leap onto roofs and ledges, is lightning-like electrical power, which can stun, disable or even kill his assailants. He also has the ability to create ionized fields, which can distribute the electricity in tiny zaps, and generate an electrical force-field, which can shield him from bullets, grenades, and even bombs. So far the series has not shown him creating a black thunder bolt, but when enraged, at least according to the comic strip, he can do so. Additionally, he is able to gather electrical force in his fists to create even stronger punches, perceive nearby electrical flows (and, in episode 3, with the help of new goggles by Gambi, all electrical currents in the area), and even absorb electricity or disappear into electrical wires or powerboxes, traveling like an electrical current. Given these powers, I have to wonder what could stop or at least blunt him; he does not wear a helmet, so he's vulnerable to anything happening behind him if he doesn't perceive it before it hits him. Viewers got a taste of this when during a peace march, despite Black Lightning's presence to protect his family, one of Whale's deputies shoots the march organizer, Reverend Holt, through the upper chest and paralyzes Jefferson's daughter's boyfriend, Khalil. My immediate thought was that had the gunman aimed a bit to the right, he might have struck the superhero dead on. I suppose we will see what measures Whale devises to bring him down.
Black Lightning stars Cress Williams, Christine Adams,
Nafessa Williams, and China Ann McClain
As in the original comic book, Black Lightning is not alone in his crime-fighting. At the end of the first episode, Anissa cracks off part of the bathroom sink, and then, in subsequent episodes, she comes to realize that she possesses unique metahuman powers, inherited from her father, though she is unaware, as far as the viewer knows, that he doubles as Black Lightning. So far she hasn't unleashed any lightning bolts or electrical sparks, but she can create soundwaves by stomping the ground, and can increase her body density to generate super-human strength, which she has used several times to fight off attackers, including a group of adult men selling drugs to teenage girls. We also learn that she is an out lesbian, which, as far as I can tell, makes her the first black lesbian superhero to appear on US TV. The show's approach to sexuality is refreshing and contemporary; when her parents discuss their concerns about her younger sister's Jennifer's announcement that she plans to lose her virginity, they acknowledge their earlier support, though not without tears and shock, for Anissa's coming out, and Akil and the show's writers have fully integrated her relationships into the fabric of the storyline. At a moment when an anti-LGBTQ backlash is underway, and a white supremacist occupies the White House and racism regularly appears in spectacular form, a show about a mature, middle-class superhero and his family, which includes a lesbian superhero daughter, fighting to save a predominantly black and brown town, makes a statement, without hammering anyone over the head.
Nafessa Williams, in a scene
from Black Lightning

Black Lightning
In some ways, Black Lightning feels like a figure conceived during and in response to the previous, pre-Trump moment. A mid-40-something model of flawed respectability, well-spoken and highly educated, a dutiful though divorced father of two smart daughters, a negotiator rather than a hothead, he at first comes off like a Barack Obama with secret superpowers he's willing to use, almost in spite of himself. (His daughters mirror but complicate this template.) Even the stakes, at one level, feel lower than what we currently face as a country and globe. Instead of a supranational or external power, like a fictionalized version of Russia, or against the current hyper-neoliberal/libertarian, overtly racist, misogynistic, anti-liberal political and economic threat, embodied by the Trump administration, the villain he faces is a mostly local crime syndicate. As with Luke Cage, the villainry he's battling is not the result of larger structural and systemic forces, but corrupt and corrupted black people. I understand the desire to depict an enclosed black speculative world, and, more so than with Luke Cage, it feels well built out. But in some ways, it also feels a little inadequate; can this parallel world open out into something that more fully resembles our own? On the other hand, given the current moment of overt backlash, a flawed black superhero family feels appropriate, and, to some degree, emotionally comforting. But is it enough?

What I am waiting to find out is when Jefferson and Anissa will recognize not only that they both possess superhuman powers, but that Black Lightning has a potential partner, if he is willing to accept Anissa--Thunder's--participation in crime fighting. When will Jennifer's powers manifest themselves? Will Jefferson and Lynn get back together? Will the writers allow Anissa's relationship with her Asian American girlfriend, Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy), last the entire season? What is behind Gambi's seeming duplicity in deleting a video feed of Anissa's demonstration of her power, and, in a confusing move, his deletion of Whale's image on a camera feed after the shooting of Reverend Holt? Will the cops work with Black Lightning or continue to see him as a vigilante? I also want to know how Whale's scheme to take out Black Lightning will resolve itself. What other smart, unexpected elements in the series plot and characterization will the writers introduce? Will the show end on a cliffhanger? But let me not get ahead of myself, because there are nine more episodes to go in the thirteen-episode first series, meaning there will be more than enough time to learn how things are going to turn out.
Skye Marshall and Cress Williams,
in a scene from Black Lightning