Afros in Space: Lando Calrissian

My last post on Afrofuturism explored the term’s origin and how I felt Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is the A-1 example of the intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology in 2018. I still believe that to be true, but should mention another stellar example of Afrofuturistic representation this year:

Lando

Admittedly, I threw heavy shade on Solo per the lackluster first trailer and all the drama that went down during shooting. Truth be told, it’s pretty good.

For those who have yet to see it, Solo basically reveals how Han Solo: got his name, captained the Millennium Falcon, acquired his blaster, met Chewie, met Lando, got his swagger, and became a smuggler. So, while the movie initially feels like a Solo get list, the overall project comes together in an slick, intergalactic swashbuckling package that’s entertaining even for those not totally into Star Wars.

Lando-Calrissian-Movie-Star-Wars-Spin-Off-PlansThe biggest surprise for me was finding out not only that Lando is in the film, but that Donald Glover would play the role. As a kid, I never thought much of the Lando character, first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. He wasn’t a jedi; he was no longer a smuggler; he no longer owned a cool ship. He was just a businessman in a cape, a mayor of some city in the clouds, who double-crossed the main cast only to somewhat redeem himself after getting choked by Chewbacca. Boring! His appearance in The Return of the Jedi was only slightly better as he had some slick maneuvers in the Falcon near the film’s end.

As an adult, though, I can see the layers. First of all, he wears capes even though he isn’t a Jedi. Actually, his capes are better than all of the Jedis’. Second, getting out of the smuggling business to become a legit entrepreneur and boss who wears silky Count-von-Count-style capes is way better than getting hunted down by the Sith or galavanting around the universe with Yoda on your back, berating you with object-subject-verb commands.

While Lando may not get his own movie any time soon, there are positive rumblings Billy Dee Williams may be reprising his role as the caped crusader for Episode IX, which is great, but homeboy is 81 years old, so they should probably wrap production sooner than later.

Afrofuturism and the Black Panther?

Before the release of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, I discovered social media buzz about Afrofuturism. The term immediately brought to mind images of pyramids and spaceships with AFROFUTURISM written in pink neon graffiti across the starry night sky. I was close.

Through cursory research, I found Afrofuturism to be a movement centered on the intersection of art, science, and technology. The term was coined by the author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which examines science or speculative fiction within the African diaspora. Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and creator of the online community Black Girl Nerds, takes the definition a bit further, adding that Afrofuturism is different from standard science fiction because it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. “A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”

Janelle Monae With that, I realized I had totally seen Afrofuturistic elements in the music and art of Outkast and Janelle Monáe, and in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. I took these as one-offs, however; it didn’t register as a conscious movement.

Now I see the Black Panther in a different light, as a great step forward in not only Afrofuturism, but in superhero storytelling. The film has already exceeded box office expectations and continues to pull in crowds with its  critical praise and positive word of mouth, even with the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War coming in less than three months.

I went with to a matinee with my wife and siblings-in-law at the Grand Lake Theater the day after Black Panther opened.  Because Coogler is from Oakland, directed Fruitvale Station, and includes Oakland-based locations and characters in the film, Grand Lake was the obvious choice.  Apparently, everyone else thought so too! Lines stretched down Grand and Walker avenues, taking anywhere from 45 minutes upward before moving. An extra draw to the theater that day may have been due to Coogler’s surprise appearance the night before. According to social media reports, he dropped several Easter eggs about Bay Area representation in the film.

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Photo taken by my wife of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland before the matinee.

We didn’t see any cosplayers or anyone with Afrofuturistic style at our showing, but a good number of people wore African and African-Inspired clothing, especially for the evening showing—ladies donned jewelry, colorful head wraps, and regal gowns, while men wore tunics with fancifully embroidered collars.

Inside, the diverse crowd buzzed as people searched for seats and stood in concession lines. Once the house lights dimmed and the red velvet curtain rose, the crowd hushed as previews began. The only previews that stood out were both science fiction entries—A Wrinkle in Time, which appears to have Afrofuturistic elements, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which…I actually don’t know what to make about Solo just yet. The film seems way undermarketed, which is not a good sign for a movie, especially for a brand as huge as Star Wars; plus, the trailer left me with more questions than excitement.  (Editor’s note: my view of this film has changed after seeing the finished version!)

a-wrinkle-in-time-poster-slice-600x200At any rate, the Afrofuturistic elements and strong female leads in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther made me think of how diversity and gender equality are having moments even in this socially and politically divisive time. Further, with the successes of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), and the evermore-diverse Star Wars films of late, moviemakers should realize the time has died for appeasing only one type of audience for box office success. Video game developers have known this for a while with the advent of create-a-character games, which allow players to gallivant as versions of themselves around virtual worlds.

The success of Black Panther creates a new template for Marvel’s movies, much like the first Iron Man did back in ‘08, Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain notes. One reason is because T’Challa is already a hero who fights for and with his people, as opposed to a goodhearted, yet selfish person who gains superhero status after forced maturation, such as with characters like Tony Stark, Thor, and Dr. Strange. Hussain also adds that the Black Panther is doing so well at the box office because the film has its own identity, akin to how Thor: Ragnarok felt so different from the usual Marvel superhero movie.

And the above-mentioned difference is partially why I haven’t written a formal review for the film—there is so much to unpack. I mean that in a good way. The movie offers so many avenues for discussion that I want to see it again to both enjoy and analyze.

0218_WI_APAFRO_02_sq.0One of my criticisms with the film going in was regarding CGI usage. The trailers didn’t impress me in that regard. In general, I’m against CGI because it rarely adds whatever artistic weight filmmakers intend. Said plainly, most CGI looks fake. Thankfully, many of Black Panther’s sets and characters are grounded in the physical world, leaving room for only a few flat digital effects. What remains is pretty good. The African utopia brought to life, with its elevated Vibranium-powered bullet trains, humming around high-rise buildings and through bustling markets is a sight.

Much like Afropunk, Afrofuturism seems like it’s always been a thing, but the requirement mentioned above, the unapologetic celebration of the uniqueness and technological innovation of Black culture, is hard to come by in mainstream pop culture. Even those who don’t identify as Black or of African descent can see, at least for this moment, the great amount of celebration and pride the movie has inspired.

Wakanda forever, yes, but Afrofuturism, too. I think it’s cool.

The Art of Living Black

1001BlackMen511Web-463x600A few weeks ago I attended The Art of Living Black (TAOLB), a group art exhibition that includes sculptors, painters, jewelry makers, mixed media artists, photographers, and doll makers of African descent. The annual event is held from the beginning of January through the end of March at various venues throughout the Bay Area, including my Alma mater, Mills College.

1001BlackMen504Web-429x600The only artist of the group I know personally is Ajuan Mance, my former professor at Mills and the author of Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-Representation, 1877-2000. Ajuan is one of those crazy-smart scholars who happens to be personable and artistic. She carries herself with a smooth confidence that rivals President Obama’s. Her series of drawings, 1001 Black Men,  is inspired by the men she sees in Oakland, and by memories of her family, friends, and neighbors back east.  On her website, 8-rock.com,  Ajuan writes of her series:

“I push past entrenched stereotypes to create images of Black men that reflect the wonderful complexity of African American lives—our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy.”

At the time of this posting, the latest in the series is number 512. The first piece of art I saw from Ajuan was during her office hours my first year at Mills. I remember being nervous that day for several reasons, one of which was the uncertainty of what to write for my thesis, as my novel was in its infancy at the time, and the other was not wanting to sound like a dumb-ass while talking to Ajuan about African-American history, my mixed-race heritage, the social construction of race, and the exclusivity of whiteness. As we talked, I noticed a painting, leaning next to her against a desk or chair, similar in style to those in her current series, of a Black man, only more abstract. As I became comfortable in our conversation, I let my eyes wonder and art seemed to jump out from all angles of the office. I expected books, of which I saw plenty, but not paintings and sketches. I had been inspired by Ajuan from day one of class by the way she carried herself and by what she said and how, but the combination of scholar-artist added another layer of respect and her works continue to inspire in me creative energy.

Thea Bowman by Thearthur Wright As I walked through the exhibition to see Ajuan, I stopped to look at Thearthur Wright‘s striking paintings in black, brown, gold, and white. This alone would be worth mentioning due to his talent and the initial impact the paintings had on me, but the hot kicker is they were painted with bleach! He withheld this fact for a good while into our conversation and my mind was blown when he finally mentioned it. I asked him about technique, especially with bleach, and he said he works in dots, many dots, and the age of the bleach determines the color on the canvas. By that point, my mind had already begun humming as it does when good art and a new way of creating comes about. He also mentioned he started out as writer and had several publications, but painting came later in life and eventually became his focus, especially after retiring from a career as an electrician.

I write this in preparation, as inspiration to write into the novel this weekend. My novel is now in two parts. The first draft of part one is complete. My goal is to have the first draft of part two finished by May. Hard task because of work and other commitments, but being a novelist is one of those dreams I can’t let go.