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 Great Xanadu of Race Politics

mixed-raceI’ve been in the practice of storytelling through art since elementary school. I didn’t begin to tell my own story, however, until graduate school, where I wrote about the adventures of a dark-skinned mixed boy and a Russian-American girl in rural Kansas. After two years of study, I managed to complete my thesis, but was well short of a finished first draft.

After spending several more years writing a mixture of what could be described as The Little Prince meets Pedro Paramo, I realized the main character’s search for identity and purpose in a world that regarded him as anomalous because of his skin color and unorthodox beliefs were, in essence, my own.

Knowing my heritage, I managed to confounded the color line and mass-mediated stereotypes as a child. “You don’t sound Black” and “You are not the usual Black” are comments I’ve heard most often, the runners up being: “I can tell you’re mixed because your hair is different” or “What country are you really from?”

I’ve developed a series of responses over the years—some of which mention I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish ancestry—but, no matter how I respond, I always wonder why people from seemingly all backgrounds police Black identity so zealously, especially in regard to dark-skinned people of African descent.

An ex-girlfriend was of a similar mix type, but her appearance was notably different than mine. She had pale skin, blue eyes, and straightened brown hair with natural blonde highlights. I identified as mixed because of my upbringing and knowledge of my ancestry; she identified as Black because of her upbringing, adherence to the one-drop rule, and what I assume to be disinterest in her Native and Anglo ancestries. While our inevitable split was not due solely to identity politics, the policing of Blackness played a large part in our relationship’s demise.

Until recently, I was in the occasional habit of defending my ancestries with genealogical records, DNA test results, and family photographs, but I stopped all together because the act of proving serves to trivialize my experience and existence. I also stopped because identity police are annoying. Now I tell them “I am who my ancestors are” and let their minds silently explode.

The novel I mentioned earlier has actually become a memoir in verse even though the characters and happenings are fictional. If the concept of a poetic fictional memoir seems contradictory, blame artistic license, cultural inheritance, and the subversive nature of poetry. I was brought up to know storytelling is more about getting to the underlying truth than simply relating details. Given that, I’ve come to realize the concept of being both dark skinned and mixed is difficult to convey accurately without writing about in academic detail the usual suspects of colonialism, colorism, racism, and general human cruelty. Writing my truth in essence seems more natural and meaningful beyond mere details of record, and has become an effective way to transcend identity politics.

F3b1 haplogroup

My Mother’s Haplogroup – Region: Southeastern Asia

Things Fall Apart Before Coming Back Together

chikeill2 In his 1966 book Chike and the River, renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe brings to life the story of eleven-year-old Chike, who  struggles to achieve his dream of crossing the Niger River to the city of Asaba. As with many tales, the heart of the story lies within the journey:

“The more Chike saw the ferryboats the more he wanted to make a trip to Asaba. But where would he get the money? He did not know. Still, he hoped. ‘One day is one day,’ he said, meaning that one day he would make the journey, come what may.”

What follows is a series of adventures both humorous and precarious that aid Chike’s personal growth and understanding of the world, from dealing with a money-doubling village magician to being tricked by his headmaster into carrying a missionary’s luggage across a stream. Through perseverance, Chike eventually realizes his dream, but soon finds Asaba is not as he had imagined. The journey home becomes yet another test of wit and bravery.

A great strength of Achebe’s is his ability to tell vivid stories free of dense prose and convoluted plotlines. The power of his sparse language is found in descriptions of key characteristics and motivations. The privileged essence of Chike’s good friend, Samuel Maduka Obi (who nicknamed himself S.M.O.G. for the effect), comes through in S.M.O.G.’s concept of money. After being swindled by the magician recommended by S.M.O.G., Chike returns to his friend to ask, “Has he ever doubled money for you?” to which S.M.O.G. replies “No, I get everything I need from my mother. So I don’t need to have my money doubled.”

Achebe’s skill is also applied to the setting, as seen in Chike’s take on a big city after having left his mother and two sisters to live with his uncle forty-miles away:

“At first Onitsha looked very strange to Chike. He could not say who was a thief or kidnapper and who was not. In Umuofia every thief was known, but here even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another. Chike was told by his uncle’s servant that sometimes a man died in one room and his neighbor in the next room would be playing his gramophone. It was all very strange.”

chikeill1Unlike previous illustrated editions of Chike and the River, the August 9, 2011 Anchor Books edition features the work of Cuban-born artist Edel Rodriguez, a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a former art director for Time Magazine. Each in three colors (red, white and black), the abstract acrylic paintings complement the modest, yet wildly creative spirit of the narrative.

A charming story of the modern versus the traditional, of pushing against and overcoming boundaries, Chike and the River offers enjoyment for readers of any age.