Black Panther: First Take


, ,

On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early February, my wife suggested that I take a break to go see the new Black Panther movie on our way back from a local Chinese New Year parade.  We were having a very good day after an exhausting, impossible week. At the time, I did not know that this pattern would repeat itself over the following four months. We had a great breakfast at one of our favorite local spots (Zoi’s, which makes terrific breakfast sandwiches) and I successfully convinced my son that the colorful dragons marching in the parade were fun and not frightening (“See? They’re not real dragons, they’re just costumes!” <man under dragon costume gives a friendly wave to skeptical son>). img_1555-1

We discussed the Black Panther phenomenon while we munched hash browns and sipped coffee – it had premiered a few days earlier and was already a giant success at the box office and in the culture. I was curious and she was ambivalent – while the concept and creative folk involved piqued her interest, she mostly checked out on Marvel movies after the underwhelming Avengers film in 2010. When she made her offer later that morning, I thought about declining until I realized that if I didn’t accept, I probably wouldn’t see Black Panther until it arrived on Netflix (or whatever over the top digital service Disney comes up with). So I accepted her offer and was surprised by how excited I felt.


I found an amazing seat at our local theater (a spot that made up for its lack of modern features with decent screens and pleasant staff). I was surrounded by a representative sample of New Haven – earnest college students from a wide variety of  backgrounds, excited African Americans from the local community and pleasant Yale/Yale New Haven Hospital retirees. There was a lot of conversation in the room that died down when the trailers and commercials and PSAs ended. Everyone focused their attention on a dark screen and heard a boy ask his father to tell him a story.


A few hours later, another curious boy asked a man who he was, and the screen faded to black. There were two more scenes tucked in a seemingly endless scroll of credits, but they felt like post-film trailers for future Marvel movies, a reminder that Black Panther takes place in a larger (and quite lucrative) narrative and a suggestion that the cinematic Wakanda will play a much more prominent role in the Marvel movie universe than its comic book counterpart. Some stayed for the scenes, and others did not, but it was clear that the boy’s question was the end of the story that Ryan Coogler spent 200 million dollars to tell. Some people were energized, others were talking about their favorite scene or which one of the many attractive actors in the film was the most stunning. I saw a few people with tears in their eyes, a few repeating Michael B. Jordan’s last line in the film.

Black Panther is an excellent film, possibly the first Marvel movie that feels completely engaged with our world. Coogler sustains an emotional resonance throughout the entire film that can only be found in isolated sequences in other Marvel films – a glance from Jeff Daniels, a provocative question asked by Cate Blanchett, a moment of intimacy between Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. These genuine, emotionally honest moments are as important to the Marvel Studios storytelling formula as all of the third acts filled with expensive digital effect sequences and schematic plots. Black Panther departs from this formula by grounding these moments in a personal story with meaningful stakes. The stakes of the story matter because all of the artists involved in the movie – from the director, writers and cast to the costume designer, the makeup and hair people and the experts who helped with dialects – worked to make all the characters feel fully realized,  with hopes, dreams and flaws independent from our hero and his journey. We care about the fate of Wakanda because we care about the characters who inhabit it – and T’Challa’s family turmoil matters because the love, joy and resentment expressed by the family members feels real.


Coogler reminds us that the desire for representation in the African American community isn’t just about seeing black faces on a screen. We want to be taken seriously, to feel like our gaze is as valid and important as the white gaze that we are accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. We want to see a dramatization of the kinds of debates and tensions that exist within the black community without an explainer for everyone else. We want movies where dark skinned people are properly lit and stories that aren’t mediated by the perspective of outsiders (even the very well meaning ones).

Coogler uses a familiar hero’s journey framework to tell a story about community, societal boundaries and black liberation. Black Panther dramatizes the discourse within the black community about identity and freedom in mythic, larger than life terms without sacrificing the black perspective. He invites the audience to view in-group conversations without translating anything for them. It’s a mainstream movie about black lives that cheerfully ignores the urge to reassure or defy the “little white man deep inside all of us” who wants to limit our freedom to imagine and create fictional worlds.

Coogler trusts his audience. He trusts them to tease out the distinctions between and within the liberal and radical visions for black liberation presented in the scenes and layers the narrative with allusions to events and ideas relevant to the African American experience.

There are limits to the scope of ideas explored in Black Panther. The film is set in Africa and is filled with images and items that we associate with Africa, but its narrative is driven by the concerns, dreams and dilemmas of the members of the African diaspora who were brought to America hundreds of years ago. In one sense, there aren’t many African American characters in Black Panther, but in another, we are everywhere. We are asked to reflect on the obligations that a privileged black community owes to less privileged black communities and while the characters do reference the struggle against white supremacy (not named, but you know…) in global terms, the visual reminders of oppression and that struggle are all tied to America, and the African American civil rights movement (in the early nineties) serves as the catalyst for the story.

This dynamic is not confined to the film version of Black Panther. In the late winter, I planned to (and may still) write about Black Panther and Wakanda as incomplete afrofuturist projects. Here’s the gist: Black Panther and Wakanda were created by two Jewish American comic book creators in the 1960’s, and while a number of Afro-diasporic writers and artists have helped shape our understanding of the Black Panther’s world over the years, almost all were telling stories from a perspective that was both African and American. They explored African American hopes and fears about empowerment, colonialism and intergroup conflict, but rarely incorporated the viewpoints of other members of the diaspora, particularly those who remained in Africa. I found great value in exploring the dreams and possibilities of the African American experience through a story like Black Panther (and a nation like Wakanda), but wondered if the absence of non-American perspectives (particularly African ones) blunted its potential impact. I also wondered how much sharper – and more transformative – the story would be if we were reading/watching a story that Africans were telling us about their world.

Black Panther is also a Marvel Studios movie, and cannot escape the positive and negative associations of that corporate relationship.

blackpanthertitle car

It shares the basic plot structure as many of their films centered around a solo hero, from the role of the two villains in the narrative (and how they are introduced) to the hero’s fall from grace and eventual triumph in a CGI fueled battle.

I wonder if that relationship contributes to the intriguing tension between the radical and conventional elements in Black Panther. The film’s visuals shake mainstream (at least in the world of blockbuster commercial Hollywood filmmaking) assumptions around beauty and power, with a diverse, nearly all-black cast presented as larger than life figures and shot in a manner that highlights the richness of their individual skin tones.

We are shown pieces of culture from all over Africa in a way that makes them feel modern and vital (and not ancient or exotic). But while the story gestures towards quasi-radical politics, it ultimately delivers a full throated defense of traditional monarchy that would’ve seemed downright reactionary in another film. The dialogue that evokes a long history of black nationalism/radicalism is delivered by a character presented as a violent faux populist tyrant. T’Challa’s plan to reengage with the world felt audacious on my first viewing, but upon reflection, it sounded pretty vague. My wife (who watched the movie with me when it was released on Blu Ray) remarked that she expected T’Challa to announce an initiative that would improve the material circumstances of the people of Oakland – a housing or education or employment program.

The Africana spread throughout Black Panther highlights this tension. The visual look of the scenes set in Wakanda is thoughtfully considered and creates a distinctly non-American context for the story. The interviews and profiles surrounding the movie make it clear that the visual aesthetic for the film is intended as a celebration of a wide range of African cultures, a rare thing for mainstream American films. This celebration is complicated by the film’s narrative, which is mostly set in a fictional isolated African nation. In this context, the blend of different African cultures in a single place without any in-text explanation becomes a reminder of our troubling habit of treating Africa as if it were a single location. A cinematic Latveria (the fictional Central European home of Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom) that just combined elements of Greek, Czech, French and British visual and physical culture wouldn’t seem authentically ‘European’, it would feel artificial, the product of an outsider unfamiliar with the diverse cultures and societies on the continent.


Latveria, from a bad Fantastic Four movie. This needs some Greek columns and a couple of domes. Maybe a circuitry covered henge in the background.

The mix of conventional and radical elements make Black Panther feel less satisfying and more substantial. I would have wholeheartedly welcomed a mainstream Hollywood funded full throated meditation on dismantling white supremacy and the pain caused by colonialism, but I know that Americans – that we – have a limited appetite for blockbuster films that unnerve or threaten. I still want to see a movie that shows the non fictional black community – my community – through a non-tragic lens. Many countries in Africa still face huge challenges, but there have been a number of meaningful improvements of social and economic conditions in nations throughout the continent over the last two decades. African Americans still face a wide range of disadvantages relative to European Americans, but there has been (some) progress (particularly in the areas of education and wages). We are more than nameless youth at an urban basketball court. The scenes set in Wakanda are triumphant and transporting, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there are also happy and prosperous and successful (in the broadest definition of the word) black people who live in actual neighborhoods in real countries.

Coogler’s Black Panther is a piece of entertainment, a commodity owned by a multi billion dollar corporation that has a mixed history with black people and social justice and which is unlikely to green light a blockbuster with radical politics or that challenges viewers. It’s also a thrilling and thought provoking work of art made by a promising young African American director who has successfully infused social commentary and emotional honesty in a series of mainstream films of steadily increasing size and scope. Black Panther’s success is a win for films made by and starring black people, but it’s also a big win for Disney shareholders. It’s a story that excites by centering the perspective of African Americans (even in allegorical terms), but leaves one hungry for more that reflects the experiences of people from other parts of the diaspora.

It’s a movie that entertains and inspires, but as Yasiin Bey might say, it can’t save us. Thankfully, no one promised that it would.

Next Week: Second Take (Four Things).

The milks was chocolate, the cookies, butter crunch


The Notorious B.I.G.

He wasn’t the best of his era because of the hype machine that placed a crown on his head.

Or because he was sold lots of discs during an era when mcs from New York rarely went platinum.

Or because of his so-called beef with you know who that captured the attention of millions of hip hop fans worldwide.

It was the voice that sounded like an instrument.

The way his lyrics were always exactly as complicated or simple as they needed to be.

The casual mastery of a wide range of flows that always perfectly matched the beat.

The way he combined humor and menace in a single song, a single verse, sometimes a single line. No one was better at making us laugh and shudder.

The fact that he could pack so much power in a single generic question asked during a freestyle that crowds still go crazy when the DJ plays a sample of the line. (Brooklyn’s still right here.)

Most of all, it’s the small sensory details that resonate years after his passing. The line in the title evokes memories of cold, overly sweet chocolate milk and giant stale lunchroom cookies from a New York public school.

Christopher Wallace was always in my personal top 5 from that post-Golden, pre-bling era that I remember so fondly from high school, but every time I revisit one of his songs from his two albums or when his casually brilliant verse on Mary J. Blige’s Real Love comes up in my run mix, he creeps up the list.


Book Quotes of 2017


, , , , , , , ,

At 2 East 70th Street the day-shift doorman recognized her—“That you, Mrs. Dyer?”—and with a certain amount of pride Isabel remembered his name—“Hello, Felix”—and chatted about family, his four children now all grown, the older two with children themselves, though time unarticulated was the truer subject, Felix following the doorman code and refraining from asking personal questions, but seeing Mrs. Dyer of the sixth floor gave him a passing awareness of the gap between when he was young and when she was old and how it had narrowed to a crack.
& Sons, David Gilbert

if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?”

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

It was as if he had been assigned to take apart a fiendishly complicated alarm clock to see why it wasn’t working, only to discover that an important part of the clock was inside his own mind.

The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis

You would not, I imagine, suggest that it is the task of botanists to devise more flowers? Or that astronomers should labour to rearrange the stars? Magicians, Mr Segundus, study magic which was done long ago. Why should any one expect more?”

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

The hero of a David Lodge novel says that you don’t know, when you make love for the last time, that you are making love for the last time. Voting is like that. Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningfully free election for some time, but most did not. Some of the Czechs and Slovaks who voted for the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1946 probably realized that they were voting for the end of democracy, but most assumed they would have another chance. No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been.

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

I laughed and grabbed his head as I had done God knows how many times before, when I was playing with him or when he had annoyed me. But this time when I touched him something happened in him and in me which made this touch different from any touch either of us had ever known. And he did not resist, as he usually did, but lay where I had pulled him, against my chest. And I realized that my heart was beating in an awful way and that Joey was trembling against me and the light in the room was very bright and hot.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

We shouted over the dinner tables and slipped away into empty rooms with each other’s spouses, carousing with all the enthusiasm and indiscretion of Greek gods. And in the morning, we woke at 6:30 on the dot, clearheaded and optimistic, ready to resume our places behind the stainless steel desks at the helm of the world.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

“That’s not true. Of course you do. Denise would whisper to Sharon, and Sharon would tell her husband and her sister. You would come to the office and find them whispering, and after a few days, you’d begin to think that it was about you. After a week, you would start to think that people all over town were looking at you strangely. You would notice them trying to look directly past you when you ran into them in the grocery store and on the street. When Christmas came, you would have only half as many cards in your mailbox, and least once a year, junior-high boys would throw a half-dozen eggs at your window. “If you think they wouldn’t say anything, though, you’re right. They wouldn’t say a word. It would be rude and un-Christian to do so.

All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu

She attracted attention not so much because of the qualities of her features but rather because of the naturalness and grace with which her expression moved.

IQ84, Huraki Murakami

When you borrow a lot of money to create a false prosperity, you import the future into the present. It isn’t the actual future so much as some grotesque silicone version of it. Leverage buys you a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t really earned.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis


The Rest: Other Memorable Reads from 2017


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1. Justice League of America – Howard Porter, Grant Morrison
2. Jane – Aline Brosh McKenna
3. The Ultimates 2 – Travel Foreman, Al Ewing
4. Hulk – Nico Leon, Mariko Tamaki
5. Batman – Tom King, David Finch
6. Scarlet Witch – Kei Zama, James Robinson
7. Monstress – Sana Takeda, Marjorie Liu
8. Infamous Iron Man – Alex Maleev, Brian Michael Bendis
9. DC Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 2 – Kyle Baker
10. X-Men: Grand Design – Ed Piskor
11. All New Wolverine – Leonard Kirk, Cory Hamscher, Tom Taylor
12. Mister Miracle – Jack Kirby
13. U.S.Avengers – Paco Medina, Al Ewing
14. Batman: Creature of the Night – Kurt Busiek, John Paul Leon, Phil Winslade
15. Wicked and the Divine – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson
16. Batman: Black & White – Alan Davis
17. Legends of the Dark Knight: Alan Davis vol. 1 – Alan Davis, Mike W. Barr
18. Black Panther and the Crew – Jackson Guice, Ta-Nehisi Coates
19. Kill or Be Killed – Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser, Ed Brubaker
20. Superman – Doug Mahnke, Peter Tomasi
21. Deathstroke – Christopher Priest, Jason Paz, Cary Nord, Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiwicz, Larry Hama, Joe Bennett, Norm Rapmund, Jason Paz
22. Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye – Michael Avon Oeming, Gerard Way, Jon Rivera
23. Cosmic Odyssey – Mike Mignola, Jim Starlin
24. The Unworthy Thor – Oliver Coipel, Jason Aaron


Comics That Moved Me in 2017


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In no particular order…

1. Octopus Pie vol. 1-4 – Meredith Gran
2. My Favorite Thing is Monsters – Emil Ferris
3. The Best We Could – Thi Bui
4. Mister Miracle – Tom King, Mitch Gerads
5. Prince of Cats – Ron Wimberley
6. The Mighty Thor – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman
7. My Pretty Vampire – Katie Skelly
8. Giant Days – John Allison, Lisa Treiman, Max Sarin
9. Seven to Eternity – Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Matt Hollingsworth
10. The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal – E.K. Weaver
11. Invisible Republic – Gabriel Hartman, Corinna Sara Bechko

Searching For A Real Love (Running Mix 9)



You see I’m searching for a real love and I don’t know where to go
I been around the world and high and low
And still I’ll never know
How it feels to have a real love
Cause it seems it’s not around
I gotta end it in this way because it
Seems he can’t be…


(9) Real Love (Hip Hop Mix) (1992) Mary J. Blige, Notorious B.I.G.

I love every version and mix of this classic, but this is my favorite version for a jogging mix. I first added this song for this year’s Faxon Law New Haven Road Race.  One of the reasons that I like running in races is that it forces me to push my limits – to keep running at top speed when I would otherwise be inclined to slow down. Music helps me keep up my energy throughout the race. Unfortunately, I ran a bit before I started the road race and had burned through most of my playlist. By the time I was in the last quarter of the race, I felt drained and was concerned that I ran out of music. There was silence after DNA ended. All I heard was my steady breathing and the sound of my sneakers on the road. And then I heard Mary. There’s no beat, no accompanying instruments, no guide tracks or other obvious studio wizardry. Just her voice. She sings that she’s searching for a real love and a faint chord can be heard in the background. She tells us that she doesn’t know where to go and it feels so honest, so powerful, that I find another gear.

Running Mix 0
Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes
Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 
Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 
Running Mix 4: The Thug N***** Have Arrived And It’s Judgement Day
Running Mix 5: Ain’t No More Sqad In Me
Running Mix 6: Bumping E-40
Running Mix 7: I’ll Be Coming Home With the Future in My Pocket
Running Mix 8: Yoga on a Monday, Stretching to Nirvana

The Party At Tiffany’s (Moving Pictures That Move Me 2)


, , ,

The best parties are terrifying.

There is a sense of endless anarchic possibility, that things can end with pleasure and joy or pain and regret. There are endless alcohol fueled narratives mixing and colliding against a soundtrack of rhythmic music. The tone shifts from the comic to the tragic based on time and location. There are the friends who are catching up after a long time apart, the people trying to cheer themselves up with liquor and uptempo music, the schemers, and of course, the folk of all genders looking for companionship. You can find the teetotalers high on life and people who are on different parts of the intoxication spectrum – the comic, the tragic, the stoic. There are suggestions of romantic interludes and flashes of harassment.

Blake Edwards and Miriam Nelson (who choreographed the scene) capture the feel and emotion of a party perfectly. The camera moves between stories (that complement and comment on the relationship at the center of the story. They range from a handful of people engaged in some personal or intimate activity to a shifting mass of people trying to dance, move to another location, chat, get their drink on and hook up. As with all good parties, the cops make a surprise guest appearance towards the end. I wasn’t surprised to read that Edwards cast actors in this scene – each one seemed fully invested in playing characters who were fully realized and had complete lives, even though we would never see them.

I think this was the first movie that made me appreciate Audrey Hepburn as an actress. I loved her in Roman Holiday, but I wasn’t sure if she could play someone who was a bit more of a morally complicated character. Audrey’s not playing the Holly Golightly we see in Truman Capote’s novel, but she was still a complex character who retained some traces of the original. She was not a sex worker (or at least she wasn’t a traditional one), but she was a far cry from the kinds of sexually inexperienced characters that Doris Day made famous. In the scene above, Hepburn shows us different facets of the Hepburn character – shifting from coquettish to vulnerable to plotting. We see the undercurrent of cynical cunning underneath her naive facade. Her rough edges are hidden to public view, but they are very real.

We’re supposed to believe that Paul (the male lead portrayed by George Peppard) is the one who gets her, but I’m skeptical. There’s a bland emptiness behind his eyes that betrays his essential ordinariness. All he sees is a kook that needs to be rescued and domesticated. The audience sees more. They see that she doesn’t need to be saved.

Edwards also uses the scene to show us the absurdity beneath the superficial glamor of Holly and her circle. They all seem hip, urbane and worldly when we first meet them, but the party scene shows us that these are performances. In Fifth Avenue, 5A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Sam Wesson argues that the scene illustrates the obliviousness of the partygoers, a joke at the expense of “nuts who may be glamorous but don’t have a clue”. He suggests that this mirrors Holly’s own cluelessness about the “empty frivolity of the life she leads”. I’m sure that he’s correct about Edwards’ intentions, but I read the scene in a slightly different way.

I see the same hip dinner party scene told through slapstick, but where Wesson (and possibly Edwards) see clueless socialites (or frauds), I see intentional performances from people who know that they are playing roles. We don’t see any discomfort or awkwardness when the illusions are disrupted. The woman talking to the man with the eye patch doesn’t blink an eye when he moves it to cover his other eye. The nuttiness is strategic – used as part of a courting ritual or for fun or to hustle someone. There’s not a naive person in this room. Everyone knows that they’re part of The Game. As my wife likes to say, Holly’s frivolity was her hustle.

There’s nothing empty about something that helps you put food on the table.


Yoga On A Monday, Stretching to Nirvana (Running Mix 8)




(8) DNA (2017) Kendrick Lamar

My second nod towards hip hop from this decade from an artist who could have come from my personal golden age (like many hip hop listeners, my golden age is almost perfectly aligned with when I attended high school).

Kendrick’s famous for his complex and immaculately constructed rhyme schemes, but it’s his use of straightforward internal rhymes and repetition combined with Mike WiLL Made It’s ferocious production that make this track a perfect choice for the last quarter of a run.

“I got…” and “inside my DNA” feel like forceful mantras. His first verse is all controlled aggression, unraveling the contradictions of heritage and legacy. Kendrick shifts to the present in his second verse, giving us a glimpse at the experience of living a life of earned luxury as a black man in America with anxiety about how his material success has changed him (even softened him) with dark days ahead. If you grew up in rough circumstances, an easy life just might feel like the Matrix and raise concerns that you were less prepared to deal with the threats of the future.

Running Mix 0
Running Mix 1: The Devil’s In Him Lord, Open His Eyes
Running Mix 2: I’m Still Running With Cats That Rob 
Running Mix 3: When Will Queens Realize That the Flow Don’t Stop? 
Running Mix 4: The Thug N***** Have Arrived And It’s Judgement Day
Running Mix 5: Ain’t No More Sqad In Me
Running Mix 6: Bumping E-40
Running Mix 7: I’ll Be Coming Home With the Future in My Pocket