September 21, 2020 / by 

 

Illiberal Hollywood: Kicked in its Pants by a Panther

[Graphic: Black Panther (2018) theatrical release poster, Walt Disney Studios distributor, Marvel Studios producer]

Though conservatives love to disparage the American entertainment industry as liberal, Hollywood’s business practices have been anything but. I’ve written before about its misogyny and sexism; it has only recently received the scrutiny it deserves, thanks to open protests by women actors and directors, and sadly the cascading revelations about sexual harassment and abuse.

Hollywood has likewise been racist; though minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S.’ population, minorities are poorly represented in front and behind the camera. As of 2013-14, only scripted broadcast television had seen any gains in diversity. Their numbers were stable or falling in nearly all other areas. In film alone, minorities were underrepresented by:

  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film leads
  • Nearly 3 to 1 among film directors
  • Nearly 5 to 1 among film writers

(source: UCLA Bunche Center’s 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report (pdf))

Which is why this week’s release of Disney/Marvel Studios’ live action superhero film, Black Panther, has received so much attention. The director (Ryan Coogler), screen writer (Joe Robert Cole), and leads (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o) are all African American. This is a first for a film belonging to a major franchise (Marvel Studios), produced by a major studio, with a blockbuster-sized budget of $200 million. While there are a few roles played by white actors, they are small parts which exist to support the story — a complete inversion of racial representation typical across the majority of American films.

The film’s reception even before this week’s release was overwhelmingly ecstatic; many theaters sold out once online ticket sales were available. Reaction from viewers at advance press screenings were joyful, which sold even more tickets. Box office sales this weekend are expected to surpass the film’s budget.

Eager audience response offers a solid swat in the butt of Hollywood’s bigotry, which for too long has rejected scripts or denied minority-led/directed/written films adequate funding, saying, These films aren’t what audiences want. We’ve heard the same excuses about women-led/directed/written films, too, yet they often blow away expectations. Like Wonder Woman (female director and lead), which was the third highest grossing film last year at $412M; it would have placed higher except for the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (female lead) and long-awaited live action reboot of Beauty and the Beast (female lead).

Another refrain too often heard after a minority-led/directed/written film releases: This film exceeded expectations. Hollywood never sees this as a signal not that the film outperformed their forecasts but that audience demand is greater than films supplied. In other words, institutional racism thwarts normal free market response.

Black Panther has garnered some racist reactions, predictably from those who haven’t even seen the movie. DailyCaller’s EIC Ben Shapiro had one of the stupidest as well as most racist takes:

“‘Blade’ was not enough,” Shapiro quipped, referencing the 1998 film and subsequent two sequels that starred Wesley Snipes.

His rant lumped in Halle Berry’s appearance in Catwoman (2004) and Will Smith as lead in the Men in Black trilogy (1997, 2002, 2012), implying that African Americans should be content with what they have in film representation since they’ve been free for more than 200 years and assured their civil rights more than 50 years ago.

Never mind that his first example, Blade, though it featured Wesley Snipes as its lead was made in 1998 with a white director and writer and predominantly white cast. Ditto for the following two entries in the series, released in 2002 and 2004. Apparently black Americans shouldn’t expect to see a black lead in an action film more than once every couple of years — maybe once a year if they’re lucky.

If you’re white — and let’s face it, most of this site’s readers are — imagine a lifetime of rarely seeing anyone who looks like you in film, let alone TV. The idea that minorities, who make up such a large percentage of our population, should be satisfied with rarely ever seeing themselves in all manner of stories is repugnant. It’s both an economic and cultural apartheid. Or worse; it’s not a walling off but erasure of human beings.

It’s a pretty grotesque and deeply unaware stance coming from a guy with the family name Shapiro. It’s an insult to the writers who created Black Panther as a comic book character for Marvel — Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

There are better criticisms of the film, and they come from those who are much better informed. WaPo’s Karen Attiah interviews Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo on the subject of Black Panther’s fictional fantasy representation of African culture and the ‘messed up’ relationship between Africans and African Americans. Critic Leslie Lee III takes issue with Black Panther’s politics. Warning: Both critiques are spoilery, with Lee’s feedback much more so. However, these critiques are educational for a white audience unfamiliar with African culture let alone African American culture.

Based on casual feedback from creative community and fandom members alike, Black Panther may be the top grossing film this year — and in spite of its release in February, typically the slowest time in the release calendar. It may crack the all-time top 20 films for box office ticket sales.

But will this finally be enough to get through to Hollywood’s other major and minor studios that their expectations need to be reset, that minority-led/directed/written films are successful and deserve a more proportional share of the film market?

In case you’re thinking of seeing Black Panther soon, here’s a decent primer. about its place in the Marvel Studios’ Avengers mythology. I’m not going this week; I’m going a couple weeks from now to an early Monday matinee when I might have 50 percent of the theater to myself so I can take notes. I don’t expect the theater to be less than half full before then.


Living Without Shame is a Political Act

What we lost when we lost Fred Hampton

Every year on December 4th I tell people about what was done to the 21-year old revolutionary, Fred Hampton, by the government of America and his city of Chicago in 1969. But this year I wanted to talk about what Fred Hampton gave us before he was assassinated, and maybe what he could have given us if he’d lived.

The facts of the case are extensively stated elsewhere, and you can find them with ease. The simple version is this: Chicago police working with FBI went into the apartment he was in, and shot him repeatedly. They shot him until he was good and dead. But I don’t want to focus only on that, because it doesn’t do justice to Fred Hampton or what he was part of.

Hampton was a charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. The Black Panthers are a tough subject to this day, and there will most likely be people even in the comments of this article claiming that they were evil and violent and that their demise was justified. There’s a lot of reasons the greater portion of America would have hated and feared the BPP, and still does. The Black Panthers were communists at a time when communism was practically synonymous with Satanism in America. They were black liberationists at a time when much of white America was still freshly wounded by the loss of Jim Crow segregation. They refused to lay down tools of violence, originally constituting themselves as a party of self-defense particularly in areas where police brutality was killing black folk, and they frightened police with a promise that they’d shoot back.

But contrary to much of the narrative about them constructed in the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation against the BBP, the group wasn’t focused on violence. There were a few people unhinged, because there are always a few people unhinged. But on the whole the people who joined the BPP were utopian and revolutionary, and they spent more time, money, and energy building the society they wanted than shooting at the one that opposed them. They were politically astute and moral actors, setting up children’s breakfast programs and health clinics in cities across America. None more exemplified the hopeful and bright part of the Black Panthers than the brilliant Hampton, barely a grown man at the time. Think about what you were like at 20, and then think about a man without any advanced education, organizing in Chicago, coordinating aid, and uplifting people with speeches that would immortalize him and inspire generations.

Pretty good, right? He scared the living shit out of white people.

Whether Hoover and the other old guards of the white establishment were conscious of it or not, I believe the reason they hated the BPP so much, and Fred Hampton in particular, was that they refused to be ashamed. It was in everything Fred Hampton and many other panthers did. They didn’t dress in suits. They wore what they wanted to, groomed like they found themselves attractive as god made them. They spoke the English they used to communicate with each other, not the Ivy League dialect that helped make black activism easier to swallow for white folk. Their language was rich and evocative and brimmed with their emotions; a language that treated black people’s emotions as if they mattered. They celebrated themselves. Fred Hampton in particular thought so much of himself that he believed he had the right to be magnanimous to white people. He famously called for white power for white people, just one more category among many others, and invited us to be part of his vision for a socialist utopia.

He had no shame, he needed no shame. After hundreds of years of oppression he was happy to call all men his equals and companions, and afford to others the dignity he claimed for himself.

I don’t think it’s easy for most people to understand how much this would make powerful white people hate him. It is no mere repudiation of racism and capitalism. For people like Hoover, that old white establishment, it was an invalidation of reality, the order of things upended. It was worthy of any violence, any evil, to end that damned presumption, to put all the people back in their places. It was worth it to break all the laws and kill the motherfucker before he spoke another word to us, so that’s what they did. They took him away from the BPP, the black community, and the world. They tried to bury his name with him. They tried to bury his ideas and make them never matter, but in that, they failed.

Working in queer activism through the 90s, I started to understand the political mechanics of shame. As the co-president of my college’s LGBTSU, when the issue of what letters to add or subtract came up, I cut the conversation short by renaming our organization Pride. I wasn’t the first or only young queer activist to do this, the queer movement had learned the power of rejecting shame from black and feminist activism. Nothing about what was between our legs or what we did with our bodies was for you to judge. We rejected that judgement, and whether to talk about our bodies, our loves, and our sexy times, or not, became simply a personal choice.

I didn’t know about Fred Hampton, or the Black Panther Party, when I did that, but having learned my history, I don’t believe I would have had the tools to do it without them. I never became a communist or a socialist,and I don’t believe everything the BBP and Hampton did about the world. But I became a utopian, and I respect the heart it takes to be utopian. To act on being utopian makes you a revolutionary, and thus Hampton and the BPP were fated to live and die revolutionaries without their revolution. They paid terribly to give their ideas to the world. And none more than the brilliant, beautiful 21-year-old Hampton, assassinated in his sleep next to his pregnant partner, never to see his child in this world.

Every year I cry about that. Every damn year.

He’s good and dead now. I’m so sad that the old scared and twisted white men of power never let us hear him, see what he would have made. But we aren’t dead, and Hampton reaches across time to us through his speeches, through his particular utopianism, and charges us to speak our truths, without shame. To elevate each other in our endless varieties, without shame. To unashamedly fight for utopias and not settle for small lives. To believe without shame, to love without shame.


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The Trump Trash Talking of Puerto Rico

This spot in our week here at Emptywheel is supposed to be a set aside for light hearted banter on sports, especially football and Formula One. That is what we have done since our beginning over a decade ago.

But I just cannot summon the enthusiasm for that right now any more than I could last weekend when the Trump racism and narcissism were already raging.

There are 3.5 million American citizens in the lurch in Puerto Rico, suffering from dehydration, starvation and death. Because of a fundamental lack of fuel to move, and communications to know, the full extent of the damage is still not really known.

So, what is the most powerful leader in the world doing? Tweeting a bunch of racially bigoted trash at the people and leaders of Puerto Rico. Here is what our disgrace of a President blasted off this morning:

That graphic was posted on Twitter by Josh Marshall of TPM, and his annotations are perfect.

Trump’s conduct is disgusting and unconscionable. From a man fiddling golfing while Rome burns Puerto Rico dies. What did the Mayor of San Juan, the largest population center and capitol hub of Puerto Rican government say? She begged for her people via a tearful plea to all of the federal government:

“We are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,”

That would be Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. She also had the temerity to call out Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke who made the horribly insensitive and asinine comment that Puerto Rico is a “good news story”. For seeking to keep her constituents from dying and calling bullshit on the actual bullshit of Elaine Duke, Trump now thinks Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is the functional equivalent of Kim Jong-Un. Even insanity has rarely run this far amok.

Where will you find Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz? Perhaps there is a photo somewhere in an office, but since the Puerto Rican crisis began, I have never seen her portrayed by the press, or anybody else, as being anything other than tirelessly out in the streets and flooded destroyed neighborhoods with her devastated constituents. Like a real leader would be. This photo is indicative:

Remember General Russell Honore, who brought some long past due seriousness and reality to Katrina in NOLA? He is in San Juan now. Here is what he had to say when questioned on Trump’s attack on the Mayor:

“The mayor’s living on a cot and I hope the President has a good day at golf.”

Can’t argue with that. Maybe Trump can secretly meet with the Puerto Rican bondholders he so cherishes that put their craven investments ahead of the lives of American citizens, while he is relaxing at his fucking golf resort this weekend. It is simply who he, and they, are. It should NOT be who we are though. This country is better than that.

I would also like to, again, point out that the much ballyhooed by Sarah Sanders and Trump Administration “Jones Act Waiver was a complete fraud and sham on the press, public and, most of all, people of Puerto Rico. There are effectively little more than SEVEN days left on Trump’s bogus waiver and gift to craven bondholders and rapacious shippers. Trump insured he got good press for a news cycle and completely stiffed Puerto Rico of any meaningful assistance via relief from the hideously oppressive Jones Act. Heckuva job Trumpie.

If you want a couple of fantastic pieces of reportage on Puerto Rico today, go see the Washington Post piece “Lost weekend: How Trump’s time at his golf club hurt the response to Maria” as well as the superb interactive overview from the New York Times, “One Day in the Life of Battered Puerto Rico”. You will be better for having seen both.

As to the games. Eh, Pirate Mike Leach and Washington State pulled off a serious upset of USC last night. Leach had his usual awesome take. As to the NFL, the focus seems to be more on the pre-game than the real games. I will note that Tom Brady’s first start was 16 years ago today. The Patriots have since won 5 Super Bowls, 14 AFC East titles and 185 of his 238 starts. Kid can play ball. Also, this weekend is the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit. Hamilton takes pole and Vettel starts at back of the grid due to a bad engine. That likely ends the Drivers’ Championship battle for yet another year.

That is it for today. Rock on, and put the thoughts of our fellow citizens of Puerto Rico in your hearts.


It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

Despite Bill Clinton’s famous catchphrase that he rode to two terms in the White House, and despite its echo in the 2016 campaign when Trump voters were described as acting out of “economic anxiety”, politics in the United States in my lifetime comes down, first and foremost, to racism. Yes, in Trump’s case and for most Republicans in office, there is a hefty dose of misogyny mixed in, but the animus against those who are not old, rich, white males unites their hatred.

Russia affected the 2016 contest. Clearly. But one of their primary tools was to stoke racial animus. Another huge impact on the actual outcome of the election was the outright suppression of minority votes by Republicans. It now appears that they may well have tipped the Wisconsin vote through suppression. And all those millions of votes for Trump, in the end, amount to nothing more than a huge endorsement of his outright racism. In the end, they came out on top with a little help from Republican policies expressly developed to prevent minorities from voting.

Trump is America’s racism unmasked and he would not be President if there weren’t a huge racist component to American culture today. The primary home for that racism is the Republican party.

The last few days have shown Trump revealing both his deep-seated racism and his cynical understanding that virtually his only support now is rooted in America’s racism. He tried his best to make his response to NFL protests be about the flag and patriotism. But that is most definitely NOT what Colin Kaepernick was protesting when he started this movement in August of 2016:

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has willingly immersed himself into controversy by refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem in protest of what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.

His latest refusal to stand for the anthem — he has done this in at least one other preseason game — came before the 49ers’ preseason loss to Green Bay at Levi’s Stadium on Friday night.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Making matters even worse, NFL teams and even billionaire NFL owners–the very parties responsible for Kaepernick still not being on a roster despite abysmal quarterback play on several teams–came out with what some folks saw as admirable statements and actions in response to Trump calling for owners to “fire the sons of bitches” who kneel during the national anthem. The best response to that development came from Shannon Sharpe. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch the entire statement, it is a thing of beauty and something that every American needs to hear:

So what are we to do?

First, those of us who carry the advantage of being old, white males who are at least comfortable if not rich must speak up every time there is an instance of racial injustice. Especially at the local level, when the police treat minorities without respect, make it known that this will not stand. Support larger groups that are working to promote racial justice.

But perhaps it is also worth taking look at our own lives. What aspects of our own lives help to perpetuate racial injustice? Even simple actions can accumulate. The next time you reconcile a credit card statement, take a look at your choices. Do you only eat at faceless chain restaurants? When was the last time you had a meal at a locally owned restaurant with a minority owner? Those are likely some of the best eating establishments in your town if you take the time to look around and try some new cuisines.

How about schools? Do you send your kids to private schools, most of which have been established to get around integration? Worse yet, do you send them to charter schools, which are set up expressly to take money away from public schools?

How about your place of worship? Is it integrated? Does it have any activities or programs aimed at racial justice?

One small action that I’ve decided to take is that I won’t watch another down of NFL football until Colin Kaepernick has been signed by a team.

Trump is the poster child for American racism, but we could all benefit from spending a little time thinking about our own roles both in how he came to be President and what we can do to make sure his sort never gets there again.

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Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/racism/page/3/