“Black Panther” Nominated for Best Picture!

This is an amazing accomplishment, and before you ask, yes, it is an honor just to be nominated. I don’t expect a Best Picture Oscar (at the least, however, I’d expect Best Costume) but I’ve definitely seen “Best Picture” winners I respected less.

It isn’t possible to evaluate art totally objectively. You just…can’t. Value isn’t length or depth or weight or height. It is impact: on myself, and on each individual filmgoer. Your life experience influences the way you interpret the images.

I KNOW I cannot be objective, because the images onscreen were, in the main…singular. While any individual image can be related to things we’ve seen before, in the aggregate, it was unique, and I totally understand the people who don’t understand this.

But I can relate it to a couple of moments from other movies.

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“Independence Day” is a silly piece of nonsense, announcing its tongue-in-cheek approach to worldwide disaster the moment they play “It’s the End of the World As We Know it” at the beginning. I knew then that this was going to be a romp, filled with familiar tropes hopefully assembled in a cool pattern. But what I didn’t expect was the IMPACT on me. One scene did that: when Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) who has been turned down for the astronaut program pilots an alien space ship in an attack on the mother craft. As he breaks through the atmosphere he says: “I’ve waited my whole life for this.”

And…there were tears streaming down my face, and when I felt them I realized that I’d been waiting my whole life as well. That I’d loved science fiction since childhood, and had watched countless hours of such heroism, with not a single moment of it depicting someone who looked like me. This was not an accident: I knew that. It wasn’t “Hollywood” because the same thing was true with New York publishing. It was…something deeply disturbing, something I had suppressed because if I didn’t the fear and anger would poison my life. But if you don’t let it out, it poisons YOU. So I’d tried to use that emotion to power my writing and martial arts practic, knowing that if I let TOO much of it out, I’d slam right into the aversive patterns that had created the exclusion in the first place. I sat on my pain, did my best…but when that moment hit, I cried like a baby.

Something happened at that moment, a re-connection to something that had been missing, an Essential Vitamin on the social or psychological level, something that should have been a part of my mental diet every day from childhood, that I’d struggled to work around. But it was just a little like a kid growing up without enough calcium, or vitamin C. Their bones will never be quite as strong, no matter how much work they do later.

Yeah, I’d waited my whole life, too.

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A few years ago we got “Wonder Woman.” And it was a fine superhero film, with a winning star, structured and executed VERY well, and I sat in the audience grinning. And then…

The “No Man’s Land” sequence.

When Diana leads the troops across that battlefield, it was a reclamation of tens of thousands of years of social dimorphism designed to maximize reproduction…yeah, right. THAT is what went through the minds of women across the country and around the world when they sat there feeling a disowned part of themselves stirring to life. “I didn’t know I needed to see that,” they said. And I knew in my heart that would be their reaction. I sat there so happy for my sisters, knowing that this piece of popular art had done something unique and powerful

And the fact that there were men who insisted there was “nothing special” about WW? Well…(and I never saw a woman say that, btw) they were oblivious. They weren’t moved because they didn’t identify. That’s fine.

But my sisters? They understand. And while no, I don’t think the impact of the deprevation was as deep (it doesn’t affect survival in the same way: look at life spans) the reclamation of strength and softness is critical for our social evolution. Power for women means freedom for men. The ILLUSION is that female power diminishes male options. This…was an important cultural moment.

Yeah, I’d waited for that, too. Really, the human race has, for at least ten thousand years.

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In “Captain America: Civil War” that moment was when T’Challa is talking to his father, T’Chaka. The love and respect between these two men burned off the screen. I had never, ever seen anything quite like that. Another moment was the immortal “Move. Or you will be moved.” I heard black women in the audience who had had ZERO interest in “comic book” movies scream with joy. THEIR power, THEIR beauty channeled through Florence Kasumba facing down the deadly Black Widow. Wow.

And then…watching the power of Black Panther. Did you notice that even without his full Panther suit, he made Winter Soldier run? When WS tore through everyone else, INCLUDING CAP WITHOUT HIS SHIELD? Did you catch that implication?

Did you catch that T’Challa, less than a week after holding his dying father in his arms, had more emotional control than did Tony Stark after thirty years and a half-billion dollars of therapy? Holy CRAP they carefully laid in the foundation of an extraordinary hero. And when, at the end, Wakanda gives shelter to Cap and Bucky, and Cap tells him the world may come to confront them, and T’Challa says: “let them try” and they pan to a statue of the Panther God…

Holy crap. Where had THIS image been all my life?

I mean, I thrilled to every version of Superman they put in front of me: the Max Fleischer cartoons, the Kirk Alyn serial, George Reeves television show, morning cartoons, the Christopher Reeve movies, and on and on. LOVED them. Could hum the individual themes each of them.

But if you think I didn’t notice that Krypton was totally white you are NUTS. I had to sit with that. Deal with that. That was what the comic book companies, the televisions studios, the movie studios AND THE AUDIENCE wanted. I was surrounded by it. There were people responsible for laws, education, finances, and communication, and in their inner private world: I didn’t matter.

But as I once said, “I sacrificed my melanin on the altar of my testosterone.” But I loved the images anyway. I NEEDED images of power and authority, and got them any way I could, like a starving child digging scraps of meat out of the gutter. Scraping off the grit and dirt, and eating them for the protein. Determined to survive. I will survive, dammit. I’m here. Despite being surrounded by people who excluded me and pretended it didn’t matter…I would survive.

Were women as excluded? Well…no. Pushed more to the background, yes. But they were on Krypton, and there was Supergirl and Superwoman, and of course the love interests with the “L.L.” initials.

But that wasn’t the same as No Man’s Land, now was it?

And then…Wakanda. T’Challa. Dear God, a black hero unlike ANY that had come before. With his own name, not the name of some European who had owned and abused his great-grandmother. A man who had his gods, culture, language, history, who had never been conquered. And if you don’t grasp the implications of that, you simply cannot understand how incredibly exciting that was.

In some critical ways, for the very first time, WE WERE HERE. And yes, it was 1% of the emotional protein white kids had gotten every day of their lives, 24/7…but for a starving cultural orphan…it was a feast unknown.

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And then came 2018, and the BLACK PANTHER movie itself. And here is what I want you to understand: in a very real way, it was a movie composed of NOTHING but “I’ve waited my whole life for this” moments. Of “I never knew I needed to see this” moments. One after another after another. Not 60 seconds of that movie passed without an image I’d been denied my entire life, having to create clumsy work-arounds rather than simply having them as the foundation of my existence. ALL cultures create images of power and beauty and authority and genius and sensuality to nurture their children. And when they exclude you? YOU KNOW THEY DO NOT CONSIDER YOU THEIR CHILDREN. You are…something else. An annoyance. A threat.

Then they pretend to believe there is no difference, that the playing field is level. Either ignorance, or venom on a stupendous level. The saying “born on third base and thought they hit a triple” doesn’t BEGIN to cover it.

For the first time in my life, in a central way, in a crouching-under-my-sheets -reading-comic books ten-year-old self way…I wasn’t an orphan. I wasn’t a stranger. I was a part of the tapestry, the pageantry of human mythology.

And I looked over at my son Jason, who has enjoyed heroes in movies even if they didn’t like him, but asked me when he was nine: “why do they kill the black guy so often..?

I saw the light go on in his eyes. I knew he was seeing himself winning the day. Getting the girl. Mastering the skill. Thrashing the villain.

You can say all you want about these four-color dreams being trivial. You can afford to, if you have a million to one advantage.

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No. I cannot judge this film objectively. I CAN’T. But it is heartening to know that so many who didn’t have the aching void within them also loved it. And that so many DID understand why I love it so much, despite its flaws. Oh, all movies have flaws, and BP is no exception.

But it is also…singular.

And now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has acknowledged its quality. And yes, offered its second-highest honor: nomination to Best Picture status.

And no, I will REFUSE to be disheartened if it doesn’t win. The first “Star Wars” didn’t best picture” and there were a zillion fans who thought it should have. I wasn’t one of them, but I understood where they were coming from. “We’ve waited all our lives to see this!” they screamed. They stood in line for days in the rain. They coplayed and created conventions and endless fanzines and had a billion spin-offs to slake the appetite for this film that gave them something they’d waited all their lives for.

I understood. I loved it. I was happy for the audience…even as I knew that there was no one on the screen who looked like me. I numbed that hunger, and celebrated.

As I celebrate now. Take this moment as another little bit of evidence that the world my son inherits is not the one I was born into. And that, in this particular sense, that change is wonderful.

Not just that the movie exists, but that it is terrific. Not just that it is terrific…but that the same world that totally excluded me from Krypton has now embraced Wakanda.

I love this moment in time. I’ve waited my whole life for it.

Namaste

Steve

www.sunkenplaceclass.com

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.realwarriorsjourney.com