The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) has selected Jerold C. Frakes as co-winner of this year’s Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies for his book “Early Yiddish Epic” (2014) published by the Syracuse University Press. The…
Why Wakanda Matters Now, Q&As with Professors Kal Alston and Herb Ruffin
Based in the School of Education, Kal Alston is a professor of cultural foundations of education. Alston’s scholarly interests center on intersections of popular culture and media with American experiences of race, class and gender. She commented on the cultural phenomenon that the movie “Black Panther” has become.
01You had not seen many of the Marvel movies prior to "Black Panther." Talk about the excitement for the film and how you became wrapped up in it.
How could that cast not build anticipation? They embody Africa and the diaspora; they embody Black excellence. They exude charisma as individuals; once they began to do press events as a group, all bets were off. Danai Gurira as Oyoke on the big screen? Delicious. And the most delightful discovery? Letitia Wright as tech genius (and annoying little sister) Shuri. Everyone was cast perfectly; as I watched the many premieres and various Black Twitter and Instagram accounts, I was struck with the notion that we could have populated Wakanda with several alternative casts from just the talent that came out to support the film.
02You walked out impressed by various production elements of the film. Can you talk a little about that?
If Ruth E. Carter (costume design) and Hannah Beachler (production design) are not on the Oscar stage in 2019, there is no justice, because every piece of their research and commitment is up on the screen. This movie should also mark the end of any argument about how lighting Black actors (as previously analyzed in shows like “Queen Sugar” or “Insecure”) properly should be normal on every set. When variants of brown skin is the default, the cinematographer of course lights up those faces, torsos, and arms with specificity and proper vibrancy.
03Can you share your thoughts on the film’s narrative and the positioning of Blacks and Africans?
By recentering Africans as agentic and erasing the colonization/civilization narrative, Wakanda exposes the civilization/nature divide as a false dichotomy; a civilization that is grounded in nature, that depends on mutuality rather than exploitation, is its revolution. “Black Panther” creates a world of Blackness as naturally beautiful, creative, complex, knowing, feeling and making. Spears are multipurpose and drive action scenes. We see masks, marks, patterns and art reflecting Africa woven into every image. Wakanda is not perfect; humans are going to be human. There is disagreement, envy, disregard for consequences and the lust for power; there are mistakes, errors and secrets. Those secrets drive the plot of the movie; those secrets are grounded both in the political/governmental and in the family/personal.
04I'm wondering if you could you speak about the leading female characters in this film. They come across as equals who are powerful in their own right.
Almost every review of the film points to the centrality of the women in this film that has a man as the nominal character and a man as the chief antagonist. The film is not, however, only about the conflict between them, and ultimately the film rejects the simple construction of hero and villain. This film also rejects the old reliable gender divide (one that has been the source of much debate in Black popular culture). Sure, T’Challa and Nakia have a romantic history and a bit of byplay, but if every reference to that were removed, the movie would carry the same weight. If, however, the power of the Dora Milaje or the genius of Shuri or the skills of Nakia as a spy were deleted, the film would be completely out of balance. These women are normalized as equals in Wakanda and translate in not-Wakanda as just as powerful. They have humor and humanity, as well as beauty and brains. The vitality of the women, not only their presence, is integral to the enjoyment and success of the film.
05What are your final thoughts about "Black Panther"?
The importance of this movie is not that it has a predominantly Black cast, which is not new (simply new to the Marvel cinematic universe), but that director Ryan Coogler intentionally constructs a world that has a Pan-African perspective with a mix of historical and contemporary issues and the vision of Afrofuturism. The yearlong rollout placed a huge burden of expectation on the movie for many audiences, including the Marvel fans, Black nerds, culture critics and Black Twitter, among others (and any and all intersections therein). Coogler both addressed and rejected the burden of those expectations in his masterful execution of the film.
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