Monthly Archives: February 2018

Reframing a Narrative

So it’s been some time (a week-ish) since Black Panther came out and the mental nerding out has sufficiently subsided that I can have some actual Rational Thoughts about the movie beyond “wow it’s so cool and Okoye is everything.” And, go figure, it’s coming down to a lotta thoughts about representation.

And how representation is happening.

But first, a detour to Star Wars. My favorite movie series seems to have enacted a moratorium on white guys as new protagonists. Which is dope, and means that we now have folks like Daisy Ridley and Diego Luna being main characters in Star Wars. And John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Donny Yen, Riz Amed, and, look, I could go on. But you get the point.

Now, Star Wars is fundamentally a fantasy (a space fantasy) that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and so its world is decidedly removed from reality, albeit one inspired by a mishmash of Western and Japanese myths with a healthy helping of 1970s haircuts. You’ve got samurai-monk Jedi Knights running around alongside fighter pilots fresh outta World War II. Part of the fun of seeing women and people of color get the spotlight in Star Wars is seeing them in these archetypes; a woman gets to be the Jedi Knight and a Latino’s the hotshot pilot! Star Wars is the story of the everyman, and opening the series up to diversity means that we get to change the image of said everyman. Also, it means there’s room for folk who look like me in the world, and that’s really cool.

Black Panther is also a fantasy, but it’s one set on Earth (this Earth). Wakanda may be a fictional nation, but its culture is one that draws on real-life African countries. Which makes sense: if you’re gonna have a high-tech futuristic nation set in Africa, you darn well oughta get inspiration from real-life African countries.

And the movie is so much better for it.

By thrusting African aesthetics into the forefront, Black Panther is making a statement about what’s cool. Ndebele Neck Rings aren’t just something you’ll see inside the pages of National Geographic, within the context of the film they’re a fashion accessory that’s part of the Dora Milaje’s uniform. Basotho Blankets look great in general, but in the movie they’re warrior gear that can generate a forcefield. These bits of tradition can be infused with a helping of sci-fi, these looks can be cool and not just as seen on the Discovery Channel.

Narratives are important; they inform how we see the world and help us process things. For centuries now, the narrative surrounding Africa has been one of a poor and primitive continent, one on the receiving end of a “white man’s burden” whether through colonial subjugation or questioning if they know it’s Christmas. It’s a woefully outdated, untrue narrative (and a harmful one that I feel dirty just typing out), but it’s hard to undo a story so firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness.

Black Panther doesn’t just show black characters as kickass heroes, it presents a sci-fi image of an Africa untouched by colonialism that’s flourishing, replete with its tribal trappings. Zulu headdresses and Mursi Lip Plates  aren’t seen as primitive or savage, they’re regal, majestic, and epic.

I’ve written about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk before, where she stresses the importance of different narratives, about how stories in fiction can be validating. When the only stories we get about Africa (be they through fiction, news, or leaked presidential minutes) focus on it as a war-torn and underdeveloped continent, we start to form certain assumptions about the people who live there and their culture. Black Panther tells us, no matter how subliminally, that these people are as sophisticated as folks anywhere else, that their traditional clothes are rich beyond serving as something for you to gawk at.

Look, one story alone can’t wholly change a centuries-old narrative. But the representation in Black Panther is certainly a step in the right direction. I want to see more colorful science fiction (and stories in general), ones that don’t just pay lip service to non-western cultures but dig into them for both inspiration and representation. I hope there’s more. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Wakanda Forever

So. Black Panther.

Right now, I want nothing more than to geek the crap out about this movie. It’s, wow. Ryan Coogler’s quickly become one of my favorite directors (courtesy of Creed and Fruitvale Station), and this movie is the icing on the cake.

There’s so much to love about it. The plot moves along at a clip pace, so much so that I found myself wanting more when it ended. Its supporting cast is as interesting as its leads, with everyone getting their due and characters like Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri stealing the show (and seriously, Okoye is the coolest). The conflict between T’challa and Killmonger is surprisingly nuanced, one where there is no real easy answer. Does a super advanced African nation have an obligation to other Africans, both those within the continent and part of the diaspora? Or should Wakanda remain isolationist, able to remain free of colonialist influence?

And these are all well and good facets of the movie (Okoye is so stinking cool), but there is, of course, the obvious one: Black Panther is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature not only a black protagonist, but a predominately black cast as well. On top of that, these characters are from Wakanda, a fictional, utopian country in Africa. They’re cool and they’re badass; they get to do the superhero schtick.

That’s a big part of what makes the movie so interesting (on top of that it’s an excellently crafted film): its representation. This is a movie where a bunch of people who don’t usually get to be these sorts of heroes gets to be these sorts of heroes. Not only that, but Wakanda is a science-fiction style setting that doesn’t draw on Western influences, but rather celebrates Africa. Wakanda is Afrofuturism put up on the big screen, and believe you me, it’s refreshing. Characters wear traditional African outfits that, guess what, generate force fields and also look really cool.

That Black Panther is succeeding is excellent news for genre fiction. It proves that blockbuster science fiction and action don’t have to be about white people with decidedly western influences. If we can get this Afrofuturistic fantasy, maybe now an East Asian inspired science fiction story is viable, and one outside of anime at that. Or an anime that’s been adapted and now stars a white actor in the lead. Now there’s room for a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world where Spanish conquistadors don’t even enter into the equation.

For better or worse, media (that is, movies, television, books, games, etc) is predominately dominated by the West (and, in particular, the US). As such, most of the stories that Big Movies and blockbusters draw on are Americentric; we’re used to stories with characters who look like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers ‘cuz those are the stories that get told. Black Panther is a shift, it’s a movie that says “Hey, you don’t have to look like Ryan Gosling to be the superhero.” You can look like Chadwick Boseman.

So does this mean there’s gonna be a scifi epic coming out soon starting a Chinese dude in a Changshan kicking ass but not in an orientalized kung fu way? God, I hope so. It’s hard for me to find words to describe exactly what it was like watching Black Panther, getting to see this dope futuristic world that celebrated a culture that wasn’t, well, white. It was different, it was cool; in Wakanda it showed a country that’s as much an ideal as it is a fantasy.

And throughout it all, I couldn’t help but to ask when was my turn. When am I gonna get to see people who look like me in a big blockbuster, when am I gonna get to see the culture I’ve spent so much of my life a part of celebrated in a science fiction film featuring the people who actually live it? Sure, I’m only half-Asian, but that’s a half that doesn’t usually get seen.

In the meantime, Black Panther’s freaking awesome, go watch it, and celebrate what it does.

There’s gotta be more to come. 

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Space Car

There is a car in space right now.

Like an actual road-safe, driven on earth on an actual road, not-originally-intended-for-space car in space. And it was playing David Bowie until it ran out of juice.

So, a while ago, Tesla/SpaceX/Boring Company founder/potential supervillain Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon Heavy’s test payload would be his own Tesla Roadster. The Falcon Heavy is the latest rocket to come out of Musk’s SpaceX. Which sounds pretty cool but it’s important to know what the Falcons are: reusable rockets.

See, when you launch a rocket in space, it’s kinda a one-off thing. The Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions were just junk afterwards. The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because the booster rockets could be recovered and refurbished (along with the orbiter as well). The Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9 it’s built on, can also be reused. Not just that, but the rocket literally lands itself. As in, after launching its payload, the first stage detaches, turns around, comes home, and lands.

It’s really cool, both as a technological marvel in itself and also for what it portends to making spaceflight more affordable. Which is really cool because if we’re going to start mining asteroids and send people to Mars, we’re gonna need to make it cheaper to get out there.

And there’s also a car in space.

Tuesday was the Falcon Heavy’s first launch and its payload was, as promised, Elon Musk’s red Tesla. Given that it was the rocket’s first flight, and first flights tend to result in things exploding, it made some sense that it wasn’t anything too valuable (although there’s an argument that given the prohibitive nature of space travel, any risk is one worth taking). But a convertible instead of a mock satellite?

It’s a pretty remarkable image. Leaving Earth’s orbit is a red car, top down, with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, “DON’T PANIC” written on the dash, a towel and a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy in the glovebox, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars” playing on the radio. It was sent beyond Earth’s orbit into an elliptical around the sun, its aphelion nearly reaching the Asteroid Belt.

There’s a car in space.

And its picture’s been all over the internet, all over newspapers. This picture of a spaceman in a car, Earth in the distance behind. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of people are talking about it, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve been ranting on about spaceships and space cars on a blog that’s usually about stories.

Because, by launching a sports car into space, Elon Musk created a pretty neat narrative for the Falcon Heavy’s launch. It’s not unusual for a dummy payload to be a bunch of concrete bricks, something heavy and unimportant. But because the payload here’s a car (and the company CEO’s personal car at that), it becomes that much more interesting. There’s an endlessly shareable image that captures the imagination in ways the picture of rockets touching down can’t quite.

People are talking about the Falcon Heavy’s launch far more than the Falcon 9’s maiden launch or when the Falcon 9’s booster landed for the first time. It’s even gotten way more buzz than when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad (All this is based on a cursory Google Trend comparison for the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, with SpaceX used for reference). There’s buzz, people are talking about space travel. And all the little touches and the Hitchhiker’s reference gives it all a sense of romance and whimsey we don’t usually get in the usually very rigorous and economic space travel. It’s cool, and it’s a little silly.

Call it an attention grab, but I figure that’s just what’s needed. Musk and SpaceX have the world’s attention as they forge on ahead in an attempt to revolutionize space travel. An aware an excited public puts space exploration back into vogue, which could lead to NASA having a bigger budget and, in turn, more contracts for SpaceX, and so bigger rockets and crewed missions to Mars.

And in the meantime, Elon Musk launched his car into space. And I think that’s wonderful.

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Rey and Luke

I liked a lot of things about the The Force Awakens, but easily my favorite addition was Rey, who is undeniably the best. Sure, she’s basically Luke Skywalker in the original, except she’s someone who’s grown up with those same stories and now gets to live them out. It’s cool, and she gets a lightsaber and that’s awesome.

But The Last Jedi doesn’t give Rey some grand adventure. Rey doesn’t actually do a whole lot over the course of the film. While Poe’s facing down the First Order fleet she’s… talking to Luke Skywalker. While Finn and Rose are searching Canto Bight she’s… still talking to Luke Skywalker. Then she has the Throne Room (which is an epic highlight to be sure) and her run against the TIE Fighters in the Falcon, but past that she just lifts a bunch of rocks (and saves the Resistance, sure). My point is, Rey spends most of the movie sitting on an island talking to Luke and, sometimes, Kylo Ren. Which really seems like she’s just spinning her wheels for a solid chunk of time. Why doesn’t she get to do more? Why do you take your best character and leave her idling on the wayside?

Because she’s not idle, not quite. Her arc in the film is her wrestling with the legend of Luke Skywalker: both in arguing with the man himself, but also her own desire to enact the same narrative. Let’s lay out the parallels: both Luke and Rey are from nowhere desert planets. Both wanted something more than their expected life, and both were whisked off on a grand journey to defeat a galaxy-threatening evil. Along they way they also discovered that, hey, they’re strong in the Force! Come the sequels, Luke goes to a distant planet to learn to be a Jedi and redeems Darth Vader. So now Rey, who knows the story of Luke, finds herself on a distant planet with a Jedi Master; the next steps are clearly to become a Jedi herself and redeem Kylo Ren, the heir to Vader’s legacy.

But as Luke says, this isn’t going to do the way she thinks. He is not training Jedi, and his lessons is in the Force are all to dissuade her from trying to take up the old mantle, to continue the old legacy she so desperately wants and Luke resents. Essentially, Rey wants the Jedi Order of the Republic to come back, and Luke wants it to end. Rey and Luke’s conflict boils down to whether or not to put another quarter into the arcade cabinet blinking “Game Over.”

Meanwhile, a Force connection emerges between Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo offers another foil for Rey, someone with whom she can butt heads about who’s right, and who’s wrong. But as their relationship develops and they see their similarities, Rey also finds another narrative she can enact: the redemption of a Sith. If Luke could turn Vader, could she not turn Kylo too?

Rey leaves Ahch-To and Luke’s training for two reasons. With Luke unwilling to give her the Jedi training she really wants (and swoop in to save the Resistance), she figures Jedi Masters are bunk and she’ll save the Resistance herself. But this is also her chance to save Kylo and bring him back to the light. Screw Luke Skywalker, she’s gonna do the Luke Skywalker schtick without him and redeem Kylo, save the Resistance, and continue the Jedi Order.

Remember what I said about things going the way you think? Kylo can’t be turned, and Rey’s Ultimate Catharsis is undercut. She failed. She didn’t get to save the Dark Lord and turn the tide of the battle. And she doesn’t get to be Luke Skywalker. When Kylo turns Rey down, she not only has to contend with the loss of a would-be friend, but she also finds herself shaken to the core: she’s nobody, and she’s certainly not gonna be Luke Skywalker.

Rey does end up rescuing what’s left of the Resistance, but they lose the fight, Luke is gone, and her lightsaber is split. Things have really gone sideways. But this is The Last Jedi, a movie that wonders what to do with the past. Rey has seen the legacy she had hoped to inherit come crumbling down.

And maybe it should have, maybe Luke was right and the time of the Jedi Order of old is at an end. Maybe it’s time for Rey to stop trying to be Luke and figure out what Rey’s story is.

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