Did “Captain America: Civil War” Liberate the Black Super Hero?

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If it’s not Marvel’s best movie, Captain America: Civil War sits high on the very short list of their best.   This was the Avengers movie Avengers: Age of Ultron should have been.

It’s a four star flick and I will be going to see it again and I never go see movies a second time. Marvel’s Captain America series is the first where each film improves on the previous installment.

When Sharon Carter referenced a condensed version of Cap’s most Captain America  speech, I leaned over and punched my son in the shoulder giggling, “THEY DID THE SPEECH!!!!” My inner comic book geek was tickled, but there’s a considerable amount of fan-service Easter eggs throughout the movie.

The best decision the screenwriters and directors made was to take the framework of the Civil War comic book and strip it down to the basics and rebuild it into something comprehensible for the movie. This is kind of the same thing what happened to another Mark Millar project, Wanted. By the time it got to the screen with Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy it jettisoned all the vile bile of the Millar graphic novel and pretty much kept the name and little else.

Hey, where's OUR solo movie?

Hey, where’s OUR solo movie?

Millar loves being offensive and shocking for the sake of it and while Civil War was neither, it was poorly written and executed for the most part and sent Marvel Comics into a never ending series of “Big Events” that reset their universe.   Thank God they said, “Like the idea. Hate everything else.”   It spared us the sorry sight of a Thor clone brutally murdering a fourth-rate nobody called  Black Goliath.   “Who?” you ask?  Trust me when I say this: nobody cares.

In Civil War the comic book,  Black superheroes were scenery and stiffs.   In Civil War the movie, they play an essential part in the story and they’re more than just diversity hires.

I’m saying all this not to review the movie, because there’s more than enough of those all over the web and if you need another you won’t have to look hard to find one.   What I want to point out how much I appreciate how damn COOL it is to see a superhero movie with not one, not two, but THREE Black superheroes in it.

Don Cheadle’s War Machine is back and so is Anthony Mackie as The Falcon.  No insult intended (okay, a little insult), but War Machine and the Falcon are sidekicks Iron Man and Cap.   That’s just who they are, so if you’re Cheadle and Mackie don’t hold your breath hoping for a standalone movie because you’re strictly back-up, guys.  Go ask Hawkeye how that works.

The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is nobody’s back-up and he don’t do “sidekick.”  He’s the freakin’ KING of Wakanda, the most advanced nation on Earth.

I don’t DO the “sidekick” thing.

Now that might not mean a lot to some viewers, but I bet to a young Black kid geeking out on it, it means everything.

Even if it’s only in yet another super-hero flick, I’m hyped to see Lupita Nyong’o in a live-action film instead of voice work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book. Since blowing up the spot in 12 Years A Slave and winning a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress award, she’s only been in front of the camera once. Hollywood really has no clue what to do with a Black actress.

As for who Nyong’o plays in the Black Panther movie, I’d rule out Storm completely. Though the X-Men’s favorite wind-rider married Tchalla in the comic books, it’s unlikely she’d even show up in the movie as an a X-Man character she’s the exclusive property of 20th Century Fox and considering the cold war between Fox and Disney, I wouldn’t count on Storm flying over Wakanda anytime soon. It could happen, but it probably won’t.

Ryan Coogler is directing Black Panther and since he’s done two of my favorite movies of the past five years (Fruitvale Station, Creed), I am very interested in what he will do with a super-hero movie. I can only hope Marvel overlord Kevin Feige and the rest of the execs at the Mouse House aren’t too heavy-handed in throwing in too many shout-outs to future films in the pipeline. One good sign is this from Feige about the Black Panther’s diversity, “That will be amongst the best ensembles we’ve ever had. And 90% of the cast is either African or African-American.”

It’s not as though there haven’t been Black super heroes in movies before, but not since Blade 3 in 2004 has one been featured in their own movie.  Not even an Academy Award-winning Halle Berry could get a Storm franchise out of Development Hell and into pre-production.    Maybe the Falcon or War Machine could.  If  Ant-Man can get made, why not?  And Ant-Man sucks.

There’s a lot riding on the Panthers’ vibramium-padded shoulders.   Marvel has had it’s fair share of underwhelming films (Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and both Thor entries) but even Ant-Man made money.  If it hadn’t it wouldn’t have been a fatal wound to Marvel.   Paul Rudd would just be sent back to the bench until the next Avengers entry.    Let the Black Panther tank and we’ll wait another dozen years for Hollywood to try that again.

With Michael B. Jordan looking to reunite with Coogler and possibly playing the villain (Killmonger? The White Wolf?), I’ve got reasons to be even MORE hyped. To get me outta the house, you need to show me something special and more than blowing shit up real good CGI style.  A predominantly Black cast in a film with Coogler, Nyong’o and Jordan?   Hey, that’s all you had to say, Negro!  The Black Panther is shaping up to be that something special.

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“I understand you’re looking for a sidekick much cooler than Bucky or the Falcon, Cap, but it’s not my thing. “

 

Blacked Out in White Hollywood

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There can only be one Black movie at a time and its not your time.

2013 was trumpeted as “the year of the Black film” but nobody told the Academy Awards that.  12 Years A Slave received nine nominations including Best Picture, Director and Actor, but The Butler, Mandela, 42 and most glaringly, Fruitvale Station, were overlooked.   This is not a surprise, but it is a disgrace.

In horror flicks, it is an accepted cliche where if there’s two Black characters one of them is guaranteed to bite it before the end. This apparently holds true for Academy Awards  and explains the snub of Fruitvale Station. Just how many Black movies do you expect these good little liberals are supposed to honor anyway?  You got your one in 12 Years so shut up and be happy.

I don’t really sweat the Academy Awards.  When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won in 2001 that was the last time I watched more than a minute of  this three-hour self-congratulatory circle jerk.   Let’s be blunt:  The Academy Awards are a reflection of they White men who make up the majority of members and they can and will choose whomever they like.   They play by their own rules for their own game.

It is a given Frutivale Station deserves to be considered for Best Picture of the Year. Why not? There were nine films nominated this year and in the past there have been as many as ten.  But if they didn’t want to add one, I’d drop the crusty old folks flicks  Philomena or Nebraska.  No, I didn’t see them but then most audiences didn’t see Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave, so we’re even.   I absolutely would have given Michael B. Jordan a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of Oscar Grant and the last night of his life.

I try not to let the Academy Awards get in my head. I already know Frutivale Station is one of the best movies of the year and Michael B. Jordan gave a sterling performance. I don’t need the imprimatur of the overwhelming old, White and affluent Academy voters to confirm for me what I already know.  The omission of the 2013 best picture winner of the Sundance Film Festival merely confirms my belief that hoping the Oscars will validate your own good taste is a pointless waste of time.

There is a straight line that can be drawn from Solomon Northrup to Oscar Grant. Both were Black men doomed to cruel fates for no crime other than the color of their skin. But I’m not surprised the Academy can only focus on one and not the other. According to a Los Angeles Times story, the profile of the average Academy voter is White, male and over 62 years old.

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The cast and director of Fruitvale Station won’t have to walk the red carpet on Oscar night.

This is not the target demographic for a Fruitvale Station, but it provides a clue as to why Jonah Hill and Bad Grandpa are Oscar nominees and a film about a young Black man shot in the back by a White transit cop isn’t even a blip on their radar.

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Frank Pierson, a former academy president still  on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

Pierson’s blase “let them watch The People Choice Awards” attitude is countered by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington radical suggestion to open up the academy to people of color in representative numbers.  “If the country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black,” Washington said. “If the nation is 15% Hispanic, make the academy 15% Hispanic. Why not?”

The stories behind Fruitvale and 12 Years are human stories of people suffering horrible acts of racism and injustice.   That is a stinging reminder that as much progress that has been made since the lynchings, whippings, and tortures endured by millions of Black men, women and children just like Solomon Northrup we haven’t progressed enough that a Black man minding his own business can’t find his world turned upside down on the whim of an overseer or an officer.   None of this bodes well for 12 Years winning Best Picture over Gravity or American Hustle.

There’s a place for serious movies that prompt serious thinking.   But don’t go looking for it this year on Oscar night.  I don’t think you’ll find it there.

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The Next Stop Is “Fruitvale Station.”

The truth doesn't just hurt. It kills.

The truth doesn’t just hurt. It kills.

There are two groups who need to see Fruitvale Station.  The first are young Black men.   The second are the mothers and fathers of young Black men.   Then everybody else.

This has been a summer full of superheroes, special effects and stuff blowing up and that’s okay.  This is what we expect a summer movie to be.   Nothing too heavy, nothing that asks much of the viewer.   It’s like eating a bowl of ice cream.  Refreshing, tastes good and 30 minutes later you’ve forgotten all about.   I’ve seen my share of movies this summer.  Some good and some okay, but nothing memorable.   I saw The Wolverine on a Sunday and Fruitvale Station on a Monday and only one left an impression and it wasn’t the one with Hugh Jackman’s ripped torso.

I have nothing against non-think entertainment, but a steady diet of it is as bad as eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner and overindulging in non-think entertainment makes it hard to kick-start your brain when you need to.   It seems an odd decision to release a movie this thought-provoking at this time of the year, but coming after the Zimmerman acquittal,  Fruitvale Station is as timely as it is tough to watch.

I didn’t want to watch what happened to Oscar Grant on the last day of his life.  It hurt too much, but it would hurt even more not to watch.   Like United 93, there is a “it’s too soon” quality to the film, but even more than reluctance was the need to bear witness.   Grant was not a choirboy or a saint.   He had his brushes with the law, he had a temper and he made some bad choices that hurt both himself and his family and director Ryan Coogler doesn’t hide Oscar’s warts from us.   But it’s not saints or choirboys meeting untimely ends at the hands of vigilantes, street criminals and trigger-happy cops.   It’s just ordinary brothers like Grant who get caught up in events beyond their control.

Fruitvale Station won’t stir the sort of controversy of a Django Unchained, even though it is a clearly superior film.  Unlike that fantasy where the Black man triumphs over the White bigots,  in this case, the hero loses.  There is no triumph, no revenge, no riding off to further adventures with his lady-love after vanquishing evil, because what happened to Grant on the last day of his life was all tragedy with no triumph.

Yet even though we know going in what Oscar’s fate is we care about him because he is trying.   He is trying to make the right choices after too many wrong ones.   We want him to live to love his woman and his child and because we know he won’t, the unfairness of it all hit us like a slap in the face.

A doomed love affair.

A doomed love affair.

My wife and I cried when the movie was over and she cried the next day when our son and daughter left to go to work.   It hit her that hard and touched her that deeply.  The Fear that our son or our daughter could be a Oscar or a Trayvon and walk out the door never to be seen alive again.   How do you shrug that off and go back to reality TV and celebrity worship?  You can’t.

For us to understand why Grant’s death matters he has to be humanized for the audience to see him as something more than just another casualty on the urban background.   Michael B. Jordan plays the doomed Grant as a young man trying hard to make good choices and stop making bad ones and finding it hard to do.    It’s a stand-out performance as is Melonie Diaz as Sophina, Oscar’s exhausted girlfriend,  Ariana Neal as their daughter and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer playing Grant’s mother, Wanda who shows her son what “tough love” means.   Spencer also claims a producer credit along with fellow Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and major props to both of them as well as everyone else who backed this project.

Too often the complaint is, “We need to support good Black movies.”   Well, here’s a great Black movie.   Black director, Black stars in a story about a Black man, so where y’all at?  Why aren’t there more fannies in the seat?   Why  is Fruitvale Station mired in 13th place with a paltry take of $11 million dollars behind even R.I.P.D., one of the biggest bombs of the year?   I  knew this wasn’t going to be a Number One movie in America, but damn, I hoped it would be doing better than this.

I know summer is a time for mindless entertainment, but seriously, folks.   For heaven’s sake, if Black people don’t support this movie, who the hell is going to?

It might be premature to proclaim Fruitvale Station as the Best Movie of the Year, but I’d walk away from any conversation of what are the best movies of the year that doesn’t include it.

You need to see this movie if you’re Black.   You need to see this movie if you’re a human being.  You need to see this movie if you give a damn.

They should be smiling. They did it right.