R E C O M M E N D A T I O N – P O P C U L T U R E
In between the vaccine paranoia and post-inauguration euphoria, February creeps in slowly, and with it comes Black History Month. Starting from February first, it is a month-long observance of Black history and Black achievement. Whether it is to highlight the significance of Kamala Harris as the first female Black Vice President of the United States in global politics or to understand the Black experience in media, this month is all about celebrating the multifaceted ways the Black community contributes to the world.
The celebration is even more resolute in its spirit this year. Considering the events of last year when the murder of George Floyd tipped into still rampant systemic racism in the United States and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that took the world by storm, Black History Month remains ever so relevant and ever so necessary.
In the spirit of the month, then, let’s look into the media that holds the essence of this month. From the adventures of a friendly neighbourhood superhero to the incarceration of the Central Park Five, these movies and shows portray a range of Black storytelling that is not just confined to trauma and misery.
I May Destroy You (2020- )
I May Destroy You tells the story of an author named Arabella (Played by Michaela Coel) who tries to piece together her memories from the night she was sexually assaulted. That is just a one-line description of the twelve episodes, which include much more than the plot appears to be at first glance. It is about Arabella, in her pink frayed hair and colourful wardrobe, trying to make a deadline for her book that originated from her Twitter account. It is about her friends, Terry, who moonlights as an actress and Kwame, the established Grindr user. It’s about these people navigating life in the unforgiving London as 30 something-year-olds in a reminiscent of Sex and the City, but unapologetically Black.
Sexual assault is not swept under the rug by any means. Michaela Coel, who wrote, directed, and starred in the drama based this on her own sexual assault. Even though the heavy reminder of the assault did not occupy every scene, it still loomed over as the gang tried to figure the rules and regulations of the current sexual landscape. It is a humane, sincere, and often a satirical look into the aftermath of an assault. As it is seen by a publisher who upon hearing about Arabella’s decision to include her assault into her book, exclaims, “Rape? Fantastic!”
Soul, the beautifully wrapped Christmas present from the Pixer & Disney duo, arrived almost at the end of the despair filled 2020. It is the animation studio’s most ambitious story to date, a gentle inquiry into the purpose of life itself or how one must go on about living it.
Directed by Pete Doctor, who took on the universal themes of Soul and explored them through the experiences of Joe Gardner. Joe (Voiced by Jamie Foxx) is an African American middle school music teacher with the earnest ambition to be a Jazz musician. The significance of Soul is not rooted in the acknowledgement that it happens to be the first Pixar film with an African American lead, but in the simplistic portrayal of Black culture.
Careful attention was made to ensure that Joe, and in addition, his entire orbit of people were portrayed as real and as authentic as possible. From New York City’s portrayal as the cultural hub to the inclusion of historically Black spaces such as the Barbershop, or the tailor shop run by Joe’s mother, Soul is an impassioned love letter to the Black experience. Even aesthetically, Soul shines from the stunning visuals that spare no effort to capture the variety of different black skin tones and hair textures. Soul to date represents the best of Pixar, beauty, humour with a side of existential crisis.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is as much a buddy comedy as a perpetual history lesson. Lee and Kevin Willmott with their dramatic artistry take the experiences of the Black soldiers in the Vietnam war from obscurity and brings them to the national forefront. Da 5 Bloods in the first look barely feels anything more than the stories of four estranged veterans of the Vietnam war and their quest to find their former commanding officer’s body and the gold they buried with it.
It, however, soon catapults into intellectual storytelling about the lesser-known parts of the war history in the eyes of the four characters who are in one moment taking part in rambunctious laughter only to be heaving from soulful emotional catharsis the next. The movie which starts with the voiceovers from Muhammed Ali and ends with Martin Luther King, both staunch opposers of the war, is not afraid to get into the specifics of the gruelling trauma of the war and how it manifests in the era of Trump.
The movie is also significant as it marks the late actor Chadwick Boseman’s penultimate film before his tragic death in 2020. In the movie, Boseman’s character, Norman is the heart of the rest of the Bloods’ journey. “He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” one character describes Norman. The description strangely befits the life of Boseman himself when looking into his outstanding contributions to the Black portrayal in cinema. Boseman really is nothing short of this generation’s Malcolm & Martin.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
When the exuberance of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man died down and Sony decided to reboot the entire franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man, Donald Glover in his pre-Childish Gambino fame expressed the desire to helm the new franchise. Conversations arose then, ‘Why does Spider-Man have to be of White descent?” After all, anyone can wear a mask.
The answer came with two words: Miles Morales. Miles Morales, who takes on the helm of Spider-man after Peter Parker’s untimely death in the comics, is the worthy contender to carry on the Spider-man legacy. He is also biracial. Miles (played by Shameik Moore), who had his origin story portrayed in the 2018 film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse signified the way racial identity can and should be represented in a superhero movie.
Miles Morales does not live in the fictional Wakanda, he lives in the heart of Brooklyn with a police officer dad that embarrasses him, and a nurse mom who shows affection to him with a litany of Spanish-English blend of words. He listens to hip hop music and is a wannabe Graffiti artist. Miles being a biracial teenager does not take away from the main storyline of the movie. There is no statement to be made, no struggle to be portrayed. Miles Morales is allowed to just be. That’s where the brilliance of the Spider-Verse lies.
Genre: Action Fiction
Based on the original graphic novels by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the Watchmen is set in an alternative universe America where Vietnam is the 51st state and police officers wear masks on their face to avoid being racially profiled and attacked. Somehow, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen world is even more racially conscious than our world. Especially in the way, White supremacy is as big of a visceral threat as any, instead of an intellectual one.
The ingenuity of Watchmen does not lie in their allusion to racism, however. It is the show that makes use of Black history, contemporary politics, generational identity to move the story forward. In the show world, the often forgotten chapter Tulsa Race Massacre is a major storyline. The 1920 Tulsa Race Massacre happened when masses of angry White moved into Tulsa, Oklahoma, and destroyed the land and homes of the Black residents. Watchmen with its one-of-a-kind storytelling manages to elevate the story materials left by Moore and Gibbons to lace in the events that happened in real-time to people who had real stakes.
With the aid of fantastic storytelling, the show about fictional superheroes becomes a story at the centre of which is a Black family shaping and sharing history.
Dear White People (2017- )
Based on Justin Simien’s 2014 critically acclaimed film of the same name, Dear White People is Netflix’s look into racial dynamics of the students of a fictional Ivy League university. The show is set in Winchester University, whose characteristics and apparent privilege follow Ivy League universities to a T. Even though most major characters of the show are studying in prestigious universities, that hardly means they are free from the microaggressions and inherent racism that can only be expected in a predominantly white university.
It is a look into how activism in college spaces can be, from its alluring chase after the smallest controversies to quitting the pretence when things get hard. In the era where being ‘woke’ is a personality trait, and performative activism is the thing of the norm, Dear White People remains an imploring plea to understand these complex dynamics in the haven of higher learning.
When They See Us (2019)
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us tells the story of Central Park Five, who were incarcerated for the murder of a jogger. This show speaks about the horrors Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Antron McCray faced when they were wrongfully and criminally charged with the sexual assault and the death of Trisha Meili.
The five boys, four of whom are Black and one Brown, were grilled, threatened, and coerced by the police and forced to sign a confession of a crime they had no way of doing. It wasn’t until Meili’s actual killer confessed that these five could see the light of the day. DuVernay with her patient unravelling of the humanising and concrete evidence regarding the conviction also shows the ways the media had inflamed the already weakened racial dynamics of the country. From depicting the boys, who were minors, as bloodthirsty and brutal, to garner attention to reinstate the death penalty, the media circus around the case also affected the justice process.
When They See Us, is its core commentary on the prison industrial complex and racial profiling within the intricacies of the justice process. It is also perhaps an answer to the myriads of questions thrown into the void.
“Why do Black people distrust the police?”
“Why do Black people have no faith in the justice system?”
This is why.
The Photograph depicts two love stories spanning past, present, and future. The present storyline follows Mae Morton (played by Issa Rae) and Michael Block (played by Lakeith Stanfield), who meet by chance when Michael comes by looking for information about Mae’s estranged mother. The past thread of the story follows Mae’s mother, Christina (played by Chante Adams) and Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel) and their doomed love. The Photograph is not noteworthy in its romance; it is noteworthy in its way to acknowledge the pitfalls and possibilities of love.
The Photograph is also interesting in the way that both of the main leads are Black characters. It is a fresh reprieve from the incessant miseries and trauma that seems to follow Black stories in every way. It is simply two people enjoying each other, falling in love with each other.
Lovecraft Country tells the story of Atticus Black who, alongside his uncle George and friend Letitia, embarks on a trip across 1950s Jim Crow America to find his missing father. Produced by J. J Abrams & Jordan Peele, it tries to take its inspiration from the horror elements that its namesake H.P Lovecraft was known for and makes it a portrayal of a world where Lovecraftian monsters live and die.
Even with the fantastical monsters ebbing in and out of the show’s lore, the actual monsters remain the people. Lovecraft Country uses clever references and artful illusions to show the reality of the Jim Crow era. From the Sundown towns to Green Books to stay safe on the road, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country is nothing short of a stroke of genius.
Insecure (2016- )
Insecure tells the story of Issa Dee (played by Issa Rae), who struggles to find her footing in the professional and personal terrain of Los Angeles alongside her best friend, Molly (Played by Yvonne Orji). Insecure is the brainchild of Issa Rae, who was the first Black woman to create and star in her own show since 2003. The show is groundbreaking in a way it doesn’t cater to any preconceived expectations or stereotype. Issa Dee is not the amalgam of “Black angry women” tropes, neither is her friend a loud, exuberant caricature of successful Black professionals.
Even her boyfriend of five years is far from the hyper-masculine representation of a black male. Insecure provides a slice of life told unmistakably through a black lens, yet not beholden to any race-specific issues. Not that race is not a part of the conversation. As Issa Rae puts it best, “Even as a person of colour, there are instances where you do talk about race, but there are lots of instances where you don’t. You’re just like, ‘How am I gonna pay this bill?'”
Raya likes to critically analyse anything regarding pop culture, and when she’s not doing that, she likes to live life dangerously — one House MD episode at a time.