In light of the excitement about Black Panther’s Oscar nominations, Screen Actor’s Guild Award wins, and theatrical re-release for Black History Month, it’s time to revisit Black Panther as an example of the problems of the academic “hot take,” particularly when those takes promote discourse about male characters and elide a focus on Black women as film subjects or as scholarly voices. Public intellectuals must be more mindful of the ways that their work can unwittingly reinforce the marginalization of Black women’s perspectives and overshadow the celebration of Black heroines onscreen.
The day after Black Panther’s North American premiere, Christopher Lebron published “Black Panther Is Not the Movie We Deserve”in the Boston Review. Lebron’s essay focused extensively on the figure of Killmonger. “You will have noticed I have not said much about the movie’s women,” he admitted near the end of his essay. Lebron’s take on Black Pantherwas deeply influential turning early critiques of the film into a referendum about Killmonger. By March 8, 2018, the L.A. Times published "Pantherpedia: A Guide to the Cottage Industry of Essays about Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'". Lebron’s essay headed the “Killmonger” section, and women were far down on the list. Meanwhile, early examinations of the female characters, such as Arica L. Coleman’s examination of the True Story Behind Black Panther's Strong Womenin Time on February 22, 2018, went largely overlooked in the rush to discuss Killmonger. To that end, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post, complainedabout the “category-4 flood of man-takes, with mostly male critics responding to each other about Black Panther And What It All Means For Black People” rather than focusing on “the collective power of Wakanda’s women who offer the real vision of what black, radical internationalism could look like.” Feminist critiques became framed only as a backlash to the focus on Killmonger typified by Lebron’s hot take.
We need to slow down. We need to examine whether the rush to produce public intellectualism replicates a default interest in male perspectives. Along those lines, I noticed that Salamishah Tillet’s first Black Panther article, published a week before the film’s release, began by quoting T'Challaand included a comparison to nostalgia for President Obama. Then, a week after the film’s release, she penned "Black Panther: Why Not Queen Shuri?"and celebrated the diverse representation of Black womanhood in all of director Ryan Coogler’s films.
What if we slowed our roll until we could imagine beginning the public discourse with Shuri instead?
I am firmly in favor of public intellectual work that topples the stereotypes of disengaged Ivory Tower snobbery, and I champion practices that challenge traditional scholarly publication models. But while the glacial pace of many academic journals risks irrelevance in cultural commentary, hot takes risk inaccurate scholarship and a narrow focus that then dominates the trending responses to a work.
A call for a moratorium on Black Panther critiques—which is, essentially, a call to slow down the production of hot takes—brings to mind the arguments promoted in Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.Berg and Seeber express concern that “the fast models of mechanization have taken over how we think about scholarship and ourselves. Slowing down is a matter of ethical import” (58). An ethics of slowing down results in stronger work: work that notices more nuance, particularly where the Black heroines are concerned. Slowing down creates room to celebrate Black cinematic achievement before turning to a more surgical approach for public intellectualism.
Susana M. Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective spoke outagainst the early oversaturation of Black Panther reactions, especially about Killmonger, and urged readers to pause for simple enjoyment or celebration: “Seeing my Blackness represented on screen has been a powerful healer. It was nothing short of glorious.” As Morris so poignantly wrote, “Black Joy Matters.” Experiencing this film as a celebration of Blackness—particularly in the current political climate—seems more urgent than any critique, no matter how intellectually generative.
With watershed films like Black Panther, I, too, worry about the diminishment of joy; of failing to celebrate films as revolutionary and inspirational for audiences that have so often been marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood. We should pause to create space for joy. Then we should use that space to make sure we amplify and center Black women’s perspectives.
Berg, Maggie and Barbara K. Seeber. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, University of Toronto Press, 2016.
2/22/2019 3 Comments
we must establish authority over our own definition (…) It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self and in the self of other Black women. (…)
Claiming some power over who we choose to be, and knowing that such power is relative within the realities of our lives. Yet knowing that only through the use of that power can we effectively change those realities.
Entertainment is the conditio sine qua non of telenovelas; and this is all that accomplishes Always a Witch (Siempre bruja), the Colombian production on Netflix since February 1st.
What is the trouble with the series, then?
Great expectations preceded its première, arisen by the trailer shown months before, in which the mere appearance of its protagonist was a rare occurrence: the splendid Afro-Colombian Angely Gaviria would play the role of Carmen Eguiluz, a slave accused of witchcraft and burnt alive by the Inquisition in 1646, miraculously reappearing on the beach of Cartagena in 2019. Weary of the invisibility of blacks and blackness in most Latin American TV productions, we hoped that Always a Witch would at least start quenching the thirst to watch our stories receiving global recognition. We’ve been anxiously waiting for the series, which proves the capitalization of Gaviria’s dark body and face as a promotional lure to be an effective marketing strategy. However, the team behind this idea appears to be ignorant of one incontestable, basic truth: nowhere in the Americas it is possible to resort to a Black enslaved character while avoiding all discussion on race.
Through ten episodes, Carmen Eguiluz is taken back and forth from slavery to the present, without evoking her blackness. Watching her knocking at the doors of a colonial mansion where she easily finds a place to live and being received with openness and kindness everywhere she goes, one could assume that contemporary Colombia has become a post-racial paradise. Anti-black discrimination seems to be buried in the past, along with slavery. Yet, it is difficult to believe that anti-racist Colombian activists would actually agree with the series’ writers.
Equally suspicious is the absence of black characters in the spaces frequented by Carmen. Except for her friend Daniel (Dubán Andrés Prado), none of the university students and professors, neither the police inspectors or the owners of the colonial mansion are black. They haven’t been completely erased, however. Carmen encounters black Colombians when she visits the neighborhood where she was born. There, 21-century blacks remain confined; dancing, drinking and celebrating a dark-faced saint (Virgen de la Candelaria). Out of this enclave, the only black characters are magical Carmen and the always-smiling Daniel.
Immediately after being launched, Always a Witch has been slammed through social media for its failure to accurately depict the black experience in Latin America -a fact aggravated by the coincidence of the première with the beginning of the Black History Month. The most recurrent criticism was Carmen’s unconditional devotion for Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa), her master’s son. But we all know that love is the strangest thing... Besides, Always a Witch is a telenovela asking the audience to believe in such improbabilities. (Members of the production team previously worked on a famous telenovela whose awkwardness was already announced in its title, La esclava blanca (The White Slave). I then followed the odd romance between the master and the slave, wearing the sarcastic half-smile of someone accustomed to watch this sort of fantasies. In my opinion, the real problem with the series is that its creators never managed to fulfill the promise implied in their promotional campaign. This is not the tale of an Afro-Colombian woman but the story of the white characters dictating her actions. Always a Witch does nothing but follow a tradition, long before deconstructed by Toni Morrison, of the fabrication of black characters by white artists as a means to talk about themselves.
To save her white lover, Carmen Eguiluz travels to the future, sent by a white witch, Aldemar the Immortal (Luis Fernando Hoyos) -who made me jump from my seat when he started reciting a Yoruba prayer (“omi tutu, ana tutu, laroye ilé”) without referring to any African religion. Were the writers aware of their invocation of Elegguá, the orisha mischievously opening and closing our paths in Afro-Cuban santería?
As the story advances, the black girl is either escaping from or searching for one white witch or another, one white lover or the other. She appears to be perfectly happy of devoting her extraordinary powers to their service. In this sense, Carmen Eguiluz becomes the latest addition to the pool of "good" black servants, eager to solve the problems created by their masters.
Towards the end of the season, an array of explicit feminist speeches is voiced by the female characters, which could be related to the high female composition of the creative team. Inspired by the novel Yo, Bruja, by Costa-Rican writer Isidora Chacón and adapted by Ana María Parra, the series was produced by Dago García, María Cervera and Juliana Barrera and directed by Liliana Bocanegra and Mateo Stivelberg.
But Carmen Eguiluz is not only a woman. She is black. She was a slave. Though these conditions are never addressed in the series’ feminist claims. Intersectionality, for its creators, stops at the choice of an attractive black actress as the main character.
Always a Witch is a painful reminder of the media’s inability to recognize the work of Black female writers. That’s why, when struggling to reach the last episode, I couldn’t help but ask myself if the presence of an Afro-Latina writer, producer or director in the creative process would have made it possible for Carmen Eguiluz to shine as the self-determined, truly powerful heroine she was supposed to be.
Cuban born writer and scholar, Dr. Odette Casamayor-Cisneros is currently a professor at the University of Connecticut.