Alternative Black Superhero Movies for 2019: Supa Modo and Fast Color

4 Jun

One of the things I love about living in New York is its annual African Film Festival, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Maysles Cinema every year in May. One of the many movies that I enjoyed this year was a new Kenyan film directed by Likarian Wainaina: Supa Modo, a heartwarming story about a young girl named Jo with an incurable disease and only a month to live who loves superhero comics and movies. After Jo’s sister and mother argue with each other about whether to indulge her fantasy about having super powers during the final weeks of her life, the town ultimately comes together to make their own superhero movie with Jo in the starring role. It is a film not just about the importance of fantasy and story-telling in our lives, but also about how communities come together around stories. In a sense, the real superhero for the town ends up being the town itself.

At a moment in time when the Marvel and DC comic book universes are churning out productions each costing more than $300 million apiece, such as the never-ending Avengers series, what is also remarkable about Supa Modo is its showing us the joy of low-budget film-making. And it reminded me of another low-budget black superhero movie I saw a month earlier, Fast Color, directed by Julia Hart, about a young woman with a troubled past who can’t control her super powers in a post-apocalyptic, rural American landscape suffering from drought, where water has become the most precious commodity. It alludes to the deep inter-generational knowledge passed from mother to daughter as the family tries to evade those who want to appropriate and weaponize her super powers. It dramatizes the ways in which a “super ability” can also be experienced by the individual who has it as a “disability.” What both of these films offer is an alternative kind of black superhero, not one in which high-tech special effects unleash seemingly unlimited destruction, but one in which both fantasy and human community can play a hopeful and creative role in positively transforming the mundane realities of ordinary suffering and a character’s inner psychology.

And so I wanted to write about these two movies (and encourage everyone to see them) in the context of the most well-known black superhero movie. You know what I’m talking about. Unless you live under a rock, you remember how in February last year (2018), you and probably everyone you knew was going to see the Black Panther movie, not just once, but twice, or maybe even three times. It broke box office records worldwide. And if you happen to live in a culturally diverse city such as New York (like I do), it was also a cultural event, where people dressed up to go see it, and I don’t just mean “dressed up” like they put on a nice shirt and slacks or a pretty dress. I mean they dressed up to represent — perhaps representing their heritage or perhaps styling themselves towards a futuristic aspiration, blending a little sci-fi with that heritage. My wife proudly donned the traditional clothes of the Wollega region of her own Oromo people in Ethiopia when we went to go see it. And you may also remember how, in March of that year, complete strangers on the street or colleagues at work gave you the Wakanda Forever salute, crossed arms across their chest. It was a moment of black pride, the first blockbuster movie with an African superhero presenting a positive image of Africa — a futuristic image of an alternative African history, imagining perhaps what Africa might have been all along on the silver screen had it not been colonized and had not the racist stereotypes of that continent so thoroughly saturated global popular culture. Meanwhile, across Africa, moviegoers from Accra and Lagos to Nairobi and Addis Ababa debated how the movie had appropriated or represented aspects of their ethnic groups or cultural histories.

What I remember thinking back then, however, is that this Hollywood movie about Africa might once again so overwhelm the market that, ironically, it would make it even harder for the local film industries in African countries to compete with Hollywood’s hegemony. If you think back to ten or twenty years ago, local industries across the continent from Nigeria and Cote I’voire to Kenya and Ethiopia had finally started to emerge and develop a solid audience base. The movie industry that I participate in, and have written about, is Ethiopia’s, which produced only a handful of movies back in 2005 but was producing roughly 100 movies per year by the time Black Panther hit the scene. The movie theaters in Addis Ababa that two decades ago showed mostly Hollywood and Bollywood movies were now showing almost exclusively locally produced movies when I lived there and taught in the new masters program in film at Addis Ababa University in 2016. One of the big selling points of local black cinema is that it actually features characters and tells stories that resemble their audiences. It expresses not only their culture, but often, as in the case of Supa Modo — which is a movie about our relationship to movies — also expresses the positionality of their local culture (i.e., Kenyan or Ethiopian movies) in relation to the hegemony of the more dominant global culture (Hollywood movies). All the hype about Black Panther being this amazing representation of Africa would, I feared, not encourage people to take real African cinema seriously but might even distract African viewing publics from watching their own cinema.

After all, we can think of other African superhero movies or what is sometimes referred to as “Afrofuturism.” Afofuturism has a long history. For example, Yeelen, directed by Souleyman Cisse from Mali in 1987, ranks highly as a classic of world cinema. It was, in my view, unfortunate that all the mainstream American media hype about the achievement of Black Panther didn’t recommend Americans to also go watch Yeelen. Based on a Bambara epic about a conflict between father and son over the future of their people, its “universal” mythological structure in some ways resembles Star Wars, as this video mash-up of scenes from Yeelen overlaid with the music from Star Wars suggests.

 

As much as I enjoyed Black Panther (and clearly, I did, since I saw it twice in the movie theater when it came out and will definitely see it again), Supa Modo and Fast Color were emotionally more satisfying. After all, there were many aspects of Black Panther that frustrated critics. For example, many wondered, as this Boston Review article did, why the ultimate “bad guy” in a film about black solidarity was the African-American male (and not a white colonizer). The movie’s representation of the Black Panther political party and the history of black liberation struggle of the 1960s and 70s was superficial at best. At worst, it sometimes seemed that the history of Pan-African solidarity was intentionally replaced in the movie by a benevolent king whose wealth is extracted from a unique natural resource. This is a problematic notion to be sure considering the current political conflicts across Africa as factions fight for control of exactly such mineral wealth in the service of European and American multinational corporations whose industries depend on them. Considering historically the role of the American C.I.A. in overthrowing democratically elected African leaders and propping up warlords in the service of such neo-colonial corporations, it is problematic, to say the least, that in the Black Panther movie the hapless C.I.A. agent in the film (Everett Ross) is the ally of Wakanda while the orphaned descendant of the Black Panther Party (Killmonger) is its enemy. The fantasy of the movie reverses the polarities of history.

Moreover, as Gregory Pierrot has shown, in many ways the movie taps into an earlier 500-year history of European fantasy about African royalty and heroism that has always had a curiously fraught and problematic relationship to the discourse of slavery. The concept of the Black Panther was, after all, originally invented by a white guy in the context of white superheros and popular Hollywood stereotypes about Africa in the 1960s. The new comic books by Ta-Nehisi Coates — more clearly and directly than the movie — confront the inherent contradiction at the heart of the Black Panther story between cultural stereotypes of African royalty and the desire for more democratic forms of representation.

Movies such as Supa Modo and Fast Color are self-conscious of their position in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not in a simple way. In Supa Modo, for the main character Jo, the Hollywood superheroes are not white or black. In other words, Superman does not represent the “American way” for Jo. Rather, they are what the scholarly field of semiotics calls “floating signifiers” evoking for varying contexts the fantasy of empowerment and the aspirations of our shared humanity. It is not that Jo as an individual overcomes her biological limitations by appropriating American culture. It is the African community who reflects on its values and reconsiders how it organizes itself as they come together to make their own superhero movie.  Moreover, the movie wisely evades the cheap sentimentalism of a stereotypical disabled character when Jo reveals her awareness of her sister’s attempt to indulge her fantasy life.

 

Supa Modo

Likewise, in Fast Color, the main character Ruth has spent a good part of her adult life trying to suppress and deny her super-ability through drug abuse. Her mother had also  hidden her abilities from the world for fear of how the public would treat her and the risk it would pose to her family. Here, the movie hints at the history of discrimination and oppression of black women. Meanwhile, the world around them seems to be caught in a terminal spiral of environmental decline, and this is not because of any singularly evil character. The movie is not a simplistic and shallow fight between good and evil where the complicated troubles of humanity are displaced onto a monstrous individual. The real “enemy” in the background of this film is climate change. And the solution, it seems, is the hidden wisdom possessed by black women.

fast color image

And this hidden wisdom neither is a fantasy nor is it hidden. We should recall the very real philosophy and environmental feminist activism of Wangari Mathai in Kenya, the leader of the Greenbelt Movement and winner of the Nobel Peace prize. And considering the Greenbelt Movement’s practice of planting trees and using traditional cultural forms of maintaining nature in response to the social problems caused by deforestation, we might enjoy another “Afrofuturist” short film that I first experienced at the New York African Film Festival several years ago, “Pumzi” (directed by Wanuri Kahiu) about the role of imagination to confront deforestation and climate change.

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