Official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The joke has returned. I’m speaking specifically of the Obama Joke. If you watch Black standup comedy you probably know what I’m getting at. Though it may not get the respect it deserves, standup is always a fascinating peek into a group’s collective unconscious. At its best, it verbalizes unspoken knowledge a culture carries silently in its gut. And in November 2008, once the shock of Obama’s election had been processed into acceptance that history had been forever altered before our eyes, you heard a certain joke all the time.
It went like this: now that Obama had been elected, we would soon see “the Real Obama”, the authentic Black man that the junior senator from Illinois had been skillfully hiding from (white) America on his year long odyssey to the Oval Office. This was not the stuff of great comedy. It was low-hanging fruit. It was instantly hacky. But more and more comics took their turn at this particular piñata as November became December and the inauguration approached.
I can’t remember specific jokes but they ran along the lines that his speech and mien would become more recognizably Black now that he’d secured power. It was as if Obama’s election was such a seismic event the first response was to cast Obama in the part of the wiley trickster who had put one over on America. It was an understandable reaction. And yet it is a little unsettling when we view these jokes as a foreshadow of the far more sinister birtherism to come. In other words, some Black people questioned the veracity of Obama’s identity first, then a type of white person did it too in a far less playful manner. But in the end these were both flawed ways to reckon with this man who had changed history.
President Obama has always been viewed as some sort of Trojan Horse. But now, with less than 100 days left in his presidency, none of that came to pass. The Obama that ran for office, the Obama that wrote two beautifully written books, the Obama that made people believe in hope again, was the Obama we got.
But just as birtherism has proved impossible to kill, the Obama Joke too has come back to life. In Cedric the Entertainer’s new Netflix special Live from the Ville he makes jokes about Obama quitting “like that Black lady on the news” after dealing with Republican obstruction for years. Cedric dives deep back to that 2008 bit saying Obama “won’t put on a suit on that last day, he gon’ walk to that helicopter in pair of Jordan flip flops…a wave cap on”. The Entertainer goes on to acknowledge that Obama’s near-Vulcan demeanor enabled him to succeed at such a public, high pressure job (and separates him from African-Americans of a more choleric disposition) but then points out when Obama’s patience is short “every now and then that Negro shows up and we see it first.” He wraps up the bit by likening Obama to a thug (citing Obama’s kill list as president) despite his calm manner.
There is a lot to parse out about the Obama presidency but his impact on Black masculinity is fascinating. Blacks and whites alike are still recalibrating what a powerful Black man looks and sounds like and some old ideas die hard. This presidency has been transformational and the final year of it has been a tumultuous one.
2016 has taken so much from us all. But perhaps we can view the year in a new way. Rather than looking at it as a year of loss and collapse, it might be better to view it as one of transformation and a prelude to rebirth. As the year draws to a close, this is what seems to be unfolding. And no aspect of this is more clear than the way 2016 has affected our ideas about Black masculinity.
At the beginning of this month, something else collapsed: Netflix. The streaming service was literally crashed on the first of October. The cause was clear: Luke Cage had come to Netflix. The third of their original series based on Marvel Comics properties, Luke Cage focuses on one of Marvel’s singular creations. Created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, Luke Cage was Marvel’s transparent bid to capitalize on the Blaxploitation movement of American film. Cage was a Black hero but he was not Marvel’s first. That distinction belongs to Black Panther, who turned 50 this year (debuting three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party). In 1969 came Marvel’s first Black American hero, Falcon.
But Cage was a significant break from what had come before. He was not an aristocrat from an exotic land, nor was he a social worker from the Black middle class (this was Falcon’s original origin before later being retconned). Cage was an ex-convict, given powers by an experiment gone awry in a hellish prison. It is important to note that Cage was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison, but he was a Harlem gang member who had committed crimes in the past.
A word about those powers: Luke Cage undergoes a painful transformation that makes his skin and bones virtually unbreakable and grants him super-strength (his might is dwarfed by the physical strength of Iron Man or Thor, but still far stronger than a normal human being). Luke Cage becomes bulletproof. It should be noted that neither Black Panther nor Falcon had been endowed with super powers. The former, like Captain America, was at the peak of human strength and speed but not superhuman. And aside from a connection to his falcon Redwing, the Falcon had no powers at all (his flying rig was originally created in Wakanda, the technological titan ruled by Black Panther).
The idea of a bulletproof Black man in comics obviously came directly from the violence directed at Black bodies in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is uncanny that Cage finally makes it to our screens after decades of failed attempts at a time where again the violent murders of Black men are a weekly part of our news. But the creators of Luke Cage did one more thing to distinguish him from other Black heroes: they made him decidedly working class and fairly apolitical. Cage was a “hero for hire”. This put him squarely in the Blaxploitation tradition which in turn had been influenced by American hard-boiled detective fiction. Luke Cage didn’t even bother with a nom de guerre like Falcon and Black Panther. He was simply Luke Cage (though that name was an alias) and he used his powers to get paid, not out of altruism.
For these three reasons, Cage occupies a special place in the hearts of Black comic book nerds, especially men. The reaction I get when I wear my Luke Cage t-shirt from Black men is pretty striking. My Black Panther t-shirt does not elicit the same response. Cage is a Black everyman and has become a totem of Black masculinity like no other character in comics. His origin smacks of Malcolm X but rather than set out to change the world after his jailhouse transmutation, Cage sets out to survive in a cruel and harsh world and that struggle connected with his readers.
As the 70s progressed Cage became Power Man and was a given a partner, a hero similarly created to capitalize on another genre of film popular in the early 70s with African-Americans. But his mission stayed the same. “Hero for Hire” became plural but Cage never became a corny do-gooder.
His signature yellow disco shirt, tiara and hot pants hung on into the 1980s until Cage was given a new look. His head was now shaved, the disco shirt became a t-shirt and only his heavy metallic gauntlets survived. He now had a look that fit his workingman persona. This is the look Mike Colter’s portrayal of Cage in the Netflix series is based on.
Colter’s Cage first appeared a year ago in Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for the similarly powered titular heroine. One oft-repeated line is that the Cage featured in Jessica Jones is superior to the Cage featured in his own series. I don’t agree but I get where that comes from. The Cage in Jessica Jones is more in line with the comic books. He’s an everyman who rejects costumed adventuring as foolishness (even though he lives in a city saved by such action). But when Cheo Hodari Coker (showrunner for Luke Cage) takes over the character from Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Cage does shift a bit.
In Luke Cage, he has fled Hell’s Kitchen after the events in Jessica Jones and gone uptown to Harlem. The show makes some changes to the character’s established origin. He is no longer a Harlem native. He is an avid student of Black culture and history. And while he is still an ex-convict he is also now an ex-cop instead of an ex-gang member. That last one is big. It takes away some of Luke Cage’s street cred and makes him a figure of the establishment similar to Black Panther and Falcon, albeit a fallen one.
I think the possible reasons why might have something to do with Coker’s approach to the character. Luke Cage features a postlapsarian view of Black culture. While the show lovingly showcases Harlem and its history, it also takes the position that for all the gloriousness of Black culture in America, we fell from grace. The drug epidemic and attendant nihilism of the 1980s have left scars on us and the show deals with that.
And though Hip Hop is central to Luke Cage he is not presented as blinged out and street as some of his more recent incarnations. Instead he’s old school and timeless; a man of the moment who is shaped profoundly by the past. In Coker’s hands, Cage becomes a metaphor for Black people as a whole striving to use awesome power in a positive way so that we can live up to the expectations of the giants who paved the way for us.
Some read this as “respectability politics”. Luke’s refusal to swear or use the “N-word” (in a format where that is a possibility) clashes with the edgy Cage of our youth. But what is the point of a hero who doesn’t in some ways inspire fans to be their best selves? Coker has refashioned Cage for the Obama-era without violating the character’s core. And he also gives us a Luke Cage who values women not just as objects of desire but also as allies. This Luke Cage offers us a new progressive form of Black masculinity, one that values collaboration, community and seeks to rebuild more than destroy. The counterpoint offered by his adversary, deemed too soft and sensitive as a boy, shaped by a toxic masculinity that makes him a man willing to level a building to kill one person, is striking.
On the heels of Luke Cage came a theatrical release also purporting to tell the story of a Black hero. Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his passion project which he called in a breathtaking act of subversion The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote, produced, directed and starred in this look at the life of Nat Turner who led a violent slave revolt in 1831 that shook the slave states to their cores. Parker, a Virginia native like Turner, viewed this film in the same light that Turner viewed his plans for rebellion: as a divine mission. Leading up to the film’s debut, Parker spoke of this as more than a film. He chose Fox Searchlight as a distributor in part because he wanted the film to be a big screen experience. He also got Fox Searchlight to create teaching guides and plan a tour of colleges as a condition of the sale. Like Coker, Parker was taking Nat Turner and fashioning him into the hero he believed we need.
But, of course, things didn’t go as Parker planned.
Parker’s 2001 rape charge (for the record he was acquitted though he did have sex with the victim that he maintained was consensual) supplanted the film itself. Suddenly the conversation Parker wanted to have had become something else and his attempts to address the charge only added fuel to the fire. The word “boycott” entered the conversation.
Though I respect the decision to do so, I chose not to boycott. In my view, Birth of a Nation is a failure and a curious one at that. Never mind that it is mediocre, that it modeled itself after Braveheart when it should’ve aimed higher. The unpardonable sin is that Birth of a Nation seeks to turn Nat Turner into a Marvel hero. It fabricates a rape as if slavery wasn’t sufficient motivation. It reduces women to suffering motivators rather than giving them agency (something called “fridging” in comic books which Nate Parker has clearly never heard of). But most intriguing is how thoroughly retrograde Parker seems to be from the choices he has made and the hero he has created.
It has never been clear to me what Parker’s aim is beyond making Nat Turner a more recognizable figure. Does the film have anything to say for the post-Obama era? What directives are we to take from seeing a violent resistance to the horrors of white supremacy? Perhaps Parker had intended to speak to this more directly before his past overtook him.
I don’t use “retrograde” to insult Parker. I use it to refer to his point of view which seems rooted in a bygone era. I don’t know Parker’s exact age but the ideas he espouses through word and deed seem to belong to a much older man. Even his choice to turn down Netflix’s much bigger offer for Fox Searchlight reflects someone thinking in an outmoded way. Or perhaps it suggests personal ambition was more of a motivation than simply bringing Turner’s story to the public (Netflix would’ve put the movie in every living room in America but it would have also ended any hopes for an Oscar).
Similarly, Parker’s view of a Black male hero is of another time. I suppose Parker wanted to make Turner into a classical hero not unlike a man Mel Gibson or John Wayne might play but it missed an opportunity to either create an alternative to those Western models or critique the ways in which the oppressed can come to resemble their oppressor in the act of rejecting that oppression.
But all such nuance is ignored. Parker refuses to show the brutality his army dealt to whites in a way that is frankly an act of artistic cowardice. Showing the brutalization of white people in equally unflinching terms is necessary in a film that lingers on how whites brutalized their slaves. But that’s messy. That’s disturbing. And that’s not what Parker wants you to feel. Exhibit A: the use of John Williams-style choral singing on the soundtrack clashes with the brutality of Nate’s first kill. But the score more than editing or camera, is often the clearest window into the soul of a director and Parker wants you to see this murder as not tragically inevitable but ennobling. I could accept that if the subsequent murders were handled more frankly.
Parker’s Turner dies surrounded by a scornful horde (an uncanny foreshadow of Parker’s public excoriation prior to the film’s release) but the director wants you to know he didn’t die in vain even though the rebellion failed. Parker allowed Nat Turner to settle a few personal scores before the gallows. He accepts death beatifically. Now that the film has failed and Parker’s reputation is in ruins one can’t help wondering if the hero narrative he’s constructed has sustained him through this ordeal or if it has caused him to reflect on how he might have handled things in another way.
Parker famously said he refused to play a gay man because “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons” and “to preserve the Black man…you will never see me take a gay role.” Nat Turner took an eclipse as a divine signal to lead his rebellion and Nate Parker should similarly view the auspicious arrival of Moonlight as an omen to rethink his outdated homophobic nonsense.
Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight focuses on three moments in the life of Chiron, a Black gay boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City. We see Chiron at turning point moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he tries to come to terms with the abuse, homophobia and toxic masculinity he’s grown up with. The film has set records in its first weekend of release for per screen average (meaning even though it is only playing on a handful of screens it is making a ton of money). I saw it Friday night at a screening that had to be moved to the Cinerama Dome to accommodate the demand.
Moonlight, without a ton of paid ballyhoo from a studio, is the film Parker wanted Birth of a Nation to be. It has comes to the screen with a sizable audience hungry for it, who have been waiting to see it for most of their lives. And Moonlight is revolutionary in ways that Birth of a Nation is not. We’ve seen Black men stand up and violently resist oppression. Not a lot, but we have seen it. But we’ve rarely seen a film about intimacy between Black men. We’ve rarely seen a film show how toxic masculinity can destroy Black men as quickly as racist oppression. We’ve rarely seen a film where the great act of masculine courage is not acting out violently, it is learning to feel worthy of love.
What’s so striking about Moonlight is that for the first half of the film, Chiron’s queerness is more or less beside the point. He could be straight and still suffer the same soul crushing oppression and emotional brutality and it would be no less deleterious. But he is gay and the film will force many to question what being gay looks like and what it means. Chiron responds to his oppression by fashioning himself into the very picture of Black masculinity. The actor who plays him as an adult looks every bit the superhero and could easily play Luke Cage or Black Panther. But that kind of manhood, the kind that Nate Parker seems to think is so precious and sacrosanct is not Chiron’s salvation. It is an imperfect solution that the culture he’s grown up in has led him towards.
These are trying times but they’re also remarkable and exciting times. We are once again on the verge of making history at the ballot box. We are seeing some amazing strides toward social justice taking place. And we have lost many dear figures along the way (namely Prince, who violated codes of Black masculinity when he felt like it and on his own terms setting a whole generation free in the process). Taking it all in we see that all of this loss only portends that a new era is coming. In the Hindu faith, Shiva is the destroyer deity; but in Shaivism, Shiva is the creator, destroyer, and regenerator.
I see that pattern in this year. I see this pattern with the receptions of both Birth of a Nation and Moonlight. And I see aspects of that in how Black masculinity has unfolded in the Obama era. He has changed forever what a Black man can be and what a Black man can believe. He shows us that being a feminist, supporting marriage equality for LGBT people and being photographed with a tiara does nothing to diminish your masculinity. And if it does, leave it behind this year and allow something else to replace.
If you’re brave enough, of course.
Brandon Wilson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and educator. He has directed numerous short films and two feature films, most recently “Sepulveda” sepulvedathemovie.com which he co-directed with his wife Jena English. He writes essays on film and culture at geniusbastard.com. He also tweets a lot.