Seeing Syria, Accelerating Afrofuturism, Posting Postcards

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This Week: Syrians on Syria — with artist Molly Crabapple, writer Alia Malek, Irrelevant Arab podcaster Mustafa, journalist Marwan Nisham, and historian Yasser Munif. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: It shouldn’t be a giant surprise that the Syria story portrayed in our media as hopeless, impossible, chaotic, desperate and reduced to a proxy power game over the Arab World among Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. — misses well, the whole story. Start with the Syrians, as we did this week. We learned a whole lot from Alia, Mustafa, Marwan, and Yasser, but we were surprised by the takeaway which continued over IPAs in our studio after the show. And it’s even more striking this weekend as the world can see once more how little democracy and justice figure into the American political process; just ask a high schooler in Parkland, Florida or a Dreamer near you. Syrians are hopeful. And they just might be the most resilient people on earth. How else to explain the playgrounds, libraries, kitchens, social clubs and flourishing creative culture that activists have built beneath the ruins of the totally decimated city of Aleppo and the civil society citizens are rebuilding on top of it amidst daily bombing and violence by the Syrian regime?

Molly Crabapple introduced us to Marwan, a young journalist who grew up in Raqqa and went to university in Aleppo. Molly and Marwan have a book coming out this spring called Brotherhood of the Gun which includes Molly’s illustrations of some of Marwan’s photos. Vanity Fair re-printed some of them in July, 2015.

Fighters belonging to the local Islamist group, Fastaqim Kama Umert, parade in the Jsr Al-Haj bridge roundabout on May 23. Illustration by Molly Crabapple.
Photo by Marwan Hisham
Life in the war zone that is Aleppo is peculiarly harsh on children. Childhood has become an irrelevant stage that young locals skip over. Illustration by Molly Crabapple.
Photo by Marwan Hisham
This drawing illustrates a photo taken in front of Ayn Jalut elementary school in the Ansari area of Aleppo. The school was bombed on April 30, 2014. Illustration by Molly Crabapple.
Photo by Marwan Hisham

Our bonus podcast episode next week will be an archive interview with the immensely talented Molly Crabapple. Sign up to be a member of our patreon community to get these extras.

Watch: Black Panther

Zach Goldhammer: The most hyped-up action movie of the year is finally here, and the advanced acclaim is well deserved. Combining the talents of 31-year-old director Ryan Coogler (of Creed and Fruitvale Station fame) with some of the most talented up-and-coming actors in Hollywood—Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Daniel Kaluuya, among others—Black Panther feels like a genuinely fresh entry in the increasingly stale genre of Marvel superhero movies.

It’s also one of the most successful mainstream portrayals of the afrofuturism on the big screen. More than forty years after Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, the avant-garde vision of a mythological as well as high-tech black nationalist kingdom has moved from the far periphery to the blockbuster center of American cinematic imagination. In terms of aesthetics, it’s a genuinely revolutionary transformation.

In terms of politics, the movie’s achievements are arguably more restrained. One of the primary plot points in the film pits the aristocratic ruler of Wakanda—a rich, militarily advanced African nation which is largely hidden from the rest of the world—against an upstart revolutionary from Oakland who wants to bring Wakanda out of isolation and wage war on colonial oppression.

Chris Lebron—philosopher and author of The Making of Black Lives Matter as well as an avid comic book readerpinpoints this central irony of the film in an essay for the Boston Review (warning—Lebron’s review contains some spoilers):

Viewers have two radical imaginings in front of them: an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy; and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people. These imaginings could be made to reconcile, but the movie’s director and writer (with Joe Cole), Ryan Coogler, makes viewers choose.

Coogler encourages the audience to side with the moderate king T’Challa—aka the titular Black Panther—as the film’s protagonist, but it’s hard not to also feel some allegiance with his antagonistic challenger. After all, as Lebron notes, it’s the villain Killmonger whose armed struggle against colonial oppression, mass incarceration, and police brutality represents the real “radical stuff [of] the Black Panthers (the political party, that is) taken to a level of potentially revolutionary efficacy.”

Black Panther presents itself as the most radical black experience of the year. We are meant to feel emboldened by the images of T’Challa, a black man clad in a powerful combat suit tearing up the bad guys that threaten good people. But the lessons I learned were these: the bad guy is the black American who has rightly identified white supremacy as the reigning threat to black well-being; the bad guy is the one who thinks Wakanda is being selfish in its secret liberation; the bad guy is the one who will no longer stand for patience and moderation — he thinks liberation is many, many decades overdue. And the black hero snuffs him out.

Lebron suggests that a more compelling version of Black Panther might have placed the Wakandan king in a direct fight against white supremacists. But it’s also possible that a Black Panther-meets-Django Unchained -style storyline—in which T’Challa takes on the KKK, for instance—might have stripped away some of the film’s core nuance. There’s a case for Coogler’s genius in his ability to turn a comic book villain into a genuinely sympathetic character—a rare feat in the Marvel universe. It makes sense that the filmmaker who made his directorial debut with a film about the life and death of Oscar Grant would lend real sympathy to the cause of another Oakland outcast.

In some ways, Black Panther feels so human and real because it focuses on internal tensions and competing tendencies within a black nationalist vision of the future. You can sympathize with Killmonger’s revolutionary ideology while also critiquing his militaristic tactics (some on twitter have suggested that that he ultimately fails because he’s more Eldridge Cleaver than Fred Hampton). You can similarly admire T’Challa’s elegance and nobility while also cringing at his monarchic moderation and Hamlet-like moments of indecision. The battle scenes in the film succeed in part because they represent the very real differences between these competing positions. For anyone who’s spent time in social justice circles over the last year, it might also remind you of various kinds of fights that tend to breakout among organizers on the left.

In short, there is no singular, flattened perspective that is meant to stand in for the totality of the afrofuturist vision in Black Panther. By limiting the number of white figures in the film, Coogler is able to develop a number of black political characters who are not all unified; who have a range of different backgrounds, experiences, and forward-thinking concerns. This basic level of inclusion might set a relatively low bar, but very few Hollywood movies manage to pass the test. Black Panther, along with Coogler’s other recent films, will hopefully help change this standard in the near future.

For more on BP, check out these takes:

Manohla Dargis, NYT —“‘Black Panther’ Shakes up the Marvel Universe

Brooke Obie, Shadow & Act—“In Defense Of Erik Killmonger And The Forgotten Children Of Wakanda”

Wesley Morris & Jenna Wortham, Still Processing (Podcast)—”We Sink Our Claws Into ‘Black Panther’ with Ta-Nehisi Coates”

Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker— “‘Black Panther’ and the Invention of Africa”

Sonia Rao, Washington Post—”The Resurgence of Afrofuturism Goes Beyond Black Panther

More Miscellany from the OS trollers:

Pankaj Mishra goes all in in his LRB critique of TNC . WIRED goes deep on Facebook’s scandal-ridden past two years.Harvey Silvergate on why Harvard hired another Larry. Boston Dynamics releases another apocalyptic robot vid, Olympians meet their Black Mirror future, and Tesla workers get left behind. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for president + 35 other prospective Trump challengers. Jim Risen on the NSA’s secret channel to Russia + Adrien Chen’s old piece on Russia’s troll factory. Dream Defenders defends Ahed Tamini, with signatures from Robin Kelley, Michelle Alexander, Talib Kweli, Tef Poe, Patrisse Cullors, Vic Mensa, and Danny Glover, among others. Don’t count Mikaela Shiffrin out because Vermont skiers are the best in the world. It’s about the ice and the rocks!

Happy Birthday: Judy Blume

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Say it, and sing it, Amanda Palmer!

Amanda Palmer with Judy Blume Photo by Garrett Burns

Be on the look out for the post cards coming your way, Open Source Patrons and deltiologists. Susan Coyne has collected five of her favorites. Sign up for Patreon here and don’t miss out!

Til next week,

The OS Band

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org