Film

“Fight the Power” Examines the Many Faces of the Black Screen Superhero

BAMcinématek’s adventurous series takes stock of the forebears of the around-the-corner “Black Panther”

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Black superheroes are in vogue, and we’re talking about the classic kind: masks, costumes, double lives, awe-inspiring abilities superior to those of the common man. The past five years have seen a surge in the representation of Black superheroes, starting with the small screen and such shows as Netflix’s Luke Cage or, more recently, CW’s Black Lightning, both of which have crucially filled a historical void in television. And, of course, after having gravitated in the margins of Captain America: Civil War, it is now time for T’Challa to get front and center at the multiplexes for Ryan Coogler’s much-anticipated Black Panther (out next Friday, February 16), the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But if Black Panther is rightfully significant, specifically because it is a mega-budgeted Hollywood production helmed by a young Black auteur, it is in no way an anomaly. At least, this is part of what the people at BAMcinématek seem to be saying with their current series, “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film.” Through an eclectic selection of nearly thirty films covering everything from blaxploitation B movies to horror classics to auteur flicks, the program attempts to trace an original history of the Black — and sometimes “super” — hero.

At first glance, the selection is intriguing in its sheer variety. There are critically panned films (Pitof’s Catwoman, from 2004); cinephile gems (George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, 1968; Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen, 1987); even sci-fi (Frank Packard’s 1977 Abar, about a scientist who concocts a special elixir, thereby transforming his Black activist bodyguard into “the first Black Superman”). With this dazzling array, BAM’s senior programmer, Ashley Clark, who organized the series, is posing several questions: What have been the various manifestations of the Black superhero? What other forms and configurations are still possible? What possibilities have these films opened? Because of Clark’s continuous exploration of Black stardom — including with his ambitious “Black Star” film season — we know that the series will also be about the many faces of cinema’s Black leading men and women.

Some of the blockbuster entries here will be familiar to spectatorsincluding the Wesley Snipes–led Blade franchise, screening here on a double bill. Much of the effervescence surrounding Black Panther has tended to leave out mention of Marvel’s vampire slayer, and yet Blade is a tried-and-true superhero, with a mythology as Achillean as possible: He’s the son of a woman who died after a vampire bit her while she was giving birth. A horror film in its most graphic moments of gruesome bodily explosions, Blade peruses a dystopian underworld in which humans and vampires are at war. Directed alternately by Stephen Norrington, Guillermo Del Toro, and David S. Goyer, the franchise was gothic before the superhero genre really turned gothic under the morose helm of the likes of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder.

“Fight the Power” clearly gives prominence to horror and thrills, but it doesn’t forget the comic variations of the genre, like Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997) and Robert Townsend’s The Meteor Man (1993). Townsend’s movie, turning 25 this year, follows the meek schoolteacher Jefferson Reed (played by Townsend himself), who, after a spectacular encounter with a meteorite, transforms into “Meteor Man” and starts fighting crime. With a star-studded cast — among whom a hilarious, wig-changing James Earl Jones shines the brightest — Townsend movingly explores and reactualizes the comics of his childhood, drawing on totems like Green Lantern or Flash Gordon. It’s a vintage film that doesn’t take itself seriously, but it’s not a simple parody, either. (Interestingly enough, Townsend returned to the genre a few years later for the 2000 Disney Channel Original Movie Up, Up, and Away.)

The most adventurous — and downright delightful — inclusion is a diamond of animated cinema: Kirikou and the Sorceress. Released in 1998 and directed by France’s Michel Ocelot, Kirikou presents a protagonist whose salient trait — endearment — is a rarity in the superhero canon. The choice to include Kirikou alongside hard-charging enforcers of the Blade variety appears surprising at first, but quickly makes sense: One of the main ambitions of the program is to redefine our traditional, conservative conception of what a superhero is or can be, and the naked Kirikou is nothing if not a defier of expectations.

The film begins with a memorable scene in which Kirikou instigates his own birth, popping out of his mother’s womb and even picking out his own name. The most talkative of newborns, he can already walk, and also possesses a sense of morality. Unlike his brethren in the MCU, he doesn’t save the world, but rather just his own province: a small village in an unnamed African country. (The music, by Youssou N’Dour, indicates both Senegal and Guinea. Being myself Senegalese by way of Guinea, the way the characters express themselves also says Senegal, but the movie leaves the question open.) “Kirikou is small in size but he’s very wise,” the villagers sing every time the precocious infant saves them from the tricks of the sorceress Karaba, which include possessed trees and pirogues. Wise and mature like its leading character, Kirikou and the Sorceress has no time for villains, at least not the typical kind that exist only to be killed. The hero’s obsession with understanding why Karaba is so “nasty and mean” — and the bravery he shows by endangering himself to know the origins of the sorceress’s evil — makes him the most idiosyncratic superhero of the diverse BAM bunch. Kirikou is small in size, but he sets an elevated standard for this high-flying genre.

‘Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film’
BAMcinématek
Through February 18

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