SPIDER-MAN BEEN BLACK by Micheaux Mission

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Like all good and true Black nerds (or, “blerds,” if you will.  I don’t really “blerd” myself because I’m a traditionalist that respects the Oxford comma, two spaces after a period and, yes, actual words as opposed to some unnecessary amalgamation of two terms. But do you.), I am beyond the moon excited about the success of Spider Man: Beyond The Spiderverse.  Besides the fact that it’s a smart, kinetic, joyous, snap-crackle-pop celebration of everything that makes superheroes wonderful, …Spiderverse is also the culmination of the ascendancy of Miles Morales, the Black Spider-man.  As an aforementioned Black nerd (yes, yes, or “blerd”), and, one of a certain age, I am truly enjoying pop culture’s embrace of the concept of the Black Spider-man.  Of course, according to my mom, Spider-man has always been Black.

Some background:  I don’t think my parents were extraordinarily political.  Neither of them participated in any formal Civil Rights Movement activism.  There was a copy of Roots in the house and I remember my Dad buying The Color Purplewhen it was a thing but that’s it for extensive Black literature.  Well, my aunt was in the Nation of Islam so a copy of Eat To Live gathered dust on top of the refrigerator.  My siblings and I did get a lot of, “don’t embarrass us/act like you come from something” as we ventured out into our integrated environment. But that’s it.  I think our family was like most Black families vis-à-vis what we’d call, “wokeness.”; real regular.

            There was one detail that does stick out, however. My mother did not play with the images her kids were exposed to.  All the art in our house had black people in them.  Our books had to feature Black characters or, at the very least, anthropomorphic animals (lot of Beatrix Potter and Frog & Toad in my house.)  My sister had all Black baby dolls, and me and my brother were only supposed to play with Black/nonwhite action figures.

            If you know anything about nerdom, you can figure out how this was a problem.  Remember folks; we’re talking late seventies here.  There was no Black Panther or John Stewart or Cyborg action figures to choose from. Nope.  If you were a kid and wanted a superhero action figure, you had to play with a Mego one and, except for Falcon, “The BLACK superhero,” your choices were the standard Batman, Robin, Superman, etc.  And my mother was not happy about it.  In her defense, I ended up owning a fair number of them but, again, it was like pulling teeth to get my mother to relent.  Now, Hulk, I could do because, well, green.  Funny enough, I could slip the Human Torch through too because the flames covered up his face.  

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            But my absolute favorite superhero figure was Spider-Man.  Outside of Batman and Superman, Spider-Man is the most iconic figure in the American mythology of superheroes.  The really fascinating aspect of the figure and, what’s relevant to our conversation, is that Spider-Man’s face is covered.  That means he could be anyone under that mask.  And, yes, as far as I was concerned-and my mom too!-that means Spider-Man could be Black.  So, that meant, when one of my Spider-man figures, uh, mysteriously came up broken, my Mom didn’t fight too hard to grab me a replacement one.  In the Williams household, Spider-Man was always Black.

            This actually makes sense for a few reasons. Now, we can get high falutin’, if you want to, and examine the historical, cultural and entomological antecedents of the character.  Everyone agrees that Spider-Man is a trickster character; he’s strong, yes, but his greatest attribute is his wit.  He uses humor to disarm and confuse his opponents.  Now, historically, there are trickster characters all over the world; Reynard the Fox from European folklore, Anansi the Spider from African traditions, hell, pre-United States, on this continent, coyote tricksters appear throughout Indigenous stories.  Again, the imagery is not unique.  But, when we talk about tricksters in the American tradition, we talk about B’rer Rabbit. And ol’ B’rer Rabbit is one hundred percent African American.  There are plenty of parallels between B’rer Rabbit-not to mention his more famous sanitized version, Bugs Bunny-and Spider-Man and, if you focus on them, boom, Spidey is Black.  So, yeah, you can go that route if you wanted to.

            Honestly, I don’t think you have to do all that to. If you really want to make the case that Spider-Man should be Black all you have to do is describe his life.    Spider-Man is perpetually trying to make ends meet as he juggles school and work. Spider-Man has a sick relative that depends on him.  Spider-Man is maligned and lied on by the press. (Seriously, how are the Daily Bugle’s choices for him, “threat or menace?”?  What kind of Fox News nonsense is THAT?)  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but, uh, the police are always harassing and shooting at him.  Spider-Man is a character whose life is informed by unspeakable tragedy but, regardless, he rises above it all to do what needs to be done with wit and style and, most importantly, he looks damn good as he does it.  And, if that ain’t Black, I don’t know what is.  There’s a quote I always go back to from writer Thulani Davis; “Always Negroes doing fabulous, unheard of things and always with style, even if the minks and gloves were borrowed.” Spider-Man is b-boys and Black Twitter and Black Boy Joy and Black Lives Matter all rolled up in a package that everyone admires but, because of the unspeakable tragedy and huge responsibility he carries, no one wants to actually become.  To paraphrase another great writer, Paul Mooney, everyone wants to be a Spider-Man but don’t nobody want to be a Spider-Man.

            So, yes, I have been a fan of Miles Morales since day one. And I’m super happy with the success of the character as well as Spider-Man: Enter The Spiderverse.  I’m also ecstatic for all the little brown children who see themselves in such an iconic character as we move into more inclusive and multicultural fandoms. But my mom?  She always knew the score.  Spider-Man been Black.


— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission

Anatomy of a Soundtrack: Trouble Man (1972) by Micheaux Mission

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I think the thing I love so much about Trouble Man is that it shouldn’t work as well as it does.  First and foremost, the Trouble Man soundtrack is probably one of the most fascinating seventies soundtracks because it’s for a film that was immediately forgettable. Additionally, in the age of Blaxploitation soundtracks that delivered such classics as Shaft, Superfly and Sparkle, Marvin Gaye’s foray into the genre is mostly instrumental, so much so that its probably more accurate to call it a score with one or two vocal songs. Along those lines, Trouble Man is not something that seems like it is representative of Gaye during this period.  

Arguably, the fount of Gaye’s creative force throughout the seventies was how he managed to channel his personal demons and complicated experience into achingly beautiful art.  While it’s true that the social commentary of What’s Going On is his greatest achievement, the iconic musician channeled his personal life into the bulk of seventies output.  Gaye created two albums, I Want You and Let’s Get It On focused on his longtime yearning for the sixteen year old Janis Hunter, (which, uh, I guess at some point, we’re going to have to address that, huh?)  He also exorcised the demons associated with his disintegrating marriage to Anna Gaye through the viscerally uncomfortable listening experience of Here, My Dear.  Marvin Gaye turned his life into music.  Yet, somehow, Marvin Gaye stepped outside of himself and created a fascinating score to a film that, frankly, didn’t deserve it.

Trouble Man   is a 1972  blaxploitation   film  directed by  Ivan Dixon  and produced and released by  20th Century Fox . The film stars  Robert Hooks  as "Mr. T.", a hard-edged private detective who tends to take justice into his own hands. — Wikipedia

Trouble Man is a 1972 blaxploitation film directed by Ivan Dixon and produced and released by 20th Century Fox. The film stars Robert Hooks as "Mr. T.", a hard-edged private detective who tends to take justice into his own hands. — Wikipedia

Scores are difficult to pull off.  On the one hand, they have to provide a necessary backdrop to the action occurring on the screen.  It’s a vitally important part of the film landscape (and, if you don’t think so, next time you watch a movie, try and imagine the action with no aural framing at all…) but it almost has to be an invisible one.  There are a few notable exceptions - John Williams’ work comes to mind immediately-but, for the most part, a score cannot distract from the more important part of the action…uh, the action.

In the case of seventies Black films, the score had an even more thankless job.  While aficionados acknowledge the quality of the work that Earth, Wind & Fire did on Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, when most of us think of the music in Blaxploitation era movies, we start with Isaac Hayes’ legendary theme to Shaft and, immediately, go right to an acknowledgement of Curtis Mayfield’s extraordinary work on Superfly.  And, while those two albums are classic examples of seventies soul, in a lot of ways, they distorted the expectations of what music sounded like in the later Black films.  Yes, most of the films from this era had scores but, let’s face it, cats were there for the explosive soundtracks.

So hungry was the public for these post-Mayfield and Hayes’ efforts that folks ate up soundtracks for movies that weren’t even that good. Trouble Man definitely fits the bill.  I have to admit; I think I’ve seenTrouble Man one time and I have absolutely no memory of it.  Pretty sure it’s something about Robert Hooks and he’s a detective or hitman or a lawyer or a ski instructor or something.  Oh!  It looks like Ivan Dixon directed it!  That’s kind of interesting!

But the album itself?  Magnificent. It begins, appropriately enough, with “Main Theme From Trouble Man,” a bluesy, saxophone driven instrumental that serves as opening salvo and leads right into a funked up saxophone riff played over the ri-di-cu-lous drums in “T Plays It Cool” (for my sample heads, this is the joint that those horn come from in Jazzy Jeff’s “Touch of Jazz…) With the lush strings, subdued piano and, yes, more saxophone on the third track, “Poor Abby Walsh,” you begin to get a sense of Gaye’s approach.  He is creating an atmosphere and sense of place through instrumentation and, only when the situation requires it, (in the case of “Poor Abby Walsh”, three minutes into a four minute song,) does Gaye utilize the greatest instrument he commands: his voice.  This construction of an aural landscape, one that is sexy, urban, urbane and melancholy, continues throughout the next two tracks.  Then, exactly halfway through the album, Gaye drops the bomb. “There’s only three things that are sure: taxes, death and trouble.”  “Trouble Man” is a Blaxploitation theme as interpreted by a visionary in complete command of his gift and what he believes Blackness should sound and make you feel like.

 

“I know some places and I've seen some faces
I've got good connections-they dig my directions
What people say that's okay
They don't bother me”

 

Indeed.

 

And Marvin Gaye, being Marvin Gaye, of course comes down from that high with “Theme From Trouble Man” featuring an oboe.  Because, what else would you use but an oboe? But, that’s all you get.  There’s a bit of reprise but the vocals on the theme are the extent of Marvin Gaye singing on the album.  It’s a ballsy move.  While, yes, the dark lushness of the production on his albums are a great feature, Gaye is known as a singer, first and foremost.  For him to really focus on the instrumental side of his talent reflected, not only a level of confidence in his craft, but a single-mindedness of purpose that, frankly, putsTrouble Man more in line with the torturous Here, My Dear than anything else.

Y’know, when we talk about Marvin Gaye, we divide him into two periods: the classic Motown phase and the auteur phase as he moved into the seventies. Unsurprisingly, I’m a seventies man.  I respect that early sixties, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” era but, yeah, it does have a bit too much of the Baby Boomer stink on it for my taste. Now, without question, What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, and I Want You are iconic soul standards.  And, again, Here, My Dear is one of the rawest representations of regret, anger and sadness I’ve ever heard.  But I’m always drawn back to the smoky, wine colored ambience of Trouble Man.  Yes, Gaye was hired to make one of those, oh so hot, Blaxploitation soundtracks but, in true Marvin Gaye fashion, he made something that was totally his vision. And I bet it was no trouble at all.

— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission

 

The Magic Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Micheaux Mission

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By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar

Hollywood is so equitable, you don’t have to be a negro to be a Magic Negro. Sure, the cliche is so typically a black dude, hence the name, but Mr. Miyagi is also playing the Magic Negro role.

The problem with the Magic Negro role is he doesn’t have a goal of his own; he sacrifices his life for the hero and he lacks community, history and his own story. One of the oldest examples of this is possibly “Nigger Jim” from Mark Twain’s 1884 classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yup, this cinematic trope comes from the great American Novel. But more precisely, it’s a thing of the American imagination: black people don’t have histories, they’re just here to help us, and we get the credit. Three guesses on who ‘we’ are?

There are tons of cinematic examples of the Magic Negro from Morpheus in the Matrix, Will Smith’s character from Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy AND Shawshank Redemption, Michael C Duncan in the Green Mile and plenty others. In the remake of Robocop, Michael K Williams literally dies twice so that our hero can live. And you don’t have to be a dude to be a Magic Negro: Hattie McDaniels, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer won Oscars being agenda less, sexless and sacrificial to help some white folks get over the hump. I don’t mean to suggest that these women are not amazing, award worthy actresses, but it’s noteworthy that these are the roles they’re recognized for.

The same is true for the Manic Pixie dream girl. Think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Angelina Jolie from Wanted or Zooey Deschanel from 500 Days of Summer. Another way to describe this cliche is the ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ These women have nothing to do in their lives but sleep with a loser guy to make him feel better about himself, no strings attached. Again, this character seems to exist as extremely attractive, available and aggressive in pursuing and encouraging of our protagonist, usually a man.

Curiously, the Magic Pixie Dreamgirl is rarely ever a sista. Only Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man comes to mind. This film is so problematic… of course it checks all the boxes. Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart are pretty foggy in my memory, but I seem to recall them fitting the bill too. Is the issue that black women aren’t easily imagined as ‘quirky, and supportive,’ or is it that in order to have a Magic Pixie Dreamgirl, you need a white man as a protagonist?

This tradition is old and played out. There is an idea that race IS background, history, description, etc. That frumpy quirky girl or sage black/ Japanese/ Latino/ Native American dude who seeks to rescue our hero and make him better. They pour everything they have, know and are into the white guy, because that’s how the world should be. Regardless of how lazy and undeserving this makes the hero look, it’s OK, he’s ‘chosen.’ A film like Django Unchained tries to flip the trope on its head, to marginal success. The problem isn’t race, it’s poor storytelling. But the race stuff is a problematic too. Even Howard the Duck gets the treatment. And he’s a duck.

If this were the 80’s, I’d turn and say, “Brotha’s need idle, helpful, white women to support their inadequacies and desires too.” But alas, we’re more woke than that these days.  (And if it wasn’t clear, that was a joke, folks.)

Ironically, we can look to the 1980 for a great couple examples of minorities; race and gender,  in cinema. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back includes Lando Calrissian and Princess Leia. Both have backstories, goals and agendas that don’t necessarily correspond with the protagonist. Lando is Han’s old friend but he’s got responsibilities now so he sell’s Han out. Leia isn’t just available for any old guy to pick up. She’s got a rebellion to lead. Sometimes she’s helping Luke and Han… sometimes they’re helping her. Leia is an example of how a woman can be a romantic interest, an enabler and a whole person. Lando is an example of how ‘The Other’ can be normal, interesting and not just a throwaway character. One typical trope of the magic negro is that he’s neutered. Lando is not Neutered.

Now Yoda, is a whole different story. Yoda is chillin’ on Degoba, waiting for a young helpless (white) boy to show up. Then the Jedi Master teaches Luke everything he knows, imparts some sage wisdom, and, his work being done here… promptly dies. If that ain’s some movie n!&&@ s#!+, I don’t know what is. Equal rights for puppets, yo! Puppet lives matter!

So, my point is, Hollywood knows better. And on occasion, Hollywood does better. But typically, in the movies black folks and cute white women are just scaffolding to help white boys become men. And the sistas. The sista’s don’t exist unless they’re light skinned, or playing Mammy.  What’s really funny though, is when you meet a white boy who’s seen too many movies, and thinks you’re going to be their footstool to greatness. Yeah, that’s real funny, until one gets elected.


Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, and habitual line stepper.