‘Black Panther’s’ superpower allows it to leap over other superhero movies in a single bound More than a cool-looking bit of escapism, it’s a meditation on colonialism

This review contains spoilers.

The most anticipated superhero movie of the year, and quite possibly ever, is a movie about foreign policy.

In Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler has crafted a thoughtful, personal, detailed exploration of the implications of isolationism and colonialism. It’s gorgeous, emotional and full of inventive, eye-popping fight scenes. And it’s also a really good movie, and not just by the curved standards we’ve developed for standard superhero tentpoles.

Honestly, the worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president. (The producers of The Final Year, the documentary about former President Barack Obama’s real-life Justice League of Wonks and Nerds, must be kicking themselves.)

Try to imagine all the regal African pageantry of Black Panther’s Los Angeles premiere, copied and pasted onto the East Wing of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Had Black Panther been released while Obama was in office and enjoyed a screening at the White House, it would have made for some powerful symbolism, with Obama, the biracial son of a Kenyan graduate student, greeting Chadwick Boseman, the son of Howard University who plays T’Challa, the king of the movie’s mythical African nation of Wakanda. It also would have offered a lasting rebuke to the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of a different and deadlier fantasy, The Birth of a Nation. (PBS recently aired Birth of a Movement, a documentary that illustrates the way film, particularly D.W. Griffith’s racist Klan propaganda film, became a powerful force in influencing policy.)

It’s quite moving, then, to consider the message embedded within Black Panther, spread through every inch of Hannah Beachler’s meticulously luscious production design, every stitch of Ruth E. Carter’s costuming creations, every word of dialogue conceived by Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole.

The worst thing about Black Panther is that it had to be released in 2018 and not during the term of America’s first black president.

Boseman may be the titular star of Black Panther, but the emotional core of the movie lies with the character of Erik Killmonger, who is T’Challa’s cousin and a lost son of Wakanda. Coogler reserved the most complex role for his friend and leading man of his two most recent films, Michael B. Jordan.

Killmonger grew up in the slums of Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, with his American mother. His father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), was brother to T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani).

N’Jobu and T’Chaka had a fundamental disagreement over Wakanda’s role in the world. The country is a magical one, built on a foundation of the mythical substance vibranium, and hidden in plain sight in West Africa. Vibranium is a substance of endless capability, a wonder of physics that absorbs the energy directed toward it, then uses it as fuel. When ingested, it possesses healing qualities, rendering surgery obsolete. When sewn into clothes, it turns into the sort of lightweight supersuit that Tony Stark could only dream of. Used as fertilizer, it nurtures a herb whose fruit allows those who ingest it to commune with the dead. To outsiders, Wakanda looks like an underdeveloped Third World nation, full of brush and goats. The people of Wakanda have pledged to guard its most closely held secret: that with technology powered by vibranium, it’s actually the most advanced society in the world, a place that makes Elon Musk’s house look like little more than a fancy pigsty.

There’s a compelling argument for keeping Wakanda, which accepts no foreign aid and does no importing or exporting, isolated from the rest of the world. Its people have witnessed how colonialism has ravaged the continent, stealing people and dividing families, poaching precious metals and natural resources, creating arbitrary borders and deadly conflicts and leaving corrupt governments in its wake.

In fact, in the rare instances when they encounter white people, Wakandans simply refer to them as “colonizers.”

But N’Jobu, dispatched to see the rest of the globe, encounters a world full of disenfranchised people who look like him, ignorant of the bounty of Wakanda and struggling against the effects of imperialism and systemic racism. He wants to use vibranium to help them. But T’Chaka says no, worried that once the world learns of Wakanda’s secret, it will suffer the fate of the rest of colonized Africa. At the least, Wakanda will be forced to defend itself against ill-intentioned and well-armed outsiders. When N’Jobu decides to subvert his brother’s orders, T’Chaka is forced to kill him, and little Erik discovers his father’s corpse.

About 20 years later, after the U.S. military and intelligence community has turned him into an efficient, merciless, death machine, Killmonger sets out to complete his father’s vision.

It’s too simplistic, and frankly unfair, to label Killmonger simply as a villain. He’s an angry, half-orphaned son of Wakanda whose mind has been colonized in ways he’s incapable of realizing. Without the support of his homeland and his people, lacking the spiritual grounding that protects vibranium and Wakanda, Killmonger grows into a Che Guevara-like figure. He commits what French philosopher Frantz Fanon called “horizontal violence” against his own people.

Therein lies the brilliance of Black Panther. Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence. With this film, Coogler illustrates the yawning expanse between self-indulgent brooding and true profundity.

Coogler puts on a filmmaking clinic, expertly navigating the tropes of superhero films that have made so many of them a chore instead of a joy. Coogler snatched one of Zack Snyder’s (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel) most irritating directorial habits, shooting action and fight scenes in the dark, and made it not just watchable but artful. That’s what happens when you have cinematographer Rachel Morrison at your service — you find natural ways to capture black people in action while retaining detail and color. Morrison recently became the first woman to be nominated for a cinematography Oscar for her work on Mudbound.

Superhero movies don’t have to be plotless monuments to excess and violence.

There is little that feels derivative, aside from the battle scenes with Wakanda’s flying saucers, which feel like they could easily appear in Guardians of the Ragnarok Star Wars, which isn’t wholly surprising given that they’re all Disney properties (full disclosure: Disney owns The Undefeated). The fight scenes in Black Panther feel original, and organic to the film. That’s a challenge considering how often Marvel employs the same second unit (the people who shoot and choreograph fight scenes) across its movies, which leads to a superhero battle homogeneity.

Everything about Wakanda is rooted in real African nations and peoples, such as the Masai, the Zulu, the Mursi and others, not the imagined “generic tribal African” who shows up in pop culture so often. For instance, the setting of the challenge battle, which determines who will ascend to the throne, is a nod to the natural majesty of Victoria Falls. Audiences have every right to be angry at cultural appropriation when it’s poorly done. Coogler and Black Panther prove that having such expectations is not unreasonable or misplaced.

There’s a quote from playwright and director George C. Wolfe that graces the walls of the Blacksonian in Washington. “God created black people,” said Wolfe, “and black people created style.”

That’s the essence of Wakanda.

Black Panther doesn’t feel like any other Marvel movie because this is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s coming out in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s on track to perform just as well as if not better than any highly anticipated summer blockbuster. It’s funny without falling into the sort of smart-aleck remark-smart-aleck remark-EXPLOSION rhythms that have come to typify Marvel movies to the point that somehow Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 don’t feel all that different. That’s not just a Marvel tic, that’s a Hollywood tic: Find something that works and then run it into the ground. Then reboot it, rebrand it and spin it off as long as it makes gobs and gobs of cash.

There is a requisite scene that connects the film to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a postscript that comes after the credits roll. It’s the only bit that feels like it was mandated by the company. Best of all, Black Panther doesn’t feel as though Coogler had to sacrifice the brilliance and introspection that characterized his earlier movies such as Creed and Fruitvale Station for scale and product licensing. Instead, it’s a compelling character study and full of mirth. That’s especially thanks to T’Challa’s upstart younger sister, Shuri, played by Guyanese actress Letitia Wright, Black Panther’s breakout actress. She’s witty, charming and completely unfazed by her brother’s enormous power and responsibility. She’s also Wakanda’s whip-smart gadget mistress, the Q to T’Challa’s Bond. Also notable are the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite, all-female corps charged with guarding the king. Remember the feeling that swelled from your gut to your heart and out your eyeballs while watching Diana Prince walk through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman? Witnessing the Dora Milaje, especially any scene that includes Okoye (Danai Gurira) or Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is like that, times 10.

At some point, I suspect that chatter surrounding Black Panther will turn to the 2019 Oscars. Black Panther’s masterful execution makes it an undeniably obvious choice. Not only does it have the revelatory newness of Avatar, but it actually has a story to back it up too.

But beyond the concerns of awards or box-office receipts, Black Panther is something special: thoroughly African and yet completely American, and evidence of just how much black people can and have yet to do. Perhaps it’s even capable, just as The Birth of a Nation once was, of helping to steer an entire national conversation.

Live from Sundance: from ‘Compton’ to ‘Mudbound’ and ‘The Chi’ — actor Jason Mitchell is the next superstar Next up? A ‘Get Out’-like film called ‘Tyrel,’ and he’s in the remake of ‘Superfly’

PARK CITY, UTAH — Come Tuesday morning, Jason Mitchell is hoping that he hears at least two familiar names called when the Academy Award nominations are announced. The Academy Awards — the Oscars — are the biggest honor in Hollywood and Mitchell, who starred in both Detroit and Mudbound, is hopeful that the two women who directed him in each of those films get their due.

You likely know Mitchell’s work from his excellent turn as rap icon Eazy-E in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Since then, he’s upped the ante by turning in impressive work in 2017’s Mudbound, 2017’s Detroit, and most recently in Showtime’s The Chi. It also was announced last week that he’ll be in the Superfly remake as Eddie; the film that will be directed by Director X and also will star Grown-ish actor Trevor Jackson as Youngblood Priest.

“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really dope women,” Mitchell says, at the Sundance Film Festival. “And Dee Rees and Kathryn Bigelow are two of those people who are being talked about. It would be good … to see them do their thing [at the Oscars]. It’s not my vision. I just came and did my job — they just told me exactly what to do, and I went over-the-top. [But] I think it would be nice to see women defy something.”

Mitchell is at the festival promoting his latest, Tyrel, a dramatic film about being the only black guy on a dude’s trip the weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and is being called “2018’s answer to Get Out”). It premiered Saturday night to a crowd that included Emmy-winner / The Chi creator Lena Waithe. Mitchell says he’s inspired by the #TimesUp movement and is ready to see the progression for women in the industry take place.

“Women know how to … fight for it,” he says, sitting on a couch in the Grey Goose Lounge off of the city’s Main Street, a space where actors like Jeffrey Wright, Debra Messing and John Cho are milling about. “I would just like for female directors to get what they deserve. Not just directors, females in the business in general. It’d be nice to see them on those stages.”

The person behind the Sundance Film Festival’s blackest year ever Brickson Diamond creates spaces for black creatives to thrive at the nation’s largest indie film festival

This time of year, every year for about the past decade, Brickson Diamond is among the most famous names in Park City, Utah. He’s not a filmmaker in the traditional sense, but he sure sees to it that black films and black film creatives are represented, supported and (when a delicious bidding war gets underway) properly feted at the annual Sundance Film Festival.

“I’m just an interloper,” he deadpans. Nah — he’s selling himself way too short.

This year, Diamond, who heads up Blackhouse — the foundation that helps expand opportunities for black content creators in film, television, digital and emerging platforms — is celebrating a major coup: A record 39 black films are being presented at the largest independent film festival in the United States; Sundance was founded in 1978.

“I gotta be honest,” says Diamond, whose actual job is chief operating officer of an independent corporate advisory firm called Big Answers LLC. “I don’t believe there are any more black creators than there used to be, I just think there are more pathways for their voices to be heard. Sundance’s palate, the palate of the festival, and the palate of the audiences have been refined in a way that makes appropriate room for all these stories.”

And the room, thankfully, is now a little bigger.

Diamond’s mission officially kicked off at the festival 11 years ago, but the seed was planted in 2005 when he attended for the first time. He was visiting with some friends from business school — he was the lone black guy in the house — and someone scored a few tickets to a film screening for something called Hustle & Flow.

“My favorite is when black people show up with their luggage like, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but Blackhouse is here, so now I’m here.’ ”

“They were like, ‘Well, Brickson will go and see that!’ I was like, ‘OK, I will …,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It was my first Sundance movie. [The screening] was in a gymnasium … the basketball hoops were kind of pushed on the side. The cast got up and they were crying, all happy, and loving it. You see [other] people running up and down the aisles the whole movie. It turns out they were making offers for the film, and they were doing it before the credits rolled. … Fast-forward and you watch the release, and you watch the Academy Award nominations, and you watch, you know, Three 6 Mafia at the Oscars.” It was a moment.

So Blackhouse was birthed in 2007, and that year there were seven black films at Sundance. “We were real generous: black director, black subject matter or black star lead — so if Danny Glover’s in a movie, we counted it.” It was a starting point. What was missing was programming.

“My favorite is when black people show up with their luggage like, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but Blackhouse is here, so now I’m here.’ And we help [them] understand … how to navigate this world as we push the festival,” Diamond says.

The foundation has since expanded, creating a presence at spaces like the Tribeca Film Festival, the LA Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest. At this year’s Sundance festival, Blackhouse is hosting loads of activities, including programming like a panel on diverse storytelling that features Jada Pinkett Smith, Effie Brown, Poppy Hanks, Radha Blank, Lena Waithe and Christine D’Souza Gelb. There’s a “Women of Color in Hollywood” panel that will be moderated by Angela Rye, as well as a panel that will include producer Tonya Lewis Lee and Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer (and now Hollywood producer) John Legend.

But, of course, most of the focus is on what is coming out of Sundance. And the expectation is that a film like Monster — featuring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas, John David Washington and Jeffrey Wright — is going to be a festival smash. Also on deck: Blindspotting with Daveed Diggs; Skate Kitchen with Jaden Smith; A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night with Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good; Come Sunday with the aforementioned Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and Burden with Forest Whitaker and Usher Raymond.

Yet, with as much progression as has happened, there’s still more work to be done. Diamond is ready for more even more diverse representation at the festival, and he’ll also be looking for a spark for the next movement.

“I hope that on the ground at Sundance, we’re not just seeing more black people everywhere, but we see them engaged … right? [And] my Asian-American brothers and sisters, and my LatinX brothers and sisters, and my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, and my indigenous brothers and sisters, all are repping for each other. We all need a seat at these tables so that … increasingly diverse consumers can be satisfied. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

‘Mudbound’ is an American classic. Will that be enough to sway anti-Netflix Oscar voters? A heart-wrenching and masterfully executed look at the legacy of Jim Crow

I can’t wait to see how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handles Mudbound.

Within the academy, there’s an institutional aversion to Netflix, the streaming giant that’s upended how we see movies, much to the chagrin of traditional distributors and movie theater exhibitors. But if ever there was a Netflix film that deserves to break through the bias, it’s Mudbound, a heart-wrenching, masterfully executed period epic from director Dee Rees.

Mudbound, which opens Nov. 17, takes the idea of two Americas popularized in the early 1960s by Michael Harrington and pivots from his thesis of a country divided by class to explore the way poor Americans of The Other America are divided by race. Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, the film follows two families in the lead-up to World War II: the Jacksons, who are black, and the McAllans, who are white. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land, and both have sons who end up fighting for their country.

It’s almost Shakespearean, except unlike the Capulets and Montagues, the Jacksons and McAllans need each other, even if they don’t see themselves as the same. That goes double for Pappy McAllan, the family’s racist, sexist patriarch played with expert precision by Jonathan Banks. Pappy’s an irascible vestige of the Confederacy who is short on tact and long on grievances with everything around him, from the black people contributing to his family’s livelihood, to his daughter-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan). While the McAllans may not have much — in fact, they have so little that Pappy sleeps in a lean-to — the Jacksons have even less.

Still, if there’s anything like a great equalizer, it’s military service, and both the Jacksons and the McAllans experience anguish as sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) head off to kill Germans. Mary J. Blige gives a stunning performance as Ronsel’s mother, Florence. Her emotions, especially in front of Pappy’s daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan), his favored son, Henry (Jason Clarke), and other white people, are layered and controlled, rendering Blige nearly unrecognizable. It was nearly 45 minutes into the film before I realized why Florence felt so familiar — she’s played by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Florence is worried about her son and how the family will manage to break even in his absence, especially after her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), suffers a gruesome injury. Laura worries about her brother-in-law Jamie, who is everything his father can’t stand: cultured, charming and not remotely cut out for farm work. Before he shipped off to Europe he even dabbled in acting. While Pappy may seem indifferent to his son’s fate, Laura insisted on moving a piano into their dirt-floor shack and sees Jamie as more than just a cosmopolitan nuisance.

It’s Laura and Florence who find a way to bridge the racial divide, if only because it’s key to their continued existence. Farming in the Mississippi Delta is backbreaking, frustrating, never-ending work, especially without the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.

Rees also leaves her stamp on the Mudbound script, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams, weaving in some thematic continuity from her stint as the writer/director of the HBO biopic Bessie. There’s a line in Bessie in which the famed blues singer from the early 20th century explains the difference between Northern and Southern racism. Northern whites, she says, don’t mind if you get big as long as you don’t get too close. And Southern whites don’t mind if you get close so long as you don’t get too big.

Once Ronsel returns from commanding a tank in Belgium, it becomes clear that he’s way too big for his white countrymen in Mississippi, and they’re itching to take him down a peg.


Hollywood’s anti-Netflix bias, the one that likely killed the Oscar chances of Beasts of No Nation in 2016, has scared off some independent filmmakers who want their films to have a shot during awards season. When a bidding war erupted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 for Birth of a Nation, for instance, Netflix had the highest offer. But director Nate Parker went with Fox Searchlight, betting that the company and the film would be better received when it came to award campaigning.

Mudbound highlights how much the motion picture academy needs to get over its Netflix snobbery. Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects. Its best recent films have boasted directors of color: 13th (Ava DuVernay), Okja (Bong Joon-ho), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and now Mudbound. Minority directors do not often have the luxury of dismissing generous offers from Netflix. So when the members of the academy turn up their noses at the company, they’re also dismissing some of the best work Hollywood has to offer. If Mudbound is ignored during awards season because the academy and other industry groups can’t get over their aversion to Netflix’s business model, it will only reflect poorly on them. Mudbound is just that good.

Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects.

Rees directs Mudbound with a confidence often anathema to mainstream film. She trusts her audience to follow her around narrative blind corners. And so, as Mudbound unfolds, it inspires engagement and curiosity. Every small choice Rees makes is a deliberate one with immense payoff. There are no extravagances, no unexplained moments that could have been done away with in the edit bay. (That’s why I’m revealing so little of the plot. It’s best if you come to it cold.)

If there’s a downside to Mudbound, it’s that most audiences will experience it from the comfort of their couches, or on their laptop or tablet screens. This is a film ideally experienced on the biggest screen possible. A theatrical audio system allows for a full appreciation of Damian Volpe and Pud Cusack’s chillingly immersive sound design, which captures the misery of a midsummer driving rain on the Gulf Coast and the thick, squelching morass of waterlogged Mississippi Delta silt loam.

On the other hand, Netflix, which boasts more than 50 million American subscribers, offers ample opportunity for almost anyone to witness a magnificent work of art — one that brings us face-to-face with the massive cruelties and savage inequalities of Jim Crow and forces us to reckon with its legacies. Here’s hoping the academy sees it the same way.

Without Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion, there is no ‘Moonlight’ Why the motion picture academy is honoring the director of a film about slaughtering sheep

There’s no Moonlight without Charles Burnett.

Burnett, 73, is the director best known for his feature debut, Killer of Sheep. But beyond that, he’s the auteur behind To Sleep With Anger, arguably the best performance of Danny Glover’s career. His 1994 film The Glass Shield, which starred Ice Cube, was an exploration of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. With 23 directorial credits to his name, Burnett has had a massive impact on independent filmmaking.

On Saturday, he will be honored at the Governors Awards ceremony, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes contributions to the film industry. Its honorees usually include individuals who might not have been acknowledged with Oscars awarded during the academy’s ritzy annual televised fete, and they often include artists who have used their platforms to advocate for social change. Harry Belafonte, for example, received the board’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.

Nearly 40 years ago, Burnett was an upstart director at the forefront of a movement of students of color enrolled in UCLA’s film school. His thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made on a tiny budget, was beautifully poetic. It was about black people who didn’t have much money, and it starred first-time, untrained actors.

The film follows its main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse killing — you guessed it — sheep. He hates it, but he needs the income to support his family.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility. It’s a look at how doing something you hate for eight hours a day deadens your soul. And when that job involves taking life from another being, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from that killing and it can make you feel personally targeted by Murphy’s law. There’s a point in Killer of Sheep where Stan is planning to sell an engine to make a little extra cash. Alas, when he and his friend hoist it onto the back of a truck, it falls off almost as soon as they start driving. The engine block gets cracked, rendering it useless, and so they just leave it in the middle of the street, because really, what’s the point?

While he was able to work more than many of his UCLA classmates, Burnett didn’t engage in filmmaking as a way to get rich. Throughout his career, Burnett sought to highlight the humanity of black people and to stay true to his politics. When he wasn’t making his own films, he often served as a cinematographer on others.

The fact that the academy’s board of governors is bestowing an award upon Burnett the same year Moonlight won best picture makes for a lovely tribute and a fitting piece of symmetry. You see, the film that won best picture this year had the tiniest budget of any best picture. It was about black people who didn’t have much money. It starred first-time, untrained actors. It was the first film with an all-black cast to win best picture. It was lauded as a work of cinematic poetry. And Moonlight was helmed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, who, with both Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, seems to have carried forth Burnett’s legacy in black independent film.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility.

“There were many movies that should have been recognized before — at least up for an Academy Award or nominated,” Burnett said. “But I hope that what Moonlight does, the effect it would have or should have is that maybe Hollywood would look around and start releasing films that previously they thought would never make it, you know that … no white audience would be interested in. This sort of proves them all wrong, again and again. You know, so I hope it has a big change that they can start recognizing the potential of people who are really interested in seeing human stories, not just the typical car chases and violence continually being represented over and over and over again.”

The L.A. Rebellion

Burnett was part of a movement of filmmakers now known as the L.A. Rebellion. It comprised about 50 filmmakers, including Burnett, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa, Ashes and Embers), who attended UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992. Besides black students, it included Chicano and Asian students as well, all working to create a movement that rejected the confines that Hollywood had created for anyone who wasn’t white. The movement began when filmmaker and professor Elyseo J. Taylor began a program in the film department called Film and Social Change. Moonlight’s best picture win, in some ways, was a culmination of mainstream recognition of the principles for which the L.A. Rebellion had long been advocating.

The perspective of the L.A. Rebellion was originally informed by living through the Watts uprising of 1965, chafing at police violence and racism, housing segregation and discrimination. It’s filled with curiosity about black people’s African origins and their connections to their ancestors, and a love and commitment to seeing the beauty in themselves. Often, the works were more experimental than traditional Hollywood fare, rejecting three- or five-act structures with easily identifiable protagonists and antagonists. The work of the L.A. Rebellion was like a black American New Wave, influenced by Third World Film and Italian Neo-Realism because Hollywood was so centered on whiteness and white conceptions of blackness. L.A Rebellion filmmakers didn’t see a place for black authenticity, so they created one.

It was distinct from ’70s blaxploitation and more in the vein of the 1961 adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, although — and this is hugely significant — unlike A Raisin in the Sun director Daniel Petrie, these directors were actually black. They had far more control over the images they were presenting than Hansberry did when she agreed to work on the film version of Raisin, one of the notable depictions of a regular black family in Chicago.

Blaxploitation, which became so popular and so profitable in the 1970s, “didn’t show us who we really are,” Burnett said. “It was basically things that were entertaining at the expense of who we are as people and how it would affect generations to come. It didn’t show us who we are; it didn’t have any empathy.”

Burnett recounted a time, after one of his films had been shown at a festival, when an audience member told him he didn’t realize black people had washing machines.

Washing. Machines.

“I remember … seeing Japanese represent themselves on-screen and I was so surprised and taken, and I started looking at people differently and you see the effect of this constant barrage of distorted images, what it can do to you,” he continued. “So you can sort of understand how people looking at your films, the films of color, you know how it sort of opens their eyes and it makes you aware of people as human beings. I think that’s what art does, it makes you aware of these subtle things that we all share.”

Of all of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett had the most prolific career. Killer of Sheep, now nearly 40 years old, is a breathtaking work, even more so when considering Burnett made it while still a student.

“I was in New York, just starting my music video career, when Charles Burnett’s film — ‘The Sheep Movie,’ as we call it — sort of rattled everybody. … Like, wow, this is a real director,” said Paris Barclay, who in 2013 became the first black and first openly gay person to be elected president of the Directors Guild of America. “He’s one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’ It’s one of the things that led me out of music videos into doing feature film and then later television.”

Even though Saturday’s award is going to Burnett, it feels like a win for other directors from the L.A. Rebellion, such as Dash and Gerima. After they spent years outside the Hollywood system, the academy finally invited Dash and Gerima to join its ranks in 2016.

‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’

University of California, San Diego professor Zeinabu irene Davis, one of the last filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, is largely responsible for curating and preserving its history, which she compiled in the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema From Los Angeles. (She expects Spirits of Rebellion to be released on home video in the next year or so.)

“The legacy of Charles in American cinema is something that should be celebrated in a big way,” Davis said. “You know, too many times in the cinema history books, when you read about black cinema, most of the times it’s just a caption on the side. A still image from Killer of Sheep, and then just a caption underneath it. If you get really lucky, then it might be a paragraph. But I think that there should be more recognition of the contributions that the L.A. Rebellion film movement gave to American cinema, and especially American independent cinema in general. It should be honored, and it should be celebrated with more than just a brief mention.

“I wish there was more places where people could actually get to see his work, or more venues that would honor his work.”

This is what influence looks like

Burnett’s thematic, aesthetic and emotional markers are all over Moonlight, if you know what you’re looking for.

To the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, it wasn’t just important to create works that captured black people as they were, it was also important to include their communities in the storytelling, training them to be crew members or casting them in their films. That was also partly out of financial necessity — it took a village to make a film.

That’s a tradition Jenkins continued with Moonlight, and in interviews he’s talked about the fact that residents of Miami’s Liberty City housing projects appreciated having the Moonlight film crew’s lights around at night. Their presence helped make the neighborhood safer because drug dealers would shoot out the streetlights.

Killer of Sheep does not follow a conventional plot structure because it’s about existing with its main character, going about a day the way Stan does, and understanding why Stan feels the way he does. It’s meant to be contemplative. Moonlight functions similarly with its main character, Chiron. The difference is that it’s divided into three acts, and Chiron is played by three different actors at distinct points in his life.

There’s something striking about Killer of Sheep’s depiction of the dangers of ordinary life, from a scene of children playing on train tracks that has you holding your breath until they’re all safe to Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse. It’s shot in black and white, and the emphasis of the film is on understanding how Stan’s work and financial struggles color his interactions with his family and the way he lives his life. The film boasts an extraordinary soundtrack, which features music such as Paul Robeson singing “The House I Live In.” A tender scene between Stan and his wife (played by Kaycee Moore) is punctuated with Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s completely wordless yet utterly effective, not unlike the beach scene between Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

The bathtub scene in Moonlight, which shows Little (Alex Hibbert) heating water on the stove of his apartment, then carrying it to the tub, feels directly tied to Burnett and his insistence on capturing the unglamorous, everyday life of poor black people and finding the beauty and profundity in it. So do the scenes in which Jenkins captures black children playing, similarly elevated by Nicholas Britell’s score.

“[Burnett’s] someone that’s been long overlooked but is a seminal figure for many of us, along with Spike [Lee] in the late ’80s,” Barclay said. “We were just thinking, who are our voices out there? Who are we emulating? He was one of those people.”

So why is Burnett still a cult figure while Lee is probably the best-known black independent filmmaker of our time?

1) Lee is enormously prolific. He’s like a shark that never stops moving. He’s constantly creating, producing and influencing, and as a result he’s made about three times as many films as Burnett — some of which, admittedly, have been clunkers.

2) Lee is unapologetically outspoken. His Driving Miss Daisy rant is the filmmaker version of Allen Iverson and “practice.”

3) He helped establish his identity by putting himself in his movies. He has, essentially, branded himself. We don’t just know Lee as a director, but as Mars Blackmon, as a man who goes hard for Brooklyn, shows up at AfroPunk and never stops supporting the Knicks. He’s a New York institution.

Burnett, on the other hand, like so many black American jazz artists and social critics, found that he was far more celebrated overseas than he was at home.

“I think that was a saving grace in many ways, going over there and being written about in all the major magazines and newspapers,” Burnett said. “If you know your history, you sort of understand that — not that you accept it — but it makes you aware that things repeat themselves. And also gives you a sense of connectedness in the sense that you can look back at people like [James] Baldwin, Chester Himes and all those folks … like W.E.B. Du Bois. How we’re doing the same thing, and you feel a much closer connection with those folks you know because you experience what they experience. Like Josephine Baker. It’s both a plus and a minus.”

Because we’re still starved for equitable representations of blackness in pop culture despite the explosion of it in the past few years, it can be easy to overlook the parents of such images, especially if you didn’t learn about them in film school. That’s not just because we have short collective memories but because their work is often hard to find. To Sleep With Anger, which won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, can be streamed on Amazon video, but Killer of Sheep is only available on DVD, as is the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding. Similarly, when Gerima made Sankofa, the 1993 film that shares its name with his Washington, D.C., bookstore, he couldn’t acquire distribution, so he toured the film himself. It’s still not available on DVD or through a streaming service.

I asked Burnett what needs to happen for the traditions of the L.A. Rebellion to continue, to be remembered, to travel farther than the confines of the art house.

“There needs to be more of an education of the audience that you have to realize that if you see a film that you can respond to, you have to go out and support it immediately,” Burnett said. “You can’t wait for it to come on DVD. You have to show the studios and the producers the fact that these films are appreciated and they can make money, because if you wait till they come on television or on DVD or whatever it is, it loses its importance and effectiveness and influence, and towards influencing studios and people with money to finance these films.”

The spectacle of black pain CNN interview reveals the difficulty of covering natural disasters

From a media perspective, natural disasters are a difficult beast when it comes to ethical standards of coverage. While you want your audience to be informed, there is also the very difficult balance of doing your job, hurting any humanitarian efforts and, very plainly, exploiting your subjects.

Tuesday afternoon on CNN, viewers were treated to a live interaction that served as an incredible lesson in media ethics. To be clear, this criticism is not about the network itself necessarily. I’ve appeared on CNN multiple times in my career, and I haven’t been monitoring various outlets for the purposes of fair criticism. I just turned this on and saw what was leading up to and was instantly uncomfortable.

From what I recall, the question was basically about how she saved her children. But honestly, that didn’t really matter. She was going to say whatever she wanted to say. And good for her. A temporary shelter is not the place to start interviewing people like they are coaches coming off the field before halftime of a game. Sunday on NPR, I heard a teenage girl talking about the state of her family in a flooded house in which everyone was hanging out in the kitchen because that was the only room with a light.

Point is, as a business, we are all trafficking in this. The interview was just a particularly egregious example of how a shortsighted attempt at shedding light on something can in fact be harmful. It’s an EXTREMELY tricky balance for anyone who’s ever covered anything in real time that involves live broadcasting.

It’s hard to believe that they would have put a nonblack person in this situation. Over the past five years, images of black suffering have become en vogue, from movies about slavery winning Oscars to the constant images of our young men getting shot and killed looping on cable news networks across the nation. Is there value to exposing that to people, to understand what happened? Of course, that’s what this business is about. But there are diminishing returns, and for black folks in particular, it contributes to collective generational post-traumatic stress disorder, which is real.

And if you don’t believe me on that, you can click here, here, here or here.

Natural disaster coverage has no handbook. Of course, airing many of these stories is the connection it takes to make some people feel the need to give. But that doesn’t mean that the so-called greater good is always a fruitful endeavor. There is common sense, the drive to be first, the desire to help and everything in between. How that’s handled sticks with more than just media companies; it’s been known to ruin presidential reputations as well. Just ask Kanye West.

Colin Kaepernick’s hair is not our business. Michael Vick telling him to cut it is a problem. Vick’s job advice to the free-agent QB is one of the oldest plays in the ‘black isn’t beautiful’ playbook

When I was an intern at the Kalamazoo Gazette, one of the longtime reporters there pulled me aside to offer up a piece of advice: Cut your hair. More specifically, he said I wouldn’t get a job in journalism with “those things in your hair.” I could see the Jheri curl juice pooling in the pores of his forehead as he spoke.

I initially started growing my locs because of Speech from Arrested Development. As my hair grew along with my taste in music, I learned Bob Marley was a lot more political than the songs on his greatest hits compilation Legend would indicate. Still, I had not considered my locs to be a statement until I was told my hair was a problem by a black man who had relaxed his.

Of course, he was wrong.

But I can’t definitively say having locs didn’t cost me something along the way. Natural black hair makes some people uneasy. Long natural black hair can be downright frightening. Especially for the folks who unwittingly buy into the outlandish propaganda that deems Eurocentric features as the singular standard of beauty. The propaganda that helps fuel the millions spent on black hair care products such as relaxers and weaves and drives plastic surgery in Asia.

On an episode of The Talk, Sheryl Underwood jokingly said Afro hair was “nasty” before praising white hair as “beautiful.” It was like watching a skit from In Living Color minus the satire.

ESPN Video Player

This is why it’s difficult to entirely dismiss Michael Vick’s assertion that Colin Kaepernick needed to cut his hair to find a job in the NFL. We all know his hair has nothing to do with his play, but it does play a part in how he is viewed.

Consider that earlier this week NPR published a fascinating, and disturbing, report on the rash of little black girls being suspended from school for wearing their hair naturally. In September 2016, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that employers can ban natural hairstyles. The case started when Chastity Jones, a black woman in Alabama, was told by a white human resources rep that her locs were against company policy because they “tend to get messy.”

Even the iconic Viola Davis admitted that ditching her wigs and wearing her natural hair at the 2012 Oscars was an act of bravery.

I repeat: bravery.

That reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette didn’t mean anything malicious when he told me to cut my hair. Based upon his worldview, I am sure he believed he was doing me a favor. Just as Vick didn’t mean anything malicious when he talked about Kap’s ’fro, he was just suggesting he play the game. Notice he didn’t suggest Riley “I will jump back in and fight every n—– here” Cooper needed to cut his long hair before welcoming him back into the Philadelphia Eagles locker room, as Cooper doesn’t need to play the game. Or at least not the one blacks have been told they needed to play since Juneteenth. The problem, of course, is that the game’s rules keep changing.

We can relax our hair, cut our Afros, smear on bleaching cream, turn our laughter down or pull our pants up in a pointless effort to be more “presentable,” as Vick said. But embracing respectability politics as some sort of cure-all for systemic racism doesn’t end this game.

It just takes it into overtime.

A love letter to ‘Moonlight’ ‘The wins that ‘Moonlight’ earned were deserved, not because of #OscarsSoWhite’

Moonlight is the best picture of 2016.

This thought was in my head from the moment I first saw it, but I couldn’t say anything. As the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, I wasn’t interested in months of “you just picked that movie because it’s about black people” or “you’re a reverse racist.” So, I held my tongue and waited for the critical acclaim to translate into nominations and awards.

The culmination occurred as Jordan Horowitz, in a lovely example of grace, told the world that it was not his film that had won best picture, but Moonlight. We could have a conversation about that horrible snafu and the poor way that Jimmy Kimmel and Warren Beatty handled the situation, but I refuse to take even one more sentence away from what should be a celebration.

This year, I watched the Oscars for the first time since 2014. For the last two years, I engaged in counterprogramming on Twitter during the Oscars telecast by reasoning that if the Oscars don’t represent me or other marginalized communities, they don’t deserve my ratings, so I would not watch. Because of the significant increase in nominations of people of color this year, I decided to tune in. I watched in a studio greenroom with a diverse group of people: different races, genders, sexual orientation, and ages. To a person, it appeared that we were all rooting for Moonlight to win best picture. Not because it was a “black film,” whatever that means, but because it was the best film of the nine nominees. The film resonated with everyone in that room, even if it wasn’t about them.

Moonlight wasn’t about me. It is the coming-of-age tale of a young, poor, black gay man growing up near Miami. It didn’t tell MY story. But the story itself was beautiful and haunting. It stays with you, a relative rarity in this world of immediate consumption. I had the honor of seeing a screening of the film that preceded an audience talk-back session. A young man, perhaps around the same age as the character Black in the film, stood up and said in a voice broken by emotion, “I’ve never seen myself portrayed that way as a black, gay man.” Imagine that. Twenty years of going to the movies and never once being able to say that you saw yourself. That is what #OscarsSoWhite is about. The goal is that people can experience their stories reflected on the big screen, no matter who they are, what they look like, who they pray to, who they love, or what physical or mental challenges they may have.

The wins for Moonlight, not just at the Oscars but throughout the awards season, are wins for the black LGBTQIA community. It is the first LGBTQIA film to win the Academy Award for best picture. It is so important that they have a moment to bask in this acclaim. For too long, our gay brothers and sisters have been relegated to the shadows. We’ll use their vernacular and be inspired by their fashion sense, but only when it’s comfortable and convenient for us. They deserve to hold their heads even higher today because their complexity, their beauty, has been recognized by what is, for better or worse, the pinnacle of the film industry.

Moonlight is also a triumph for smaller films. The film was shot in under a month with a budget of approximately $1.5 million with a cast that is just now being introduced to many. Yet it garnered the second highest number of Oscars nominations for the year with eight. It is important not just that it received nods in the more popular categories of best actor and actress, directing, and best picture, but also in the adapted screenplay, cinematography, and editing categories, the latter of which gave Joi McMillon a nomination as the first black woman in this category. #OscarsSoWhite is about providing opportunities to filmmakers behind the camera as well. Moonlight is a great example of what can be achieved when an opportunity is provided.

The wins that Moonlight earned were deserved, not because of #OscarsSoWhite. Moonlight would have been a tour de force whether it was released in 1996 or 2016. It was also in preproduction long before I created the hashtag in January 2015. At best, #OscarsSoWhite may have encouraged some to see the film that may not have otherwise. But there’s no way to know that, and I take no credit for it. Moonlight won because it was a film that was so beautifully shot, it seemed that colors and silence were characters. A film so movingly acted that one would guess the three actors who played Chiron spent months learning each other’s cadence and movements instead of the fact that they had never met until after filming. If you need the stamp of approval from an awards show to go see a film, now is your chance. But many of us already knew what the academy announced last night: Moonlight is the best picture of 2016.

The Ryan Gosling Oscar meme was the whisper heard ’round the world The internet never fails to make awards shows more entertaining — and we’re here for it

The best part of watching any awards show is seeing the memes that are sure to follow. And during the 2017 Academy Awards last night, of course, the internet delivered. There was dozens of things for audience members to react to — whether it was Viola Davis’ gripping speech or host Jimmy Kimmel’s cringe-worthy “jokes,” a lot happened at the Oscars. And if you were lucky enough to be in the crowd, it was pretty hard to hide your reaction to some of this stuff. No one was safe, including Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling.

The evening’s host, Kimmel brought a group of tourists on stage in the middle of the awards show, where they were greeted by several of the celebrities in the audience. One of these celebrities happened to be Gosling, who took the opportunity to whisper a few sweet nothings into the ear of one unsuspecting guest, Vickie. Of course we have no idea what he said, but the internet waits for nobody, and speculation began to swirl within minutes. The internet is truly the gift that just keeps on giving. Here are some of the funniest takes on “the whisper” heard round the world.