Former Nike designer focuses on youths with launch of new footwear line Jason Mayden walked away from his 14-year-career to invest in what really matters to him

Designer Jason Mayden had his dream job.

As the lead designer at Nike’s Jordan Brand, Mayden spent long days and nights researching and designing some of the brand’s top shoes for its most popular athletes. But 13½ years into his tenure, Mayden decided it was time to serve a much larger purpose — and a brand of his own. After walking away from a fruitful career at Nike, it was time to direct his attention to and invest in today’s youths. Mayden put his own skills to use as CEO of Super Heroic, a comfortable and affordable footwear line designed to inspire children “to discover new places and hold on to that invincible feeling of play.” Mayden was determined to design shoes that were not only comfortable for children but also unleash creativity and inspire physical movement and imaginative play.

“The response [to Super Heroic] has been exceptionally well,” Mayden said. “Everyone says, ‘Hey, my kids love the shoes.’ They’re so comfortable. We get a lot of videos and photos of kids running and declaring that they’re superheroes and parents smiling and laughing and interacting. That’s exactly what we designed the product to do.”

The inspiration for the brand stemmed from not only Mayden’s love for superheroes but also Mayden’s son, who struggled with his own body image issues. One night, Mayden returned home to his wife and kids after a long work trip, only to discover his son sulking in the bathroom. There he stood staring at himself in the mirror, shirtless and crying.

“He hated his body. He hated who he was and didn’t want to go to school the next day,” Mayden said.

Right then and there, Mayden’s decision was made. As much as he loved his job and working with athletes, Mayden believed his family needed him more.

“There’s no way in hell I’d be able to go into work tomorrow and not feel some type of way about [my son’s situation],” Mayden said. “I walked through the door the next day and I quit. The most important job for me is to be a good father and a good husband.”

Although Super Heroic has opened many more opportunities for Mayden, the knowledge, wisdom and skills the 37-year-old learned during his time at Nike have been essential to the success of his own business.

Mayden always had a knack for art and innovation. By the time he was 7, Mayden was airbrushing, drawing names in bubble letters, imagining his own designs and sketching pictures of cartoon characters. An avid reader of comic books, Mayden was drawn to Lucius Fox, who supported his friend and ally Batman through many of his daily activities, including designing and supplying gadgets and technology for the superhero. Mayden likened himself to Fox, in a way.

“My whole career of wanting to work with athletes was driven by me wanting to design products for Batman,” Mayden said. “So, of course, the closest one to me [growing up in Chicago] at that time was Michael Jordan.”

But Mayden and his family weren’t exactly sure he’d live long enough to see that dream come to fruition.

When Mayden was 7, he experienced symptoms of a common cold, or perhaps the flu. The family couldn’t be sure since the diagnosis changed with every doctor’s visit. Each time, Mayden and his parents were sent home. Each time, Mayden grew more ill.

“When they finally rushed me to the hospital and identified what it was, it was at a critical point. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness and listening to these discussions [of my situation].”

The official diagnosis was confirmed. Mayden was battling septicemia, a bacterial infection that sends bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream and through the entire body if left untreated. Because the infection was misdiagnosed so many times, doctors moved swiftly to do what they could to save Mayden. Treatments had begun, but at such a critical stage, there was no guarantee that any of the medications would help. Aware of how serious the situation was, the 7-year-old Mayden seemed to be the only calm one through it all. Death may have been imminent, but there were things far more important than the fight for his life.

“Honestly, I was at peace with whatever the outcome would be,” Mayden said. “Would I be able to go to school tomorrow to get my Easter candy? That’s all I was focused on: seeing my friends and getting Easter candy. I needed to get my gummy bears.”

Fortunately for Mayden, treatments were working. Doctors began seeing progress, and he was eventually discharged from the hospital. The situation, as scary as it was, inspired Mayden’s response to life’s challenges — one he continues to live by.

“At 7 years old, I realized my life wasn’t finished,” Mayden said. “When I was in the hospital and I heard people discussing my mortality — if I could make it, if I would be alive, if I would be OK — I knew that I would not let my life be defined by if because it’s always will. I will be OK, I will get to Nike, I will persist, I will achieve my goals and dreams. It was the decision I made to never let an if determine my outcome. My parents always joke that I became an adult in that moment. I’ve been moving at a thousand miles per hour since then.”

Mayden continued to grow stronger and fall even deeper into his own creativity. He knew he loved to draw, and he entertained the idea of making a career of it. Becoming a designer wasn’t a thought that crossed his mind, only because he didn’t know much about the industry.

“I was an artist and a creative, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a designer,” Mayden said. “I’d never heard that word. I knew nothing about industrial design. It just really came to a head when I went to an auto show and I saw these products that people made. I wondered how they did that. It was my senior year in high school when I learned about industrial design. It changed my life when I heard that phrase.”

Mayden went on to study industrial design at College for Creative Studies in Detroit. While there, Mayden began forming a master plan to get to Nike. He advocated for himself. He wrote letters and called 800 numbers that were printed to the backs of shoeboxes. He found names from newspaper clippings and dialed the customer service lines pretending to be their relatives. Although he didn’t get a job offer, he did receive free stickers and posters. Eventually, he lucked up and found a recruiter during his freshman year in college. She informed him that internship requests were received all the time and encouraged him to keep applying. Mayden took her advice and submitted his application and portfolio and kept in touch, only to be rejected twice.

“When people tell me no, I just take it to mean yes,” Mayden said. “It just means no, not right now, not no forever. And my grandmother always taught me that delayed doesn’t mean denied. Even during those dark moments, it was my family and my faith in God that kept me going. Even when Nike rejected me, I told them I’d be back.”

Mayden kept applying, and on his third try, the then-19-year-old was accepted into a rotational program where his first job was to design branding, logos and graphics for Virginia Tech football phenom Michael Vick. Mayden’s work with Vick and the Nike Air Monarchs gained the attention and respect of higher-ups who wanted to keep the young designer on board.

Two years later, with the help of Nike senior designer Wilson Smith, Mayden was brought on as a member of the Jordan Brand and thrown his first project: designing a shoe for New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.

“Derek Jeter was my real-life Batman,” Mayden said. “I’m a kid who was given the responsibility to design a shoe for one of my heroes. I was so nervous. He was the ultimate gentleman, the ultimate coach, and encouraged me to try my best and have fun.

“We would walk to restaurants and he would stop and sign every autograph of every person and take every picture. He would say hello to everyone — from the hot dog vendor to the person selling newspapers. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Studying the interactions of Jeter and other athletes allowed Mayden to be more creative and give their shoes more personality. Mayden also kept consumers and fans in mind during the process.

“I care about the first time a person experiences my products, and that’s why that unboxing experience is so unique because somewhere, somebody is opening that package for the first time,” Mayden said. “I want to make sure it’s magical and amazing, and I want it to live up to the hype.

“I value storytelling and how people interact. Spending time and watching athletes and how they prepare is a lot of my process. I’m constantly consuming information and challenging my own way of thinking. If I can assess my weaknesses while leaning on my strengths, I can prepare for what’s next.”

The experiences from Nike and now Super Heroic are what drive Mayden to keep going. Making a difference in the lives of kids and parents across the country remains the goal — even when things can be a bit overwhelming. “There are times I feel tired and feeling like I need a mental break, then I’m reminded quickly that what we do really does matter,” Mayden said. “People have been very supportive and very encouraging.”

Mayden hopes that anyone who becomes frustrated along life’s journey continues to keep pushing. In the end, it’s all worth it.

“To anyone who feels their dreams are invalid or impossible, I encourage them to just keep going because no one can do anything great in life by doubting themselves because of their experiences,” Mayden said. “Who you are, where you come from, what you look like, your gender, your age, your sexual orientation — none of that matters. Your dreams are valid.”

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.

“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.

“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at

Anthony Hemingway, a director from ‘Underground,’ takes on the ‘Unsolved’ killings of Biggie and Tupac New USA Network series: ‘It allows you to see how human this story is — how universal it is’

Tupac and Biggie and their untimely — and unresolved — deaths: Sadly, it’s a story we all feel we know so well. Turns out, there’s much that even the most nerdy of hip-hop fans don’t know.

That’s where USA Network’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. comes in. Starting Tuesday night, the network will air a 10-part limited series that will examine the origin stories, the friendship, the deaths and the aftermath of the two artists’ deaths. Marcc Rose and Wavyy Jonez portray Shakur and Biggie, and their characters are in the foreground of what is actually a deep dive into the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigations of the cases. The series was created and written by Kyle Long, and the series is largely directed by Anthony Hemingway, who helped to shape WGN’s much-loved and now-canceled Underground. Hemingway approaches Unsolved with a similar historical paintbrush — the one that turned the slave diary trope on its head. And as usual, Hemingway gives us something for the culture.

We talk.

Why did you wanted to be a part of this project?

Like many of the other things I’ve been blessed and fortunate to work on — Underground, especially — I had an opportunity to [showcase] our culture. I’m continuing to find opportunities that speak to that. That allow us to learn more about ourselves. We have to know about our past and our history before we can move on. And so examining this story that took place 20-some years ago, we get to see these two young men who actually supported each other. I don’t see enough of that right now. Underground showed us our strength, and the superheroes that we are … Unsolved does that too. We get to … learn how to even be confident in ourselves, and to not lose ourselves. So many layers … those are the highlights for me in this.

It’s a story from 20 years ago, but this has a contemporary feel to it — that feels deliberate.

It allows you to really see how human this story is, and how universal it is. Seeing how their music transcended so many lines. From old to young, no matter what creed, color, race you come from. They impacted and affected people, and people loved them. It does feel like today. We still rock and jam to their music. It’s timeless, and it’s one of these stories that I think will continue to be relevant.

The diversity behind the camera right now must feel encouraging, it’s allowing for stories like this to be told.

Yes, but … even with seeing this progress, we can’t get comfortable. We have to continue to strive to be the best. To continue paving the way and opening doors for those behind us. I know there were many before me, and knowing and understanding that is not lost on me. I don’t take it for granted, this opportunity. And it really gets me a lot of times when I see young kids come up to me in various places and are inspired. It’s the things and the people that you touch that you don’t realize. And I love that we’re able to hit it on many levels of different scales, from comedy to drama to action to sci-fi. We’re covering all the bases … I’m having a great time. When Malcolm Lee called me to direct second unit on Girls Trip, I did not flinch. I said, “Absolutely, what are the dates?”

Is stuff like that happening a great deal right now?

Kenya Barris is creating things and is calling me like, “I want you to do this. You tell this story right.” And I’m loving that we are doing what we talk about all the time. We practice what we preach … I pray that it continues. It’s up to us to help make sure it continues. And not just find that moment where we say, “We made it.” We have still have so far to go.

Chadwick Boseman on the revolutionary success of ’Black Panther’ and the possibility of a sequel ‘When you win a championship with a team, that makes you more ready to win another one’

The morning of Black Panther’s release, Chadwick Boseman, the film’s star, is the coolest guy in the building. On a weekend in Los Angeles when everyone is marveling at the world’s best basketball players, superheroes to kids and adults alike who defy gravity daily, folks are bypassing ballers to crane their necks at Boseman and get off cellphone shots.

Of course they are. Then as now, the film is outpacing what anyone could have ever dared to dream. Anyone. 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens took 10 days to make half a billion dollars globally. It took Black Panther nine days. Nine days.

That, of course, doesn’t account for inflation, but that number most certainly is solid. And impressive. The biggest number ever for a black writer and director. The biggest number ever for a predominantly black cast. A really big number for a film — regardless of the race of the cast, director or writer — period.

And Boseman — a guy who only five years ago was introducing himself to North America as a newbie actor plucked from obscurity to star in the 2013 biopic 42 as Jackie Robinson, a real-life superhero on the field of dreams and in the arena of social justice — is proud. As he should be.

We talk.

How did we get from Jackie Robinson to the Black Panther?

It’s just about trying to find new challenges. Obviously 42 was a huge challenge, and I think each role after that, and leading up to Panther, has been that. The worst thing is for opportunity to come and you’re not ready for it. I think for me, it’s just trying to be ready for whatever comes. That’s how I’m here.

Nate Moore, the lone African-American film producer in the Marvel division, told me that when he saw you as Jackie Robinson, he knew then and there that you were Black Panther. What do you think he saw?

I don’t know! Plus, Nate is a hard person to read, you know? That’s one of the great things about him, that he has a great poker face. I have to try and get up under that and figure out what he saw.

This film is breaking records left and right. How do you even begin to wrap your head around this moment?

Surprise is not the word. It’s relieved. I’m relieved, and just very hopeful for the audience that sees this movie. And it’s a varied audience. It’s not just African-American. It’s not just African. It’s people throughout the world, various ages, gender — none of that matters. Across the board, we’ve had people basically say that they love the movie and that they were touched by the movie. I knew going into it that there was a great opportunity for storytelling here — something that would be cutting-edge. I knew that from a comic book. Even before I got the role, I knew that if there was ever a Black Panther movie made, [it] had the opportunity to do something really special in the world. So to see that come into fruition and to see other people, I’m not going to say unanimously because it’s always going to be some people that are against you or opposing you or haters, but even they can be turned around in the long run! Maybe they wait until they see it on HBO or they see it On Demand and they’re like, ‘I feel dumb that I missed out on this moment.’ But it is a moment. And I appreciate just being able to enjoy it, at the end of all the hard work.

“Internationally, when we were doing a press tour, we saw people from many different countries in Asia … entering into our interviews wearing their traditional garb. Just because they had seen us do it.”

Was there a moment when you were making this film that you thought this is really going to be bigger than even perhaps I thought it could be?

With each of the roles I’ve done, what I’ve made it a point to do is to not get ahead of myself. I think [director] Ryan [Coogler] is very much like that too. He’s a one foot in front of the other type of person, so you don’t miss anything. So I think it was just a thing of us trying to get the work done, and closing out what the impact was going to be and what the response was going to be, because you don’t know that. You can’t control it. I don’t think there was any moment where we were like, ‘Oh, this is going to be …’ [But] we knew it was different. We knew it was something we all wanted to put our lives on hold for.

Every role that you played — Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown — they’ve done so much and contributed so much. Tell me why you gravitate toward those types of roles.

It’s not just me. There’s a team of people that work behind me. And I think we’re honestly just, first of all, just reading for the enjoyment of it. Like, if I don’t like the script then I’m not going to like the movie. And I think it is, again, the challenge of what those roles are. They didn’t necessarily have to be icons or public figures. As far as the roles that I’ve played, African-American figures or from African descent, sometimes we don’t get to see that often from a black actor. We don’t get to see that often from a black storyteller. For me, I’m just trying to push that envelope. We have some roles that we play where people are like, ‘Why is he doing that?’ But I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about pushing myself to a different place, and the envelope to a different place and even a discussion to a different place, even if you don’t like it. It’s my job as an artist to do certain things that people catch later.

What’s the discussion you’d like people to be having about this film right now?

The first conversation is one of pride. I think this movie, it touches pride from a lot of different places. Even internationally when we were doing a press tour, we saw people from many different countries in Asia, they were entering into our interviews wearing their traditional garb. Just because they had seen us do it. They had seen videos of us doing it. They’d seen the movie so wanted to come in wearing the things that were close to them and meant something to them. That specificity … for culture, as opposed to what very often happens when we become multicultural is everybody leaves their culture behind — which is not multicultural, actually. The fact that you can be multicultural and actually express yourself [from] your origin, that conversation is an amazing conversation. This movie is so unapologetically African and black. The fact that other people can take something from it is important. And I think within the movie, there’s also a conversation that’s happening between the African on the continent and the African-American. I think [that will] go on in a way that it hasn’t on a large stage. It’s happened between public figures in history in the past — you have to do your own homework for that — but I don’t think it’s happening across the board, with everyone [being] privy to it, and it can continue. And then there’s a conversation about the women in the movie, and … beauty and strength and … the fact that it can exist in many different ways.

How did being a part of this change you?

The jury’s still out! I think any time you have an experience like this, when you go through a struggle, when you go through a war, essentially, to get something done and you have a group of people around you like we have in this movie, there’s a camaraderie that you share with that group of people. That in and of itself changes you because there’s a sense of community and family. And accomplishment. When you win a championship with a team, that makes you more ready to win another one.

“It’s important for a black, or a child of African descent, to see me. It’s just as important for a white kid to see me.”

What’s next for you?

I’m just trying to keep making movies. That’s it. I don’t want to say what’s exactly next. Can’t give it away just yet.

I’ve seen little kids give you valentines or give you hugs or give you affirmations about how important this moment is. What does it feel like when you have been getting that type of feedback from that particular audience?

It’s beautiful. It’s just beautiful, honestly. I mean because as a kid, you grew up playing superheroes. I would steal different parts because I wanted all the powers I could get! I would try to have Spider-Man’s webs, Superman’s strength, Wonder Woman’s bracelets — I wanted everything! So to be that for somebody … like, first of all, their imagination. They’re creating a whole different world within their minds, and then … you don’t realize it until you get older that you can draw on that feeling of invincibility in real moments and use it. And so, as a kid, you need to have that. You need to be able to play upon that. And it’s important to have superheroes that look like you and don’t look like you. Just like me saying I wanted Wonder Woman’s bracelets; I didn’t see anything wrong with that. And I didn’t see … anything wrong with being a Spider-Man. It’s important for a black, or a child of African descent, to see me. It’s just as important for a white kid to see me.

Before your fans even walked into the film, and certainly when they walk out of the film, they’re ready for Part 2. Is it too early to talk about the sequel?

It’s not too early for them to talk about it. They can talk about it! It’s too early for me to talk about it. But … please talk about it!

‘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.

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

1 Black Panther

16 Nick Fury

7 Monica Rambeau

10 Cloak

3 Luke Cage

14 Shuri

5 War Machine

12 Moon Girl

Storm 2

Bishop 15

Blade 8

Misty Knight 9

Miles Morales 4

Doctor Voodoo 13

Sam Wilson 6

Riri Williams 11

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

The Competition

(top, left to right) Black Panther, Storm, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, War Machine, Sam Wilson, Monica Rambeau, Blade, Misty Knight, Cloak, Riri Williams, Moon Girl, Doctor Voodoo, Shuri, Bishop, Nick Fury

The heavens have opened, the choirs are singing and clapping, and the parade of happy black and brown faces is making its way from the cookout to the movie theater. It’s practically the modern-day version of The Wiz’s “Everybody Rejoice” out there.

What’s the cause for all of this celebration? Well, after waiting for what’s felt like eons and obsessing over every new teaser, trailer and GIF we could find, the release of Marvel’s Black Panther is finally here.

In preparation for what could be the blackest and nerdiest moment in the history of blacks and nerds, we got to thinking in the particular way that nerds do. Among the pantheon of black comic book characters, who could beat who in a fight? Instead of deciding for ourselves, we’re going to let you, the fans, decide in our Who is the best Black Marvel character? bracket. For the sake of staying on theme with Black Panther, all 16 of the bracket’s entrants come from the Marvel Universe and were seeded using a system based on their popularity, fighting abilities and prevalence in both comic books and film/television.

The power is yours from now through Thursday. Cast your vote on each round of matchups to help decide the ultimate Marvel bracket winner.

Biographies Ordered by seed

Black Panther (1)

200 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #52 (1996)
Unarmed combat; vibranium-laced suit; catlike reflexes and senses
T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is both Marvel’s first black superhero and the first American comic book hero of African descent. Black Panther, who predates the Black Panther Party, battled the Ku Klux Klan in 1975’s The Panther vs. the Klan.

Storm (2)

127 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975)
Manipulation of weather; wind-assisted flight; skilled lock-breaking
Ororo Munroe, a descendant of African royalty and part-time leader of fabled group the X-Men, evolved from homeless thief to commander of weather and, through her marriage to Black Panther, the queen of Wakanda.

Luke Cage (3)

425 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Hero for Hire #1 (1972)
Superhuman strength, unbreakable skin, expedited healing
Born Carl Lucas in Harlem, New York, Cage was arrested after police found planted heroin in his apartment. While in prison, Cage was the test subject of a botched cell regeneration science experiment that led to him accidentally being given enhanced strength and nearly impenetrable skin.

Miles Morales (4)

160 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Ultimate Fallout #4 (2011)
Spider-senses; wall-crawling; super strength; web-shooters
Brooklyn-born Miles Morales, a 13-year-old child of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, assumed the mantle of Spider-Man in 2011 after being bitten by a radioactive spider and after the “death” of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker.

War Machine (5)

210 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Iron Man #118 (1979)
Iron Man armor, cybernetic limbs, unparalleled piloting skills
James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a U.S. Marine, is a close friend of Tony Stark’s — otherwise known as Iron Man. While Stark recovers from alcoholism, Rhodes takes on the Iron Man name before eventually being given a suit of armor of his own, named the War Machine.

Sam Wilson (6)

240 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Captain America #117 (1969)
Telepathy; wing-assisted flight
Wilson, better known as the Falcon, regularly fought alongside Steve Rogers/Captain America to combat crime in New York City. Wilson took over the Captain America role on more than one occasion: once when Rogers was “killed” and the other when Rogers was aged to that of an elderly man.

Monica Rambeau (7)

130 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982)
Exceptional gun skills, electromagnetic transformation, light-speed flight
A former New Orleans law enforcement lieutenant, Rambeau took over the Captain Marvel (also a Brie Larson-helmed movie slated for 2019) mantle in 1982’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, becoming the first woman and (only) African-American to use the Captain Marvel moniker.

Blade (8)

215 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Tomb of Dracula Vol. 1 #10 (1973)
Ageless; superhuman strength and stamina; martial arts expertise
The London-born Eric Brooks is the son of a woman who, during childbirth, was bitten by a vampire, thus passing on the abilities and strengths of vampires with few of the weaknesses. Blade turned to fighting other vampires and the undead after the death of his close friend, musician Jamal Afari.

Misty Knight (9)

136 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Marvel Team-Up #1 (1972)
Bionic arm; outstanding markswoman; skilled martial artist
Mercedes “Misty” Knight is a former member of the New York Police Department who, while trying to dispose of a bomb before it detonated, had her right arm amputated after the explosion. Through Tony Stark, Knight was given a new, bionic arm, which she used to fight crime with partner Colleen Wing.

Cloak (10)

155 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #64 (1982)
Manipulation of darkness; teleportation; life force absorbance
Tyrone Johnson, a South Boston native who fled to New York City after the police-involved shooting death of a close friend, was, along with female friend Tandy Bowen, aka Dagger, injected with a synthetic drug, giving him the appearance of a shadowy darkness.

Riri Williams (11)

100 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 #7 (2016)
Iron Man armor; advanced intelligence
Williams grew up in Chicago, where, at a young age, she was determined to be a supergenius, allowing her to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at just 15 years old. In her spare time, Williams created her own version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor using material she could find. Eventually, Williams took over for Stark, becoming the Ironheart.

Moon Girl (12)

48 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1 (2016)
Advanced intelligence; able to swap consciousness with Devil Dinosaur; enhanced strength
Lunella Lafayette, a 9-year-old elementary school student from Manhattan, is given the disparaging nickname “Moon Girl” by her classmates after a debate with her schoolteacher. Lafayette shares a bond with Tyrannosaurus rex-like mutant Devil Dinosaur.

Doctor Voodoo (13)

220 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Strange Tales #169 (1973)
Control of fire; command over animals
Jericho Drumm, a Haitian who eventually immigrated to the United States, gained the powers of Doctor Voodoo, a powerful 17th-century lord, after the death of his brother, Daniel. A voodoo teacher fused the spirits of Jericho and Daniel, leading Doctor Voodoo to use his powers to help others, including Spider-Man and Black Panther.

Shuri (14)

150 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Black Panther Vol. 4 #2 (2005)
Vibranium claws; transmorphic; skin that turns to stone
The younger sister of T’Challa, Shuri is the heiress to the Wakandan throne. During 2009’s Black Panther Vol. 5, a trained fighter like her older brother, took over as the Black Panther while T’Challa recovered from critical injuries suffered in a plane crash.

Bishop (15)

275 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Uncanny X-Men #282 (1991)
Energy absorption; exceptional marksman; energy-fused blaster
Lucas Bishop was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a “alternate future timeline” where virtually all of the X-Men have been destroyed. Along with his sister, Shard, Bishop joins a ragtag group of mutants named the Xavier Security Enforcers (X.S.E), who work to create harmony between mutants and humans.

Nick Fury (16)

221 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (1963)
Decelerated aging; Special Forces training; black belt in taekwondo
The original character of Nicholas Joseph Fury was a white World War II hero and leader of superhero intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., but comic book duo Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch turned him into a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike in 2002’s The Ultimates’ limited run.

Sweet 16 Voting Ends Today at 6 p.m. EST

Matchup 1/8 Black Panther vs. Nick Fury

The likely favorite going into this historic first matchup would likely be T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the hero known far and wide as the Black Panther. Because of his prestigious titles, he has access to more resources than anyone can properly measure as ruler of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world. He just so happens to also have superhuman strength, speed and agility. Combining these with his superior intellect and money makes him a near-perfect superhero.

Not that T’Challa’s opponent this round should be taken lightly, though. Nick Fury may not be royalty, but he is the commander of an army all his own as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a worldwide spy agency that protects the world from domestic, international and alien threats. Fury may not have the ability to run as fast as a car or jump from one skyscraper to the next, but he can likely find a soldier or two under his command who can and will gladly do it for him.

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Matchup 2/8 Storm vs. Bishop

This matchup pits two characters most commonly associated with X-Men titles against each other, as Storm faces Bishop.

Storm, aka Ororo Munroe, is considered by many to be a goddess. The child of an African priestess and an American journalist, Storm inherited an ability to control the weather, including the ability to wield lightning, bring down heavy rains and whip up winds to hurricane-level speeds. With the use of her own ingenuity and understanding of weather patterns, Storm has used these skills to become one of the most powerful members of any group she’s been a part of — X-Men or no.

While a hit from a quick bolt of lightning would be enough to leave most of Storm’s opponents incapacitated, if not worse, Bishop has a clear advantage: the ability to absorb and disseminate energy. Does that include lightning? We’ll have to wait and see.

It also doesn’t hurt that he was born 80 years in the future into a world where the X-Men are no more and most mutants live in concentration camps. His experiences in this postapocalyptic world, knowledge of warfare and ability to produce energy blasts could work in his favor as he battles his former teacher.

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Matchup 3/8 Luke Cage vs. Shuri

Despite what the rankings suggest, this matchup is extremely close on paper. Luke Cage is a household name after appearing in multiple Netflix’s Marvel television series, including his very own. It wasn’t hard in this day and age for fans to gravitate toward a hero who’s literally a bulletproof black man with super strength. He gives pretty much anyone a tough time in a fight because he’s basically a walking, talking tank. But his opponent in this round has a few tricks for him.

If you think T’Challa is something serious, wait until you find out about his sister, Shuri. Shuri was already just as capable as her brother as a fighter, technological genius and ruler (if not more so.) She even filled in as Black Panther for a brief period. But Shuri’s gotten a serious upgrade recently in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run after returning from an alternate realm called the Djalia. She now has the ability to turn herself into stone and a giant flock of crows whenever she pleases. So she could potentially make herself as hard as stone and hit Luke with weapons made from one of the hardest substances on the planet AT THE SAME TIME.

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Matchup 4/8 Miles Morales vs. Doctor Voodoo

This bout brings science and mysticism to blows. Miles Morales, much like his predecessor, Peter Parker, developed superpowers after being bitten by a scientifically modified spider. He has the same powers as Parker, including super strength, the ability to stick to walls and that trusty “spider-sense” that warns him of danger. But as the new and improved Spider-Man, Morales also has a venom blast that can shock and paralyze opponents and the ability to camouflage himself into invisibility.

Doctor Voodoo, formerly known as Brother Voodoo, may have what it takes to give Miles a run for his money, though. Jericho Drumm can possibly equalize most of Miles’ abilities with his manipulation of smoke and fire to both hinder his vision and prevent him from getting close enough for a finishing blow. There’s also that whole spiritual possession thing he can do for an unpredictable X-factor.

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Matchup 5/8 War Machine vs. Moon Girl

War Machine got a lot of flak for basically being Tony Stark’s sidekick who only got his start with Iron Man’s glorified hand-me-downs. This isn’t untrue, but it’s not completely fair to forget that these “hand-me-downs” are composed of some of the most advanced and capable weapons on the planet created by one of the world’s most genius geniuses. In other words, James “Rhodey” Rhodes is a walking arsenal with enough artillery to take out a medium-sized army on his own. Only questions are (1) Is he willing to use all firepower against a preteen? and (2) Will they work against a dinosaur?

These are questions Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl, and her partner Devil Dinosaur are going to find the answers to in this matchup. While War Machine utilizes technology from one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, Lunella owns one of the greatest minds the world has ever known and a dinosaur she can move that mind into thanks to her inhuman DNA. Brawn, meet a highly superior intellect. Brain, meet a prehistoric killing machine.

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Matchup 6/8 Sam Wilson vs. Riri Williams

This matchup is likely to be the first time many readers are introduced to Riri Williams, the heir apparent to Tony Stark’s Iron Man technology after Rhodey’s passing and Tony being taken out of the picture for a while. Williams may be new to her role in the world of superheroes, but she’s definitely capable of holding her own.

Having a suit of armor is one thing. But having the genius-level intellect to use it and a built-in artificial intelligence based on Tony Stark himself could be just enough to give her an edge.

On the other hand, Sam Wilson is a seasoned veteran in the ways of superheroes and even spent a couple of years serving as the Captain America while Steve Rogers was out of commission. This battle is likely to take place in the sky, as both have no problem with flight, which could be costly for Riri given Sam’s ability to mentally connect with birds. The numbers could stack up against her in a matter of minutes if she isn’t careful.

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Matchup 7/8 Monica Rambeau vs. Cloak

This may be the battle we don’t deserve this soon. But we’re not going to complain because the idea of someone who can manipulate light and energy, Monica Rambeau, fighting someone who can control darkness, Cloak, is always welcome.

Monica Rambeau is a [constantly slept-on] hero who has a list of abilities longer than the Celtics’ win streak to start the 2017-18 season. She’s got your superhero basics like flight and super speed, but she also comes with the unique abilities to absorb, duplicate and fire energy and to make herself both invisible and intangible. Good luck trying to hit something you can’t see or, you know, hit.

Part of Monica’s abilities are a result of her connections to an alternate universe, which may work in the favor of her opponent, Cloak, who also gets his powers from a similar circumstance. Because of his connection to the Dark Dimension, Cloak can teleport, make himself intangible and completely flood his environment with darkness. Honestly, this matchup could end up in a stalemate and it would be entirely understandable.

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Matchup 8/8 Blade vs. Misty Knight

We have Ms. Mercedes “Misty” Knight versus the daywalker. One is a human-vampire hybrid who seemingly has the best assets from both worlds: super strength, an increased healing factor and the ability to live freely in the sunlight. The other is a skilled detective with a bionic arm.

Both are trained martial artists with the ability to land devastating blows because of their enhancements, whether they be vampiric or cybernetic. Comic book fans are more than likely familiar with Blade’s combat work (in other words, his tendency to hit professional wrestling moves and bring on Mortal Kombat fatalities with ease). But they may be surprised to know that Misty Knight is honestly just as capable as fan favorites like Black Widow, if not more so, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat and the use of weaponry.

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Come back tomorrow to vote in the Quarterfinals.

Come back to tomorrow to see Sweet 16 results

Don’t wait for Valentine’s Day to romance your bae All ages, all generations can celebrate black romantic love

Invitation to Love

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

Her name was Charmaine. With her round brown face, she looked like a candy teddy bear made from Sugar Babies.

I never knew where she lived. She always came to get me to go out and play. I always went. We always had fun. We ran the streets in North Philadelphia. Sometimes, I chased her. Sometimes, she chased me. We ran as if propelled by laughter. We laughed all the time.

And one day, we stopped running and laughing. I don’t remember why. We stood under the stairwell of an old row house that had been converted into an apartment building. Charmaine spoke in a soft and insistent voice. She told me to close my eyes. I did. She was just a little older. She told me she was about to give me a kiss. I braced myself. Then she gave me one last instruction: “Close your mouth, silly.”

I did. Then Charmaine gave me my first kiss. I was 5.

And if I saw her again, I don’t remember it. But I’ll always remember our magic moment, my closed eyes and the world of romance our sweet and fleeting kiss opened for me.

Nearly 60 years have passed, but telling that story always puts a smile on my face, just as seeing young couples running in the rain or older couples sitting and rocking always does.

Indeed, I love hearing romantic stories, especially those featuring black people, real-life stories that African-Americans star in more than they do in Hollywood movies, books or music — even those produced by black people.

And that’s too bad: When the popular culture omits black people from depictions and celebrations of romance, it dehumanizes us; it lies about who we are and how we live. Like faith, romance bolsters and redeems, heals and protects. During the 1960s, when our elders stood up to the high-powered water hoses and burning torches of hate, songs declaring black love and romantic devotion filled the jukeboxes and airwaves, a balm of Gilead rooted in hope.

Times change, but the need for black romantic love to take center stage endures.

Consequently, black America has two choices. It can bemoan our absence on the romantic stage. Or black America can take action to improve things. Among the things to do: promote writing contests where middle schoolers earn prizes for writing about the first time someone showed a romantic attraction to them and how that made them feel. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) can hold arts symposia in which black romance in pop culture is explored and celebrated. And our rich, black rappers, some involved in very public romances, can fund contests where aspiring rappers can win money and recording contracts by producing great love songs.

Rap’s contribution to pop culture has been vast and deep. But for too long, black rappers have done far too little to celebrate black romantic love or black women, who often give black romance its beauty and poetry.

That must change.

Furthermore, when African-Americans and others produce more art that’s centered on black romance, let’s patronize and promote it. It will be just as important to take our children to see movies where black couples embrace love as it will be to take them to see movies where black superheroes repel bad guys.

At holiday gatherings, let’s tell our children and grandchildren the romantic stories that are at the foundation of our families, how grandaddy met nana, how their everlasting love began.

As we close in on another Valentine’s Day, I’m reminded of something my wife told me a week ago. When it comes to romantic gestures, I have something in common with Stevie Wonder’s music career: My greatest and most enduring hits took place in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Still, this week, I plan to tell my wife of 36 years a story, one she might not have heard for a while, one she might have forgotten, but one I never will. We were young and in love. We stood at a bus stop in Philly. It was time for me to go home. We were the only two people in the world, or so it seemed. Snow fell.

I looked at her. She looked at me. One last kiss, and I began to float among the snowflakes.

I still haven’t come down.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.

Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

‘Black Lightning’ joins the CW’s suite of superheroes Television Critics Diary: Network revives the ’70s DC Comics superhero ‘for the culture’

PASADENA, California — A black superhero has finally joined the CW’s ever-expanding DC universe, and his name is Black Lightning.

It’s probably best not to make him angry, unless you’re really into being electrocuted, but you can see for yourself when the series debuts Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.

Black Lightning is different from the CW lineup of superhero shows because its focus is on a hero who considers himself to be retired. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is the principal of Garfield High School, a safe space from the violence that’s plaguing his community, called Freedland. Freedland has been under attack from a gang called The 100, led by a villainous albino named Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) who maaaaaaybe has some issues with black people even though he is one.

For instance, in the midst of an evil tirade, Whale refers to one of his lieutenants, Lala, as “thick-lipped” and a “darky.”

Pierce has tried to put his Black Lightning days behind him — he got tired of being seen as anti-cop. And his ex-wife and the mother of his two children (played by Christine Adams) left him because she thought he was addicted to being an electrified vigilante. But he’s pulled back into his alternate identity to save daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who keep getting into scrapes with Whale’s goons. Black Lightning, which is inspired by the original 1970s DC comic, begins with Pierce realizing his indignation with police violence and gang violence are bringing the blue flash back to his eyes.

The show gets more interesting as Anissa realizes she may have some superpowers of her own. That’s not a secret — the CW has already released images of Anissa dressed as Thunder.

“You know, you have a superhero with her hair in cornrows,” said co-executive producer Salim Akil. “That’s for the culture.”

At a panel discussion here Sunday, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans winkingly asked married co-executive producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil why they decided against recreating Black Lightning’s curly Afro.

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town,” Salim Akil said. “You know damn well if I put in that Afro —”

Mara interjected. “ — Or with chest hairs out. We can’t do that. No. No.”

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town.”

Although there’s no Afro, there are nods to the ’70s comic in the show’s music, as well as the car driven by Lala (Will Catlett).

The Akils, the couple behind Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane, were on hand with Williams and the rest of the Black Lightning cast for one of two CW panels at the Television Critics Association press tour. The group was bubbly and energetic, which temporarily mitigated the cloud that’s hanging over the network at the press tour. That cloud comes from Andrew Kreisberg, the former executive producer and co-creator of The CW’s suite of superhero programming — including The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow and Supergirl — who was fired in November 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment from multiple staffers.

Kreisberg worked closely with Greg Berlanti, the executive producer in charge of the DC universe on the CW, who also has a co-creator credit on Black Lightning.

“I know a lot of you asked for journalists here at CW day to find answers on some of the darker disappointing deeds behind your favorite shows and just know that many reporters here are *trying,*” tweeted Vanity Fair senior writer Joanna Robinson, addressing the CW’s conspicuous lack of an executive Q&A with CW president Mark Pedowitz. “I promise you.”