Category Archives: Pop Culture

Get Out (2017) vs. Neoliberalism

 

Get Out: A Satirical Critique of Neo-liberalism

This weekend two seemingly unrelated events happened to me within the span of 24 hours.
First, on Friday night I went to the 10:50 pm CST showing of the movie Get Out. For those who do not know the premise of the movie is about a young interracial couple (black male and
white female) who go to visit the woman’s parents. When the boyfriend gets to the parent’s
house he notices something is different about the black people that work for the woman’s
parents. The next event occurred a little more than fifteen hours after seeing the movie, I
spoke on a panel for the American Academy of Religion Southwest regional conference. The
panel was entitled “Black Religious Lives Matter: An Exploration of Black Religiosity in the
Midst of Trauma.” The aim of the panel was to use different methods to explore the
meaning of black religion after tragedies such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis,
and Terrence Crutcher. Ironically, in my opinion the most interesting aspect of the
presentation came from one of the panelist who was unable to attend because of illness. I
read the panelist’s outline on what he planned to present on, namely, a pastoral care
perspective on the way that young black males have been demarcated through public
media perceptions with particular respect to cases such as Michael Brown. After the
presentation, a topic that came up for discussion involved what to make of the
simultaneous portrayal of Baylor football players for their athletic feats while also handling
the demonizing of many of the same players because of the rape scandal. Reflecting on this
discussion alongside of the movie Get Out I have concluded that a common theme for both
is the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies.

While I am almost certain that Jordan Peele did not intend for his film to be a critique of the
capitalist superstructure (maybe he did who knows?), it certainly can be viewed in that way. Contrary to the rather weak criticism by “leading left” magazine Jacobin offered that Get Out can be dismissed as black nationalism and not able to awaken people politically, I do believe there are possibilities within the film itself.

According to Marxism 101, society is composed of both a base and a superstructure. The
base is composed of the modes/ means of production and relations of production. Means of
productions include the land, labor, and resources necessary to create a product. While the
relations of productions describes the different classes that are created by access to the
means of production. The simplest division is between the capitalist class (bourgeoisie)
and the working class (proletariat). The most important thing to know about this is that
Marx says it helps to shape and maintain the superstructure, or all of our ideologies.
Ideologies include our views on politics, religion, race, culture, media, education, etc. In
essence all of society is viewed from the logic of capitalism. Marx uses commodification to
describe this term. Commodification allows for knowledge, friendship, nature, and even
people to be viewed based on their monetary value. A contemporary examination of this
phenomenon is the basis for neo-liberalism. Get Out examines, in some not so subtle ways,
the logic of capitalism in relation to black bodies.

The film begins with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) packing to go with his girlfriend Rose (Allison
Williams) to her parent’s house upstate. It is significant that her parents live in an affluent
upper-class neighborhood. They als enjoy very successful careers in the medical field. In
other words, they are from the capitalist class. As such, they control the means of
production or commodities necessary for the capitalist system. In the film the commodity
that Rose’s parents hope to control are the black bodies that come into the neighborhood.
Chris notices early that the family seems to overly accommodate for him. At first he
believes this is because Rose’s parent do not want to seem racist or disapproving of their
daughter’s interracial relationship. Eventually Chris comes to the realization that it is
because of something far more sinister. Rose’s parents only value him because of the
physical usefulness of his body. He is only viewed as a product that can be used as a part of
their grotesque experiments. During one scene, one of the more subtle instances of humor
in the film, Rose begins to look for her next target on the internet. As Chris tries to escape
the house of horrors, Rose is seen searching for black male athletes on the search engine
Bing. This is a very clear example of the search for a black body that she views as a valued
commodity. Although Get Out should be seen as a satire, that does not mean it does not
possess universal truths. In this case, it hints at the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies through popular culture/ media images.

However, as the presentation of one my fellow panelist alluded to, athletics are probably
the most glaring example of how popular media images commodify black athletes. To be
sure to adequately cover this topic involves a great deal of complexity. However, for the
purposes of this piece I will only sketch out the neoliberal commodification of black
athletes in relation to the Baylor rape scandal. I will also preface this by stating although
this analysis does not directly speak to the victims of the rape scandal it does acknowledge
the seriousness of the irreparable harm that has been caused to both the victims and their
families. To the point of this piece, the media depiction of these black athletes is consistent
with the neo-liberal commodification of black athletes. It has become a part of popular
culture to classify skilled black male athletes as a beast. In many instances they are
encouraged to act like a beast on the field. Some would argue that the current use to the
term beast is a throwback reference to when black males were described as buck. Both
terms connote the animalistic physical dominance of black bodies. However, beast is more
of a reference to the potential production value of the athlete. The more the athlete
produces on the field the more monetary value they have for the University. Thus, these
athletes are consistently pushed to produce great athletic feats on the field because it will
directly impact the amount of capital generated by the school from sports.

In this neoliberal capitalist system athletes are only valued only in so far as the product
that they create (wins, conference titles, individual accolades), which has a direct impact on
their portrayal in the media. They are viewed as heroes for their great accomplishments
and the revenue that they help to generate. At the same time, much like in the past, they are
viewed through the lens of their sexual and aggressive nature. According to previous
generations, the black male as a buck was a wild untamable animal that lived for sexual
prowess and domination. Society needed to be protected from him, and in particular the
white female needed protection. It is not a lost fact that the vast majority of cases in the
rape scandal involve black men and white women. It is also not lost that Baylor University
repeatedly prioritized the product created from the labor of many black bodies over the
health and safety of the victims. Capitalist interest or the superstructure took precedent
over everything else. The point here is this, the portrayal of of the black male athlete as a
beast in many of its connotations is a result of the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies.

So what is the impact of the commodification of black bodies? Well from watching Get Out
the answer is pretty obvious. In the film , the bodies of black people are literally taken over
by white people. Their consciousness is sent to the “sunken place,” where they are able to
see what happens to them but are paralyzed from controlling their own bodies. What
happens, in more realistic depictions of commodification. Well, in the case of Baylor
football players they are viewed as either superhuman or subhuman. When the athletes
achieve great feats on the field they are recognized for their superhuman abilities.
However, when they damage the product of Baylor sports or the potential revenue
generated from sports they are viewed as subhuman. Both depictions of the beast as either
a positive reflection or as a negative reflection of the university’s culture are equally as
dehumanizing to the athletes. In short, the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies
denies these individuals of their humanity because they are only valued as products. This a
point that brings this analysis full circle. When black bodies are denied their humanity it
becomes easier to trivialize black lives. It is this devaluation/ trivialization of black life that
created the images we now know as Terrence Crutcher, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis and
many many more. It is also the reason why it is important to critically evaluate films like
Get Out and panels dedicated examining the scope of black humanity.

Watch this space for Rod’s take on Get Out (2017) and religion and its refreshing take on Black culture.

Recommended reviews on Get Out (2017)

Get Out More Than Just Apparent: Assessing Jordan Peele’s On White Liberalism and the Gender Paradigm by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

Get the F*ck Outta Here & Get the F*ck Outta Here: The Sequel by Son of Baldwin

Also see the whole treasure trove of reviews and commentary over at Very Smart Brothas: VSB on Get Out.

(photo description: the picture is a screen shot from the movie trailer for Get Out (2017). There is a black man (the character Rod Williams) wearing glasses and sitting on a brown leather couch, on his cell phone talking to the protagonist, who is also black and male, Chris.)

Thoughts on Rogue One A #StarWars Story

No spoilers ahead, so no spoiler warnings.

After the results of the 2016 Presidential election, liberals, progressives, radicals, and reasonable (anti-Trump) conservatives alike were searching for symbols  to invoke their outrage and disappointment. It was a bit of a coincidence that less than a month later a stand-alone film from the Star Wars franchise would debut.  The story of Star Wars has always been political, and in these partisan times, even more so. The idea behind Rogue One was to tell the backstory about how the Rebel Alliance were able to steal away the blueprint for the Death Star, and therefore know of its weakness in the final battle of Episode IV: A New Hope.  It was a prequel that takes place in between the prequel trilogy, after Revenge of the Sith and before A New Hope. 

In a funny way, members on the right and the left can identify with “The” resistance, seeing themselves in a story about a great struggle against the evil empire. The “white working class ” (according to the media’s narrative) is The Resistance having had to defeated the proponents of internationalism, the North Atlantic Treat Organization, and NAFTA. Disaffected democratic socialists and angry Hillary Clinton voters are now teaming up as the new “Resistance” against Orange Mussolini’s regime. Like the Rebel Alliance that is portrayed in the Star Wars canon, this alliance (the one of radicals and mainstream liberals) historically has been fragile in nature.

Rogue One provided a very helpful image of this relationship.  It took place during a discussion between Jyn Urso, the strong white feminist protagonist of the story and Saw Guerrera, the radical black freedom fighter.  Saw is angry because he has witnessed the transformation of the Republic into an evil Empire.  Saw (played by an African American man) tells Jyn of how disgusted he is with having to look at the empire’s flag everyday he wakes up.  Jyn (played by a white British woman) provides some simple advice, “Do not raise your head up.” The message is: keep your head down, keep quiet, and you won’t get into any trouble with your oppressors. For Saw Guerrera, that obviously would not suffice.  Jyn’s words ring eerily similar to the current controversy surrounding #theResistance to organizations like the Women’s March in Portland which said that signs mentioning #BlackLivesMatter were “too political.”  If you’re black, step back. Blackness, having black skin, participating in black culture and black institutions, is always seen as something Other, that any mention of Blackness as seen as going too far, too radical.

Was Rogue One a good movie? Of course, there’s no doubt that it’s a fine addition to the Star Wars canon, and in comparison to the other prequels, it was very well received. The feminist spirit of Rogue One was also comparable to the Hunger Games  and its dystopian world. I found the movie enjoyable, but going back to the issue of blackness.  The heroic tale of a loose band of goody-two shoe rebels adorned in white against a powerful group of dark-hooded men and women in black reads like a recapitulation of the American revolution.  Space fantasies and science fictions are never too off from historical events from which they find their inspirations. Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black.  Good guys are intuitive and make their decisions in the spur of the moment. The Bad guys are well organized, they have a plan, and often times they have a strict hierarchy. There was a point in my life when I found the Star Wars world to be uninteresting, but ever since I decided that what appealed to me were the Sith, it became much more intriguing.  If one thinks about the Sith Code as opposed to the Jedi, it’s actually the Sith values that save the world in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.   It is a blend of passion and the deep knowledge of the powers that be that helps the Rebels to triumph.  Stoicism and objectivity have no place in the Emperor’s fall.

The other part of the problem with Star Wars   as a whole is its reception by the average fan.  Everyone wants to be a Jedi sort of like every three year old child wants to be a police officer when they grow up.  The very weapons that the Jedi forge (lightsabers) are powered by the same crystal responsible for powering the Death Star: the kyber crytals.  The Jedi police the galaxy with the power of the Death Star in their hands.  Think about it. The Star Wars Animated Universe (Clone WarsRebels) is particularly adept at showing just how the Jedi and the Sith, the Dark Side and the Light Side are but two sides of the same coin.  Of course there is such thing as right and wrong, but these labels are not due to which ever side of the Force one chooses, Jedi or Sith, but rather what one chooses to do with the Force, or in the case of “The Resistance,” our choices as it relates to power and power differential.  Many aspiring Rebels in today’s politics want us to follow the way of “Occupy” (a term that rests on settler colonialist assumptions), marching for the sake of marching, demonstration to DEMONSTRATE that someone doesn’t like what’s going on, politicking on our intuitions and feelings in the moment. Yet this is EXACTLY how the opponents keep winning.  They are counting on the Resistance remain deluded with their Rebel logos and Safety Pin [TM] entrepreneurial endeavors as distractions.

The Alt Right, like the conservative movements before it, the Moral Majority, the Reagan Revolution, Nixon’s Southern Strategy,  knows that in order for them to remain in power they need to divide and conquer (in this case, the poor, liberals, progressives, radical academics, People of Color, moderates) and so far, so good. The Alt Right white supremacists have a plan, they have specific policy goals, and they have both well-oiled corporate media outlets as well as popular independent fake news sites to get their message out there. In other words, they have a Death Star. The major challenge for Rebels in 2017 isn’t knowing what we are up against or what’s the best way to resist; the major challenge is planning what type of country/ Death Star are we going to replace Orange Mussolini’s regime with.

 

(Photo: The picture is of the Death Star from Star Wars.  It is a space ship shaped like the moon.  The sky is black. Found on Flickr. Taken by Mirek and Coop)

#NoLaurelNoArrow & The Quest for A Good Story

My name is Rod Thomas and for four years I was enamored with a T.V. show with only one goal: Tweet Live. Now I can fulfill my friends’ wish, to right Marc Guggenheim’s wrongs. To use the list of grievances comic book nerds have left me, to bring down the Olicity Trolls that are poisoning our fandom. To do this, I must become someone else. I must become something else.

 

GENERAL WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! 

For those who are unfamiliar, the CW’s Arrow is a tv show that was inspired by the stories of DC Comics’ Oliver Queen i.e., Green Arrow (2012-present). When DC Comics and Warner Brothers announced they were going to replace the Superman-related series Smallville (which lasted 10 seasons 2001-2011) with a weekly crime drama centering the Green Arrow, initially I was on the fence.Then, I started to borrow, buy, and read most of the Green Arrow’s important story arcs, like his team-up with Green Lantern (an absolute classic!), Green Arrow: Year One, Longbow Hunters, Hunters’ Moon. After experiencing the awesomeness of Kevin Smith’s directed episode of The Flash, “The Runaway Dinosaur,” I dusted off my Kindle copies of Smith’s Green Arrow run, “Quiver” volumes 1 & 2, and finished them in two sittings. I grew up as a kid admiring Batman on Batman: The Animated Series as well as the Tim Burton film version of Batman played by Michael Keaton. I absolutely infatuated with the idea that an ordinary person, well financed of course, but still without any powers could go toe-to-toe with powerful villains such as Man-Bat, Clayface, Killer Croc, and Red Klaw every week. Superman, Marvel’s X-Men were okay, they had powers and saved the day, but I as a lower-middle class A/B honor roll Black pre-teen, saw myself in Batman. He was always the smartest man in the room.

The one thing missing with Batman as I grew older was that Batman became sort of a Mary Sue, as DC Comics used him as some wish fulfilment for every nerd out there. His story lines were pretty dark, and focused more on just how terrible his opponents were. What if Batman made snarky jokes? What if he wore brighter colors and still had awesome sidekicks too? This is why I became a die hard Green Arrow fan. One example of the DC Comics portraying Oliver Queen as a Social Justice Warrior is in Andy Diggle’s Green Arrow: Year One, of which the CW’s Arrow (which I will address shortly) is supposed to be inspired by.

Andy Diggle’s Green Arrow Year One contains a few empowering images of women of Color. While Oliver is alone and stranded on an island, faced with danger and on the run from China White and her employees, Queen is rescued and depends on Taiana for protection and sustenance. After Oliver Queen joins Taiana’s revolution to overthrow China White and her drug empire, Taiana tells Oliver, “Thank you, we owe you our freedom.” Oliver replies, “You don’t owe me a thing sister. You freed yourselves. I was just along for the ride.” By participating in a freedom movement lead by Women of Color, Ollie gets to experience true liberation: joining the struggle of the marginated. The island changed Oliver Queen as he rejected the narrative of White Saviorism because he was more committed to justice than he was his own White privilege.

The first 2 seasons of CW’s Arrow brought so much joy and excitement. Every Wednesday for work, I would wear green and make sure to change my facebook status proclaiming my impatience for that night’s new episode of Arrow. There were the obvious references to Green Arrow: Year One as well as a unique synthesis of Christopher Nolan’s realistic tone in the Dark Knight Trilogy films with Green Arrow comic book lore. Oliver befriends John Diggle, an Operation Afghan Freedom veteran and Black man who resides in the impoverished part of Starling City, The Glades. As I note in a forthcoming essay on Arrow, Green Arrow and Race for an anthology the CW’s Arrow, the faces of the Glades in the Pilot are people of Color. The Glades is considered the wrong side of town that rich socialites such as Oliver Queen and Tommy Merlyn work purposefully to avoid. The season One episode, “Savior,” Oliver and Diggle discover that wealthy antagonist Malcolm Merlyn’s evil plan had something to do with leveling the Glades. Arrow season one is an allegory for social justice struggles versus gentrification, and season two deals with the aftermath.

These two seasons are not without their problematic moments. During the short stint that Helena Bertinelli a.k.a. Huntress works her way into Oliver’s life, police officers such as Detective Quentin Lance and his daughter lawyer Laurel, racially profile Chinese citizens as suspects in the murders actually committed by Helena. John Diggle, far from being a token black, became an anchor for Oliver, and for Blerds like myself, his success as a character allowed us to participate in Arrow’s stories. Diggle calls out Oliver Queen’s hypocrisy for wanting to be a “White Knight” to save the Glades by starting his new business in the neighborhood. It is Diggle who confronts Oliver about failing to take down Helena because she looks more like “Carly the T-Mobile girl” and less like a person of color like Diggle.

John Diggle is a Jiminy Cricket, Oliver’s budding racial consciousness who has an eye for the margins. Diggle’s role grew during Season two; he teams up with a Black woman of color, Amanda Waller and stops a terrorist by teaming up with the Suicide Squad in the season two episode, “Suicide Squad.” Arrow’s version of Shado, a former medical student from China rather than a Japanese mafia member, was featured in the flashbacks and her and Oliver’s relationship became important to his growth in an archer. Teaming up with Oliver and Slade Wilson (played by Manu Bennett who is Maori) presented the Original Team Arrow as a racially diverse collective with a Woman of Color as the leader. Representation is very important to story-telling. If one fails to have a diversity of cultures and mutuality between the sexes in one’s stories, that person experienced a failure of imagination. Story-telling allows us to transcend cultural limits, especially when it comes to race and gender. Stories grant us entrance into experiencing each other’s differences, and invite us to delight in them as well.

Fast forward through seasons Three and Four, and in May 2016, the CW’s Arrow’s ratings are plummeting week after week. What happened? First of all, there was a change of direction with writers Marc Guggenheim and Wendi Mericle being placed at the helm of Arrow as executive producers. There were rumors of promises of changes in tone, Arrow was gonna be funnier, closer to the Oliver Queen of the comics. Then, season three premiere, and they kill off Sarah Lance/ Black Canary, and the first half of season three is this big “Who Dunnit Mystery” ending with yet another “death”: Oliver’s. Arrow’s direction was considered, “bold” because who dared to kill off the titular character and protagonist midway during the third season of a hit show? No one, obviously. Meanwhile, Felicity Smoak in season 3 received more lines of dialogue, more unbearable scenes of her crying as John Diggle was relegated to being little more than being a prop in the background.

The story arcs for Arrow season 3 stalled; actors such as Willa Holland (Thea Queen/Speedy) and the writers and show runners placed the blame on Warner Brothers and DC Comics announcement of the Suicide Squad movie coming this August. The Suicide Squad was supposed to have a prominent role in season 3 and its finale. The producers were limited by the characters they could use, especially Deadshot and Amanda Waller. The use of the highly anticipated Suicide Squad film and the limits of the writers in my opinion is a sorry excuse. In fact, there is a plethora of superhero and supervillain teams from DC Comics mythology to choose from. A natural choice to be used as a substitute for Taskforce X would be The Rogues, who were featured separately on Arrow’s spinoff, The Flash. The producers were the ones who chose to make Komodo a one-off villain and have a depowered, very uninteresting version of Brick and who lasted in a three episode arc. The Green Arrow stories have the source material to provide a compelling narrative to tell for a 23-episode season. The writers and producers CHOSE not to use them. Marc Guggenheim. Wendy Mericle. You have failed this city!

I purposefully have avoided making the issues of the bad-story telling that Arrow has shown about the “shipper wars.” Marc Guggenheim and company have reduced this debate to simply that, it’s about whoever ships Felicity with Oliver versus whoever ships Oliver and Laurel. This is so far from the truth. Let’s go back to season One, shall we? The shocking death in the season finale, “Sacrifice,” was Oliver’s best friend, Tommy Merlyn. It came as a surprise because commenters noted how Tommy was growing a beard and was becoming a more morally ambiguous character, and probably being set up to replace his father as the Dark Archer. Was Tommy’s death depicted as necessary? No, it was not. It was an act of heroism to save his love interest and best friend, Laurel Lance. In season two, Moira Queen, Oliver’s mother dies at the hands of Deathstroke, and it’s a sacrifice to save Thea. In both instances, could all of the characters move forward without any of the deaths happening? Probably. Tommy perishing leads to Laurel struggling with and overcoming alcoholism while Oliver commits himself to not killing. The events of season four makes Tommy’s sacrificial act all for nothing. Oliver returns to murdering bad guys and thus failing to be a light for Star City. Laurel has a brief stint as Black Canary before she is stabbed to death with arrows by Damien Darkh. Not only is Laurel killed off, but her dying words are nothing but fan service, to appease the Olicity trolls who bully the show’s writers.

There has been a lot of written commentary on why Olicity as a relationship isn’t a healthy portrayal, it is not a display of mutuality but rather an unbalanced hierarchy where Oliver is not only the boss but he is also a lying jerk and Felicity isn’t bothered by it. These problems have been pointed out and I will link to them at the end of this piece. There’s one episode in season four that is entirely fan service for Olicity. Oliver and Felicity pose as a married couple in order to trap the Cupid, and a news broadcast refers to their relationship as “Olicity.” I could literally feel the face palms around the world as that scene happened. Quentin Lance somehow survives being a part of an evil terrorist organization with no consequences. Why? Because Olicity shippers on Tumblr pushed for him to have a relationship with Donna, Felicity’s mom. Centering one romantic couple + killing off a main character from the cast each season is not good story telling. It’s just lazy. Olicity scenes in seasons one and two were fun, they weren’t forced but once Olicity became the whole focus of the show, it went downhill. We see it in the lack of diversity, the silencing of Diggle, the erasure of Arrow’s social justice message from seasons 1 & 2, and in the dismissive attitude of Marc Guggenheim and his response to trends like #NoLaurelNoArrow.

Arrow’s show runners have framed this online debate as “the shipping wars.” I have worked to show that this is simply NOT the case. The #NoLaurelNoArrow online community has passionate fans of the Green Arrow comics, and at one point, CW’s Arrow. #NoLaurelNoArrow is an online protest whereby fans refuse to watch all new episodes of Arrow live and if they do watch, they will wait three days after the eps are made available online to impact ratings. That is called dedication. If you look at the numbers, #NoLaurelNoArrow has had a jolting effect as Arrow has dropped drastically in the ratings, with the showrunners making excuses such as, “oh it’s summer break” or “there was a Cubs’ baseball game on.” They seem to be in denial that there is much dissatisfaction from their targeted viewership. This is more than about killing off Laurel. This is about the disrespectful treatment of Amanda Waller, a top tier Black woman of color character because. #AmandaWallerDeservedBetter. This is about the gross way that Shado was offed from the show, for more of Oliver’s man-pain, because #ShadoDeservedBetter. The #NoLaurelNoArrow movement is MORE than just about Black Canary and Green Arrow being together as a couple, because that’s not the issue. This is about Green Arrow as a story that promotes social justice and inclusion, and Black Canary aiding in that struggle as a mutual partner. Finally, #NoLaurelNoArrow is an attempt to get the show runners’ attention, to save a once beloved primetime show. Though perhaps the best way to save a T.V. show is to pave the way for its cancellation while remembering the good story we once were a part of.

Relevant posts:

The CW’s Black Canary: How Arrow Failed an Actress and a Comic Book Legend– The Arrowverse.com

The Canary Still Criess: Black Canary Voted DC TV’s Best TV Hero– Movie Pilot

Arrow’s Laurel Lance Deserved Much More Than What She Got– The Mary Sue

Arrow: The Disturbing Trend of Fridging Female Characters– Yahoo.

*the featured image is a picture of Green Arrow, a man wearing green with a hat, raising his hand. Entitled “Green Arrow Oliver ‘Ollie’ Queen”. Provided by Creative Commons at Flickr. *