To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.


Black History Month: Surveying the Superhero Landscape

Back in the day it was all “white-bread superheroes for white-bread children”: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor, etc. But by the mid-Nineties things were changing, and when Voice contributor Gary Dauphin made the rounds of New York City comic book stores he found youngsters gravitating to a new “top dog” in the biz, Milestone Media. Dauphin explained to readers that the young company had “six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.”

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McDuffie passed away in 2011 from a heart ailment, but back then he gave Voice readers his own origin story:

I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copyediting tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definitely a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my income and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman educational books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman ‘You Can be an Engineer’ books, or ‘Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,’ things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.

In sidebars Dauphin covers the “roots” of black superheroes, as in this précis on Luke Cage:

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on action, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. [In 1992], Marvel decided to revive the character — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Marcus McLaurin wants to dialogue with the ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun.

Even a quarter-century ago, the comic books were getting seriously meta.

—The Voice Archives

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Men Swear

There is a particular cut of suit favored by black men of a certain age, girth, and means—a long, three-quarter-ish jacket paired with loose-fitting slacks that provide extra room for big asses. As young, small-framed, or unemployed African American men tend not to wear the Suit, it not only conveys a certain sartorial sensibility but confers a kind of survivor gravitas that middle age and prosperity bring to folks who are commonly expected to achieve neither. Everything a man wearing the Suit says is important, even when it isn’t. Don’t tell him he’s an aging overweight clown, though, because if The Original Kings of Comedy is any indication, he’ll threaten to get “ghetto-ish on your ass.”

In Kings, a concert film featuring the stand-up talents of Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer (both of the WB’s The Steve Harvey Show), D.L. Hughley (UPN’s The Hughleys), and Bernie Mac (of countless bug-eyed supporting roles), the Suit is definitely in the house, prowling the stage while the men inside serve the standard Def Jam Comedy Hour riffs to the audience. The material hews to a familiar range of topics—”Whatever Happened to Big Mama?” “Why Kids Today So Crazy?” “My Mama Wore a Housecoat All Day,” “Funny Shit White Folks Do,” and of course, that great universal, “How I Ain’t Got No Pussy Since I Got Married.” Although this is ostensibly a Spike Lee Joint, the direction is unobtrusive and sparely functional, very unlike the Suits.

But the actual performances do feature small amounts of individuation, variations on the theme of being a pissed-off aging black man with money. Harvey wears his suit extra long and shiny, and has an older man’s penchant for complex tall tales involving church and a dislike of that hip-hop foolishness. Youngblood Hughley, clad in an agitated canary yellow, delivers similarly high-energy, staccato outbursts that suggest a man with too many jokes but too little time. Cedric the Entertainer takes the greatest risk with his suit—no arms!—and has the most technically proficient onstage persona (he’s the most accomplished physical comic of the bunch). As there can only be one king, the crown goes to Bernie Mac, a goggle-eyed marvel of old-school Chicago weirdness whose basic gimmick is drumming the audience into a frenzy about how it’s time to bring back “beatin’ our chillrun.” Just about every word out of his mouth is simultaneously hilarious and reprehensible, a situation Mac understands given his admissions that he’s only saying what “you think but are afraid to say.” Not really, but you don’t tell him that to his face unless you’re wearing a bigger and shinier suit.


Soaps, Social Schemas, Softcore Sex

Like many things filed under the heading of “African”—one talismanic word to contain a continent’s worth of history, language, culture, basic bodily morphology, and possibility—Lincoln Center’s 6th African Film Festival scans with disturbing ease as both ode and elegy. Besides the familiar array of fragile folkways wilting under the hot lamps of modernity, Africans telling stories on film is probably the main endangered local culture on view. Every year fewer movies are shot by Africans about Africa or Africans and less funding is devoted to the production of African film. Festivals like the AFF, much like the long-term survivors of disease, inspire mainly by just persisting.

Besides more than 40 features, documentaries, and shorts, this year’s AFF is anchored by a retrospective on the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety (whose hour-long Little Girl Who Sold the Sun played Film Forum last month). Mambety made a name for himself with 1973’s Touki-Bouki, the skittish tale of two Senegalese kids who’ll do anything to make it to Paris. Touki-Bouki does an ironic dance with the black love of all things white, scoring Mambety’s social comments to the rhythms of American noir and the French new wave. A tireless African cinema advocate, ambassador, and educator, Mambety completed just one other feature before he died: Hyenas tells the comic tale of a rich African expatriate who returns home and demands the execution of her errant first love in exchange for infusing the local economy with a much needed shot of capital (much like the World Bank). The movie’s exaggerated premise is a stark contrast to the sonorous lethargy of some African filmmaking.

This year’s AFF emphasizes filmmakers who, like Mambety, push formal or narrative boundaries while still making political points. Jean Odoutan’s Barbecue-Pejo follows the misadventures of a married couple in Benin: Dogged by bad luck on the farm, the husband decides to get deeper in debt by purchasing a used Peugeot in hopes of becoming a bush taxi driver. Hovering between black comedy and soap opera (the wife is prostituting herself on the local beach to make ends meet), Barbecue-Pejo is scattered, but it provides a refreshing break from most films about the rural poor. Its oddball mix of angry wives, broke farmers, and perm-sporting pimps is more suggestive of a woodsy Richard Pryor than Ousmane Sembene.

Even the one legit old-school African protest film on view, Lionel Rogosin’s 1960 Come Back, Africa, has unexpected cards up its sleeve. Starring Miriam Makeba (who will be attending the AFF), Africa follows the epic struggle of a rural Zulu family forced to relocate to the slums of Johannesburg; government restrictions on Rogosin forced him to shoot much of his film with hidden cameras. High points among films from today’s South Africa include Brian Tilley’s unnerving Lucky Day and Teboho Mahlatsi’s hallucinatory Portrait of a Young Man Drowning; reflecting South Africa’s status as an industrialized nation, these shorts have some of the best production values in the festival, but most of them are also reminiscent of Hollywood calling cards made by the crafty graduates of Western film schools.

Senegalese director Safi Faye’s Mossane is also a beautiful film in ways that are familiar to audiences schooled on “international” (read European) cinema. The magical tale of a preternaturally pretty girl who is promised to one man and falls in love with another, Mossane is bathed in an unexpected visual glow that turns the rote story line into mere background noise—Faye lavishes the kind of visual love on his lead usually reserved for Hollywood starlets. The film frays at the edges in disturbing, suggestive ways, from the sibling who lies wasting away in a dark room (one of contemporary African cinema’s rare nods to the AIDS epidemic) to a bona fide sex scene (another rarity). Though Mossane‘s reliance on a vaguely European softcore-meets-National Geographic vibe may leave an unpleasant taste, I’d venture that its director is less a fashion victim than an aesthetic provocateur.


New Digs for Ice Cube’s not-so-Fresh Prince

It’s the rare cash-in sequel that’s worth the price of full admission, so it’s no surprise that Next Friday (part of the minifranchise that includes 1996’s Friday and an upcoming, NYC-set version tentatively titled Stoops) isn’t quite the picture its predecessor was. Where last Friday was a loopy, hard-to-categorize lark, the bigger-budget Next Friday is a calculated teen gross-out flick that owes more to American Pie than its own progenitor.

As in the first flick, Next Friday‘s fog of riffs, gags, and barely connected events swirls around Craig (played by cowriter and producer Ice Cube), a generally put-upon, jobless South Central layabout who’s tough enough to stand up to bullies but sensitive enough to woo brainy wannabe buppies like Nia Long. Craig’s misadventures in the first flick had a meandering, doped-up circularity that went perfectly with the larger “getting high on Friday” theme; the antigun slogans (“Real men fight with fists”) were quaint, doggedly sentimental touches that managed to come off like sincere attempts at moral instruction. This time around, such curious little moments are streamlined into formal nods—like flashbacks or Craig’s voiced-over observations—that reference Friday without really reliving its high points. That forces this picture to rely almost entirely on the comic strengths of a cast that’s been significantly weakened by the absence of the shrill but energetic Chris Tucker.

Next Friday‘s main action involves Craig’s transfer—Fresh Prince-like—to the suburban home of his Uncle Elroy (Don “DC” Curry), a rotely freaky lottery winner who lives in gaudy nouveau riche splendor in the hills over L.A. Which just means a new set of oddballs to gawk at, including a sad-sack cousin (an able Mike Epps), an oversexed aunt, a foul-mouthed Asian grandmother, and the Joker Brothers, three Latino drug dealers who are immediately marked as last-reel villains. (No ethnic group is spared, but the Mexican stereotypes pile up pretty high.) Writers Ice Cube and DJ Pooh have broken the first movie’s weed and fart set pieces into a number of gags involving dog doo-doo, comedic BDSM sexcapades, and ethnic humor directed at non-African Americans, all of that adding up to give Next Friday a significantly cruder vibe than the last. Curry and John Witherspoon work hard to liven things up with extended stand-up riffs, but since both men are fluent in only two basic notes (boasting and cracking), they average out after a while, becoming an ongoing BET Comic View-type drone—scatological, down-home, aging, and ultimately rather boring. As for Ice Cube, he has the distracted, there-not-there look of a man on a forced vacation, which might be what Craig is experiencing, but doesn’t exactly make Next Friday anything to look forward to.


Around the world in 52 films

There are larger festivals, and there are festivals with glossier “industry” profiles, but aside from the every-other-year FESPACO in Burkina Faso, there’s no better way to take an accurate temperature of the black independent film world than at New York’s own African Diaspora Film Festival, and this installment’s 52 features from 25 nations cover all the ADFF’s bases.

Ill-fated love seems to be in the air this year, with the strongest films concerning romances that seem not so much forbidden as unlucky. Opening the festival is legendary Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues’s Orfeu, a slickly contemporary retelling of Black Orpheus. This Orfeu is a famous samba composer who refuses to abandon the hilltop ghetto of his youth and Eurydice is a socially conscious small-town girl; their love is complicated by a street war between police and the local drug lord. Combining action-flick gunplay, half-naked Ipanema-type lovelies, and the local version of the slammin’ soundtrack, Orfeu was the highest-grossing local film in Brazil in 1997. Along vaguely similar lines, Algeria’s Desert’s Ark, directed by Mohamed Chouikh, recasts Romeo and Juliet against a quasi-biblical backdrop; the romance threatens to end not with suicide but with a fiery, arid apocalypse.

In Fernando D’Almeida e Silva’s Earth Storm, a black Mozambican servant’s lifelong friendship with the Portuguese girl in the big house takes on new significance when she disappears.Refusing the “jungle fever” route, Earth Storm works itself into an almost epic historical lather, the last 40 years of Angolan history represented by a long near-miss kiss. Simon Cellan-Jones’s Storm Damage takes up a familiar theme: the black man made good who returns to his old stomping grounds. Set in the multiculti ghettos of England, Damage follows a do-gooder-ish teacher who comes home after an encounter with violence and finds that he’s not the only one who’s changed. With powerful performances, the old tales of conflicting generations andclasses have new life breathed into them. Among other features are a mini-retro of black indie pioneer Ayoka Chenzira’s work, a slate of “FESPACO Greats” (award-winning flicks from the last 10 years), and the yearly series of African children’s films and animation.


School’s Out and in Flames

Even as it hews close to the familiar rhythms of the misunderstood-teen flick, Light It Up is unexpectedly satisfying feel-good agitprop. The social sparks that set off this tale of student rebellion in a dilapidated Queens public high school are hot-button enough to have been, you know, ripped from the headlines (crumbling educational infrastructure, police brutality, teen pregnancy, thickheaded technocrats, the Web), but the film’s conceit that there are kids out there who’d react to such ills with what amounts to armed insurrection is a breath of fresh air, even with its quaint whiff of old-school lefty political fantasy.

Written and directed by first-timer Craig Bolotin, Light It Up introduces the motley crew who’ll rise to the film’s unlikely challenge in music-vid style. There’s Lester (played credibly by singer Usher Raymond), the basketball star struggling with the Diallo-style execution of his father; there’s Stephanie (Rosario Dawson), the smart future doctor who just can’t get over how few books there are in class; and there’s Ziggy (Robert Ri’chard), a homeless graffiti artist who screams martyr the moment his softly beautiful face appears on screen. Lester has long played protective big brother to Ziggy, so when a hard-nosed cop (Forest Whitaker) assigned to sandlot duty accosts them, the expected accidental hell breaks loose, leading to what the cops outside call a hostage situation.

The “hostage takers” (rounded out by a couple of self-proclaimed white trash rejects and a thuggy hothead) soon decide that since their lives are basically over, they might as well hold on to the cop and ask for something big. The meeting where they cobble together their demands—more books, fix the windows, rehire a beloved teacher—is Light It Up‘s most poignant moment, as the kids come into a kind of political self-awareness. Light It Up ends exactly how you’d expect it to—not as harshly as it would in the real world, not as happily as it would in a perfect one either—but you’re left with the unexpected conviction that it wasn’t the kids on-screen who faltered.


Global Village People

There are over 80 short- and feature-length documentaries in this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, but of course there could always be more, the multitude of people projected on its screens just a tiny slice of the human pie. The fest can be counted on to visit forgotten corners of the globe, but the filmmakers and audiences are linked by a basic impulse, namely the desire to see something new or unexpected.

This year’s Mead is loosely organized around a number of themes, among them spirituality, myths of sex and sexuality, and the use of high-definition video tech in documentary. The festival is also offering a mini-retro of cinema verité docs anchored by the work of Canada’s Allan King. King’s 1968 A Married Couple is often described as an exemplary classic of the genre, edited from 70 hours of film shot over five weeks. It’s an often jaw-dropping time capsule, the shrill, showy spats set against the polyesterish backdrop of late-’60s middle-class angst and folly.

Taking on some of today’s sexual conundrums is Vanalyne Green’s concise and blunt Saddle Sores, which unpacks some of the philosophical and biological implications of the filmmaker’s ill-fated affair with “Cowboy Bob.” Her Wild West adventure climaxes not with the arrival of the cavalry but her first herpes outbreak, leading to shame, anger, and an obsession with the darker side of the cowboy mystique. James Rutenbeck’s Raise the Dead follows the trail of a traveling Pentecostal preacher. Imbuing a clearly dying form of belief with elegiac dignity, Dead manages to convey the fevered energies of a tent revival even as it illustrates its more banal aspects as business and entertainment.

Two films get new angles on the new-style ethnographic film, the transvestite sub-cult doc. Paradise Bent returns to Margaret Mead’s Samoan stomping grounds to look at the fa’afafine-a traditional Samoan sex role where boys are raised as girls-and how they’ve been transformed by Western notions of hetero- and homosexuality. Bent sketches the particulars of a local third gender even as the images suggest that in a global culture the zenith of alternative sexuality is inevitably the Cage aux Folles?style drag revue. In the West Africa?set Woubi Cheri, slang-spouting and high-attitude woubis (gay-acting gay men), yossis (straight-acting), and drag queens live in the shadow of an often hostile traditional society.

And the Cow Jumped Over the Moon looks at another set of African trailblazers, nomadic herdsmen in Mali who use weather satellites to survive difficult dry seasons. Sparely effective techno-porn images of NASA hardware are intercut with the dusty rituals of the cattle run. Director Christopher Walker wonders if the new dependence on information from orbit might further deplete cultural and political autonomy. It’s a narrowly defined question, but as with most of the initially small and local-seeming questions asked by this festival, the answer will ultimately mean something to all of us.


Going Deutsch

MOMA’s annual survey of recent films from Germany coincides with the anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989) and Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938). It’s a suggestive bit of scheduling, even if the films don’t live up to the backdrop. Irmgard von zur Mühlen’s The Hitler Phenomenon-Deception and Reality is cobbled together from the home movies of Eva Braun and her intimates. The surreal shots of the stiff little Führer playing to the camera while Braun frolics are intercut with scenes from propaganda films and footage of atrocities; the end result is jarring enough to convey the Nazi obsession with production and control of images. Although this is familiar turf worth revisiting, The Hitler Phenomenon‘s main flaw isn’t lack of originality but its awkward tone; the film has unfortunately been saddled with an overly colloquial narration, which heaps smarmy opprobrium on Braun, as if her big-boned obliviousness were somehow the crowning, ironic outrage of WW II.

Meanwhile, Max Färberböck’s Aimee & Jaguar takes on a spunky, Jewish, lesbian spy in ’40s Berlin. Jaguar opens Titanic-style with a spiffy crone reminiscing about the raven-haired lover-of-life who won her heart during the war. The frothy film views its heroine with an exotic (and borderline softcore) eye and strains for ironic contrasts, as when a group of Jewish glamour dykes poses for nudie pinups destined for soldiers on the front.

Tina Ellerkamp and Jörg Heitman’s follows a group of Berliners playing the eponymous game, wherein each player is assigned another to “kill” while simultaneously trying to avoid their own assassin. These being the sort of hipster Germans lampooned in American beer adverts, the game escalates not to real murder and mayhem but to sonorous ruminations on architecture and the existential implications of “documentation.” One player observes, apropos of nothing, “When one documents oneself, one takes on a different relationship to oneself.” Christian Schmid’s 23 puts a similar high-tech hipster sensibility to more mundane but more successful uses, following a pre-Fall hacker who pranks the KGB with purported secrets and finds himself caught in a web of not-so-funny conspiracies. The overall effect is as slick and mindlessly digestible as a well-executed Stateside indie.

Andreas Kleinert’s Paths in the Night makes some admirable thriller power moves, but like many a film in this series becomes mired in the morass of history. A former East German dissident assembles a vigilante crew to bring discipline, community spirit, whatever, to the post-Unification streets. Robbed of relevancy by his suddenly free country, the protagonist soon descends into bully-boyism and theft. Paths paints a concise portrait of an old dog trying, but failing, to learn new tricks.

Similarly imbued with tragic ambiguity is Yilmaz Arslan’s Yara, about a German-Turkish girl trying to get back to Berlin after she’s shipped to her ancestral home by a conservative father and labeled insane by her Islamic family. The film suggests its heroine’s “madness” might be as legitimate a form of rebellion as her diagnosis is an outright tool of social control. Like Aimee & Jaguar, Yara isn’t quite the friend of women it wants to be, but it does take significant risks, which ironically make it the best “recent German film” on view.


The Wedding Singer

Writer-director Malcolm Lee may have a first feature in theaters, the wedding-centric The Best Man, but it seems people are as interested in discussing elder cousin Spike Lee (whose company Forty Acres and a Mule produced the movie) as they are his budding film career. As Lee the younger sees it, “The only comparison between me and Spike is that we’re both black, we both wear glasses, and we’re both Knicks fans.” He then does a rather un-Spike-like thing to prove it, i.e., break into song.

“Do I want to be like Spike?” croons Malcolm to the tune of the old Jordan Inc. jingle. “No, not at all.” But the Spike connection isn’t that easy to brush off. Like many an impressionable young black man, Malcolm only decided he wanted to make movies after She’s Gotta Have It changed his world. “Spike was living with my family when he was in film school. I was about 13 or so and when he actually broke out with She’s Gotta Have It, it made being a filmmaker an attainable goal.”

Malcolm didn’t attend graduate film school à la Spike, moving up instead through the ranks of Forty Acres and a Mule. There were a series of stints as a PA on various Spike Lee Joints, and then the grown-up title of assistant to the director on Clockers (“like a year of film school packed in one summer”), culminating with a minority screenwriting fellowship at Disney, a program that—like many black toeholds in Hollywood—didn’t exist in the pre–She’s Gotta Have It era.

The first draft of Best Man was finished about the time the love-and-family-themed Soul Food was released, but Malcolm doesn’t see his picture as part of the recent cycle of black middle-class romantic comedies. “First off,” he explains, “Best Man is a drama with comedic elements. Still, a precedent’s been set for studio movies with African American characters that are multidimensional, that are educated and intelligent, that are in loving and sometimes not-so-loving relationships. It might only be a matter of the industry trying to find new ways to make money, but it’s also true that audiences want to see the occasional African American happy ending.”