Thursday, February 26, 2009
It’s not as if I’ve never played them. I’m sure I spent part of one Christmas playing the Pong with my niece when my brother got it for her. Yes, Pong--something so archaic and antique that many people return a blank stare at the mention of it. Something that we actually played on a black-and-white, portable desktop TV that didn’t even have a remote. It was nothing so sophisticated as the games people play today.
And I used to play some arcade games back in the days when my high-school classmates and I practically lived in bars. I can remember actually getting semi-decent at Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, and Centipede. (Which is ironic, as I hate actual centipedes--ECCH!) I can’t tell you the last time I even saw one of the above.
None of these, I’m sure, have any of the sophistication of the video and computer games that people play today, which are totally terra incognita to me. Today, kids actually carry video gaming systems like the Nintendo in their pockets. Another of my nieces has one. And they have all kinds of peripherals and add-ons that are as esoteric to me as the games themselves. I don’t know why I’ve never gotten into them. I am a science fiction lover, after all, and there’s a lot of SF content in these things. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not normally that competitive a person. (I say “normally” because sometimes when I see someone doing something that I’m good at, I have a strange compulsion to demonstrate that I’m just as good. A particular thing just has to hit me in the right way to bring out that side of my personality. Otherwise, I’m not a naturally “Type A” personality, not a natural aggressor, and that makes a difference when it comes to competition.)
I’m sure the pinnacle of video gaming sophistication today would be the Nintendo Wii, which you play at home on your TV--just like my niece’s primitive old Pong. I’ve seen the advertisements for these things. It appears you can do just about anything on them. It’s like a two-dimensional forerunner of Star Trek’s Holodeck. One of these days I’ll probably encounter a Wii at someone’s home. It’s probably not the kind of thing I’d buy for myself, but it actually looks like fun. And maybe I’ll give it a try--especially if one of its programs is something I’m good at, and it hits that particular side of my personality in exactly the right way. Otherwise, I’ll probably just hold out for the real Holodeck. I’m sure someone is working on it now.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
However, there was another Captain Marvel, this one belonging to Marvel Comics, which, in another set of circumstances we’re not going to talk about right now, won the right to use the name as the title character of a comic book. (When DC does a comic book about the first Captain Marvel, they have to title it SHAZAM.) That character was killed off in a much-praised 1982 graphic novel by writer-artist Jim Starlin, who is known for his cosmic and metaphysical storylines involving death, frequently as an actual character. Starlin’s particular set of fixations could be, and may one day be, the subject of a Quantum Blog post of their own. What concerns us here is that the first Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics was immediately followed by a second one--and writer Roger Stern (an old acquaintance of mine), whom Marvel commissioned to create this character, decided that SHE would be black!
The second Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics, created by Roger Stern with John Romita Jr., made a high-profile debut in the 1982 Amazing Spider-Man Annual. Right off the bat, Marvel was treating this character as someone that they wanted to be seen, and having her appear for the first time in a Spider-Man story was the perfect way to get fans’ attention onto her. In “Who’s That Lady? Call Her Captain Marvel!” we are introduced to New Orleans Coast Guard Lieutenant Monica Rambeau, a tall, beautiful African-American woman, who has come to Manhattan with an unusual and dangerous problem. She possesses the literal power to become energy--any wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum--but she can’t control it and is desperate to find help before her power builds to a dangerous overload that could cause massive destruction and take countless lives. She is seeking the help of the Fantastic Four (super-heroes in trouble tend to run to the Fantastic Four for help), but she first encounters Spider-Man instead. Spidey chases her to the Avengers Mansion, where she accidentally shuts down Iron Man's armor before he and the Webhead finally help her to discharge herself safely into the sky. Impressed with Captain Marvel’s power, the Wasp, who is leading the Avengers at the time, recruits her on the spot. So it is that in just her first few hours in the Big Apple, Captain Marvel has found her way into the elite of the world’s super-heroes!
How did a Coast Guard Lieutenant come by this power and that name? It started with Monica being consistently passed over for promotion to Captain. During one of her bouts of frustration over the glass ceiling, Monica got a visit from an old family friend, Professor Andre LeClare. The Professor’s work on drawing energy from other dimensions had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous engineer named Felipe Picaro, who meant to develop it for the use of a South American dictator. LeClare, who affectionately called Monica “Mon Capitaine” (the very thing that her Coast Guard superiors were preventing her being), needed Monica’s help to get onto the oil rig where LeClare was working and shut down the experiment. Our heroine agreed and charmed her way onto the rig and into Picaro’s company.
Naturally, the Professor and the Lieutenant were found out, and in the ensuing struggle, Monica tried to disable the dimension-tapping device with her bare hands--a brave act that physically put her in the interface of the machine and caused it to overload. The result was that Monica was endowed with mass/energy exchange powers that she at once used to defeat Picaro and his henchmen; this after her first manifestation of power transmitted her back to New Orleans, where she cobbled together a costume out of Mardi Gras items she found in a warehouse. When the Navy came to the oil rig to do a mop-up operation, one of Picaro’s men, who had overheard LeClare’s nickname for Monica, was babbling in Spanish, “Capitan est maravila,” or “The Captain is a marvel!” This got into the press, and the name for the mysterious new super-heroine stuck: She was officially the all-new Captain Marvel!
I accepted and loved Captain Marvel immediately. I thought she was magnificent. I loved it that she, an African-American woman, was given one of the most venerable names in super-hero comics. I loved it that practically no sooner had she gotten off the bus at Port Authority, she was immediately put front and center in the Marvel Comics cast as a member of the Avengers, a position second in prestige only to the Fantastic Four themselves. Furthermore, Captain Marvel, who could actually become electromagnetic energy of any type, was the single most powerful mortal, human member the Avengers ever had. (I felt the need to use the qualifiers “mortal” and “human” because one of CM’s Avengers colleagues--and a founder of the team--is the mighty Thor, a hero surpassed in power only by the Silver Surfer.) I was proud of Captain Marvel. Except for the founding quintet of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Henry Pym in his various guises including Ant-Man, and the Wasp, Captain Marvel at once became my favorite Avenger. And the storytelling of Roger Stern assured that she would earn the distinction.
Captain Marvel proved capable of handling herself in whatever awesome situation the life of a super-hero could throw at her. Under the tutelage of the Black Knight, she learned what she could do with her energy powers. She stood up to some of the most fearsome threats in the Marvel Universe. She faced the Beyonder, the Skrulls, and Magneto. One of my favorite things that happened with her was when the Masters of Evil planned their devastating attack on the Avengers and their invasion of the mansion. Baron Zemo II, in laying his plans against Earth’s mightiest, realized that one Avenger by herself was a greater threat to him than all the others put together. He actually pondered the danger that Monica Rambeau posed him: “I know we Masters can handle the other Avengers--but what are we going to do about Captain Marvel?” This was a first in Avengers history. Villains had always respected Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the other Avengers--but Captain Marvel was the first Avenger who actually scared the bad guys! The Masters of Evil thought they could take CM off the board by trapping her in the Darkforce Dimension, but when she escaped by using the Darkforce-channeling hero the Shroud as a conduit back to Earth, she was not happy, and Moonstone, the villainess who came up with the idea, flew off thinking, Please don’t let her get me! She was so afraid of Captain Marvel’s wrath--and rightly so, because CM could have destroyed her--that she flew into a cliff and broke her neck!
Her meritorious conduct as a new Avenger earned Captain Marvel the most exalted spot of all: the chance to lead the most powerful group of organized super-heroes in Marvel Comics, a position that Captain America himself encouraged her to take! The black lady who had been passed over for promotion to Captain in the Coast Guard was now the leader of the Avengers! This was just brilliant. Captain Marvel had climbed--or soared--to the top of the super-hero pyramid and handled it as if she were born to do it. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Roger had it in mind for her all along.) I was sure there were no limits to what could be done with Captain Marvel.
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The fictional Coast Guard of Marvel Earth was not the only place with a glass ceiling. Little did I know it, but soon Captain Marvel would strike a barrier even more impenetrable than the Null-Field of Annihilus (Fantastic Four #256 and The Avengers #233). Next time in The Quantum Blog, we’re going to look back at one of the most shameful and disgraceful episodes in the history of Marvel Comics: the near-destruction, ruin, and marginalizing of Captain Marvel. It’s not a pretty story.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Of course, it’s a different world for her than it was for me. When I was her age there was no such thing as a Website where you could log on and shop for a car with your computer. When I was her age I didn’t even use computers yet! My mother and sister both have Hondas; that may sway her. I imagine her going onto some Website and looking up "honda cr v," "ford taurus," "audi q7," or some such thing and pondering what she sees.
There is a particular style of minivan that I know she doesn’t care for; the other evening we were watching TV and she saw a commercial for that type of vehicle and she said it was “just a big box” and didn’t like it. Neither did I. My taste runs more to slippery, streamlined vehicles that ride low to the ground. My great rite of passage, and one of my favorite father/son memories, was the day in July during a summer break from college when my Dad took me out car shopping and I at once fell in love with a red Datsun 200SX Hatchback with cruise control. (Datsun: That’s Nissan to you youngsters.) All it took was the test drive to clinch it. I can still hear my voice saying, “Dad, I want it!” And I got it. That first summer with my first car was one of the best summers of my life.
Still, my niece is at an age when she has everything in life to look forward to, and this experience of buying a car for the first time is one of them. Sometimes I envy her.
I’ve learned a healthy respect for the soap form, especially those soaps that demonstrated how truly innovative and inventive you can be in that genre. There was Dark Shadows, a supernatural horror/gothic soap. My regular soap since high school has been All My Children, which has frequently dealt in socially aware stories and had one of the better histories of using black characters, and has done a great deal with gay and lesbian characters. AMC is also known for its sense of humor. And speaking of sense of humor, there was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a soap that not only made fun of soaps but also consumerism, the effect of the media on the masses, and just about everything else that was going on in the late 1970s. MH2, as people called it, was one of the most ingenious uses of the medium of TV itself I’ve ever seen. And for sheer pop-culture appeal, you can’t beat General Hospital, even though I’ve not been watching it regularly of late because I’ve grown tired of watching stories about mob violence, and seeing gangsters, thugs, and hit men portrayed as romantic heroes.
And then there was a show called Generations.
Generations ran on NBC from 1989 to 1991. During that time I had grown a bit bored with All My Children and swapped it out for this show. Generations was the story of an exceptional African-American family, the Marshalls, who had built an empire on the ice cream recipes handed down through the family of patriarch Henry Marshall (Taurean Blacque and James Reynolds). The stories followed them and their white friends. The show is to be applauded for that reason alone, the fact that it portrayed the coexistence of the races in a medium where so much has been either jet-black or lily white. But beyond that, Generations gave me my favorite character of all the characters I’ve ever encountered in soaps, a character that I still miss to this day: Ruth Marshall, played by Joan Pringle.
I didn’t realize it when I was actually watching the show, and wouldn’t learn it until years later, but Ruth’s story was an update of the movie Imitation of Life. Ruth was the daughter of a maid, Vivian Potter (Lynn Hamilton) who was best friends with her white employer, Rebecca Whitmore (Patricia Crowley and Dorothy Lyman). Ruth grew up in a spectacular mansion on the north shore of Lake Michigan, where she was surrounded by a privileged white society to which she aspired but to which she didn’t belong. She had a lonely and humiliating experience as a girl and vowed that she would return to that mansion some day, not as the maid’s daughter but as the mistress of the estate. (In Imitation of Life, young Sarah Jane [Susan Kohner], the daughter of a maid who worked for and was best friends with a Broadway star [Lana Turner], was a fair-skinned black girl who suffered from low self-esteem and desperately wanted to “pass for white”.) Ruth married Henry and helped him to build the Marshall’s Chicago Ice Cream empire, elevating her station to where she was convinced that she belonged. (The first time I saw Imitation on one of the cable networks, I got a load of Sarah Jane and her mother Annie [Juanita Moore] and immediately thought, Oh my God, this is where Ruth and Vivian came from!)
Ruth was a kindred spirit to another favorite soap character of mine, one who belonged to prime-time TV. Her soul sister was Dominique Devereaux, played by Diahann Carroll, a woman I’ve loved since she played Julia. Dominique was essentially my only reason for tuning in to Dynasty. I wasn’t really interested in Blake and Krystle and Alexis and all those other people; I used to watch both the show and the clock, counting the minutes and thinking, Enough of these characters; where the hell is Dominique? I’m going to have to devote some future Quantum Blog to talking about the magnificent Ms. Devereaux and the goddess who portrayed her. If Ruth and Dominique could ever have met, they would have instantly bonded for life! And the stories they could have told each other...
Anyway, I’m not going to go into the whole story of Ruth and the Marshalls, as this was a daily soap and I’d be blogging about it from now till Juneteenth Day. But the story of how Ruth finally achieved her fondest ambition and returned to the Whitmore Estate as its proud owner is one of my favorite tales from daytime TV. It’s a story of personal ambition, the rise of a family, race relations, and heartbreak. Humble Vivian, who didn’t have to work as a maid once Ruth and Henry emulated the Jeffersons and “moved on up,” argued with her daughter that owning that house wouldn’t make her any whiter (shades of Imitation of Life), but Ruth wasn’t hearing it. What she did hear was an ominous voice on the phone warning her not to bother moving into the Whitmore Estate, as she would “never live there”. Then came the day that Ruth made enough of a rapprochement with Rebecca’s daughter Laura (Ruth and Laura had grown up together, but it hadn’t been a happy friendship) to bring her to the house to see the renovations under way--and on the living room wall they found the words Nigger Get Lost spray painted in ugly letters! The terrorizing tactics kept coming: rattlesnakes in the Marshalls’ furniture, a bomb at their gala housewarming party. When Henry and family friend Jason Craig (one of the show’s requisite stunning white hunks, Anthony Addabo), caught the bomber with the help of Ruth and Henry’s daughter Chantal (Sharon Brown, later Debbi Morgan--Angie Baxter of All My Children), his trail led to an apartment filled with all the literature and paraphernelia of hatred--against blacks, Jews, gays, you name it. The Marshalls may have been saved from the wrath of one bigot, but the greater hatred that he espoused was still ominously loose in the world.
Anyway, the difference between Ruth and her cinematic predecessor, Sarah Jane, was that with Ruth it was never about trying to “pass for white”. Ruth was a beautiful African-American woman from skin to bones; she owned it and worked it. With Ruth it was about having come from a place where she was always painfully aware of what others had designated was “her place,” and she wasn’t having it. Ruth Marshall knew at the very heart of her heart that “her place” was wherever she said it was, and she wasn’t going to take anything else or anything less. Not even if that meant dealing with not only the standard sorrows of daytime TV, but the slings and arrows of being a black woman in white America. The Whitmore Estate wasn’t a big, expensive house to Ruth; it was a symbol of a life without barriers in which she wasn’t just a black woman; she was a woman with the same mind and heart and aspirations and worthiness as everyone else. Let others think she was greedy or vain or materialistic or shallow; Ruth didn’t care. Owning the Whitmore Estate was her symbolic triumph against a world that told her that she was a lesser person. There was nothing “lesser” about Ruth Marshall. And I loved her. I loved her then and I still miss her now.
NBC was supposed to give Generations three years to establish itself with the audience. But it was a Nielsen ratings cellar dweller from day one and, unlike Ruth and her family, never managed to pull itself up. The network considered this justification for canceling the show prematurely, short of their commitment to the series. To add insult to injury, the last weeks of Generations aired at the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War, and the networks insisted, as they so often do, that war coverage could not wait for the time slots designated for the news; it had to be aired as it happened. So the brilliant but dying, racially integrated soap opera suffered from constant pre-emption on its way to TV oblivion.
Even more tragically, the show was just entering a suite of stories that would have been truly incredible to watch, had they been allowed to play out. Rebecca’s long-missing husband, Peter (Ron Harper) had returned, and Vivian spent her days in horror of the secret that she and Ruth were keeping from the rest of the family: While Henry knew that Ruth was pregnant at the time of their marriage and that he wasn’t the father, no one knew that the father was actually Peter! You see, Peter had not been raised in wealth and privilege, either, and young Peter (Corbin Timbrook) and teenage Ruth were kindred spirits--so kindred that one night, when Ruth sang at Peter’s jazz club against Vivian’s wishes, Ruth and Peter conceived Chantal! The eldest Marshall child herself didn’t know her true parentage, a secret that would blow the Marshall family to pieces when it finally got out! When we last saw the Marshalls, Vivian finally broke down and told Rebecca everything but the truth about Chantal, then Rebecca confronted Peter and accused him of acting out a “white master fantasy” with a little black girl who idolized him. When Peter said he had loved Ruth then and still loved her now, Rebecca slapped him!
But still another horror awaited Ruth, as Henry’s jealousy of her friendship with Peter and Peter’s helping her to start her long-abandoned singing career almost led Henry to sleep with Ruth’s best friend Doreen Jackson (Jonelle Allen). What stopped Henry was a literal change of heart, from his conscience and a heart attack--just when Ruth and Henry’s son Adam (Kristoff St. John, now starring in The Young and the Restless) walked in on his shirtless Dad and their family friend! What would Adam do? Would he tell his Mom or help Doreen (with whom he had become a father himself, but that’s another tale) and Henry--if he lived--concoct a cover story? We were never to know, because Adam’s discovery was the very last scene.
The African-American characters I’ve loved best on TV were always the ones who stood out from the standard portrayals of blacks in pop culture: people of intelligence, class, articulation, education, achievement, and beauty. The Marshall family shouldn’t be as remarkable as they are. Neither should Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) of Star Trek, or Julia Baker and Dominique Devereaux, or Detective Ron Harris (Ron Glass) of Barney Miller, or the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, or the Siskos of Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Characters like these should be the rule, not the exception. There has never been another show like Generations. I hope that if anyone ever tries a thing like this again, it’s just as good.
Next week: Another black lady I love, this one from comic books--and I only wish the comic book company to which she belongs loved her as much as I do! Find out what I mean when we learn that “The Captain Was a Marvel”.
Friday, February 13, 2009
The difference with me is that I’m just as verbose as other people, but it’s in writing. When I get onto my word processor or on line, my fingers can’t shut up! I’m known as a fairly quiet person; much of time time I don’t say much unless I have something to say. But you wouldn’t know it from my writing. It’s as if my fingers can’t shut up! I’d like to think that there are people out there “listening” to The Quantum Blog. I’m looking into ways to make better use of this site, as well as my art Blogs. One of them is by using more hyperlinks, like this one connecting with a paid blogging site called Blogsvertise. There are others I’m investigating, but there’s just so much information out there, a lot of the time I feel as if I’m going into overload. Still, I’m going to keep at it. After all, a person who can’t shut up--even if it’s through his fingers--likes to know someone is listening!
Monday, February 9, 2009
This all became clear to me many years ago after I watched a public TV special on this subject. After Emancipation, the laws of the land forbade the keeping as property of “colored” people. The African-descended man was now free--at least of the chains and whips of slavery. But the links of cultural bondage persist much longer with much greater strength. If blacks under the law were not to be oppressed one way, they could still be oppressed in others. In popular media--books and newspapers at first, and later films--there was a shameful fashion for presenting blacks as buffoons--ugly-looking, sexless, shuffling, inarticulate, stupid fodder for comic relief who degraded one race for the aggrandizement of another. Think about Stepin Fetchit (look him up if you don’t know the character) and all the Hollywood movie “Mammies,” and of course the minstrel shows of the Vaudeville era. That’s where that came from, the swapping out of physical chains and whips for cultural dehumanization. And besides old Stepin, there is one other character synonymous with this artistic beating down of an entire race; a character whose name in some quarters cannot be spoken aloud to this day.
Depending on what generation you belong to, you may be as unfamiliar with Sambo as you are with Stepin. But you’re on the Internet right now, and when you leave this Blog, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I want you to Google it. I’ll tell you this much up front: There used to be a Denny’s-like restaurant chain called Sambo’s. All the Sambo’s had to be closed or renamed because of the wrath and acrimony that this name instills in African-Americans. I’m not kidding. And I’m now going to tell you why.
Little Black Sambo is the story of a little Indian (as in Hindu) boy whose parents give him fine new clothes for his birthday. When Sambo is out in the forest with his new duds on, he is mugged by some tigers who make him give them his threads. (Think of all the kids in school who ever got mugged for their high-end sneakers; it’s a bit like that.) To escape the tigers, naked little Sambo climbs a tree, but he needn’t have bothered: for the tigers in his clothing are all so vain that they start fighting amongst themselves over which is the best-looking, and as Sambo watches from above, the tigers chase each other round the tree till they turn to butter! No, really--butter, which Sambo’s mother serves on pancakes for breakfast! Seriously!
Now, the way it was originally published, Little Black Sambo is a perfectly charming children’s story. Parents might still be reading it to their children today--if not for what happened when American publishers got hold of it. When it reached this country, the illustrations in Little Black Sambo were redone, and Sambo became the very ugly, stupid, buffoonish caricature of a black child that was so rife in the portrayal of blacks throughout American popular entertainment of that time. It was never meant to be that way; remember, this story took place in India and was about Indian people! But that’s what American publishers made it. And somehow, Little Black Sambo and in fact the very name “Sambo” became the lightning rod for the anger of African-Americans over the way they were treated, culturally, socially, politically, economically--you name it. The name Sambo became as demonized as the justly hated “N” word. It became a name not to be spoken. (In the first season of Soap, there’s a scene in which Bob the dummy [Jay Johnson] calls Benson [Robert Guillaume] by the hated name! It’s one of the few places in modern popular culture where the name is heard.) And because of what American culture did to what was originally just a charming story for children, Little Black Sambo was driven underground: suppressed, censored, buried.
When my friend Christopher Bing-Manhard and I were in art school, Christopher caught the ambition to do children’s books. One of the books he wanted to do was a new version of Little Black Sambo. Having never been exposed to the loathing that surrounded this story, I never held this ambition against him; I actually helped him a bit with one of the early drafts of it and supported his efforts. In researching the work, we learned the actual history of the book and where it really came from, and realized the appalling thing that had been done to it. Christopher persevered against the vitriol that the story still aroused even so many generations later, and eventually his version of Little Black Sambo did see print. But it remains a somewhat obscure piece of work, which is a shame, because Christopher’s illustrations are a wonder to behold. Even beauteous art can’t erase the legacy that has been heaped on this basically sweet little story.
I’ll give you another little post-script about this. Do you remember the sitcom Bosom Buddies starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari? There’s an episode in the second season in which the girls on the show--Donna Dixon, Telma Hopkins, and the late Wendie Jo Sperber--are alone at the advertising agency where they have to shoot a commercial with a tiger. It happens that Ms. Hopkins is a black singer/actress; she was half of Tony Orlando’s Dawn. Anyway, at one point the tiger gets loose in the studio and the girls run up a ladder to get away from him. When the other two start to panic, Hopkins’s character asks, “So what do you want me to do, run him round in circles till he turns to butter?” Having just learned about Little Black Sambo at the time, I thought that allusion was really funny. But some time later, when that episode went into syndication, guess what: that line of dialogue had been cut! I listened for it, didn’t hear it, and realized, Hey, they cut the Little Black Sambo joke! I just shook my head. There are some things that time just doesn’t seem to erase.
Anyway, to get back the original subject: When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, many people lobbed allegations of racism against George Lucas and his company for the character of Jar Jar Binks and his buffoonery with a Caribbean accent, and the Caribbean patois and exaggerated mannerisms of the Gungan species (in particular their leader, Boss Nass). Last time we talked about the probable--and in my opinion, overwhelmingly likely--reasons why this had done. And I advanced the opinion that it wasn’t done deliberately but unthinkingly, in the process of trying to animate these characters. They did this without realizing or anticipating the way some people might react. They didn’t think ahead to the cultural effects of their special effects. And they weren’t prepared for the backlash they faced from some segments of the public. Well, what I’d like to offer as a further opinion is that what racist book publishers did deliberately and intentionally with Little Black Sambo, Lucasfilms did unwittingly with Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar Binks is not the Stepin Fetchit of science fiction so much as he is the accidental, unintentional Little Black Sambo of science fiction.
The lesson I would suggest we take from all of the above is just this. Every story, if it is a really good one, has things to tell us about life. There are, however, times when we ought to let a story be just a story. And yet, even so, there are times when we ought to remember that the audience for every story is going to bring its own perceptions to what they’re seeing/hearing/reading. No story exists independently of the context of the culture around it. And context can make all the difference, not just in the world, but in the galaxy. Even a galaxy far, far away.
Next week: African-American History Month continues with a look back at a daytime TV series that should have gone on for...Generations.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Is the character of Jar Jar Binks, introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a racist caricature? If so, was this done deliberately?
My answers may be summed up as follows:
No, he isn’t, but he is an example of questionable creative decision making and poorly thought-out science fiction. And absolutely not, though this doesn’t quite exactly let George Lucas and company off the hook. Not quite.
In this week’s Blog I’ll talk about my answer to the first part. I’ll save the second part for next week.
In filmed science fiction, there are two characters who have been the object of countless fans’ death fantasies; which is to say, countless fans have devoted unhealthy amounts of time and energy to coming up with ways to kill them out of sheer small-mindedness and meanness of spirit. One of them is Wesley Crusher of Star Trek, who was the object of the cruelest and most unfair wishes for his death over the one--count it, one--occasion when he was directly, personally responsible for saving the Enterprise before he was even a Starfleet Cadet. (By the way, I’ve met Wil Wheaton and he’s a perfectly nice young person.) We’ll talk about him some other time. The other is the nabob of planet Naboo, Jar Jar Binks.
Now, scholars of storytelling and popular and classical mythology will tell you that Jar Jar, who belongs to the semi-aquatic species of Gungans, is an example of a particular character type: the immature clown who grows up fast, becomes responsible, and makes good. (His role is greatly reduced in Episodes II and III, but he becomes a Senator of the Republic before the revenge of the Sith brings the tyranny of the Empire.) What a lot of fans will tell you is that Jar Jar is fit only to have a target painted on him and be used for Imperial Stormtrooper target practice. Why? Not just because he starts out as a bumbling buffoon, but because he’s a bumbling buffoon who speaks in a patois reminiscent of that of certain African-descended ethnic groups. There are some who consider Jar Jar a kind of intergalactic Stepin Fetchit, and his species an insulting caricature of Caribbean cultures. But is this really the case?
In the defense of George Lucas and company, what I’ll say first is this. Jar Jar and the Gungans are partly animated characters, and there are certain realities inherent in trying to bring an animated character to life on screen, if it is a character with humorous intent. When you’re working with data and pixels (or ink and color on cels in traditional animation), you have to work even harder to create a lifelike personality than you would with a director and actors. That means you have to exaggerate qualities about the character, and the character has to have qualities that lend themselves to exaggeration. Think about the great characters of Warner Brothers cartoons. There is a reason why they all had peculiarities or impediments of speech: Bugs Bunny’s inner-city New York dialect, Daffy Duck’s slobbery sibilants, Sylvester the Cat’s lisp, Porky Pig’s stammering, Foghorn Leghorn’s “Ah say’s” and repetitions, and so forth. That was to give the animators mannerisms that they could work with in making them...well, animated. The same principle applies to the Gungans. They were made to talk and behave that way to make them seem more lifelike. Unfortunately, the choice of dialect for them, and the particular ways in which they were exaggerated, came across to some people as a racial slur. It really wasn’t; it was just animators doing what animators do. They weren’t trying to be racist; in my opinion they just made a questionable creative decision, one that they failed to think through.
I dismiss out of hand any allegations of racism against George Lucas and his company. A lot of filmmaking racists would not have given us Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu. No, I just don’t accept that. This wasn’t bigotry, it was ill-considered characterization. I reject both the allegations and the allegators. (An old gag from Flip Wilson that I always loved.)
Creative decisions made without thinking are, in my opinion, an overall problem with The Phantom Menace. When it was first released, there hadn’t been a Star Wars film in 16 years and I welcomed it with open arms. At that point I would have applauded a film of the cast reciting the Tunisian telephone directory. But as I had time to think about it, I realized that there were some problems with the science fiction in this picture, and the Gungans were part of it.
I used to keep newts as pets--or I tried to keep them as pets, anyway. My little salamanders had a habit of launching themselves out of the fishbowl and going off and hiding, and weeks later someone would move a piece of furniture or an appliance, and behind it would be a hard, dry, shriveled up thing that used to be a newt. Now, the Gungans are basically big, two-legged, talking salamanders. Look at them; that’s what they are. They’re sentient amphibians. And there is a significant part of The Phantom Menace that takes place on planet Tatooine--with Jar Jar. I have every belief that after about five minutes on the arid surface of Tatooine, Jar Jar should rightly have come to the same fate as my little newts. (Which would have made some people happy!) But he doesn’t, and it doesn’t make sense. What would have made sense would have been for Qui Gon and Obi Wan to make Jar Jar stay aboard the ship in a specially humidified chamber. Or failing that, it would have made sense for Padme Amidala to have a medic in her entourage (she was a Queen, after all) who could slip Jar Jar some temporary DNA that would adapt Jar Jar for a desert environment, endowing him with a more coarse and water-tight skin like that of a desert-dwelling toad or horned lizard. (Commercially, this would have paid off by giving the studio a chance to license toys of both Aqua Jar Jar and Desert Jar Jar; you see, things can make both sense and money!)
Anyway, the problem with the Gungans is not just one of physiology but anatomy. Look at the design of their bodies, specifically their ears. In what kind of natural history do amphibians have long, floppy ears? Look at real amphibians--bullfrogs, for example. The ears are flat membranes against either side of the head--perfect streamlining to complement an overall streamlined body form for a creature that lives partly in water. The Gungans should have had bullfrog ears, not those long, clumsy, floppy things.
Oh, and speaking of living in the water, there’s a problem with the planet Naboo itself. There is a sequence in which Qui Gon, Obi Wan, and Jar Jar must travel through what is explicitly called the core of the planet in a submarine. An aquatic, water-traveling submarine. Again we look to our own planet to see the problem with this. Naboo is a terrestrial planet; that is, a planet similar in nature and composition to Earth. It is a life-bearing, thoroughly Earthlike world. Humans, or humanoids, live there. The core of Earth is not filled with water. On the contrary, it is filled with molten rock and iron at tremendous temperatures under colossal pressure. (I don’t care how powerful The Force is; no one is going to pilot a submarine through that and live to battle Darth Maul later on!) And lucky for us that it is so, because the rotating molten iron core of Earth creates a powerful magnetic field that screens out harmful radiations from the Sun that would otherwise render terrestrial life impossible. If Naboo is an Eartlhlike planet with Earthlike surface conditions and life comparable to that of Earth, it stands to reason that it has a core like that of Earth, not a core of water! A lot of people are going to sit reading this and roll their eyes at what a nit-picker I am, but how nit-picky is it when the problem can be fixed without hurting the story at all, just with a single line of dialogue? Change the expression “core of the planet” to “underwater caverns” and you get the same story, just truer to nature! Hollywood screenwriters get paid big bucks for writing this stuff; it’s not petty to expect them to think about what they’re writing! Much of the problem with our culture, popular entertainment and otherwise, is that people don’t like to think!
And frankly, people who aren’t going to take the trouble to think about this stuff shouldn’t be writing science fiction anyway.
So...they didn’t think about the creative process that went into Jar Jar. They didn’t even think about the nature of Jar Jar’s (and Padme’s) planet. And a lot of people took the character as an insult, a throwback to less enlightened filmmaking and storytelling. But I maintain, he was not so much a racist creation as a thoughtless one. Exactly how thoughtless will become even more clear next week, when we actually do put the character into a racial context. Jar Jar unintentionally harks back to a character that degraded African-Americans--but it’s not Stepin Fetchit! You’ll see what I mean in the second part of this entry.