Someone on the Twitters asked who was working on their dream. My response was, “Who dreams anymore?”
— The Tonight Show (@FallonTonight) March 1, 2018
Somewhere, somewhen in the past, I stopped dreaming.
As a child, I did not dream. I had nightmares, but dreams? Dreams are for people who hope & aspire. I had the restful blackness until I woke and that was that. But some things could break through and inspire me. They could touch the spaces inside my soul that had lost any ability to believe in the people or the world I was unwillingly thrust into, that seemed to desire me as a toy to break. Star Wars, Star Trek, if there was a fantasy or scifi element, I could be lost in that world. A world that seemed infinitely more interesting than the banalities of this one. I could be a Jedi and fight beside Luke Skywalker. As a Ranger, I would be loyal & true to Frodo and ensure the Ring was destroyed. I could not prevent the Fall of Nargothrond, but I would gladly rescue as many as I could. There was a small problem. Even in my dreams, I’d still be the sole black person in the story.
You, my fine alabaster to tan brethren, probably grew up with a hero you identified with. Whether it’s The Lone Ranger, Pippi Longstocking, Aragorn, or Alexander Portnoy – you didn’t just decide to participate, you got to see yourself as the hero. You felt that connection, a bond where art and audience don’t just find each other, the art makes a home in you and the story that was told is now a thread of the story of you. I can’t quite say I felt that way about everything. The few black heroes were often busy heroing somewhere off to the side, lesser heroes in lesser stories that didn’t get be as important as the big and Caucasian leads. I wasn’t deterred from desiring to participate in these worlds, but there was a longing I didn’t know I had for faces like mine and voices that could connect me to a group, a dynamic, a heritage. There’s an absence, I think, for some in the Diaspora where we know nothing but the lands we’ve arrived in while dealing with craving for mother tongues we’ve never spoken, dances we’ve never moved to & tales for lands we’ve never seen but within our gene pool we can recognize as belonging to us and also about us. Maybe it’s just me.
Fast forward. I had no desire for Black Panther to be a movie. Sorry, I’m 100% a Storm fan but…Ryan Coogler and Chadwick “I am a very serious ACTOR” Boseman”…? Maybe I’m the only one who appreciated Ang Lee’s Hulk for what Lee was trying to do, and I am always curious when the “serious movie” talent gets to let their [super]freak flag fly. Let’s see how it goes. Besides, I’ve grow up seeing so many “black” movies be done with less budget, get stuck as narrow genre content and worse yet, languish in development because the common wisdom is movies with black leads won’t be enjoyed by anybody really important, i.e. white people. A money losing proposition. It’s also stupid, because who didn’t enjoy Blade? Make a good movie, give us a shot. Common wisdom is sometimes incredibly stupid.
I didn’t know what to expect while sitting in the theater. I knew it was going to be good from the first action sequence and I let out a breath of relief. A good-not-great Marvel movie was going to do well and wouldn’t be a drag on black lead projects. Yeah, I think in movie business, what of it? We don’t really get to just make an error and have it reflect on just use. A notable black person making a mistake in public is a pratfall every black person has to get up & dust themselves off from. It was going to be ok for more like this to be made. And then T’Challa, Nakia & Okoye flew through the curtain of the regular world and descended into the glorious dream of Wakanda. My heart opened up to absorb this dream. This dream of an unconquered Africa. This dream of people who never knew slavery, degradation or abuse. A land where a known past melded with an advanced future. Women of beauty, strength & intellect in positions of power. Presided over by a young king who would put himself in danger for his people, while commanding loyalty due to his compassion and willingness to question what does it mean to be a good man as well as a good king. Every time I watch that movie, I feel myself connecting passionately with it from start to finish. A hero’s journey, but one where the hero starts a hero, then passes through battle and death to become fully human. King Lear, but with spandex & a massive VFX budget.
I remember leaving the theater with my friends and having to think deeply of all the themes and complications. That was a performance! From every star of that film, but Boseman’s T’Challa created a legend for black people. One they hadn’t really been given before. We got our King, we got our Aragorn, WE HAD OUR ARTHUR! We got to dream, in bold, vivid colors, with a complexity that fits the concept of Blackness on this very small yet large planet. The most brilliant thing is, he helped prove that stories that center us, feature us and elevate us, are capable of connecting to the hearts of people everywhere. Which cracks open the door for other actors to bring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) stories to screen. Maybe they’ll get to be sitting at a desk, shaking hands with the fans and seeing little kids and giant kids like myself just dissolve into joy because the character they played meant something and brought a dream to life. I hope so. Chadwick Boseman did film after film after film – while fighting cancer. The little movies I’ve made and worked on were exhausting. The preplanning I did for an action short that covid kaboshed, even more work. I have no idea how he did it. But I think I know why. He had to put all his love for his craft, for his people and for the life he knew he could be leaving soon, into something. And he did. Black Panther. Da 5 Bloods. 42. Marshall. Any of those would be such a great film, no one would blame you for taking the rest of the year off & handing you a damned award. People, he was in more films than just that since 2016. When you know you might have to go, though… it makes sense to take your most precious gifts and make sure they go to the people who need them. I think he did.
The king is dead. Long Live the King. Long live the story that will stay with all of us.