identity

When will other women of color have their Rose Tico moment in “Star Wars”?

I’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and like the majority (save for a handful of fans, who I’ll have words about later on once spoiler fever has died down), I absolutely loved the film. The storyline and its more cerebral themes were amazing and refreshing–as SyFy Fangrrls/SyFyWire contributing editor Carly Lane wrote on Twitter, this is the most cerebral Star Wars film yet–and the introductions of new characters such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and DJ (Benecio Del Toro) were organic and fun. It’s as if these characters have been around since the beginning.

Rose is also one of the characters that reminded me how little women of color are shown in Star Wars and how I wish I, as a black woman, could have had the same kind of representational experience in this fictional galaxy.

Watching Rose

Lucasfilm/Disney

I was excited to see not Rose and her sister Paige, to see representation long overdue. It was gratifying to watch Rose challenge Finn on his planned desertion and to inspire hope in him and the rest of the Resistance. She’s a tremendous force in this film, and I think the film–and the franchise–is better for it.

I’m extremely happy that finally, after an entire two years of back-to-back whitewashing of Asian characters and stories, a big blockbuster film has put an Asian character at the center of its story. I’ve covered so many films that negate Asian characters or recast them as white actors, and there are even some projects I haven’t covered just because I couldn’t bring myself to write about yet another property that just didn’t get what it was doing. But seeing Rose was seeing what films can do when they are created by someone conscientious enough to tackle proper representation.

There was one thing that held me back a bit during my viewing of The Last JediStar Wars has yet to give an African-American female character the same treatment as Rose. To be fair, Star Wars has yet to give a character who looks like me more than five seconds on screen.

Watching Rose kick the film into high gear reminded me of a coping mechanism I’d developed as a child on the chance I was watching a TV show that had no black women as a part of its cast. As a kid, I’d gravitate towards the character who was a minority like me and live vicariously through that character. The first time I remember doing this was as a 5-year-old watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. There was a black man as part of the cast, but no black women. But, there was Thuy Trang’s character Trini Kwan, the Yellow Power Ranger. Trini was my way into Power Rangers, and during recess, when my friends and I would pretend to be the Power Rangers, I would always make sure I got the Yellow Ranger. She may not have been my same race, but to me, she represented me and other girls of color who weren’t represented on the show. As a child, seeing Trini kick butt and be cool helped me formulate my personal voice and worldview. Through Trini, I felt like I could have a place on a show that apparently wasn’t designed for me.

I felt the same way with Rose. Through her, I felt happiness because women of color were finally getting their overdue shot at being heroes. Young girls, Asian girls especially, will be able to see themselves included in a fantastical place like the Star Wars universe. That kind of feeling is one that is unmatched–I felt it somewhat when The Force Awakens introduced Finn (John Boyega) as one of our new Star Wars heroes.

But the black woman is still left out. Despite my love for Rose, what I can’t ignore is a deep, personal longing to see black girls (and grown women like me) represented on screen in a hero they can be proud of. The longing doesn’t stop at just my own race, though; when will all women of color get equal representation in Star Wars? Now that Rose is here, will the Star Wars powers that be realize they owe the members of Star Wars‘ WOC fanbase the heroes they deserve?

Star Wars’ WOC track record

Lucasfilm

Star Wars having a rough time with representing women of color is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it last year during the Rogue One hype. As I wrote then, women of color are largely absent from the films despite having a larger presence in the books. One character, Imperial Naval Officer Rae Sloane and Han Solo’s former wife, Sana Starros, have important roles in the Star Wars saga. But not only is it unclear if Sana will be portrayed in the upcoming Han Solo prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story, but Rae has yet to make a film appearance in any of the new Star Wars films.

Combine that with the fact that there is a highly sought-after actress that is a part of the films, but is currently stuck playing behind CG and motion-capture. Lupita Nyong’o was a big get for the franchise–The Force Awakens was one of her first acting roles after winning the Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave. But she has been tasked with portraying Maz Kanata, a character who is lively and fun, but is fully computer-generated. All we hear of Nyong’o is her voice.

Before Rose, the most prominent Asian female character in Star Wars was Janina Gavankar’s Iden Versio in the video game Star Wars: Battlefront II. But, like Rae and Sana, it’s unclear if Iden will ever show up in any film or TV Star Wars properties. Ditto for Shara Bey, Poe Dameron’s mother, who does appear in the comic book series Star Wars: Shattered Empire. Women of other racial and ethnic groups, such as Native American women, have no representation at all.

Adding insult to injury is how Star Wars has typically used women of color as WOC-coded sex aliens. As I wrote back in 2016:

Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:

“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”

It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.

It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.

To The Last Jedi co-writer/director Rian Johnson’s credit, he did make it a point to showcase more women of color, particularly African-American women, in scenes. One of the biggest cameos of the film is Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel as a Resistance tech. We see another black woman as a Resistance fighter pilot, and a South Asian woman is also featured as part of General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) ragtag team. Black women and other women of color also feature heavily in the luxurious Canto Bight scenes.

But the scenes that do feature women of color, black women especially, only feature them either in the background or in non-speaking cameos. We never get to intimately know other women are who are Latina, Native American, African-American or South Asian, etc. Much like the lone black woman in Rogue One, we know women of color do exist in this far away galaxy, but we never know them outside of being set dressing.

That’s what makes Tran as Rose even more powerful. Johnson said he cast regardless of ethnicity for Rose, and that opportunity–unencumbered by preconceived notions of what a “Rose Tico” should look like–led Johnson to finding the perfect person for the part.

“We saw a lot of talented actresses of a very broad range–but honestly, it was more about finding Kelly,” said Johnson to The Los Angeles Times‘ Jen Yamato. “There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met and I knew that this was going to shine through onscreen. I knew that I was going to be rooting for her in the movie.”

As Yamato wrote, Johnson’s decision to create Rose as a main character and casting inclusively “led to the biggest leap forward for Asian representation Hollywood has ever dared to make on such a large scale.”

Watching Rose on screen provided me with both pride at seeing a woman of color finally take the reins of a Star Wars film, but it also made me a bit wistful that we have yet to see other women of color get the same opportunity.

But where Rose has paved the way, surely others will follow, right?

First Rose, now others

Let’s go back to Solo. This movie is the closest on the horizon, and it’s also the Star Wars can finally break the color barrier. Even though it’s unclear who Emilia Clarke is playing (reportedly, it was a role actresses like Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona tried for as well), Thandie Newton is also rumored to be part of the cast. We have virtually no substantial casting news on this front, so we have to wait until we get closer to the film’s 2018 release date. But, if Newton is a big part of the Solo cast, then she could very well be part of a new wave of diverse Star Wars leading ladies.

Regardless, Star Wars should come to grips with their startling avoidance of women of color. Now that inroads are being made thanks to Rose, writers and directors should continue to make giving women of color a voice in Star Wars a priority. Not as sex slaves and not as CG characters but as the heroes. Hopefully, Rose is the first of many more like her.

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Al-Jazeera English’s Malika M. Bilal on the importance of the Ibtihaj Muhammad Barbie

In November, United States Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the U.S., was immortalized as a Barbie. The doll was revealed by Muhammad herself at the Glamour Woman of the Year Summit. The doll is part of Barbie’s ongoing “Shero” collection, which honors women who break through glass ceilings and inspire girls around the world.

The Shero collection already has some heavy hitters in its collection–dolls representing director Ava DuVernay, U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, plus size model Ashley Graham, and Misty Copeland have highlighted Barbie’s renewed focus on uplifting and inspiring girls to reach for their dreams. Muhammad’s doll follows in those footsteps.

“Through playing with Barbie, I was able to imagine and dream about who I could become,” said Ibtihaj Muhammad to Barbie.com. “I love that my relationship with Barbie has come full circle, and now I have my own doll wearing a hijab that the next generation of girls can use to play out their own dreams.”

“Barbie is celebrating Ibtihaj not only for her accolades as an Olympian, but for embracing what makes her stand out,” said Sejal Shah Miller, Vice President of Global Marketing for Barbie. “Ibtihaj is an inspiration to countless girls who never saw themselves represented, and by honoring her story, we hope this doll reminds them that they can be and do anything.”

Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive also said how Muhammad has defied stereotypes to become a history-making Olympian.

“Ibtihaj Muhammad has challenged every stereotype—which to me is the definition of a modern American woman,” she said. “Last year, she was the first athlete from the U.S to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and today we are thrilled to celebrate Ibtihaj as the first hijab-wearing Barbie. She will play a tremendous role in ensuring that girls of the future see themselves represented fully and beautifully in our culture.”

That role isn’t lost on host of Al Jazeera English‘s Emmy-nominated news talk show The Stream, Malika M. Bilal, who wrote on The Undefeated what the meaning of Muhammad in Barbie form means to black Muslim women and girls, including herself and her niece.

“Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of ‘100 Woke Women’ and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them,” she wrote, adding that the erasure “reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.”

“The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim,” she wrote. ” A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.”

“It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves,” she wrote. “…[W]hen the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.”

Are you going to order yourself an Ibtihaj Barbie? Talk about it in the comments!

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Zendaya tackles colorism in “A White Lie,” the true story of the first black woman to graduate Vassar

Zendaya’s latest project is going to be, I think one that defines her career in the best way possible.

According to Shadow and Act via Deadline, Zendaya will star in and produce A White Lie, based on the psychological thriller The Gilded Years, a novel by Karin Tanabe.

Tanabe’s book is based around “the true story of Anita Hemmings, a light-skinned African American woman” who is the daughter of a janitor, but due to her skintone, is able to pass for white to attend Vassar College in the 1900s. According to Shadow and Act, Hemmings is “treated as a wealthy and educated white woman and sparks a romance with a rich Harvard student.”

Along with Zendaya, Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter will produce through Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production arm. The script is being written by Monica Beletsky.

This is a really exciting project to see from Zendaya. We haven’t seen much commentary on skintone, colorism, and skin privilege coming from Hollywood productions–the highest profile movie commenting on colorism is An Imitation of Life, made in 1934 and remade in 1959, which focused on a young woman who resented her black mother, a maid, and lived as a white woman only to meet personal tragedy. Pinky, released in 1949, also dealt with colorism and a light-skinned woman who passed as white to live a life of privilege. With Hollywood’s new wave of creators and actors, it’s heartening to see Hollywood projects beginning to tackle the under-explored nuances of racism, colorism, and privilege in America.

What do you think about Zendaya’s new film? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Exclusive Interview: “Charcoal” writer/director Francesca Andre talks colorism

Francesca Andre has a message for everyone with her short film, Charcoal. The main theme of her film is about colorism and its damaging effects on the black diaspora. Her two main characters go through a journey of self-acceptance and self-awareness, and that journey is something Andre hopes is replicated in her viewers.

I’ve had the chance to speak with Andre recently about her film (which you can learn more about in a previous article and the trailer below) as well as her opinions on how colorism affects us. I also asked about the Dove ad that sparked controversy, and how we can heal as a people from our societal wounds. Andre offers clear insight into her own journey towards healing and how we can continue the process of healing in our own lives. Here are highlights from that conversation.

Charcoal can be seen at the Yonkers Film Festival Nov. 3-8.

The inspiration for Charcoal:

Colorism is something that has impacted my life at a very young age. It’s very common in Haiti—it’s not white people versus black people, it’s really lighter skin versus darker skin. At a very young age, I was made aware of that. When I was probably five years old, I received a dark-skinned doll. When I took it home, people started making fun of the doll, saying the doll is ugly. My mother being brown-skinned, my grandmother being lighter-skinned, and my grandfather and my father being darker skinned men, people just made comparisons to the skintones.

Colorism and the lasting effects of racism in the black diaspora:

We’re still dealing with the consequences [of racism] as a people when it comes to economic empowerment, how we are being perceived and anything else—colorism sits right in there. It’s still affecting us, we’re still dealing with it, it’s not a thing of the past. We’re still healing from it. Those of us who are aware and are making a conscious decision to talk about it. You can’t really talk about racism or the advancement of us as a people and not talk about colorism.

Here in America, [the Dove colorism ad] was a mainstream brand that everyone can see, but you have some smaller brands, when you go to Caribbean markets that are selling [similar] products. You have women making skin-bleaching lotion and selling it to other women. I guess for some people here, it’s not as blatant as it is in other cultures—if you go to CVS, you probably won’t be able to find it, right? But it’s happening. It never went away, at least from my experience; as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always known about these products.

Even thinking about “good” hair,the hair is not closer to our hair texture. It’s something closer to European hair texture. But when you look at our hair and the versatility of our hair, to me it’s like, really good hair! It took me a long time to reprogram myself, my thoughts, and redefine what “good” hair was for me to access [my hair] and accept it, love it, and embrace it…I don’t have any problems with it now.

Francesca Andre

On how to heal from colorism:

I do feel like we need to start having conversations, and an important part of that is the healing part of that. I think you will see that you’ll find more women going natural more than ever. Here’s what’s fascinating: how so many black women did not know their hair period because they just haven’t been dealing with their hair…they did not know how to take care of their hair; it’s been processed. When they find out what products work on our hair and what they can do to make their hair do this and that. Again, it’s knowledge and healing and more women are stepping out. It’s not a strange thing now to see a black woman with natural hair in the workplace. There was a time when this wasn’t a thing. Now, more people are going natural, embracing it and being unapologetic about it. I feel like we’re going forward. Even with skintones, too—[online campaigns and phrases like] “My melanin’s poppin’,” #BlackGirlMagic—we are healing collectively. I hope the men are using those terms as well; I hope the men are healing because they are also victims of colorism. I hope that we as a people stop the vicious cycle.

…First of all, I think [the first step to healing is] knowing what colorism is. Many people don’t even know what colorism means. It really starts the conversation. It’s hard to change beliefs, but one way we can do that as a people is to talk—ask [about it] and dialogue. Increase representation [in the media] to make women more confident in who they are and how they look. As an artist and storyteller, the way I [change] people is including it and showing it, talking about it and not pushing it away…Whenever I see a girl with natural hair, I tell them “I love your hair” or “I love your twists”; I make it my job to remind them because all the messages they are receiving are the opposite.

How Charcoal can start viewers’ journeys toward self-acceptance:

I think there’s a universal aspect to it. I hope people feel inspired and hopeful. I hope people find some sort of healing or be the beginning of that journey. We all can relate to pain, and the characters go through that, but we can see how they overcome that.♦

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. ??

Weekend reading: What Munroe Bergdorf meant in her Facebook post + more

There’s tons of stuff going on in the media including the continued fallout L’Oréal is facing for firing black trans model/activist Munroe Bergdorf for her comments about systemic racism in relation to the violence in Charlottesville. Here’s what’s happening out there:

What Munroe Bergdorf meant when she said all white people are racist|Quartz

19-Year-Old Haitian Japanese Tennis Star, Naomi Osaka, Defeats U.S. Open Champ|Blavity

Nitty Scott Celebrates “La Diaspora” In New Short Film|Fader

Janelle Monae’s Undiscussed Queer Legacy|Into

Chance The Rapper is starting a new awards show for teachers|A.V. Club

In Indonesia, 3 Muslim Girls Fight for Their Right to Play Heavy Metal|The New York Times

Waiting for a Perfect Protest?|The New York Times

How ‘Dunkirk’ failed and the continued historical whitewashing of World War II in big budget film|Shadow and Act

Why It’s SO Important That Comics Are Finally Including More Girls|TeenVogue

James Wong Howe: how the great cinematographer shaped Hollywood|The Telegraph

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Lana Condor finally becomes the rom-com lead she always wished to be

You’ve seen Lana Condor even if you don’t remember her. If you’ve seen X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ve seen her as Jubilee, even though the film did her dirty and didn’t actually let her speak. But you’ll not only hear her speak in her latest film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, she’ll be starring as the love interest, a dream she never thought possible.

Condor spoke to NBC Asian America about her role in the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA novel. In the film, Condor stars as Jean Song Covey, a biracial Korean/white American teenager who lives with her two sisters and widowed dad. The book and film will follow Covey’s love life, which gets completely turned upside down when the letters she’s written to boys she’s liked are taken from under her bed and sent.

“A few months ago when I was on a plane, I was daydreaming about how fun it’d be to act in a romantic comedy, because I don’t know of any rom-coms where Asian women are the leads,” she said. “And now here we are.”

Han herself gave Condor her blessing with the role. “That is truly groundbreaking,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t seen Asian American women centered on the screen since Joy Luck Club which was nearly 25 years ago. Representation is so important, and this means the world to me. More than anything, I hope that the success of this movie will lead to more opportunities for Asian American actors and writers down the line.”

Condor said she hopes her work career can change the landscape for the Asian diaspora in Hollywood, something she started thinking about after landing her role as Jubilee.

“It got me thinking, if I can just put a little dent in the wall that is Hollywood in terms of race, then I’ve done enough,” she said. “Now, I’ve been so lucky in my career that I might be able to put an even bigger dent in that wall than I thought.”

You can read more at NBC News.

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All hail The Chief: A virtual roundtable on Wonder Woman’s Native American inclusion

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has been a revelation to many who love film. Not only did the film open up the box office to finally accepting a female superhero, but it also paved the way for one of DC’s longest-standing, but often misrepresented character, Apache Chief. In the film, the character is treated a lot more seriously and realistically, only going by “The Chief” to mere mortals, but is actually Napi, a Blackfoot demi-god hoping to protect his people and fight against evil.

The Chief got much of is backstory from actor Eugene Brave Rock, who integrated parts of his own background into the character to make an even richer experience for himself as an actor, for the film, and for the viewer, especially those who might not have ever seen a non-stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. The role was even more special for Native American viewers, who rarely see themselves portrayed in full in the media.

I was able to catch up with three Wonder Woman fans who are also African-American and Native-American. From their points of view, the DCEU—and movies in general—can only get better with the inclusion of more Native American characters like the Chief.

Cherry Davis, pop culture and lifestyle blogger and Afterbuzz TV guest host, said she is 1/16 Blackfoot and that the Chief is a rare character in a landscape lacking in complex Native roles.

“…[It’s] likely the second time I’ve seen a Native/Indigenous character played by someone of that ethnic background. So big hurrah for that casting choice!” she said. “What stood out was that he didn’t speak in the ‘Entertainment Native Dialect’ and that he wasn’t subservient to the white characters.”

He was definitely the icing on an already delicious cake of a film. As soon as he appeared on the screen, I all but screamed Super Friends Reunion!” said Dennis R. Upkins, speculative fiction author and activist as well as part Cherokee. “He definitely had a mystique about and while we know little about this mysterious character, he was established enough that he could take the lead in his own narrative in the DCEU.”

Cherese Capadona, who is part Mississippi Choctaw, said what struck her the most about the Chief was his unapologetic approach to talking about “the Native American relationship with White Americans after colonization.” She said the Chief’s statement that men like Steve Trevor killed his people “was accurate.”

“It didn’t say they couldn’t have a good working relationship or couldn’t be friends, but that’s never been addressed in any television show, anything I’ve ever remembered seeing growing up like The Lone Ranger, which has my least favorite representation of a Native American character ever.”

Photo credit: Warner Bros./DC

Due to her Blackfoot heritage, the Chief hits even closer to home for Davis, who also minored in Native American Studies.

“This is dear to me,” she said. “…[I] am always excited to see diverse characters [and] characterizations. I applaud Patty Jenkins for allowing Eugene Brave Rock to truly make the character his own, imbuing the Chief with a backstory nod to his people. Also, a huge nod to Eugene for taking this opportunity as a platform for Native American Blackfoot mythology.  I’m hoping that people will be excited enough to read more and that DC Comics will have a ‘hmm’ moment. Expand on his mythology, cast him in some of the DC TV series to gather a fanbase and eventually comic book movie/series/cartoon around an entire mythology that people have little awareness of.”

She said seeing someone like the Chief on the big screen would be “incredible” to Native audience members who usually don’t see themselves represented. She said an audience member might feel “vindicated and excited to see not only someone who looks like them but is one of them and [is] a character treated with dignity in such a huge film.”

“I’m hoping that this will lead to seeing Chief in other films since as a demigod he’ll live for a long time,” she said.

“I can definitely speak for myself and say that…I felt relieved first of all that he wasn’t just coming in because his name was the Chief,” said Capadona. “You can almost imagine the eyerolling—what’s this character going to be like? But he isn’t what you would expect. Usually when there’s a character called the chief in a movie, there’s a stereotypical headdress, speaking broken English. There are just so many things that are stereotypical and none of that was there. Once I got over the relief portion, I was pretty happy.”

Capadona also hopes the Chief will make more people interested in learning more about the mythology of the nation’s first inhabitants.

“We spend so much time teaching kids Greek mythology and Roman mythology. Since we’ve come out with the Thor movies and The Avengers, there’s been an interest in Norse mythology. [There’s an interest in] Egyptian mythology. There’s never been characters from Native American mythology and every nation has their own creation stories and tales that follow in the realm of mythology,” she said. “I would hope that the chief being a demi-god would spark as much interest in those mythologies and kids don’t get exposed to any of things that are from this land, from this country. Whether you’re Native American or African American, we have our own stories [and] folklore. That was just really exciting for me.”

Upkins said he felt the inclusion of the Chief shows just how inclusive the movie-going experience can be.

“Being part Cherokee, I’m always excited to see this aspect of my culture reflected in the media, particularly in speculative fiction,” he said. “The film’s openness is a reflection of how inclusive Wonder Woman and for that matter the DCEU is. Diana herself is queer/bisexual protagonist which she all but states in the film when she references the fact that men are good for procreating but sexual gratification is best with other women. This is also the film that got to see queer black super heroines get some shine battling the German invaders. This inclusiveness has already paid off in dividends of $700 million worldwide.”

Brave Rock’s portrayal is one of a small number of Indigenous characters or characters played by Indigenous actors to take part in the DCEU. In Suicide Squad, Adam Beach, a member of the Saulteaux First Nations, portrays anti-hero Slipknot, and in Aquaman and Justice League, Jason Momoa, who is of Native Hawaiian, Irish, German, and Native American descent, is portraying Aquaman himself.

Photo credit: Warner Bros./DC

Upkins said that the inclusion of the Chief and the addition of Brave Rock’s characterizations “debunks all excuses” for other films when it comes to a lack of proper representation.

“It shows that you can have Native characters in supporting and leading roles and still have a successful film,” he said. “Any claims to the contrary are dead on arrival.”

You don’t often see Native or people of color during that time period [of Wonder Woman] so it’s sad to say but it’s kind of groundbreaking which is positive but also sad that this type of portrayal is still rare in the 21st century,” he said.

Davis also hopes the film will lead to more casting that accurately portrays the character’s background instead of erasing it.

“…[A]sk [actors] how they can bring their life experience into the role,” she said. “People not only want to see themselves reflected but people both other ethnic/religious background are receptive and interested in seeing new talented faces.”

“I would hope that it would open up another door to not necessarily cast …It’s frustrating, and I know that several people have said this, not just Native Americans…[people] are getting frustrated by roles that are created and they want that character to have a specific look, they have to be Caucasian, this, that or the other,” said Capadona. “The most recent example of someone who is breaking down those barriers is Ava DuVernay’s casting in A Wrinkle in Time. When I was growing up and I read that book, I thought in my mind—because that’s the way everyone portrayed the character to me—that Meg Wallace was a character that should have been white, and here in the film she’s going to be biracial. It’s wonderful the way she’s done that. She’s cast a rainbow of other characters.”

With it being 2017, said Capadona, proper representation and staying away from the “Noble Native” stereotype shouldn’t be an issue. But she hopes accuracy in representation comes “sooner rather than later.”

“I’m just hoping other people will take the hint and do what Patty has done and create more roles and more opportunities for the actors and actresses to enrich these stories they want to tell,” she said.

The roles Capadona, Davis, and Upkins want to see the most involve Native characters living outside of the stereotype.

“I want to see them in the same type of roles that white counterparts have, from playing a bad guy to a hero, to love interest to just being a nuanced human with flaws in all genres,” said Davis.

Upkins said he’d love to see “[q]ueer male leads in speculative fiction.” Capadona said she’d love to have Native characters in all walks of life.

“I would love to see, because I love science-fiction, maybe some science-fiction elements added to a Native American story. I’d love to see a Native American actor or actress play a scientist, somebody who’s beyond the geologist or archeologist—somebody that’s actually doing astrophysics and going into space. We’ve had Native American astronauts; it’d be wonderful to see those kind of characters,” she said. “It’d be wonderful to see a Native American love story on the screen or even interracial, but not something that’s this tragic thing where it’s “My father doesn’t approve of you, I’m going to shame my family because I’m marrying you.” Just something beyond those typical things. Something off the reservation—there are middle class Native Americans in this country. Everybody isn’t on the reservation and dealing with reservation politics and poverty. Something that’s uplifting and showing people as multifaceted.”

“We’re starting to see more facets of Native American culture and I think the role of the chief is starting to turn the gemstone to see those different facets, but we still have a lot of turning to do and I’m really hoping this is the start.”♦

Wonder Woman comes to DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 19. 

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Ruby Rhod and Bubble: Blackness in “The Fifth Element” and “Valerian”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is coming out this month, and upon seeing Rihanna as the alluring dancer Bubble in the various trailers, I knew there was something to discuss, particularly how Bubble relates to another black character in a Luc Besson sci-fi film, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod.

How so? You might be saying. Well, from where I’m sitting, having two characters who are at a crossroads between Afrofuturistic empowerment and reductive racial stereotypes begs to be written about. Clearly, these two characters are talking to each other, and deciphering their conversation is one that involves parsing through how blackness, black queerness, and black sexuality are constantly put at war against each other in Western society. These two characters embody that tug of war between ownership and exploitation.

With that said, let’s get into it.

Ruby as a statement—and condemnation—on black queerness

As a character, Ruby Rhod is an absolute conundrum. To put it bluntly, he’s the most singular character in The Fifth Element and certainly one of the most singular in sci-fi films as a whole. As Drew Mackie from UnicornBooty wrote, Ruby Rhod is “a queer-coded character the likes of whom audiences likely hadn’t seen before in a mainstream ‘popcorn’ movie—and by and large haven’t seen since.”

Ben Child for the Guardian breaks Ruby’s character down into even more detail:

“Decked out in extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, and spending most of the movie either squealing in high-camp horror at the sight of aliens taking over a luxury intergalactic cruise ship or luring fluttery-eyed space vixens into virtual orgasms merely by his presence, Rhod is a character whose rejection of gender norms is so elevated that they seem to have arrived through a wormhole from the year 3000, never mind 2263 (The Fifth Element’s ostensible time frame). At one point Tucker chooses to be called ‘Miss’ Ruby, and yet there is a definite hint of phallicism in that rock star surname. Moreover, Rhod appears to be the very definition of red-blooded masculinity. Is it any wonder that Prince was the model for the role, with Tucker only recruited once it became clear the purple one was not going to sign on the dotted line?”

Ruby is a fascinating character to dissect because, whether Besson or Tucker realized it, Ruby’s at the center of the intersections of black queerness, black masculinity, and the influence of black American culture on mainstream pop culture.

The thing that’s the most apparent about Ruby, aside from being black, is that he’s most definitely a representation of queerness. I’m specifically using that term because as a character, Ruby doesn’t seem to define himself as straight or gay. While he overtly makes references to heterosexual sex, what with his seduction of the spaceship’s stewardesses, his spectacular rose-lined outfit, eye makeup, and tinted lip gloss suggests he’s subtly giving his time at the opera with Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas date-like undertones instead of merely a PR opportunity with a contest winner.

Speaking of his clothes, Ruby’s costumes directly reflect his gender-bending and sexually fluid sensibilities. Ruby doesn’t wear mere garments. He wears statements. His leopard print unitard exaggerate the feminine collars of the 1950s while also defining his very masculine bulge. His aforementioned opera outfit veers even more into feminine territory.

Ruby is at once a shining moment of Hollywood’s progressiveness and Hollywood’s tight grip on queer stereotypes.

Saeed Jones wrote for Lambda Literary about the push-and-pull effect he gets from Ruby, one of his favorite characters from the film.

“When I was a teenager obsessed with The Fifth Element, I was devoted to the idea that Ruby Rhod was a gay character who gets to take part in saving the universe. Except Ruby isn’t gay. I didn’t know about the phrase ‘gender bending’ at the time and had no schema for an effeminate male character who has sex with more women in the film than the macho protagonist. Ruby was a kind of man I thought would only be possible light years into the future: funny, black, attractive, fierce, and—most importantly—alive by the end of the movie.”

Yet, Ruby falls into many tropes that intersect with both the obsession of showing “black buffoonery” and “girly” gay men. Ruby’s blend of machismo and femininity is what gives the character power in the scenes where he’s in control. But it’s when the action starts that Ruby’s power dissolves into frantic screams worthy of a fainting couch. He becomes the worst type of damsel-in-distress—one who cowers behind the man, lacking the fortitude to use calm or logic in tense situations.

In one way, it’s daring that The Fifth Element even dared to show a black man—usually thought of as a lumbering, menacing powerhouse—as a lithe, vulnerable character taking on a traditionally femme role. However, that point could have been made more solidly if Ruby didn’t segue into eye-bulges and wacked-out facial expressions that are only reserved for the most buffoonish of black buffoons in media.

As much as Ruby uplifts the narrative of black queerness in the media, he also does just as much to cement a view of gay culture that has been traditionally held by a lot of people in the black community—that being gay or in any way an non-traditional male is the mark of a defective man. A lot of that view is based in a very limited view of Christianity, but the real root seems to be from the black man’s struggle to reclaim and express his masculinity in the first place.

David A. Love wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for The Grio that the traditional black aversion to homosexuality stems from slavery.

“Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.”

Ruby plays into that perception of viewing black queerness as a threat—by acting in a cartoonish, stereotypical and racially-charged fashion, Ruby acts as an avatar for the very fears insecure black men have about black male homosexuality. Those fears aren’t crystalized more than when Ruby literally hides in fear behind Korben, the white male secure in his sexuality enough to take charge and lead the scared Ruby to safety.

To go back to Jones’ Lambda Literary article:

“Ruby Rhod troubles me. He explodes into the narrative, black, loud, and out of nowhere. Like the standard Magical Negro, he is functional in service of the film’s white heroes but has little to know story of his own. We know nothing about him except that he’s hilarious, really loud, and sexually promiscuous. When you set aside his costume choices, he’s really not that different from most black comic characters. In fact, he’s almost offensive…I’d rather not think about it.”

Even with that said, Tucker’s performance is one that makes Ruby one of the standouts from The Fifth Element. He’s vivacious, fun, and electric. Tucker takes Ruby seriously as an actor and channels Prince and Michael Jackson into the role, showing that Tucker gets what Ruby’s about. Speaking of Prince, Prince himself was supposed to play Ruby, but couldn’t do to prior tour commitments. If we look at how Prince played The Kid in Purple Rain and Christopher Tracy in Under the Cherry Moon, you have to wonder how Ruby’s gender and sexual explorations would have been played. Would Prince have challenged Besson about Ruby’s reactions to the first sight of danger or would he have gone along with Besson’s vision? I’m not a psychic or a mind reader, but I feel like Prince would have taken it upon himself to Jedi Mind Trick Besson into letting him rewrite the character into someone much more aware and much more willing to punch a bad guy in the face.

How Ruby Rhod gives possible clues to Bubble’s characterization

As of writing this post, we haven’t seen Valerian, so we don’t know much about Bubble. It also seems like she’s not in the original 1960s French comic books, so we don’t even have canon to draw from. But there are some things we can glean from the trailer from how Ruby Rhod was characterized in The Fifth Element.

Firstly, we see that there’s still the theme of blackness relating to entertainment in some way. Ruby’s claim to fame was being the universe’s most popular radio show host. Bubble’s claim to fame is being what outlets such as Billboard described as an “alien stripper,” but what other outlets have described as an “entertainer.” The idea seems to be that in Besson’s future, blackness is frequently tethered to—or defined by—the objectification and maybe even exploitation that comes with celebrity.

Both Ruby and Bubble are definitely cornerstones in their own universe’s cultures, and for that they are both exalted and exploited for things folks always expect black people to be good at—making music, dancing, and being sexual. They’re both enigmatic people and cariactures of our society’s incessant obsession with the black body, black sexuality, and black talent.

To further illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’ll use one of France’s most famous entertainers, Josephine Baker, as an example. She comes to mind for me because of the fact that eroticism featured heavily in her dance performances. Racial commentary also featured heavily—she often had a push-and-pull between exploiting racial stereotypes and subverting them in her acts. Her most famous act, in which she’s nude except for some sandals, necklaces, and her banana skirt, portrays knowledge of the hyper-sexual black “native” woman stereotype. She uses this stereotype to her advantage, but still, it showcases the Western obsession with the black body. In her acts, Baker becomes less of a dancer and more of an object, funneling all of Western society’s sexual fantasies about blackness into her performances.

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie” (Public Domain)

Just from the trailers, Bubble seems to be a character at that same intersection. The only caveat is that it’s unclear just how much power she has over her own sexuality. In that respect, Ruby is more like Baker than Bubble is; we do see Ruby use his sexual prowess to his advantage (and, strangely enough, Ruby’s leopard suit brings up an animalism that is also apparent in Baker’s costumes).

How much can we expect to learn about Bubble in Valerian if we still don’t know a lot about Ruby 20 years after The Fifth Element’s release? I would say we should expect to learn nothing except that she’ll more than likely be defined by her singing and dancing talent, her sexuality—not only as an exotic dancer, but as a black woman, a race of women who have always been objectified and defined solely by sexual stereotypes. In fact, to use Jones’ words, having Bubble as a black woman whose main purpose for the film is to be used for her body is “almost offensive.” If Ruby was defined by stereotypes and not by motivations, it makes sense to expect that Bubble will also be a poorly-defined character.

However, I could be wrong. Like I wrote above, we haven’t seen the film yet. But if you’re going to see Valerian, take special care of how you view Bubble.  At the very least, make sure to take care of her in your mind the same way many take care of Ruby Rhod.