In the face of these threats, which Marvel superhero might be best equipped to defend the people, ideals and institutions under attack? Some comic fans and critics are pointing to Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel.
Khan, the brainchild of comic writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, is a revamp of the classic Ms. Marvel character (originally named Carol Danvers and created in 1968). First introduced in early 2014, Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime in Jersey City and occasionally teams up with the Avengers.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, fans have created images of Khan tearing up a photo of the president, punching him (evoking a famous 1941 cover of Captain America punching Hitler) and grieving in her room. But the new Ms. Marvel’s significance extends beyond symbolism.
In Kamala Khan, Wilson and Amanat have created a superhero whose patriotism and contributions to Jersey City emerge because of her Muslim heritage, not despite it. She challenges the assumptions many Americans have about Muslims and is a radical departure from how the media tend to depict Muslim-Americans. She shows how Muslim-Americans and immigrants are not forces that threaten communities – as some would argue – but are people who can strengthen and preserve them.
After inhaling a mysterious gas, Kamala Khan discovers she can stretch, enlarge, shrink and otherwise manipulate her body. Like many superheroes, she chooses to keep her identity a secret. She selects the Ms. Marvel moniker in homage to the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, who has since given up the name in favor of becoming Captain Marvel. Khan cites her family’s safety and her desire to lead a normal life, while also fearing that “the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something.”
As she wrestles with her newfound powers, her parents grow concerned about broken curfews and send her to the local imam for counseling. Rather than reinforcing her parents’ curfew or prying the truth from Khan, though, Sheikh Abdullah says, “I am asking you for something more difficult. If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities benefiting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-respect.”
Her experience at the mosque becomes an important step on her journey to superheroism. Sheikh Abdullah contributes to her education, as does Wolverine. Islam is not a restrictive force in her story. Instead, the religion models for Khan many of the traits she needs in order to become an effective superhero. When her mother learns the truth about why her daughter is sneaking out, she “thank[s] God for having raised a righteous child.”
The comics paint an accurate portrait of Jersey City. Her brother Aamir is a committed Salafi (a conservative and sometimes controversial branch of Sunni Islam) and member of his university’s Muslim Student Association. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Bruno, works at a corner store and comes from Italian roots. The city’s diversity helps Kamala as she learns to be a more effective superhero. But it also rescues her from being a stand-in for all Muslim-American or Jersey City experiences.
Fighting a ‘war on terror culture’
Kamala’s brown skin and costume – self-fashioned from an old burkini – point to Marvel Comics’ desire to diversify its roster of superheroes (as well as writers and artists). As creator Sana Amanat explained on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last month, representation is a powerful thing, especially in comics. It matters when readers who feel marginalized can see people like themselves performing heroic acts.
As one of 3.3 million Muslim-Americans, Khan flips the script on what Moustafa Bayoumi, author of “This Muslim American Life,” calls a “war on terror culture” that sees Muslim-Americans “not as complex human being[s] but only as purveyor[s] of possible future violence.”
Bayoumi’s book echoes other studies that detail the heightened suspicion and racial profiling Muslim-Americans have faced since 9/11, whether it’s in the workplace or interactions with the police. Each time there’s been a high-profile terrorist attack, these experiences, coupled with hate crimes and speech, intensify. Political rhetoric – like Donald Trump’s proposal to have a Muslim registry or his lie that thousands of Muslims cheered from Jersey City rooftops after the Twin Towers fell – only fans the flames.
Scholars of media psychology see this suspicion fostered, in part, by negative representations of Muslims in both news media outlets and popular culture, where they are depicted as bloodthirsty terrorists or slavish informants to a non-Muslim hero.
These stereotypes are so entrenched that a single positive Muslim character cannot counteract their effects. In fact, some point to the dangers of “balanced” representations, arguing that confronting stereotypes with wholly positive images only enforces a simplistic division between “good” and “bad” Muslims.
Kamala Khan, however, signals an important development in cultural representations of Muslim-Americans. It’s not just because she is a powerful superhero instead of a terrorist. It’s because she is, at the same time, a clumsy teenager who makes a mountain of mistakes while trying to balance her abilities, school, friends and family. And it’s because Wilson surrounds Kamala with a diverse assortment of characters who demonstrate the array of heroic (and not-so-heroic) actions people can take.
For example, in one of Ms. Marvel’s most powerful narrative arcs, a planet attacks New York, leading to destruction eerily reminiscent of 9/11. Kamala works to protect Jersey City while realizing that her world has changed – and will change – irrevocably.
Carol Danvers appears to fill Kamala in on the gravity of the situation, telling her, “The fate of the world is out of your hands. It always was. But your fate – what you decide to do right now – is still up to you … Today is the day you stand up.” Kamala connects the talk with Sheikh Abdullah’s lectures about the value of one’s deeds, once again linking her superhero and religious training to rise to the occasion. In both cases, the lectures teach Kamala to take a stand to protect her community.
Arriving at the high school gym now serving as a safe haven for Jersey City residents, Kamala realizes her friends and classmates have been inspired by her heroism. They safely transport their neighbors to the gym while outfitting the space with water, food, dance parties and even a “non-denominational, non-judgmental prayer area.” The community response prompts Kamala to realize that “even if things are profoundly not okay, at least we’re not okay together. And even if we don’t always get along, we’re still connected by something you can’t break. Something there isn’t even a word for. Something … beautiful.”
Kamala Khan is precisely the hero America needs today, but not because of a bat sign in the sky or any single definitive image. She is, above all, committed to the idea that every member of her faith, her generation, and her city has value and that their lives should be respected and protected. She demonstrates that the most heroic action is to face even the most despair-inducing challenges of the world head on while standing up for – and empowering – every vulnerable neighbor, classmate or stranger. She shows us how diverse representation can transform into action and organization that connect whole communities “by something you can’t break.”
The indie film industry seems to be where it’s at when it comes to creating highly-inclusive stories, and Gerry Maravilla’s short film Cross is no exception.
The film, which was released last week, features a young man, Cross (Jason Sistona), who is lured into the San Fernando Valley’s world of backyard boxing in order to get enough money to save his mom’s life. It’s a 9-minute tale that quickly draws us into our protagonist’s life, which pits the urge to do whatever it takes to get his mom the life-saving medicine she needs against his reticence to become part of an underground boxing ring. At least he has someone looking out for him–Salvador (Daniel Edward Mora), his co-worker and friend.
One of the big draws to the film is Maravilla’s insistence that the film reflect his experiences growing up in the Valley.
“Growing up Mexican-American in the San Fernando Valley, I never really saw myself or my friends represented in the movies. I attended a high school that was predominantly Latino and Filipino,” said Maravilla in a statement. “Every other Tuesday we’d get out two hours earlier than normal. Kids would get together at a friend’s house to box without getting into trouble with deans, teachers or parents. While photographing my two closest friends sparring in the backyard, I snapped an image that grew into a larger story about trying to find your way into a profession that you have no connections to, while also balancing responsibilities to your family and culture. When it came to write the screenplay based on the image, it felt dishonest and unnecessary to change the races of the characters.”
“I had a unique opportunity to craft a compelling narrative that looked at traditional ideas of masculinity found in both Filipino and Mexican culture,” he continued. “With the help of a talented cast and crew from all different backgrounds, we strived to honestly reflect the people who live in the Valley, people whom have never really been portrayed in film. There are more stories than the ones mainstream Hollywood chooses to focus on. By honing in on cultural specifics and exploring the social and family structures that affect these characters, universal themes and emotions emerge that will connect with audiences of all backgrounds.”
Maravilla said the film was shot as a cross between a noir and a western, but with the suburbs as the backdrop. Indeed, the decision to make this short film in a non-traditional setting and with inclusive characters makes Cross a fun film to lose yourself in. For a short while, you feel like you’ve entered a lived-in world. Since it is based on Maravilla’s childhood, it very much is a lived-in world, one we don’t see enough of on the big screen. It’s clear to see how Cross has touched a positive chord with viewers and film critics; it’s already acquired a slew of accolades.
“My team and I had an extraordinary opportunity to bring a story and characters to the screen that audiences have never seen before,” said Maravilla. “This story has the ability to expands viewer’s frame of reference for two unique cultures and humanize individuals that have seldom had a voice in independent film.”
It’s already a cliche to say this, but Into the Badlands Season 2 showed up Iron Fist in nearly every way possible. If there Hollywood needed an example of how to make an inclusive martial arts-based action show that doesn’t appropriate cultures but actually respectfully melds cultures together into something new and original, then Into the Badlands is that much-needed example.
Did that sentence confuse you? Let me just break down what I’m trying to say in some bulleted points while telling you what you need to know about the jaw-dropping Season 2 premiere.
• The beginning didn’t linger.
I hope you had your Into the Badlands DVDs or On Demand players handy to catch up on the first season, since the show didn’t waste any time jumping back into the story and the action, and that’s great, because while the show’s story is fantastic, the biggest selling point are the extensive, thought-out, creative fight scenes.
We’ve dropped in on Sunny (Daniel Wu, who is also one of the show’s executive producers) after being transported to a slave colony to work in the mines. Gone are the days of being a Clipper (aka an upper-tier slave), and now, all Sunny cares about is getting out of the mines and back to Veil (Madeleine Mantock) and his new baby. And hopefully to get back on the right terms with Veil, since his role in her parents death is…dubious.
(Look, let’s get this out of the way right now in this huge aside; Sunny didn’t kill Veil’s parents. BUT, he did stand by while Quinn (Martin Csokas) killed them with Sunny’s sword. BUT, Quinn also threatened to kill Sunny. BUT, Sunny can totally take down Quinn, and he didn’t. BUT, Sunny was just waking up to the system as it is and he didn’t realize he was a slave until he realized he wanted more for his life, particularly because of his relationship with Veil. As you can see, the circular argument can go on and on. But bottom line is that he didn’t kill Veil’s parents, but he didn’t stop Quinn due to self-preservation and, to be blunt, selfishness. He wanted to be around to be with Veil, and he didn’t really think enough about Veil’s parents to realize he needed to stop Quinn from killing what could have become his own extended family. However, how did he think he could go explain this to Veil??? Not to be glib, but he didn’t think the “I’ll stand by like my hands are tied” thing through at all.)
At any rate, Sunny wants to get his family back and find his redemption. Right now, it seems like he could and he couldn’t; his new bunkmate frenemy Baijie (newcomer to the show Nick Frost) sold him out in order to try to secure his own freedom, but Sunny already had a plan before Baijie ratted him out; Sunny wants to try to take out the big wrestler of the group in order to become the new head of the slave food chain and, possibly, get his chance to escape.
HOWEVER, before we even get to Sunny making a plan, we immediately see Sunny try to escape from the first few minutes of the show. IT WAS INTENSE! THIS IS HOW YOU START AN ACTION SHOW!
• The diversity and badassery of the Into the Badlands‘ women
I can honestly say that this is one show that treats its women with respect. (Except for that one woman Baijie straight-up punched unconscious just to get a ring to buy his freedom. Baijie should know better than that.)
Overall, the women on Into the Badlands have thoroughly impressed me, even more so this season. One criticism that some, including Mediaversity Reviews, pointed out is that despite the presence of Veil and the awesomeness of The Widow, the show was centered around white feminism. (Li of Mediaversity Reviews also breaks down just how diverse the main cast is, which is that it’s pretty diverse and more multicultural on an individual-by-individual basis than I initially gave the show credit for. For instance, Mantock is black, Hispanic, and white, not just black as I alluded to in my recent Into the Badlands article. My bad.)
However, one of this season’s mission statements seems to be to correct that oversight, since this season, we’re seeing a much more diverse range of women, including The Master, played by Chipo Chung, who is Asian and black and the most powerful person on the show, period. As many online have noted, the show seems to be a masterclass for Marvel on how to 1) create a show with a POC Iron Fist and 2) how to simultaneously make an Iron Fist with Asian heritage and a proper female Ancient One that doesn’t appropriate the culture she’s supposed to be a part of (and, again, is an Ancient One with Asian heritage). She’s everything we wanted both Iron Fist and the Ancient One to be.
And Tilda (Ally Ioannides), who was just The Widow (Emily Beecham)’s daughter, has now been elevated to Regent. And her crew is also amazing.
— Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) March 20, 2017
And another upcoming new baron, Baron Chau, looks like she can f*** some people up good-fashioned. I can’t wait to see her fight scenes, especially if she has fight scenes against The Widow. (She’s got to have some fight scenes against The Widow.)
— Into the Badlands (@IntotheBadlands) March 18, 2017
• A diversity masterclass for other shows
Yes, the show’s Season 2 premiere had a serendipitous moment by coming on during the same weekend as Iron Fist‘s premiere, simultaneously one-upping it and showing it how it’s really done when it comes to the martial arts game. But the show is a masterclass for any new series looking to infuse cultures together without appropriating or otherwise offending its audience.
This is something that was taken seriously last year, as evidenced by the whole spiel Wu had about rewriting Romeo Must Die through Sunny and Veil, but this year, the crew has taken their commitment to diversity even more seriously than before. We have the examples of the women above, but we also have just the worldbuilding in general. In every scene, you have a multicultural world which reflects the show’s multicultural audience. The world itself doesn’t particularly rest on whiteness as a default or as a power play, something I originally thought the show was using in the first season with Quinn’s family, coupled with the fact that Quinn and The Widow were the only barons we saw until the introduction of Edi Gathegi’s Jacobee (I still wish we saw more of Jacobee).
We’re also getting yet another baron; along with Chau, we’re also getting Baron Hassan, and the two of them together have opened up the baron game in the vein of Jacobee; anyone can be a baron, and knowing that anyone can attain that kind of power is refreshing, and in its own way, subversive, since the power everyone’s battling over is the same original sin that started America in the first place–slavery. It’s interesting that even though the America Into the Badlands inhabits is a post-apocalyptic type of America, it’s still a country that wrestles with the concept of power through owning others.
— Into the Badlands (@IntotheBadlands) March 18, 2017
• Surprises on surprises on surprises
We had the surprise of the Master being who she is, the surprise of The Widow upping her game this season (her big set piece was amazing to view, and I could watch that over and over again), and the surprise of Veil finally having her baby. But the biggest surprise was seeing QUINN AS VEIL’S CARETAKER! What kind of Frankenstein nonsense is happening right now?! We all thought he was dead! What is he doing with Veil and Veil’s baby?! Also, is he trying to seek redemption as well, or is he trying to regain his power to take on his son Ryder (Oliver Stark), who is now the new baron?
Overall, I’m PUMPED! I can’t wait to see where the rest of this season is taking us! What did you think of the first episode? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
2015 was the year of TV specials, such as History’s Texas Rising (which was, to use a buzzword, problematic for me), Sons of Liberty, and Saints and Strangers (which, from the commercials at least, also looked like it had its moments of historical propaganda). But, there were two specials that stood out, at least for this writer. Tut and The Wiz Live! were what TV specials should aspire to in this day and age. Why? Let’s take a look.
Why Tut was great: This year is supposed to be the year in which I use a lot less “I” in my posts, but I have to break my rule for just a second and put in some personal opinion; I’ve wanted to see a proper dramatization of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s reign for decades, which means, I’ve wanted that for most of my life. After seeing the travesty that was Exodus: Gods and Kings come to theaters, I was especially ready for a Tut movie or TV show (or anything concerning ancient Egypt) that actually cast non-white actors. I was robbed when FOX killed Hieroglpyh, but I was appeased and delighted when I learned about and later watched Tut.
Spike’s Tut, starring Avan Jogia, Ben Kingsley, and Sibylla Deen, was a boon for the network, and it was a joy to watch. Everyone gave stellar performances, and for me, the breakout star was Jogia, who proved he’s got leading man material. To quote part of my review:
It’s really Jogia’s shoulders that the film rests on, and he plays the part of a boy maturing into a seasoned, slightly jaded king exceptionally well. Perhaps you slept on his talent when he was in ABC Family’s teen soap Twisted. Perhaps you didn’t watch Victorious because you’d grown out of Nickelodeon dramas. If you weren’t aware of Jogia’s talent before, Tut will show you that Jogia’s not someone who’s cut from the same tween star cloth as some of his other contemporaries. His capabilities for drama and action not only relay his maturity and awareness, but also show how ready he is for the movies. Movie studios: if you’re still doing those same outdated practices of casting only white actors because you think they’re the only ones capable of being thought of as a leading man, you’re doing everyone, including yourselves, a great disservice, since Jogia should be on every casting director’s “leading man” list.
The most important part was that there wasn’t a white actor portraying a non-white character. Again, to quote my review:
Films that are set in either ancient Egyptian or biblical times are some of the films Hollywood loves to whitewash the most. I give some reasons as to why I think that is, but just a quick summation: Hollywood is still behind the times when it comes to casting. It still acts as if it’s still in the golden age of Hollywood, when a large majority of America was white and wanted to see only white faces instead of the diversity that existed around them in America and in the world (something Comics Alliance’s Andrew Wheeler points out in his takedown of the comic book movie and racial diversity).
Tut does an exceptional job at casting people who aren’t white. I know some people have said they feel the casting should have been of darker people. To that criticism, I say, “I understand.” But from my point of view, Tut gives us a vision of Egypt that’s closer to the truth than Exodus and other films like it have ever done. I’m extremely proud of how Tut decided to cast against Hollywood “business-as-usual” methodology. More than likely, I’ll have posts about this later, but for now, here’s my handclap for Tut‘s casting department.
As I addressed in the blockquote, there are some who are irritated that actual Egyptian actors weren’t cast for this film and some would say that this miniseries is just as whitewashed as Exodus for that reason. I’d say that while they aren’t Egyptian, let’s not compare Tut to something like Exodus, which went out of its way to copy the whitewashed biblical epics of the 1950s. Tut’s casting department did what casting departments should always do, and that’s cast non-white actors for non-white characters. And, Tut proved that stories featuring non-white figures, including dramatizations of historical characters, can and will bring in audiences, especially those thirsting to see themselves on screen.
|Want to read more about Into the Badlands and Mr. Robot? Read the inaugural issue of COLOR BLOCK Magazine!|
Why The Wiz Live! was great: The Wiz Live! is NBC’s first successful live musical event, and good for it, because it had a ton of expectation riding on it. In short, the direction by Kenny Leon (who was revealed in the making-of special to be a taskmaster in the best way), the talent, featuring Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley, Amber Riley, Stephanie Mills, Uzo Aduba, Cirque du Soleil, tons of dancers, and newcomer Shanice Williams, and the set design and use of the stage combined into truly magical entertainment.
It was fantastic to see black representation on this apologetic of a scale. In a way, the production plays on the core tenet of Afrofuturism; that blackness is defined by black people only, not by the society in which black people exist at present. Within Afrofuturism, black people aren’t “black people.” They’re just people, defined by their circumstances, just like how every white person in every movie and TV show is defined.
It was also a historical production on account of the first showcase of ballroom culture on standard television. The gay ballroom scene has still remained underground, despite some of the dancers featured in The Wiz Live!, Dashaun Wesley, Danielle Polanco and Carlos Irizarry, being dancing legends in their own rights (as well as working choreographers) and despite pop culture’s penchant for lifting heavily from gay club culture. But famed choreographer Fatima Robinson brought the ballroom to mainstream America in the most creative and funky way; by making The Emerald City one big ballroom. (Also amazing: seeing Queen Latifah’s Wiz as a drag king, which was the icing on the Emerald City cake.) Between seeing Williams’ star born right on their screens, Uzo Aduba inspiring all of us to believe in ourselves, and being bowled over by the surprise of The Emerald City, Twitter was on fire with people tweeting about how much the amount of representation present in The Wiz Live! spoke to them.
What did you think of these specials? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
For quite some time, fans of Harry Potter who are also fans of character diversity have championed a revisionist take on the popular J.K. Rowling characters. Technically speaking, hardly any of the characters are ever coded as being specifically “white,” despite many of the main characters being cast as white characters. Racial coding has a history of being played fast-and-loose in the Harry Potter fandom, with Blaise Zabini and Lavender Brown being drawn as both black and white characters until the film gave us the official versions of the characters (with Blaise as black and Lavender as white). One of the few characters actually described by color in the books is Dean Thomas, who was described from J.K. Rowling’s own notes as a black boy. (It’s also worth noting that Rowling’s notes also had Thomas playing a much bigger role in the first book, acting as much a main character as Ron, Hermione, and Harry. It’s a shame he got scaled back so much.)
If you check out Tumblr, you’ll see tons of versions of a non-white Harry, non-white Hermione and others. Non-white Hermione pictures have become the most popular, because the initial description of Hermione in the books—as a girl with bushy hair—resonates not just with descriptions of white girls, but with black girls, Asian girls, Middle Eastern girls, Native American girls, bi-racial multiracial girls, and other ethnicities not listed. Basically, any girl with bushy hair could be Hermione, so why, some fans ask, is it simply assumed that Hermione is white? Enter Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rowling’s latest project. The new story is a two-part stage play that acts as the official sequel to the Harry Potter saga. The play has been making waves just because the unusual nature of it—when was the last time there was a stage production that acted as a sequel to a book and film series?—but now, it’s making history for casting a black actress as Hermione.
Noma Dumezweni will play an adult Hermione, many years after her teenage stint as a Wizarding World hero. Naturally, some fans took umbridge (get it? Harry Potter fans will get the pun) to Dumezweni’s casting because the casting went against the “continuity” of the franchise. But all fan reaction stopped once Rowling herself took to Twitter to tweet her emphatic approval.
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘 https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
Hermione herself, Emma Watson, recently tweeted her support of Dumezweni taking up the Granger mantle.
Can’t wait to see Noma Dumezweni as Hermione on stage this year. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ #harrypotterandthecursedchild #2016
— Emma Watson (@EmWatson) January 2, 2016
Matthew Lewis, who played Neville Longbottom in the films, also tweeted about how his character’s literary description doesn’t mesh with the film version, either.
And Neville Longbottom was blonde. I really don’t care. Good luck to her. https://t.co/0JNjK3Pe0V
— Matthew Lewis (@Mattdavelewis) December 21, 2015
|Want to read more about Into the Badlands and Mr. Robot? Read the inaugural issue of COLOR BLOCK Magazine!|
As Vanity Fair states, the Harry Potter series is a big allegory for racism and racial politics, what with some wizarding families discriminating against others due to blood purity. “Rowling’s books were always clearly aware of the magic world’s version of racism, and even eugenics, where wizards of ‘pure’ blood were seen by some to be superior, and ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione had to fight against prejudice,” the site wrote. “So making Hermione a woman of color isn’t just O.K. based on the book’s description; it makes even more sense given what her character goes through.”
Still, there will be people irritated by a non-white Hermione. But ThinkProgress dug up this tweet from Al Jazeera America’s The Stream host (and esteemed lawyer and playwright) Wajahat Ali, which sums up everything that’s being forgotten by the fans who are mad at a non-white portrayal of the popular witch:
If White dudes can be Egyptians/Asians/Arabs/Latinos/Native Americans, then a Black woman can be #Hermione. It’s all good.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) December 21, 2015
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will open in London this July, with previews in May. Click here for more information and ticket prices.
2015 saw a ton of explosive shows vie for our attention, from the new seasons of How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and Empire, to the new faces on rookie shows like Rosewood, Quantico, and The Grinder (or, in The Grinder‘s case, familiar faces we haven’t seen in a while). But if there were two new shows that captured the imagination more in 2015, they would have to be Mr. Robot and Into the Badlands.