Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

Barry Jenkins

Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

John Krasinski

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

Yalitza Aparicio

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

Black Panther

Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

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Ivan’s Top Ten 2018

This was a stacked year at the cinema! I’m not sure what’s to blame, but this has been my most challenging Top Ten list to date. There were a gaggle of really enjoyable big budget blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and the cultural milestone Black Panther. The family friendly genre was spoiled with the richness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Paddington 2. That’s right, the Paddington sequel came out early this year and it was phenomenal! Documentaries made things difficult as well with the baffling Three Identical Strangers and the dizzying Free Solo proving reality is, truly, stranger than fiction.

More and more people were able to see themselves on screen in 2018. So much of what studios thought they knew about box office projections were defied nearly every week at the cinemas. The legacy of this year in film will hopefully be one that motivates producers to take more risks and tell more stories that surprise, provoke, and represent everyone. Here are those stories that moved me the most.

10. Leave No Trace (PG)

It’s hard to say why Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace was incredible. This is probably because a lot of the meaning and power behind the film were found in what the characters had a hard time saying. Granik doesn’t give you much in the way exposition in this story about a military veteran who chooses to live off the grid with his adolescent daughter, but so much is said in Ben Foster’s stoic and tormented performance. You know he loves his daughter more than anything. You know he’d do anything for her. But you also know that whatever scenes from his past are playing over and over behind his eyes, whatever trauma is boiling under his skin, whatever it is that he’s trying to escape…are driving him into isolation. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking picture of life after war, and one worth paying attention to.

Leave No Trace

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace (2018).

9. First Man (PG-13)

First Man, an account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, is lightyears ahead of Damien Chazelle’s mundane and pretentious La La Land. Chazelle brings you into the rickety cockpit of the early space program while showing you that in order to reach the stars, you may have to detach from everything else. Ryan Gosling isn’t singing and dancing as the famous astronaut, quite the opposite actually. He perfectly exemplifies the stoicism of masculinity in mid-century America and the emotionless tenacity involved in taking this dangerous mission. Chazelle was the perfect director to ask these questions about what it takes to achieve such heights, a similar theme explored in his excellent film Whiplash. Helping guide the audience and her family through this mission is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. Next time you find yourself staring at the moon at night, this movie may leave you thinking about Janet and so many others that were left behind here on Earth by men reaching for greatness.

Read Heather’s review of First Man here.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

One of the dictionary definitions of a “prophet” is, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” I think James Baldwin was a prophet. His words paired with the directing of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, brings more than ordinary insight of life on Beale Street. A block of text begins the film explaining that the concept of Beale Street, is a street where communities of color form through systematic injustices. In this film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, viewers get to see the beauty of such communities painted, through the camera lens, on the back drop of the oppression they experience on a daily basis. In the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, Baldwin and Jenkins highlight inequality in criminal justice, housing, religion, employment, education, and so much more. Too often ugly stories are told under a light that makes the subjects look ugly, but Beale Street tells the story of beautiful people who are victims of ugliness. The film tells a story that feels hopeless, but Jenkins tells truth without surrendering any beauty.

Read Heather’s review of Beale Street here.

7. Vox Lux (R)

At this point, it’s possible that Natalie Portman has an automatic entry on my Top Ten list whenever she has a movie coming out. In Vox Lux, she is riveting! The film tells the story of a mass shooting survivor turned pop music star. There is a moment in the film when Portman’s character Celeste wonders how she, as a mega celebrity who seemingly achieves more fame when she does harm than when she produces new art, compares herself to terrorists. This feels like a film for our times and one that Portman brings so much to. The monsters of fame and trauma have made Celeste a dangerous person to those around her, but when her wireless microphone is on, when there’s glitter adhered to her eyebrows, and when she is hitting every step of her choreography even those most hurt by her are caught up in her trance and you may be too. Vox Lux carries an R rating and viewers could use a heads up that the depiction of the mass shooting that opens the film is terrifying and graphic, but the film asks if that is a fitting mirror to our everyday reality?

Vox Lux

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux (2018).

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Outside of Heinz Field over on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a big statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the three rivers. It sits, sculpted with a signature sweater and tennis shoes, with on leg crossed watching with a smile on his face. This is, similarly, how he has supervised over much of my childhood. From doing ballet with Steelers great Lynn Swann to visits to the crayon factory to heartfelt reminders that I am loved and my feelings matter, Fred Rogers’s influence on me is immeasurable. With this year’s best documentary, I realized just how many others have been and continue to be influenced by Fred. The equation was this; a Presbyterian minister, primitive puppets, cheap sets, and a public access feed. All of this added up to magic and it all came from one man caring in a different way. This movie left me in my theater seat dreaming of all the people who have cared deeply about me and hoping that others have felt that way about me caring for them. Fred’s influence continues.

Fred Rogers Statue Pittsburgh

Fred Rogers statue overlooking Pittsburgh.

5. Eighth Grade (R)

I am not a middle school girl. Neither is 28-year-old stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham, but he has created such an authentic picture of today’s youth culture that anyone can relate to it. There are many seasons in life where humans will stop and wonder who they are. Post-college, mid-life, end-of-life, and others are all ages when our identity is worth evaluating, but is there a more tumultuous time than the first? We hit middle school and, all of a sudden, it’s a mad dash for acceptance, affirmation, and our own individual truth. Today’s kiddos are going through this pubescent tumult live on Instagram. Burnham researched hours and hours of YouTube vlogs to capture the vulnerability portrayed by actual middle schooler Elise Fisher. The product is a movie that will take you back to every acne break out and broken heart of your youth. Thanks a lot, Bo.

Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade (2018).

4. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

I want you to watch Netflix’s Daredevil creator Drew Goddard’s twisty-turny thriller, and to best do that you should have as little information as possible. What I will tell you is that it features two of my absolute favorite acting performances of the year. Cynthia Erivo brilliantly leads this wild ride and Jeff Bridges is only getting better as time goes on. Bad Times wrestles with morality, spirituality, and forgiveness so be ready to wrestle along with it. Nearly every scene in the movie changes what you think is happening and how you feel about each character. What never changes is how I feel about the movie. It’s a really good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

3. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Parenting is absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I would have responsibility for the well-being of something as uncontrollable as another human being, one with very little inhibition or wisdom, is a nightmare. This is a nightmare The Office’s John Krasinski brings to terrifying life in A Quiet Place. There’s no room for error for Krasinski’s Lee who, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, attempt to navigate their children through a word with unspeakable danger. The kids in the film are so authentic. Even in a world of monsters, they are kids with all their selfishness and wild tantrums kids have. A Quiet Place forces you to scream not only at the monsters but at these kids that just won’t sit still! The world Krasinski builds is immersive and doesn’t let you escape until the very last frame. It’s impossible to sit back, relax, and watch this one, but that makes it such a thrill.

Read Heather’s review of A Quiet Place here.

2. Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13)

Just when everyone thought Marvel’s Black Panther was going to be the only financial surprise at the box office this year, Crazy Rich Asians came in breathing new life into a genre many thought was gone forever to a world of mediocrity. Romantic Comedies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, but Crazy Rich Asians defies the category. I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the studios when it came to my expectations for the movie. I hoped to laugh, I hoped to have a cross-cultural experience, but, I never expected to be so deeply moved. I had heard an interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, before seeing the movie that added context. He spoke about his complicated relationship with the Coldplay song “Yellow,” how he wrote a letter to Coldplay talking about his experience as an Asian-American for whom the color was often used to belittle, and how important is was to include the song in his film. For Chu, this film was about capturing a story not often told. It was about showing others the beauty of his culture, and the minute that song played in the film, I started crying. This wasn’t just a romantic comedy, this was a movie with incredible characters and a meaningful story tied richly into their culture and tradition. It was one of many statements made this year that there are stories to be told outside of the majority culture and movie-goers responded making it the second highest grossing non-franchise movie of the year.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

1. Roma (R)

Netflix has a record of changing the way we experience content. It seems every week there’s a new streaming service, and competition has never been more intense to create the next great work. Well sit down, Prime Video. Get out of the way, Hulu. Who even invited you, Crackle? Netflix has offered us this year’s best film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This black and white, subtitled movie is autobiographical for the Gravity director. It tells the story of a maid, like the one who cared for him as a child, living and working in an affluent town in Mexico. The town of Roma basically runs through the hard work of indigenous Mexican women, and Cuaron drops the audience into her life, into her language, and into the politically volatile world of 1970’s Mexico. It was so surprising, and emotional. Cuaron cast a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, to bring his lead, Cleo, to life. She fills Cuaron’s long, expansive frames with such beauty and authenticity. Much like Cuaron’s Children of Men, he rolls the camera and allows scenes to develop and evolve with very few cuts or movements. This is very much his love letter to Mexico and the woman who inspired Cleo and the film, Cuaron’s own live-in maid, Libo. This is a letter very much worth reading and the great thing is that anyone borrowing somebody’s Netflix password has access to it.

Roma

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

Check out Heather’s Top Ten here!

Manhood & “Creed 2”

The story of Creed II, the follow up to 2015’s revitalization of the Rocky franchise, really begins in 1985 when Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, Rocky, met perhaps his most infamous foe, Ivan Drago, played with stoic intensity by Dolph Lundgren. The seeds that have become the Creed franchise were all planted in this fourth installment in Rocky’s story.

It’s in that movie that Adonis Creed’s (Michel B. Jordan) father, Apollo (Carl Weathers) was killed by the mad Russian in the middle of the ring after Rocky fails to throw in the towel and stop the fight. When Apollo fell to the mat for the final time, the conflict of Adonis’s life began to take shape. Apollo didn’t want Rocky to throw in the towel. He was done fighting, and fighting was all he had. This tragedy launched Rocky towards a fight with Drago, a fight that would leave Drago to a life of disgrace and bitterness. And this tragedy left Adonis not just fatherless, but also without any of the answers his father was lacking about life.

Creed 2 GIF

Creed II (2018)

In 2015’s Creed, Adonis had to wrestle with his identity as a Creed and as a fighter. What did it truly mean to be Apollo’s son? It’s a question he was asking from the beginning when Mary Anne, Apollo’s wife, told him who he was. It’s a question he asks every time he steps in the ring. By the end of that initial story, Adonis dons his father’s trademark trunks adorned with the Creed name, as well as his mother’s, Johnson. Through that first film, Rocky taught him how to fight, how to embrace who he is. Creed II, however, gives Adonis even deeper questions to answer.

If movie one was asking what did it mean to be Apollo’s son and a fighter, the sequel is asking what does it mean to be a father and a man? Rocky IV happened in the middle of a decade that was, in many ways, defined by toxic masculinity. The everyman with the heart of a champion from the Academy Award winning Rocky, was replaced by a greased up, steroidal version. This was true of some of Stallone’s most well-known roles. John Rambo went from an intense critique of our treatment of Vietnam veterans to one giant muscle with a machine gun. Look to other popular culture from the 80’s and you’ll be drowning in a testosterone tsunami. Raunchy teen comedies were a dime a dozen, and Hulk Hogan was flexing his way into a household name.

This was an environment where Apollo Creed thrived. He could prove his manhood with every foe punched into oblivion, but when we meet him in Rocky and Rocky II, he’s already a star in decline. How then can he prove his manhood? Based on Adonis’s age, Apollo’s extramarital tryst that conceived him had to have taken place in close proximity to his death by Drago’s glove. Still he stepped into the ring with the Russian. Sex couldn’t make Apollo a man. He lost to Rocky. He was outmatched by Drago. Boxing could no longer make Apollo a man. So, he threw in the towel on life. Apollo’s inability to find a manhood that was more than muscle gave Adonis a life without a father.

Rocky 4 Staredown

Rocky and Ivan Drago before their iconic fight in “Rocky IV” (1985).

In Creed II, we find that Ivan Drago similarly suffered to discover meaning beyond boxing. His loss to Rocky knocked him down further than we saw in Rocky IV, and because of that his son, Viktor, grew up with a bitter boxing coach rather than a father. Viktor is nothing more than a tool Ivan will use to restore his own manhood, to redeem his loss to Rocky. To truly win by the end of Creed II, Adonis needs to break this cycle of toxic masculinity. He has to find something beyond all the drills, the fights, and the bright lights of fame. He can’t avoid being a Creed, but he has to avoid being Apollo.

Not every punch Creed II throws lands. It’s not as ground breaking as its predecessor, but in the stories of this next generation of men there is something really special. If viewers can go along with Adonis (and Viktor) on this journey and reflect on what it is that could make him successful in the end, perhaps we can all learn from the mistakes of the past. The sweaty machine gun masculinity of the 80’s was a steroid-fueled façade. If men are going to fight the good fight of life, it involves humility, partnership with women, and profound selflessness. For Adonis, this is a painful lesson, but one that takes him beyond his father’s legacy.

If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

Beale street book

Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

Jenkins

Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.

 

 

Full of “Venom”

Kane, a delightful British bloke played by John Hurt, is all smiles at the table. Having seemingly recovered from his close encounter with a face-sucking alien, he’s excited to eat a normal meal and share a laugh or two with his ship mates. Unfortunately, this meal isn’t going to sit well with the newborn extra-terrestrial calling Kane home. Fans of the 1979 space horror classic Alien know where this iconic scene is headed. It’s a scene that works for many reasons. Sure, it’s shocking with a high gross-out factor, but it also delves into metaphor playing with perhaps one of life’s greatest existential dilemmas…what is it that truly lies beneath our surface? This question is most recently explored in Sony and Marvel’s Tom Hardy vehicle, Venom.

Venom Transform GIF

Venom (2018)

Our outside isn’t scary. Think about all the channels we have to control what others experience from us. Everything from a fresh haircut to a hot new fit to a flattering selfie camera angle, helps us regulate how others see us. Aside from physical appearance, we have all kinds of mechanisms that act as bouncers keeping those who might want in on the right side of the velvet rope. Talking about the weather or a simple “I’m fine” are some of my favorites. No, our outside is safe, but our inside is a different story.

Who are you really? If everyone knew every thought you had or every feeling that has captured your heart would they still love you? Forget love, would they even like you? As pretty as your outside is, what if nobody could handle the monster hiding inside? So we hide in fear, but all of that hiding and fear can give us the false impression that we are the good guy in our story, a false impression Venom’s lead character carries. When we’re introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a popular investigative reporter and charming beau to Anna (Michelle Williams), he has total control of his outside. However, his inside starts seeping out and over the first act of the film his life totally unravels. Still, Brock tries his best to keep his outside intact. He lies to himself. He’s not the problem. He’s not to blame. He’s still a really good guy. Except, he’s not and it takes a lot for him to realize it.

By a lot, I mean it takes a sentient, parasitic alien goo inhabiting his insides. This isn’t just any alien goo, though, it’s Venom, one of Spider-man’s most popular and visually memorable villains of all time. Venom is a species called a symbiote. They pair with a host, merging in every way. The lines blur between Brock’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and Venom’s. They become one on such a level that they refer to themselves with plural pronouns. “We are Venom,” the pair will say.

It’s said in the film that the symbiotes need to find a compatible host to survive. Hold on. Venom is a homicidal psychopath. He’s a villain. If Brock is the good man he thinks he is, if he’s the good man that exists on the outside, why does he make such a good host for the bad guy? The most intriguing and entertaining components to this story take place in Brock’s journey of self-actualization. This only happens because Brock’s ugly inside gets a face and starts oozing out to the surface. Is he all bad? No, but his goodness doesn’t begin to shine until he confronts the darkness inside.

Spider-Man Venom Animated Series

Venom and Spider-Man from the “Spider-Man” (1994) animated series.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have a parasitic alien inhabit us? Here’s the good news, though, as scary as our insides can be to us, they’re not to God. When we find ourselves in a place where we’re exhausting our energy to keep our deepest darkest feelings at bay, are we really living in the freedom Christ offers us? When we engage in practices of prayer, confession, and repentance we are letting our inner horror movie out. When we willingly bring that darkness into the light before God and others, those things that bring us guilt or shame or embarrassment, those things that we think will surely expel any love we’ve ever experienced, those things that we think will drive others away, the opposite of that begins to happen.

Here’s the thing about God, as Romans 5 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows us already. You can’t hide your scary bits. When our insides stay hidden, they have power and control over us. They take up real estate in our hearts and minds, but once they’re let out, it opens up space for something else to dwell. When we acknowledge our sins and place them at the foot of the cross we can say along with Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When the darkness inside meets the Light, it doesn’t stand a chance. This is how our hearts change. We will never scare God away, and others that have God dwelling in them can handle our horrors as well. God dwelling in us creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. That relationship probably won’t turn us into a superhero but may give us everything we need to bring actual goodness into the world instead of the false veneer of goodness we present. Venom isn’t the greatest movie in the world, though fans of the character and Hardy will probably find it to be an entertaining depiction. Some of the film’s treasure lies in its call to self-reflection. It might just be time for us all to let the monster out.

The Names of “The Hate U Give”

There is a pastor that I know who is really gifted at making baptism feel really personal. As the person approached the fount, there would always be an exchange where this pastor would read their full name aloud, and then explain the etymology or meaning of the name. “This is…,” he would say as he announced their name, “…their name means courage (or love, strength, etc.).” Another pastor I know, has the person state their full name and then says, “[insert name here], child of the covenant, very loved of God.” Usually, a life altering pivot point is what brings us to the baptism fount. I love that these pastors use it as an opportunity to continue to remind each person who they are. Our names come with some powerful purpose, promise, community, and love attached to them. God knows us and call us by name.

The baptisms I’ve been honored to witness, have been powerful ceremonies where the subjects’ names have been used to remind them of the new life ahead. In recent years here in America, another cultural ceremony has become all too common. One that involves names being read, tweeted, and shouted through megaphones. The names of some fellow image bearers have gained a new meaning in death. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Antwon Rose. Botham Shem Jean. These names have become a cry of lament. Their meaning has shifted from purpose and promise to loss and pain. These are the names of people of color who died in incidents like that depicted in the film, and the book it was adapted from, The Hate U Give.

The Hate U Give GIF

The Hate U Give (2018)

Police brutality and excessive use of force have become hot button issues in American society. It is one of those issues that has always bubbled under our collective surface but found a new boiling point in the digital age. Those names and the many like them are now loaded guns. For some they inspire protest and action, for some they tap into fragility or fear, and for others all they call forth are tears. So how on earth could a young adult novel or it’s film adaptation cover such an emotionally charged topic?

The Hate U Give does it with grace, truth rooted in experience, compassion, and authentic performances. In the story, Starr (an Oscar-worthy performance by Amandla Stenberg) is witness to an unarmed friend being murdered by a police officer during a traffic stop. The film follows the personal, social, and societal fallout for Starr following the crime. As a white man, I am limited in how well I can translate Starr’s experience for you, but I can speak to what I experienced during the film. There was pain that it might be tempting to become numb to and there was hope I pray we never lose.

Following the murder in the film, some of the heartbreak comes from how painfully familiar the older generation was with what was happening. The film opens with Starr’s father explaining how to, best as he possibly could, survive the average traffic stop. Later he knows Starr will be haunted by the trauma in her sleep. The book and film get its title from Tupac Shakur, a late prophetic rapper whose words I wish would become less relevant. The events in this story are the same act in the same play that people of color can’t seem to get out of.

Tupac The Hate U Give

Tupac Shakur’s prophetic legacy lives on in The Hate U Give.

Starr’s father, Maverick, tries his best throughout the film to give his children guidance based in the reality he knew, but he also tried his best to give them hope. That hope is expressed as he explains the names he gave his children. They were intentional to remind them who they are. He knew Starr was always destined to shine, he drew his son Seven’s name from the Biblical number of perfection, and his son Sekani’s name from the joy he hoped he’d never lose. Their names point towards a future filled with purpose, promise, community, and love. Mav knows that he had to give his children something more than hate. The Hate U Give reminds us that those names that we’ve seen tick across the bottom of the news or trend on twitter need to give us more than hate as well.

The Hate U Give is worth seeing, probably in community, and coupled with some rich discussion, prayer, and follow-up. It is a work of fiction, but it is an invitation to enter a very real experience. Khalil Harris is a fictional character, but Trayvon Martin was a real person. Sandra Bland was someone’s daughter. God breathed life into Eric Garner and gave him his image to bear. Oscar Grant walked, and talked, and laughed. The emotions and opinions attached to these names after their deaths can be exhausting, but if we ever hope to give the next generation a better world we better remember everything those names now mean.

Jurassic World and the Creative Obligation

“We can’t just let them die.”

As the newly released “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opens, society is faced with a dilemma. After the natural disaster that occurred in Jurassic Park in the previous movie installment of “Jurassic World”, the island containing the dinosaurs has been abandoned. It was clear (yet again) that trying to create and control nature will only result in chaos and unintended consequences. But the island of “Isla Nublar” that continues to be home for the dinosaurs is about to experience a volcanic eruption that would once again bring the creatures to extinction. Is that nature’s way of self-correcting something that should never have happened in the first place, or is it an opportunity for environmental intervention? Not surprisingly, humans decide to act and make a Noah’s ark-esque attempt to preserve the species from a second extinction.

The rest of the film follows the quest to rescue the dinosaurs from the volcano and then to decide what to do with them afterwards. At times the storyline relies heavily on tropes and jump scares, but overall it is a solid offering of dino-packed action and suspense. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie is the question of what creators owe to the things they create. The Jurassic Park franchise has always explored the difference between “can” and “should” as modern science pushes the limits of possibilities and ethics. This latest film dives deeper into the aftermath of living with our decisions and assessing who is obligated to handle the clean-up that follows our actions.

“Fallen Kingdom” invites us to wrestle with our motivations for creating new things. From dinosaurs to other scientific ethical dilemmas, why do we use our creative capacities? Is it to gain wealth and status? Is it to try controlling life itself and the avoidance of death? Can it simply be to enjoy something that is good and beautiful? If something that we have produced becomes out of our control, do we recognize our limitations or double down on seeking to have power?

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The Jurassic films are so successful, not only because dinosaurs are real and that’s awesome, but because they tap into an urge that is core to being human. To be created by God in the image of God means that to be human is to desire to create. The imprint of God within us and the Cultural Mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26) propel us towards cultivating what is and wanting to make something that has never been. This is fundamentally a very good and Godly impulse. The world was not meant to be static but to be dynamic with humans acting as God’s stewards who would unlock more and more of the creation’s potential. Yet sin in the world and in our hearts projects a false narrative that we can be like God (Gen. 3:5), the ones who are in control. To be human is also to experience a perpetual struggle between producing things that are good in response to God’s character, and trying to obtain mastery in response to our sinful hearts. If we have cultivated out of evil intentions then our ability to steward the growth of what we create will be gravely impaired. Like “Fallen Kingdom”, will we seek flourishing for the beauty of the earth, or manipulate and violate the creation for our own ends?

Part of why we love to ask these questions about the motivations of the creator is because we feel that tension with God. Humans continually wonder if we were put here by a loving Creator who still cares for us. We fear the possibility that life could be random and that God could be careless or outright malicious. We wonder what we would do as creators of something new in order to find out what God might be doing with us. Our longing to be in control on earth is often to assuage our anxiety that there may be a lack of care in heaven. If we can establish that we take good care of what we produce, maybe we can believe that God will take care of us.

Pursuing that desire to be good caretakers can actually be exactly what God intended. If God gives us a picture of what it means to create, then God is also our best guide for tending the created order. God alone demonstrates pure motives and constant watchfulness towards the world.

24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!  27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! – Luke 12:24, 27-28 (NIV)

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:32, 35, 38-39

We tend the creation because God lovingly tends to us. We know what it looks like to care for the world because we serve a Savior who exemplifies sacrificial love. We can act out of pure desires for flourishing because the Spirit gives us new hearts and better minds. In all things we look to the One who calls forth beauty and goodness, and the One whose eye is on the sparrow.

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“This Is America” and the prophetic voice

The internet has been in an uproar. While Donald Glover was hosting Saturday Night Live he unexpectedly dropped a new music video from his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, This Is America. It has 92 million views in less than a week, sparking debate and vigorous attempts to interpret the social meaning of the video. Directed by Hiro Murai, a frequent director on Glover’s FX show Atlanta, the camera follows Childish Gambino as he dances his way through a series of viscerally intense scenarios. The scenes depict Glover’s experience of being a black man in America, raising conversations around gun violence, black entertainment, the socializing of black children, protests, poverty, and more. (The video contains two brief scenes of shocking violence, a marijuana joint, and one curse word, all handled with artistic value.) For a thorough breakdown of the themes of the video without the moments of violence, go here.

TIA gif

From my vantage point as a white female viewer, I was most struck by This Is America’s use of distraction and redirection. The first time I watched the video I was captured by Gambino’s dance moves and expressions. The background action is often intentionally out of focus, making it that much easier to only notice the entertainment and ignore the chaos taking place behind him. Multiple times Gambino is surrounded by teenage school children, dancing in perfect synchronization with smiles on their faces. To be quite frank, my first thoughts were, “Wow, Donald Glover is actually a really good dancer!” For me that was a major part of the genius of the video. As a casual viewer I immediately fell into the trap of only being entertained without wrestling with the deeper themes of racism and violence in America. In so doing I was confronted with my willingness to only notice things that are pleasant to watch while tuning out harsh realities that lead to feelings of discomfort or sorrow. Is that not a widespread temptation in our society today? To be pleased when we are comfortable and angry when we are confronted with things we would rather ignore?

As I watched the video a few more times, I was soon reminded of the Old Testament prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi, the role of the prophets was to proclaim God’s word to God’s people. God spoke through the prophets over and over again to call the people away from sinful disobedience and back to God’s covenant relationship. The people continually fell into all kinds of destructive practices that were eroding their society. The prophets would call out the sins of the people, commanding them to return to the Lord before they became past the point of no return. There was always an assurance of restoration, God’s perfect balance of justice and mercy. God would act in response to violence and exploitation of the vulnerable, and would always seek the good of the people. Let’s look at a few of the prophetic exhortations:

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her (Jerusalem)? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made. You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come. Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far away will mock you, you infamous city, full of turmoil. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ~ Ezekiel 22:1-5, 29

“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.

10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short scales, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. ~ Micah 6:3, 10-12

27 Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
28     and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
29 Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace. ~ Jeremiah 5:27-29, 8:11

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ~ Zechariah 7:8-12

Stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. America is not the nation of Israel, and to my knowledge Glover does not profess a Christian faith, but This Is America is tapping into some universal biblical truth. The prophets frantically tried to hold a mirror up to Israel to show them where their comfort and self-indulgence were resulting in the dismantling of their society. Those themes are echoed in this modern expression. The video confronts its viewers with the ways that our desires for comfort and excess are causing us to ignore the marginalized, allowing violence to go unchecked.

TIA cars

It is also fitting that this call is coming in the form of a music video that makes use of symbols and extreme imagery. God frequently commanded the prophets to physically act out behaviors that were metaphorical for Israel. Hosea marries a prostitute who cheats on him and runs out on him. Yet Hosea pursues her and brings her home, symbolizing in a powerful way God’s love and pursuit of an unfaithful people (Hos. 1-3). Ezekiel builds a mini replica of the siege of Jerusalem and lies on his side for 390 days, then his other side for 40 days to symbolize God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. He is given instructions to make a specific bread with specific daily rations, indicating that the people would eat “unclean bread” during the Babylonian exile (Ez. 4). Jeremiah is commanded to buy a linen belt, place it in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates and leave it for several days. He then went and retrieved it, revealing that it was now ruined as a garment in the same way that Israel had become worthless in their disobedience to God (Jer. 13). He is also commanded to break a clay jar to symbolize God breaking all their tools of idolatry (Jer. 19).

God is a brilliant communicator who understands that as humans, just being told something does not always mean that it will sink in. Sometimes we have to see it acted out in order for the gravity of a situation to become real. In a very similar style, This Is America puts forth jarring representations of uncomfortable realities in a way that causes them to be unavoidable.

All good art elicits a reaction. The question now is whether our reactions can move past cultural decoder rings and into hearts softened by compassion and repentance. The prophets were notoriously hated and often martyred. Anyone bearing a message that the public does not want to hear is putting themselves at risk. Will we be better listeners than those that came before us? Will we listen when confronted with experiences we may not all share but which call us to active engagement? Will we hear the cries of the prophets that echo across time and place? I pray that we will respond, not just to modern art, but to God’s timeless love of justice and mercy.

The Horrors of Parenting: A Quiet Place

“How can anyone bring a child into this world?”

Have you ever heard someone say those words, or perhaps said them yourself? In many ways that sentiment is understandable. The world is a harsh place, full of potential threats and abuses and hurts. Full of prejudice, division, and evil. Life is fragile with no guarantees of tomorrow. That is a lot of uncertainty to take on if one is going to be a parent. To be responsible for another life in a world where all you have to do is turn your back for a second and your child could vanish.

quiet place turned backs

It is this very fear that the horror/suspense film A Quiet Place confronts. On the surface it is a movie about a world inhabited by monsters (perhaps the result of an alien invasion) who are blind, but have an extremely heightened sense of hearing. The smallest sound could immediately attract them, throwing you, and anyone near you, into grave danger. The tagline of the movie is, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” It is in this environment that a family is attempting to survive together.  They’ve succeeded so far by living off the land, settled on a remote farm. With few, if any, people around them, the potential for sound is much more controlled.

The parents have created an elaborate system of silence. The father (played by John Krasinski who is also making his directorial debut) has created paths around the farm for the children to walk, lined with sand that will dampen any sound. They primarily live in the barn now because the old wood floors in the farmhouse are too creaky. Their eldest child is deaf (played beautifully by Millicent Simmons who is actually deaf) which provides a new blessing since the family all knows sign language and are able to communicate without speaking. Much of the film is silent, the dialogue and soundtrack are very limited. There in an ominous tension that pervades the film, but which is interwoven with sweet moments of the parents (made more believable by Krasinski and Blunt who are married in real life) connecting with their children and attempting to help them have semblances of normalcy. They are a loving family in a traumatic situation who are doing their best to live as a team.

quiet place family

As the film progresses you realize it is about much more than blind monsters, it is a metaphor for the fears of parenting. The setting of the story amplifies the reality that parents can never control their child’s every move.  Children will inevitably knock something over by accident. Even when you create literal paths for them to walk, they will veer off it. They will disobey and fail to understand the urgency behind their parents’ rules. They will perceive the world and have feelings that their parents will not understand or did not intend. The “horror” of A Quiet Place is the fact that it is impossible for parents to protect and control their children all the time, despite how much they love them or are trying to give them everything they need to live well. The frailty of the children is so keen. Beginning with the unpredictability of giving birth, to a newborn who needs to cry (Emily Blunt has some spectacular scenes here), to a pre-teen who is not always in control of her emotions. As an audience member you feel the parents’ anxieties and helplessness deeply.

And yet that is not all we are shown. As the suspense heightens, the children are separated from their parents forcing them to rely on their own wits and on each other to survive. As much as the kids are incredibly vulnerable, they are also profoundly resilient. We see flashes of deep emotional insight as they understand more than their parents expect. They are able to think on their feet and make connections that reveal they were listening to all the careful instruction. They are able to work together as they have seen their mom and dad work together. And what seemed like the greatest vulnerability of the family becomes their greatest strength. It was when the parents did not have perfect control that the kids grow and become stronger.

quiet place kids

A Quiet Place is ultimately a heart wrenching and hopeful picture of family. The world is a very scary place, but as the book It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee describes, being the perfect parent is not what kids need to be healthy. Kids need parents who love them, are involved with them, and who also allow them to experience life’s many facets. Sometimes the things we fear the most for our children, experiencing pain and unhappiness, are exactly what they need to become compassionate and resilient adults.

Black Panther: It’s really Nakia vs. Killmonger

Without a doubt Black Panther is a game changer. Ryan Coogler, director of Creed and Fruitvale Station has established himself as an incredibly insightful storyteller. A superhero movie that uses the genre to explore identity and the experience of the African Diaspora is very much worth the 1 billion it has already surpassed at the box office. Not only does the film break ground on creating the platform to imagine thriving African nations who are free to rule themselves, and the relationship between the continent of Africa and African-Americans, Coogler puts forth the best treatment of women that I have seen in any movie. Period. So much so that the Black Panther, T’Challa, is not actually the hero of the story. It’s Nakia.

Played flawlessly by Lupita Nyong’o, the character of Nakia at first seems like a love interest and a female supporting role with her own cool skills. But when I watched the movie a second time, I realized that the story actually pits her as the hero who stands in opposition to the “villain” Erik Killmonger. (Killmonger is a very complex and sympathetic character, the most poignant of the film for me. I think his approach is erroneous, but the question of the film is less “who” is the villain than “what” is the villain.)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

They both see the pain outside of Wakanda

Killmonger grew up in inner city Oakland, and also served in the military traveling extensively. He felt personally the pain of the African-American experience and the deep injustices that plague the world. Nakia has also spent extensive time outside Wakanda as a spy on missions around the globe. When we first meet her she is on a mission among human traffickers, not only rescuing the women who have been kidnapped but also protecting a male child soldier. They each have intimate knowledge of the ways that black people are suffering and in need of empowerment. Where they differ is in how they want to address it.

Nakia and Shuri

They both want to empower black people

After T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda, he and Nakia have an important conversation as they stroll through the marketplace. T’Challa asks her what she would have him do as king. Without hesitation she replies, “Share our resources.” She is the first person in the film to suggest that Wakanda needs to look outward and move away from their seclusion. Herein lies a key difference between her and Killmonger: she looks at the mistakes of the world and wants to learn from them to improve upon what has been done before. She says to T’Challa, “Other countries offer aid and refuge, we could do it better!” Killmonger on the other hand looks at the mistakes of the world and seeks to recreate destructive patterns against the original perpetrators. When he and T’Challa are fighting he tells him, “I learned from my enemies that you have to beat them at their own game.” He sees suffering in the world and wants to use the resources of Wakanda to arm black people so they can turn the tables of colonization back on their oppressors. In the process he has no problem killing several black people. His plan would continue the cycle of death and endless power struggles. Nakia’s plan is to break the cycle entirely. When she rescues women and the child soldier from human trafficking she tells them, “Carry yourselves home now. Take the boy with you, get him to his people.” She gives them power to immediately take ownership of themselves and power to help someone else. Her every move preserves life. To learn from what has failed in the past and do something new and different that could truly change the world.

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They are both offered the heart shaped herb

Killmonger wins the right to be Black Panther and wastes no time consuming the heart shaped herb, the secret to the Black Panther’s abilities. His immediate next step is to destroy it so that no one other than him can have it. In that same moment Nakia slips in and plucks one last herb, again showing her drive towards preservation. As Nakia journeys with Shuri and Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister and mother, Ramonda urges Nakia to take the herb herself. Nakia is trained in combat and would make a very good Black Panther. But she refuses to grasp for power that is not rightly hers. She declines to join the power struggle and in so doing is later able to use the herb to save T’Challa’s life. She understands in a profound way how to use power in ways that are rightly ordered for the flourishing of all, not just for her own advancement.

They both exert power in Wakanda

Killmonger becomes king of Wakanda through an endless series of death. We see him kill multiple people on screen in his quest towards Black Panther, and he tells T’Challa about all the people he has killed along the way. “All this death just so I could kill you.” Killmonger is a man whose life has tragically been marked by death since childhood, and he sees no other way of living than to kill. When Nakia sees Wakanda teetering on the brink of destruction under his rule, she has a choice. She can support Killmonger as king and serve Wakanda in the hopes that things will turn out all right. She responds vehemently when asked to serve her country, “No, I’ll SAVE my country!” She partners with other women to fight Killmonger, and ultimately T’Challa tells her, “You saved me. You saved our nation.” The way they each exert power is diametrically opposed. Every choice she makes is for the furtherance of flourishing for all people.

They both interact with women

I did not see it clearly until my third viewing of the film (it really is that good), that Killmonger only has two significant interactions with women other than Nakia. We never see or hear of his mother, he is always surrounded by men and addresses men. He has a girlfriend who only has two lines of dialogue, and whom he treats as expendable. Then we see him strangle a female shaman when she initially balks at destroying the heard shaped herb. He threatens her, “When I tell you do to something, I mean that s***.” The only way he interacts with women is to dominate and treat them as objects. In refusing to be interdependent with women, Killmonger ultimately cuts himself off from true power and success. His life is lopsided and unidimensional.  He can only see one way of being and succumbs to the cycle of death. In sharp contrast, Nakia has thriving relationships with women and is nearly always working collaboratively with them. Together these women are creators and protectors, imagining many ways of being that can result in vibrant lives.

Nakia and squad

This is one of the strongest aspects of Black Panther, that the female characters are complex and diverse and all have meaningful relationships with each other. Part of what makes Nakia strong is her willingness to be interconnected with others, specifically other women. These women are also what make T’Challa and Wakanda strong. Their society is one that is marked by creativity and equity. When the women are shared partners in their national life, the possibilities become boundless. Wakanda is a fictional place that is giving all black people the opportunity to imagine different possibilities for themselves and their communities. Wakanda is also giving the whole world a chance to imagine what a shared future could look like for us all. If Nakia is leading the way, I’m here for it.