I drove home from Providence feeling shaken up and wide-awake after seeing Trinity Repertory’s production of Othello. Three days later, I saw BlackPantherand left the multiplex feeling like I’d been to church.
And ever since, the Shakespearean tragedy and the superhero blockbuster have been circling each other inside my head.
Black Panther’s release was a watershed event for African-Americans long before it opened and made a zillion dollars. The breathless anticipation was perfectly captured by a viral video of a young man hugging the movie poster and shouting, “This is what white people feel all the time?”
As a superhero action flick, Black Pantherdelivered the goods: insane car chase, barroom brawl, high-tech weapons, futuristic medical procedures, and several extremely attractive actors. It was great fun, a 3-D comic book. And that was the least of it.
Black Panther delivers a fully realized Afrocentric and Afro-futurist mythology in which an ancient African civilization flourishes for centuries — unconquered, uncolonized, and unconverted –– and develops into a modern Eden. Everything about Wakanda is beautiful and dignified, from architecture, to fashion, to etiquette (that arm-crossed salute is epic), and especially to the egalitarian society where women are smart, self-possessed, and not to be messed with.
There was one breathtaking moment of theatrical magic in Trinity Rep’s Othello: a cloudburst of sand falls from above, transporting us from Venice to the island of Crete. Other than that, the stage was bare, the costumes minimal/modern, and the audience close — all the better to focus on some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry and his most chilling portrait of human treachery. The plot unfolds – unravels – until we are left with three corpses: two women who tell a truth that goes unheeded, and the only man of color, who is marked for doom from Act I, Scene I.
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays. The cast is small and the plot moves quickly. There are no kings or queens, no thrones to lose or gain, no dynasties to keep track of. The stakes are life-and-death but the consequences are strictly personal. And while generations of critics and academics have psychoanalyzed and deconstructed the two main characters, the reason the play still rips your heart out is because Othello is entirely Othello, and Iago is Iago only.
Black Panther, on the other hand, is populated by archetypes: The Good King, The Loyal Lieutenant, The Evil Pretender, and The Brainiac. It’s a credit to the cast that their characters cast shadows like human beings because the whole thing is Larger Than Life. T’Challa, the ruler of an unspoiled paradise, learns from his father’s ghost about a royal fratricide, which threatens the peace of his kingdom, leading to a mortal dual between cousins, and an epic battle between their supporters. It’s a mashup of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Hamlet, and Shakespeare’s bloodier Richards and Henrys. Black Pantheris a morality play that pits altruism against vengeance, and fealty to tradition against the demands of the present.
The movie ends well. The play does not.
Othello appears to be the only black man in Venice, and not even his valor in war or his position as general of its army cannot shield him from ta society that sees him as less than human. Wounded pride and ambition fuel Iago’s vendetta against “the noble Moor,” but his racism is the ugliest thing about him. Iago publicly spews most of the play’s crude comments about Othello. He chips away at Othello’s self-confidence and love for Desdemona, first with subtle hints, then with false evidence of infidelity. And then he argues that she cannot be trusted because she consented to marry Othello, who was not “of her own clime, complexion, and degree.” Iago continues,
“Foh!One may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural— “
Iago’s vile avowal that marriage between a white woman and a black man is a crime against nature – to which Othello says nothing – is the last nail in his coffin.
Othello has been derided and even dismissed as a racist play, but from where I’m sitting, the slurs and insults aimed at him testify and his psychological defeat, makes this a play about the racism in Shakespeare’s world, and because this is Shakespeare, also holds a mirror up to our own. Four hundred years later, “Black lives matter,” is not a statement of fact but a cry for justice. There is a through-line from Othello’s destruction to the deaths of Travon Marin and most recently Stephon Clark.
Unlike Othello, Black Pantheris not a tragedy. But it’s not a fairy tale either. For all its positivity and pride, Wakanda shares the planet with a terribly broken world and the final scene of the movie is set on the rough streets of Oakland, California. Oakland is also where the movie began. And Oakland, seventy miles south of Sacramento where Stephon Clark was killed, is where the Black Panther Party organized in the 1960s, to challenge police brutality and provide a free breakfast to neighborhood children.
The Black Panther sequel (confirmed by Marvel and Disney) will return to fight evil in our broken world, and as a super-hero movie, the good guys (gender inclusive) will deliver again and give us all a much-needed win.
#11 of My Shakespeare Crush