For Black Americans, 2020 has been defined by agonizing reminders that the past isn’t really past. Yet something hopeful happened over the past several months, too. This summer, Black culture pushed back. On stages large and small, Black artists boldly offered up galvanizing visions that suggest not only canAmericans of all races disentangle ourselves from a racist past, but also we can build a better future together.
Some of these works emerged from the ground up. In Richmond, activists and artists transformed a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee into a graffiti wall, a screen displaying the ghostly visage of George Floyd, and a stage for Black ballerinas Kennedy George and Ava Holloway. Black Irish step dancer Morgan Bullock went viral with TikTok videos of traditional choreography set to hip-hop.
Painting, sculpture and ballet are fine arts, which is a polite way of saying they’ve been dominated by White artists and patrons. Turning a formal monument to the Lost Cause into an illustration of the cost of racism doesn’t just make the point that Floyd is dead when he shouldn’t be. Putting the delicacy of ballet or the precision of Irish step dancing to work in service of Black power and Black playfulness doesn’t merely send the message that Black girls can dance, too. Works such as these free up our imagination and ambition. If Monument Avenue can become a venue for Black creativity rather than white supremacy, and if dance can be a tool of militancy, what else about the world could be different as well?
This ambition showed up not just in work by outsider, lesser-known artists but in new releases from more traditional sources, from Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “Black Is King” to Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”
“Black Is King” is striking not merely for telling a fantastical story about a Black royal family but also for where and how it was released. The film premiered on Disney Plus and on cable channels in African and Middle Eastern countries in special deals negotiated by Disney at Knowles-Carter’s behest. With “Black Is King,” Knowles-Carter used her power as an artist to depict the African diaspora, and as a businesswoman to convene a virtual gathering of its members.
“Black Is King” is a retelling of Disney’s “The Lion King.” But Disney is a company that in its early years routinely trafficked in vicious racial stereotypes. Rather than reckon with or contextualize the movies that helped build the Mouse House, the company has buried the most notorious one, “Song of the South,” in service of a brand that aims to be as blandly appealing to as many people as possible.
By contrast, “Black Is King” is not intended to be universal; it’s specific to Knowles-Carter’s experience as a Black mother raising a Black son, to whom the album is dedicated, and Black girls. Still, the movie doesn’t feel exclusionary. It simply asks White audiences to make the same mental adjustment Hollywood has long expected from audiences of color — to accept that while they won’t see themselves in every detail of the lyrics and visuals, they can be stirred just the same. For Disney to acknowledge that Black artists can speak specifically, and that White audiences are willing to absorb themselves in a Black artist’s perspective, is a step in the direction of a company that’s not merely more progressive but that also makes more interesting work.
Meanwhile, the African syndication deals for “Black Is King” enabled a debate that wasn’t solely defined by Black Americans but was expanded to include Nigerian students who felt stereotyped by the movie’s use of animal skins and prints, or Kenyan immigrants to the United States frustrated that the movie paid little attention to East African countries.
While “Black Is King” debuted on small screens, the movie industry hoped to lure audiences back to big ones with the release of “Tenet,” starring John David Washington as a nameless special operative chasing messages sent back in time from the future. Washington, as a second-generation Black leading man (his father is Denzel Washington), is a rarity because the entertainment industry has wasted so many opportunities to elevate Black superstars in previous generations.
“Tenet” is not squarely about race. Yet there’s something striking about watching Washington’s character with his White male sidekicks. Washington isn’t decor in “Tenet”; the movie relies on the idea that he has the potential to be a massive star. The men who are helping make him one include Robert Pattinson, a former teen heartthrob, and Michael Caine, who memorably played butler to Christian Bale’s Batman, the superheroic epitome of White elitism.
“Tenet” reaches its climax when Washington’s character declares himself the protagonist of the story and claims a special ability to grapple with the past and influence the future. This dialogue might have felt like time-travel movie boilerplate in the mouth of a White actor. As spoken by Washington, against the current backdrop of political upheaval, his character’s assertion of control feels radical and exciting.
Taken together, these works give the summer of 2020 an Afrofuturist cast. That movement imagines what might come of the relationship between technology and various offshoots of the African diaspora, be it Parliament Funkadelic’s spacefaring Cadillacs or novelist Octavia Butler’s dream of extreme empathy as an interplanetary superpower.
“Tenet” gives us a Black master of multiple timelines, “Black Is King” a vision of a Black aristocracy. Both refuse to allow racism to constrain the scope of the future they imagine for Black characters. And the way smaller, grass-roots artworks went viral serves as a reminder that we are already living in the future. Even 15 years ago, who could have dreamed that teenage dancers would use pocket-size computers to broadcast themselves to the world?
If this was a summer of surprising hopefulness, the death of actor Chadwick Boseman inflicted a particularly cruel blow. The roles that made him a star — groundbreakers such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and the superhero T’Challa — positioned him as a bridge between Black history and a future of Black liberation.
“Black Panther” was the ultimate mainstream Afrofuturist movie, a romp through a fictional African country that has used technology to spare itself the scourges of racism. As the titular character, Boseman played a king trying to guide his nation about whether to stay hidden or to reveal its discoveries.
Boseman’s characters in his biopics were trying to share their talents with a racist world that didn’t want to recognize their abilities. In “Black Panther,” he got to play a figure who represented what Black people might have been able to do if they were free to follow their gifts.
Boseman will not be the last Black artist to take off running from the past to carry us into a vision of the future. In 2013, the novelist N.K. Jemisin published an essay titled “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” She has her answer, and so do we: The time is now. The question is what all of us, Black and otherwise, do with it.