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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Black Superheroes on Film

Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones. Photo courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest
By Maureen Masters

Taking inspiration from this winter’s release of Disney’s Black Panther, BAMcinématek presents Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film, February 2—18. Drawing from the more daring elements of science fiction, comic book, and Blaxploitation films, the series includes 27 features and a shorts program highlighting the tenacious spirit of black fictional characters while reimagining the textbook definition of superheroes.

The series is programmed by BAMcinématek Senior Programmer Ashley Clark. “Marvel’s Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), is one of the most hotly anticipated blockbusters of the year,” says Clark, “and is rightly seen as a new high watermark in the representation of black characters in the fantasy genre.”

Black Panther’s large cast features a remarkable constellation of top black talent, including Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, and Forest Whitaker. Clark adds, “to both celebrate and complement the release of Black Panther, BAMcinématek’s series Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film draws together a diverse and international range of mythical, fantastical, and groundbreaking fictional black screen heroes; this cast of memorable characters laid the path for Black Panther. From subversive Blaxploitation kings and queens to Afrofuturistic pioneers, to Black Panther’s superheroic yet under-appreciated comic book forebears like Wesley Snipes in BladeFight the Power has it covered.”

Halle Berry in Catwoman. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.
The series begins February 2 with Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971). Van Peebles wrote, directed, and stars in this 70s Blaxploitation thriller that follows male prostitute Sweet Sweetback (Peebles) as he dodges police arrest with help from some unconventional accomplices. Fight the Power includes other iconic Blaxploitation films with memorable heroic characters including Cleopatra Jones (1973, Starrett), Foxy Brown (1974, Hill), Shaft (1971, Parks), Space Is the Place (1974, Coney), Black Dynamite (2009, Sanders), and anti-establishment cult classic, The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, Dixon).

The series includes four films straight from the pages of comic books, including selections from the Blade film series, Spawn (1997, Dippe) and Catwoman (2004, Pitof). Based on the Marvel comic book character Blade, the 1998 hit film, written by David S. Goyer and directed by Stephen Norrington, drew a cult following and subsequent film franchise. Wesley Snipes stars as Blade—the half-human, half-vampire out to avenge his mother’s death and rid the world of vampires. In 2002, Guillermo Del Toro directed the sequel, Blade II, wherein Blade (Snipes) joins forces with vampires to combat a new type of deadly monster. Based on the comic book hero of the same name, Spawn features Michael Jai White as hell’s reluctant soldier. And in Catwoman, based on the DC Comic, Halle Berry stars as a shy graphic designer, who, upon discovering a grave industry secret, is killed and reborn with cat-like reflexes.

A selection of films spotlight fantasy and science fiction heroes. These films include The Brother From Another Planet (1984, Sayles) about a mute, black extraterrestrial with a gift of technical wizardry who escaped from another planet, only to end up in New York. The Meteor Man (1993, Townsend) tells the story of a schoolteacher who develops superpowers after being struck by a meteor and uses his new found powers to fight crime in his neighborhood; Sleight (2016, J.D. Dillard) infuses fantastical elements in a naturalistic film about a street magician; Attack the Block (2011, Cornish) stars John Boyega and is set in a South London invaded by angry aliens; in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000), Forest Whitaker plays a hired hitman that lives by the code of the ancient samurai; and Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998, Ocelot & Burlet) is an animated film influenced by West African folk tales about a newborn baby with the ability to speak and walk who saves his village from an evil witch.

Fight the Power also includes a few films with unconventional superheroes, including Candyman (1992, Rose), and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Candyman’s Tony Todd is an anti-hero in a film rich in compelling racial and social commentary. Duane Jones was one of first black actors to play a lead role in a mainstream American horror film, as Ben in Night of the Living Dead.

Follow @BAMcinématek on Twitter and Instagram and check for a complete list of series films as well as announcements of special guest appearances.

Maureen Masters is BAM’s cinema publicity manager.

© 2017, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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