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#BackChannel: The Rise Of The Black Superhero, The Obama Portraits, And Why HBCUs Still Matter

There are not many superlatives left to describe the success of “Black Panther.” The latest Marvel movie has received glowing reviews, broken countless records, and is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. It is also well on its way to surpassing $1 billion at the global box office. And although it has reached screens in far corners of the world, questions remain about what its long-term impact will be. Can one successful film finally disprove the longstanding myth that black films don’t travel?

Host Frank Stasio talks with popular culture experts Mark Anthony Neal and Natalie Bullock Brown about “Black Panther” in this latest installment of #BackChannel. They also discuss the new CW series “Black Lightning,” which is based on the DC Comics character who first appeared in 1977. The series picks up the story nine years after Black Lightning last used his super power. Plus, the presidential portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama could not be more different from the portraits that came before them. What is the significance of the artists whom the Obamas chose?

"[Black Panther] was a two and a half hour break from reality to enjoy the beauty of the black imagination. To enjoy the beauty of black minds."- Mark Anthony Neal

And a new documentary on PBS looks at the history and lasting impact of historically black colleges and universities. Stanley Nelson’s “Tell Them We Are Rising” makes a case for why HBCUs still matter. This conversation is part of the ongoing series with contributors Natalie Bullock Brown, professor of film and broadcast media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University in Durham.

Interview Highlights:

Mark Anthony Neal On how Marvel's "Black Panther" could influence the relationship between African-Americans and Africa: 
I’m not sure folks go and see Wakanda and think about Wakanda in the context of what might be their Nigerian-American neighbors or their Ghanaian-American neighbors. I think there are still folks in the United States, black and otherwise, who make distinctions between these superheroic figures in Wakanda and the folks that live around the corner from them … The film is really about what Wakanda can do for us. And that’s a logic that black folks haven’t had to consider. Because when we consider the value of Africa it’s always the Africa of 1,200 years ago and what it provided for us. It’s not what the contemporary African continent can provide for us right now.

"When I left the theater the thing that was running in my mind was: Trust black women."- Natalie Bullock Brown

Natalie Bullock Brown on the lasting impact of "Black Panther":
I think it is, you know, speaking directly to this idea that people … [Are] not interested in stories about black folks. And that this is challenging that very idea. And it’s really saying: Hold up. Yes people are. Especially if they're well crafted. Especially if they're given budgets that are going to actually allow the director and the crew to realize a fully fleshed out vision of, you know, what any given film can look like ... It's challenging so many assumptions about what's possible on so many levels.

On the official Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Mark Anthony Neal: The fact that both former President Obama and Mrs. Obama chose artists that represent such unique and distinctly different versions of them than the previous portraits raises questions. We think about Kehendi Wiley not so much as a fine artist but some sort of bridge between high art and street art. His work is so much known for taking ordinary black folks and placing them in these majestic and heroic settings. He almost does the opposite with President Obama. He takes this majestic figure and places him in very humble settings. That was going to raise certain kind of ire amongst folks who think about portraits looking a certain kind of way.

Natalie Bullock Brown: I think it says a lot about Barack and Michelle that they picked the people that they did ... I think it is so appropriate, though. Because they are our first first lady and our first black president. So it's appropriate to me … Part of the backlash comes from people not expecting that black artists are going to have this art history background. That they're just coming off the top of their head and their work is not informed by a long trajectory ... Or they're not trained. And so all of that is a part of the messiness of how people have responded negatively to these portraits.

Mark Anthony Neal on the new The CW series "Black Lightning":
It's important that we get past the narrative of the Black Panther to find out that they're many of these characters that were written. And that we're in a moment now where it’s sustainable to be able to support all of these different characters in their different platforms with their different narratives ... We still don't see that in terms of gender. We've yet to have "The Storm" television show that we need ... But I think in this regard “Black Lightning” is an important contribution to the moment that we're in.

Natalie Bullock Brown on the new PBS documentary "Tell Them We Are Rising":
I think it makes a case for why these schools still matter ... We need to hold on to them. We need to invest in them. We need to go to them ... I went to a predominantly white institution, a PWI, for undergrad. And then I went to Howard. And I had gone to a private school that was 99.9 percent white from second grade until I graduated from high school.
So I to go to Howard … It blew my mind. It was exactly the type of experience that I needed to be affirmed in my blackness after having spent so much time in these white spaces ... I'm not sure I would have had the confidence or the belief in myself as a black person if I had not had that experience. 

Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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