In Search of The Black Superman, A Discussion With Jonathan Gayle

Pride On Film: The Black Harvest Film Festival Part 7 of 8

Photos By: “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN” / Jonathan Gayle

In “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN” educator and filmmaker Jonathan Gayle interviews various prominent artist, scholars and cultural critics and features images from the comic books themselves as this thought-provoking documentary examines the degree to which early Black superheroes generally adhered to common stereotypes about Black men. From the humorous, to the offensive, early Black superheroes are critically considered.

Gayles is an Associate Professor of African American study at Georgia State University.  He was trained at Duke University’s Excellence Center for Documentary studies.  “Captain Marvel” was the first comic book he read, as a youth he loved the escape reading comics book provided.  PrideIndex talked to Gayles about how he hopes his film can expand society’s understanding of black men, his favorite comic book superheroes and why this film was originally titled “Shaft or Sidney Poitier.”

PRIDEINDEX (PI): Why was it so important to make “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN?”

JONATHAN GAYLES (JG): I don’t want to overstate the importance of the project so I will just say that the project was important to ME. (Smiles) In doing work on Black masculinity, I returned to comic books, something that I loved growing up as an adolescent. I was shocked, reading the books of my youth, to find so many images, narratives, and representations of Black men that were patently offensive. I quickly discovered that there were many scholars that were examining comic books as part of popular culture. They examined comic books through the lenses of race, gender, sexuality and nationality, among others, fascinating and provocative work. This inspired me to produce the film that I hoped would pursue a scholarly critique of these images.

Within the realm of comic books, we find ourselves squarely within a male power fantasy and more specifically, a white male power fantasy. The documentary examines the way in which the very idea of a super-powered Black masculine body is problematic. Jeffrey Brown, a scholar interviewed in the documentary, describes the black masculine super body as a “threatening cluster of masculine signifiers.” Historically, great power has been assigned to the Black masculine body and this power is at the center of the way in which black men have experienced what Athena Mutua calls “gendered racism.”’ The black masculine body is a fetish of sorts, fascinating and fearsome at once. How then, do we mitigate the “threatening cluster” represented by the very idea of a Black male superhero? The documentary answers this question in addition to other questions that I hope expand our understanding of long-standing narratives about black men in the United States

PI: What is the name of the first comic book you have ever received?

JG: I don’t remember the name of the 1st comic book that I have received, but the first comic book I remember reading was an old Captain Marvel.

PI:  Who was your favorite comic book superhero?

JG: This question makes me think of DuBois’ double consciousness.  Consequently, there are actually two answers to this question, and both reflect my sense of how I am seen by others and how I desire to see myself. The answer must include both Luke Cage and the Black Panther. In the documentary, Stanford Carpenter does an excellent job talking about the kind of love-hate relationship that many fans of Cage have with the character. Luke Cage is attractive to me because of his bodily power. This kind of power is consistent with traditional constructions of masculinity and the Black masculine in particular. From the kind of muscular music hip-hop continues to represent to the muscular Black athlete, there is considerable societal space for black men that can exert physical power – or at least represent the capacity to do so. Of course, this comes at a cost, as the same power, or fear of it, places Black men at risk. The Black Panther, as an intellectual, as a politician, as a prince, represents a dramatic departure from traditional constructions of Black men. As an academic, I am attracted to the Black Panther for those reasons. But truthfully, I am both Cage and the Black Panther. I am uncomfortable with the notion that I must choose one or another. This sort of dichotomous ordering of Black masculinity reflects the limited range of self-expression that continues to force many (B)black men to make choices that do not reflect an authentic sense of themselves.

PI: “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN” features several black comic book illustrators, how did you find them and how did you decide whose stories to feature in this movie?

JG:  I was fortunate to find a number of communities of artists, writers and illustrators that produce more whole and humane representation of Black people in the genre. Perhaps the most significant community is the Black Age community. Since the early 90s, Black age events have been held in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit. These events are dynamic gatherings of artists, many of them independent, sharing their work directly with the public. Additionally, I simply reached out to many of the other people that I interviewed, including academics, and they were very responsive. I remain in their debt. I produced a short film of the Black Age: http://blacksuperherodoc.com/?p=319

PI: There is a plethora of broadcast and cable television networks whose programming is geared to the African American experience, how come we have to go to a film festival to hear the stories of black comic book artist/illustrators?

JG: It may not be the most academic thing to do, but I must cite the Wu Tang Clan here, “cash rules everything around me.” Popular culture does not exist in a vacuum. It is not exempt from market forces. I doubt that there are many power-brokers that would consider an academic documentary on the representation of Black masculinity attractive to advertisers – regardless of whether the programming is “geared toward” toward African-Americans or not. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if a considerable percentage of those watching such channels are not African American, like the majority of the consumers of hip hop.

PI: Why did you limit “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN” to only 52 minutes?

Dwayne McDuffie of Milestone Comics

JG: My goal for the project has always been educational distribution. Distributors generally prefer films that fit the traditional 75-minute class format.

PI: I heard from a reliable source that you’re a writer and educator; tell us a little bit about that.

JG: I am currently an Associate Dean for undergraduate learning and Associate Professor of African American studies. This project reflects my research interests and much of my own teaching on Black masculinity. I am an applied anthropologist by training (University of South Florida) but the journey that culminated in the production of this film is far too circuitous to fully document here. (Smiles)

PI: Why did you become a filmmaker?

JG: I know far too many filmmakers to claim this title. I truly think of myself as an educator that uses documentary film. In this sense, this film is a new methodology for me – not a new profession.

PI: Were you formally trained as a filmmaker? If so when and where?

JG: The only training that I received was through Duke University’s excellent Center for Documentary Studies. I attended their weeklong summer video institute and this represents the bulk of the skills I used to produce the film. I independently supplemented this experience with many of the outstanding resources available to anyone that is interested in film, filmmaking and editing.

PI: Describe your filmmaking style.

JG: This is tough. As an academic, I suppose that it would be most accurate to say that I have an approach more than a particular “style.” My approach centers the speakers and, to the greatest extent possible, allows the participants to construct the narrative with minimal narration or intervention.

PI: Name some of your filmmaking influences.

JG: Byron Hurt’s work brought me to documentary film. His films, “I Am a Man” and “Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes” are fixtures in my teaching.  Kathe Sandler’s “A Question of Color” also inspired me. Of course, Marlon Riggs is a primary source of inspiration as well.

PI: Critics argue that African American comic book superheroes are too cookie cutter; their creators need to push themselves to create new characters that break the mold of the typical ex-con/ex-athlete turned crime fighter. Do you agree or disagree with that assessment?

JG:  Certainly. This is not to suggest that all of the characters should be paragons of goodness. In fact, the original title for the film was “Shaft or Sidney Poitier” thanks to a statement in the opening by the late Dwayne McDuffie. What became apparent is that there was far too much Shaft and too little Sidney Poitier to justify the title. The goal is a diverse representation of Blackness that more accurately represents the true diversity of Black life. Black life extends beyond the projects, beyond prisons and beyond the urban landscape.

PI: If you could be reincarnated as a superhero, which one would you choose? Why?

JG: I think I would love to be Mr. Terrific. He is an Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, a black belt, and holds multiple doctorates. He is brilliant and his heroism is not undermined, if at all, as is the case with so many other Black comic book heroes. Unfortunately, he is one of the first casualties of DC’s “New 52.” His series was ended after only eight issues. (Sigh)

PI: ​Can we expect to see more films like “WHITESCRIPTS, BLACKSUPERMEN” from your production company in the future? If so when?

JG: I think that this work ends with this film. I will continue to expand the website by adding interviews and short films but another full-length documentary is not in the books.

For more information visit:  http://www.blacksupermen.com/

twitter: @jonathangayles

“Whitescripts, Blacksupermen” screens at the 8th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival on Sunday August 26 at 5:15pm and Monday August 27 at 6:00pm. Visit siskelfilmcenter.org