Friday opening night of Black Panther and my husband and I sit in a jam-packed IMAX theater, the buzz around us excited and eager. Seeing this film seems a momentous occasion: a Marvel Studios product with a predominantly Black cast, directed by an extremely promising Black director, and featuring a powerful African nation full of technological wonder and beautiful people — all in the middle of Black History Month. And indeed, the film largely will deliver, despite some uneven pacing and CGI work. Black Panther is a thoroughly enjoyable movie in so many ways, and Hollywood has certainly been way overdue — reprehensibly so — in producing a major motion picture with a substantial Black cast and one substantively about racial issues.
And yet, I walked out of the theater, my Latino/Native husband at my side, and started to worry over what we’d just seen. For all of the justifiable hoopla, something nagged at me. We’d just seen a similar kind of film with a similar history, the story of young gay love in Call Me by Your Name. In some ways, for sure, you couldn’t get two more different films. Black Panther is based on a comic book superhero and is set in a fantastical world where technologically- and magically-enabled super powers drive much of the action; car chases and shoot outs are key ingredients. Call Me by Your Name is an indie film, and focuses on the late adolescent romance in northern Italy between an artsy and precocious 17-year-old and the 24-year-old graduate student his father hires for the summer to help him with his archaeological work. Yes, very different films.
But what unites them is that these are both “hybrid” efforts, with different folks across different identity positions coming together to make media about two of our culture’s more controversial issues: race relations and the specter of queer love. Black Panther’s source material comes from two white guys (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), was directed and co-written by two African-Americans (Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), and produced by a white guy (Kevin Feige) for Marvel Studios. Call Me by Your Name comes from source material by a straight man (a novel by André Aciman), with a screenplay written by a gay man (James Ivory), and was directed by a gay man (Luca Guadagnino) for an international team of producers. I list these contributions fully recognizing that film is inevitably a highly collaborative medium, with many different kinds of hands assembling the final product. But the writing, directing, and producing of these films from people very differently situated in terms of their identities is particularly salient to me given the subject matters treated: race and queerness. These are films that both self-consciously and very publicly have brought together diverse peoples to consider issues of diversity. And for me, that is precisely what makes the films noteworthy and important. It’s also what might contribute to how they both ring just a tiny bit false.
For sure, Black Panther and Call Me by Your Name offer much that is good and pleasing — and even culturally necessary. Black Panther revolves around the troubled transition of power in the African kingdom of Wakanda, which seems to the rest of the world to be a poor and somewhat backwards nation but is actually a technological marvel. Wakanda sits on the planet’s largest deposit of vibranium, a fictional super substance that is the strongest material know to humanity. (Captain America’s shield is made out of it). Vibranium has allowed the Wakandans to build a remarkable city and culture, full of techno wizardry that other powers would likely wage war to access. But the Wakandans have kept all of this hidden for centuries, and therein lies the rub: some Wakandans want to arm other oppressed Africans, particularly those in the diaspora, with their super weapons so they can rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Other Wakandans, including the film’s hero, T’Challa, want either to keep their country and culture safe from outside involvement (and hence possible interference) or, perhaps, more peacefully influence the workings of the world by slowly revealing Wakandan capabilities. Black Panther thus plays out a theme we see in other Marvel storylines, such as that of the X-Men, whose villain Magneto argues for the use of mutant power to subjugate the bigoted humanity that persecutes mutants, while Professor Xavier urges a softer, gentler, and practically assimilationist approach to integrating mutants into other human cultures. These are obviously not the only two paths to deal with the challenge of difference, but they are the ones we’re offered in the Marvel Universe.
Black Panther, to its credit and likely due to the creative screenplay authorship of Coogler and Cole, really finesses this plot. The putative villain, (deliciously played by Michael B. Jordan), cuts a rather attractive figure. His backstory (a tortured plot involving family intrigue) provides motivation for him to want to seize control of Wakanda and start arming his fellow Blacks. But he’s also not unjustly motivated by outrage at how Africans have been enslaved and abused, the resources of their continent and their own bodily labor exploited by others across the globe for centuries. It’s hard not to like him — and agree with his position. And while the villain can’t be victorious, he’s given the softest exit I’ve yet seen in a Marvel story.
Admittedly, Call Me by Your Name doesn’t have the political and international intrigue of Black Panther. Its story is much slower and gentler, featuring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in the roles, respectively, of professor’s son and graduate student who stumble and fumble their way toward romance over the course of the film’s two luxurious hours. And the film is luxurious. While Call Me doesn’t stage a global (but still largely family) struggle, it fetchingly offers us the struggle within a young man’s heart to open himself to intimate relations with another man. And open up he does (although I was disappointed that Armie Hammer doesn’t eat the peach). While Call Me ends with the graduate student leaving and then, as we learn through a phone call half a year later, planning to get married and thus breaking the heart of young Elio, we still thrill with nostalgia to the painful beauty of first love, universalized so that it doesn’t matter that these are two young men exploring and experimenting with one another.
Or does it? The particular locales of these narratives become crucially important in setting the stage for the kinds of stories they tell. Set somewhere in northern Italy (we never know precisely where), Call Me shows us a separate space, even a somewhat separatist space, where issues of identity can be hashed out amongst insiders. Set in the early 1980s and during a summer vacation, there are no school bullies to torment the sensitive piano-playing Elio, and no threat of AIDS, or even any mention of sexually transmittable diseases. The parents, particularly the academic father, are extraordinarily (even unbelievably) accepting, with the father offering a deeply moving speech to his heartbroken son about how he, when younger, had had a chance to have an affair with a boy but didn’t have the courage his son had in pursuing it. Gay men across the country often sobbed during this part of the film, our collective longing for just such an accepting parent finally realized on film. Call Me’s idyllic Italian locale recalls another intergenerational homoerotic romance, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. But while there’s still heartbreak, there’s no death this time. Similarly, part of Black Panther’s historical interest is that Wakanda represents the kind of Afro-centric separatism that was circulating at the time of the creation of the original characters. Like Call Me’s northern Italy, Wakanda is a space where Black people can be fully Black people, developing their own culture, their own nation, their own way of being in the world — a spectacular “what if” scenario. And in both films, the beauty of difference in these spaces is on full display. Black Panther showcases striking African designs and figures against the technological wonders of Wakanda, while Call Me by Your Name draws our gaze languorously over the bodies of two beautiful young people as they strip down to swim in the golden Italian sunlight. These movies are as much about the sensual experience of culture and identity as anything else. Moreover, these films stage spaces that allow us to focus attention on the issues at hand, without potential interference from other concerns. We can, with the characters, attend to how an empowered and powerful Black family considers how best to represent itself and distribute its own resources, and to how two young men navigate and negotiate erotic interest that is pure, playful, and untroubled by any other issues.
These are fantasies, then. And I will admit to thrilling to them. My husband, a person of color, often cried openly during Black Panther, moved by the powerful spectacle of an African people’s control over their own destiny. I too was moved to tears during Call Me by Your Name, delighting in the budding romance and the film’s attention to the sensuality of male bodies. Surely both films’ fantasies take risks: Black Panther names colonial oppression as colonial oppression, identifying a white ally as a “colonizer,” even though he’s trying hard to be an ally. And Call Me pushes boundaries and comfort zones, particularly with the age discrepancy between its lovers, which, while technically legal in Italy, has still generated much criticism amongst more conservative parties in this country. But such spice only adds to the films’ interest and topicality.
In many ways, Blacks and queers need these fantasies. We deserve beautiful things. We have waited a long time for a public art, a mass art, that honors the splendor of our lives while also paying attention to some of the issues still facing black and queer peoples and cultures. Both of these films offer such beauty and splendor, and in pushing some boundaries they acknowledge not only our humanity but also how the presence of our lives critiques the dominant order. Things don’t have to be the way they are. We offer some intriguing — and often spectacularly gorgeous — alternatives.
That said, these films don’t go quite far enough for me. In offering such fantasies to a large viewership, they also gloss over the realities of many Black and queer lives. Characters in Black Panther mention several times the oppression of Black people across the globe, but we never really get to see it. The closest we come is a well-lit basketball park in Oakland. White audiences are treated to the splendor of Afro-centered Blackness while getting a pass on visual reminders of how Europeans enslaved and exploited Africans for centuries. This pass extends even to one of the primary plot details that motivates the action: the fantastical substance vibranium. This strongest of metals, incredibly flexible and durable in its properties, stands in for the millions upon millions of enslaved Black bodies that were stolen from African to fuel Western imperial ambitions. Of course the Wakandans want to safeguard it. But vibranium’s metaphorical capacity falters just as it removes viewers’ gazes from the torturing of Black bodies for profit. And then, at the end of the film, addressing a nearly all white audience of world leaders, the Wakandans announce that they will reveal their true power and join the world stage not just as equals but as potential leaders. On one hand, this plot move seems a belated recognition of the value of African and diasporic peoples. On the other, it plays out yet again a favorite Hollywood trope: the helpful Black person, now extended to an entire country of Black people. Help us, Africans. We’ve made a mess of this world. We need your help. And we’ll also need your help in the next installment of this franchise. I worry that Black Panther, for all of its remarkable and even groundbreaking work, plays at times like a white man’s fantasy of Black people; they’re really wonderful folks, and look what they would’ve done if left to themselves; let’s offer them a beautiful representation of themselves while asking them to still serve us.
Call Me by Your Name plays out a comparable fantasy that eschews the realities of homophobia. Who wouldn’t want Elio’s incredibly accepting family, not to mention the seemingly safest of spaces in which to explore “forbidden” intimacies. But there’s the fantastical rub: they aren’t forbidden at all. Instead Elio and Oliver are surrounded not just by a family so accepting and welcoming but also by ancient statuary of finely chiseled male bodies that practically demand that you desire them. The academic father even points this out in case you, as a viewer, missed this point. This is a world in which you can’t help but be queer. I can attest, as can many other faggots who grew up in the early 1980s, that while we might appreciate this representation now, we can also affirm that the overwhelmingly vast majority of our lives bore no resemblance to it at all. And the film’s final scene, holding our gaze on a crying Elio who realizes that Oliver won’t be coming back, might be poignant in many ways, but many queers will remember their own similar scenes; we weren’t called in to a consoling dinner but instead contemplated the value of our lives in a bathtub with a razor blade on the rim. Not all queer boys made it out of those bathrooms. Put most harshly, Call Me seems like a straight guy’s fantasy of gay love: a summer dalliance free from any worldly consequences and ending with the gay boy pining for the straight boy.
Films are inevitably collective endeavors, and mass market films suffer the most from needing to address the needs and concerns of too many different and varied audiences. Fine analyses, critical insights, and difficult positions are often washed away as plots, characters, sets, and representations maneuver for maximum appeal. That Black Panther and Call Me by Your Name have appealed to as many as they have is an indicator of how far our culture has come in honoring the lives of Blacks and queers. And some of us have needed these fantasies to help imagine and reimagine our worth and value. Now it’s time for the media that will not turn away from the harder work. We deserve the fantasies, yes. We also deserve some honesty.