FeaturedOpEd

The Making of a Black Superhero: From the Background

By L.M. Davis

I stand on the edge of a cliff, cheering for the man who would be king, as he fights the battle to win his crown. My attire is regal, perhaps too lavish for the conditions, but all who cheer with me are so adorned. After all, what else does one wear to witness the making of a monarch?

I’m marching down the street.  The night is warm and I am overdressed. I’m surrounded by others and we chant our outrage at the violence that is decimating our community.  We turn the corner in our march and as we reach the middle of the block, shots ring out and the minister who leads us goes down.

I wait in the wings as a dancer stumbles through a routine that she used to know like the back of her hand.  She is still graceful, if not quite as strong, and the performance is so intense that it also conjures the ghosts of the audiences for which she used to perform.

Clockwise: Black Panther, Black Lightning, Raising Dion

These aren’t dreams nor are they reality…at least not in the most literal sense.  They are scenes from some of your fave and soon to be fave Black superhero films and television; scenes which I have had the pleasure of helping to bring to life.  In order, they are Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Raising Dion (which premieres on Netflix on October 4, 2019).  It’s no accident that I have ended up on these sets and in these scenes.  Nope, it’s been my plan all along.

I write fantasy and have done so for the past ten years.  Longer than that actually: practically all of my life, since I penned my first vampire story at the tender age of seven. I released my first novel, Interlopers, in 2010 and I have been joyfully writing about werepanthers, aliens, immortals, and witches ever since.  Writing in this genre has been a constant joy for me, the fulfillment of childhood dreams that were peopled by mermaids, werewolves, and fairies.  Concurrent with my budding career as an author, one of the towns that I called home—Atlanta—has seen the budding of a new industry of its own. Film.

Author L.M Davis, second from left, glaring at W’kabi, the Border Tribe Warrior. She knew he was rotten from the beginning. Photo Credit: Disney/ Marvel Studios

And not just any film: fantasy film. (Yes, we are nerds, so you will quibble with my use of the word fantasy here.  I hear you. I hear you. And I’m going to use it anyway.)  Since 2010, thousands of films and television shows have been made in Georgia; a good many of them falling under the umbrella of fantasy and science fiction. Since returning to Atlanta in 2015, I have made every effort to land work on as many sci-fi/fantasy sets as I can.  It’s a natural extension of my love of the genre, I suppose. I love playing a role, however, small in bringing these worlds to life.

My earliest sets were Sleepy Hollow, Season 3 I believe, when everything started to go horribly wrong for the show.  That one was hilarious. I was positioned right next to Nicole Beharie, Lyndie Greenwood et. al. We were in Halloween costumes and I looked a good and crazy mess. Next, was Spider-Man: Homecoming. I was a part of the Washington Monument scene.  I can not tell you the number of times we ran down these metal stairs, pantomiming that we were screaming for our lives as an as of yet CGI-ed Vulture attacked.  All that work. Five days of running downstairs and climbing back up into the tower of the built set, and I didn’t appear on screen at all, not even for a second (not bitter…not at all).

For a while after that, I didn’t do much.  Maybe my knees had to recover from all of those stairs.  But when I heard about the open casting call for Black Panther, I could not resist. I do, after all, also write about black panthers after a fashion.  The fraternal twin protagonists of my Shifters Novel series shapeshift into actual panthers.  I had to be a part of this film.  So, I gussied myself up in my most Wakandan looking ensemble, cursing the fact that all of my good stuff was in Chicago (the other city I call home) and made my way to the casting call.  Ryan Coogler was there, and he was hand-selecting the background for the waterfall scene. Over two days, he must have seen a thousand people. Folks from all over the country.  One of the women I chatted with in line was from California.  She didn’t even live here, but she was already committed to relocating if she got a role.

I could tell you more about anxiously awaiting the call or about my fears that I would miss my chance, but I’ll save that for another time.  Suffice to say, I got the call, and was able to spend almost three weeks on the Black Panther set as Coogler and crew painstakingly choreographed and filmed T’Challa’s (played by Chadwick Boseman) epic battle with M’Baku (played by Winston Duke). It was a thrill, I tell you, to be a part of this film that those of us in the Marvel fandom have been asking for since Iron Man first made it’s way to the screen (more on that later). 

Black Panther was just the beginning of black superheroes for me and for Atlanta.  A little time later, fall of 2017 perhaps, I heard that they were filming a new television show call Black Lightning.  This show, too, would feature a black superhero. I knew immediately that I would try to be on it. I was going to be on all the Black superhero films. It would be a thing; a distinguished collection of experiences to add to my CV.  A year later came Raising Dion

Raising Dion

Being on all of these different sets, even in the sometimes brief and sometimes peripheral way that I am has given me a unique perspective on the rise of the Black superhero, not only what it has meant for the culture, but also what it has meant for Atlanta’s community of black creatives.   

Kofi Outlaw has written a thoughtful piece about the power of Black Panther resting in family. Indeed, this is an emerging ethos of Black superhero television and film and pathos of the heroes themselves, which stands in opposition to the isolating characters arcs of heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.  Where would T’Challa be without Shuri, Queen Ramonda, and the generations of former Black Panthers on the ancestral plane? Jefferson must team with wife Lynn and daughters Anissa and Jennifer in order to really effect change in Freeland.  Raising Dion has yet to debut but given that the premise is a mother’s struggle to raise a son with powers, we can expect that family will be centered there too.  In the hands of black filmmakers and storytellers, Coogler, Akil, Barnette, Goldberg, Mann, family becomes the focus and there are no heroes without the families that stand beside them.     

Funnily enough, these black hero films and television aren’t just about family onscreen.  They are forging families off-screen too.  I think Black Panther was probably the first, at least for me.  Hundreds of black actors spent time on the Black Panther set between the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017.  Many of us spent multiple days with each other on a set where we had to check our phones at the literal gate. (Yes, it’s true.  Even for the bit roles and background, we had to sign NDAs and surrender any device with the ability to record.) We can see it with the principal cast.  Lupita N’yongo and Winston Duke teamed up with Jordan Peele for Us, and Lupita and Danai Gurira are partnering to bring Americanah to the small screen. While we were on set, we were one big family.  We laughed, danced, and networked while the crew adjusted the lighting and sound. We bonded. We made friends.

Regina King in the upcoming Georgia filmed Watchmen.

After that, I started to see these folks whenever I stepped onto another Black superhero set. If the face was familiar, Black Panther was generally our point of connection and commiseration. I always find a friend on set now, and we have become a network actively trying to help each other to take advantage of other opportunities. Not only that, we are creating our own opportunities, deepening the roots of the film industry in Georgia, through our writing, our acting, and our own independent film projects. While the word hero has a Greek root that means “demi-god” with connotations of defender and protector, more recently the meaning has been a bit more earthly and encompasses all who show great bravery in any course of action. Turns out the making of one black superhero on screen creates many more everyday heroes, who are encouraged to take their own careers as actors, stuntmen, writers, and in production to the next level.

I haven’t made it on to all of the sets I’ve tried for. I missed my chance at Watchmen (here’s hoping for season 2) and The Passage. Honestly, I may be ready to step out the background and shoot for a hero role myself. So, Mr. Coogler, Mr. Jordan, if you’re reading this, I’m ready for my close-up.  

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L. M. Davis is a YA/MG author who writes about shapeshifters, aliens, immortals, and witches. She is a scholar of African American and Native American literature and cultures, with a particular interest in the speculative production of these communities. L. M. Davis is the author of Interlopers: A Shifters Novel, Posers: A Shifters Novel, and skinless: A Novel in III Parts. Davis’s Shifters Novels, which readers call fast-paced, engaging, dramatic, and original, are the coming-of-age story of Nathanial Pantera, a shapeshifter who can change into a panther, and his fraternal twin Larissa. Forgers, the third book in her Shifters Novel series, is forthcoming.

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