Don't Forget Roxane Gay (and Queer Superheroes), Hollywood!

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is known in the literary world for best sellers like Bad Feminist, a 2014 collection of essays, as well as her intimate new memoir Hunger, which describes her relationship with her body. New York Times readers will also be familiar with Gay's columns that, like her books, push back against racism and sexism.

Her role as a writer of comic books was lesser-known, however, until the January premiere of Black Panther, the first Marvel superhero film to center on black characters. (The red carpet made headlines for its star-studded lineup of black actors like Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, and Sterling Brown in the dress code of "royal attire.") Gay, a writer of Black Panther: World of Wakanda, was not invited, and took to Twitter to express her frustration.

"My feelings are real hurt that I didn’t get an invite to the Black Panther premiere. I mean goddamn Marvel. Goddamn," Gay wrote.

"I’m still thrilled about the movie and can’t wait to see it," she stated, adding, "And I mean. It’s fine. I’m not fancy. Just admitting that my lil feelings were hurt."

Gay's tweets made headlines in international sources like Mic, Page Six, and The Independent. For Gay, the attention was a surprise. "I was and remain absolutely stunned by the media response. I was just tweeting my feelings. It wasn't ever meant to become a story," she told The Advocate in an email interview.

Despite the uproar, a representative from the film did not contact Gay. However, she did receive a ring from her Marvel editor, Will Moss, who called to "apologize and explain how tickets to the premiere were doled out." The curation of a guest list to a premiere — particularly to a blockbuster like Black Panther that takes a small nation to produce — can be a complicated and political process. Gay was not involved with the making of the film, and Marvel claims that World of Wakanda was not one of the production's source materials. 

It is not clear if even Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the current head writer of the Black Panther comic, was at the event. He was not photographed there, and neither were the other authors behind the character, whose roots can be traced to a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four. Moreover, the idea of a Black Panther film has germinated for decades. The 2018 production reportedly draws from several iterations, with director Ryan Coogler confirming that Coates's poetic style "absolutely" had an influence on the film.

But Gay may have had an influence as well, as evidenced by another controversy that cropped up before the film's release. As background, the writer found her way to the Marvel universe through Coates. The Between the World and Me author invited Gay to cowrite a spin-off, World of Wakanda, alongside poet Yona Harvey. In doing so, Gay and Harvey made history as the first black women to write a Marvel comic. This significance was not lost on Gay, who is a queer woman of Haitian descent.

"Representation and inclusion matter so when black women get to write black women, when queer women get to write queer women, it's quite special," she said. "It was particularly thrilling to be able to write black queer women into the Marvel universe. I'm proud of the work I did and love hearing from black queer women about what the comics mean to them."

To create her vision of Wakanda — the fictional African nation in the Black Panther series — Gay researched past issues written by Coates and other writers, and trusted her instincts. "I thought about what the most technologically advanced nation would be like and what kind of people would populate that world. I let my imagination go wild," she said.

The spin-off series, illustrated by Alitha E. Martinez and Afua Richardson, published six issues before being canceled in 2016. But during its short span, it portrayed a love story between Ayo and Aneka, two members of the Dora Milaje, an elite force of female bodyguards for the Black Panther.

Ayo is brought to life in the upcoming Black Panther film by the actress Florence Kasumba, and a rough cut of a flirtatious scene involving her and another guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira), was reported on by Vanity Fair last April. The scene, as described by the publication, shows the women "swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, ‘You look good.’ Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, ‘I know.’” 

Vanity Fair said this moment "leans into" Gay and Harvey's series. However, this scene did not make it into the final version of the film, where Okoye is only seen in a heterosexual relationship. What happened? In an interview with Screencrush, the film's co-writer Joe Robert Cole seemed to confirm that there was an original intent to include a queer storyline, before equivocating and saying that a "brain fart" clouded his memory.

Gay called the excision of a scene showing a queer character's identity "disappointing."

"Even when great progress is made, some marginalized groups are told to wait, are told, not yet, are told, let's do this first and then we will get to you," she said. "And we are also told we're asking too much, that we should be grateful for what progress is being made. But I don't buy into that. It would have been incredible and so gratifying to see a queer black woman in what will likely be the biggest movie of the year. Alas, not yet."

The erasure of a queer character may be a letdown. But Gay also acknowledged how much seeing Black Panther would still have meant to her as a young person. "My 13-year-old self would have really enjoyed seeing strong, fierce women fighting alongside a black king and hero, while being heroes themselves," she said.

However, Gay stops short at saying a film like Black Panther would have changed her life. Gay said she was fortunate to have listened to many tales of black heroism growing up, although a big-screen experience would have been appreciated.

"As a Haitian American, my parents raised my brothers and I with stories about our history and how our people won their freedom," she said. "I was really lucky in that I had black heroes in my life — Henri Christophe, Dessalines, Toussaint L'Ouverture. A movie like Black Panther would have been something more tangible and immediate than the stories from Haitian history, and I would have loved it."

Is Gay hopeful that Black Panther could mark a turning point in Hollywood for representation? "We'll have to wait to see what the box office returns of Black Panther are. Even now, Hollywood (and most entities), need a financial imperative to do better," Gay said.

Entertainment executives will want to keep their eyes on Gay — and perhaps a seat reserved at their next Hollywood event. The author has several projects in the works that include books, TV, and film. She is even preparing to write a new comic book series, The Banks, "about three generations of black women who are master thieves."

"I've got a lot going on," she summarized.

Black Panther opens Friday.

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