The Film Thor: Place, Race, Family, and Terrorists

What does the film Thor have to do with black people? Well many people, including people of color, helped to make Thor the # 1 movies across the country in the past week.

Oh yeah, and  the fabulous Idris Elba as Heimdall, a guardian of the portals between worlds, had a small role! Some hardcore comic fans were not thrilled that Idris, a black man, portraying a Norseman. Read more in  an UK Guardian article.

Controversy around race and ethnicity never sleeps. Hey, it’s a film based on mythology and the comics. Mythology through the millennium has been fluid, keeping in mind that the stories of Thor are rooted in ancient Euro-Indo civilizations. Getting really technical, Euro-Indo civilization goes back to Africa, the cradle of all humankind and civilization on earth.

Marvel Comics and director Kenneth Branagh did not invent the Thor narrative. Thor is Norse, a god of thunder who wields a huge hammer that looks more like a mallet, part of Norse mythology. The god represents fertility, a shield to humanity, and lightening/storms–all woven into the film.

Ok, some less serious talk! Those of you who love the Marvel Comics universe, get ready to don you 3-D glasses. Thor, subtitled The God of Thunder on some of the posters opens in the night in the New Mexico desert. Later, we see the desert in the light, the stark beauty of sand and rocks, and wide expanses typical of the desert Southwest.  Throughout the film, the scenes shift back forth and forth from New Mexico on earth; Asgard, Thor’s home planet and site of his cathedral-esque city; and Jotunheim the Ice Planet and home of the Frost Giants.

The portals between worlds take the form of tornadoes, allowing Thor and the Asgards to travel through worm holes, short-cuts planet to planet. Each arrival is a whirling man-made tornado of warp travel echoing modern disasters like the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and more recent flooding along the Mississippi River in 2011.

Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth (remember him as George Kirk, James Kirk’s dad in the Star Trek reboot?) hails from Asgard and is the protagonist. I’m using the word hails because Thor’s dialogue is straight out of Tudor England. And no wonder: we’d need subtitles for ancient Norse and director Branagh was weaned on Shakespeare in his many turns in Shakespeare on film including Hamlet. Gotta love that Middle English.

Branagh liberally borrows from the trope of familial violence in which men struggle for power, particularly a throne, from ancient Greek plays and Shakespearean tragedies.  For a more modern take, men and some women battle one another for the presidency of the United States, seen by some as the pinnacle of success in society. The battle of wills between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki, and the power struggle for the crown between the two sons is quintessentially human in and outside the family.

There’s a love story too, also very human: Thor falls in love with Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman. I thought that the relationship was under-developed and superficial. Girls likes hot hunky guy. Guy thinks winsome girl got sexyback. Girl and guy fall in love. Clearly, I was more interested in the family dynamics.

Of course evil takes many forms in the film. Such tension is necessary in mythology, literature, and film. The Frost Giants, much like their Ice planet  are chilling dark forms, the former dark grey massive icy humanoids and the latter a jagged place of dark ice. Science fiction is always a placeholder for current events. These giants are bound in America’s fears of TERRORISTS including Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps Loki, Thor’s brother, is a bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. America–much like the Asgard monarchy–has turned in on itself fearing the terrorist bogey man at every turn. And sadly darkness has long been used negatively in how people of color are seen and treated.

All-in-all the movie on the surface is not as complex or well crafted as the first Spiderman film and Dark Night series, but as one of the first blockbuster entries for the summer, it’s a fun light ride. Still we as film-goers can go deeper. As was true of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still, science fiction films mirror our deeper fears in society. The controversy of Idris playing a Norseman in a film is just one example.

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Kanye West’s Power: Religious Metaphors Including Those in Nature

Kanye West’s Power, his latest video, is a locomotive painting. The director Marco Brambilla draws from Greek, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Hindu, and Buddhist religious metaphors in what is a visual video masterpiece.

The video opens with West’s eyes lit as if superhuman.

Behind him are Ionic columns, typical of Greek architecture. The director choose the Ionic columns over the Doric and Corinthian design because the latter are more complex in architecture, design, and engineering. Among the Greeks and according to architects, the Ionic design is the greatest of the three columns. The Ionic is more complex in design including scrolls representing education and vertical lines akin to rams horns. In addition, unlike the other designs, the engineering, the design is more resistant to earthquakes.

Behind West and the columns are clouds that grow darker from the beginning to end of the video. I see something similar in scripture. In the Torah and the Old Testament, Moses went up into the mountain where God was the cloud (Exodus 24:15). When God was angry there was thunder and lightning, making the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16)

Returning to West, an industrial chain hangs around his neck. It is far heavier than any human could hold up, indicating his godlike power. From the chain hangs a rather large pendant or ornament with the Egyptian god Horus. He was the greatest of the Egyptian gods with the head of a falcon and the body of a man. In his many manifestations, he was a god of war, protection, and the sky. As the god of the sky, a connection could be made to the clouds in the sky, the backdrop in the video.

Fanning out away from the clouds, the columns, and West are two women with antelopes horns and pounding staffs. The horns are those of antelopes. Two Hindu deities, Vayu, lord of the winds, and Chandra, a lunar god rode on antelopes. The pounding staffs allude to Moses using the lowly herder’s staff to do God’s will: Moses faced Pharaoh as they struggled over freeing the Hebrews from bondage. In one memorable moment Moses staff transformed into a snake. Pharaoh’s magicians did the same but Moses’ snake devoured the magicians snakes.

Winged human creatures sit at Kanye’s feet with connections to two religious images. Cherubim protected the ark containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandment as noted in the Old Testament. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the garuda is a bird-like human that is divine.

Above West are a pair on either side pouring out oil from jars filled with never-ending oil. Throughout the Old Testament, powerful kings like David are anointed with oil by prophets to affirm their power and leadership through God’s anointing. In the New Testament, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with a perfume–in some translations it is oil or ointment.

The video is only 90 seconds and begins to speed up towards the end. A veil drops, perhaps a reference to the rent or torn veil at the temple after Jesus’ crucifixion. For Christians this tear represents abandoning the temple; the old, Judaism is replaced with the new, Christianity. The power shifts.

In the far corners of the video, grapes are in a bowl, proffered as an offering by two women. This is certainly a reference to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility.

Throughout the video, we see images of knives and swords in the hands of men. A knife comes down from above through a gold crown or Celtic circlet–consider the shift of Celtic tribalism to kingdoms in which kings and queens wore crowns to industrialism represented in the chain around Kanye’s neck–above West’s head. As the video comes to a close, two men come down on West with swords as if in ritual sacrifice.

The video ends. We never learn West’s fate. Does he remain powerful? Was his power an illusion? Does he live? Does he die?

Do a few lines from the lyrics might answer these questions: “No one man should have all that power//The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours//Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power”?

Everything but West is a mirror image in the video. Why? We should look at ourselves in the mirror as we struggle with the meaning of power. One look at the image and there is human frailty.

The video with all its metaphors is a masterpiece.