What is a hero? What is a superhero? Do heroes always behave heroically, and if not, are they still heroes? Classicist Emily Austin talks about the sometimes-exasperating heroes in the Iliad, while film scholar Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, AM’93, PhD’99, discusses the superhero Black Panther and day-to-day heroism. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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Emily Austin, assistant professor in Classics, is working on a book project called “Grief and the Hero: The Futility of Longing in the Iliad.” The manuscript focuses on Achilles, one of the Greek heroes in Homer’s epic.

When I started teaching the Iliad, I realized we have a lot of opinions about heroes that need to be examined more deeply. In our culture, we use the word “hero” to describe anyone who is selfless, generous, or extraordinary, whereas in the Iliad, the language of the poem generically calls any of the main characters “heroes.” It’s a different value system.

Many of my freshmen hate Achilles—until we talk a lot. He is so frustrating. Our concept of heroism is selfless, but that’s not an ancient way of looking at things. The initial quarrel that drives him away from the battlefield is about honor and distribution of gifts; Achilles is dishonored in a way that we don’t have a concept for. The poem is critical of Achilles at the same time as it’s sympathetic.

Achilles and Hektor are different heroic types: Achilles is this lonely, extreme character, whereas Hektor is more of a family man, fighting for his city. There are ways that we, as moderns, relate to that. But we also relate to Achilles, because he questions the value of war: Why are we here? Why do we fight for honor? There’s a streak of individualism in how we think about heroes, and Achilles does have that. He’s questioning the values of the group.

What I love about the Iliad is that there are so many voices. The poem doesn’t insist that we should be like Hektor, or Achilles, or Penelope; it shows all these stories interacting. It shows there are costs of war. I don’t think it necessarily thinks war is good, but it’s not a univocally antiwar poem either. It’s very rich.

The translations of the Iliad over time show how differently various historical periods understood the poem. Alexander Pope’s translation, with its beautiful heroic couplets, takes away the sense that we wouldn’t want to imitate these men. They are seen as noble men whose virtues we should learn from. That’s typical of early translations. It makes you wonder: Did they not pay attention to the part where Achilles is refusing ransom and killing supplicants? Or Agamemnon’s horribly violent thoughts about killing unborn babies in the wombs of Trojan women? Contemporary translations are definitely grittier.

As of yet, there has not been a film or television adaptation that’s been able to capture the Iliad’s complexity. Though as much as I don’t like the film Troy (2004), there’s a moment when Priam (Hektor’s father, played by Peter O’Toole) says to Achilles (Brad Pitt), “I’ve done what no man on earth has ever done. I’ve kissed the hands of the man who killed my son.” That’s Homer, and they kept it.

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Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, professor in Cinema and Media Studies, is the author of Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (University of California Press, 2005) and coeditor of LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015).

Black Panther isn’t important because it’s the first black superhero movie—there have been others—but because of the amount of exposure and the size of the budget. It required audiences to recognize this black superhero as a superhero, not an appendage to another hero or part of a pantheon.

I took my kids to see it on its opening weekend. As someone who studies the history of African American spectatorship, it was a really important and interesting moment: African Americans coming out and celebrating this together.

I’m not convinced that African Americans need to see black superheroes in major motion pictures to feel good about ourselves. If we pay attention to history, there are people whose shoulders we stand on, who are real-life black superheroes. Ida B. Wells is my personal superhero. I’m flabbergasted by the things that she accomplished at the dangerous intersection of the women’s rights and antiracism movements. At the same time, seeing a film like Black Panther, which made numerous gestures to recognize aspects of black social and political struggle, is significant.

There’s an important scene in the film that addresses the racist practices around the acquisition and exhibition of African works in Western museums. Whose expertise is elicited and included? Museums are just beginning to think more carefully about that.

The filmmakers known as the LA Rebellion (1967–89), whose work I’m helping to preserve, wanted to explore African American subjects and their interior lives. Their films linger on the characters’ faces; just showing black people thinking and feeling was a radical thing to do. In that sense, the LA Rebellion films demonstrate a kind of heroism—the tremendous will and inner strength required to survive in situations of extreme oppression.

Ryan Coogler (Black Panther’s director) didn’t invent these characters—Stan Lee (comics writer and editor) invented this universe. He was trying to create characters who could speak to black audiences and the political insurgency of the 1960s, and Coogler layers on additional questions and problems from the decades since. The film presents a black world that is almost sublime in its powers, its style, and its technological proficiency and innovation.

Black Panther is not a film that’s universally praised among people who work in black studies. What’s the value of creating this kind of fantasy space? Killmonger, for example, makes the claim that he’d rather die free than live in bondage. There’s a masculinist dimension to the claim that implies that anything less than the most extreme physical resistance is passive acquiescence. But the ability to survive, to struggle—that takes tremendous, almost unimaginable strength.

Photo Creds: 
Photograph by John Zich

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