Wesley Morris ’97, a critic-at-large for The New York Times, spoke about race, journalism and the importance of the film “Black Panther” at Benjamin Franklin College on Tuesday.
“Race is the most fundamental, unsolved question in our history,” Morris said. “It’s fascinating to me how a comic book has re-legislated this question, and we now talk about these issues in terms of ‘T’Challa’ and ‘Killmonger.’”
He was referring to Black Panther, a Marvel movie with a predominantly black cast that details the conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa, the movie’s protagonist. Earlier this week, Black Panther became the third-highest grossing American movie of all time.
The college tea, hosted by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, drew more than 50 attendees to the Benjamin Franklin Head of College House on Tuesday.
Jessie Royce Hill, the dean of Benjamin Franklin College, moderated the tea and asked Morris about his role at the Times. Morris, who received a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2012 for his work at the Boston Globe, said he appreciates that writers in the Times’ cultural department are free to pursue their curiosities. The world of journalism is often criticized for its lack of diversity, but Morris said this characterization is not entirely true at the Times.
“The Times is much browner, more female and queerer than it’s ever been,” Morris said. “But we’re talking about writers and copy editors. The further up you go, the less true that is.”
Morris is in the process of writing a book about the history of black Americans in performance. Still, although he often“ends up talking about race” in his work for the Times, Morris emphasized that race is only one of his journalistic interests.
“I’m not trying to lead a crusade,” he said. “There’s this perception that if you write about race a little, you become the person who writes about race all of the time. I just want the paper to be fun, and I hope that the things I’m interested in are meaningful to others.”
Hill then turned the discussion to Black Panther. Morris touched on some of his favorite aspects of the film, praising the complicated ideological divide between T’Challa and Killmonger. He also praised the role of women in the film, especially dialogue that explores how black women are used by white culture.
Morris lauded the film for its achievements but cautioned the audience against becoming too optimistic about increasing diversity in the film industry.
“The money is a smokescreen,” Morris said. “This problem is too persistent to say that one movie could solve everything. I don’t want to undermine or overstate its importance.”
It is still hard to get a mostly white marketing department to sell non-white projects, he said.
Joy Chiu ’19 told the News that she came to see Morris speak because she listens to his podcast, “Still Processing,” which he co-hosts with Jenna Wortham.
“His thoughts are insightful,” Chiu said. “This is very personal to me because in the Asian community, we don’t engage enough with issues like Black Lives Matter.”
Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, another fan of Morris’ podcast, came to the event to learn more about cultural criticism. Zachariah said that he was impressed with the turnout and that he was happy to see a diverse crowd.
After a student in the audience asked why black audiences showed up to see “Black Panther” but not “A Wrinkle in Time,” Morris offered his thoughts on the role of the black consumer. “A Wrinkle in Time” was considered a socially significant film because its director, Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of more than $100 million.
Morris challenged the idea that not going out to see “A Wrinkle in Time” makes you a “bad black person,” saying the film simply was not that good.
“We shouldn’t have to pretend that it’s good,” he said. “I think it’s important that we treat Ava the same way we treat Steven Spielberg when he makes a mediocre film.”
Morris mentioned Moonlight as an example of a movie that he finds great because of its “beauty and sensitivity” rather than because of the race of its creators. Morris added that it’s OK for black people not to see every movie featuring a predominantly black cast, asking the audience whether they watch every NBA game or every Williams sisters tennis match. It’s not a crime to stay home, he said.
Before joining the New York Times in 2015, Morris worked for Grantland and the Globe.
Sophia Nam | firstname.lastname@example.org