Campus News

Next DIFCON to explore whether art is on the side of the oppressed or the oppressor

Scene from "Black Panther.".

UB faculty member Kari Winter says that while some of the worst elements of American culture have come from Hollywood films, she views “Black Panther” as a watershed moment.


Published March 21, 2018

“Stories tell us what we can be,” says Winter. “’Black Panther’ is that new intervention of what we can be. ”
Kari Winter, professor
Department of Transnational Studies

The Office of Inclusive Excellence will host a panel discussion on March 27 that will explore the success of the movie “Black Panther” to inform the question of whether “art…, in the words of Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, “…is on the side of the oppressed” or the oppressor.

The event, which will take place at noon in 210 Student Union — the Landmark Room — is the next installment in UB’s Difficult Conversations, or DIFCON, a platform for students, faculty and staff to address critical issues and explore various viewpoints to provide new perspectives and deeper understanding on sensitive topics.

Motion pictures have transformative potential, but some of the worst elements of American culture have come from Hollywood films, according to the panel’s moderator Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and executive director of the university’s Humanities Institute.

Participants Malik Sajad, a graphic novelist (Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir) and a Guru Foundation-Humanities Institute fellow; Claire Schneider, a long-time museum curator and founder of CS1 Curatorial Projects; Julia Bottoms, painter, The Freedom Wall, 2017; and James Ponzo, a PhD candidate in American Studies at UB will talk about the capacity for art to both liberate and oppress.

“There is this potential to innovate through art or to reproduce noxious and long-standing traditions,” says Winter. “Art can do both of these things and that’s what we want to analyze.”

Winter says there is a desire sometimes among arts and humanities scholars to create connections between artistic expression and the capacity for truth and goodness.

“But when you study the history of art and the history of literature, you see that often times that literacy, education, writing and art are on the side of evil,” she says.

It’s a reality that speaks to a problem at the core of Hollywood.

“We can’t really say that Hollywood is a source of progress because the history of Hollywood begins with the 1915 film ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Winter says. “In terms of technique, ‘Birth of a Nation’ is innovative, but the film is Ku Klux Klan propaganda. It’s a profoundly racist film that portrays vicious stereotypes,” she says.

But innovative interventions can also be on the side of liberation, and Winter sees “Black Panther” as a watershed moment.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” she says. “We’ve never had a motion picture with that level of narrative power that has produced such a radically different myth of origin.”

The myth expressed in “Black Panther” doesn’t speak directly to actual history, but story-telling is the imagined expression of human capability.

“Stories tell us what we can be,” says Winter. “’Black Panther’ is that new intervention of what we can be.”

She sees this potential not only on the movie screens presenting “Black Panther,” but also within the city of Buffalo.

The Freedom Wall, 2017 at the northern entrance into the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor is for Winter an example of artistic innovation realized in monumental portraiture.

“These are examples that display the ability for the arts and humanities to be cultural interventions,” she says.

“It’s an important moment.”