Some South by Southwest speakers, when interviewed, will talk about any topic, at length, whether they know what they’re talking about or not.
Atlantic national correspondent, award-winning author and “Black Panther” comics writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who says outright he’s not seeking a job as a TV pundit, held back as much as he held forth in an incredibly thoughtful Saturday afternoon Austin Convention Center convergence keynote presentation with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg.
It wasn’t that Coates doesn’t have opinions or a strong foundation of solid journalism to draw from. It’s that, unlike many, he doesn’t believe in weighing in on topics he hasn’t researched or given deep thought to. It’s why, he says, he’s no longer on social media and why he is careful answering questions on a panel such as this one.
“Ask me about something I haven't read on or reported on I'm not gonna say much about it,” Coates said. “When you go into a punch your feet have got to be set.”
The things Coates did talk about are the phenomenal success of “Black Panther,” a Marvel comics run he’s been working on that has been turned into a film that has hit the $1 billion mark, and the political shift from the Barack Obama presidency to the Donald Trump era.
On “Black Panther,” Coates said that the film would have still been successful had it been released during Obama’s time in office, but acknowledged that it does feel like it’s fulfilling a cultural need right now. But he gave a lot of credit to director Ryan Coogler, whom Coates called one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his generation. “If the movie sucks, none of this matters,” Coates said. The quality of the film, he said, was what’s really been driving its success.
Coates announced last week that he’ll be writing “Captain America” comics for Marvel, which led him to a moment of hesitation as he wondered whether he should say what he wanted to say. He finally did: “He's like Barack Obama. He is someone who believes in the ideal of America. And really really believes in it."
Coates said there’s elements of optimism as well as naïveté in that, and he’ll be exploring that in the writing.
Goldberg tried to draw out Coates on other issues, such as whether Coates believes more people in media are acknowledging strains of racism in national politics and what he thinks of drama over the New York Times Opinion page. On this, Coates simply wouldn’t engage, due to his friendship with editor James Bennet. Ditto comments made by Cornell West about Coates.
Coates did talk about his disgust with reporters who go into red states seeking to find out whether people regret voting for Trump in the 2016 election. He said journalists don’t respect those voters enough to trust that people knew who they were voting for.
And unlike a lot of writers who try to build their brand into a multimedia empire, Coates said he’s not interested in pursuing TV deals or opining on everything, preferring to give himself time and space to slowly think about things.
From an audience question, he said he wouldn’t even have anything to ask Donald Trump if offered an interview. He said there’s no second level to the president since everything he says is exactly what he’s thinking.
“There is nothing about Donald Trump that strikes me as reflective,” he said.
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