Review
Culture
4 min read

Guardians of the Galaxy’s longing for an enchanted universe

We are not isolated bodies who happen to be coexisting in the coldness of space. Krish Kandiah reviews Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Five people in red jump suits help each other stand together.
Marvel Studios.

The final instalment of Director James Gunn’s hugely popular Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has hit the cinemas. This threequel about a relatively obscure set of characters from the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) has been incredibly well received. It’s set to outperform the first two films in the series as well as other MCU films like Iron Man and Captain America, widely known household names before their stories were transported from comic page to silver screen. 

I went to watch Guardians Volume 3 at the cinema on Coronation weekend with my daughter and was struck by the relative ease that it navigated cultural diversity. It offered a fascinating perspective on cultural inclusion and empowerment thanks to the radical diversity of its central characters.  

There’s an orphaned boy abducted and brought up by space pirates to become a master thief.  There’s a widower and bereaved father whose whole family was massacred but has a gift for nurturing children despite his ferocity. There’s also an abuse survivor rebuilt as a cyborg , a sentient teenage tree, an adopted empath with antennae and a genetically modified racoon.  

The Guardians are not just a performative or representational diversity but a functional one. They are the most unlikely synergistic team whose sum is far greater than any of its parts. 

These characters represent not simply different ethnicities but wholly different species – plant, mammal, humanoid. None of them seem to be included for purposes of tokenism: each brings essential skills or experience that make the team not only successful, but outstandingly so.   

At the Coronation Concert from Windsor Castle that was watched by 12.7 million people in the UK, the diversity on stage seemed more contrived. Despite moments of genuine beauty, dignity and pathos, the need to represent the four nations and the Commonwealth felt like it was motivated primarily by a desire not to offend, a tick box exercise of inclusion rather than a line-up that made coherent sense as an aesthetic whole. 

The Guardians are not just a performative or representational diversity but a functional one. The unlikely heroes are drawn together through a vision bigger than themselves and are willing to risk their lives on numerous occasions to save the universe. They are the most unlikely synergistic team whose sum is far greater than any of its parts. This is not just idealism – the well-known McKinsey report showed the legitimate competitive advantage that diversity brings, promoting a breadth of cultures, gender and ages in the C-suite of major businesses.  

Diversity works. Diversity also sells. The movie industry is slowly waking up to the need of baking in diversity rather than simply waiting for the global markets to lap up the US leftovers. Films are now being made for a global audience from the beginning. The Marvel franchise are buying into this big time: with Black Panther and Shan Chi tapping into the potential for Black and Asian audiences to engage with the brand.  

Most of the Guardians heroes begin life isolated, abandoned, rejected, betrayed or bereaved. During the course of the films, their social coldness thaws and they each find the warmth of fellowship, community and even family.

Perhaps Marvel can do for diversity in the film industry what Spice Girls did for diversity in the music industry. The girl band was deliberately designed by marketeers with audience demographics determining the very make-up of the group which somehow managed to transcend its inception and help a generation of young girls realise there were many different ways to express femininity that broke traditional stereotypes and yet could harmonise. The Spice Girls showed that femininity could include ferocity, sporting ability, elegance and cuteness and no one was the lesser for it. Girl power was in my opinion a positive cultural contribution. It engendered acceptance.  

The Guardians trilogy speaks to our cultural longing for an enchanted universe where we are not isolated bodies who happen to be coexisting in the coldness of space but a place where we are known for who we really are and are loved and accepted, despite our differences. Most of the Guardians heroes begin life isolated, abandoned, rejected, betrayed or bereaved. During the course of the films, their social coldness thaws and they each find the warmth of fellowship, community and even family.   

The storyline is not a new one. Thousands of years ago another disparate group of outcasts were brought together on a mission to save the world. They were hunted down for their allegiance to that mission but did not give up on their belief that God wanted to create a genuinely inclusive community, where people of all abilities, genders and race could experience welcome as equals. Jesus Christ formed that original band of disciples and is now followed by millions. Churches at their best are similarly diverse. Rich and poor, refugees and natives, old and young, male and female and everything in between are united, not just by being in the same place at the same time, consuming religious services together, but by a purpose beyond them, seeking to share the boundary-breaking, radically welcoming love of God to all without distinction, and to be the guardians of that purpose, of our planet and of all its people.  

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen