Why Black Panther Matters

It’s so much more than a movie

I’ve been looking forward to Friday, February 16th for at least 18 months. It was around 18 months ago I learned that Marvel would bring Black Panther to the big screen. For those of you who may have just arrived from a parallel universe, Black Panther is a superhero movie that follows T’Challa who returns home to the African nation of Wakanda after the death of his father to take his place as king. Upon his return home T’Challa is challenged by a formidable enemy and must depend on his allies and the power of the Black Panther to defeat his advasaries keep his country safe.

Very early on after the news of the film would be released, I noticed the excitement was higher than I’d ever seen for a franchise debut film…like StarWars level anticipation. Hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit began to emerge even with more than a year out from the release date and with every passing day and released trailer the excitement has only spread and into mainstream culture.

The excitement has culminated into a fever pitch. Now as the first screenings are being shown, celeberties like Octavia Spencer as well as regular people nationwide (raising over a quarter of a million dollars nationwide via GoFundme) are renting out entire theatres so that children of color can attend the movie. I’ve never seen any movie have such an impact before it’s screening. That’s because there has never been a movie like this. This movie matters on such a larger scale than opening box office figures. Here’s why:

Representation Matters

When it comes to superhero movies, black people are largely under-represented, if at all. Whether its Marvel or the DC universe if a black person happens to be included, they automatically assume the role of “sidekick” or “comic relief”. This is detrimental to black kids because when not seeing themselves represented, they can be tempted to think that they don’t belong in that space, which at times may be reinforced by other kids telling them so. I experienced this as a kid, not being able to play a certain hero because “he’s white and you’re not”. That childhood imagination gatekeeping often turns into critism when black boys and girls grow up into teenagers and young adults wanting to cosplay as their favorite heroes.

The only thing worse than being under-represented is whitewashing. Often times roles that would and should be depicted by black actors are replaced by white ones (Think God’s of Egypt)

Black Panther breaks the mold of the whitewashing/representation disparity as 90% of the cast is black. The cast features the amazing talents of Chadwick Boseman(42, Thurgood Marshall, Get On Up), Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, and others. Black Panther ensures that little black boys and girls can see themselves on screen and realize there is a place and space for them.

Portrayal Matters

Africa as a continent has historically and consistently been portrayed as an underdeveloped, inferior, 3rd world country in movies and cultural media. We are innandated with imagery of safaris, wild animals and people living in huts running around in loincloths chasing lions with spears to the point that many people think this is all that there is to the continent.

Nothing illustrates how ingrained this portrayal of Africa is in the American psyche than the current president referring to countries in Africa as “S***hole countries”

Black Panther provides a stark contrast to this portrayal as it is set in the country of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the world. The country reflects the thriving of an African nation free of colonization being armed with the technological superiority to fight back. Even if it’s a fictional country, Wakanda being portrayed as the complete opposite of what the ruler of the free world thinks of African countries is a huge step in changing the narrative.

Image Matters

Imagery remains such an important force in our culture. It’s importantce is due to the integral part it plays in establishing a narrative. If that imagery and the narrative is adopted on a large scale, it can become embedded in the conciousness of modern and hard to separate from truth. Media and movies accomplish this and can often have lasting effects (i.e. Birth of a Nation).

A majority of movies and media have often used imagery to cast black people (men in particular) as villains and criminals. Black Panther provides a movie where black boys and girls see themselves as not only heroes but royalty. It provides imagery and a fresh narrative where “villain” and “criminal” are not a default. It casts a narrative where they are not the problem, but the solution.

Conclusion

For a major movie production company like Marvel studios to produce an unashamedly black film with equally unapologetically African roots with a 200 million dollar budget is unheard of. This movie will shatter box office records and might even possibly be among the highest grossing Marvel movie of all time. It will achieve these things because it’s not just a movie, it’s a significant cultural moment like we have yet to see.

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