Black Panther: A historic turning point in cinema?

Moriyo Aiyeola 8 February 2018

As a long-time sufferer of superhero movie fatigue, it is not in my nature to find myself breathlessly anticipating Marvel’s next movie. Generally, I’d much rather spend my well-earned student loan on films that adopt far more subtle approaches to negatively effecting my bank balance. Moreover, as a veteran contrarian, I am inclined to resist the hype which invariably accompanies each comic book universe production. Black Panther however, is different. Different in ways that Hattie McDaniel, the first black American to win an Oscar for playing a stereotypical house slave in Gone with the Wind, could only have dreamt of. 

If all your life you’ve had the privilege of turning on the television or going to the cinema and not seeing your likeness stare back at you in the form of a ghettoised stereotype, if film and your education have not taught you to believe that your people’s history began with the Atlantic slave trade, or if you didn’t have to go out of your way to find out that people of your race could be superheroes too, the significance of this film might be lost on you, but take it from me, your humble messenger, this is a big deal.

Beyond the obvious statement of progress conveyed by a titular black superhero and a predominantly black cast, the fictional landscape of the film is Wakanda, a technologically advanced country in East Africa, which has never been colonised and consequently awakens the possibility of an uncolonized Africa in the audience’s imagination. Moreover, the Black Panther’s powers originate from ancestral knowledge, intelligence and wealth. Here, black director Ryan Coogler incites a pride in the African diaspora’s heritage, foreign to the big screen, and media at large. 

Another reason this film demands to be seen, is its revelatory portrayal of black women within the paradigm of a superhero movie. Sadly, despite the success of DC’s recent, Wonder Woman, it did nothing to overturn the perception of black women, in the same way that white feminism leaves women of colour to fend for themselves. Black Panther on the other hand, boasts an array of multi-dimensional black female characters on equal footing with their male counterparts. Letitia Wright plays Princess Shuri, lead scientist and smartest individual in the marvel universe, providing an intelligent heroine for young black girls to aspire to. Similarly, the Black Panther’s all-female personal guard, the Dora Milaje, is an equally refreshing diversion from the typical roles allocated to black women, if they are cast at all, in superhero franchises.

However, as the saying goes, with great power comes a little bit of not so great hostility. Some have charged Black Panther, being a Hollywood export, with appropriating African cultural elements for profit. However, these critics fail to appreciate the flux of being ‘African American’ or ‘black British’ for that matter. The background of the director, producer, actors qualifies them to tell this story in a way that white America could not.

So, two years after the Oscars So White hashtag was capped off by a Chris Rock monologue, can we fairly call Black Panther a turning point in cinema? Of course not. The path to fair representation is long and winding and cannot be decisively altered by a single blockbuster. What we can call Black Panther though, is a definite step in a positive direction. The Black Panther was added to the Marvel Universe in 1966 and for much of its existence, a film as true to the character’s ethnicity as this would have been inconceivable for a range of equally invalid reasons. Therefore, take pause to celebrate this hopeful indication that times are changing, but let us not fall into complacency and forget the change yet to come. Directors chairs remain overwhelmingly white and male, with no women nominated for the Best Director category at the Golden Globes for two consecutive years. It’s 2018 people!

In her tweet in which she announced that she would be buying out an entire theatre in Mississippi, so underprivileged children can look up and ‘see themselves as superheroes’, the actress Octavia Spencer attached the hashtag “KingsAndQueensWillRise”. It won’t be the predicted record breaking take at the worldwide box office that will define Black Panther as a success. It won’t even be the merit of the film, which by the way is already being touted as the best Marvel film to date. Its success will be black boys and girls in the audience realising that they too can be superheroes. As I have often heard said and Hollywood has wilfully perpetuated, you can’t be, what you can’t see- so rise kings and queens, and each take one more step forward, I’ll be there opening night.