Last month, I watched Black Panther. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Even before the movie had hit the theatres, people were watching the trailer on repeat, tweeting about it endlessly, and pre-booking the movie well in advance. So, you could only imagine what happened after the movie realized! People dressed up in their African prints, got their “talking drums”, and hit the theatres to watch it “dozens” of times! They couldn’t get enough of the film because it was more than just a story. It encapsulated what it meant to be black in Africa, America, and even the world.
In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on black life and tradition. The fact that Black Panther is excellent only helps.
Researching about the success of the film, I came across an article Black people beware: don’t let Black Panther joy mask Hollywood’s racism from The Conversation. The article attempted to remind black viewers that although Black Panther was promoting positive messages, they should be aware of the hidden and effortfully veiled racism prevalent in the film. The article brought up a lot of points, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the magnitude of the propositions, and to what extent the movie could be characterized as racist.
Why is Black Panther the only “animal” superhero?
Firstly, the article explained how the only African-American superhero was an animal. The author explained that it was unusual that Black Panther was the only “animal” superhero.
The sixties Marvel universe of superheroes consisted of human-modified characters – Hulk, Iron Man, Thor – and insect characters – Ant Man, Wasp and Spider Man – but not animal characters, other than Black Panther.
At first glance, it seems that Marvel (which belongs to the dominant culture) is indulging in cultural appropriation by adopting elements of the African culture (minority culture) to sell the comics. However, throughout the film and the comics, we see a variety of African elements at play – the background score which is a combination of “talking drums” and profound tribal music; clothes like patterned fabric, flowing shirts, robes called dashikis, and caftans made of brightly colored African fabrics; the actors using different dialects in an attempt to represent the different territories, countries in Africa. So, the whole purpose of T’Challa becoming a Black Panther isn’t to degrade African-Americans but it’s to pay a tribute to the rich tribal culture in Africa. In fact, I think it would be quite racist to believe that T’Challa’s superhero is an animal because he is of African descent.
The writer of the article falsely assumes that being compared to an animal is degrading and “dehumanizing”. However, I think that it shows that while most superheroes need to rely on objects that don’t have any cultural meaning to them (like Iron Man’s suit), Black Panther can rely on his rich heritage to give him power. It shows how Black Panther’s powers are more organic and native than say Thor’s who relies on a mundane object that Stan Lee gives power to in order to make him a superhero. I completely agree, Stan Lee also thrusts power on Black Panther, but it is more enigmatic and organic than Iron Man, Hulk, or Thors’. Moreover, the name “Black Panther” emphasizes the fact that he is black. T’Challa isn’t shying away or hiding from his identity but rather wants to draw attention to it.
Is Black Panther really a superhero?
The next point that the article brings up is one that I also came up with after watching the movie. However, on second thought, I came to a more profound realization. Essentially, the article stated that coincidentally (but not all that coincidental) the first black man superhero was curiously un-superhero like.
The character T’Challa did not possess the scientific brilliance of Tony Stark, who is Ironman‘s genius creator and alter ego. T’Challa’s essence was not transformed at the genetic level such that his body, his selfness, became superhuman and superpowerful, like Bruce Banner’s does when he is transformed into the Hulk. T’Challa was not born a god, like blue-eyed, blonde-haired Thor, the Asgardian god of thunder who wields an enchanted hammer that enables him to fly.
Despite T’Challa’s imbibing of the purple flower potion, viewers never witnessed his transformation from human to superhero. He only dons a powerful suit. Why was Black Panther not written in such a way as to imbue a black man with true superhero dynamism?
This is completely valid, however, I don’t think T’Challa’s inability to display stereotypical “superhero” qualities is linked to his race. Let me explain: throughout the movie, we see how T’Challa has strong core values – he believes in his people and family, and he aims to protect them. Moreover, we see how he
Usually, Marvel narratives are based on the superhero attempting to save humanity from a villain. This idea of “saving humanity” is a very abstract concept, and the reason that superhero movies are so popular is that this very concept helps them show how powerful and different the superheroes are. It plays to the audience’s sentiments but at the same time, forces them to experience new emotions. To clarify, saving humanity is not something every human has had to deal with, so it makes for a very unique story, thus attracting viewership. (Obviously, now, it is cliche and a feature of almost every superhero film.) However, in Black Panther, we see that T’Challa faces a different problem – whether to expose the world of all the power that Wakanda harbors. This is completely different to a stereotypical “saving-the-world” crisis. T’Challa also faces a dilemma – to Wakanda’s powers to those Africans residing in America. It is more of a conflict between his own people than an outsider attacking them. This is what makes the movie so interesting and different from any other superhero film – rather than dodging complicated themes about race and identity, the film and Black Panther alike grapple with issues that affect modern-day black life. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely comedy, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colors. As director Ryan Coogler puts it:
You have superhero films that are gritty dramas or action comedies. But this movie tackles another important genre: “Superhero films that deal with issues of being of African descent.”
That’s what makes the movie so incredible and powerful. If the article believes that the main plot of the movie is what makes it racist, I completely disagree. I also think it’s pretty cool that T’Challa relies on his family, his relatives, and his friends. It shows that although he is powerful, there is greater strength in numbers. It also represents what his family means to him.
In conclusion, I think the author of the article was trying to play the devil’s advocate and encouraging the audience to reflect. He wanted his readers and Black Panther enthusiasts to know that although the movie was excellent, it was important to critically evaluate the effectiveness of the movie. He wanted to call any who were just hopping on the bandwagon – saying that it’s a great film just because the mass majority were. I do believe that the author of the article has the best of intentions, but in a time and age where we have movements like Black Lives Matter and the POTUS is extremely racist, having a movie like this is important because it reminds the audience to hope. Yes, there might have been a few things that could have gone better with the film, but in comparison to all the great things it has already achieved, those factors are nitty-gritties, negligible. I think we should just rejoice in the amazing success of this film!