(actually written when the movie came out, but only published here now)
It seems many white people believe Black Panther (the movie), is disproportionately praised by blacks and perhaps even pandering to a social-justice-obsessed audience, to which I say:
I am hardly a good representative for social justice, and I’m sure soon enough I will say something that many find offensive or harsh, but there is a part of me that gets it why black people are so stoked on this.
First off, the movie is fairly decent. They did the superhero justice (pun-intended). I say this as a movie aficionado and a biased Superhero/Marvel fanboy. Surely it has pacing issues (could easily be 15 minutes shorter), the main villain, Kill-monger, is a bit campy and over-the-top (most Superhero villains are), and the jokes are sometimes forced and corny (again pretty par-for-the-course in Marvel and comics). But the film is hardly apologetic for violence or Black Lives Matter, nor does it needlessly shit on white people.
But if you notice that Black people are overjoyed, girls and boys alike, regardless of their devotion to being a geek, it’s because this is one of the few and first times a Black superhero is the star of the show, especially in a mostly non-white world, where other blacks are depicted as beautiful and succeeding at life.
As a white person (obviously), I took for granted for so long having so many superheroes like me. Geeks who were bullied and able to defend themselves later (Spider-man); a tortured soul who lost a loved one but turned their vengeance into justice (Batman); someone who wants to die but can’t and is ashamed of the things they’ve done (Wolverine). I was able to more easily identify with them because they were white: I could more easily see myself as them and pretending to be them in costume. I could put myself in their shoes. For so many this a subconscious preference. My first best friends were black and I loved so much about black culture, but I wanted my idols to be white. Then again, almost every hero I saw was white, so I didn’t have much to choose from in that regard. Even as I grew older and understood logically what prejudice was, I could not shake this innate preference (though I loved Black Jon Stewart Green Lantern way more than white Hal Jordan).
Some might point to Shaft or Kazaam, but those were hardly the blockbusters Black Panther is. Moreover, these were merely flakes of pepper in a sea of salt that has been Cinema for the last 60 years. Blacks overall have disproportionately not been the protagonist of a film, especially not black females, and especially not in a non-stereotypical manner. So often blacks are seen as simply being products of inner-cities, being crude and non-intellectual, or overly sexual. In much of early cinema like the 30’s and 40’s, blacks were servants and at best musical performers or fighters. They were silly and stupid. Even worse, whites often performed in black-face, with exaggerated movements and huge lips. They were typically compared to monkeys and apes. Black people were hardly considered people by so many; they were considered subhuman. This sentiment and attitude did not go away once slaves were freed, nor when black were able to vote, nor when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. Racism just became quieter and more subtle. Racism didn’t vanish simply because laws were passed and some black people succeeded. There are African-American criminals, sure; but like Black Panther states, some of them “are monsters of our own making.”
How often, I ask my readers, have many of your ancestors are slaves? How many in your female line have been raped? You been referred to as an animal — not in a joking way? A mere beast? A dumb ape? Have you been the butt of jokes in every social circle just because of your skin color– not your friends mind you? Have you been avoided because you’re white? Do people think you’re a criminal because you’re white? Do people lock their car doors as you walk by? Is your hair seen as disgusting and ugly? Your skin filthy? Have you parents refused to let a friend or girlfriend come to your house because they were white? Has your white father ever asked you, “why can’t you just date a nice black girl?” And I know there is much African-Americans can do to help themselves, but they have started further behind. If you do have an idea of what being treated like this is like (or simply suffered in life as I have), then you should be empathetic and proud they have a voice.
Much of what makes a superhero so powerful and inspiring, is that it is a symbol of what we can become if you we try; it is a symbol of the best of humanity, in physical ability and moral intention. They are beyond us in their abilities, but many times not too far. They urge us to reach just a bit more, and try harder to reach a seemingly impossible goal. In essence, they are what it means to evolve yet remain flawed — to be human.
Many Americans have reacted to this the same way they reacted to Barack Obama becoming president of the United States. “What is the big deal? So what if he’s a black president, he needs to be a GOOD president!” and “You shouldn’t celebrate just because he’s black!”
Again, many of these detractors did not experience watching being discriminated against solely because of their skin color, at least not to the same severity African Americans have. American society saw 43 white men sit in the White House before. To see a black man not only finally reach these heights, but carry out his duty with relative grace and success is profound. Obama was by no means perfect and has much to answer for, but he was far from terrible. And you must remember, that our society has ONE black president to judge; now 44 white ones.
Seeing the success of someone like you is inspiring, no matter how individualistic and entirely objective our society likes to make ourselves seem. Conversely, NEVER seeing someone you impacts one’s psyche. How can something be possible if you have no hope that it can be? For a child to touch the former President’s hair and think to himself, “Wow, he’s like me, and he’s the president.” is something you cannot simply ‘tell’ another is possible. The principle of fairness should not merely exist in theory.
The same is said of Black Panther. We know these heroes were in theory “possible” and there were indeed black superheroes, but not represented to this scale, and at a time when race relations are still tense, and African-Americans are vocal about how they are not treated justly. Nor have these movies been quite so successful financially or actually GOOD. It’s also rather important to note that the character Black Panther was originally created during a time when almost NO white person wanted a black superhero.
I understand it’s just a movie, and it will probably change nothing. White people aren’t redeeming themselves and saving the planet/black people by seeing the movie, and black people are not becoming Kings/Queens just because they finally got a legit superhero. But for some little black boys and girls, seeing Black Panther will be a part of their childhood, and they will see a hero like them, from a part of Africa that isn’t from white people. They will see someone with wealth, and brains and power not only standing up for himself, but for others, and giving back to the community. Wakanda isn’t real, but neither were any of the great places humanity has built at some point. Like me, when I was but a boy, they will be inspired, and they will want to become a hero.
They will have someone amazing to look up to.