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How BLACK PANTHER is Rewriting Hollywood’s Narrative About Blackness

How BLACK PANTHER is Rewriting Hollywood’s Narrative About Blackness

A few weeks ago, the term “shithole” entered the political and journalistic lexicon. The news cycle was regurgitating Trump’s latest racist remark, this time relating Haiti and African countries to an excrement-producing orifice. At almost the same time, Black Panther sold more tickets than any other Marvel movie in its first 24 hours.

At a time when the news cycle is inescapable, it’s tempting to correlate Black Panther’s early success to the need for cinematic escapism. But, much like the concept of blackness, it’s more complex.

On the heels of Girls Trip, the first black-led film to reach $100 million domestically, and Get Out, which grossed 40 times its production budget—a shocking feat considering its unflinching look at the horrors of American racism—black voices finally feel like financial and artistic juggernauts. However, no black-powered film has garnered the same anticipation as Black Panther. Opening weekend could see a record $120 to $150 million in sales. At a time when people of color feel threatened by harmful political discourse, policies and an uptick in racial violence, Black Panther offers blacks a way to participate in rewriting the narrative of blackness.

Black Panther offers blacks a way to participate in rewriting the narrative of blackness

From the very first image we saw—T’Challa sitting confidently on his throne—black excellence has been the driving philosophy. Black excellence isn’t just about enduring or merely surviving; it’s about thriving. It’s not necessarily about being respectable or fitting into mainstream notions of greatness; it’s about redefining and owning our own aesthetic and values. It’s about meeting subhuman depictions in society head-on, and doing so with unparalleled style, creativity, power, and joy. From early reviews about superb performances from an all-star black cast, to buzz about how the cast embodied African royalty and slayed on the “purple” carpet, Black Panther is treating viewers to visual displays of black excellence.

However, the film is doing more than just wowing movie-goers with great marketing. It is leveraging fictional elements within the Marvel Universe to dispel real world myths about Africa. The premise of a far-advanced African nation confronts faulty assumptions that the diverse continent represents nothing more than underdeveloped nations of uneducated people. Reality debunks that, too. In the United States, African immigrants, compared to other immigrant groups and US-born citizens, are among the most educated residents.

With this in mind, Black Panther creates a space where black governance thrives by limiting contact with the outside world. Self-determination, one of the core principles of Kwanzaa, is all about black communities actively defining, naming, creating, and speaking for themselves. The protagonist’s name is a nod to these notions of black pride and power, but Wakanda truly epitomizes the concept. With its technological supremacy, unplundered riches, and integrated gender dynamics, Wakanda is the most advanced society in the world.

It’s a refreshing counterpoint to the dominant historical narrative that revolves around Africa’s misery and African countries’ “third-world” identity. That idea conveniently omits how historical policies–colonization, the slave trade, CIA-backed coups–and current policies–Western intervention, unfavorable trade relationships–limit African nations’ self-determination. Wakanda imagines the possibilities had Africa’s wealth not been stolen and its peoples enslaved. That Wakanda has developed on its own terms isn’t simply an escapist ideal, it’s an aspirational one.

Black Panther isn’t just part of a historic moment, it’s creating a historic moment

The film could also inspire fans to look beyond the comic book character to find real examples of black excellence. The introduction to African history in mainstream US education usually starts with enslavement. But that ignores the power and grandeur of pre-colonial African societies with their technological innovations, complex political systems, educational advancements, and artistic contributions. Selective amnesia means that black history, as represented in textbooks, is one of subordination and oppression instead of a more nuanced, holistic representation. Black Panther is an important step in pushing against a misleading narrative that casts Africa and blackness in shades of helplessness. As palpable racial bias in media and law enforcement reinforces an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of black communities in the United States, it is essential for black people to recognize themselves in black-helmed major motion pictures.

Although Hollywood has made vital inroads in story-telling with films by Ava Duvernay, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele (to name a few), critically-acclaimed films depicting the black experience often rehash the trope of suffering. Consider 12 Years a Slave, which was lauded for its representation. The subject matter revolves around black submission, and its success during award season was arguably not just for its excellent performances. It also corroborated the dominant narrative about blackness. While it’s rare that black audiences get a blockbuster movie with a majority black cast, black director, and black head writer, it’s even rarer for a black story to exist in a world without constraints other than imagination. Black Panther‘s divergence from this pattern is crucial, and likely explains the explosion of early sales and communal championing.

In online groups all over the country, black people are discussing their experiences with the film before its debut (#WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe), meticulously preparing for its release, coordinating Wakanda-inspired outfits for premiere parties, and treating February 16 like a day of observance. There is nothing more joyous than the video of a classroom learning they are going to see the film, or the wildly successful fundraising efforts to treat black youth to the film. This is a truly special moment, and the film isn’t even out for another week.

Destined for commercial success, Black Panther isn’t just part of a historic moment, it is creating a historic moment.

Maya Smith is an assistant professor in the French and Italian Studies Department at the University of Washington in Seattle.

 

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