Recently I posted this on Facebook:
Why, why, why did the most inspirational and groundbreaking cinema event of the decade have to be a stoopid Marvel movie?!!?
Yeah, it’s true I don’t like Marvel (or DC) films. And I’m not that fond of Star Wars or Star Trek movies either. I mean, I don’t hate them, and I get that lots of people really love them, but to me they’re just too repetitive and predictable. I’ve just grown weary of the two dimensional character development and the gee-whiz effects.
Please don’t hate me.
So when I referred to “the most inspirational and groundbreaking cinema event of the decade,” of course I was meaning Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the Marvel blockbuster that follows King T’Challa as he struggles to support the highly-advanced African nation, Wakanda.
People of color are raving about Black Panther, especially about the amazing nearly all-black cast, and that fact that the film reflects on big topics like pan-Africanism, racial politics, and imperialism. And I do find that exciting. But, come on, it’s still a stoopid Marvel film.
Of course, I was roundly taken to task by Marvel fans on Facebook (which is fine), but I found myself being even more convicted by the comments I got from people of color.
They wrote about how much it meant to them to see a monumentally successful blockbuster with a hero who looked like them.
One friend told me how meaningful it was to see an image of Africa where people aren’t living with the consequences of colonialism, and where Africans are portrayed as incredibly wealthy and technologically advanced enough to defeat evil. And especially so since this was happening at a time when one of those nations was recently called a “shithole country” by a person who should know better.
It is a significant cultural moment for people of color right now. Many of them are going to the film wearing African prints or dressed in black. Community and church groups are booking out whole theaters to see it. Some churches are fundraising to pay for tickets for neighborhood kids.
In his Vox review of the film, Tre Johnson says, “Black Panther is in many ways a love letter to black culture.”
Johnson goes on, “It is about black culture’s journey, and it points toward a future where it could be the culture. It acknowledges and celebrates everything from traditional African society to African-American political debates, from the power and beauty of black women to the preservation of identity.”
In Elle magazine, Stacia Weatherford said, “For the first time someone black could win an Oscar for being a hero and not a crooked cop or a slave. They would win for being articulate, smart, successful and loving. It’s just such a positive image for once.”
My friend Jo Saxton, herself a women of color, begged me to see it, promising me a beer or a book if I watched it. It meant that much to her.
It has set such a historic precedence that its importance can’t underestimated. Black Panther might be a silly Marvel movie but it means more than a hundred artistically better films to the black community right now.
This reminds me of the effect that Wonder Woman had on a lot of my female friends last year. I recall my colleague Karina Kreminski writing, “Like many women, I also loved the new Wonder Woman movie. I saw some of myself in her, as do numerous other women today. That’s what icons do. They hopefully reveal our best selves as we gaze into them and see some of our reflection there.”
I’ve also heard LGBTQ+ friends talk about the importance of films like Brokeback Mountain or Call Me By Your Name in the same way.
Seeing characters who look like you up there on the big screen clearly has a profound effect. There’s a sense of validation, of being seen, of having your experience depicted and substantiated.
So, why don’t I get that excited about seeing people like me starring in big budget movies. Why don’t I attach any great cultural meaning to watching Liam Neeson or Bruce Willis defeat the bad guys? The answer is obvious. Every movie features a star who looks like me. Well, a much better looking version of me. But a version of me nonetheless.
Black Panther is an insight into white privilege, the sense that being white (and male) is normal, expected and unremarkable. There’s no big deal to seeing a white guy save the world from imminent doom because its what white guys do, according to Hollywood.
That’s why films are often called “mirrors of privilege”.
Only the privileged get to see themselves reflected on the screen.
If, like me, you have to focus your attention to try to understand why Black Panther is a big deal, it only reveals your privileged position in society. Not getting why women needed to see a hero like Wonder Woman is privilege in action. Our privilege allows us to live in a world where movies are just entertainment, not moments of cultural importance.
Tre Johnson yearns for a day when that will be true for black people as well. He writes,
“As a child in school, I rarely reached for the black or brown Crayola crayons in my superhero coloring books; I have a lifetime’s worth of Halloweens where I weighed how often I could or should dress as the white superheroes. I couldn’t find ones that looked like me both outside of and underneath the mask. An entire generation of children will now know that a black superhero, society, imagination and power can exist right alongside Peter Parker, Steve Rogers and Bruce Wayne.”
Who cares if I don’t like Marvel films! I should just say, “Wakanda forever,” and go buy a ticket.