Nov 19, 2019
A promotional poster for Black Panther.

Why ‘Black Panther’ is more than just a superhero movie

Released midway through Black History Month, Marvel’s “Black Panther” is more than just a box office shattering movie. It is a cultural phenomenon.

The movie is an adaptation of the first black comic book superhero from 1966. Directed by Ryan Coogler, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, king of Wakanda, and Michael B. Jordan as villain Erik Killmonger, “Black Panther” features a 90 percent black cast, black writers and a black director.

According to Business Insider, “Black Panther” grossed a staggering $242 million during opening weekend, beating out the mega-franchise “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” by $1.3 million.

And not only did the movie exceed expectations at the box office over President’s Day weekend, it also claimed the title of biggest domestic opening for a black director in history, as well as biggest global debut for a predominantly black cast – a record previously held by the movie “Straight Outta Compton” from 2015.

It also has the best Rotten Tomatoes score of any Marvel Cinematic Universe film or superhero movie in history with a “Certified Fresh” rating at 97 percent.

The movie’s success can be directly linked to an outpouring of support from the black community. Thirty-seven percent of the movie’s audience during opening weekend was African-American. That is more than double the average for past superhero movies, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The responses to the film varied with emotions.

“Their blackness is mine. My blackness is theirs. Black Panther is a love letter, a celebration, and a victory march for the diaspora,” wrote Twitter user @IfIWereMagneto.

At a “Black Panther” movie panel hosted by the Fresno State Black Faculty and Staff Association on Feb. 15, African-American professors, writers and nonprofit mentors gathered to discuss why “Black Panther” should be revered as more than just another superhero movie.

The discussion was moderated by Monique Bell, assistant professor of marketing at Fresno State. She said she decided to host the panel after discovering that social justice was an integral theme in the Black Panther comic series.

“I never realized that Black Panther was a character created to shake up the story of integration,” Bell said. “It was amazing that Stan Lee and his partner Jack Kirby were at the forefront and so progressive in creating this character who was black and strong and was able to stand independently. He wasn’t anyone’s sidekick.”

The panel tackled a range of topics, including historical and cultural allusions in the comic book series, gender roles in the film and political commentary in the writing of Black Panther.

Panelist Damon Thomas, a mentor for the nonprofit Learn S.T.E.A.M., said Black Panther is important because it depicts black characters in more nuanced roles.

“It’s refreshing to see black people in other roles besides Alabama down south,” Thomas said. “It’s very refreshing for us to be in animated things, in future things, in hero things – and I hope that this continues.”

Although fictional, Wakanda could be seen as a representation of how an African nation could progress and thrive without the hindrance of colonization.

“Millennials are now going to see an acceptable Africa by virtue of this film,” Ellis said. “And if it takes this film and Marvel to raise our social consciousness, I’ll take it any way I can get it.”

The panel also discussed “Afrofuturism,” which Dr. T. Hasan Johnson, a Fresno State associate professor of African Studies, described for the attendees.

“It’s imaging a future with black folk in it,” Johnson said. “Imaging the future becomes extremely important. Who gets to imagine? And who gets to write the narrative? My hope is that ‘Black Panther’ will do well enough for more people to get their foot in the door.”

Panelist Juliana Smith, a writer and creator of (H)afrocentric, said Afrofuturism is “writing ourselves into the future.”

“Into stories, into sci-fi, into many different genres. I want to get to a point where we don’t have to beg to be in anything. And where we see an all black cast and it is just normal,” Smith said.

Homer Greene, a former academic advisor at Fresno City College, echoed the sentiments of the panel on the topic of Afrofuturism, but also highlighted the importance of “Black Panther” for African-American women.

“The makeup represents the different tribes,” Greene said. “Black beauty and natural hair is emphasized. All that is a positive for African-American females.”  

The film not only celebrates the natural beauty of its female stars, but also emphasizes their strength and intelligence. The film includes main characters like Okoye, general of the Dora Milaje, an all-female military group; Nakia, an independent superspy; and Black Panther’s tech genius sister, Princess Shuri.    

So, how did “Black Panther” succeed in its impressive representations of black characters without utilizing stereotypes – something so many movies have failed to deliver?

Dr. Kelley McCoy, a mass communications professor at Fresno State, said the secret to “Black Panther’s”  success could be the amount of diversity behind the scenes.

“If the people who are creating content are of only one group then that means, despite their best intentions, they are going to gravitate towards the types of stories that make sense to them,” McCoy said.

Often, this means that black movie characters fall into stereotypical roles. Surprisingly, film has seen slower improvements in representation than television, McCoy said.

“On television, you are just as likely to see an African-American who is leading a surgery as you are being a gang banger,” McCoy said. “That’s what you want. You want to be able to see members of communities in nuanced ways. Not as one dimensional but as three-dimensional.”

Of course, with the success of movies from black directors and writers such as “Get Out,” “Moonlight” and now “Black Panther,” Hollywood cannot deny the importance of diversity on and off camera.

Mccoy said that progress when it comes to representations of racial and ethnic minority groups is almost always linked to minorities being given more power behind the scenes.

“That’s representation,” McCoy said. “Representation is about the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can be.”

For this reason, the importance of “Black Panther” cannot be understated. Representation is more than just seeing more diverse characters on screen. It is also about the way those characters are written and how they are brought to life in film.

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