Hollywood has a long way to go with representation, but “Black Panther” is an active move to bring more people of color onto the big screen. Even when black artists star as the leads in movies, those films usually don’t become popular in a mainstream way. Because of the systemic underrepresentation of black actors and characters, “black cinema” tends to get pigeonholed as its own subgenre, as opposed to attracting a wider audience’s attention. This also stems from a lack of black writers in the industry, according to an IndieWire study conducted last November. Most of the recognition black actors receive in Hollywood comes in the form of movies about black struggle, which limits the scope of black stories. At the same time, year after year, superhero movies become large blockbuster successes, with most of them centered around white male leads. “Black Panther” proves that Afrocentric narratives can be both cinematically meritorious and attract mainstream popularity, changing the landscape for black representation in cinema in a particularly influential way—which has been particularly influential—especially for black children.
Of course, “Black Panther” isn’t the only black superhero film, but it is the top grossing blockbuster film with a black cast. The film features not only a black lead, but also a mostly black cast, which sets a new standard for superhero films, in which black characters have been historically sidelined for white narratives. The actors’ cultural identities represent a wide range of African nations and its diaspora, from Guyana (Letitia Wright) to Kenya (Lupita Nyong’o), broadening the scope of representation to more than just black Americans.
Another important feature of the black cast is the inclusion of dark-skinned black women, who are typically left out in Hollywood due to colorism and European beauty standards. Black women superheroes are so rare in the superhero film world—the most famous of whom is Storm, an X-Men character whose ability to control the weather stems from her heritage as an African witch-priestess. Storm is typically played by lighter-skinned black women, like Halle Berry, despite being portrayed as dark-skinned in most of her comics. “Black Panther” producer Nate Moore called Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s younger sister, the “smartest person” in the Marvel Comics Universe. The image of a black female teenager usurping Tony Stark in intelligence widens the scope of what a black character can be, empowering the representation of black women.
Not only is the cast black, but the writing team is black too. Generally speaking, even when characters in movies are black, they are usually not written by black writers, which can perpetuate black stereotypes that limit the multidimensionality of black characters. Black writers are typically left out of the creative process, but for “Black Panther,” they were front and center with Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, two black men, writing the story of T’Challa.
Coogler and Cole’s writing works to subvert the trope that stereotypes Africa as a destitute continent. The movie is set in Wakanda, the most advanced African nation of its time. Typically, a Western worldview imagines Africa as a monolith, a continent rife with poverty and social unrest. History has conceptualized Western nations as superpowers, leaving African nations with these tired stereotypes. Given this history, the location and prominence of Wakanda does not go unnoticed. “Black Panther” shows an African nation more advanced than any other country on earth.
For black children, having superheroes with the same skin color as them emphasizes the implications of representation: that children find their superheroes accessible and relatable. People view superheroes as characters that should be admired because they have good morals and protect people. Children grow up wanting to be superheroes, and now they can see one of African descent portrayed on the big screen. In anticipation of “Black Panther”’s release, people bought tickets for black youth to go see the movie. Celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Octavia Spencer started fundraisers for tickets to the movie for black youth, just so they could have a superhero to look up to. Serena Williams, in particular, surprised a group of girls from Black Girls CODE (further bolstering the character Shuri’s narrative of intelligent black women) with a paid-for screening of the film.
To me, “Black Panther” represents the beauty of black actors and writers coming together to create a film that black children can look up to. When this movie was first announced, I didn’t realize its necessity until I noticed how few black superhero movies have garnered the same mainstream attention. But now, we see dark-skinned black women fighting and protecting the nation of Wakanda. Seeing “Black Panther” on the screen reminds me of when I first saw Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog,” the first black Disney princess. Seeing Tiana on the screen made me feel like Disney was writing me into the movie. I watched the movie dozens of times and I even checked which Disney theme park would have Tiana available to take pictures. She had my skin color, hair, and Southern accent. I connected with her as a child because she looked just like me. “Black Panther” represents another influential movie in which black children can see themselves when they look at the big screen and see T’Challa fight villains and protect his nation.
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