My family is #TeamMarvel all day. We’ve had Iron Man and Spiderman birthday parties. I’ve been known to make some mean Thor hammer treats (made of marshmallows and pretzels) for many a Valentine’s Day. But when we stayed past the end of “Captain America: Civil War” and had a preview of the new “Black Panther” movie, we almost collectively lost our minds and began the countdown.
I had the Black Panther movie release date saved in my phone for months. While I felt pumped up and ready, I wasn’t prepared for how important it felt to my husband, our three children and me.
In general, superhero movies are fun. My 6-year-old lives as a superhero, and depending on the day, he’s Hulk, Thor or Iron Man. But as Black Panther began its premieres, and people — not just stars of the movies — showed up in traditional African garb, I started to get a sense that this was something else. It was black pride, black representation, black art — just black everything. And it was beautiful.
In a country like the United States, where white is the default, it might be difficult for people not of color to understand why this movie matters. From easily finding your makeup color to all of your teachers looking like you, as a white person, there are examples and opportunities for you to see yourself everywhere. For the most part, white people never even have to think about race. But for the rest of us — people of color are one-third of the U.S. population — it makes an enormous difference to see ourselves in leadership roles, on TV shows or in movies.
Black Panther tells the story of a newly crowned King of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. King T’Challa is not only a ruler of a nation, but also a scientist and the superhero Black Panther. As he tells his deceased father King T’Chaka in a vision, he doesn’t feel ready to assume the throne. King T’Chaka tells him to surround himself with the best people. Those people are his mother, sister, ex-girlfriend and the Dora Milaje, the all-female army of bodyguards who serve to protect the throne and the nation of Wakanda.
He’s surrounded by strong, highly intelligent, bad-ass black women. What a powerful thing for my 9-year-old daughter to see! Wakanda is a technologically advanced nation in Africa untouched by colonizers. It’s attacked because it has the largest supply in the world of the indestructible (but fictional) metal Vibranium, which is used to harness energy and make weapons. The villain Killmonger, the only character born in Wakanda but raised in America, wants to overthrow the King and gain the throne so as to arm black people with Vibranium for protection and to take their power back.
Black Panther lets us imagine a kingdom of black people, authentically black, untouched by the white man’s forced agenda, laws and authority. A world where black people are in charge of their own destiny, while carrying with them the knowledge, history, traditions and spirit of ancestors. A world where black people come in all colors and are appreciated. A world where there is no sexism, where men and women don’t have assigned gender roles. A world where natural hair is the norm, not the exception.
The reality is that Africans were stolen and brought to the United States as slaves. They were stripped of their identity, their heritage, and intentionally separated from their families. The United States was founded, designed and continues to operate based on systems that were created for white people. And despite having everything taken from us, growing up in a system designed for our oppression, rarely ever seeing ourselves represented on TV, or in boardrooms, people of color rise above these circumstances every day and find ways to thrive. This movie is empowering because it allows us to see ourselves not how we are usually portrayed — as drug dealers, crack addicts, gangbangers or drop outs — but as kings, queens, activists, scientists, leaders and healers. Of course, we occupy those roles in real life, but we rarely ever see it. That is not how we are represented. That is not how we get to see ourselves.
Black Panther’s greatness goes beyond a black plot, but the majority of the cast (with the exception of two characters) are black, as is the director, costume designer and the artists who created the soundtrack.
So, should people who aren’t black see the movie? I say yes, with an understanding that this movie is not for them. That can be uncomfortable for some who are not used to things not being for them. But seeing Black Panther allows those who aren’t black to imagine what it might look like if black people had been permitted to be their full selves, and how anemic this country is without those full experiences.
Every February, we celebrate Black History Month. Never mind that it’s one month (and the shortest) out of an entire year, where we learn a fraction of the contributions of black people. Imagine if the black experience was woven into every fabric of America. What would this country be like? We all suffer when we suppress the gifts of others; when we don’t allow the full person to exist and express their whole self; and when we don’t see them. By seeing Black Panther, there is finally the chance to see us.
Photos via Marvel Studios