This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. I’m not going to argue that Black Panther is the greatest film ever made. It doesn’t have the never-waste-a-minute arc like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s missing the threaded saga of The Godfather. And it’s in no way as unpredictable as Vertigo. But it’s the most powerful film that I’ve ever seen.
It takes a certain kind of black experience to understand where I’m coming from with this—to know what it means when a guy like me tells you that he once hated his own skin. It’s what growing up dark can be like—a navigation around images, words, prejudice, and discrimination that press at the notion that your black ass ain’t shit. It’s the same “experience” that turns the history of the slave trade into negative avenues for self-identification. And it’s the same “experience” that blends moments of police brutality, “nigger” labels, and scared white ladies crossing streets into a bullshit stew of, “Thank you, sir, may I have some more?”
When you’re 13 years old like I was in 1998, you don’t get a Black Panther (we’ll get into that). It’s just your mind against 200 years worth of antiblack propaganda. Pictures of greatness look pale (white) next to jive-talkin, struggle-having, make’em-laugh-dancing folks who share your shade. Visions of elevation in fiction/nonfiction start to revolve around whiteness; they become your everything. Your reasons to shine. Your reasons to hate.
Malcolm X couldn’t do it without a “white man” to oppose. Glory wouldn’t be a glory without the Confederate Army. And that dude (Will Smith) in The Pursuit of Happiness couldn’t make it without a white guy to give him the job. If there isn’t an inclusion of whiteness, then we’re relegated to hoods, basketball courts, fields, and stages. This is the spot where the entire Western world makes celebration of our struggle and our unhappiness. People stand and clap at the portrayal of chains on wrists, where we dance and shuffle while our culture is characterized to make others laugh, cry, and feel good about their situations. It’s all nourishment for an inferiority complex.
Look no further than the Kenneth Clark experiment as a perfect example of this, which was later recreated in 2006 by Kiri Davis. The experiment infamously showed that 15 out of 21 children who chose white dolls over black dolls, associated white with being pretty or good—as opposed to the black choices that received “ugly” or “bad.” In my case, it meant skin-lightening creams, waved-up hair, and a code-switched voice. I religiously avoided eating chicken around white friends and rarely stared anyone like them in the eye for fear that I would “scare” them inadvertently (I sometimes still do this). In my case, my Black Panther had to become my mother, who tried her best to remind me of who I was and to be proud of it. Not everyone has this.
So in 2018, enter Marvel’s Black Panther. It’s a film that has the audacity to feature a black male protagonist, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who’s a king to boot. His African kingdom, Wakanda, has the nerve to be technologically advanced without an ounce of culture stripped from its Afro-future grounds. His co-stars have the spunk to be black women and men with a normalized sense of agency and power. Its director, Ryan Coogler, has the brass to be from Oakland, with an accent that’s Oakland bred. Its Kendrick-led soundtrack is daring in its blacker than black themes. And then there’s the villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has the gall to not be demonized with a “hood” shtick, but instead, reflect valid frustration around the identity and survival that many black folks wrestle with. Whiteness isn’t necessary to tell a damn thing about this story.
It isn’t so much that black boys and girls have a superhero that they can look up to, it’s that they can have it without the “white” to make it great. With all the unapologetically black fellowship that this film displays, excellence can still be achieved with just that.
The true-to-life version of that idea comes with record-breaking numbers, charity screenings for kids, and #WhatBlackPatherMeansToMe hashtags. People are supporting this. There’s an understanding by a collective group that this needs to succeed, and in that movement, there’s a power on display that won’t compromise to give anything but blackness its nod.
A top-five film for any movie buff will always be genre defining—technically and narratively. But a memorable movie is one that makes you feel something… a feeling that can stand the test of time. When I walked out of that theater after watching Black Panther, every black person I saw looked like a brother and a sister. I didn’t limit myself to the option of meeting a gaze with a stare down, or raising my chin in quiet recognition… there was just a smile on my part. My lingering self-hatred that comes and goes fell by the wayside. Instead, it was replaced with a pride, strength, and a happiness—like I woke up to something. This film showed me a possibility that no other film had—that excellence undisturbed by white intervention can and will always look beautiful. And honestly, after watching this, I felt pretty fucking beautiful. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
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