Chadwick Boseman Transformed the Lives of Black Kids in Brazil's Favelas

Young, Black Brazilians flocked to see the “Black Panther” movie and saw themselves in Wakanda.
September 4, 2020, 6:52pm
Brazil Favelas Chadwick Boseman
AFP via Getty Images.

RIO DE JANEIRO - Jackson Duarte, age 7, went to watch “Black Panther” in the theater twice with his mom. The film, starring the late Chadwick Boseman, changed Duarte, who lives on the outskirts of Rio, forever.

“We’re dirty,” and “I don’t want to be Black,” were some of the things Jackson used to say, his parents told VICE News.

“‘Black Panther’ put an end to that,” said the boy’s father, Alan Duarte, who was born and raised in the Rio de Janeiro favelas of Complexo do Alemão. “It helped him to have references for his color, for his race, and to see the strength in it.”

That’s why Duarte, like so many other residents of Brazil’s favelas - the vibrant and stigmatized, majority-Black working-class neighborhoods clustered on the peripheries of the country’s major cities — found a parallel in Wakanda.

Jackson and his dad were soon crossing their fists Wakanda-style after every high-five.

The passing this week of the 43-year-old Boseman has left many in Brazil rattled. For favelas throughout the country, the release of “Black Panther” had marked a turning point in cultural representation.

With the film’s release in early 2018, favela leaders and community organizers acted immediately, crowdfunding local viewings and bus trips to movie theaters. For favela kids, many of whom had never watched a movie on the big screen, this was a chance to see a hero who looked like them. In one such outing, Rene Silva, founder of the favela news outlet _Voz das Comunidades (which translates as Voice of the Communities), held a screening for 300 children, projecting the film high in the hills of Rio’s Vila Cruzeiro favela.

In the far east favelas of São Paulo, the Assata Shakur Community Library paired local screenings with arts activities for children. Seeing an almost entirely Black cast made the kids “feel represented,” said library aide Maria Vitória Esquivel, 18. “They made comments like ‘He has hair like mine,’ and ‘I want to be Black Panther.’ These reactions just strengthen our will to continue working with positive representations.”

And it wasn’t just children. The movie awed a generation of young adults across Brazil’s peripheries.

“It was more than just a movie,” said Anna Verena, a 22-year-old artist and graphic designer from Feira de Santana, one of the few cities in the Northeastern interior with commercial movie theaters. Viewers came from around the state of Bahia, planning overnight trips just to watch the movie.

“It was the first time I saw so many Black people dreaming about a fictional universe, and having a universe to identify with,” she said.

“It was something that I had never felt in my life,” said Ivana Dorali, a 34-year-old journalist from Salvador, Bahia. “It’s transformative, seeing yourself in a role of heroism, of leadership. It changes your vision about yourself, about who you are, about what you’re capable of.”

Even after Boseman’s death, said Alan Duarte, his legacy from “Black Panther” will live on.

“For kids from the favelas and peripheries, he gave us arguments, gave us strength to take on racism in the rest of the city, saying we are superheroes. We are Wakandans.”

Cover: A man rides his bike in front of a mural by artist Airá O Crespo in honor of the late U.S. actor Chadwick Boseman in the Lapa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro on September 02, 2020. Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images.