'Black Panther' Could Change the Black Film Narrative
The film that features an almost all-black cast, a black director, and is set in a world that portrays people of color in a superior light is something black people have never seen before.
I've been of two minds sets when it comes to most black films.
On one hand, I value films that bring me back to the past when freedoms for black people were harder to come by during the Jim Crow and slave eras. I've also appreciated films set in the hood that reveal the ripple effects of poverty.
But on the other hand, I'm tired of it all. I'm tired of seeing the one Oscar-worthy film with a black actor in iron shackles or in dark circumstances. I've needed something different. And for the longest time, I've wanted to see what the privilege to be black looked like on film. Something that didn't rely on the oppression of a people to produce some kind powerful action.
I'm pretty damn sure I can say that I felt that from the Black Panther trailer released over the weekend.
Black Panther already made his first cinematic appearance in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. But after a wait that seemed to last for years, Marvel finally released the first teaser trailer for his solo feature to the world, and it was beautiful. It was every bit of the symbolism I didn't fully know I was missing. I can't say if this movie is going to be good, but the teaser gives me hope and judging by the sheer numbers of folks excited, I'm not the only one.
As the comic-book history goes, the Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He stood as the first mainstream black superhero in comics, one that predated the Black Panther Party itself. Plot-wise, the Black Panther is one of the few human heroes in the Marvel universe who doesn't fear of the US government or the Avengers. In fact, he has no reason to consider their existence. He is T'Challa, a king of Wakanda, the most advanced nation in the world. His pockets are deeper than Stark's (Iron Man), all thanks to a magical property called vibranium that is exclusive to the lands of his country. As far as intelligence, he's considered a genius, and in terms of combative ability, he could hold his own against any super soldier. Everything that makes the Black Panther the Marvel hero that he is comes from black unity, by virtue of Wakanda, an entirely black-lived city.
This is real black privilege. To have a character with this kind of representation receive a solo franchise is a powerful image from a film context. You see this backdrop of native African color with tribal leaders assembled and positioned throughout the teaser in graceful garb. These aren't the images that usually share a cinematic space unless the Africans in question are looking up to someone more powerful than themselves. Futuristic structures and massive skyscrapers replace the huts and domes that make up the average National Geographic special. High glass buildings are what modern society has often associated with wealth and progress, and in this trailer, they are African, and one in the same.
These images mean everything, but of course, that was lost to a lot of people on Twitter.
For me, the impact is real, because the joy I felt while watching the trailer took me back from what I've become used to—shackles on dark skin. The question of what it did to my psyche in comparison flows deep. Whether it was a scene with whips against flesh in Roots, the appearance of human bodies worked like cattle in 12 Years a Slave, or the lynching scene in The Great Debaters, it all stuck with me visually. I can only say that I'd be a damned liar if I said I never felt an inferiority complex at some point over my blackness, and there are any number of reasons why that could be, but I can most definitely trace it to when I first became aware of racism years ago.
It started with Roots, a slavery-based mini-series that debuted during 1977. My mother sat me in front of a television at the age of six during an 80s rerun to serve me some education. Over a week's worth of eight episodes, I went through the emotions—confusion, surprise, sadness, anger, pity, all these feelings for characters that looked like me. I didn't fully understand everything that I was seeing, but several other well-received films like it later made me feel the same way over my lifetime (Glory, 12 Years a Slave, Amistad, Django Unchained, etc).
Don't get me wrong, I've always felt informed by them, and in the case of the comedic portrayals of blackness like Coming to America or Friday, amused by them. But the downtrodden or funny side of black film isn't the strength I've been looking for.
Of course, there are exceptions. There were images of strength in small moments in film, like Spike Lee's Malcolm X and the march on the police precinct: A bunch of black men in suits, their footsteps heard from a block away demanding the release of a local brother from a jail. Malcolm X himself looks into the eyes of the white police chief and makes a demand that gets met. That was power but mostly strengthened through anger and oppression. Then there was the moment of anger in Glory when Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) keeps a face straight, tears mixed with rage as he's whipped. More recently, I saw strength in Creed. A boxer jogging down an alleyway for an upcoming fight with a bunch of black youth on four-wheel riders and scooters alongside him—cue in some dramatic music from Meek Mill and you feel the power. Using the memorable Rocky Montage for a black audience was powerful in contrast the theme of the underdog and how that applies to a black perspective.
I've been seriously watching film for more than half of my life; I even went to college to study film, and it's only these few moments of black strength that really stick out in my mind as I write this. Maybe I need to watch more movies, but maybe Black Panther will be far more important than many of us realize. An (almost) all-black cast, a black director, set in a world that portrays people of color in a superior light—in an age when black people are seeing wrongs done against them in ways that extend beyond film every day, a moment to see blackness as a strength means everything. You can see it in the reactions across the web by folks who are viewing something they've never seen before in a single mainstream movie.
I can only hope that Hollywood takes a page from Black Panther when the film ultimately breaks records (I'm calling it). The black image in film shouldn't need to be shrouded by negative circumstances, nor helped by white co-actors to be seen for the plain greatness of who we are: black.
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