Updated: Wednesday, January 31, 2018, 6:24 PM
In my 6-year-old mind, being a superhero was life. At every free moment, I draped towels across my back to form capes and created masks out of colorful construction paper.
I can remember getting burns on my knees from trampling on the unsightly emerald green carpet my mother loved so much. I can vividly recall breaking vases, windows, and other treasured household items that resulted in many non-rod-sparing sessions and privilege revocations.
But as much as I loved and believed in the fantasy of heroism, I felt inadequate because the (s)heroes that appeared in the movies and on television never looked like me. I didn’t believe that stories from people of color could be fantastical — that we could live in different worlds, and fly, and have super strength.
We didn’t do stuff like that.
Though I couldn’t articulate it, heroism became mysterious and unattainable to me. In the bliss of my naivete, I accepted the lack of black superhero representation and carried on; pretending the broomstick was my spear, a piece of cardboard, my shield. My skin, still black.
For decades, superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman have become archetypes of honor, courage, and bravery that in many ways have helped shape American culture. And for decades, blackness has been underrepresented, not only in Hollywood but notoriously in the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy genre. But now, after 17 films since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, Black Panther will redefine and expand the narrative of superheroes by placing the fate of the world in the hands of a black man.
In every way, the idea of a black superhero satiates the 6-year-old in me who wanted nothing more than a hero to identify with. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Even though the movie won’t officially hit theaters until Feb. 16, Black Panther has already set a record for most advance tickets sold in the Marvel Universe, according to Fandango, beating previous titleholder Captain America: Civil War.
“Sadly I do think that we [the black community] are excluded from the main stage where the public, including most black people, see superheroes and stories of extraordinary things in general,” says André Carrington, assistant professor of African American literature at Drexel University and author of Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction. “There are still reductive ideas about what black people are interested in and what attitudes and emotions we bring to telling stories and films, and those things really keep us from doing the work to get our stories told to bigger audiences.”
Although there have been a few black characters in sci-fi or fantasy films, such as X-Men’s Storm (most notably played by Halle Berry), they usually have supporting roles and most expository details are unknown. Carrington continues, “There was a time, in the ’90s in particular, when deliberately showing [a] multicultural cast of young people coming together was something that TV and movies used to make those kinds of productions friendly to a broad audience with liberal attitudes.”
I began to resent superhero films, although I told myself I was aging out. The resentment lasted until I came across the trailer for the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther.
In Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the fictional African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king, only to find his throne and legacy in jeopardy. T’Challa must harness the full power of the Black Panther in order to defeat a longtime enemy (Michael B. Jordan), thus preserving the kingdom and the safety of the world.
Finally, a story of a black hero with African roots is being told. And while Black Panther is not the only superhero that’s part of the current cultural conversation — Netflix’s Luke Cage, the CW’s Black Lightning — Black Panther feels bigger. It’s a part of the Marvel Universe, which has generated billions of dollars, and the film lends itself to a larger conversation of the many nuances of black aesthetics.
The first look at the heart-pumping Black Panther trailer instantly went viral. Not only have we never seen a superhero from the black perspective, audiences have access to an all-star black cast including Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Daniel Kaluuya, as well as Walking Dead star Danai Gurira.
“What’s not to love about an all-black universe where black people are not only royalty but superheroes? In a moment where black is not only beautiful but extremely hot, [black] people can’t wait to [see] themselves depicted in a way that we haven’t necessarily been depicted before,” said Philadelphia-based cultural critic and filmmaker Shantrelle P. Lewis. “In a sea of black moviegoers, indulging in [Black Panther] is a very black experience.”
It’s also worth mentioning the underestimation of the black dollar. Although diversity has arguably been one of Hollywood’s most problematic limitations, black films have recently and consistently outperformed expectations. Movies like Girls Trip, Hidden Figures, Get Out, The Best Man Holiday, and Moonlight dispel the myth that black stories aren’t sought after by mass audiences.
Black Panther is the type of film that’s desperately needed in a society where white supremacy is being taken to task and conversations on inclusion have become more prevalent. The movie has already started to transcend the silver screen by sparking discourse around the sovereignty and ingenuity of blackness. The idea of an advanced civilization where black people thrive in the absence of whiteness, in and of itself, is a bold and provocative notion.
Black Panther, even weeks before it’s released, is a beacon of hope, bridging traditional African tribal culture to a modern, technologically advanced world. It’s a representation of Afrofuturism that’s now available to a broad audience. For so long, pioneers of Afrofuturism, like rapper Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and singer/actress Janelle Monáe and author Octavia Butler and artist Kerry James Marshall, have ushered blackness into the exclusive white spaces of sci-fi and fantasy. Black Panther furthers that mission by bringing imagery and storylines to a plot that wouldn’t have graced the big screen years ago.
Traditionally, Black History Month, has been a time of appreciation and reflection of African American culture. Every year we show reverence for the courageous figures that made it possible for people like Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé to have platforms to influence the world. This year, Black Panther allows us to peer into the future, to gaze at the possibility of what blackness can become.
Black Panther sends a message that blackness can and should be portrayed in every beautiful, complex, dense way that it exists. Black Panther may not solve the disparity of inequality or underrepresentation, but to know that I, too, can break historical barriers heals the inadequacy I felt as a kid.
We can do stuff like this.