Some time ago I was watching Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with a couple of friends along with one friend’s nine-year-old cousin. Within the first thirty minutes of the movie, the little blonde girl plainly asserted that she couldn’t relate to this version of Cinderella because the characters were black. Taken aback, my friend and I recovered quickly, telling her that Cinderella is about believing in magic and being nice to other people and that the race of the characters doesn’t change the meaning of the story. As we continued watching the movie, we also gave her the task of thinking of three ways in which she and this new black version of Cinderella were similar.
It astonished me, at the time, that this girl would so bluntly proclaim this thought, but when thinking about popular movies and primetime television shows, where people of color are often side characters or extras if present at all, her genuine confusion about seeing people on screen who didn’t reflect her own image was understandable. According to a PBS article, of the top 100 films of 2014, three-quarters of all characters were white. Only 17 of the top movies from that year featured non-white lead or co-lead actors.
The problem is that this little girl will grow up to be a white American woman with purchasing power in this country, and white Americans, for the most part, don’t buy the films and stories with strong, non-white leads. The fear of risking less revenue combined with Hollywood’s racial laziness in casting has lead to the whitewashing and erasure of people of color (POC) in many films. But Black Panther changes things.
Black Panther came to theaters just days ago and is already making major waves. Blowing past the projected $165 million in ticket sales for its opening weekend, Black Panther sold $216 million of tickets, setting the record for a February release and placing second, only behind Star Wars: The Force Awakes, for its four day opening period. Theaters across the country have reserved more screens for Black Panther to keep up with the high demand. The Black community has made a strong presence so far, accounting for 37% of the opening weekend views. And it’s also important to note that White Americans and international audiences also showed up to see this majority Black casted film. This clearly contradicts old arguments that POC dominated movies can not be major money makers.
I went with several friends this past weekend to see Black Panther in theaters, and it did not disappoint. Black Panther is a movie that decenters whiteness, colonialism, and capitalism. There are only two notable white characters in the movie, one of which is a villain and the other is the comic relief. The African kingdom of Wakanda, where the movie takes place, is mineral rich with a precious metal called vibranium. Black Panther imagines an African nation where Western colonial powers weren’t present to exploit the land’s invaluable resources and where capitalism doesn’t take hold of the leadership, allowing the people to utilize the vibranium to advance their own science and technology.
Black Panther shatters stereotypes of women and blackness and the intersection of those identities. In this movie, the master of the vibranium and technology wizard is King T’challa’s younger sister, Shuri. The smart and spunky princess is an inventor, scientist, and medical healer all in one. She leads as a woman and shows that her African kingdom’s success lies in its use of science and technology. Contributing to the strengths of Wakanda, the queen and the royal warriors are a group of fierce, elegant, and emotive women who defend their kingdom fearlessly. Another highlight of this film is that, Nakia, the love interest for King T’challa is also a black woman. Nakia is presented as a beautiful, thoughtful, and strong woman. Though T’challa initially disagrees with Nakia’s politics, their relationship is based on a mutual respect that allows the king to accept Nakia’s influence and see the merits of her beliefs, never once asking her to compromise her values for romance.
Black Panther, with its nearly all Black cast and diverse crew, is an important step forward. For too long, the entertainment industry has been dominated by White folks on screen, participating in POC erasure, as well as behind the camera, controlling the white gaze of POC bodies when they do appear in the movies. And Black Panther combats both of that. In an interview with CBS News, Black Panther’s executive producer Nate Moore recalls being drawn to Marvel’s Black Panther when he was young because it was one of the few comics with characters who looked like him. Through Black Panther, Black children of this generation finally have a film with superheroes who reflect their own image. Not only that, there are enough Black characters that viewers can be choosy — selecting their favorite lead figure who looks like them instead of just one or two.
When reading Moore’s words, I am forced to recall the situation in which my friend’s young cousin asserted she could not relate to the Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella because this version of the princess was different from her (Black). Yet, this is what we’ve asked Black, Brown, and Asian children to do all this time. The lack of media representation for POCs is an imperative issue to address as a society, especially considering over 50% of children under 5 years of age in the U.S. today are non-white. Further, it is even more critical for transracial adoptees of color to see folks who look like them on screen because their image is reflected back at them no where else – not even in their families.
Hollywood has made a lot of grave mistakes in the past few years, but Black Panther is not one of them. Perhaps one of the most resounding lessons from the repeated whitewashing incidents of recent major Hollywood films is that white people need to learn to relate to other people’s stories without inserting themselves in their history. Moreover, consumers need to make the conscious choice to support movies and television shows with non-white leads by seeing that, in addition to community specific events, people of color have universal experiences as well, not just “ethnic” ones. But our society will never learn to relate across appearance and experience if people of color are not regularly given the opportunity to take the lead in the first place. Black Panther must be a first step forward to a more inclusive entertainment industry that validates and empowers the identities of a multicultural audience. It cannot stop here.
I encourage you to see Black Panther this weekend if you haven’t yet. Wakanda Forever.