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OPINION: What IS The Big Deal About Black Panther?



Image courtesy of CNET.com

Black Panther is practically here, but just as with a lot of things that reach of certain level of mass appeal, it has gained more than a few detractors. Black Girl Nerds contributor Kayla Marie Sutton created the #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe hashtag, taking the Twitter world by storm over the last week. As the release date gets closer and closer, here are some things to consider if you’re still on the fence, or just not quite sure what the fuss is about.

Blade Was an Icon of a Different Hue

It’s not about “the first Black Superhero to…”, or that he’s even “Black.” Black Panther celebrates Black Culture in a way that movies like Blade, or The Meteor Man did not before it. In those films “Black” was more of a caricature than an actual state of being. Movies of that ilk tended to fall on Black as a personality trait, a flavor, (one of about five, maybe) that you either had or you didn’t. (Though it made a more palatable pie than most, Luke Cage picks some of this low-hanging fruit as well.) That’s never the way to view your inclusion and acceptance within the community you’re literally born into, but it is representative of the time – – the time before.  In addition, those films could also be picked at for some of their genre trappings, for example, all stories featuring a predominantly Black cast must take place in an inner city. Those specific properties, even within their target communities don’t elicit that same collective response, as a Black Panther is designed to. Black Panther celebrates the common ancestry that most dark-skinned people in America have, regardless of where they fall on the cultural spectrum of Blackness. Africa isn’t a country. Whether born here or later emigrated, though our own individual travels and tribal paths have been obscured by our historic captors, Black Panther allows all Black people, not just the “woke” or informed to say, “Yeah, I’m a part of that.”

Pre-packaged “Black” Has BEEN Whack, Jack!

Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios pulled a “What If” in cinematic form, showcasing the possibility of an entire world that many of us just couldn’t envision, if for no reason other than lack of a clear example. Now, we have guides like Shuri! Black Panther is not only taking our culture out of the ‘hood, it’s practically leaving the planet! This isn’t at all a stretch but expect studies in Afrofuturism to rise to previously unseen heights at a campus near you. STEM programs in cities like Baltimore have been flourishing for years, plus there’s FanBros’ own Crown Wakanda Curriculum! One of the perceptions Black Panther is looking to change, is that Black actors can’t realistically portray Scientists and other intellectuals. This isn’t unique to Black Panther mind you, Hidden Figures can certainly boast the same claim. Peoples of Color of all types can, and likely will be offered more diverse roles as when compared with occupational based stereotypes or classic “token” portrayals. Expect the wave to continue. A Wrinkle in Time seeks to shatter some of the same cinematic conventions as Black Panther. It’s okay to tell Black stories that don’t rely on Slave Narrative or a downtrodden community. Who Fears Death is about to become a series on HBO! People are tired of the same trite and tired tales of turmoil. Black Panther, and a host of other properties are linked directly to that collective pulse.

That Stupid, Reductive John Lennon Quote

There’s a famous quote by the fabled musician and humanitarian, comparing women and minorities that I’ll not repeat here because it’s trash. However, in trying to understand the sentiment behind it, I’ve taken it as another way of stating that if you’re not a white MAN specifically, you’re undervalued. Still with me? Good. In a lot of the advertising, whether print or video, it could be easily assumed that T’Challa, though formidable on his own, is a background player in his own movie. Black Panther is the title character, but with the women of Wakanda to support him, “Black Panther” may as well function as more team than individual. The symbolism couldn’t be clearer, as it portends to Black couples. Doubting the capability of women is becoming increasingly anachronistic. The Dora Milaje are featured heavily throughout the promotional material, represented as a group, or as individuals. Wonder Woman brought the girls out, setting records on its own, so we know the appeal of an army of Femme Fatales in film. Black Panther is bringing #BlackWomen to the party. You know, the same Black Women who consistently have proven to be a driving force behind book sales, even politics as of late. With writers like Roxane Gay and Nnedi Okorafor adding even more to the Wakandan mythos, it’s no surprise at all Black Panther has saturated the cultural landscape the way it has.

It’s Not Simply About Marketability

Yes, Black folks are “hot” now, but we’ve always been financially viable in subtle, and not so subtle ways. This isn’t a piece about Appropriation, thankfully. Most movie fans can agree by now that Kevin Feige knew what he was doing when Black Panther was greenlit. One critique I’ve heard, and this is often from other Black people, is that all the fervor is due to Disney somehow tapping into a vein of Black gold and it’s all a ploy. Love of the almighty Black dollar is certainly a driving factor, and why not? Marvel Studios functions first as a for-profit Entertainment company. Going forward however, other properties starring people of color will have to up their game. The “lazy black” narratives are played out, and it’s about time. Jordan Peele and Sterling K. Brown aren’t receiving attention simply because “Black people will go out and see their stuff.” This is also why Tyler Perry never quite hit that mainstream, cross-cultural appeal. Chadwick Boseman was voted the most popular star in a country that just banned hip-hop culture. Think about that. No, really. Black Panther doesn’t represent the culmination of our struggles, but instead a new frontier – – the future will have to tell the tale.

Like it or not, Black Panther, from Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios releases nationwide on Friday February 16th, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

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Read more from Dom Watkins, right here.