The superpower of representation
Directed by a Sac State grad, Black Panther probes deeply into the black American experience
You’d be hard-pressed to find adequate black representation in the DC and Marvel cinematic universes. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, the franchises have released more than 40 superhero movies. Only one of those has had a black lead, and that was the recent release of Black Panther.
When I was about 8 years old, I watched a black superhero on screen for the first time: Robert Townsend in The Meteor Man. It’s the movie that I thought about most as I sat in the theater watching Marvel’s Black Panther.
In the earlier film, Townsend plays a 30-something-year-old substitute teacher in Washington, D.C., who is struck by a radioactive meteor and given Supermanlike powers. The movie came off as too comedic and, at times, too preachy. Ultimately, it wasn’t a good film.
I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, but having representation in a soon-to-be booming genre of film was important. As a child, I saw a few black superheroes, but none were ever the dress-up-for-Halloween types like myriad white superheroes.
I grew to notice that I needed something more—something that represented what I felt growing up as a poor black kid in South Sacramento. So here I was, 28-years-old, sitting in a theater watching the very first black superhero movie I could relate to more than superficially.
The movie was directed by Ryan Coogler, a young black man from Oakland who graduated from Sacramento State University. The cast—led by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira—is mostly black with the exception of two supporting characters. Coogler even made sure to include the song “Sleep Walkin” by Oak Park native Mozzy, who was enlisted as a feature on the movie’s soundtrack.
Black Panther is unapologetically about the black experience in a white-dominated world.
Boseman plays T’Challa/Black Panther, the newly crowned king of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country on Earth. Hidden from the rest of world for centuries, Wakanda hasn’t been subjected to European colonization and has thrived without white influence.
On the other side of the world, in America, you have Jordan as Erik Killmonger, the protagonist who had most black Americans briefly rooting for him because of his ideas of black liberation: Killmonger is a Wakandan-American who grew up in Oakland and knows their plight all too well.
Killmonger’s idea of black liberation is similar to those of the great Oakland-based revolutionaries in the Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter. It’s his execution of liberation, which is more like imperialism, that leads to the movie’s central conflict between Killmonger and T’Challa.
The Black Panther character struggles between keeping Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world or helping the millions of oppressed people around the globe who look like them.
However, look beyond the obvious message of conflict and you find a film that speaks directly to the idea of the bastardization of the black-Americans who, centuries after their ancestors were taken from their homes, ultimately lost touch with their African culture.
The movie speaks to black America’s frustration in more ways than one—and that’s what representation is all about.