Editorial: “Black Panther” sets standard for Hollywood inclusion

Three members of the Dora Milaje play major roles in "Black Panther." From left, Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios/TNS)

If pop culture in the 2010s is remembered for anything, it’ll have to be superhero movies. Marvel, DC and smaller franchises have populated the silver screen with countless heroes over the past several years, almost all of them white — until last weekend, that is.

“Black Panther,” a Marvel Studios production in the works since at least 2014, saw national and international release last Thursday night after an initial premiere in Los Angeles last month. The movie, which benefited from strong word-of-mouth promotion, brought in an astounding $235 million over the four-day weekend.

While superhero features in the past, notably including 1998’s “Blade” and 2008’s “Hancock,” have starred black actors in the leading role, “Black Panther” has the potential for an impact beyond simply changing the color of the face on the movie’s packaging. With an almost all-black cast, black production and direction, black heroes and villains, the film heralds real integration of black voices in Hollywood — both in the narratives being told through movies and in the industry itself.

The film at the center of all these social and aesthetic plaudits features a story about an African prince abroad who returns to his home kingdom after his father’s death to take over the responsibilities of the throne while doubling as the movie’s eponymous hero. Both the protagonist and his enemies are black — a marked distinction from past films with minority leads.

In a number of ways, this dynamic allows the film’s story to focus on its black characters without having to look at them in the context of white cultural experiences. Yona Harvey, an assistant professor in Pitt’s English department and contributor to one of the comic book spin-offs of the “Black Panther” series, found that condition for writing about the black experience freeing.

“It’s really exciting writing about a villain,” Harvey said in an August 2016 interview with The Pitt News. “Especially for me, because I feel so clamped down […] in my normal life, so well-behaved.”

Harvey’s experience writing the story for the printed version of “Black Panther” was likely mirrored in the experiences of countless individuals of color among the audiences who watched it on the big screen for the first time over the weekend. Actor Terry Crews explained the “satisfying” feeling in an op-ed for USA Today yesterday of seeing “black people on-screen as full-fledged human beings.”

“[The film] doesn’t disappoint, tackling action, humor and intense drama that finally, to my relief, wasn’t race-related,” Crews wrote.

It’s not too hard to imagine an attempt at an authentic representation of black people on the screen would benefit from having a group of actors, directors and producers who have that experience in their own personal lives. That this most recent movie from Marvel was as successful as it was, rooted in diverse experiences as it was, is a powerful sign for where the movie industry should move in the future as the country becomes more comfortable with diversity portrayed on-screen.

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