Black Panther is gearing up to become one of the highest grossing films of all time, according to Variety, but the movie is more than a box-office smash. ‘Black Panther’ is revolutionary.
“There had been black characters in comics before, and black heroes, but there had never been a black superhero. Black Panther was the first black superhero,” said New York Times bestselling author and pop culture historian Alan Kistler.
Kistler said that the character, Black Panther, made his debut in the July 1966 edition of “Fantastic Four,” just months before the formation of the political party of the same name. Writers briefly toyed with alternate names to avoid association with the party, but ultimately the alias for King T’Challa stuck.
“Black Panther was kicking off a new movement,” Kistler said.
Kistler expanded on the history of Black Panther and the role the hero plays in the Marvel Universe in his article for Polygon.
According to the film, the fictional African country where T’Challa’s is from, Wakanda, was a monarchy undisturbed by colonization. This allowed its population to live independently from the rest of the world for centuries.
Without outside influence, Wakanda thrived and its residents developed technologies that propelled their society to becoming the most advanced in the world.
Many of the storylines surrounding Black Panther in the Marvel Universe center around the decision of whether or not to share Wakanda’s wealth of resources. Others include political coups, such as the Black Panther versus the Ku Klux Klan. There is also a subplot where he is romantically involved with Storm from the X-Men series.
“Now it seems inescapable to do Black Panther without politics… if you don’t do racial politics, international politics, the ethics of technology and government… it’s not the same story anymore,” Kistler said.
Writer and director Ryan Coogler masterfully adapted the source material and perfectly captured the current tenor of racial and gender-based tensions in our country.
The film’s nuanced portrayal of black people, specifically Africans and especially women, is rarely seen on the big screen.
A 2016 study of films, TV shows and digital series conducted by the University of Southern California showed that only 12.2 percent of over 10,000 speaking roles from 10 major media companies were depicted by black people and only 25.7 percent depicted by women.
According to the Huffington Post, researchers have studied the impact of the lack of representation in the media suggesting that seeing characters on screen that look like you can improve self esteem. A study in The Opportunity Agenda suggested that a lack of representation leads to diminished opportunities for black men and boys.
The Black Panther cast is made up almost entirely of people of color, with a nearly even distribution of men and women. Instead of portraying stereotypical roles like domestic help or gang members, the actors in “Black Panther” depict royalty, researchers and fierce warriors.
Shuri, princess of Wakanda and prolific scientist, is a strong advocate for young women to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Her ingenious inventions are showcased throughout the movie, including the enhanced suit of the Black Panther.
Shuri is not the only female character integral to the story. Black Panther passes the Bechdel Test, a measure of female representation in film wherein two named female characters discuss something other than a man over the course of the movie. There are formidable women in nearly every scene.
The Dora Milaje, translated meaning the “adored ones”, are the all-female powerhouse squad of militarized security that protect King T’Challa and the civilians of Wakanda. The women are so lethal that it is the threat of war with them which ends a violent clash between feuding tribes, with battle-hardened men laying down their weapons at the warriors’ feet. In Wakanda, men and women exist as equals on every level.
With a history steeped in politics, storylines filled with metaphor and compelling characters to bring it to life, it is no wonder Black Panther resonated with audiences around the globe.
Black Panther is so much more than another superhero movie. For many, it’s the first time black people have seen themselves depicted on the big screen as more than a stereotype, and the impact of that representation will be felt for years to come.