'Black Panther' touches on black identity and the fantasy of a people unburdened

There is an interesting argument with Blaxploitation films. The movies, predominantly made during the 1970s, are usually characterized by having a predominantly African-American cast, with the lead character having to deal with some endemic problem affecting their community, while also having to fight “The Man,” who’s in the form of corrupt cops, corrupt city officials, corrupt business officials, or any other aspect of society associated with white assholes.

Did these movies perpetuate stereotypes about African Americans and black communities (i.e., ghettos, pimps, drug dealers, etc.), or were they some of the first films to show strong, intelligent African-American characters who weren’t the sidekick, or in need of “assistance” from white people? Or maybe they were both things at the same time? Shaft and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song are considered some of the earliest examples of the genre. According to Van Peebles, he wanted to “show all the faces that Norman Rockwell never painted.”

It’s interesting to analyze how diversity, or the lack thereof, is covered in the media and how, in itself, it can be symbolically indicative of how we see ourselves as a culture. Because whether or not something is multiethnic or egalitarian is more than just counting up the numbers to see if there’s parity across demographics. The true problem is the inherent bias which values white and male as being the “default,” and any deviation from that default is considered special and noteworthy to the point of reclassifying it if someone has a high enough melanin count or lacking a penis. It’s no longer just a “good movie,” it’s a “good black movie,” or a “good feminist movie” with all of the stigmas and marketing biases that exist within those stereotypes.

Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), is opening this week to resounding critical approval, some whining and trolling from alt-right assholes, and much commentary about what the film might mean as far as black identity in popular culture. Centered around T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), who serves as King, head of state, and superhero protector Black Panther of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film sees him going up against the international arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his partner Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who are attempting to undermine his kingdom. As depicted in both Marvel Comics and this film, Wakanda is the source of vibranium, an alien metal which is the most significant element in Captain America’s shield. Wakanda’s control of vibranium has allowed the nation to escape invasion and repel European colonialism throughout its history, with the country secretly being the most technologically advanced in the world.

Beyond just the symbolism of black heroes or a major film where most of the actors and actresses have black faces, it’s in this representation of an African nation of independent black people leading a country which is successful and advanced, which many have latched onto as saying something about black identity and possibilities.