Monday, February 19, 2018

Is Black Panther A Band Aid?

For the past several days, much media attention has been devoted to the film Black Panther, hailed by many as a break-through cinematic achievement featuring an all-Black cast and depicting a fictitious futuristic African nation, Wakanda, which never experienced the scourge of colonialism. That, plus a cast of powerful Black women who form the backbone of the nation. All of this has propelled the movie into stratospheric earnings and a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

All of the above is certainly noteworthy and impressive, and far be it for me to disparage such an accomplishment. I enjoy a solid diverting film as much as the next person, but I cannot help but wonder whether that very diversionary quality is something all should be concerned about. To follow my logic, I ask that you watch two brief news clips, one from an American and one from a Canadian source:

It is nice that high-profile people like Serena Williams and Octavia Spencer are providing the means for young Black people to see the film, and, as made clear in the second clip, little Julian now has a black superhero to look up to and inspire him. Indeed, in Canada a group in Calgary is fundraising to reserve an entire theatre of 350 seats, to take children, tweens and teens to the movie, which has been called historic, on Feb. 24.

The message, to me, is clear: Black people are hungry for role models, those who can inspire them in their own lives. As the one young fellow in the first clip says, "It's our time to shine."

All of which strikes me as both deeply sad and disturbing. Think about it for a moment: a fictional cinematic superhero is the basis upon which people are building their hopes for a more fulfilling life. While not wholly baseless (the employment and empowerment of black actors and a multitude of ancillary businesses), the truth is they are finding self-worth and meaning in something that doesn't exist, a cinematic chimera.

And, I would argue, that particular media hype and slant is making it easier to ignore the underlying issues that make Black lives so difficult, both in Canada and the United States.

Think, for example, of the systemic racism that makes it harder for Black people to find good, sustaining jobs than their white counterparts. Think, as well, of the culture of poverty and the ghettoization that have kept too many from mainstream society for far too long. Think of police checks, carding, etc. etc., all institutional barriers to equality and success.

And yet, the dark subtext of the media coverage of Black Panther seems to be that if young Black people can be inspired by a movie, by God, they will have the capability of picking themselves up by their bootstraps and making something of their lives. In other words, they are ultimately the authors of their own misfortunes.

Victim blaming, anyone?

The media response to movies like Black Panther, it seems to me, simply encourages old stereotypes about Black people and does nothing to address the need for systemic change, equality of opportunity and other measures that would make both the United States and Canada truly countries of opportunity for all.


  1. To me, it's a movie. It resonates with young black people and there doesn't seem to be much else on offer these days that doesn't focus on the past two centuries of the black experience in America. Think of the triumphalist crap that was force fed to our generation, the kids of the immediate post-war era. I took that bait, as they say, hook, line and sinker.

    As an educational device Black Panther doesn't hit the mark but it was never intended to, at least as I understand it. Then again there's no Wolverine in it.

    1. My plaint about the film, Mound, has less to do with its content and moviegoers' reactions than the expectations that are being invested in it to change Black lives. I was just watching an interview with a Syracuse University law professor who took a class of Grade Seven students to see it. He said that the kids saw that they could be like the people in that film.


  2. I'd feel better if the heroes were real -- Martin Luither King -- even Barack Obama. Movies can be a convenient escape from reality.

    1. I totally agree, Owen. If Black people are only depicted as succeeding in fantasies, what kind of a message is that sending?