You’d have to of been living under a rock so far this year not to have heard of the social phenomenon that is “The Black Panther” movie. Even if not a Marvel Comics fan, the mega-studio’s latest instalment to the superhero franchise had enough buzz and fanfare to excite even the most sceptical of cinema goers.
Aside from the usual pomp and circumstance that accompanies a superhero blockbuster movie, Black Panther in particular garnered special attention for a multitude of reasons:
- First black superhero movie
Set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film was Marvel Studios’ first superhero movie to feature a black superhero and a predominately black cast. As a studio that has been releasing superhero movies since 1998, including 19 films since 2008, this was an important social and historic moment in the history of the franchise and indeed in Hollywood film altogether.
- All female military
Even in 2018, with all the efforts that have been made over the years to achieve gender parity and equality of opportunity, it is not very often that we see women soldiers being portrayed on film. Yet in the nation of Wakanda, the prosperous country is protected by strong and powerful all-female army, successfully staving off attacks and invasions to protect the country, its people and its resources. The all-female army were not deficient in any way, and excelled in their duties to King and country. In the real world, for those who still hold views that an army with women is somehow weaker, or for young women who desire to be in combat but feel they will be unwelcome, the movie’s depiction of female excellence was important for representation and for challenging and changing attitudes.
- Female scientist
The younger sister of the King of Wakanda, Shuri, is a highly intelligent, technology-obsessed young woman, whose passion and intellect sees her take sole control of the country’s technological infrastructure and revolutionary advancements. Wakanda, though portrayed to the outside world as a poor third-world country, is actually a thriving hi-tech ecosystem that far surpasses anything the rest of the world has to offer. And it is all being led by a 16 year-old girl.
This is significant because of the context of the woefully low number of women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industries in the UK. As of 2015, women made up only 14.4% of the UK STEM workforce. Katie Beauchamp, co-founder of the all-female-founded beauty subscription company Birchbox, notes the importance of having female role-models working in STEM to inspire the next generation of young women and girls: “it’s common that one looks out at the world to examples in order to set their sights on something and envision their own career. The lack of examples…affects the ability to conceive of yourself pursuing a career in technology”.
With Shuri being so young and so successful in a field that is traditionally hostile to women, hopefully many young girls and women watching Black Panther with a desire and a talent for STEM, can feel a new found-confidence in pursuing their goals and achieving far beyond their expectations.
- A prosperous African nation
It is not very often we get to see positive images of wealth and wellbeing regarding the African continent. It is probably true that many of our thoughts, views and perceptions of African countries are mostly negative, solidified by images of poverty, corruption and hardship/suffering we see in the media on a daily basis. Wakanda on the other hand, is affluent and forward thinking, leading the world in innovative technologies, sustainable energy and advanced civilisation. It is a far cry from what we in the real world are used to seeing in the media and film.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, who also stars in the film, emphasised the importance of the film’s portrayal of Africa in this new way. In an interview with the BBC, she says, “We’re in Africa and we meet an entirely new nation that the world has never been to, and it delivers on feeling like another part of the world. This is a nation that is highly developed, and they are so because they didn’t get interrupted by or assaulted by colonialism”.
Instead of reverting to well-known negative stereotypes, Black Panther made it a point to celebrate Africa, through its rich heritage, traditional clothes, cultural music and native languages and dialects. Despite the continents well-documented shortcomings in reality, the movie is a refreshing and much-needed reminder of what the continent has the potential to still be.
- Representation, and what does it mean for the future of diverse film?
The popularity of the Black Panther movie comes at a revolutionary time for diverse cinema, where the general public is increasingly demanding more diversity on screen to reflect their diverse realities. There has been an unrelenting outpouring of desire to see more diverse characters in intriguing and complex roles, without it being reduced to outdated and stereotypes that have long plagued ethnic minority roles (think of the Asian taxi driver or the black drug dealer for instance).
In addition to this, there has been a fierce backlash largely from the South Asian community over the long-held Hollywood practice of “whitewashing” (hiring white actors to play ethnic minority characters), that has seen many roles including characters originally of Asian descent awarded to white actors. Such was the ferocity of one uproar last year that white actor Ed Skrein decided to quit his role in the upcoming “Hellboy” movie so that the “role can be cast appropriately”. Skrein was due to play a character of Japanese-American heritage.
Outside of race, there are calls for more opportunities for disabled actors in major Hollywood roles, as well as a greater number of women in more protagonist, rather than supportive, acting positions.
The truth is, people want to see themselves more in film. They want to see themselves in the things they watch. Hollywood has for too long been able to rely on the argument that diversity doesn’t sell as a reason for resisting calls for diverse films in the past. But with the global box-offices successes of diverse films such as Hidden Figures (an Oscar-nominated movie about 3 African-American female NASA scientists), Moonlight (the first movie with an all-black cast to win a Best Picture Oscar in 2017) and now Black Panther (which recently overtook Star Wars: The Last Jedi into the ninth spot of global gross figures of $1.333 billion), this argument is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. If art imitates life, then it is clear that diversity makes economic sense. In films. In business. In politics. In society. In our thinking. Everywhere. Bravo to a Marvel comic movie, “The Black Panther”, for reminding us of this.