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Black Panther is a Hollywood movie featuring the first prominent African descendent superhero from Marvel Comics. The movie explores the struggles that T’Challa, the newly crowned prince of Wakanda, to protect his nation from threats after his father’s unexpected demise. Black Panther won 3 Academy Awards in 2019 and gained more popularity than other prominent black superheroes like Storm, Cyborg, Hancock, Luke Cage, Black Lightning or Blade. The $200 million budget movie grossed over $1.34 billion in the box office (Mendelson, 2018). While superhero movies often feature white and male characters, Black Panther has made a significant breakthrough in breaking the racial stereotypes about superheroes.
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Movies have a great impact on our lives. Since decades, movies have been defined as a radical move to bring change in the society (Fearing, 1947); a mass media movement to make the world imagine what they never imagined. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a movie released in 2015, not only won the Emmy and Academy Awards but also influenced the Prime Minister of Pakistan to change the law on honour killings in the country (Clark, 2016). Victim, a 1961 movie, intended to fight against homophobia influenced the introduction of Sexual Offences Act 1967 in United Kingdom (Burton, 2010). Bambi, the 1942 Disney classic animated movie, created the “Bambi effect” resulting in a massive decline in the number of recreational hunters (Hastings, 1996). Therefore, it is evident that a movie like Black Panther can break cultural and racial stereotypes that exists in the world. This paper will explore the importance of movies like Black Panther on African Americans in building the racial identity and promoting Afrofuturism in the community.
Black Panther represents a mainstream “black” superhero that a lot of people can relate and look up to. U.S Census of 2010 reported that nearly 13 percent of the population were Blacks or African Americans i.e almost 40 million people just in the United States (Humes, Jones & Ramirez, 2011). According to the 2017 revised World Population Prospects, the Sub-Saharan African countries have a population of almost 1 billion (United Nations, 2017). However, they are only left with a minimum number of superheroes to look up to and relate themselves to compared to the white superhero supremacy in Hollywood. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships revealed that people tend to associate themselves with people like them (Hampton, Fisher Boyd & Sprecher, 2019). The key factors in this study were consensual validation, cognitive evaluation, certainty of being liked, fun and enjoyable interactions and self-expansion opportunity (Hampton, Fisher Boyd & Sprecher, 2019). All major and easily recognizable superheroes like Superman, Batman, Hulk, Wolverine, Spiderman and Ironman are defined in the comics and portrayed in the movies as whites (Johnson, 2010). Black Panther and the heroes from Wakanda are easily relatable characters for an African American kid growing up compared to other mainstream heroes you see in the Hollywood movies. Moreover, this aligns with the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. on racial representation, identification and respect. This serves the original purpose of the Black Panther comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: to create a hero that the black readers can identify with (Wallace, 2018).
Black Panther builds on Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a cultural style where African Diaspora intersects with technological development (Bukatman et al., 1994). The term coined by Mark Dery in 1993 imagines the development of African culture amalgamated with technology (Bukatman et al., 1994). This contradicts the stereotypes of African countries as a third world countries, worn down by famine and poverty. The movie depicts a similar fictional nation of Wakanda, explicitly a third world country, with advanced technology and resource abundance which was never colonized. The movie focuses on the traditions and cultures of Africa and recreates the authentic music from the continent (Burlingame, 2018). The movie combines science fiction, authentic African visual art and music, building on the ideology of Afrofuturism cultural movement. Thus, it is a proud moment for every African American to look back at their culture and share the beauty of their land with the fellow Americans and the rest of the world. This is their proud moment for them to say who they are and where they are from.
The cast of the movie is also predominantly consisting of people with African origin with Chadwick Boseman playing the protagonist T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan playing the antagonist. According to Nama (2009), black superheroes are not just about what is racially ethical. They represent valuable indicators of race relations and declining racial unrest. Unlike a typical Hollywood superhero movie, the black character is not just a sidekick to a white superhero or limited to the antagonist of the story. The movie shows black superhero, black sidekicks and features a black villain. The movie also has a black production team consisting of a black writer, film maker and executive producer. Just like the heroes they play, the cast and crew are also dedicated to the upliftment and promotion of their community.
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Black Panther reassures that African Americans have superheroes to identify themselves with. It is symbolic of the racial pride, racial representation, and a beacon of hope for declining racial unrest in a country like United States with a history of massive racial unrest and intolerance. It syphons cultural movement of Afrofuturism and strengthens the authentic visual arts, music and traditions to the technological elevation proposed in the first world nations. Like A Girl in the River, Victim and Bambi, Black Panther has influenced the African American communities to cherish their heritage and step out from the shadows while attempting to narrow the inequality in black and white superhero representations. Moreover, Black Panther has successfully proved that Hollywood is ready to welcome more superheroes and supervillains with African origin embracing their traditions and culture. We may see an increasing viewership and fanbase for black superheroes like Black Lightning and Luke Cage when they are incorporated with cultural symbols, Afrofuturistic metaphors and good quality stories.
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