Marvel’s first black superhero fights bigotry

Super: The film stars Chadwick Boseman (above), Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o. © Marvel

Will the Black Panther help smash racism? The reviews are brilliant, but can the film really herald a new era for black superheroes and go deeper than mere thrills and box office records?

“What do you know about Wakanda?” asks Andy Serkis, one of just two white characters to appear in the trailer for Marvel’s new superhero movie, Black Panther. (Out in cinemas on Tuesday.)

The other, a CIA agent played by Martin Freeman, shrugs. It is “a third world country — textiles, shepherds, cool outfits”.

He is half right. The fictional nation is extremely secretive, partly because it is the only African country to have never been invaded by colonial forces. It is also rich in a powerful alien metal called vibranium. Unbeknownst to the outside world, this has made it the most advanced country on the planet.

As Manohla Dargis put it in The New York Times: “Its shepherds patrol the border with techno-wizardry, and its textiles and costumes dazzle because of the country’s secret vibranium source.”

Leading this fascinating country is the young King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman). He is cool, clever, statesmanlike — and he has superpowers which he uses in the guise of the “Black Panther” to protect his country.

The film is being hailed as a “major milestone” by critics. It has been praised for its slick writing, strong performances and a soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar. It sold more pre-order tickets on its first day than any other Marvel movie. Most importantly, as Dargis says, “Race matters in Black Panther and it matters deeply.”

The character first appeared in Marvel comics in 1966, as the civil rights movement gripped America. The unrelated Black Panther Party was founded just a few months later.

Marvel’s new film comes at another tense time in US race relations. The #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to protest against racism and police brutality, while President Trump has been accused of tacitly supporting white nationalists.

Can Black Panther save America?

Marvelous

Perhaps, say some. The plot is surprisingly nuanced for a superhero movie. It is not black vs. white; the “bad guy” wants revenge for the current and historic wrongs done to black people. The “good guy” is accused of being too isolationist. Seeing such debates in a mainstream movie can only be a good thing. And as Time magazine wrote yesterday, Black Panther “is our best chance for people of every colour to see a black hero. That is its own kind of power.”

It will not make much difference, argue others. The film still descends into overblown CGI and spectacular car chases, and flashy Hollywood movies will not change the minds that have already been made up. Only last week, a Facebook event was deleted for campaigning to downgrade Black Panther’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes before it was released. In real life, it will take more than one hero to defeat racism.

You Decide

  1. Are you looking forward to the release of Black Panther?
  2. Can showing more characters from ethnic minorities in films and on TV help to change people’s minds?

Activities

  1. As a class, list as many black and ethnic minority characters in major Hollywood films as you can. Then discuss: have they been good representations?
  2. Write a scene for your own comic book which features a “diverse” character — that could relate to their gender, race, sexuality, disability or something else.

Some People Say...

“Superhero comics, themselves, are largely a response to trauma.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the current Black Panther series.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Black Panther will be released on February 13th in the UK. So far it has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, and its first trailer was watched 89 million times in in 24 hours. The character has been part of the Marvel Comics world on-and-off for over 50 years, and has often engaged with the racial politics of the time. In 1972, the character briefly changed his name to Black Leopard to avoid connotations with the Black Panther Party.
What do we not know?
How audiences will react to the film when it is released, or how much of an effect it will have on discussion of racism in America and the rest of the world. We also do not know if a sequel has been planned — although other Marvel characters like Thor and Iron Man have led entire trilogies in the past.

Word Watch

Marvel
Marvel was bought by Disney for $4 billion in 2009. Black Panther is the 18th film in its “cinematic universe”.
Colonial
During the 19th century, almost all African countries were colonised by Europe. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent, although both were influenced by Europe and the USA.
Vibranium
A fictional metal which landed on Earth via a meteor. It is stronger than most other metals, as it can absorb sound.
Kendrick Lamar
A multi-Grammy Award winning rapper whose work often addresses racism.
Pre-order tickets
According to US ticket seller Fandango.
Black Panther Party
The group was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and partially inspired by Malcolm X. It was explicitly socialist and revolutionary. The FBI director at the time called it “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”.
Isolationist
Historically, Wakanda has kept its powerful technology secret from the outside world, for fear of it being misused.
Facebook event
The event was protesting against the “treatment of franchises and its fanboys”. Rotten Tomatoes condemned it for “hate speech”.

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