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A few days before opening night of Black Panther, my mother asked me, “what are you going to do if it turns out to be bad?”
Echoing black twitter and only half joking, I simply said, “Oh, I’m just gonna lie to myself and everyone who asks. For the culture.”
Luckily, I don’t have to pretend.
I bought my ticket for opening night, and showed up to Century 29 clad in leather and all black (for the culture), excited with the optimism that every black person in Boulder would come out to such a special event.
If you’re black and you read that sentence, you probably know where I went wrong; there were maybe 10 other black folk, and a friend told me that, unfortunately, that probably was every black person in Boulder.
Audience-demographics aside, I left the movie theater proud and with the knowledge that I had just witnessed history being made.
I can critique a movie in my sleep, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I often do so unsolicited and without inhibition, so believe me when I say: Black Panther was about as perfect as a movie can get, both politically and critically as a piece of art, which is reflected in its box-office success.
The film raked in $192 million in its opening weekend, the fifth largest earning in history. It has also received a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
From the very opening scene, it is clear that so much thought and care went into the making of Wakanda, the fictional African nation encompassing five tribes all with their own unique customs. From the score, to the costumes, to the accents, painstaking research went into every part of the movie to provide an honorable depiction of Africa.
The movie pulls inspiration from actual African groups, defying the tradition of careless western representations of the continent. It also draws attention to the negative associations the rest of the world has of Africa through references from white characters of Wakanda as being a “third world country” or having nothing to “offer.”
Beyond the world, every character portrayal was rich and un-reliant on typical black character tropes/stereotypes. What’s more is that almost every character in this superhero movie was black. But not only were they black, they were dark-skinned black.
Let me tell you why this is so revolutionary: dark skin black children finally have a movie where they see themselves in damn near every frame.
Not only do they see themselves, but they see themselves as heroes. As power. As agents of their own lives. And white viewers are finally seeing black people in this image as well.
That’s what superhero movies do for children and viewers of all ages. When you leave the theater, you leave with a feeling of inspiration and a sense of infinite potential (maybe if only for the walk back to your car). For too long, this feeling has been exclusive to white viewers — specifically white men.
If you’re white, you probably don’t even think about what representation means or why it’s significant because, odds are, you’ve never had to. Even when black people are represented in film, it is often lighter skin black people with more European features, conveying the message that dark skin and African features are ugly or bad or undesirable.
Black hair is allowed to be free in this movie, with braids, dreads, curls, fades and badass women who shave their heads because it gets in the way of their fighting.
Another delicious aspect of the movie is that women are at the center of society — they are the warriors and politicians and rulers and technology masterminds. No costume they wear is made for the male gaze; the warriors are covered from the neck down in practical armor, and Princess Shuri wears whatever she pleases, despite tradition.
The movie gives young girls strong and independent role models to look up to who are allowed to be both dangerous and feminine, smart and funny. This departure from the models I had growing up — like silent Ariel — is influential to this generation of girls who might realize they want to pursue a career in STEM to be like Shuri, the head of the kingdom’s technological research team.
Black people and black culture are the heart and soul of the movie, and they are represented not only on-screen but behind-screen as well. The same black man, Ryan Coogler, who directed Fruitvale Station and Creed, directed this Marvel masterpiece. The film also features black screenplay writer Joe Robert Cole, who worked on American Crime.
With a predominantly black team, the movie builds a world in which black people reign supreme — they’ve built thriving communities, obtained their own wealth and developed extraordinary technologies that are all inconceivable to the Americans of the movie. But the amazing part is not just that the movie shows black people in power, it’s that it shows them in power in a world that is still plagued by racism.
That tension depicts the prevalence of systematic oppression in America and the lasting effects of slavery, as it asserts that black people are fully capable of socially, politically and economically flourishing (even potentially beyond white society, as the movie shows). This success is possible because whites have not colonized or conquered Wakanda.
That piece of fiction (which echoes realities of places like Ethiopia) offers an alternative to the brutal truths of race in America that are resultant from slavery and the perpetuation of racism today.
Coogler and Cole are intentional in their every depiction of America and its interaction with Wakanda. Rather than following tropes of blaxploitation films and casting the principle antagonist as a white man (though this can be useful, as we see in films like Get Out), Black Panther kills off one of its only white characters, who viewers initially think is the villain.
This creates a platform for a more nuanced examination of race.
Michael B. Jordan takes his place as the central antagonist of the film, but he is not quite a villain. Black Panther is unconcerned with a strict definition of good and evil, but rather wades in the muddled elements of race relations and explores the motives of each character.
Jordan’s character, Killmonger, sees violence as the vehicle for change and justice, but we cannot hate him for it. Through Killmonger’s backstory, Coogler explains his perception of the world and how he has been taught to see violence as the only means for racial equality.
Killmonger was raised in Oakland, California and goes back to Africa to be closer to his heritage and his father’s culture and to also obtain the means (power and weaponry) to fight racial oppression — to fight fire with fire. He exemplifies, in many ways, what it’s like to be black in America: struggling with identity; wanting to know where you come from; being angry that you were displaced, in a sense, by the enslavement of your ancestors.
His character’s story is poignant because it shows how violent protest is often due to desperation — a desperation that is born from a lack of tangible change and the pain that comes with that.
Black Panther follows in the footsteps of a list of recent movies that fought to give the black community and its history (often history that has been previously mistold or hidden) a voice, including Selma, Malcolm X and Hidden Figures. But Black Panther proves that while race will always be an overarching theme in black movies — just as it is the overarching theme in our lives — plots of adventure, whimsy and fantasy can center around us.
Black Panther is equal parts social justice advocacy and superhero flick. Black people are never the focus of popular fantasy/sci-fi worlds. If we’re lucky, movies throw us a bone with side characters like Dean Thomas or Rue. We’re never the Harry Potter or the Katniss Everdeen. In this movie, we are both.
To those who are annoyed by how excited black audiences are for this movie, remember that this is our first widespread fantasy movie we have for ourselves. So when someone gets a “Wakanda” lip tattoo, remember that about half the people in your class have a Harry Potter (which, by the way, only gives six minutes of speaking time to characters of color throughout all eight films) tattoo and that there are Game of Thrones themed weddings.
To those who have made up lies and said that black people have physically or verbally abused white movie-goers (read more about the hoax stories here), kindly take a seat. Preferably far from the theaters.
I am so immensely proud of and grateful for every person who worked on this movie. You have given us something powerful and important. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet and happen to be black, I suggest going to a more diverse area to watch it. But other than that, I have absolutely no qualms about my Black Panther experience.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at email@example.com.