More than the average superhero film: Black Panther tackles tough racial themes


Story by Camile Lofters, Adviser

By now, most die-hard comic book movie fans have seen the trailer for Marvel’s long anticipated Black Panther film, which delves into the story of T’Challa, King of the fictional African country Wakanda, and bearer of the mantle of Black Panther. But the upcoming February 16th release of the film means much more than just another chance to watch the cinematic genius that is Marvel Studios’ superhero franchise.

The majority of modern day superhero movie reboots star white men, while female and black characters typically play supporting roles. Falcon, War Machine, Black Widow, and Cyborg are examples of side-kicks who help heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, and Superman kick some serious butt. They are all well loved, but they are never given the starring role in a film.

This is is why DC Comics’ release last year of Wonder Woman sparked an international firestorm. Girls and women alike saw themselves in Diana, and that portrayal gave them a powerful message: girls, all by themselves, can be heroes too. Diana was certainly not the first female superhero to grace the big screen in the last ten years, but she was the first to have her own stand-alone film in the major comic book movie reboots.

In this same way, Black Panther has already promised to break through these barriers for the black community. In 2016, Marvel showed us that they were up to the challenge with their Netflix series, Luke Cage. In a space where the everyday media shows us black men being shot by police (and vice versa) all too often, a black, bulletproof man serving as a hero is a powerful message. Cage also went on to star in Marvel’s Netflix series The Defenders in 2017, saving New York City from an evil organization.

The trailer for Black Panther tells us a lot about the messages in the film. Vince Staples’ “Bagbak,” a song about modern racial identity and stereotypes, plays throughout the trailer. Staples raps, “Pray the police don’t come blow me down ’cause of my complexion/ Everybody think they know me now.” The phrase “Bagbak, better back, back, you don’t know me,” is repeated over and over again in the chorus. Just as many people make generalizations about all African nations being the same, Staples says that people judge him based on the color of his skin.

Halfway through the trailer, another song gets mixed in with “Bagbak,” Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970s song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” This song was written during the Black Power movement, and talks about how the media coverage of civil rights was “whitewashed.” Black people couldn’t rely on the media then to tell their stories, thus the “revolution will be live.”

It is no accident that Marvel chose these songs for the trailer. Black Panther also has a black director, Ryan Coogler; a black production designer, Hannah Beachler; and a black costume designer, Ruth E. Carter. The cast is also predominantly black; with Chadwick Boseman playing T’Challa, Michael B. Jordan the infamous Killmonger, and several other big names such as Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker gracing the screen. Their entire production team has the same goal in mind: give a symbol and a voice to the black community. Again, Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to ever feature a black hero, but it is certainly the biggest and most prominent production of one.

Even visually, the film makes use of elements that have become symbols of black power. We see technology in the trailer that is so advanced it could be alien. From a plane that someone can fly with their mind and a force field that hides Wakanda from the world, to two different Black Panther suits that boast Tony Stark level features, the movie promises to delight sci fi and superhero fans alike.

But these elements are more than just entertaining. They are also shining examples of Afrofuturism; which is, according to the New York Times article Afrofuturism: The Next Generation, “a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts.”

Having Wakanda be one of the most advanced civilizations on planet Earth is no accident either. Afrofuturism began in the 1970s, and modern black artists from Rihanna to Beyonce have used this technique in their performances. The Wakandans in Black Panther pay homage to this tradition every day in their society.

The films debut in February will, to be sure, offer many more surprises and thrills for audiences. The reason we all love Marvel movies is because they never cease to amaze us. We see ourselves and humanity in the heroes we love so much. Now, for the first time, there will be a black hero inspiring children and adults alike on Marvel’s big screen.