On The Importance Of Black Superheroes

Black Panther, you’re up. Here's how you're gonna change the world...

Importance of black superheroes black panther

by Jazmin Kopotsha |

Who’d have thought that in 2018, we’d still be celebrating really important, history book-worthy ‘firsts’? Oprah Winfrey was the first black woman to win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, Octavia Spencer just became the first black woman to be re-nominated for an Oscar multiple times after having already winning one and in his second accolade as ‘first African American Actor to…’ in this year alone, Sterling K Brown won an award for outstanding male actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The wheels of change have long been in (very slow) motion but it’s only recently that the product of diversification has really started to show. But on the other side of this slight shift in representation, and Hollywood’s glaring issue with race, is something that has to precede the recognition of these talented actors of colour. It’s the matter of there being sufficient, honest, representative roles for non-white actors to actually play.

We’re now perching on the edge of another ‘first’, though, and it’s a big spine-tingling, twitchy-hairs on goose-pimply arms kind of one for me. We’re about to see a huge film with a predominantly black cast land in cinemas. We’re going to be able to go and see a film that unashamedly celebrates blackness without tokenising the experiences of an entire race to fit a half-assed subplot. You guys! We’re finally getting a modern, mainstream, unapologetic black superhero film.

Holy shit, we’re about to be given Black Panther.

Marvel’s long-awaited film about T’Challa, a modern black superhero, and the fictional African country of Wakanda is offering more than a means of spending a couple of hours next month. It may have become Marvel’s most pre-booked film, outselling Captain America: Civil War in its first 24 hours of availability. But it’s also bringing an infrequently explored narrative of Africa as an advanced and prosperous base where intelligent, interesting people (ahem, kick ass super-people) live to our screens. And it’s a cast of black characters who are here to save the day. Insert prayer hand emoji here.

Now here's a question: Have you ever worried about living up to expectations you’ve never really had a part in setting? It sounds lofty and complicated, I know. But it’s something you’ll understand if you’ve ever spent time trying to contort yourself to fit the projections of what popular culture says you’re allowed to be.

Growing up black and female, I subliminally (although more consciously so in my adult years) came to understand that my role was to be angry. If life were a film, for the most part my character was pretty set. I was also allowed to be obnoxious, loud, funny (so long as I didn’t overshadow anyone else’s hilarity) or helpful. But I don’t remember feeling like powerful was on that list. That seemed to lie beyond the remits of the pop culture caricature.

It’s no secret the black experience is (typically, not exclusively) depicted in a few ways on screen. Generally, it centers around poverty, slavery, comedy or corruption. And it’s with great inner conflict that I say, well, yeah, maybe these narratives are written in black history. But, what feels even sillier and is even more frustrating to have to say out loud is that that’s no, Mr White Middle-Aged Hollywood executive. Funnily enough, that is not all it is to go through life with dark skin. We exist beyond the slapstick, sidekick from 'da hood' who never gets a romantic story line but will probably be killed off first. Our stories are richer than that.

The naïve, hopeful side of me likes to think that deep down, this is something that everyone knows already. That superficial prejudice as played out by actresses and actors of colour in our favourite films and TV shows can’t possibly shape real-world perceptions of what it means to be black...

And yet, here we are. We’ve only just awarded the first black man with a best TV actor at the SAG awards; despite awareness, stats show that representation across race, gender, LGBT and disability hasn’t really shifted in the last decade and the President of the United States is stressing about people from ‘shithole’ countries like Haiti and Africa hanging around. I’m not calling 'cause and effect', but let’s not ignore the correlation.

Races diminished to comic relief, uneducated sidekicks and subservient helpers at the mercy of white saviours if they ever want to overcome (go ahead and delete as appropriate) poverty/slavery/imprisonment/themselves creates a pattern that resonates more deeply dangerously than we probably care to realise.

In an TED Talk from back in 2009, the brilliant Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of a 'single story'. She explained how when she was growing up reading British books she developed her own singular understanding of what the British experience was, and how when she moved from Nigeria to America from University, her roommate had only a singular understanding of what being African meant.

'What struck me was this', Chimamanda said. 'She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.'

It's a sentiment that has long run through the veins of mainstream Western entertainment as directed, commissioned, written and produced by white majorities. But my outlandish hope is that with Black Panther, this stops now. Or at the very least marks a poignant acknowledgement that stories by people of colour, starring people of colour, made by people of colour not only work - we already know that - but they are just as economically, commercially and desirably viable as the un-representative films that have come before and instead of them under the depressing pretense that 'diversity doesn't sell'.

Because, I don't know about you, but seeing yourself reflected in characters that are super intelligent, exist within their own communities without having to operate in the context of norms beyond your own, and ultimately save the god damn world, is incredibly empowering. To borrow the words of Geena Davis: if you an see it, you can be it. And I'm so relieved to finally say that's really like to be a superhero when I grow up.

Follow Jazmin on Instagram @JazKopotsha

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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