The reality of Blackness in the fiction of Black Panther

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther really spoke to the Black writers here at Black Girl in Maine Media, and this week, we are offering our reflections on the film. Today Samuel James shares his thoughts. 

This is not a review of Black Panther. It started off that way, but then I kept hearing white people talk about how they don’t get why this movie is so important to Black people. So, if one of those white people is you, let me tell you why this movie is so important to this particular Black person.

My father raised me to understand that I was born into a place designed to deny me everything it possibly could. From the smallest pleasure to my actual life, if this world could take it from me, it would. And the reason this place would deny me is because it doesn’t like the color of my skin.

My father also raised me to believe I could be anything, do anything and get anything I wanted in this life. These things seemed contradictory when I was a child, but as I grew older, I realized that they weren’t.

See, my father never told me the problem was the color of my skin. He told me that the problem was how the color of my skin was perceived. This meant that the problem was not and never could be mine. The early lesson in life’s unfairness was that I’d have to figure out ways deal with this problem (a lot), even though it was not my own.

Since then, every single day, in one way or another, I have been told that my problem is my Blackness. That it is on me to fix this problem. I know that is not true. I know I cannot be wrong simply for existing even though the world around me is convinced otherwise. I am often thought of and treated as arrogant and stubborn and stupid for not agreeing. I am often made to answer for other people’s ignorance, their words and actions. The navigation of these things is the common Black American experience.

I grew up watching my father listen to Duke Ellington and Sade, read Langston Hughes and Octavia Butler, watch Sidney Poitier and Phylicia Rashad. Black excellence existed all around me as far back as I can remember, and so it was reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

But, whenever the idea of “race” was brought up around or by white people, it was usually negative. It was a view only through a white lens. I saw that white people were naturally adversarial in their appreciation of Black art. Nothing done by Black people was good on its own. Duke, Sade, Langston, Octavia, Sidney and Phylicia were good at what they did, you know, for those people.

This meant all discussions of race we were forced to start from a point of competition. Once I realized this, I discovered that the rules were established, the teams were made and the fix was in a long time before I even knew I was playing.

Now, you should also know, even though this is my reality and I write about it the way I do, in no way do I live my life as though I am burdened. I am a legitimately happy, optimistic and joyous person. I celebrate and fully enjoy what I have every single day and I laugh a whole hell of a lot more than I cry.

I tell you all of this to give you a sense of my reality as I walked into the theatre last week to see Black Panther.

So, Black Panther

It’s easily the Blackest blockbuster ever. And it’s such a work of genius, I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in a time in which it could be made. I’m not gonna lie to you, I’ve seen it twice and cried like a baby throughout both viewings. The thing is, it celebrates Blackness on a scale that I’ve never seen.

First off, the women. There are no weak Black women in this movie. There are no sexualized Black women in this movie. There are no stereotypical Black women in this movie. All of the Black women in this movie are fully developed characters with their own power and intentions and individuality independent of the male characters. In other words, Black Panther celebrates Black women as people!

Secondly, Wakanda. If you’re not familiar, the fictional land of Wakanda is an African country that has such advanced technology that it can actually hide itself and its wealth from the rest of the colonizing/colonized world. What Wakanda shows itself to be is a fantastic and futuristic microcosm of Africa itself: a vast land of immense diversity not only in people, but in ideas and cultures as well.

And thirdly, the characters. Because the story is being told by a Black person, the characters reflect a Black person’s understanding of Black people. Art imitates life, and more specifically, the artist’s particular view of life. For example, since whiteness isn’t so much a race or culture as it is a designation of power, white art often allows white people to be the center of everything, even things that couldn’t possibly involve them.

This being the norm, Black Panther shows Black characters in an unusual way. In the movie, not only are we not drug dealers and pimps and rapists, we are intellectuals and leaders and heroes—but not only are we intellectuals and leaders and heroes, we multifaceted and complicated. We are human. Black Panther celebrates the humanity of Blackness. And while this movie is certainly about Blackness, in no way is it about “race.”

Even in the best of cinematic scenarios, Blackness is usually about race. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions, but usually a lead Black character means there is either a racist person or system or both that takes up the entirety of the Black hero’s journey. Now, that is not a bad story, but it’s not the only story. Obviously, a Black protagonist overcoming racism is a story that needs to be told until it’s irrelevant, but our struggle is not all that we are. We are beautiful and strong and complete all on our own. It is not necessary to compare or victimize us, fictionally or otherwise, in order to see us, and that’s why this movie is so important.

Until now, there hasn’t been a movie of this scale to show Black people on our own, in all of our diversity and beauty and strength and humanity. And this movie is important to me because there hasn’t been a movie of this scale that has shown everyone what I saw in my home as a child:

Black excellence is reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

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3 thoughts on “The reality of Blackness in the fiction of Black Panther”

  1. I loved everything you stated here. I took my four little kings to see this. We were dressed like Royalty. We had a blast! I saw it as a comic book reader. Not as a “strong black woman”. Reading your article has helped me to see the beauty that I thought was missing in the film. Representation in our communities is very important. And Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses of beautiful shades of brown needed this movie! Peace and blessings

  2. This article is filled with clarity and pride, and I feel privileged to be able to have read it. Black Panther is a movie and event like no other, and the point in this article about the cinematic narrative of this film being about black people but not about race is fantastic. I look forward to reading more.

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