I did not grow up reading comic books or idolizing caped crusaders who save the world from imminent danger. But as a mom who is always looking for positive images of Black or African American characters to show my children and as the mom of a Black boy who loves every superhero he sees and reads about, I almost jumped out of my chair when I learned about the upcoming movie about an African superhero king. But before I address the movie, please allow me to take you back in time to approximately five or six months beforehand.
He looked at me and said, “Well you know, there just aren’t any actors of color that can carry a major movie to huge box office success.” I guess this guy has never seen or heard of a Will Smith movie.
On a peaceful Sunday afternoon, I entered a local restaurant. A nice young man comes over to take my order and engages me in small talk. I told him that I had just taken my kids to see a movie which prompted a discussion about the significance of movie roles. I mentioned that I would love to see more movies with people of color in lead roles. He looked at me and said, “Well you know, there just aren’t any actors of color that can carry a major movie to huge box office success.”
I guess this guy has never seen or heard of a Will Smith movie. Knowing that I was in a public space and not wanting to engage in a debate, I went to my inner Zen place. I realized that like most of us, he has not had the opportunity to actually see many people of color in roles like that. The actors and actresses of color that have been given the opportunity to star in and carry big budget blockbuster films have been far and few in between. So, I just calmly said that just because it isn’t often done does not mean that there is no one to fill the roles. And just so we’re clear, his statement is a myth perpetuated by ignorant people to justify their own biases.
Soon after that encounter, I read about the upcoming Black Panther movie. I found out that it would feature an almost entire Black cast, a Black director, and even a Black production designer. In addition, Disney had given them a budget of $200 million. As I read this, the conversation with the young man popped into my head. I immediately hoped for box office success to prove him wrong. But I also hoped for a great storyline and writing.
Fast forward to opening weekend of Black Panther as I emerged from the theatre after having just seen it, and I could proudly and boldly proclaim that my hopes had been fulfilled and then some. I thought about a quote from Isabel Allende that says, “Write what should not be forgotten.” It is my belief that what should never be forgotten is who you are and where you come from. Black Panther, in my humble opinion, through the fictitious world of Wakanda and its citizens, is a reminder from the writers to all people of Black ancestry that we hail from a land and from people that were once untouched by colonialism and all its poisons. We are reminded of an ancestry rich in cultural, intellectual, physical, and spiritual beauty.
What this film does so masterfully is weaving together the worlds of fiction and reality to show us that we are every character in this movie. In King T’Challa, the Black Panther himself, I saw every young Black man and boy. Nowhere is that more evident to me than when T’Challa kneels on the ground and his father says to him, “Stand up! You are a king.” It was a moment that said, know thyself. Know who you are and act accordingly. I saw my husband who constantly tells my son to stand up straight, always look people in the eye, and be strong.
In the beautiful women with their dark skin, natural hair and shaved heads, fierce strength, and regal demeanor, I saw my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and every strong Black woman that holds together her own familial tribe through thick and thin. And just like the Wakandan women, they all do it with fierce style and grace.
In the conflicted antagonist, Erik Killmonger, I saw the inner conflict of every Black person who struggles with how to reconcile the pain and anger of our struggles and social problems with how to solve them. How many of us understood exactly where he was coming from but knew that we could not condone his misguided methods?
We saw ourselves in each of them and we saw our history and our truth in their world. We felt a connection to them, to each other, and to the land and ancestors we share in common. The line that captures this beautifully and dives into our hearts and buries itself there is, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” The minute that line was uttered, my mind filled with the images of our brave ancestors choosing the sea over slavery. I felt their spirits and all who share their blood with me.
I am hopeful that the inspiration that this film has induced will continue to drive some of us into meaningful thought and action to do what we can in our own ways to uplift those who suffer under the effects of those mentioned struggles.
The writing was indeed brilliant and the storyline great, but what I did not expect was how this film would inspire people. Knowing how much representation matters and how the images we show our children have an impact on them, celebrities and ordinary citizens alike have been donating money to buy out theatres for Black children to go see this movie. Their hope being that little Black girls and boys will see themselves in the strong, dignified, and regal King T’Challa, or in the scientific genius, Princess Shuri, or in any of the characters who remind us that we descended from people of great strength, beauty, intelligence, and spirit. Even Disney has now donated $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to help bolster their youth STEM program.
I’m not naïve enough to think that a movie can end poverty, injustice, and discrimination. But I am hopeful that the inspiration that this film has induced will continue to drive some of us into meaningful thought and action to do what we can in our own ways to uplift those who suffer under the effects of those mentioned struggles.
As far as proving the young man from the restaurant wrong, in its opening weekend alone, Black Panther made $218 million, soaring past its projected box office number by $100 million. That was approximately three weeks ago and as I sit here writing this, the worldwide box office total now stands at $909.8 million with expectations of breaking the $1 billion mark next weekend. I can’t help but wonder if the young man has seen the movie or read about its success. I thought about maybe venturing back into the restaurant to see if he had and ask him what he now thinks of his original statement. But then again, maybe not, because I am a big believer in simply letting success speak for itself knowing that one of life’s greatest pleasures is doing what people say you cannot do. So with a smile on my face, I will simply say, Wakanda Forever!
– Shereen Rahming
Featured Image Credit: JunaidRao via Flickr. Image used via Creative Commons License available here.