Just over a century ago, the white supremacist propaganda film “Birth of a Nation” overtook the cultural consciousness. President Woodrow Wilson was so taken with the now-infamous racist film that he had it screened in the White House, and enough Americans were inspired by its rhetoric that the Klu Klux Klan, previously inactive, experienced a major resurgence. In the most tragic sense, “Birth of a Nation” was an early lesson in the power of film to shape culture and politics, a reminder that we often reflect pop culture, rather than it reflecting us.
“Black Panther” is a far cry from “Birth of a Nation.” Where the latter traded in explicitly hateful racial stereotypes, the former subverts them, ultimately delivering a positive message of empowerment and representation. But in considering why “Black Panther” has struck such a chord throughout the country, it’s important to recognize just how impactful film can be. Films, for better or for worse, inform our political landscape. In “Black Panther,” that power is leveraged to its fullest, and most positive, extent.
“Black Panther” grossed over 400 million dollars in just four days, satisfying a need for a different kind of big-budget storytelling in the country’s cinematic landscape. That need was for color: actors of color who play heroes of color, characters who possess abilities as rich and inspiring as their on-screen white counterparts; places of color that don’t resemble Western ideals or European infrastructure; directors of color who can bring empathy and awareness to the film’s vision; writers of color and designers of color, who base contributions on their own previously unheard experiences.
Now that “Black Panther” has responded to that call for color, analysis of the film is rightly revolving around its unprecedented blackness. This means a lot. It means that the film provided a successful showcase of voices all too rarely heard on and off the screen. It means that when minority filmmakers assume major positions behind cameras, and these filmmakers are given the freedom to execute visions shaped by who they are, then the final products are predisposed to thrive. It means that those final products are destined to shift the frustration and neglect of so many underrepresented groups of people, and guaranteed to fuel meaningful conversations about equality.
But “Black Panther” does more than provide representation for people of color.It also offers a view of Africa that runs counter to many Americans’ perceptions of the continent. Whether consciously or not, many view Africa as universally underdeveloped, impoverished, and in need of rescue by more “developed” countries.
With diversity beginning to be recognized in Hollywood, it is up to the scores of current professionals, and younger generations—Tam students included–—to continue expanding and building off of the “Panther” platform and carry that diversity off the screen and into their lives.
The long-term impact of “Black Panther” has yet to be seen, but regardless of what happens next, the film isn’t just a flash in the pan. At the very least, it’s proved to major studios the financial and critical viability–even advantage–of films headlined by majority casts of color and of narratives created and directed by people of color.
As consumers, our buying choices give us power. It’s up to us to use that power for good, by choosing to support films featuring underrepresented groups and stories financially. Even if superhero movies aren’t your “thing”, you can seek out other forms of media that amplify the voices of marginalized peoples. It might not seem like much, and it’ll never beat real political activism, but it’s a start. An added bonus? It’s pretty fun.