Following the news that Black Panther is a Best Picture nominee, Danielle Dash takes a look at the Marvel movie’s legacy.
I grew up watching X-Men the cartoon every Sunday morning with my Grandfather. I want to romanticise him and claim he understood the need for his granddaughter to see a superhero like Storm, dark skinned as she was, fighting for the greater good with her fellow mutant brethren. However, I think he just liked the storytelling.
Then in 2000, the live action X-Men film was released. Watching the beautiful and supremely talented Halle Berry playing Storm, I felt the sharp sting of a feeling I didn’t then have the language to describe. Now I know it was rejection. This light skinned black actress was more acceptable to Hollywood than a dark skinned black actress – so therefore, light skinned girls must be better than me. I mean, the film’s producers could get Wolverine right, but they didn’t care enough to put the same effort in with Storm.
When the invitation to the European Premiere of Black Panther landed in my inbox, I wished my grandfather was alive so I could take him with me to visit Wakanda. As the descendants of slaves born in Jamaica, my grandparents sought out every opportunity to affirm their blackness. The premiere was an opportunity for me to show up, show out and, in a way, honour my grandparents. Black Twitter had made it clear that everyone was to attend screenings of Black Panther looking nothing but their very best.
I wasn’t about to miss out on what is clearly a significant global cultural event, so I got to work using the skills my grandmother had equipped me with, buying material and sewing myself a floor length skirt made of a deep purple cotton flecked with a delicate gold design. I wore this with a glimmering gold turtleneck jumper I’d snagged at H&M for £7 – but let’s keep that between us. Crushed silver clutch and pointy metallic stilettoes completed my outfit. I was going to Wakanda in style.
Clara Amfo, the stunning BBC Radio 1 presenter, declared Black Panther to be “unapologetically black” as she welcomed more than 3,000 excited fans to the premiere. The audience, many of us sharply turned out in bright and colourful traditional African clothing from across the continent , erupted in deafening cheers as the stars of the most anticipated film of 2018 took the stage. One by one, director Ryan Coogler introduced Florence Kasumba, Leitita Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan and I’m telling you, when Lupita Nyong’o strutted into view, I briefly lost consciousness. The love and admiration radiating throughout the room should be bottled and distributed to cure misery.
The rush for advanced tickets had galvanised the electricity in the room, but a hushed silence fell over us all as the lights dimmed and the iconic Marvel opening credits began to roll.
There in the dark, I cried for my grandparents, who had left Jamaica for Zimbabwe in the early Eighties. They were determined to find an African home free of colonial rule, and to learn an African language in the hopes of undoing the crimes that slavery had committed against them. Black Panther welcomes home the displaced and disposed African people, positioning us not as beasts of burden but as members of a thriving, and proud, fictional African nation. My grandfather would have loved it. As the film continued, I found myself crying again for my younger self, who believed my dark complexion meant I was not good enough. The women in Black Panther look like me, like my mother, like my best friends and my family. These women aren’t suffering, ignored or erased and if only my younger self had access to more images like this, those years of self-doubt and confusion about my beautiful dark skin might have been avoided.
Due to a disturbing combination of colourism (discrimination based on complexion) and misogynoir (anti-black woman sexism), black women with dark skin have historically been denied the same number of opportunities as their white and lighter skinned counterparts. But the myth that black women, and specifically dark skinned black women, are undesirable is finally shattered to smithereens in Black Panther. Here, at last, is a film that presents us with not one, not two, but three fully formed and dark skinned characters, without whom the storyline simply couldn’t exist.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o shines in her role as Nakia, a top Wakandan spy. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira is superb as Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, the women warriors tasked with protecting T’Challa. And Black Mirror’s Letitia Wright is brilliant as Shuri, the Princess of Wakanda and a scientific genius responsible for harnessing the nation’s technological advancements.
Of course, Black Panther is designed to simultaneously tell the story of King T’Challa, thus gearing fans up for this spring’s Avengers: Infinity Wars. But for me, the film is a love letter to dark skinned black women. At its very core it tells those of us who have so often been ignored and abused in film, that we are powerful, important, desirable and beautiful, worthy of protection and love.
Black Panther is the quenching of a collective thirst for representations of blackness on the silver screen that do not rely on suffering or denigration. Full to the brim of Academy Award winners and nominees, including Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and London’s very own Daniel Kaluuya, audiences are in for a heart pumping ride as King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, fights the mouth-watering Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger, to maintain his place on the throne.
Beautifully framed shots of the fictional land of Wakanda, with its rolling hills and mountain ranges, snatch the breath away. The film is a colourful celebration of Africa that both recognises the black struggle while telling a complex and political story without the hardships of blackness at its foundation.
Plus, it flies in the face of the odds for both women and people of colour working in the film industry. UCLA’s 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report detailed the glaring inequality in Hollywood – of the 168 theatrical releases in 2015, only 10.1% were directed by people of colour while 7.7% of those films were directed by women.
Black Panther, in contrast, is written and directed by Ryan Coogler, while also boasting the first woman to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award, Rachel Morrison, as director of photography. Morrison deftly captures the richness of the characters and the landscape of Wakanda, effectively shaming an industry that people of colour and white women are in a nonreciprocal relationship with. Diversity in film improves box office success and yet it’s as if the white men in power are so committed to exclusion, and so willing for the industry to stay white, male and stale, that they’d rather die than give us access to a diversity that they themselves could benefit from.
Black Panther is also a lesson in intersectional feminism, presenting the audience with black women characters so fully articulated they could lead their own films without relying on T’Challa. It builds on the success of recent films such as Selma, Get Out, Girls Trip and Hidden Figures. These films broke down barriers and paved the way to allow this level of big budget, high quality film to exist. It fills me with great joy and, more importantly, hope, for further films in the future that represent characters who are not white men.
I am hopeful that, one day, no young girl will ever again have to feel the sting of rejection I did when I couldn’t see myself reflected in my favourite superhero film. And I look forward to the replication of this level of representation on the small screen, here in Britain. In America, shows like Lena Waithe’s The Chi, Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta are all actively working towards greater representation. How long will we have to wait for another Chewing Gum, where we see two black British women front and centre like the painfully beautiful Michaela Coel, and her equally resplendent co-star Susan Wokoma?
I cannot wait to support those projects with the same verve and vigour that I have Black Panther. But for now? Wakanda forever!
To watch the trailer, click here