‘Black Panther’: Why Representation Matters

Growing up, seeing people who looked like me – especially in mainstream media – certainly wasn’t the norm. Today, not much has changed. Muslim and Arab representations still depict us as a savage, barbaric people driven by terrorist motives to ruthlessly kill. We have been treated to film after film in which we are reduced to playing the part of terrorist, evil villain, sinister billionaire and, of course, silenced women. Think about how such images would impact your sense of self-worth. And, worse, think about how that makes others see you and your community. If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mainstream media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. If you are a minority, it’s challenging to not be angry with Hollywood for the irresponsibly negative ways it has depicted Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and other minority groups – all in the pursuit of making millions, if not billions, of dollars. 

So, a movie like Black Panther comes along – taking in nearly $200 million dollars across North American theatres its opening weekend – and I’m left feeling more inspired and hopeful than ever before. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It is an authentic and honest delivery on imagining a world of alternative possibilities. Representations are both complex and nuanced. It illuminates the vast diversity of African cultures and histories. It honours the significant ties to ancestral struggle and sacrifice. And for the first time in Hollywood’s history, Black people, particularly Black women, embody a powerful spirit of agency. A story is finally being told on the big screen without care or concern to appease a white audience. For far too long, Hollywood has set a low standard for incredibly talented Black actors and artists in the industry. Limited by stereotypical roles – the slave, the criminal thug, the poor ghetto kid –  Black people have been expected to play characters only serving to support the leading role of white actors – the saviour, the hero, the saint. That, or they are instantly killed off, usually within the first few minutes of the opening credits. Black Panther is a film that refuses to settle, and pushes back with a great force of tenacity and ambition nevertheless. Played by a mostly Black cast, Black people here are unapologetically their own agents of change. They’re heroes leading their own destinies with a great sense of triumph and inner strength. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely humour, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colours.

Above all else, it’s a movie about what it means to be Black in both America and Africa – and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day Black life. It challenges racist, colonial ideologies by dispelling myths of current-day political and social realities. The U.S. loses its credibility as an imperial power, and Africa is no longer depicted as a starving, barren land dependent upon foreign aid for survival. Instead, these alternative representations serve to interrupt stereotypical ways of thinking of Africa and its people in relation to the rest of the world. It provides an uncontested space to speak truths by completely reimagining the possibilities. It asks of us to consider African states as sovereign, wealthy, and technologically advanced, with an unyielding will for self-determination. This too is coming from an assumed connection to the historical implications that colonialism – the theft of land, resources, and human capital by European colonizers – and racism – the history of slavery in the Americas and the Jim Crow era –  has had and continues to have on African states and Black people everywhere. Essentially, Black Panther makes us contemplate the what ifs if you will. After the Obama era, perhaps none of this should feel groundbreaking. But it does. In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge systemic racism (e.g. police brutality and mass incarceration), its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on Black life and tradition.

Throughout the entirety of the film, Black Panther offers counter narratives of cultural resistance to impartial, untrue, and problematic representations of Black people and other communities of colour. It’s a reclamation of stories – a movement towards reinventing the public perception of who we are and where we come from. It’s a retelling of lived experiences from the eyes of those of us who have historically been marginalized and shunned from the dominant sphere. Black Panther also places a striking emphasis on the nuances of home. It doesn’t shy away from the painful realities of exile and diaspora most commonly experienced by many living in the West. While it focused primarily on the experiences of African Americans, this is something that deeply resonates with me. As a child of immigrants, self-discovery and identity formation in context of the question of home has always been a struggle. Coming to terms with my identity and my place in the world has resulted in a difficult, and ongoing process of reconciling the void between here and there. That is, the relationship between my birthplace and place of origin is complicated. Here, never Canadian enough to belong – there, never considered Arab or Muslim enough to fit in. Deemed an outsider within, my Canadian, Arab, and Muslim identities are at once rejected. Seen as one or the another, but never all together. They are at odds with one another, wrestling the notorious battle that aspires to cultivate a sense of purpose, belonging, and inner peace. I’ve learned that acceptance of this beautifully agonizing predicament is necessary. It’s a way of being and becoming, but also vital to my very existence. In the same way, Black Panther is telling of a similar account rooted in longing for someplace else.

Black Panther is a history-in-the-making kind of film. It’s a milestone worthy of celebration for many reasons. But for me, Black Panther is a big deal particularly because it gives me – and people of other minority groups – the freedom to dream of one day seeing our own superheroes. I look forward to the day when my community can be this excited to see a movie that showcases one of us as a superhero. What a contrast it would be to how cruelly Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs in both television and films for decades. Black Panther has already broken box-office records, which means that we’ll hopefully continue to see dynamically complex Black characters and captivatingly compelling stories of communities of colour both on and off screen. And here’s hoping that Black Panther’s popularity translates into other minority groups finally getting a chance to see someone who looks like them save the world.

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