The independent news organization of Duke University

What Black Panther means for minority representation

On the run from mediocrity

Growing up, when my mom wanted to take me to see a movie where the majority of the cast was black, we had to drive much farther to find the few theaters around us where the film was playing. Whoever chooses which movies should be in big theaters, like Regal and AMC, evidently didn’t think “black movies”—movies where the majority of the cast is black—would resonate with their consumer base, which defaults to white Americans. It never occurred to me why my mom and I had to wait for months and drive so far out of the way to see “Jumping the Broom” and “War Room” until now.

But this isn’t the case with Black Panther. Black Panther is a pioneer in the entertainment industry because of the intellectual, powerful and complex way it represents black people and black issues in a big budget blockbuster film. It’s about black people, but it’s not just for black people. I didn’t see it with my mom, but this time she could have her pick out of all the theaters around us to watch it.

At work one day, I told a friend I was excited to see Black Panther that coming weekend. The vast majority of Duke students, other friends and adults I had talked with echoed reviews I’d seen online—they said that the visuals were amazing, the plot was engaging and the message was powerful. Michelle Obama said in a tweet that she loved it and knew that it would inspire “people of all backgrounds to be the heroes of their own stories.” Naturally, I absorbed all of this excitement and had high expectations for seeing the movie, which weren’t disappointed when I saw it for myself. 

But after hearing that I was excited to see the film, another person I work with turned around to face me. She said that multiple friends of hers who had seen it didn’t get the greatness of the movie. She said they didn’t think it was any more special than any of the other Marvel movies, and that they had told her to wait for the DVD. 

I had known, without even seeing the movie, that the main focus of the excitement surrounding Black Panther wasn’t because it was the newest Marvel movie.

T’Challa—the protagonist and the Black Panther’s uncle—tries to bring vibranium to the U.S. because he notices the lack of resources and support provided to poor black neighborhoods Southern California. Those who live in these areas are ignored, forgotten or blamed for their own problems by their government. His uncle sees that they could fight back against systematic oppression and make their lives better if they had the power and economic stability that vibranium gives the people of Wakanda.

This problem isn’t fiction. In most superhero movies, the world is endangered by the newest imaginary monster or power that would never exist in real life. But in Black Panther, the root of the villainy is systematic oppression and unequal allocation of resources—both in the U.S., and in wealthier Western nations that believe they have no responsibility to help nations with so little. This disadvantaged youth in Oakland, California is what drives Erik Killmonger, the “villain” who takes over Wakanda, to be so vengeful and starved for power.

These issues aren’t made up, and they won’t be over when the credits roll and the final song plays. They’re still alive and well. When Erik said to let him die and to “bury his body in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage,” that hit me because my ancestors came to the U.S. on slave ships. They were the ones who chose not to jump. 

Shuri, a black girl from the fictional African country of Wakanda, is the smartest girl in the world. She is poised without being subservient, and she is witty without being stereotypically sassy. When Agent Ross accidentally scares her, she scolds him and calls him a “colonizer.” She and the other characters show a diversity in personality among black characters that hasn’t been present in films. The wide range of personalities that black people can have haven’t been able to fit into the marginal or singular roles that black characters have played in major movies thus far. 

As a black person, I know that that transparent dialogue focusing on these issues is a hugely significant driver of the excitement that Black Panther has evoked. But I think about these issues all the time, so I noticed these subtle social and historical commentaries right away.

In that moment when my friend spoke, I was reminded that issues of race and representation aren’t burning problems to everyone else. I was reminded that someone could sit through the entirety of Black Panther, feel nothing and wonder what the hype was about. It became clear to me that just showing Black Panther in big theaters and giving it rave reviews isn’t enough for more people to know why it is important—people who didn’t grow up wondering what it would be like to see superheroes who looked like them. 

So if you didn’t get the hype or you just thought it was good because of the visuals, that’s okay. But it is equally important to understand that the reason why it has grossed 786.3 million dollars in box office ticket sales, and why it has a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is because of what it means for minority representation.

The conversations and push for better minority representation should not end here. As I rode home from the movie theater in a Lyft, the driver, who identifies as black, told me he didn’t care for Black Panther because it assumes that all black people are from Africa. I’m not affirming that the movie does everything right for everyone, but I am saying that it marks a huge step in our progression of representing black people in entertainment. We’re past blackface, and we’re getting past one-dimensional supporting roles that cast black people in the name of “diversity.” 

Black Panther isn’t perfect, but it leverages a widely-consumed genre of media to tackle real issues. Now, we must ensure that people don’t glaze over the problems the movie addresses to focus on the stunning visuals—and perhaps most importantly, that our communities do not regard them as fictional problems that have been resolved once the sun set on Wakanda.

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “What Black Panther means for minority representation” on social media.