Changing The Narrative: The Importance Of Marvel’s 'Black Panther' In The United Kingdom
"Although 'Black Panther' may just be one film, and its positive model of representation is the exception rather than the rule, it has succeeded in showing the world a new perspective ..."
This February, the world witnessed the release of Black Panther, a superhero punch-up with all the trappings of a classic Marvel blockbuster: enormous budget, muscled heroes and extensive CGI. There was one exception — it is the first Marvel movie to feature a nearly all-black cast. On the surface, many would say that this detail isn’t all too significant; "There are loads of black actors!" They say, "I love Samuel L. Jackson!" Well, in the last 10 years, a mere 13 percent of UK films have had a black actor in a leading role, with nearly 60 percent having no black actors at all in any role. As a result of this clear lack of screen presence, young black children find themselves in a situation in which they not only lack representation on screen, but also find that in the instances where they are represented, that representation is confined to a series of limited and stereotypical roles (i.e. a slave in a historical drama, a criminal or drug dealer or an accessory/sidekick whose only role is to stand there and look cool).
Black Panther, however, does not confine black people to the standard tropes of drug dealers or accessories, but, instead, places them at the center of the narrative as leaders, warriors, brilliant scientists and slick undercover agents. It does not present a Europeanized black ideal, characterized by relaxed hair or lighter skin, but instead portrays black people as they are, unapologetically, with darker-skinned actors such as Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o taking centre stage, proudly wearing their natural hair and embracing the beauty of their own skin. The importance of this positive representation is critical as too often, young black children struggle to find positive role models on-screen. The roles played by black people are often limited, and, for young black girls, the combined effect of under-representation and misogynoir does little to nurture a positive self-image.
However, Black Panther does the opposite, presenting a range of different black women in a wide array of roles, from the brilliant young scientist Shuri, to Danai Gurira’s courageous warrior character, Okoye. It presents its female characters as entities separate from their male counterparts, with Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia not merely presented as a love interest for T’challa, but instead as a driven woman with aims and a personality outside of her romantic life. Furthermore, Black Panther does not relegate its female characters to subordinate positions outside of the film’s focus, but instead places them in positions of power and authority on par with men, challenging the status quo and showing that black women, and women in general, are just as worthy of respect and admiration as anyone else.
In addition, unlike so many of the films that came before it, Black Panther does not conform to the standard narratives. Instead, it presents a different narrative, one that shows an African nation untouched by colonialism and what that could have looked like. It shows an African nation that has taken charge of its own immense resources and is proud and determined; there’s no foreign assistance to be found (Wakanda explicitly rejects it), no foreign intervention and its culture is celebrated, rather than eschewed in favour of Western norms. Black Panther presents the cultures of Africa in a "framing of beauty and wealth," highlighting the enormous diversity present on the continent and encouraging pride in traditions, rather than falling into the trap of presenting a stereotypical and simplistic image of Africa.
Although Black Panther may just be one film, and its positive model of representation is the exception rather than the rule, it has succeeded in showing the world a new perspective, one that shows black people are more than just the stereotypes placed upon them, but are eclectic, vibrant and full of potential.