I saw Black Panther on Thursday night.
Two thumbs up! Wakanda all the way! Is T’Challa the greatest monarch to join the Avengers? Yup! (Sorry, Thor!) I loved the movie as a solid representative of the superhero movie genre.
And from a diversity and inclusion perspective, I loved it. Why should a white guy be so excited for this rich African hero?
I’ve written about why I think that diversity and inclusion is important to our country. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about being willing to see things from different perspectives – and how hard that can really be. One of the concepts I’ve had to work to understand is the concept of privilege.
“Privilege” can be a polarizing topic. My first reaction to the idea was a visceral disagreement. “Privilege”? Absurd. We grew up poor. My family has no wealth. I was accepted to my dream college (Cornell) but couldn’t afford to go there. Everything that I have in my life I’ve had to work for. Like I said… a visceral disagreement.
But no worries. It’s just my amygdala going nuts. (See the embedded link in “Magic Words Can Change the World” above.) As I worked through my reaction and actually took the time to learn something my perspective began to change. Here’s my (amateur) understanding of the concept of “privilege”.
“Privilege” is not an absolute value. It only exists in relative terms – as a comparison between two dissimilar scenarios. Scenarios like:
- I’ve never been afraid for my safety when I’ve dealt with law enforcement.
- When I have to use a restroom at work, I’ve never had to worry about whether my using the restroom would be an issue for other people around me – or maybe illegal in my state.
- When my wife and I got married, I did not have to think about whether strangers would speak out against my right to marry the person I love – or actively work to make such a marriage impermissible in the eyes of the law.
So from these relative perspectives, I’ve enjoyed white-, cisgender-, and heterosexual-privileges.
As I think back to my geekish childhood, I had my pick of superheroes with whom I could identify. Heroes who looked like me. Heroes with whom I identify. When I was first enchanted by the mythology of Star Wars I could look at the screen and decide which one of the characters I wanted to be. As I was amazed by protagonists of science fiction and fantasy stories I could decide which one best represented my ideal self. I had lots of options. (OK, I really wanted to be an Elf. But I’d settle for human characters in these stories.)
But I recognize now that people of color, LGBT people, people of other faiths… these people had fewer heroes with whom they might find commonality in such fundamentally personal ways. Our western European heritage has largely shaped our fantasy and science fiction landscapes. Relative to the experiences of these others, I had geek-privilege.
I went to high school with a very talented artist, writer, and comicbook creator who tackled this issue of lack of diversity in comics. Check out my friend Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s creation, La Borinqueña. He’s got impressive geek credentials. He’s worked with Marvel, Atlantic Records, Darryl DMC McDaniels, and John Leguizamo. He’s also used his creative powers to #DoGood for the people of Puerto Rico.
I’ve appreciated the diverse casts of the newest chapters in the Star Wars saga. I was hopeful that Black Panther would bring us a rich African story in a way that respects the real-world cultures that the Marvel Cinematic Universe film would (I assumed) draw from. I wasn’t disappointed.
A recent Reddit post asked about the real-world African cultures behind the film’s design. Mark Mukasa provided a detailed response with plenty of sources. Take a moment to read it – it’s wonderful! He was gracious enough to send some additional information:
Here’s a fantastic Twitter thread about the fashion elements.
A great Twitter image collage of people dressing up to see Black Panther.
More of an emotional tug.
Follow Mark on Twitter. Share some social media love! He deserves it!
Here’s my tweet from the morning after the movie.
I am saddened, but not surprised, to read people attacking this movie. The fictional Wakanda draws from a broad array of African elements. I recognize that Africa is a continent – not a country. A deleted response in that Reddit thread pointed out that Wakanda’s many inspirations are the equivalent of jamming together English, Italian, Spanish, and German elements as a “European” nation. Fair point.
But when a group has effectively NO positive and powerful representation in a medium, isn’t MORE necessarily BETTER? I think so. Can one argue in good faith that the imperfections of the African representations in this mainstream blockbuster somehow mean that we should downplay the smash success of the film and its implications for the diversity of our culture? I don’t see how you can.
Black Panther is an amazing film. It’s Marvel Studio’s latest flexing of their creative muscles. It fits perfectly into the larger story arc that we’ll see culminated in the upcoming Infinity War. I loved the movie regardless of any criticism of its impact in our society. For pure popcorn fun, it had me grinning nonstop.
And today I’m happy that my fellow geeks have this rich African hero and story to be inspired by. I’m excited about the idea of black children seeing these characters on screen and saying “that’s me!” I think that finding a connection over the continued love of these fantastic stories – our modern myths – is an opportunity to bring us together. To unite rather than divide.
That’s the real heroism in this story.