For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.
On February 4th, I began the series with a post about Jordan Peele’s Get Out and how the film can encourage white people to confront our microaggressions and other harmful behaviors towards people of color. Today, I will be talking about Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther and how the film can encourage white people to see ourselves as followers and people of color as our leaders.
This post contains mild spoilers for Black Panther.
Like most of the American population, I saw Black Panther this weekend.
It was pretty damn great.
The costumes and visuals were stunning. Shuri is my new favorite Disney Princess, and Erik Killmonger is the most well-rounded Marvel villain yet (deal with it, Loki-stanners). Chadwick Boseman played his role perfectly and looked beautiful as ever. And the Dora Milaje kicked major butt.
What made this Marvel film attract so much attention was how it centered the African/black experience, while the white people served as “token characters” who supported the main African and black characters, in a role reversal rarely seen in film. In doing so, this film is not only prophetic for people of color, but for white people, too.
In Black Panther, we are shown a world in which white people are not calling all the shots or even controlling the narrative. Instead, they are following the lead of the people of color.
Black Panther’s Dora Milaje — Photo: Marvel Studios
From its aesthetics to its story, Black Panther is greatly influenced by the genre of “Afrofuturism,” which is a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts. Stories which fall under this genre reimagine a world in which colonialism did not occur, and they also project what those affected by the African diaspora can do as active agents in their own futures.
The heroes and heroines in Black Panther, and other Afrofuturist tales, do not wait for a white savior to come to their rescue. Instead, they are their own saviors. They are their own queens and kings, princes and princesses, presidents and generals, warriors and politicians, representatives and resisters. They are not tokens or model citizens. Without the oversight of white supremacy, they have the dignity to embody the whole range of the human experience.
As such, the film features both black excellence and black pain, which results in an empowering form of representation for Africans and the African diaspora (the global communities descended from the movement of African peoples from their homeland).
White people, on the other hand, participate in the “token roles” normally designated for people of color in predominantly white films. They go from the leaders and the storytellers to the followers of black leadership.
CIA Agent Everett Ross is one of the two “token white guys,” and his role as a white person in a superhero franchise is subversive for the genre. Ross is the butt of several jokes in the movie…[and] exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. He’s even called a “colonizer” in a semi-joking, semi-serious manner, going for the heart of the long arduous relationship between the two cultures.
But Ross is such an important character for white people to watch, primarily because he is not the main player. He serves as T’Challa’s ally who saves and is saved by Wakandans. During his time in Wakanda, Ross submits to African leadership. When he dares to speak out of turn to a tribe’s leader, he is immediately and hilariously shut down, further confirming the centrality of black leadership in the film.
And despite his nickname, Ross subverts the white trope of colonizer and white savior not only by taking on a less significant role but by following black leadership. He does not demean their leadership or demand that he play a bigger part. Instead, he recognizes and accepts his place in the Wakandan story, and as such he serves as a helpful ally.
For the first time in a Marvel movie, and in one of the few instances in American film period, white people are not the ones in charge of shaping the story. That role and responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of the black characters. Instead, white people serve as allies who follow their lead and their codes.
This is why Black Panther is an important film, not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for our global culture. In a culture that consistently labels white people as the heroes and leaders of this world, it is important for people of color to see a hero who looks like them.
It is also as important for white people to remember they are not the only ones in charge of this world.
We need to be willing and able to humble ourselves before our siblings of color and let them lead us, because they have dreams for a future which requires us to lay our power down.