When an ominous figure in an impenetrable suit with cat ears first dropped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and began battle with the Winter Soldier, many of us reacted the same way as our story’s protagonist – with confusion. For many casual MCU fans, this was the first we’d seen of the Black Panther. When the cat-eared (yet still intimidating) mask came off, many of us reacted with shocked glee. This was the first we’d seen of a black man playing a major character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From the start, the man behind the mask, Prince T’Challa, presents as a foreigner, from his introduction as a prince from an obscure African country to his noticeable accent. But the label goes beyond his character description: unlike most other black characters in the MCU movies, T’Challa stands on his own. He is no Mordo, who mentors Dr. Strange. He is no Heimdall, who’s duty-bound to Odin and Thor. He’s no Sam Wilson, or Falcon, who’s mostly around to help Captain America beat up bad guys. He isn’t even James Rhodes, aka War Hammer, who, despite having an established separate career of his own, for the most part contributes to the plot just by keeping Tony Stark alive. He is not another black hero made to babysit white male heroes. No, the Black Panther skips these steps and joins Nick Fury in the lonesome position of being black men who stand for themselves in the MCU. And for every Marvel fan of color, it’s not only refreshing, but encouraging to see.
Black Panther is the first out of the eighteen Marvel movies made in the last decade to shine its spotlight on a minority character and it does for minorities what DC’s Wonder Woman did for females. It represents, but more than that, it proudly represents. Though Wakanda is about as real as Themyscira (which is to say it isn’t), the empowerment it generates is visibly real. For black people, African or African American, there’s finally a movie that doesn’t just star a superhero who has the same skin tone, but is filled to the brim with characters with purpose and personality, who look just like them.
The characters and land of Wakanda were created to resemble existing cultures of Africa, from the fashion to the language and everything between. Afro-centric fashion in the movie ranges from ceremonial lip plates and scar tattoos inspired by the Surma and Mursi tribes, to Igbo masks, West African Agbada robes, and flared Zulu Isicholos headdresses. The filmmakers even used isiXhosa, the language of 8 million South Africans, as “Wakandan”.
Even other minorities eagerly awaited the arrival of a movie with people who look a bit more like them. Watching Black Panther as an Indian female, I found myself much more invested in Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, then I ever was in Black Widow or the Scarlet Witch.
This was helped by the fact that Black Panther has many female leads that easily fit the mold of “strong, independent women” without being cookie-cutter characters. Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia, despite being T’Challa’s ex and romantic interest, is a fierce advocate for using Wakanda’s innumerable resources to help their neighboring countries and leads her own missions to do so. Okoye, played by Danai Guiria, is the stoic, loyal leader of the all-female Dora Milaje special forces of Wakanda. Shuri, perhaps the most popular for IMSA students to identify with, is only sixteen and still huffs at tradition and quotes Vines, yet designs the majority of the breathtaking, stunningly efficient technology that puts Wakanda so far ahead of the crowd.
There’s so much more to the representation in this movie, too much to fit into one article. What’s written here barely scratches the surface of a movie that brings a legion of talented and hard-working black people to the red carpet, while addressing many issues that are relevant today: there’s still the story of Killmonger, the vengeful but politically-motivated African American antagonist; there’s the vulnerability of T’Challa grieving over his father and expressing guilt, sadness, and fear, without worrying for his masculinity; there’s the land of Wakanda, a speculation of what Africa could have flourished to become without colonization; the role of Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, the sole white “good guy”, and the avoidance of the white savior trope; and much, much more. Really, the only way to even process the number of issues this film addresses, while also addressing representation, is to go and see it for yourself. Maybe you’ll see yourself up on the screen.