Black Panther as a Cultural Movement

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

I love Marvel, but I am very clearly not African-American. While I am proudly Asian-American, my New England experiences have also made me very basic and white. In fact, I might be one of the least qualified people to tell you how important Black Panther is. But, I can’t emphasize how instrumental this film is for not just the future of Hollywood, but for an entire generation.

It is impossible to count the number of records this movie has broken on two hands. Black Panther is currently the highest-rated superhero movie on Rotten Tomatoes with 97 percent, tied with The Incredibles. It had the most ticket presales out of all superhero films, including those from Marvel Studios. It has the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) highest-grossing first week at the box office. It had the biggest opening weekend at the box office for an African-American director, Ryan Coogler. It set a record for the highest box office opening weekend in February, beating Deadpool by $60 million. Oh and by the way, that opening weekend made $202 million.

Black Panther, a movie almost entirely featuring African-American actors, directors, writers, and overall crew members, now has the fifth-highest domestic opening weekend of all time, wedged in between two of the MCU’s biggest movies, The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Hollywood calls Black Panther and its financial performance a watershed moment. Black Panther is not just a magnificent, long-overdue film that praises its cultural origins. It’s become a beautiful gemstone in the history and culture of African-Americans, and maybe of their children’s history and culture, and perhaps a lightning rod of inspiration for those who seek it. It educates others about African culture and helps to open people’s perspectives about the world around them. It is visually stunning and probably Marvel’s smartest movie, with every choice made — certain shots, certain costumes and motifs, certain colors — meaning something. It is thought-provoking and examines a culture’s past to prepare for their future through its larger, overall messages. It is masterfully acted, featuring fantastic performances from all of its actors — especially that of Michael B. Jordan, whose portrayal of Killmonger usurps the title of the MCU’s best villain from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki for a key reason: Loki, universally loved, is a classic comic book villain. But Killmonger, also universally loved, starts discussions.

Everything surrounding Black Panther was more than just hype for another Marvel movie. It was the slow build-up to a cultural reckoning; from its casting news and announcements to its trailers to the moments before and after walking to the theater and seeing the celebration of African and African-American culture reflected in the clothes of the people Black Panther seeks to represent, this movie had much higher stakes and maybe even sky-high expectations to meet due to its material and proposed vision.

And thankfully, it did. In fact, not only did Black Panther meet those sky-high expectations, it almost fundamentally changed our cultural landscape. Black Panther caused tremors throughout a culture and through a grander political scheme. It’s finally proven how and why representation matters in Hollywood and what this can do for a person. In a time of political turmoil and loss of hope, Black Panther brings that hope back to its community and worldwide, and maybe serves as an inspiration to that young African-American boy who wants to break into the entertainment industry or that African-American teenage girl wanting to break into the STEM fields. However, since this is also a time of said political turmoil, it’s also brought out the worst in people.

In the first few days of Black Panther’s release, some Twitter accounts tried to spread false stories of attacks at screenings, saying that African-American attackers called people out saying “This movie ain’t for you, whitey” or “You’re in the wrong theater.” To make matters worse, pictures of “victims” from these Twitter accounts ranged from pictures of domestic abuse victims to pictures of people who were attacked up to five years ago.

To combat the racism and bigotry, a little while after, some Twitter users pushed back and mocked the attackers with tweets such as “last night I was attending Black Panther when a black child who looked to be around four years old told me ‘this movie wasn’t for me’ and proceeded to violently assault me with an eighteen megaton atomic bomb,” accompanied by a picture of an atomic bomb, and other stories of “attacks” combined with images of beaten up people from pop culture. The overwhelmingly positive response Black Panther has generated from people shows that overall, the movie aims to be a force for good and a catalyst to shape the future. And perhaps most importantly, people are supporting that change and working harder to make it happen.

In an op-ed piece with CNN, host of The Dean Obeidallah Show, Dean Obeidallah, stated how Black Panther’s success “gives me hope that one day my minority group, Arab Americans and Muslims, will see a superhero from our community on the big screen.” Throughout most of our lives, African-Americans and members of other minority groups like myself have seen people who look like us as people needing to be saved, or as villains, or simply not on the screen at all. But Black Panther changes all of that drastically.

From a financial and business standpoint, Black Panther proves that African-Americans on the screen are bankable and can generate profit, and that consumers are yearning for more diverse properties where they can see themselves on TV or in a packed theater. From a cultural standpoint, Black Panther is the newest addition to a prestigious and widely celebrated list of movies like Star Wars and fellow MCU entries The Avengers and Raiders of the Lost Ark, celebrated for their impact on history, on people, and on a generation. And for African-Americans, Black Panther is an overwhelmingly positive reminder that you truly can do anything you set your mind to, because someone who looks just like you might just be doing the exact same thing.