It’s no secret that the release of Black Panther has created an excitement like no other, particularly within the black community. It seems like every year some superhero film is released, creating all this hype which it either lives up to or unfortunately disappoints. Black Panther, I’m pleased to say, has definitely exceeded expectations. Now I’m no superhero or action film fan, but I made my way to the cinema to watch Black Panther, quite honestly because the film’s cast was predominantly black. Just like Issa Rae claimed on the Emmys red carpet, I’m rooting for everybody black. When so many of the films released year on year fail to resonate with my identity as a black woman, it’s refreshing to have a film like Black Panther play in cinemas across the country, and not just a few here and there like is usually the case for black films. Black Panther is just one of several films in black cinema that has smashed box office records in recent years. Not only do these records show the world that black films are on the rise again, but they also show the cultural significance that black films do have, and most importantly that black films matter.
Black Panther’s success has a lot to do with the importance of representation. Here we have a film full of superheros, a representation of black characters that we just haven’t seen much of in Hollywood. We’ve been conditioned to be satisfied at the sight of any black actor or actress on screen speaking for more than a few minutes, whether they be a slave, drug dealer, gangster, or sidekick. However Black Panther rids us of those stereotypical characters and gives us a taste of the kind of black characters we need to be seeing more of. The characters African accents aren’t used for comedic effect. Their traditional clothing isn’t used as a sign of backwardness. The natural hairstyles aren’t viewed as problematic. Everything about these characters blackness exudes greatness.
Speaking of greatness, one of the best things about the viewing experience of Black Panther is the cast of beautiful, dark skinned black women. They aren’t used as props or sub-plots, but rather are at the forefront of the story; bad-ass superheroes who aren’t suffering or omitted from the plot. It goes deeper than just celebrating the casting of actresses with a darker skin tone on screen. When you look at the effects of colourism on dark skinned black women, you can understand why this is an occasion worth getting excited over. It’s no secret that Hollywood tends to cast lighter skin black women in the few roles that there are available to us. Remember when Zoë Saldana was cast as Nina Simone? We don’t tend to see darker black women cast as leads in mainstream films, let alone as heroic, strong and intellectual women. Without these three leading ladies in Black Panther, you couldn’t possibly tell the same story.
Although a fictional nation, Wakanda, where the film is set, allows many of us of African descent living in the diaspora to feel proud of this nation that is thriving. Yes, it’s not real, but we are not generally afforded this feeling due to the often negative portrayals of our homelands in either films, documentaries or charity adverts. Yet, finally we have a box office sensation that focuses on black characters that is not centred around black trauma, and shows an African country as technologically advanced and sophisticated, rather than suffering in poverty and from corruption. Social media has been filled with images of those who have taken it upon themselves to dress up in traditional African attire to watch this film, which to me just shows the pride that exudes from many in the audience as we witness on screen an African country we can be proud of, albeit through a fictitious one.
Black Panther isn’t alone in terms of black films reaching out into genres we aren’t typically accustomed too. Get Out, released just last year, took black cinema into the horror genre; a genre which usually has people thinking the black guy dies first, or at least won’t see the end of the film. While this is really an urban myth within the horror genre, it does emphasise that often these types of film lack a black character. But thanks to Jordan Peele’s writing and direction, we were able to see Daniel Kaluyaa’s character survive and make it out alive in this gripping plot. Not only did Get Out become a cult classic, but it’s Oscar nominations also highlighted the wide reach appeal that the film had, suggesting that perhaps the powers that be in the film industry will see that black voices and black films matter and have the ability to reach a wider audience than originally assumed.
While Get Out has enjoyed some mainstream recognition in terms of accolades (this is me assuming Daniel Kaluuya wins that Best Actor award!), not all black led films that have broken records in ticket sales have received the same praise when it comes to awards. Girls Trip was such a standout film for me last year, that I watched it twice in one week. Watching the film with predominantly other black women, I have never laughed so much and felt so free whilst in the cinema. Despite the box office success and positive response from critics, Girls Trip didn’t receive much recognition in terms of accolades. I’m not one for accolades being a true determiner of the greatness of a film, but in this case I can’t help but compare Girls Trip to the likes of Bridesmaids which preceded it years earlier. Bridesmaids was recognised at the Academy Awards, with Melissa McCarthy receiving the nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role which was quite surprising. This was not because her performance wasn’t entertaining, but because it is quite rare for comedies to be recognised at the Academy Awards. Much like Girls Trip, Bridesmaids is led by an all female cast, but despite the actress Maya Rudolph, all the other female leads were white. So naturally we question why the likes of Tiffany Haddish, who was by far the stand out performer in this film and has gone on to pretty much become a household name, was not recognised accordingly either?
It’s no lie that black cinema is on the rise, but a running factor in all these films I’ve discussed above is that they are all Hollywood productions. As a black Brit, it’s evident to me that the same resurgence that is occurring across the pond is not quite happening over here. We have a wave of black talent emerging from the UK – John Boyega, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Alfred Enoch – who we all first met in British film or TV productions. Yet they are all getting their big breaks and making their mark in Hollywood. Even more seasoned actors such as David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba are all making their hits in the USA, with David Oyelowo even moving his whole family to America as there was more opportunity for him there. And it’s not just amongst black British actors that this is happening to. It’s an issue reflected in other races as well. There’s Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel, both British and of Pakistani and Indian heritage respectively, who have gained great success within the Hollywood entertainment industry. This just shows the continuous struggle of actors of colour in the British film and TV industry to truly make their mark.
It’s important to see ourselves on screen, to see our cultures and worlds come to life, but it’s even more important that these depictions are honest, varied and do not follow one path. For me, films like Black Panther are just proof of when we take ownership over our stories, we are able to shape the narrative and stray away from the stereotypical portrayals of Africa and black people as a whole in film. The reactions, positive reviews and monetary success these black films have also gained, further fuel the idea that there is an audience for this underrepresented group of people, one which craves to have more stories like these told. I hope that black cinema continues to rise and becomes a normalised part of the film industry.
Written by Aisha Rimi