February 20, 2018

To put it simply: I am not an action movie gal. My tolerance for loud noises and violence is considerably low. I watched Independence Day with my step-dad in order to bond. I saw Rush Hour 3 for a guy I liked in high school—but, on the whole, you can find me watching romantic comedies or movie musicals.

So, how did I find myself in a sold-out movie theater watching Black Panther, the new action-packed superhero movie that would be sure to have plenty of loud noises and violence? To put it simply: to fit in. My Black Twitter peers have been buzzing about the movie’s release for a while now, so I knew in order to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist I would have to see it … eventually.

Heading into the movie that night, I was nervous.

I was nervous not only in anticipation of the loud action sequences, but also because I wasn’t sure how much I was allowed to enjoy the movie as a light-skinned, biracial woman.

A lot of the buzz about Black Panther focuses on representation and inclusion—not only is the majority of the cast black, but they’re dark-skinned, which we rarely see (let alone celebrate) in mainstream media. I didn’t want to co-opt this celebratory moment for my dark-skinned sisters.

The lack of visibility of dark-skinned women is an issue I observe all the time. In my day-to-day life, I talk a lot about racial equity, diversity, representation, and inclusion—specifically in the theatre space. As Playbill’s Social Media Manager and as the creator of the call and response podcast, which explores the intersection of blackness and performing arts, I’m always dissecting and analyzing how the black experience is being represented in our industry.

black-panther-main-character Marvel Studios

As I interview more artists for the podcast, a trend has developed: attaining diversity is often seen as just plugging a few actors of color into the ensemble cast.

As we take steps forward, actors of color perhaps become leading players, but in roles that were originally presented as white. Condola Rashad as Juliet in the 2013 Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet. Tony nominee Denée Benton as Russian aristocrat Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (a musical based off of a 70-page slice of War and Peace). And soon Jelani Alladin as Kristoff in Disney’s blockbuster musical, Frozen.

Attaining diversity is often seen as just plugging a few actors of color into the ensemble cast.

Yes, it is important to see a black woman as royalty or a black man as the leading man—at least she isn’t the help and he isn’t the villain. We’re moving past stereotypes and seeing that we as black people can (and should) be trusted to lead the storytelling.

But why are actors of color typically limited to telling white stories?

Shows specifically about the black experience—both on the screen and the stage—are few and far between. We get the excuse that “there’s no money to be made, there’s no interest in black stories!” Statistically, and anecdotally, this is untrue. Girls Trip grossed more than $138 million worldwide. Get Out made $254 million worldwide.

In television, perhaps we are seeing more strides. We have Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. We have Black-ish. We have Sterling K. Brown raking in awards for his work on network television’s hottest (and saddest) drama, This Is Us.

In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, Brown noted, “You wrote a role for a black man, that could only be played by a black man...I’m being seen for who I am, and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me.”

And now, we have Black Panther.

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As I scrambled for my seat to see Black Panther, I didn’t want to take away from my darker skinned brothers and sisters. I didn’t want my excitement to occupy this space and moment of rare representation—this moment that felt like theirs to celebrate. What I found, though, is that Black Panther created a space for everyone to come together and celebrate the power of inclusive stories.

The film is truly, richly, and deeply black. There are references and signifiers that only a person who grew up in black culture would understand. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) greets Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) with a “Haaay Auntie.” T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) look the white FBI agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) up and down when he non-consensually and playfully slaps T’Challa on the arm. We see what a non-colonized African nation would look like—without a “poor African” narrative being pushed. We see developed, multi-dimensional, complex black characters. Twitter support has even bubbled up for the film’s “villain,” Killmonger, who has been noted as less of a villain, and more of someone with a different, and justifiable, perspective.

black-panther Marvel Studios

The women are not flimsy side characters. They are at the forefront of the action, and none of the film’s triumphs could happen without them. They are dark-skinned. They aren’t objectified. They aren’t steeped in mammy or jezebel tropes. They are the leaders of their country. This a credit to the writers, Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, who demanded and provided more.

The farther we got into Black Panther, the more joyful I felt—and it reverberated throughout the entire audience.

The characters were authentically and unapologetically themselves, which created a space for us audience members to be ourselves. We laughed, we cried, we applauded—the pinnacle being someone shouting “That dude is still in the sunken place!” when Daniel Kaluuya’s character W’Kabi sided with Killmonger (Kaluuya also starred in Get Out). For all intents and purposes, this film is for, by, and about black people.

The characters were authentically and unapologetically themselves, which created a space for us audience members to be ourselves.

And yet, there’s been a fascinating crossover with white fans—particularly of the superhero/comic book variety. You wouldn’t believe my surprise when one of my white, straight, male co-workers, who has seen every superhero movie ever, gushed over this movie with such passion and enthusiasm.

Our exchange began with his typical notes of action cinematography and superhero narrative, but it quickly switched to women’s empowerment and the history between the Black Panther character and the Black Panther Party political movement. When I asked who he was and what he had done with the real co-worker, he put it simply: “Black Panther changes people.” And now, I know firsthand how this movie changes people.

Black Panther creates a space of community for everyone to enjoy.

The film sets up such a compelling narrative that any viewer can empathize with the characters. Even though the story is so specific, there is a universality that we all can relate to—regardless of race. And that’s an amazing feat worth replicating.

Black Panther has done something rare: It is a movie with blackness at its nucleus, but it hasn’t been cast off as a “black movie” by the mainstream. Its narrative permeates through racial lines and has brought us all together to simply watch this masterpiece as a community.

Black Panther has done something rare: It is a movie with blackness at its nucleus, but it hasn’t been cast off as a “black movie” by the mainstream.

The more we collectively demand these types of inclusive stories, the more we will see them. Real and effective representation and inclusion in art and media is possible, and here are three steps if you want to continue the momentum:

3 Ways You Can Push For More Representation in Art

1. Put Your Dollars Into It

When living on a budget, it can be hard to justify spending money on the movies or live performances—but money is the most effective way to prove we want and demand more authentic representation in media. Your dollars shows producers that you are interested in seeing these types of stories onstage and on screen.

When selecting a movie or play to go see, take note of the diversity of the cast and creative team.

When selecting a movie or play to go see, take note of the diversity of the cast and creative team. Challenge yourself to read only books written by women of color for a month. The more aware we are of what we put our dollars into, the more effective change we can create.

2. Amplify Messages

If you are seriously strapped for cash, pick up your digital pen and get talking. Social media is our generation’s word-of-mouth, and people are listening. Share how much a particular piece of art resonated with you, or use your power by following and retweeting.

Follow your favorite art-makers, retweet announcements from budding talent, and get involved in the conversation. Use your platform to amplify.

3. Create

If you’re not happy with what you see, create it. If you have a distinct perspective, share it. We live in a time where anyone can create content (for better or for worse…), and if you want to add to the stories being told, you can and should.

Coogler, who also directed Fruitvale Station, once noted, “What's important to me is offering perspectives into worlds that people don't often get to see.”

It’s clear that Coogler brought this mindset to Black Panther. He not only took us into the thriving, fantastical world of Wakanda, but he also lifted up and celebrated a black perspective that has always existed, but never has been fully explored. He created a movie that anyone—be it a light-skinned, biracial, action movie scaredy cat or a white superhero fanatic—can applaud. He created a movie that smashed Marvel superhero movie expectations. He created a movie that brought together a community. That is an amazing feat worth celebrating.

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