I’ve read and loved comic books ever since I can remember. I am also ethnically Nepali.
At this point you’re probably wondering how a small, brown girl could possibly relate to straight-white-boy™ Peter Parker from Queens or Clark Kent who is literally an alien from space (but still, not so different from a straight-white-boy™). Or maybe, you can see the appeal of being the weird, outsider genius with a superhuman alter ego.
In any case, I was so immersed in the world of capes and costumes that I didn’t realise how problematic the comic book industry was, and still is. For years, people of colour (POC) and women characters have been diversity fodder. But in 2018, the success of the Wonder Woman reboot and the presence of several women of colour (WOC) leads in Black Panther has made me cautiously optimistic about the future of superheroes.
In the lead up to the release of Black Panther there was a general apprehension within POC communities that is difficult to describe. When there is nobody you love in the media who looks like you, you latch onto the next best thing: any person from a minority group in any movie or show. Even though our struggles and stories are so different, a common thread still connects us. You think to yourself, there’s a black/Hispanic/Asian woman in this show — cool.
We collectively rallied behind the movie to support the nearly all-African cast. The wait, however, was nerve-racking. We needed the portrayal to be perfect. Within 10 minutes of seeing the film for the first time, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. While Black Panther didn’t truly represent the experiences of all POC, or even black people in the African continent or its diaspora, the reality is that no movie could, and it did still offer characters with complex, empowered and diverse lives.
Let’s talk about the women in the film. At 16 years old, the Wakandan Princess Shuri is a fighter, activist and techie. Despite being young, she is respected and listened to. She is as clever as Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, but has an optimistic and light-hearted outlook. Nakia, on the other hand, is a human rights activist and soldier. Despite being in love with T’challa (the Black Panther), she refuses to be with him until his values and goals align with hers.
The nuanced portrayal of WOC as more than — more than a love interest, more than a diversity bid, more than a disposable character — was so refreshing. These women are complex and, more importantly, they are not victims. Instead, they have agency: Nakia uses the wealth of Wakanda to liberate others and Shuri creates her own technological legacy.
Hollywood still needs to take more ‘risks’. We have a woman superhero and we have a black superhero — why don’t we have a WOC superhero?
This is not to say Black Panther’s representation of WOC is perfect. There comes a moment in the film where Nakia refuses to become the black panther because she “[doesn’t] have an army” and because it isn’t her “right”. For many women, especially WOC, this reflects the world we live in. Even though we’re capable enough to take up leadership roles within our communities, we still often stand back and let the men in our lives play the hero. Male lineage is also a determinate of who becomes the black panther, which reflects our own traditional world order. At the beginning of the film, Shuri jokingly motions to challenge her brother’s claim to the throne. But the comedic scene begs the question: why couldn’t she?
While it is the WOC that stand out in Black Panther, Michael B Jordon’s portrayal of Erik Killmonger, who seizes the Wakandan throne to distribute the country’s wealth and weapons, expertly brings the historical context of African-American colonisation to light. He is lost, in search of home and liberation. He is the most complex kind of villain because he truly believes he is good. His militant leadership blurs lines for audiences who understand his motivations.
Killmonger is also vengeful, power hungry and reckless. This led me to wonder if this portrayal perpetuates how society already stereotypes African-American men. Or is it commenting on the power and potential that these men have to take control of their own narratives? Even now, I’m still not sure whether Killmonger’s portrayal harms or hurts the cause of POC representation.
Hollywood still needs to take more ‘risks’. We have a woman superhero and we have a black superhero — why don’t we have a WOC superhero? Black Panther proves that when movie studios put POC in power, they deliver. From the costumes to the dialogue to the sound design, every aspect of Black Panther is cinematically beautiful. This is because care and thought was taken to consider and be respectful of history, identity and culture; numerous interviews and social media posts by actors and the crew have shown the passion and creativity of those involved in bringing nuanced ideas to light. Even independent of the film’s political and social context, Black Panther is a genuinely good movie in its own right.
For Hollywood to truly be intersectional and representative, POC perspectives and narratives need to be part of the production process rather than just an afterthought. Since Black Panther is a story based on African experiences, the narratives of POC were inevitably embedded in the movie’s production. It remains to be seen whether future Marvel movies will continue to portray complex and empowered POC who are ‘more than’, and whether other Hollywood production companies will follow their lead.