So if you’re reading this, you’ve most probably seen the highly commended, record breaking film that is ‘Black Panther’. It earned the best opening weekend at the box office ever for February with $192 million over 3 days. It’s also the 5th best opening ever for a 3-day and 4-day opening weekend, beating “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.
The Power of the Black Pound
For what appears to be the first time – like ever – black people have been given the opportunity to be at the forefront of a big-budget, successful film which isn’t centred around slavery… The desire for a film in which we are ‘the norm’ was evident in the economic success of it. Black buying power is a real thing. Approximately $1.2 trillion was spent in 2016, and this is likely to double by 2020. If we (as black people) supported the smaller scale black owned businesses and projects going on around us more, then we would be able to reach a stage where seeing black success (e.g. movies like this) will be the norm for us and the next generation. Nielson (an international measurement & data analytics company) stated this about black spending:
“The growth in black buying power stems in part from an increase in the number of black-owned businesses as well as from an uptick in education…which leads to higher incomes. Despite historically high unemployment rates, Blacks have shown resiliency in their ability to persevere as consumers.”
The World is Changing
A 2017 study, 30% of speaking roles in films were given to people of colour (13.6% black, 5.7% Asian, 3.1% Hispanic, 7% other). The numbers were worse for LGBTQ+ roles. Letitia Michelle Wright, the 24 year old Guyanese actress who plays Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, said in an interview: “I grew up seeing so many stereotypes on TV and I didn’t want to play that as well.” But like the Black Panther trailer said, “The World is Changing.” Black Panther features a 90% black cast, and in recent years we have seen a new level of black art that has been used to express social, political, and economic views and issues: from Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to Atlanta and Insecure, there has been a renewed focus on telling stories from black narratives.
For the first time in the history of the film industry we have black people being portrayed as the love interest, technological innovators, and leaders who have real power and authority in the world. I can only speak for myself, but growing up without a back Disney princess or many black lead roles at all in literature and movies felt exclusionary, and continuously told me that people who look like me could not be the hero, be the ‘most beautiful in the land’, or important enough to be the centre of attention. A young girl of any race should never feel that the width of her nose, pigment of her skin, or texture of her hair is not enough. In an interview with the New York Times, Camille Friend, who oversaw the hair designs, stated that Black Panther is “a totally Afrocentric, natural hair movie”, and this is evident in that the three main female characters (Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye) are all confident, dark skinned women with natural hair. The film is a stamp of recognition and validation for black people who have been waiting to be able to engage with mainstream media and see the natural hair movement, Afrofuturism, & a history which is not solely defined by colonisation and slavery.
Power to the Next Generation
Superheroes are created to be admired: We want their fame. We want their powers. We want their invincibility! Which is why it is so important that children of all races have fictional characters that look like themselves. It solidifies self-image, inspires aspirations, and provides positive role models. Black Panther isn’t the first black superhero, but in all honesty, he is the first one to matter. The first which young kids can look at and want to be. Even Michelle Obama commented on what the film has done for representation:
In the technologically advanced country of Wakanda, it isn’t a middle aged man who is behind the their latest projects and innovations, it’s T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri. Shuri spent much of her life working with Vibranium. We saw her excitedly showing off the intricacies of her lab and displaying the latest inventions of Wakanda, from the black panther suit to various remote vehicles. According to the National Centre for Women & Information Technology, only 3% of the computing workforce in 2016 was made up of black women and only 0.2% of women of colour earn venture capital funding. Such stats make the existence of characters like Shuri so important to the young black girls of today.
Black Panther has created a significant moment in history regarding the power of the black pound, our presence in the media industry, and the self image of our youth. For as much as we as black people often feel like things will always be as they are (from the H&M monkey jumper catastrophe to the presence of black face at the Chinese New Year celebrations), moments like this show that the world is changing. This moment in time should encourage us to invest in black businesses, help and support those trying to break the glass ceiling which is too often present for black people in media, and ensure that our kids truly believe that any height they want to reach is attainable. Be encouraged!
By Priscilla McGregor-Kerr