Black Panther, and why it’s sometimes good not to see yourself on screen

Black_Panther_film_posterSo Youngest and I finally got to see Black Panther, and it lives up to the hype. Beautifully made with a lot of meat in the storyline, it brings something new to the table when a glut of superhero movies runs the risk of the genre becoming a homogeneous cookie-cutter mechanistically making money out of some valuable intellectual property.

Writing that, I can’t help but pause at the word ‘homogeneous’. Because as much as my son and I loved the movie, we didn’t engage with it in the way many people did around the world. Like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther┬ámeans something. It means that suddenly people of colour are centred in a superhero narrative – more than that, Africa is centred. We get to see what a superhero movie looks like when it’s influenced by African design, African history, African culture. And people engage with this, they respond to this, they celebrate seeing themselves on screen. A whole generation gets to be the kid in a rundown basketball court in Oakland, California at the end of the movie, looking up at a black superhero and seeing himself reflected in a new mythos.

Now that means that, for once, I wasn’t represented on screen. I mean, there’s a token 40-something white guy in there, but the most important thing Ross does is shut up and do what a group of black women tell him to do. And you know what? That’s fantastic. Because I sat next to my 10 year old and he was whispering questions about lip plates and the amount of snow there was in a generally hot continent like Africa. And we weren’t up there on screen, and that doesn’t matter, because representation is important to everyone, and that’s why we need to see Diana Prince and T’Challa saving the world. There’s a reason we’ve seen so much Black Panther cosplay over the last few weeks.

And it’s important for my kids to see superhero movies where the heroes aren’t white guys. I want my children to grow up with fictional heroes who look like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Gurira. I want them to realise that the smartest person in the world can be a young woman from Africa played by Letitia Wright rather than assume a genius will always look like Robert Downey Jr.

And as much as I can say this about my kids, it’s just as much about me and a need to confront my preconceptions and internalised prejudices and the unspoken narratives that make up my mental operating system. It’s easy to get so used to seeing yourself up there on the screen that it becomes the default, pop culture getting colonised because guys like me assume it should automatically look like us and anyone who suggests otherwise is an SJW.

I think we know what Killmonger would say about that.

And as I write this, I’m struck by how this is equally as relevant to the Church, how there are too many conference lineups made up of middle-aged white guys, how a vast and diverse continent like Africa is often reduced in the imagination to a blighted mission field that needs to be saved by European Christendom, how white churches don’t spend enough time looking for the beauty of the image of God in the diversity of a global church. And as the credits roll, we’re left with the responsibility to do something about all this, as the voices of prophets echo through the streets of Wakanda.