The new Marvel Studios movie shows Africans and African Americans as complex, whole people — and that is a contribution to American storytelling that should benefit any viewer.
I saw a movie full of very human stories. It was about a father and son, a sister and a brother, about men and women and love. And it was about ancestry and legacy, America and Africa. The best stories are explorations of humanity, and this movie, “Black Panther,” allows black characters to fully occupy their humanity in a way that is unique in Hollywood.
There is value in movies about oppression and overcoming. But there is something energizing about a movie that lets people see themselves as powerful and confident, and as part of a heritage that instills pride.
Ticket sales reached spectacular levels even before the movie opened over the weekend. It lived up to my expectations. It’s a milestone, and it’s also an entertaining, smartly acted, well-written movie.
We all want to see ourselves as the hero sometimes. People are good at mythmaking because it provides things we crave — a sense of legitimacy, power, purpose, and a sense of where we fit in the world.
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America has stories about intrepid explorers, wise founders and brave settlers that put the white perspective at the center. Other countries have their stories, too, but we are a different sort of country, made of many peoples. One story is not enough. In fact, it hurts to have significant portions of the population left out or relegated to the margins.
I’ve always been able to identify with the heroes in stories at the movies, regardless of what they look like. But that has often meant erasing myself for two hours. It’s just entertainment, but if it is all you’re exposed to, the erasure can take hold and transfer to real life. There is no upside to seeing less value in yourself than you see in someone else.
As I learned more about the world, it became harder to sit through a movie without remembering that I couldn’t really be Superman or John Wayne.
But if I showed up in Black Panther’s world, I’d be just another person. I’ll never stop seeing movies in which white people are central, but I also want to see other people being more than symbols of diversity — Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos.
In this country, it’s important that we all figure out ways to really see each other.
And we need a little me time, too. Especially those of us who are not white and don’t see ourselves reflected everywhere all the time.
When we get together with my wife’s Chinese-American relatives, it’s almost always at a Chinese restaurant. It’s comforting and validating.
A study released last year found that the odds of dropping out of school fell by 39 percent for low-income black boys who had even a single black teacher in elementary school. Boys and girls who’d had just one black teacher had higher expectations that they would go on to college. That’s partly because role models matter. Being able to visualize yourself in a position makes a huge difference on whether you will strive for that position.
“Black Panther” offers a change of perspective for people who aren’t black, too.
Sometimes trying to broaden people’s perspectives by offering up facts that counter mythology isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to reach people on a gut level. That’s what gives the arts the potential to be more than entertainment.
In this movie, for instance, women are powerful players, and those women are often dark-skinned with hair that conforms to African norms, rather than European ones. This movie imagines an African nation not damaged by the ravages of the slave trade. After seeing it, you are inclined to wonder how things might have been, but I also think the viewer will see Africans in the world as it is, as more than stereotypes.
I can cheer for Superman and Batman, but until now, the people who make movies have been afraid that Americans who aren’t black wouldn’t show up for a movie in which the hero and most of the other characters were black.
That fear is being disproved. I hope we can all cheer for that.