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Everyone Should See Themselves in The Black Panther – Not Just Black Folks

Black Panther
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in Marvel’s “Black Panther.” © Marvel Studios 2018

By Colin Lieu

Lupita Nyong’o told Good Morning America that we can better see ourselves when we can see ourselves in others – but that she grew up only being able to see herself in White superheros and it’s high time the reverse is happening.

 

But as the pervasive Hollywood myth would have it, Black entertainment products don’t do well overseas. Can non-Black folks really see themselves in Black characters? In an association that’s over 70% Black, the NBA is a $1 billion franchise and its highest income geographies outside of the U.S come from… China and the Philippines However it should be noted that the sexualization, objectification and hyper-masculinization of Black male bodies is evident in both sports and superhero films.

 

There are countless elements of The Black Panther that should resonate with anyone beyond racial lines: father-son relationships, compassion versus individualism, tradition versus innovation, and a good ole fighting spirit. That’s why my friend and I raised over $5,000 to book out two movie theaters for kids in Harlem, New York, to see the film!

 

As an Australian (proudly) born to parents of Vietnamese, Chinese and Singaporean decent, this is how the film resonates with me.

 

Own your origins – unapologetically

 

Maybe it’s because one of the opening scenes features a news report on the 1992 Rodney King riots playing in the background. Maybe it’s because Okoye annoyingly throws off her wig mid-fight when having to disguise herself in Korea. Maybe it’s because  an Oscar costume designer, Ruth Carter, celebrates the diversity in African history and textiles in every fiber of the characters’ clothing. The message: love where you’re from.

 

Black Panther
From left to right, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) with the Dora Milaje in n Marvel’s “Black Panther.” © Marvel Studios 2018

 

If Congresswoman Maxine Waters was reclaiming her time, Ryan Coogler is reclaiming Blackness — and in turn — reclaims whatever-you-are-ness. Ryan Coogler explains to Hot 97 the tensions people of color face when their color prohibits a full sense of belonging in their current home country and their upbringing excludes them from a connection to their motherland. How many African Americans haven’t been to Africa? How many Asian Americans haven’t been to Asia? Does that make us less African or Asian? The moment one does reconnect with their motherland, be it through travel and seeing faces that almost all look like you, – or through film -it is celebrated, not shunned.

 

Danai Gurira tells ET that once Wakandans figure out how to do something, they automatically feel that, of course, that’s the only way it should be done. Dress the way your people dress. Speak the way your people speak. Eat the way your people eat. Through The Black Panther, Ryan Coogler has taken the pressure off my back to feel the need to water down my Asian-ness  in order to fit in or be understood. That time, is over.

 

Spilling identi-tea

 

Wakanda might be a fake country, but the language used is very real. Wakandans speak in Xhosa, Nelson Mandela’s language, if you will. In one scene in which Okoye is skeptical about Agent Ross’ process, she speaks exclusively to T’Challa in Xhosa, leading the White agent to interrupt, “Does she speak English?” Not missing a beat, Okoye leans in with, “Only when she wants to.”

Black Panther
From left to right, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) with the Dora Milaje in n Marvel’s “Black Panther.” © Marvel Studios 2018

 

Almost anyone from a non-English speaking background, especially non-white folks, can relate to this othering of by the White man. Both in my own childhood and in what I can see in my students, young people have had to play translator for their parents, not always just because their parents couldn’t speak English, but because their parents were made to feel less than or unworthy of meaningfully being part of the conversation.

 

A common question or instruction throughout the film is, “Who are you?” and “Tell them who you are.” Each character is able to proudly exclaim their full name and family lineage. Even in 2018, many of my immigrant students feel forced to change their names to convenience the pronunciation of others. Being able to say your full name with confidence is not an easy feat for some and The Black Panther gives gravity to this complexity. While it may be a two-second question, for many of us, it’s years of therapy, bullying, doubt and complex family ties.

 

The boys behind the men

 

We’re introduced to the edgy denim-doning Erik Killmonger at the British Museum as he strikes up conversation with a White woman who is the “expert” in West African artifacts. Already, that hits an empathetic nerve.

 

Sometimes the imperializing of ideas and the colonization of cuisine is so relentless, it’s hard to wake up when the nightmare of white folks taking over your cultural artifacts becomes your white noise.

 

Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K Brown) also deserve some cheer cheer for the tear tear. The men in The Black Panther, even the anti-heros, are the ones in their feelings and working through their daddy issues. Both men shed a single tear in an emotional flashback in the ancestral plane. This could be a nod to Denzel Washington’s single tear in Glory and Daniel Kaluuya’s single tear in Get Out during the ‘sunken place’ scene, not unlike the ancestral plane. On the flip side, when Okoye is challenged to choose between romantic love and patriotic responsibilities – she has no qualms in deciding.

 

Michael B Jordan told The View that the beautiful thing about attending press junkets for the film’s release in Asia was seeing journalist show up in their country’s traditional dress. No matter where you are from, The Black Panther is a celebration of your origins.

 

Whatever makes up your Blackness, Wakandan-ness, you-ness should be shouted from the metaphoric vibranium mountain tops that are so preciously you, and cannot be stolen – be it your political views, family, dress, or your name! There was no room for shame or half-assed anything in this film. The Black Panther empowers us not to half-ass who we are.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. RE: Everyone Should See Themselves in the Black Panther, Not Just Black Folks: why are so many of these asian activists obsessed with promoting black rights and BLM? are you Asian or black? BLM doesn’t support or promote Asian rights, so why are you as an Asian so intent on promoting black this black that. promote asian rights for gods sake. btw, I don’t see myself in black panther because theyre BLACK and I’m ASIAN. most Asians have lots of white friends , but few black friends. most Asians in inter racial relationships overwhelmingly marry date white or Jewish people, not black people. so why on earth would Asians relate to black people?

    • RE: Everyone should see themselves in the Black Panther-Not just Black folks: Are you saying that Asian’s are biased towards blacks? While you might have a problem with blacks don’t speak for other Asians. Speakfor yourself! You seem to be a bit in your feelings and are projecting them on to others. Maybe you should travel a bit and see that Asians marry and befriend who they want. Please don’t fall for the what is being told to you! Open your mind and heart and embrace change. Not all Asians actually think like you. Actually it might be a very very tiny percentage. Open your eyes and your mind to growth!!! Asia and Africa are doing a lot of business together. Guess what young man!! They are even marrying each other and having children !! Who would have that that would happen?? Unity is the key to happiness

  2. RE: Jeremy LameAss — your last name says it all.

    The author’s excited about the messaging behind this movie because it challenges exactly all those things you just mentioned: White Supremacy.
    WS is everywhere and it shows up in all of those things you just tried to rub the world and its collective oppressed peoples’ faces in.
    WS is literally in the air we breathe.

    To see a black cast be part of something epic and surreal and futuristic and beautiful is a loud shout to expel that air, a triumphant NO to being sucked into that sunken place.
    This is a BLACK movie that loves itself, like the blogger writes. It gives people who have been kept from seeing themselves onscreen (in the fancy workplaces, up in the heights of political power, etc.) to do exactly that, and encourages their imagination to break the cycle of self-hatred.

    And Asian people can revel in it, too, because we’ve been taught the same self-hatred. You see it in the cartoons with the chinky Asian man who’s only good for the ching-chong jokes and the laws they used to enforce that said you were a menace and not a man and shouldn’t marry outside your race.

    Asian people occupy a rank below white people in the imagined racial order, and it’s paid for by Asian anti-blackness (and also white complicity). By that I mean you deem yourself being closer to whiteness, by imagining you’re better than black people. You did it by writing what you wrote.

    Your insensitivity to these issues and your immaturity towards the subject matter says you’re either 12 years old or an adult who struggles in the morning to put his pants on and make friends.

    See, the thing with racism is that it feeds on this “better than thou” attitude on the group scale. It’s a shitty way to be, and you need to do better.
    You think you’re only putting the people that you deem as “less” down, but if you think about it you’re really also doing it to yourself. I do hope that one day you grow to love yourself whole, not just because you got more white friends than black friends.

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