The Importance of Black Representation in Marvel’s “Black Panther”

After decades of casting black actors as stereotypes or sidekicks, the Marvel universe will finally reflect real world diversity.

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After decades of casting black actors as stereotypes or sidekicks, the Marvel universe will finally reflect real world diversity.

The Importance of Black Representation in Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’

“Black Panther” Gives Audiences a Black Superhero

After decades of casting black actors as stereotypes or sidekicks, the Marvel universe will finally reflect real world diversity.

By Danielle Wilkinson, Purdue University


The Black Panther movie is set to hit theaters on July 6, 2018 and I, along with many people in the black community, are beyond psyched.

The hashtag #blackpanthersolit went viral after Lupita Nyongo and Michael B. Jordan were cast to star in the film. Also worth celebrating: “Black Panther” is directed by Ryan Coogler, the cinematic genius behind “Creed” and “Fruitvale Station.” The film will also be the first Marvel film made up of 90 percent black people, which is insane, but in a great way.

Ryan Coogler

It is indeed amazing and groundbreaking that a black person will finally be represented on the big screen as both a superhero and the protagonist, but it shouldn’t be. No one gets hyped when a white person is cast to play a superhero because it’s so common. It should be common for black people as well.

It’s 2016: black people are CEOs, saving lives and freaking running the country. Black people are constantly accomplishing feats of equal or greater magnitude to that of their white counterparts and deserve to be represented. America is a diverse country and it appears that Hollywood may be slowly starting to understand that representation is important. Or perhaps they’re realizing they can get a pretty good payday from diverse casting.

Reboot fever has opened the door to much more racial diversity. Zendaya and Donald Glover were casted in “Spiderman Homecoming,” set to come out next year. While fans are still awaiting the reveal of which characters they will be portraying, Marvel implies their roles will be important and Glover may even be fighting crime beside Spidey. The revival of “Power Rangers” is also worth mentioning because they have always included diversity in their franchise. The 2017 version is set to have a cast with people of Hispanic, Indian, African-American and Asian descent.

Recently, shows and films have come out depicting black women and men as the multifaceted human beings they are. For example, the upper class, sharp tongued fixer who moonlights as the mistress to the most powerful man in America in “Scandal.” And there is also the billionaire entrepreneur and former recording artist who struggles with putting family before business in “Empire.” While these are extreme examples, they portray black people as strong and powerful characters, capable of many achievements while still remaining flawed.

So why until now has the media liked to portray white people as the only race capable of being super heroes and saving lives? “Black Panther” is special to me because this movie breaks the boundary. Who’s allowed to be a superhero? Anyone and everyone.

To be clear, I recognize characters like Storm, Falcon and War Machine as superheroes, and I believe they are integral additions to the Marvel cinematic universe. However, they still play sidekick to the white male protagonists.

And I know for me, as a kid, to realize that I could be more than a sidekick, was vital to my self-esteem and self-image.

Media representation, or rather the lack thereof, only began bothering me once I was about 13 and actually began to understand what representation meant and how it had affected me personally. Several of my favorite cartoons, like Kim Possible, Jimmy Neutron and Rugrats, often had white protagonists with black or other ethnic sidekicks.

A couple of years ago, one of my friend’s moms, who I’ve known my entire life and respect immensely, overheard my friend and I talking about the issue of black people being represented on television. She seemed confused and said there were several black people on TV shows. I was stunned that she didn’t see the problem, I wanted to tell her that yes, perhaps there’s a lot more black people on TV shows now, but they’re rarely the main character. But for some reason, I was too afraid to argue with her about it. I realized she didn’t understand because she has been widely represented her entire life. People who look like her (with brown hair and blue eyes) have been represented since the beginning of film and television whereas black people have not.

Since the beginning of visual media, black people have taken on many of the same archetypes, such as the maid, the gang member, the single mother, the loud black woman and so on. Archetypes repeated over and over begin to stick with audiences.

Books, movies, shows and films that children consume when they’re younger, shape what they perceive as mainstream and, in turn, shape how they view themselves. My friends and I would roleplay our favorite shows when we were younger and I would always choose to be the leader, the superhero or the princess. For me, those characters were most interesting as they were saving the world and were always shown to be more important than the other characters in some way. But of course, nearly all the time these characters were white.

Seeing my skin color represented only in secondary characters or sidekicks, or frequently absent altogether, made me view my skin color as less important and disqualified from doing anything of importance. I know others who have struggled in appreciating their skin color as I have; there has been an entire documentary about it.

Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther film

On the other hand, being exposed to media where a black girl was the main protagonist did a lot for my self-worth. When shows like “That’s so Raven” and “True Jackson VP” premiered, they taught me that I could be more than a stereotype and more than a sidekick. The 1997 version of Cinderella with an ethnically diverse cast and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” went even further by showing me that I could be a princess. That was huge. I started to view my skin color as more as a gift and less as a burden.

“Black Panther” is important because little black boys and girls will watch it and have a role model that looks just like them to aspire to. They will know that their skin color is valuable and that they can achieve greatness as well. I look forward to seeing “Black Panther” Halloween costumes in the future, and seeing my little cousins playing with “Black Panther” action figures.

Hopefully Hollywood can continue their trend toward casting more diverse protagonists in films. And who knows, maybe a black woman superhero will star in her own movie sometime soon. Oh yes, I do remember 2004’s “Catwoman.” And if you do, you’ll understand when I say that we’re just going to pretend like that didn’t happen.

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