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Martinez: ‘Black Panther’ signifies new era in representation

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

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February 15, 2018.

I’ve had that date in my calendar ever since 2016, when I first saw Black Panther’s small role in “Captain America: Civil War” in theaters with a friend. Each passing month felt like it was just bringing me closer to seeing Chadwick Boseman represent the superhero in a lead role on screen, directed by one of my favorite contemporary black directors, Ryan Coogler.

In anticipation, I paged through anthologies of his previous comics appearances, carefully preserved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ versions of the comic book in plastic bags and researched everything I could about the details surrounding the film’s production.

Still, none of that could prepare me for the overwhelming emotion I felt walking into the movie theater Thursday, my father by my side. For two hours, I watched an amazing display of cinematography, music and most importantly, culture, unfold in front of me.

Finally, after years of waiting for black heroes to come to the big screen, I could experience what others did while watching movies like “Spider-Man” or “Superman.”

In terms of representation, “Black Panther” is heads and shoulders above other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film obliterates the Bechdel Test, the three-prong test that measures if two or more women speak with one another about something other than a man. The Dora Milaje — which consist entirely of women — are the most powerful warriors in the country, while breakout character Princess Shuri is an innovative, technological mastermind who “saves the day” just as much as her brother does.

While it is unfortunate that producers cut the relationship between two previously lesbian characters out of the film, which would have increased the number of people who could identify with characters even further, the existing layers of feminine depth and richness are a great step up from other superhero movies.

Ryan Coogler and the rest of the production staff clearly went out of their way to make “Black Panther” pan-African. From the tribal, culturally accurate costume designs to the inclusion of Xhosa, a southern African language, the details clearly enhance the film. This is the advantage of having the fictional nation of Wakanda at the center: “Black Panther” can tastefully incorporate dozens of references into an Afrofuturistic movie, bringing a taste of the continent to the rest of the world.

As someone who has listened to ignorant questions about the African continent in many a high school history class, these positive cultural representations were extremely refreshing. The Africa many of us learn about in schools or in the news is often one big, uniform, impoverished country, filled with grass huts and barbaric people. The Africa shown through “Black Panther” is completely different, featuring the most technologically advanced country in the world with amazing landscapes and cultures.

This matters. Both in person and throughout social media, I have seen so many kids of all races and ethnicities piling into theaters, dressed up and ready to be amazed. In a way that not many of us can often claim, they are able to see heros that look like them: black people saving the world, no questions asked.

Finally, there is a mainstream outlet for people like my father, who grew up during a big comics boom in the 70s. I once came across a letter he had written as a pre-teen, where he wrote about feeling alone and underrepresented as a black man in the genre he loved so much. He said he had found solace in X-Men comics because as mutants, they too had to fight to be recognized as valid individuals. Even though it was a somewhat weak and forced metaphor, my father clung to what he could find.

Being able to see “Black Panther” have an incredible four-day opener means that as kids today are growing up, they might not have to go through the drought of diverse characters like my dad did. The movie’s success was by no means an accident: It proves that America, along with the rest of the world, has been yearning for diverse stories for far too long. Acclaimed films featuring black people don’t have to be about slaves, the Civil Rights movement or Tyler Perry. They can be thoughtful, exciting and just plain fun to watch and discuss.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at marissamartinez2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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