Marvel’s Black Panther and the scope of cinema to contest racial hierarchies

Hannah Lising-White uses Cultural Geography and Popular Geopolitics to research the experiences of UCL students with African and Caribbean heritage, to understand the role popular culture plays in socially constructing race.

Image courtesy of @joharameyer

Popular culture has increasingly become a topic for geographical analysis since it is a powerful indicator of current societal norms. Since pop culture is built on shared understandings, films are not simply entertainment, they are loaded with legacies of representation of race and gender. Furthermore, films are far from transparent, they are subjective mediations of the world which contribute to the production of ideas, imaginations and traditions of places and people. 

The popular narrative of the white muscular benevolent superhero and the damsel in distress are why Marvel’s Black Panther is seen as a ‘watershed moment’ in popular representation of black people and women in Hollywood, since they have been historically misrepresented. The reach of Hollywood and Marvel means that they have the power to shape popular narratives and contribute to cultural understandings. 

Focus groups with UCL students of African and Caribbean heritage revealed their understandings of Black Panther, what the film meant to them personally and in the wider context of racial representation in popular Western cinema. Although the film was an exploration of African American and African relations, students who were not African American still felt represented. 

Students had varied backgrounds, some were born or lived in Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, London, Southampton, Washington, Seoul and more. There was a consensus that the film inspired ‘black pride’ and can contest demeaning representations of black people. The discussions about representation were complex and nuanced, some perceived the film to be damaging. Two key learnings from those conversations are the contested understandings of Wakanda as empowering, yet harmful, and the danger of ‘forcing’ inclusion in the entertainment industry.

#1 Wakanda: A source of black pride vs. A damaging idea that maintains the reductive and homogenous vision of Africa.

Wakanda was both celebrated and criticised. It was described by students as a source of pride that contests demeaning one-dimensional stereotypes of Africa being poverty-stricken and lacking. It was commended for including a range of geographically-dispersed African cultures. On the other hand, this diversity was problematised since it lacked nuance and reinforces the idea that Africa is a singular nation, not a continent comprised of 54 countries, each with unique societies, cultures and traditions. 

Students contrasted this to the clear distinction between representations of white countries/continents, even in stereotypical genre films such as: Italian mafia movies, the Birmingham-based Peaky Blinders TV series and obvious representational differences between Spanish and Mexican cultures. 

In our heavily racialised and gendered society, representation must be as diverse as the categories that exist. The mismatch of diverse representations of white identities vs. limited black identities in popular media inevitably reinforces stereotypes and misconceptions. Since films and entertainment are areas that form subconscious yet performative ideas, it was supposed that this is an important arena for revolution that formal politics cannot serve.

Misrepresentation has also led to a ‘burden of representation’ where black actors, actresses and films are judged more harshly in comparison to others. This can play out in multiple ways, one student said that films that portray Africa positively are viewed skeptically as ‘unrealistic’. Novelist Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie spoke about her writing that was criticised as ‘not African enough’ by one of her white American professors. On the other hand, one student said that black films are now held to a high expectation of ‘black excellence’, and they should be afforded the privilege of ‘black mediocrity’ too. 

The key to representation is diversity and the removal of constrained ideas of people and places. This means unlearning stereotypes and reductive subconscious biases. This is where Wakanda was a productive exploration as a new paradigm of resistance, a counterfactual representation with the artistic license to redraw colonial lines within Africa, negotiate historical issues and provide a platform for voices to be heard.

#2 It is dangerous to force inclusion.

Students emphasised the importance of inclusion that is meaningful for society, rather than simply ‘ticking boxes’. Some criticised the selection of Lashana Lynch, a black British actress, as the new protagonist in James Bond, following the legacy of white men. Whilst superficially, the successful 007 franchise is viewed as a powerful platform to endorse racial diversity, this ‘colour-blind impulse’ that switches a black character for a white one is interpreted as a disservice to the goal of equality. 

One student elaborated that this switch rests on the assumption that you have to borrow a white male archetype for success and cannot independently write a great spy movie about a black woman. It perpetuates the idea that James Bond is the only successful method and those that follow are imitations. “They should leave James Bond alone, he doesn’t need to be a woman and he doesn’t need to be black.” 

Hollywood and Marvel were acknowledged as effective spaces to negotiate representation of race. Students said that referencing slavery and colonisation in the movie were important to its success since they are such a large parts of black history that are normally ignored by these types of cinema. The entertainment industry must be actively socially aware in order to cultivate a culture where people feel represented and empowered.

This article is a compressed synopsis of Hannah’s BA Geography undergraduate dissertation.

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