By Jorge Martinez
In case you’ve been living under a rock, one of the most anticipated movies in recent years just came out: Black Panther. Now, this is not going to be a typical movie review where I go into detail on how the cinematography was lackluster but compensated for by the acting, or by the screenwriting…yeah, I’m not doing that. In all honesty, the reason this movie is blowing up has nothing to do with its technical details. If you race-swapped every single character and changed the African setting, it would become just another run-of-the-mill Marvel movie with a hero and a villain, and a plethora of CGI. The real value of this movie comes from what it represents rather what it actually is: a new wave of movies that focus on presenting minorities in a positive light, instead of focusing on their socioeconomic challenges.
At no point in the movie whatsoever did I feel pity for how a black character was being persecuted by a racist establishment. At no point did I look on in terror at racially-motivated violence against African-Americans, and at no point did I ever think that the movie’s purpose was to reveal the true plight of African-Americans in this country to a conservative audience. Rather, the movie tells a different tale. A tale of Afro-futurism. A world without the Eurocentrism that always places the cutting edge of progress in the Western world and challenges us with a different narrative, one that elevates depictions of Africans rather than indirectly demeaning them by always putting them in the position of victims of American institutional racism.
Speaking as a person of color, specifically a Hispanic male, I can attest to the sheer over-representation of white actors in movies and television. The fact that people talking about good Latino television usually has some ties to telenovelas or drug cartels disgusts me. According to Statista.com, 13.6% of lead actors in movies in 2015 were minorities, which is startling, considering that they reported in 2014 that the 38% of the U.S. population is comprised of minorities. Full disclosure by the way, I am under no illusion that Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of integration has come anywhere close to touching digital entertainment. More often than not, movies involving minorities tend to highlight their collective struggles, such as poverty or lack of educational opportunity, yet they scarcely celebrate that group’s valuable contributions to American society. Rather, they emphasize their victimization at the hands of American infrastructure, a topic that most audiences do sympathize with, but are not particularly galvanized by in the comfort of their theater seats. This, I would argue, accidentally harms underprivileged minorities in cinema by cementing them in a position of victimhood audiences would become too accustomed too and, inevitably, desensitized to.
Black Panther does something completely different from other all-black casts that have preceded. It breaks this mold of apathy. What I mean is that this movie is able to spark a sense of optimism that Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave never could. Granted, these movies presented aspects of the African-American experience that cannot, under no uncertain terms, be understated in any way. American slavery and the experience of growing up black, poor, and gay are not themes I intend to demean. What I mean is that Black Panther provides a more galvanizing call-to-arms. At a point in recent history, it seemed like movies like Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and even Straight Outta Compton were perpetuating stereotypical views of the African-American community. Black Panther, on the other hand, defies many of these expectations, presenting an African nation as more scientifically and militarily advanced than America. From the perspective of movie-goers, this flies right in the face of their typical expectations for such all-minority cast films.
These movies did in fact serve their communities well, but Black Panther was a needed change in pace. The movie is jam-packed with African culture, science fiction so advanced it seems like magic, and strong performances from its leads and supporting characters. The other movies all had their own exceptional qualities as films. What makes Black Panther truly special is that it does address the plight of minorities in America, but, through its setting, is able to tap into the minority’s desire to see their race elevated to heights that reality cannot parallel. This is what Hollywood needs, not just a fix in under representation, but a fundamental change in how they are portrayed. This change would see them depicted in roles that transcend or even disregard whatever circumstances stereotypically afflict their racial groups. If this is done, minorities will finally be shown in Hollywood the way they ought to be: as individuals unchained from their stereotypes.