Stories Worth Telling: Black Panther and the Rise of Diversity in Popular Culture

Patricia Ng | March 28, 2018

Black Panther 1

No matter what you say about the Marvel cinematic franchise, they are making some bold moves. Rather than simply making films about popular superheroes, they have now moved on to lesser-known characters, especially those belonging to minority groups. The newly released Black Panther is certainly one of their best examples. Featuring T’Challa (Black Panther), the king of the fictional African nation Wakanda, as the lead, the film can be seen as yet another attempt to diversify the entertainment industry. In recent years, Hollywood has been producing more and more movies with female leads and a culturally diverse cast, like the upcoming female spin-off of Ocean’s Eleven and the multi-ethnic cast in the new Star Wars reboot films. There is nothing wrong with creating films that don’t have white male leads, and we should welcome narratives that promote diversity. Yet, with the rise of such a trend in popular culture, one has to question what it means for a diverse narrative to be good.

It is easy to dismiss the films we watch as pure entertainment. However, the truth is there is an enormous weight of responsibility that comes with every narrative. Each story, whether consciously or not, carries a central theme that promotes a certain ideology, and this ideology shapes our cultural values and beliefs, or, conversely, reflects our current values and beliefs. For diverse narratives, this responsibility is even more significant. In a society where discrimination is still a prominent issue, diverse narratives have the power to show the world how people of different cultural backgrounds live. As former First Lady Michelle Obama says, “For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them.” [1] If done right, the representation of minorities in the entertainment industry can prompt interesting discussions and change our perceptions of minority cultures. In this sense, simply changing the gender of characters from popular movie franchises or casting an ensemble of actors with different cultural backgrounds is not enough. The narrative has to situate itself in our contemporary cultural debate and inspire the audience to think about issues social minority groups are facing today. This is where Marvel’s Black Panther succeeds.

Black Panther 2

Other than the fact that Black Panther features a cast of black actors and actresses, and has an African-American director, the film puts forward a thought-provoking question: what does power mean for people of color and if they have the power to change the world, how should they make use of it? [2] This debate is best represented in the film’s protagonist and antagonist. As Robert McKee states, “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” [3] A sophisticated and well-written conflict between good and evil is one where the antagonist is a foil for the protagonist, and in Black Panther, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is the perfect villain to challenge T’Challa’s beliefs and ideals. T’Challa, as leader of Wakanda, adheres to the ways of his ancestors and keeps vibranium, a powerful metal that Wakandans use to develop their technology, a secret from the world, so that this precious resource will not be misused by others. On the other hand, Killmonger believes that the metal should be a resource shared with the world, so that his African brothers and sisters can have the power to fight against their oppressors. In this sense, the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger is not one of power, but one of belief, and what makes this conflict compelling is that while both characters’ actions are questionable, their motives are understandable. With the Black Lives Matter movement still an on-going topic and the debate for minority rights an issue, the question that Black Panther poses through its two major characters is one that is worth pondering: if people of color are given the power to better their current predicament, should they use it solely for the benefit of their immediate community, or should they use it against their oppressors? Or, as the ending of the film proposes, is there an alternative solution?

Marvel’s newest addition to their cinematic franchise is not just a film showing that people of color can also be heroes, but a film that delves into serious issues on race and power. It is the attempt to address and present the complexity of African-Americans’ struggle for equality that makes the film a cultural success. This is the diverse narrative we need – one that not only shows diversity, but responds to it.


About Patricia

I wish to be a sorceress practicing ancient magic and raising kittens in a shire. For the time being, I am doing my MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh and drowning in one story after another. I particularly like contemporary fiction and fantastic narratives.

Article edited by Dhanya Baird and Lucy Hargrave

Works cited

Official trailer for Black Panther:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjDjIWPwcPU

References

[1] Jones, Nate. “Michelle Obama Explains Why Representation in Pop Culture Matters.” Vulture, 23 August 2016, http://www.vulture.com/2016/08/michelle-obama-on-why-tv-representation-matters.html

[2] Smith, Jamil. “The Revolutionary Power of Black Panther: Marvel’s new movie marks a major milestone.” Time, n.d., http://time.com/black-panther/

[3] McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1999.

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