Sixty-seven years ago, the first superhero film, “Superman and the Mole Men,” was released as a theatrical pilot for a TV series. Fast-forward to 1966, when 20th Century Fox released the movie “Batman” between seasons of the hit ABC television show by the same name. That year, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby also created the Marvel Comics character Black Panther, whose real name is T’Challa, the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics.
Between the time that Black Panther was written and Feb. 16, 2018, when the movie “Black Panther” was released, the big screen has been overrun with white male superheroes. Exclusion played a role in getting to this point — a record-breaking, black-written, directed and acted superhero film.
For many of us, this remains a rhetorical question. According to UCLA's Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, while people of color represent around 40 percent of the nation’s population, they remain vastly underrepresented in Hollywood — especially in film leads, where they make up a mere 13.9 percent.
Oscar best-actress winner Frances McDormand urged the use of “inclusion riders,” where actors and directors can negotiate greater diversity as part of their contracts. The idea is a good one but not new, as evidenced by the work of directors ranging from Spike Lee to John Singleton to Ava Duvernay.
Interestingly, films with the most diverse casts tend to do best, according to the study. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that people of color purchase the most movie tickets? Sadly, prior to “Black Panther,” there were only a few black superheroes on film. They include:
(1977) “Abar, The First Black Superman” — A blaxploitation film about a scientist (Tobar Mayo) who decides to move his family into an all-white neighborhood. During the film shoot, members of a black motorcycle gang (hired to play themselves) stood up to police who showed up to shut it down because the crew did not obtain permits to shoot.
(1993) “The Meteor Man” — A teacher (Robert Townsend) is hit by a meteorite, gains superhuman strength and speed, the ability to communicate with dogs and healing abilities. He uses his newfound powers to fight the Golden Lords gang while bringing about a truce between police and the Bloods and Crips.
(1994) “Blankman” — Damon Wayans stars as clumsy inventor Darryl Walker who wants to clean up his neighborhood with the help of a sidekick, played by Tommy Davidson.
(1998) “Blade” — The Wesley Snipes vehicle about a human-vampire hybrid long has been considered the best superhero with a black lead, and for good reason. The film manages to be all at once a slick ’90s action flick, unapologetically black and a good comic adaptation. The film mostly split critics, but audiences loved it and it has achieved cult status.
(2018) “Black Panther” — T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, must fight off a powerful villain with strong convictions and a mysterious connection to his homeland.
Hollywood never has been one for rapid growth or change. The process of being more inclusive has been slow and arduous. For a long time it was easy to say, “That won’t get funded because of x, y and z” or, “If we do this movie, we have to get Will Smith.” This is why the NAACP Image Awards are so important. For nearly 50 years we’ve provided a platform that removes the shackles imposed by an industry on black creativity, ingenuity and expression of thought.
“Black Panther” is not just a game-changer in terms of pushing forward black film visually; it also succeeds in terms of highlighting the broad spectrum of black identity, gender, aesthetics and ideologies when confronted with difficult social and moral questions.
While exploring the complexities of modern black identity in its many facets, “Black Panther” also succeeds in responsibly explaining to outsiders just how complex the black community can be when it comes to political ideals, particularly how to lead a nation. The main characters have many conversations that center on helping those in need versus risking visibility and trying to maintain their way of life.
Was Hollywood frightened of investing in a big-budget film about not just a black hero, but an African one? A film with heart, soul and something to say. The simple answer is, yes. “Black Panther” was made because it is a Marvel product, which means it’s a Disney product. Its black writers made T’Challa a cool African Batman, according to Todd Steven Burroughs, author of “Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee To Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
“The Black writers — Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin — turned the Panther, a character known primarily for leaping around, into a literal Dark Knight-type of hero; Marvel finally had a character that imitated and matched Batman’s powerful aura,” said Burroughs. “And Ta-Nehisi Coates put him in the complex world of 21st century African domestic politics.”
Money talks louder than anyone in the room, and right now Vibranium is the currency of choice for moviegoers as the king of Wakanda continues his march to the top of the all-time box office charts with openings still under way in China and Japan.
Robin Harrison is the director of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau.