The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Black Panther,” click here.
For his fourth-grade Valentine’s Day party this year, my Scottish-Irish-English-Swedish-German son wanted to hand out Black Panther cards. He wants these Black Panther claws he saw at our regular comic book shop. He wants to be Black Panther for Halloween. And this is before he’s even seen just how good the movie is.
First, let me say that writing “here’s what ‘Black Panther’ means for white people!” is inherently problematic. Framing every piece of art — and that’s what “Black Panther” is, a stunning piece of art — in the context of whiteness can suggest that a movie about black characters, starring black actors, written by black men and directed by a black man, is more than a “black movie” because Look! White kids want “Black Panther” valentines too! (We couldn’t find any. He went with Snoopy because “girls will like them.”) This is an exceptional movie worthy of celebration regardless of whether it reached a 9-year-old white kid.
Black Panther is not a superhero who happens to be black. His blackness — and the fact that he is African, not African-American — goes to the absolute center of his identity and the overarching theme of the movie. Moreover, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (the best, most nuanced “villain” in superhero-movie history) represents the African-American experience that, yes, skin color absolutely does matter.
It is important that Black Panther is black. There are some traditionally white superheroes who have become people of color over the years — in the comics, Captain America was black when Sam Wilson strapped on the shield; the current Spider-Man is Miles Morales, who is black and Puerto Rican — but Steve Rogers and Peter Parker were never defined by their race. Their whiteness could be shrugged off because, when you’re white, it’s easy to pretend that race is unimportant.
Black Panther (like the world of Marvel’s new movie) is absolutely, proudly, importantly black. For someone to say that it doesn’t matter that he is, or that they “don’t see skin color,” or that his blackness is somehow less important because little white kids want to be him, is to do a huge disservice to the character, the movie and the realities of race in America. When my son pulls off his Halloween mask, he’ll re-enter a country where every president save one, over 90 percent of CEOs and all of the original movie Avengers (when one of them isn’t green) share his skin color. That experience will not be the same for a black kid.
“Black Panther” is what is lacking in much of modern cinema: It is something definitively meaningful. It is an opportunity for those who have the advantage of thinking that skin color doesn’t matter to recognize why and how it does. To think of Black Panther’s race as an aside, as happenstance — the way it is with most white superheroes — is to dismiss the very core of the character. It’s not only a matter of color; it’s a matter of identity.
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