But some tears might also be of grief. Because just as palpable as the celebratory joy and sheer artistry that define “Black Panther,” there lies an unspoken absence, the costs of which are no less real for being diffuse and virtually unfathomable. The lush Afro-centric iconography on screen underlines just how constricted those images have been throughout most of American cinematic history, at enormous cost not just to African American spectators, but white ones deprived of untold visual and narrative riches.
It’s not an overstatement to suggest that the American cinema was born on the backs of black bodies. “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 fable of Reconstruction that helped create cinematic grammar, featured white actors in blackface to enact the narrative’s toxic images of formerly enslaved Africans running amok in the South Carolina statehouse and raping white women, finally being vanquished by a heroic Ku Klux Klan.
From then on, if black characters were featured at all in an American films, they were either the butt of humiliating humor or demonized as criminals or sex-crazed savages to be feared. Such breakout stars as Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier proved exceptions to the rule. But even those positive portrayals were prescriptive, as if the only options available to black Americans were predator, paragon or some kind of patronized subordinate or shaman figure in between.
What went missing were depictions of quotidian life, love and work that, even at their most idealized and escapist, white audiences have long taken for granted as mirroring and reinforcing their own experience. The black community has always produced these images for itself, with the work of such filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, as well as through commercial portrait photographers and amateur snapshots and movies. But these more accurate depictions, while nourishing for the community that created them, were largely invisible to white audiences steeped in villains and caricatures — or outright erasure — in the dominant narrative medium of the modern era.
It wasn’t just blackness that was being defined by the accretion of stereotypes and insults, it was whiteness. As Ava DuVernay illustrated in her searing 2016 documentary “13th,” about how popular culture informed contemporary attitudes toward crime and punishment, the cultural devaluing of black bodies was an effective way not only to reinforce institutionalized racism, but also to reassure white audiences that those structures were necessary to preserve their unquestioned virtue and supremacy.
Enter “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, whose rich, rapturous depiction of black excellence happens to arrive the same week that Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. This week, curator Dorothy Moss recalled watching Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, as she told a group of young African American girls, “I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.”
As Sherald observed, whether it’s in a museum or on a movie screen, it’s hugely important for young people to see icons and everyday figures who look like them, not only to affirm their own worth, but also to help manifest their highest ambitions and dreams.
But it’s also crucial for the rest of us, for whom “Black Panther” promises to redefine hidebound notions of cinematic pleasure and beauty, while raising a more troubling question: What if white children had been fed a steady diet of those bracing and positive images for the past 10 decades as well? How much irrational fear, hatred and incomprehension has been stoked by ingesting a near-steady diet of distorted reflections of our black friends, neighbors and co-workers? What psychic and social price have we paid for so radically limiting our notions of what is normative, healthy and aspirational?
The substance and symbolism of “Black Panther” invite viewers into what for many will be a novel aesthetic sensibility, its palette, textures and visual references rooted in a continent that, for too long, has been depicted as a backdrop for imperialist adventure or white redemption. The fact that a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster — poised to break records at the box office this weekend — features a nearly all-black cast presents a cosmopolitan rebuke to discredited assumptions that white audiences won’t accept heroes who don’t look like them. Even the suit worn by Chadwick Boseman’s title character is a metaphor, absorbing all the blows an opponent can hurl at it before bouncing them back with redoubled strength.
What’s more, in its portrayal of black intellectual and physical prowess, its redefinition of canonical heft and its communitarian values, “Black Panther” exemplifies, on an epic scale, the kind of autonomy African Americans have cultivated for centuries, out of necessity and self-preservation. As such, it’s a supersized version of the stories and images with which black audiences have nourished themselves, when Hollywood offered the most meager of portions. Meanwhile, as white audiences marvel at the richness and variety on offer, they may discover that it’s we who have been alternately starved and poisoned. For us, to watch “Black Panther” is to realize that we’ve been fed a vicious and deadly lie, all the time being told it was a banquet just for us.