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Notes on "The Black Panther" from a White Woman Living in the real "Wakanda”

"It was refreshing to see a film about my husband’s homeland--the continent on which we now live together--that showed Africans as they truly are--strong, purposeful, and forward-thinking." - Mikayla Tetreault


I have to admit something: I’m not a huge comic book fan. However, I did have some excitement about the prospect of the first major superhero film to feature a black protagonist.

As a White woman married to a Black man, it was hard not to get excited. Representation in media is important and most times when we watch a movie together, the characters are all white. And if there is a character that isn’t white, they are portrayed in a negative light. Not only does this make visiting the cinema together a bit uncomfortable, but it highlights a much bigger problem with the way race is conceptualized. But with The Black Panther, this was far from the case.

The Black Panther promotional poster

The Black Panther in theaters now. 

Before I watched the film, I knew The Black Panther character wasn’t a “new” superhero--this Marvel warrior made his debut in a Fantastic Four comic as far back as 1966 and made appearances on the big screen in earlier Marvel films. While the enthusiasm my husband and I had for the film was genuine, we knew we didn’t fully identify with the die-hard-marvel-comic moviegoers who’d be seated in the theater next to us --we just wanted to see if the film lived up to its hype.

I can confidently say that it was better than I could have imagined. The storyline was fantastically-written, the acting was phenomenal, and the soundtrack was amazing. But none of that is what makes the movie a must-see. The reason The Black Panther is making waves and should be celebrated is for what it represents. There are three key reasons why The Black Panther is such an important and revolutionary film:

It Portrays Africa in a Positive and Authentic Way

As an American living in South Africa, I'm more than familiar with the notions that cross people’s minds when I mention Africa--cue the visions of the “poor African countries”--dirt roads, shack houses, and a weak economy. But what most people don’t know is that the “real Wakanda” is a hub of brilliant minds, extraordinary riches, and innovative technology. For me, seeing this on screen earned points for the film’s creators.

However, it’s how Africa’s people and cultures were represented in the film that was so crucial--the images and set design showed the world a representation of African cultures that isn’t typically acknowledged. It was refreshing to see a film about my husband’s homeland--the continent on which we now live together--that showed Africans as they truly are--strong, purposeful, and forward-thinking.

Wakanda Forever

Source: YouTube

One way that The Black Panther is authentically African is through its use of language. For example, the native language in Wakanda is isiXhosa. In the real world, isiXhosa is one of the eleven national languages in South Africa and is spoken by nearly eight million people in South Africa and Lesotho.

When my husband and I heard the characters speaking isiXhosa, we were particularly excited because it’s the first language of his grandmother. I’ve been exposed to the language for the past two years that I’ve lived in South Africa and can confidently confirm that isiXhosa is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. Kudos to director Ryan Coogler for choosing to pay attention to the details and portray a Wakanda that was authentically African. He also made sure the costume design was inspired by traditional African dress from varying ethnic groups--particularly the Zulu tribe--which is also native to South Africa.

It Demonstrates the Importance of Representation

Think about the last time you saw a film with a diverse cast. When was the last time you saw a Black lawyer as a main character. What about a Black doctor? Or a Black hero of any kind? Now, when was the last time you saw a film with a Black criminal?

Here’s what I’m willing to bet: you’re having trouble recalling films that portray Black people as respectable citizens, but could name off the top of your head films that show them as criminals. That isn’t just sad, it’s incredibly problematic.

We live in a world where systemic racism exists. Part of the reason why systemic racism is successful in dividing us is due to the typecasting of Black people into certain roles, regardless of the fact that this kind of stereotyping is inaccurate.

What do you think happens when Black children grow up and never see people who look like them represented positively in the media? A White child could turn on the television on any given day and be confident that one day she could become a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher--simply because she is inundated with media images of people who look like her. The same can’t be said for Black children.

What makes The Black Panther so groundbreaking is its use of so many Black actors in roles that show strength, power, and the positive impact these men and women have on the lives of those around them. When Black children watch The Black Panther they too can experience what it is to feel superhuman because they have a role model who looks just like them leading the way. Representation is so, so important.

It Celebrates Dark-Skinned Black Women

 The Women of Wakanda 

Source: YouTube

Actress and activist Amandla Stenberg was initially approached to be a part of The Black Panther. Halfway through the audition process she dropped out of the race. The reason? Stenberg is what many would consider a “light-skinned” Black woman and her decision to walk away from a role in the film is based on a centuries-old issue: colorism.

Amandla Stenberg

 Photo of Amandla Stenberg

Source: Twitter

By definition, colorism is “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group,” a subject with which Stenberg and others in the Black community are no doubt highly familiar. The prevailing idea is that light-skinned women are seen as beautiful, smart and desirable, while their darker-skinned counterparts are seen as “ratchet,” unintelligent, and unworthy of respect. I myself have seen, although not experienced first-hand, the harmful concept of colorism. Living in South Africa, I have friends that are on all ends of the color spectrum and have seen the difference in the way men especially treat my light-skinned female friends versus my dark-skinned female friends.

Given that Stenberg is of mixed race, her decision to walk away from a film that was expected to be, even before its release, one of the most profitable and groundbreaking films of the year, was based purely out of respect for her darker-skinned sisters. “These are all dark-skinned actors playing Africans, and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a biracial American with a Nigerian accent pretending that I’m the same color as everyone else,” she says. “I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up.”

As a film with a nearly all-Black cast, The Black Panther was already poised to disrupt racial stereotypes--but with a dark-skinned, all-Black cast, it succeeded in disrupting stereotypes that exist both between and within certain race groups.

Final Take

The Black Panther is an incredible film overall. It’s filled with talented actors, well-choreographed action scenes and is carried by an intense and incredibly well-written script. It definitely kept me on the edge of my seat!

Please, go see the movie if you haven’t already---but don’t go see it for the sole reason that it’s Marvel’s latest superhero movie. Go watch The Black Panther because it authentically represents the continent of Africa and the people who live there. Watch it because it disrupts the narrative that light-skinned women are somehow “better than” dark-skinned women. Watch it because it exemplifies the importance of representation in the media.

But most importantly, watch The Black Panther because it beautifully and fearlessly challenges toxic societal norms. Films like The Black Panther celebrate blackness, but also expose the bigger picture of systemic racism to us non-Black folk--a reality that Black people have had to live with for centuries.

I learned more from watching The Black Panther than I had anticipated and I am so glad that I did. The film reminds me to interrogate my own positionality and how it plays a role in systemic racism. I am charged with remembering not to be complicit to the system and to identify how I can make this world better for those around me. As a White woman, it’s important for me to--as Stenberg puts it--“recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up.”

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