Black Panther, the first Hollywood blockbuster centered on a black superhero and starring a mostly black cast, has become an international sensation that’s shattering box-office records and defying long-held stereotypes about Africans and women.
The movie, based on the comic book series of the same name, follows King T’Challa, ruler of Wakanda, a fictional, futuristic and isolated African country. T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, morphs into his sleek Black Panther alter ego whenever he battles the forces of evil that threaten Wakanda.
The groundbreaking film has surpassed $1 billion in global ticket sales since its worldwide release in mid-February. It’s the highest-grossing film ever by a black director (Ryan Coogler) and the second highest-grossing Marvel Studios film, which also produced megahits like The Avengers, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
“Black Panther shows that if you have a great story, a talented black director and actors and a commitment to marketing, a black-led film can excel globally,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Black Panther enjoys global attention for three main reasons, Hunt said: The movie is part of the popular Marvel franchise, so it already has a built-in audience; the concept of a technologically advanced African civilization piques the curiosity of any audience; and the acting, directing and cinematography are “stupendous.”
“These reasons have collectively driven positive buzz about the movie that’s paying off at the box office both domestically and globally,” Hunt said.
Women in charge
African women are represented as important pillars of Wakanda’s society. Princess Shuri, portrayed by Letitia Wright, oversees its technological developments (see sidebar). Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, serves Wakanda as a no-nonsense military general. Nakia, played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, works as a spy. And Angela Bassett stars as Ramonda, Wakanda’s Queen Mother.
Black Panther also boasts a diverse cast of people with international roots. Nyong’o, for example, was born in Mexico to parents from Kenya. Gurira was born in Iowa to parents from Zimbabwe, and Wright was born in Guyana and raised in England.
Joining them are black American actors Boseman, Bassett and Michael B. Jordan, as well as Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and Golden Globe–winner Sterling K. Brown. Other actors hail from England, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda.
An antidote to stereotypes
Movies like Black Panther and Hidden Figures that show black women reaching new heights in science, math, technology and engineering fields are a positive force, a challenge to the notion that black women can’t excel in those areas, said Laurie O’Brien, a psychology professor at Tulane University.
“Black women and girls seeing these movies, they could say, ‘Wow, I could see myself being like her, she’s so cool,’” O’Brien said.
Unlike other Hollywood films, Black Panther doesn’t frame blacks as marginal characters — sassy sidekicks, for instance — or in other degrading ways, Hunt said. In Wakanda, Africans control their own destinies. “This movie is almost an antidote to years and years and years of negative and dehumanizing portrayals of African people,” he said. “And I think this is why this is resonating with black people around the globe.”
Following Black Panther’s unprecedented success, Disney donated $1 million to Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a nonprofit supporting low-income children, to fund youth programs in science, technology, engineering and math. The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of Marvel Studios, which produced Black Panther.
This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.
Black Panther‘s Princess Shuri invents high-tech gadgets out of vibranium, a rare and mythical metal that powers Wakanda and makes it the envy of the world.
Here’s a look at some of the things Princess Shuri’s lab unleashes:
• T’Challa’s Black Panther bulletproof suit and mask absorb kinetic energy and use that force to take down attackers.
• Warriors’ vibranium-laced Kimoyo beads serve various technological purposes, including helping a fictional CIA agent recover from a bullet wound.
• A powerful energy shock shoots out of these vibranium handguns, shaped like roaring panthers. Shuri uses them in battle to help restore order in the country of Wakanda.