Once upon a time, black audiences looking to see themselves in superhero movies had to settle for comedies like Blankman and The Meteor Man, Shaquille O’Neal in Steel, Halle Berry in X-Men, Michael Jai White in Spawn, and, obviously, Wesley Snipes in Blade. These projects only came about every once in a while, though. Heck, we’ve had three different white dudes play Spider-Man in six different movies since the first Blade came out.
Fast-forward to 2018 and there’s a black superhero on Netflix (Luke Cage), black superhero on The CW (Black Lightning), and now a black superhero in a big budget Marvel Studios movie (Black Panther). But why, I ask playing devil’s advocate, should this matter? Obviously, to open up the stories we tell to people of all different ethnicities, creeds, sexual orientations, whatever, our movies and TV shows can’t stay as white as Tilda Swinton fighting a Yeti in a snowstorm (hat tip to Last Week Tonight for that old joke). But how much does representation actually matter? For example, are little girls really going to grow up to become real-life wonder women in all walks of life because of how empowered and inspired they felt seeing Wonder Woman at a young age? It’s just a movie. Same goes for Black Panther.
It’s not, though, and Frederick Joseph gets that:
I first heard about Joseph and his #BlackPantherChallenge last month in an NPR news story about the film’s advanced ticket sales. At that time, the historic blockbuster had broken all of Fandango’s pre-sale records for a superhero movie, and the report dug deeper and discovered this was partially due to the staggering number of group sales linked to something called #BlackPantherChallenge.
In short, Joseph set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to take disadvantaged kids in Harlem to see the movie and challenged other people in other communities to do the same. Joseph raised a stunning $40,000 for his Harlem project, and shortly thereafter thousands of people donated to 200 different #BlackPantherChallenge GoFundMe campaigns all around the world, raising over $260,000, with donations coming in from all 50 states and 30 countries around the world.
Octavio Spencer even sort of got in on it, announcing on Instagram her intention to buy out a single movie theater in an underserved Mississippi community “to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero.”
At last check, Black Panther is on pace to possibly beat Deadpool’s President’s Day opening weekend record and take its place among the top 10 biggest all-time openings for a superhero movie. And thousands of underdeserved kids who will be there opening weekend will only be there because of the #BlackPantherChallenge.
In a new op-ed for The Huffington Post, Joseph explains why he felt he had to do this:
I was raised in a single-parent home where positive black representation was a focal point. Starting when I was young, my mother and grandmother worked diligently to contest the stereotypes and false narratives about blackness. They were thoughtful and deliberate in not only what media I consumed, but how I consumed it. Whether that meant listening to Marvin Gaye or seeing Heather Headley play Aida on Broadway, they made sure I understood that the black experience is a spectrum. That exposure to different forms of representation helped shape my future ― and [Black Panther] can do so for other children.
He addresses those who have criticized the campaign:
Many would say this is a success, but some see it differently. They have taken issue with the fact that the money, while spent predominantly for black children, is still serving white capitalistic gain. Many have lamented the lack of traction around other campaigns meant to help people in dire need. I hear these concerns, and they weigh on me as well.
And explains why this isn’t just about Black Panther being, well, black but also how the film’s setting can remind children of their heritage and combat who those could all African countries real “shitholes”:
The world of “Black Panther” offers a rare opportunity for black children to see characters in a fantasy world who look like them, in a story that is not only black but depicts our lineage out of Africa. The film takes place in the fictional nation of Wakanda, an isolationist country that escaped the horrors and destruction of European colonialism to become the most technologically advanced place on Earth. The nation is ruled by a kind, emotional, multilayered black man, protected by a royal guard of brilliantly skilled black women. The very concept of Wakanda is steeped in Afrofuturism, and thus could not only spark conversations about what African nations might have been without white colonization, but what they can still become.
Many of us yearned for the chance to be Batman or Superman, but only if he was black. “Black Panther” gives our children the chance to dream those dreams. It combats comments like the president’s “shithole” countries, a sentiment shared by too many other people in America.
And calls on both his supporters and critics to try harder to make a change in the world:
For those of you who have either praised or criticized the “Black Panther” campaign, I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to actively support what you believe in, and if no one has created a way for you to do so, then create something. I challenge you to do something bigger than yourself. I challenge you to make a difference. We all deserve to smile.
You can read the full op-ed here.
Incidentally, in going through all the old articles I have saved on this topic I came acrossLuke Cage, Black Panther, and Why Heroes of Color Matter,” which opens with this rather striking historical case study:
In 1939 and 1940, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of tests to study black children’s attitudes about race; they became known as the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments. If you are unfamiliar, the study demonstrated that, when given a black and a white doll to play with, black children consistently picked white dolls as the “beautiful” ones, or the dolls who were “good,” with the black dolls being “bad.” Positive sentiment was consistently biased toward the white dolls. That hasn’t changed much, even 70 years later. News outlets and various organizations have replicated these experiments with similar results in the last decade.
As concluded by Armstrong then and Joseph now, representation matters.