There’s no doubt about it, the whole world is mourning the loss of the prestigious late actor Chadwick Boseman. His recent passing took us all by surprise and social media is awash with tributes detailing what he, and the characters he played, meant to the world. This, may just be the most important part of his legacy.
For many of us, Boseman was known for gracing our screens depicting the Black hero that we often never get the opportunity to see. Unbeknownst to us, whilst bringing these heroes to life onscreen; he was battling an illness that ultimately took his life. Through the world’s mourning, I feel it important to look back on the history of on-screen Black heroes and ask why Black Panther — the first major comic book movie starring a predominantly Black cast, will forever be a pivotal part of the evolution of Black representation in cinema.
It’s inevitable that young people feel some sort of connection to fictional characters they can identify with. Unfortunately for young Black people, this hero, the one that looks like US, isn’t something that is common place.
Black superheroes have never enjoyed the same kind of representation as their white counterparts. Even today the number of black heroes dwindles in comparison. Historically, sidekick or ensemble roles aside, Black actors were mainly offered big-screen-parts that appeared in either comedies or racially charged stereotypes. This stems all the way back to the 1970s.
The first black hero was “Abar, The First Black Superman” in 1977. This was the start of Blaxploitation superheroes in cinema. Movies that followed with a similar plot were ‘The Meteor Man’ (1993), ‘Blankman’ (1994) and ‘Steel’ (1997).
There wasn’t much of a change until Marvel’s release of ‘Blade’ in 1998. Starring Wesley Snipes, the movie was the corner stone in black cinema, finally a superhero who looks like us? Break box office records? Without harmful racial stereotypes? Wow.
Television; while more diverse in portraying Black superheroes, often, had problematic characters. I think ‘tokenism’ would be a great word to drop in here. Black characters from the jungle or ghetto. Cartoon depictions seemed to do a better job. X-Men, with characters such as Storm and Spyke representing. Although they were relegated to supporting characters and with little room to develop.
But my personal favourite Static Shock, was a little different. His was one of the few times a Black character was the title character and central to the shows themes.
The representation that did exist was because of a man called Dwayne Mcduffie
He was a writer of comic books and television, and produced/wrote the animated series of Static Shock and Justice League Unlimited and co-founded the minority-owned-and-operated comic-book company Milestone Media, which focused on underrepresented minorities in American comics. To him, I offer my sincere thanks.
What Black Panther achieved is indisputable. A Black hero, who resided in the mythical land of Wakanda, an African country that was never affected by colonisation and populated by successful and educated Black people. Black Panther was released 20 years after Blade and we rejoiced once again.
Let’s not forget T’Challa, the King, had a team of personal guards who were only highly-skilled black women, something that has never been done before. #Goals.
Among the film’s many distinctive factors was how the majority of the people who worked on it- from the director to the costume designer- were Black. The film grossed 1 billion dollars at the box office, making it one of the most successful films made to date. It was also the first Marvel film to have a predominantly Black cast, and Marvel offered a huge budget (over $200 million) to produce the film. That’s unheard of. Period.
Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of superheroes or superhero movies, Black heroes play a fundamental role in the lives of Black children worldwide. So cheers to Luke Cage and Miles Morales. To The Falcon and Vixen, for existing and giving our Black youth something to strive towards and most importantly, someone to aspire to be like.