The Global Significance of 'Black Panther' (Guest Column)

The Opportunity Agenda president Alan Jenkins writes that after years of exporting harmful depictions of Black men and women to the world, Hollywood has an "export of which we can all be proud."
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (Still) and subject (Jenkins)
'Black Panther' (Inset: Alan Jenkins)

Here’s what the Black Panther means to me. It’s a story about my brother.

Two decades ago, he arrived in Taiwan to teach English as a second language, primarily to young adults. As an African-American fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he expected to encounter surprise and curiosity — and he was pretty sure people would want to touch his hair. 

What he did not expect was the fear and anxiety that he encountered. His students, living half a world away from the U.S., were frightened by his presence and, more so, by his identity. They had never met a Black person, yet they held the same harmful stereotypes about him that are so prevalent here at home, an indelible association of Black people with criminality, malice and brutality.

In the years that followed, teaching in Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, my brother finally unearthed a major source of those stereotypes: Hollywood. 

From the movies and television shows they’d seen, imported from America, my brother’s students had developed a harmful impression of him. Indeed, American film and television have long been among the United States’ most capacious exports, sending to overseas audiences a pernicious inventory of racial tropes, stereotypes and distortions. Those misperceptions arrived in Asia years before my brother did.

Research by The Opportunity Agenda confirmed that these media distortions have continued. A massive 2011 study of depictions of Black men and boys in television, film, video games and other entertainment media found that media persistently overrepresent Black males in depictions of violence, crime and poverty; fail to depict the systemic barriers facing members of this group; underrepresent them as problem solvers and users of technology; and contribute to negative attitudes toward African-American males, which negatively impacts their own self-perceptions.

Other research has additionally documented the distorted depictions of Black women, including disproportionate hyper-sexuality, anger, greed and subservient roles. Given those trends over many years, it is unsurprising that so many international consumers of American entertainment have internalized fear and disdain for Black people whom they do not know.

Enter Black Panther.

Marvel’s blockbuster superhero movie has a virtually all-black cast, a Black director, a Black soundtrack and a Black African storyline. The film depicts the beauty, genius, courage and compassion of Africans and their diaspora, as well as the trauma with which so many continue to grapple. It answers the question what would Africa look like if it had escaped the ravages of colonialism, the slave trade and the plundering of its resources. It provocatively asks what should be done to set things right.

And notably, it exports a new narrative to the rest of the world.

At a time when the president of the United States is describing Black nations as “shithole countries” and denigrating African-American communities and people, Black Panther is a cultural response with global significance. Over its four-day opening weekend, the film made about $242 million domestically and $427 million worldwide, shattering box-office records.  It is being seen by millions of people globally, including many who, like my brother’s students, have never met someone Black in person.

It’s not just that the Black Panther is a superhero, or that he is surrounded in this film by heroic men and — especially —women, but the film counters and overwhelms each of the media distortions identified by our research. The people of Marvel’s mythical Wakanda are loving fathers, mothers and siblings. They are creators and users of technology. They are financially responsible and secure. They are peace-loving and ethical, notwithstanding their penchant for patriarchal monarchy.

Of course a single film, even a massive blockbuster like Black Panther, cannot alone reverse generations of negative imagery and distortion. But it’s an important step that will hopefully invite more, in part by indisputably demonstrating the global hunger for Black heroes and storylines. 

For now, moviegoers from Taipei to Tanzania to Turkey to Trinidad will see a new vision of what blackness means and what Africa stands for.  Black Panther is an export of which we can all be proud.

Alan Jenkins is the president of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and policy organization dedicated to building the national will to expand opportunity in America. He is one of the country’s leading thinkers on the relationship between media, public opinion, law, policy, and ensuring opportunity for all Americans. 

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