P001 Black Panther: The great black hope

Tissot, 14 February 2018

With the Black Panther movie looming, one of the narratives that I’m hearing a lot is: does this film have the power to change the face of Hollywood?

By this I’m assuming that people mean: does this movie have the power to change the racial bias that runs through Western cinema and media? Black actors are normally cast through the prism of racial stereotypes; street thugs, drug dealers, sidekicks to white leads, prostitutes, or hyper-violent, hyper-sexualised, child-like comedic characters. If you’re black, you know all these tropes and have seen them countless times.

However, if you’re not black, you’re probably thinking, ‘What is this guy on about? I just saw a film. This guy is being overly sensitive. Movies aren’t racist. We have black leads and characters. I mean check out Will Smith and who’s the other guy? Denzel.’

This is the nature of race and oppression in 2018. Hard to pin down. A chimera. Difficult to define but we know it exists because some of us can feel it.

The answer to my original question quite simply is no: the Black Panther movie alone does not have the power to change the face of Hollywood. I would argue that this is too much responsibility for this movie to bear.

What Black Panther does allow for is the critiquing of the structural nature of racism. It poses the question, why all this hyperbole for a movie which just has a majority black cast? Where the main characters are not cast according to the stereotypical black tropes we normally associate with Western movies? Surely this should be a non-issue, and Black Panther should just be a standard Hollywood blockbuster.

The fact that the movie has generated such debate is a testament to fact that the issue of race and the depiction of black people in this medium is a live issue. Racism exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. Hollywood will never openly admit that there is a problem and continues to present black characters through the prism of race, essentialising characters to tropes of blackness that they think the audience can understand and identify with.

For example, in the recent TV show Black Lightning, the whole show revolves around the narrative of what the studios perceive to be the ‘African-American experience’. So, you can probably guess the tired clichés that all the characters conform to.  All white police officers are racist, and the black characters are involved in gangs, drugs and prostitution; the only way that some can come good from the ghetto is through sporting success.

Now Mr Hollywood don’t get me wrong, I get why you would do this: it’s an image that sells and is recognised the world over. The reason it is recognised the world over is because the ideas of blackness that it promotes are based on notions of race that we used justify the enslavement of Africans. Slavery was justified on the basis that all black people had to offer was their physicality. They were seen as child-like beings that, if left to their own devices, would fall to sloth and degradation. These ideas are once again gaining currency in far-right discourse.

The Black Panther movie doesn’t have the power to change Hollywood, but it does have the power to make us think and question the status quo. It should make studios and filmmakers recognise that audiences are more sophisticated, and no longer want the dead tropes of yesteryear. What they do want are great stories and compelling characters. These aren’t governed by race, but rather by the limits of our imagination.