DISNEY: Doing Blackness Right (Finally) in 2018
Written by Stephanie Renee on February 14, 2018
No spoiler alerts necessary. I am merely here to sing praises and offer a Wakanda-style crossed arm salute to Ryan Coogler and any member of the Disney team who had the good sense to hire him to direct this stupendous Black superhero tale.
Full disclosure: I am a lifelong, unabashed animated film nut. This means, of course, that long before there was such a thing as a Lucasfilm or Pixar, I was fed a steady stream of any and all things Disney. Often, even before heading to the theater to see the latest feature, I had received an oversized package in the mail containing a beautifully-illustrated storybook album with the latest Disney soundtrack. Personal faves were The Aristocats and Jungle Book, but every single showtune was fair game for my budding child vocalist repertoire. Thankfully, there are no videos floating around of my five year-old self’s booty-bouncing escapades to “I Wanna Be Like You” in front of the family stereo. Thankfully.
I share this upfront because although I was a diehard Disney animation fan, I was not—nor have ever been—a graphic novel enthusiast. Comic reading, for me, was limited to Sunday papers and the copies of Richie Rich and The Archies that I was allowed to purchase while out running errands with my mother on her paydays. I do not dwell in the universe where otherwise rational people blow a gasket when liberties are taken with superhero storylines, origin stories, ethnicities or plot twists. That’s just not my thing.
And, being totally honest, Disney had practically lost me as a regular patron years ago because of their ham-fisted and historically-insulting treatment of ethnicity, largely centered in their Princess films. If you are able to look past the lily whiteness of Cinderella and Snow White from the early years, because that’s all we had, your patience was surely tested by the creation of characters like Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas in more contemporary times. Almost always rendered ethnically moot by the casting of white women as the voice actors, and stories left devoid of any true context for the complexities of navigating both race and gender while seeking love and acceptance and overcoming a major life obstacle. Even the Lion King, which is arguably the Blackest Disney film to date, couldn’t seal the deal in the casting when they made Matthew Broderick (of all the white film & stage icons) the voice for grown-up Simba. Matthew Broderick, with Madge Sinclair and James Earl Jones as the voices of his parents? C’mon son!
So, upon the announcement that Black Panther was coming to the big screen, I waited. Hesitantly optimistic, I waited. Then came the announcement that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan would be continuing their on-and-off-screen bromance in telling this story. And the spark of hope grew brighter. Then, Disney started releasing more information on the rest of the casting and I giggled with glee at the notion of Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Sterling K. Brown, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya spending even 2 minutes together on-screen. Blickety black. But, the writing. What would become of the story?
Fresh off of my preview screening viewing, I can assure all who read this missive that Black Panther is perhaps the most unapologetically and intentionally Black film I have ever seen, save Julie Dash’s Daughters of The Dust and one or two other favorites. And its genius is in the purposefulness of lived experience that flows through every scripted line, action sequence and nuanced gesture of its characters. This film would have been exceptional if none of the acclaimed stars had been present, as long as the actors gave as much intentional energy to their depictions as was provided in the material. Dates, locations, fight choreography, dialog…every bit of Black Panther works in concert to paint a picture of a Blackness that, in or out of the superhero sphere, is thoughtful, emotionally potent and linked to a glorious, troubled past. This film, at its root, explores the challenge of vulnerability. What happens when I make a decision to lock people and things out to preserve something beautiful? What am I losing when I choose to let something or someone in and take a chance on rising above expectations and thriving?
Go see this film. See it with people you love. Let the white people around you know that it’s safe to both want to see this film and to enjoy it, without surrendering any privilege points or offending their Trump-loving relatives. Not a single character is villianizing an entire race of people or dependent on tired us/them tropes of good and evil. Everybody in Black Panther is trying to get free, somehow. And your entrance point on the freedom spectrum will not prevent you from seeing it from a new angle, or appreciating the thought that went into bringing you into the conversation, superhero style.
But I’m not gonna lie. The Dora Milaje are my new sheroes. I’ll take red vibranium battle armor and spear over a prince riding in with enchanted kisses and promises, any day of the week.