Representation Matters: Reflections on Black Panther

I know anything worth reading about Black Panther has already been written, and likely written more eloquently than I will achieve here. I’m not the first to point it out, but the film is a masterwork, and I think it’s worth trying to explain why.

On July 28, 2016, I watched Hillary Clinton formally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. As the footage from Philadelphia streamed from CNN, I sat on the couch and wept. Sometimes when I tell people of my reaction, they don’t understand. To them, it seems dramatic or misplaced. But in that moment, I was overcome: with pride, with hope and with...camaraderie. Representation doesn’t seem particularly impactful to those who already enjoy it. White men already see themselves as CEOs and Presidents, as bosses and farmers and doctors and politicians-- they can watch people who look like them succeed in virtually any arena.

Hillary Clinton looked like me. Superficially, sure. We’re both blonde-haired, blue-eyed, with a little extra curve around our hips and a penchant for slacks over dresses. But she was also a politics major like me. She had an interest in the news and world affairs like me. She spoke about gender dynamics, and sexism, and professional struggles in ways that sounded familiar to me. She had experienced love and heartbreak like me. Her life experience, her demeanor and her goals more closely mirrored my own than any male candidate we could’ve nominated, and that fact sent me a message: I could do this too.

I already knew that women were as powerful, smart and equally capable as men. But on July 28, I had the truth of that knowledge confirmed. And that confirmation bolstered my self-confidence and my sense of self. I realized I was benefiting from generations of hard-fought victories, and I had the ability--and the responsibility--to achieve on behalf of all the women who came before me, for the sake of all the women who would come after me.

I cannot speak for the Black community, obviously. But I imagine that watching Black Panther-- a movie which was led by a Black cast and saw Black men and women fill roles of leadership, wisdom, strength, grit, humor and love-- felt for people of color how that acceptance speech felt for me. People of color got to see their power represented, embodied and--not insignificantly--popularly accepted. I think non-Black audiences can love this movie. We can appreciate the acting, the costumes, the dialogue and the special effects. We can be thrilled by the fight scenes and vindicated by the ultimate triumph of the Black Panther. But this movie was not for us, and that’s okay too.

It’s important to realize that demonstrations of often unseen excellence-- whether by women, people of color, disabled people, members of the LGBTQ community, or others-- have commercial appeal. Black Panther is one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Black stories are not just for Black people-- but there is inherent value in representing minority and oppressed communities, and investing in these untold stories is allowed to be an end unto itself. We cannot measure the inspiration that will come from watching these movies-- it is likely infinitely valuable.