Let me be perfectly clear.
Everyone should see the movie, Black Panther. It is an entertaining and ground breaking film with a nearly all black cast animating a comic book storyline full of social commentary on racism, colonialism and white privilege. It wrestles with different visions of black empowerment. It artfully uses nearly every scene to explore the challenges of being black in the world. Even the Black Panther’s super powers are symbolic of the black struggle. The more abuse the Black Panther takes, the more powerful he becomes. As a white man, I was only aware of the most obvious narratives. From what I am reading, black audiences are experiencing a deep catharsis while watching strong black men and women navigating the world.
I know my daughter did. I have never seen her more excited before, during or after a movie. My wife found the movie – and watching our daughter watching the movie – emotionally moving. They both left the theatre exclaiming, “That was awesome.” I was less enthused. When they asked what I thought, to their disappointment, I said, “It was good.” Though I recognized the movie’s significance and power, I did not experience what they experienced. I didn’t connect with the movie emotionally. Later, as I reflected on my response, I realized why. This movie – unlike most – wasn’t about me.
It was not a movie about white men. We were barely present at all. We were not the heroes. We did not have super powers. We did not save the world. We did not get the girl. Of the two white men in the movie, one was a crazy villain and the other a humbled and subordinate ally. What I experienced in watching Black Panther was what people of color and women experience when they go to the movies. Regardless of how compelling the movie may be, without the presence of strong characters that look like us, it is difficult to deeply connect. We are watching someone else’s story. This is what I disliked about Black Panther.
However, what I disliked even more was what that response indicated about me and our culture. As much as I’ve tried to become aware of my latent racism and sexism, this movie revealed how much further I have to go. I am sympathetic to the plight of women and of people of color in our culture, but this movie suggested that I am not yet empathetic. It is nearly impossible for me to fully appreciate or understand what it is like to be a person of color or a woman in a white male dominated society. As with many aspects of our culture, I have been largely indifferent to how movies and media have excluded others and focused on me.
No wonder my wife and daughter have had no interest in the Star Wars movies that I’ve so enjoyed. If there was ever a black woman in any of the movies, I don’t remember her. Until recently, all the heroes and villains of Star Wars were white men. The central storyline was of the battle against the “dark side” of the Force. Sadly, the Star Wars movies that I so eagerly anticipated have portrayed a future exactly like the present – one where people of color and women are marginalized and white men violently dominate. More disturbing, these movies blatantly promote the “rightness” of such a world order.
Ironically, some of the critics of the Black Panther movie have attacked the movie for its undisguised social commentary and its lack of diversity. These critics seem hopelessly unaware of how nearly every other movie produced by Hollywood has an equally blatant worldview and a lack of diversity. That these critics cannot see this intentionality in the movies they like, says far more about them than the Black Panther movie. They, like me, aren’t used to the discomfort of being left out.
White male discomfort is a fairly rare experience. I seldom feel excluded and marginalized. When I do, I am learning to welcome rather than resist that experience. The only way for white men to learn empathy is if we allow ourselves to experience what so many others experience on a daily basis. Movies about the exclusion of people of color – like Hidden Figures or Selma – do not accomplish this task. Seeing how easily white men have dominated in the past may actually reinforce the normality of such a world order. It takes a movie that offers a vastly different world order – one in which white men are evil, weak, ignorant and secondary – for white men to experience the discomfort we have so often created for others.
This is not the first time a Black Panther has made white men uncomfortable. Fifty years ago, hundreds of young black men organized as Black Panthers. They were condemned, harassed, arrested and killed. Their movement was systemically destroyed because of its threat to white supremacy. Who would have guessed that fifty years later there would be a record breaking movie celebrating black power and reclaiming that title? I find that hopeful.
Young black men are seeing themselves as super heroes and kings. Girls like my daughter are seeing themselves portrayed as never before. White men, even though oblivious to the deeper storylines, may be affected. Culture changes slowly and subtly. Movies sometimes reveal tectonic shifts in the foundations of a culture, the shifting of assumptions and expectations. What is being portrayed as fantasy is offered as possibility even though white men can’t see it.
One of the last scenes of the movie – one you only see if you sit through the initial credits – is that of a white man questioning how blacks from a poor African country can aid the world. It’s a laugh line, full of hope and irony. The audience knows what that white man does not, that black men and women are capable of far more than he can imagine. If given the opportunity, they can change the world.
I like that.