The Year of (Positive) Black Representation: Black Panther and the Obama Portraits
A few months ago, my baby dadd- I mean fellow Bison Chadwick Boseman came back to Howard University to participate in a panel after the screening of Marshall, a film detailing one of (another Howard alumnus) Thurgood Marshall’s career-defining cases as a lawyer for the NAACP. One thing Chadwick said that stood out to me, was that he intentionally chooses roles in which he can portray positive images of Black men and tell those stories accurately. His track record only proves this: In addition to Marshall, Chadwick landed leading roles as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), James Brown in Get on Up (2014), and his most recent ( and undoubtedly biggest) role, as King T’Challa and the titular Black Panther (2018).
From the moment the first trailers and posters dropped it seemed like it would take centuries for Black Panther to come out. My anticipation and excitement for this film definitely overshadowed my ability to sit back and really digest it, and the sheer magnitude of this film and what it means for Black representation in mainstream media was something I had to sleep on.
I watch Marvel movies regularly with my family (Black Panther being the only exception to that tradition) so I’m used to the quality of content they produce on both TV and in films. I wasn’t worried about whether or not Black Panther would be good. The concept of seeing such a Black film on as large of a platform that only Marvel films have maintained in recent years, a superhero film so rich with characters and themes that I could actually relate to as a Black person, was something that took me a minute to fully grasp.
I remember seeing the first images of Lupita Nyong’O’s character Nakia and immediately thinking “Yo…she looks like me.” This character in a Marvel film is not only played by one of my favorite actresses, but she actually looks like me. Like down to a similar hairstyle and color, not the “This is the only Black character in this film so I guess we relate by default.” Seeing Nakia come to life in the film only reinforced those sentiments.
It’s actually funny to see a film that contains themes and cultural references you actually connect to. It makes you think “So this is what white folks feel like all the time? Wow…” For example, to touch on Michael B. Jordan’s character Erik Killmonger, I couldn’t really think of him as a villain, especially in comparison to other Marvel villains. Other Marvel villains are really…really evil and I agree with this Twitter user who said Killmonger just needed a warm hug and therapy.
Killmonger was too angry to be an effective leader. His plan to just give guns to black people to overthrow oppressors was dumb. That nigga ain’t want equality. He wanted chaos. Son needed a warm hug and some therapy.
— Shyne Coldchain Jr. (@Smooth_Orator) February 19, 2018
Killmonger expressed similar sentiments that we see in a lot of Black activism and culture in general, which made him such a relatable character in the movie. I also applaud the writers for highlighting the theme of the relationship between native Africans and African Americans (I also couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr. Carr’s Intro to Afro American Studies class and how he stresses the importance of getting back in touch with our African roots).
And of course, I have to mention the amazing Black women in this film who prove that while a Black man is perfectly capable of leading on his own, he isn’t as impactful without the Black women that support him behind the scenes. In addition to Nakia, Shuri and Okoye are some of the best characters in the film (Shuri being a definite fan favorite). All three of these women shatter previously held stereotypes about Black women, showing us as the fiercely loyal yet independent beings that we are (I mean if Okoye said we killing our men without question in the name of Wakanda…then we killing our men without question in the name of Wakanda and that’s that on that).
Prior to Black Panther’s release, Black representation got another A+ when the official portraits of our forever President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. These portraits serve as yet another poignant example of art created by Black artists being the best representations of the Black community. Barack’s portrait, painted by New York artist Kehinde Wiley, depicts him in a setting that contradicts everything about presidential portraits and Black masculinity. This isn’t done unintentionally, though, as the three different types of flowers that surround Barack each represent pieces of his background — Hawaii, Chicago, and his father’s native Nigeria.
Michelle’s portrait, done by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, was the one that really took me by surprise. It was seemingly flat, basic almost. But nonetheless captured the powerful presence and grace of Michelle Obama.
I mention these portraits in conjunction with Black Panther because I can’t stress enough the importance and impact of Black people being given the space to tell our own stories on such large stages. Though two different media of art, the heritage and legacy they portray are the same. The impact that both of these historical moments have had are the same. To the Black girl seeing a powerful Black woman like Nakia or Michelle Obama portrayed in a positive and accurate light, and to the Black boy seeing a Black male superhero on the silver screen or in the National Portrait Gallery, they are the same.
“He or she who controls the images projected to the masses controls his self esteem.”
Dope articles/think pieces you should check out:
Black Panther and the Invention of “Africa”- The New Yorker
The Hidden Political Message of Michelle Obama’s Portrait Dress- POLITICO
The Obama portraits are not what you’d expect, and that’s why they’re great- The Washington Post
Originally published at www.kesifelton.com.