Photo: Marvel Studios
We saw Home five times.
If you’re a black parent, as I am, and have a black daughter, as I do, you know how Rihanna’s character Tip—with her brown skin and curly hair—towered over a sea of pale princesses and other female protagonists who may have embodied Girl Power, but not Black Girl Power. And so, we went week after week after week, and then twice more On Demand, and when asked why she liked this movie so much she said “Tip is basically me in human form.”
As a self-identified black girl with a South Asian father, my daughter has not had a ton of on-screen role models to choose from. When The Frog Princess was released, I marched myself to the Disney store to find her outfit, only to be told it wasn’t being sold. Even though Home was a big hit, there were no Tip dolls for purchase, the marketing team had opted to push the Naboo alien instead. Finding black dolls and books with black girls at the centre of the story is a challenge, like a never ending treasure hunt. On social media, black parenting groups and boards are full of “Can anybody tell me where to find/who to recommend” posts, as we seek to give our kids the chance to see themselves in fantasy.
Now my child has moved past dolls and dresses and is on the cusp of teenhood with all of the requisite ennui that accompanies that age. But, she is also a Marvel head, and an expert in a universe made of characters with extraordinary gifts. And so when Black Panther was announced a year and a half ago, it was a sensation for both of us, albeit for different reasons. The thought of a black cast in a major motion picture was enticement enough for me—like when HBO’s show Insecure creator Issa Rae unapologetically said, “I’m rooting for everybody Black” at the Golden Globes last year.
In the movies, black folks don’t get to be the hero—not the one that survives, anyway. Blackness exists on the margins, in those curiously flat supporting characters whose lives and thoughts are merely plot devices to carry the white protagonist’s story forward. So often, this is framed as “progress,” as their lives are portrayed as “just like” their white counterparts, and therefore, apparently not worthy of recording.
From the announcements of the cast, to the first trailer, I knew this would be a different kind of super-hero movie. And as we received more and more breadcrumbs—black hero, black supporting cast set in a fictional African nation that never suffered under colonialism—I became more and more sure this was an experience I needed to share with my daughter.
We bought tickets the day they went on sale, well over a month in advance, and I deliberately chose an all-black viewing. The diaspora showed out—dressing in all manner of African prints, with natural hair and face paint and head wraps and stunning accessories to match. And as I ushered my child in with her friends, her face lit up, her own natural hair full and out on display as well.
What I have experienced, and what this movie gave me the opportunity to share my daughter, was the fullness of Blackness. All the things other movies simply do not have, this movie gave in spades. Wakanda, the fictional sovereign nation in Africa where Black Panther is set, is a place were black excellence is normalized and black culture is simply the order of the day. Wakanda was a place where black people had never been told “No,” and it was wonderful to see the delight move across my science-loving child’s face as she watched Shuri, the teen Princess and leading scientific mind of Wakanda show off her marvelous creations and command respect from King T’Challa.
As a mom who is in a constant battle to reinforce black beauty standards in a child who goes to a predominately white school, I found this movie to be a gift. My daughter’s skin and hair render her as “other” at a point in her life where she just wants to “fit in,” and it was such a pleasure to see all that shape and texture up on the big screen. The hair, the costumes, the Afrofuturistic fashion is a wonder to behold. It was refreshing to see the diversity of black beauty, as several tribes, such as the Masai and Xhosa, were referenced in the outfits and jewelry.
While the parade of beauty was affirming, it wasn’t the movie’s only redeeming factor for me. In Black Panther, Blackness had depth. Characters and their background differences, rather than smoothed out and ignored, were given sharp relief and explored. But rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive to one another, Black Panther shows the connections of love, loyalty, and family that bound them all. I was recently at an event where Kim Katrin Milan, an LGBTQ activist referred to Blackness as having “layers, instead of fractions,” and I believe that is one of the best ways to unpack King T’Challa a.ka the Black Panther, and Eric Killmonger, his nemesis, and their perspectives on identity and freedom.
At a time where words like “identity politics” and “race card” are reframing the conversation on the need for diversity as inherently negative, a movie like Black Panther shows the value in telling as many people’s stories as possible. I have lived 38 years on this planet and not seen this type of representation and budget given to a black story, ever. The fact that my child made it to 12 and grew up most of her life with a black president and was able to partake in a culturally-specific phenomenon such as this— I cannot wait to see what the world could look like to her.
The audience gave waves of emotion—there was laughter, gasps, cheers, an airhorn and even a vuvuzela (!!). Watching Black Panther was a community event; we all were prepared to laugh and love, and we did. That is what I wanted my daughter to see and experience, to love the way we as black people celebrate and show our appreciation for a job well done. And as she and her friends laughed and clapped and cheered and held hands during the climax, I knew she was part of it all, and that feeling—to give her an experience like that—I cannot thank the creators enough. We were home.