You cannot strip away the black from Black Panther. It’s inherent to the character’s name. It’s inherent to the character’s identity. Yet every commenter, be they professional journalist or film fan, who has criticized, whined, questioned, and denied the indisputable notion that a black person should absolutely direct Marvel’s Black Panther has attempted to drown out that blackness.
Coming off the heels of the recent announcement that Creed and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler is in talks to direct Marvel’s impending film, the internet exploded with comments and think-pieces, as it usually does whenever a major piece of superhero movie news is announced. There are quite a number of positive articles and comments regarding the announcement, and there’s no doubt Creed played a major factor in these reactions. But, at the same time, one needn’t look very long or hard to find many vocal pundits making statements and asking questions like “Why does Black Panther need a black director?” “They should just get the best person for the job,” “They’re running out of black directors, aren’t they?” and “Coogler hasn’t really proved he’s capable of doing a movie like that.”
These same reactions were too easy to find when Ava DuVernay was courted for the project, and if Ryan Coogler drops out of the running, it will be too easy to find these comments about the next black director Marvel Studios attempts to bring aboard. Yes, even in the world of film, superhero films no less, black people are asked to prove why their voices should be heard, asked to prove their capabilities time and time again, and their successes are ultimately seen as cases of Hollywood-based affirmative action. Already, a small minority of critics are attempting to bury the thematic truths of Creed beneath inaccurate and irrelevant criticisms that seem to hinge on the disbelief that a black man can succeed on his own unassisted merits in Hollywood. Detractors on message boards and those who use social media platforms to tear down any black director mentioned in connection with Black Panther are less skilled at hiding their disbelief and prejudices. The loudest and most vocal question asked by these critics is “What if Hollywood said [insert white character film] could only be directed by a white director? Would that be fair?” This hypothetical willfully ignores that this is exactly what has been happening for decades and no, it has never been fair. The rational response to these sorts of comments is anger, but really, the severity of this rampant and repetitive ignorance about systemic racism and white-privilege isn’t just something to get upset about; it’s something to fear.
I’ve always stood by the fact that superheroes and their respective cinematic adaptations are reflections of us as humanity, that they are necessary myths that help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Yet our superhero myths, as they exist now, are exclusively fixed on white masculinity. This isn’t to say that women and people of color have nothing to take from the stories. As a black fan of films and comics, I’ve certainly enjoyed more of these takes than not, but they are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white in representation, language, music, and the primary concerns of the characters. Yes, white directors have successfully taken on black characters. But the current white, male ownership of basically all comic book properties ensures that representation of all other races, sexualities, and genders is, at best, filtered– a diluted vision of those people, one that, intentional or not, serves a narrative and vision of straight male whiteness.
A frequent counterpoint when it comes to hiring creators of a certain race, gender, or sexuality for a project is that good storytelling artists have the ability to write about and create characters outside of their own identity. In the simplest sense, this point is true in terms of fiction and non-fiction, but there are millions of books written by people of all walks of life, each helping to construct a broader worldview within literature. But, to raise this point in the midst of an argument against choosing minority directors is the equivalent of suggesting that only white people can and should write black characters. If the racial openness for anyone to write and publish work existed in the film landscape then we’d be having a different conversation. But when the entirety of a genre comes from one group, that isn’t conducive to a fair and inclusive worldview that might inspire other artists with vision, inspiration, knowledge, and understanding. The truth is, there exists now a cinematic class system where minorities are once again asked to survive in a ghetto, with few funds, little attention, and few and far opportunities to rise out of it.
To go back to the comics for a moment: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that because Black Panther was created by white guys, it shouldn’t matter if a white director brings the character to life on-screen. Yes, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther in 1966, a brilliant white showman and a brilliant white artist created T’Challa, the first black superhero, and his people on the principle of doing something new in their well-established comic world. There’s a lot they got right about the character in the creation of a billionaire, scientific-genius, warrior superhero whose Wakandian people lived in one of the most advanced cities in the world. But make no mistake, that version of Black Panther was still entirely a limited white view on black people. People remember what Lee and Kirby got right in those introductory appearances, but tend to forget or ignore The Thing’s description of a tribal dance as cro-magnon people acting like they just invented the wheel, or that white characters are constantly in disbelief that Africans are capable of such advancements and aren’t just living in huts.
Other than clichés, there’s little sense of culture or identity to Black Panther or the Wakandans during those early years. And as smart, wealthy, and powerful as T’Challa is, he’s often rendered as a rather bland character in those early appearances, a black poster boy. It was black writers (Christopher Priest and Reginald Hudlin) who provided the character’s most celebrated runs, who found a way to bring meaning and culture to clichés, and established the character a stronger personality that wasn’t always predicated to the comforts of Marvel’s predominantly white readership. With a new series to be released next year by celebrated black writer and journalist Ta-Nehishi Coates, it’s clear that Marvel Comics understands that the character works best under a black creator. So, why can’t some alleged film fans handle that fact?
There are people afraid that a Black Panther film directed by a black person might give them something different, a hard-edged viewpoint that doesn’t fit in their white-bread view of superheroes. Because if a black director helms the film, that makes it a “black film,” and from their prejudiced perspective, that means watching a film filled with people they don’t find as attractive, hearing music they don’t consider great, and facing viewpoints that don’t simply praise their white existence, but find fault with in it. The thing I’ve come to realize is that there are people out there who just want simple superhero stories but don’t want them to be racial, or gay, or feminist stories. The recently released Jessica Jones is a prime example of this. The character was created by a man, and the comic he wrote was really good, but in the hands of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, the story took on a new meaning. It had an authenticity that made it outstanding and essential viewing, and it could not have had that authenticity without a woman at its helm. Those with negative opinions of the show spat vehemently that it wasn’t a superhero show, and treated the show’s ownership (and critics’ celebration) of its feminist strengths as something negative. These comic/film fans think that the program’s being “feminist” renders it lesser than other properties that are not.
This is the same way that the concept of blackness is treated in relation to the Black Panther, by those who believe the name is only relevant in terms of costume. The repetition of solely straight white male views has conditioned many audiences to think that that vision of superheroes is not only the right way to approach these projects, but the only way. It has conditioned them to demand the “most talented” and “best person for the job” without even asking them to realize that the system only allows white filmmakers to build a list of credentials that might earn those qualifications. And, let’s be honest, those phrases are never thrown around when white directors are selected for high-profile jobs. Minority directors, female directors, LGBTQ directors can never be considered the “best person for the job” if they are never given a high-profile gig to prove that they are. White male directors can be plucked from relative obscurity and indie circuits and brought aboard blockbusters. They can make movies that gross over a billion dollars, be ushered into franchise after franchise to become this mythic “great talent” and “overnight sensation” with little to no contention. But everyone else is told by studio heads– executives that indiscriminately listen to audience feedback without separating the loud and subtle hate-mongers, racists, and sexists–that they should keep making their “black films,” their “female films” their “gay films.” And the wide-reaching stories on the bigger stages, the myths meant for everyone, are continually handled by “the best person for the job.”
Ryan Coogler’s Creed is a “black film” made for everyone, and there’s no reason why Black Panther shouldn’t be the same. Whatever Coogler needed to prove has been proven by two outstanding movies. And if you think a black director whose shown the kind of emotional character balance, attention to physicality, original use of sound, and a creative vision isn’t the best person for a job about a black legacy superhero with the most unique fighting style in the Marvel universe, the weight of a country on his shoulders, and a villain whose weapon is sound, then you don’t understand the character, you don’t understand filmmaking, and you don’t understand what this means to people. Black Panther is bigger than Ryan Coogler, and whether he directs the film or not, whoever takes on the project needs to be black. Whether that director is from Africa or is a black American, he or she will have the ability to understand how skin color is perceived and the importance of respecting culture. Those who feel justified in supporting systemic racism and those who think they can exonnerate themselves by citing Anthony Mackie’s statement about Black Panther not needing a black director, fail to see the larger issue in embedded in Mackie’s stated opinion. Anthony Mackie wants to work, and he knows who holds the power in Hollywood. His words are just another product of the issue at hand: a need to justify blackness in cinema. We don’t need justification. What we need is representation, unfiltered, undiluted, and unashamed.
These comic book characters and stories have power, for adults and children. They absolutely impact how we think about ourselves, what we think we’re capable of, and what we think we deserve. To allow white male hands to monopolize that power is to silence the minority and refuse them the myths they need to strengthen their own identities. Our blackness deserves to be seen, to be heard, to be celebrated, and to be affirmed as the best possible version of something, and Black Panther in Black hands isn’t something we’ve been given, it’s something we’ve earned.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, concept art by Ryan Meinerding