I am hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions from a very small data point, but I believe that the way multiple African and African American bodies are represented in the phenomenal Black Panther marks an important departure from the way African and African American bodies have been represented (and celebrated by Hollywood) in the past. In this case, I would point to the change in quality, not quantity, as the critical move, and while I would avoid using the term “post racial” to describe America in 2018, I would argue that the figures of T’Challa, Killmonger, and Okoye offer a vibrant counter-narrative to the beaten, violated bodies of movies like Detroit or Twelve Years a Slave and, given how financially successful the film has been already, may herald a new wave of African and African American portrayals on the big (and small) screen.
Black Panther features African and African American bodies in combat frequently. Early on, we view the lead character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), shirtless in a pool of water, where he will volunteer to have his superpowers taken away in order to most fairly compete with others for the right to rule Wakanda. Though he is clearly a superhero (we have already seen him battling baddies in his sleek Black Panther suit), T’Challa’s body is not scared, nor is it super-sized. His strength is represented as being separate from his super-warrior embodiment, and this feels like a move to make clear that T’Challa is not a vision of racialized prowess and that he is a fair competitor (St. Louis 2003). T’Challa engages in dramatic (and beautifully shot) combat with worthy opponents, and he is even bloodied, but his body is never represented as un-manned or unmanly. Throughout the film, we witness T’Challa’s kindness and humor, which is crucial to his power as a leader.
Erik Killmonger’s body stands in physical contrast to T’Challa’s. Played by Michael B. Jordon, Killmonger has literally inscribed pain onto his body: when he pulls off his shirt, preparing to fight T’Challa for control of Wakanda, his torso is brutally marked for each “kill” he accomplished as a black ops soldier. Killmonger, as an African (Wakandan) American, is a character forged in violence, which speaks to the systemic violence America inscribes (visibly and invisibly) on African American bodies. He mourns being kept from the peace and prosperity in Wakanda, as he is kept in Los Angeles after the death of his father. In his quest for revenge, he engaged in nefarious warfare, celebrating violence with violence against his skin. But here, unlike in movies like Detroit or Twelve Years a Slave, Killmonger is in control of those marks. He is writing on his skin, and this makes the character even richer: it’s difficult to hate Killmonger because his suffering is complex, and yet, his agency also makes it easier to root for T’Challa to succeed.
The physicality of Danai Gurira’s Okoye is thematically contradictory to T’Challa and even more so to Killmonger. Okoye needs no superpowers to be a successful warrior, and she resists compromising her agency even when Killmonger ascends to the throne – she maintains her identity as the Dora Milaje commander and sees her role as one of maintainer during the chaos of leadership transfer. I would argue that Okoye is the most successful fighter in the film (I mean … she rides on top of a car just like T’Challa, and earns even more victories, all while sans superpower!), and her nerves of steel offer a powerful depiction of femaleness. The women of Black Panther are some of the most stalwart characters we’ve ever seen on screen, and the fact that they are centered so prominently in a film that does not aim to represent their strength in the form of their bodies being maligned, is a joy to behold. This isn’t to say the female characters do not experience loss – they simply do so without being physically compromised in ways we too often see rendered on the big screen.
St. Louis, Brett. “Sport, Genetics and the 'Natural Athlete': The Resurgence of Racial Science.” Body & Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 2003. Pp. 75-95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X030092004