By Sylvia Denice
Historically, I am not a fan of the superhero movie genre. Most superhero films leave me, to my despair, bored or disengaged. In addition, the marketing of superhero movies has been geared toward more of a masculine audience. When it comes to superhero movies, I more often than not assume my time is better spent on another film experience. However, this all changed when my students brought their energy around the release of the Black Panther film into my classroom. These twenty nine-year-olds swayed me, and I ended up seeing Black Panther in theaters–twice. After seeing the film, I experienced a complete change of heart.
As a teacher of twenty young African-American children, I am extremely conscientious of portrayals of my students and their cultures in the media. Black Panther was a refreshing reflection of the beauty I see in my students every day: my bright, intelligent, innovative, loving, brave, communal, cooperative, collaborative, loyal students. I had expected this from reviews I read before seeing the film, and I was not disappointed. While I had anticipated a sense of empowerment from Black Panther for my African-American students, which they candidly and enthusiastically expressed in class, I was unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised with the additional messages of empowerment for young girls.
My second time seeing Black Panther was beside my two teen-aged sisters, where I found myself constantly noticing the potential lessons I hoped were transferring from the screen to their beautiful, young, impressionable, strong, female minds. To my delight, our conversation after seeing the movie centered around the film’s empowering female characters and plot lines. Below are the messages my sisters and I heard from Black Panther that we hope other young, female superhero fans can enjoy, too.
Girls are smart
You could feel the disdain in the movie theater when M’baku came to challenge T’Challa, king, and protector of Wakanda, for the throne and stated their “technological advances have been overseen by a child who scoffs at tradition.” The remark is an offense towards Shuri, the overseer and innovator of all Wakandan technological advances, and T’Challa’s sister. My sisters and I scoffed, knowing Shuri’s intelligence and leadership were clearly sustaining the Wakandan paradise. We loved seeing a woman, especially a woman of color, thriving in a STEM career on the big screen. Through Shuri’s character, Black Panther encouraged and challenged us as young women to unashamedly love, embrace, and share our unique genius in a culture where this is not always the case and to pursue untrodden paths accordingly.
Girls are strong
As women, we were proud and amazed to see the Wakandan army comprised of unapologetically resilient women. To my surprise, my favorite scene from Black Panther was an action scene: the final battle scene between the Dora Milaje and the Killmonger. These types of action scenes are typically where superhero genre films lose my interest; however, seeing the Wakandan women warriors actively, physically involved in the battle had me fully engaged. To my sisters and I, this was Black Panther sending a message to women of their undeniable and underappreciated strength. We spent some time recalling depictions of non-superhuman women in action films to those we saw in Black Panther, and struggled to find any examples even remotely comparable to the Wakandan warriors.
Girls have a voice
My sisters and I snickered through the entire scene depicting Agent Ross, the white American CIA agent character, and T’Challa conversing around Okoye, the leader of the kingdom guards. Okoye makes her sentiments about the conversation clearly known to T’Challa throughout, remarking to him in Xhosa, the native language of Wakanda. Ross asks T’Challa, “Does she speak English?” Okoye herself replies to Agent Ross, “When she wants to.” The theater giggled; and, in this line, we felt the acknowledgment of the female voice. I remember being a fifth grader learning U.S. history and noticing an overwhelming majority of the women highlighted in our lessons were acknowledged as contributors to history through their “support” of the actions of affluent white men. While I believe this sentiment was intended to bring appreciation to women in history, it can muffle the female voice. As women, we should no longer have to be heard through the voices of men. Black Panther showed us that girls have voices of their own.
Black Panther expanded my thinking of superhero powers. Before seeing the film, my idea of a superhero was limited to whatever superhuman gifts the character been given: strength, speed, force, or flight, for example. After seeing Black Panther, I realized the true, applicable power of the superhero movie genre. The power of Black Panther was not limited to the capabilities of vibranium; Black Panther brought a voice to my African-American and female students, giving “power” as it relates to the superhero movie genre a whole new meaning for me. A few months ago, I never would have anticipated that today I would be saying, “I can’t wait to see Avenger: Infinity War.” Consider me a superhero film fan now.