History hidden from me
To hide my identity
So I’d never feel
I am somebody
You’ve gouged my eyes
I see more clearly
You’ve tried to rob
My spirit you tried to break
My soul you tried to take
There’s no need to be afraid
Cause I won’t do unto you now
These lyrics, taken from Janet Jackson’s iconic 1993 cut New Agenda, are but one instance of what many entertainment pioneers have worked to change for centuries… the severe under-representation (and by default, dehumanization) of people of color in Entertainment. An yes, while much progress has been made in recent years, this weekend’s opening of the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther feels much more like a leap forward than a significant step.
Jamil Smith, writing for Time magazine, shares this excellent rationale…
If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you—executives, poets, garbage collectors, soldiers, nurses and so on. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Now, after a brief respite, you again have a President.
Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.
This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It hasn’t even hit theaters yet and its cultural footprint is already enormous. It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day black life. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely comedy, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colors. “You have superhero films that are gritty dramas or action comedies,” director Ryan Coogler tells TIME. But this movie, he says, tackles another important genre: “Superhero films that deal with issues of being of African descent.”
Much like that famed day in 2008 when Barack and Michelle Obama became America’s First Family- Elect, representation is truly at the heart of all the excitement which surrounds Black Panther. Before this project, the experiences of those in of African heritage had never been explored and celebrated at such a total, multi-dimensional level. After this weekend, that will never be the case again.
So from this point forward, where does Hollywood go from here? Will they see potential in marketing to new audiences? More importantly, will they continue to market more diverse projects as a top priority, full-stop picture like they have done for Black Panther? As we know from the post- Obama era, everything wasn’t “happily ever after from Election Day 2008. Even with a bold leap, it is still incredibly possible to take steps backwards.
But even during the missteps, Hollywood will never be the same once people across the world see Black Panther on their movie screens. And any fears that the film might be a flop seem to be vanishing rather quickly. After it’s first night of release, the film is already making an historic run at the Box Office, nabbing over 25 million dollars last night alone.
We’ll see what the future holds, but for today, Black Panther is here, with a New Agenda for Hollywood. As the song says…
All that we’ve been through
Our time has come to rejoice
A new agenda’s due
It’s time to know the truth
Our time has come to rejoice
A New Agenda’s due