One of the more controversial topics in Hollywood is the concept of whitewashing – casting a white actor in a role meant to be Black, Asian, Native American, Latin, or other ethnic group. Some of the more egregious examples are Laurence Olivier (and Orson Welles) playing Othello – in blackface, Ralph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson; Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Katharine Hepburn (Dragon Seed), and John Wayne (The Conqueror) as Asians; Johnny Depp as Tonto (Lone Ranger); Tilda Swinton as an Asian man (Dr. Strange), or the one that ruined my childhood: finding out that Native American Iron Eyes Cody of the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign was actually a man of Italian descent.
Big-Budget Black-Lead Films
In fact, serious big-budget black films are hard to come by. Indeed, most of the highest-grossing black-lead films are comedies (Eddie Murphy has 5 of the top 7, not including Beverly Hills Cop), despite some very top-quality dramas (The Color Purple, Fences, Moonlight, The Help, Soul Food). Yet Samuel L. Jackson – I’ll see anything he’s in – ranks number TWO on the list of actors with top box office revenues, pulling in a combined domestic gross of more than 7 BILLION dollars for his 126+ films (#1 is Stan Lee. He has a cameo in every movie he makes). Even Hollywood protested the lack of serious roles for black actors, and stirred a controversy over a glaring absence in Oscar nominations despite worthy black films, a problem starting to be rectified in 2017. Not great if you’re a black kid looking for role models. The Adventures of Pluto Nash just doesn’t cut it.
A New Superhero
Now, Hollywood may be on the verge of a true black superhero blockbuster with the release of February’s Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th release into its megahit superhero franchise. Following his debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa – holding the title Black Panther – is the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, who gains superpowers from a heart-shaped herb and connections to a mystical Panther God. When his father is assassinated in Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to discover his claim to the throne being challenged. T’Challa must team up with a CIA agent and the Wakanda Special Forces to prevent a world war.
The History of Black Panther
Black Panther was the first black comic book superhero, ever (1966), so early he predates the political party. Chadwick Boseman does a phenomenal job as T’Challa, and the movie promises to have the same serious craft and attention as the rest of the Marvel films. The previews are visually stunning, with rich ethnic textiles and cultural details that leap off the screen, drawn from no fewer than five different African cultures. Not only a superhero, but a culturally relevant one as well – which of course, immediately started another controversy whether or not the movie is celebrating African culture or trying to appropriate it. The movie was originally green-lighted in 2011, and the script approved in 2015. Hollywood doesn’t get better than this.
Of course there are now other black superheroes. Luke Cage’s TV series has had luke-warm reviews. As the XMen movies progressed, Storm played less and less of a role. Sam Wilson is a great sidekick, but no Captain America. Iron Man’s buddy Rhodey Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot may be Don Cheadle, but he’s still just a sidekick called in when an extra guy is needed (at least, in the films). In Black Panther, black youth – and everyone else – may finally have found a superhero they can look up to, in full, serious, big-screen, big-budget glory, and he is Marvel-ous.