White people won’t see themselves in Black Panther. That’s why they should watch it

Take a seat.
Take a seat.
Image: Marvel Studios
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The excitement around Black Panther, Marvel’s first black superhero movie, is deafening. The film, released today, is poised to bring home $180 million this weekend. According to the movie tickets site Fandango, it has pre-sold more tickets than any other superhero movie. The buzz seems justified: Movie critics are calling it “incredible, kinetic, purposeful” and “as touching as it is thrilling.”

To many, Black Panther is more than a movie. It’s a cultural phenomenon, a necessary and joyous tribute to being black—not just in America, but in the global African diaspora. Celebrities are buying out theaters in underserved neighborhoods so black children can see faces like their own onscreen. Nigerians, Kenyans, and Ghanaians are sporting traditional garb to see the movie.

Many non-black people are also eager to share in this worldwide celebration. But it’s easy to feel nervous about how to engage in and respectfully support the identity-focused wave of elation. The answer is clearly not to mute that excitement. But know this: If you’re white, this is one time that you won’t see someone who looks like you onscreen fighting villains, commanding power, or saving innocent people. And that’s precisely why you should go see this film.

The power of (not) seeing yourself onscreen

White people are very used to seeing themselves onscreen. A study from the University of Southern California examined 800 movies that came out between 2007 and 2015, and found that of 32,205 characters, just a quarter were non-white. The lack of representation is even more stark behind the camera: Just 5.5% of the directors were black, for example.

Black Panther has an almost entirely black cast and a black director. That’s a gift for black girls and boys everywhere who aren’t used to seeing themselves onscreen—and it’s a gift for non-black people, too. Fictional storytelling offers a unique opportunity for empathy, says Jennifer Barnes, a professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma.

“Fiction offers us front-row access to other people’s minds,” she explains. “It lets us see how emotions, and relationships, and other people’s beliefs are playing out in these complicated social situations.” That’s why it’s crucial to seek out stories that don’t mirror your own life and identity.

This might be even more important for non-black children. As Black Panther costumes hit the shelves, nervous parents are agonizing (paywall) over whether to encourage their non-black children to dress up as the King of Wakanda.

In short, they should. Children today will hopefully be able to look up to many more black and brown heroes as they grow up—just as kids of all races and genders have long played out their childhood superhero fantasies as white males such as Superman and Batman.

And don’t feel inhibited from discussing Black Panther’s race. Children develop a sense of race early on, and can have subconscious associations with certain races by the time they enter primary school—so avoiding the topic in the hope that race never becomes “an issue” is not particularly effective, experts say. Instead, actively encouraging children’s admiration for a person of a different race or identity group, in a respectful way, helps them to thoughtfully respond to and empathize with others.

Taking them to see Black Panther, and talking openly about why it’s an inspiring milestone, is a great first step.

The power of an alternative story

It’s worth remembering that, as Karen Attiah, an editor at the Washington Post says, “In 2018, we live in a world where white fantasies about black inferiority still rage.” Black Panther combats those persistent and pernicious fantasies with a new and inspiring story.

It’s one that straddles reality and fantasy. Wakanda may be fictional, but its inhabitants speak a real African language. There’s “Okavango triangular, ancient, sacred geometry from Africa” all over Black Panther’s suit, Ruth E. Carter, who designed the film’s costumes, told The Ringer. The female fighting force have Masai beading, South African leatherwork, and hand-tooled jewelry armor.

Meanwhile Wakanda, rendered as a kind of Afro-futurist utopia, is high-tech, covered in the rich mineral Vibranium, and wealthy beyond measure—a place that doesn’t exist, but asks the important and provocative question, “what if?” It’s important that black and non-black people take this imaginative trip, and explore how a culture’s heroism, power, and technological prowess could have played out in the absence of colonialism and oppression.

Of course, the film likely won’t get everything right. Worries about cultural appropriation and African caricaturing have been cropping up since details about the movie first began leaking out. But participating in this moment, as a non-black person, is a useful thought experiment, and offers a glimpse of a tantalizing alternate reality.

The power of your money

Black Panther follows the first black-led film to make $100 million in the US, Girls Trip. It follows Get Out, which stared down the discomfort of being black in America, while grossing 40 times its production budget. And it follows Moonlight, the story of a gay, black American’s coming of age, which won the best picture Oscar in 2017.

Black Panther is no sleeper hit or low-budget art movie. “I hope you can tell from watching the movie, but the resources devoted to this movie are equal to and in fact surpass our last couple of movies,” Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, told Vulture. It’s true. The studio spent $200 million bringing Wakanda and its characters to life.

Nevertheless, Hollywood remains so very white. That’s despite huge box office potential among black audiences. African Americans, on average, visit theaters 13.4 times a year, compared to the 11 visits made by the average American. With movies such as Selma and Top Five, Hollywood has learned that black people will support a story that centers black characters. What’s important now is that the industry learns that people of other races can identify and engage with—and be entertained by—a story with strong black characters too.

There’s a lot riding on Black Panther. So go see it. Buy a ticket for yourself, for your friends, for your lover, for your neighbor. Then talk about it, chew on it—enjoy it. And go see it again.