The first film this country ever created made it clear to me what America thought of me.
On February 8th, 1915, the silent film Birth of a Nation debuted. The movie (originally titled “The Clansman” after the novel and play of the same name) was extoled by white Americans across the nation, despite the disgusting racist imagery shown and the fact that the film is essentially a three-hour-plus recruitment advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan, who are portrayed as the heroic saviors against the vile, wicked “nigger beasts.” This film inspired people like Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, to join the Klan, whose membership spiked after the theatrical release of Birth of a Nation.
One more time for the people in the back: The 45th President of the United States’ father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fast forward over a century later, we are at the most recent film to be released in America: Black Panther. To say that I haven’t been as enthusiastic as I am about a movie release since Malcolm X is an understatement. Being honest, I never expected to see a film like this in my lifetime: a big budget movie showcasing black excellence in an advanced society absolved from the scourge of white colonialism (if that phrase bothers you more than what colonialism has done to black people, you’re the problem, not me), written and directed by a black man, an ensemble cast overflowing with melanin-filled magnificence. In other words, I get to feel for two hours and fourteen minutes how white Americans feel every day.
If I were to challenge you to remember the first film you watched that showed someone who looked like you in a positive representation of on film that wasn’t a stereotype, as a white person in America, your answers may vary. For a black person in America, this question can be much more difficult to answer. I took an informal poll amongst seventy-three of my friends and associates of color. On average, the age of their FIRST such encounter for many was in their teens. For a few, their first experience of watching a character or movie portray themselves in a positive, non-stereotypical light was in their FORTIES. The thought of a typical white person in this country going ONE decade at any juncture in their lives without seeing themselves in a positive showing is laughable, let alone four. It’s simply another thing people of color have been conditioned to swallow and accepted as a norm, and this movie for many is a necessary and overdue water break from the desert that is America’s attempt to uplift our culture.
Despite my joy for the film’s release, a healthy group of insecure whites and a lesser group of so-called pro-black individuals actually are upset and deterring people from going to watch the movie.
Yeah, I know. I rolled my eyes to as I wrote that previous sentence.
In case you are reading this and you are a member of either group, allow me a moment to address both sides of your idiocy:
To my people of color fake protesting the film: Let’s get the necessary part out of the way. Yes, Stan Lee (a white man, but one who’s no doubt “invited to the cookout”) is the creator of the Black Panther comics. My response? The truth is the truth, no matter who it comes from. I’m grateful that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used their privilege to not only create a comic that highlighted black excellence but also opening a door to make it easier for writers of color to gain exposure. I’m not going all Boston Police on Kirby and Lee, but this movie’s history is connected to them and facts are facts. The fact most worth looking at is the number of writers, actors, film crew, directors, costume designers, and countless other positions filled by people of color because of this film. Speaking solely for myself, you can want the revolution to occur however you wish, but if you don’t appreciate progress because it’s not 100% black, you’re missing the point, and you will continue to stay and feel stuck trying to pole vault over mountains. I’m not telling you to stop fighting. I am telling you to stop fighting your own because their breakthroughs don’t impress you. In the words of the key members of the “Black Panther” soundtrack: Be humble and sit down…in a theater this weekend to support your people.
To the “All Lives Matter” crowd: Many sheltered, entitled whites oblivious to their privilege find this swelling of pride in the black community as an enigma. Just a couple days ago BBC presenter Jeremy Vine allowed the words “overwhelmingly black” to escape his near-invisible lips while speaking to actor Chadwick Boseman. Average angry middle American white man Ben Shapiro went even further in the battles of the tone-deaf and clueless, implying on his show this week that the vampire series “Blade” should have been enough to quench African Americans’ desire to see themselves in a positive portrayal in movies. These are the kind of individuals who, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are “Birthers” (it’s not a coincidence that name fits so well here) who believe that people of color should “stay in their place” and “be grateful for what they’re given”. They are those who remain voluntarily unaware and unsympathetic towards everything we have had to fight for in this nation. They don’t worry that we protect ourselves against those sworn to protect us and fight every day we leave our homes to combat the very stereotypes of us embedded in the minds of white America.
This level of ignorance displayed by these misguided boys isn’t foreign to people of color in America. While I understand how persons who have had everything catered to their benefit in this country (with access to their lineage beyond America’s existence) may have difficulty grasping why people they don’t spend any time with whose ancestors were stolen, raped, murdered, and built this nation (without reparations) are proud to see traces of their true lineage portrayed in the form of a fictional superhero with no superiors, allow me to speak for every black person I know when I say we sincerely don’t give a fuck.
2019 marks the quadricentennial of the arrival of slaves strong and lucky enough to endure the Middle Passage to America. For nearly four hundred years, this country has shown my ancestors as well as myself what they think of us. Black Panther shows America the recipe for who we are and what we can be, without apology. My people have had to be ACTUAL superheroes simply to survive this wilderness, and even when we as African-Americans have successfully created real-life Wakandas within this country (see: Black Wall Street), they have been decimated by the very same whites who were inspired and emboldened from Birth of a Nation the same way Trump emboldened the racist who tried to attack me just last week at a gas station.
I have no problem confessing my own optimistic nature; that same optimism combined with inherited genius and forced physical skills provided from the strongest slaves being forced to breed amongst each other is the exact reason I’m here to view a glimpse of a world without oppression where the heroes that look like me are whitewashed away in amnesiac history books in a public school. This movie isn’t me begging America for a seat at a table, metaphorically speaking; for me, it’s showing younger kids of color that they can own the table in their OWN homes. This is about seeing and hearing a voice of color for longer than the entire Lord of the Rings series (forty-seven seconds), Jaws(8 seconds), E.T.(10 seconds), and the Harry Potter series (six minutes, forty-seven seconds). There is much riding on the success of this film for the benefit of not only black creatives, but to also contribute to the ever-evolving black psyche damaged over centuries. If Birth of a Nation inspired and contributed to the racist ideologies that brought a Donald Trump to our country, imagine what this film can do for young children of color already conditioned to living in a world where someone who looks as they do can become President.
How do you make America great, for once? Celebrate the best in ALL of us. Share ALL the stories. More King T’Challas can begin to turn the tide rooted in Birth of a Nation, as well as Hollywood and in America. That thought frightens many. But that’s not my problem. My only concern for the next few hours is making sure my attire is ready for the film.
Wakanda forever, indeed.