Representation Matters

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”

~ T’Challa “Black Panther”

On August 28, the actor Chadwick Boseman passed away at the age of 43 after a four year battle with colon cancer. Something that was amazing, to me, was that he had been struggling with this disease all while filming and it didn’t even leak to the public. Not once.

Boseman portrayed the Marvel Comics superhero the Black Panther in the titular movie as well as “Captain America: Civil War”, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” This was how I knew him, but his acting went well beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with portraying the fictional king of the fictional kingdom, Wakanda, he portrayed the Egyptian god Thoth in the overwhelmingly white “Gods of Egypt”.

In fact, controversy surrounded the 2016 movie which starred Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush and Nicholaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister of “Game of Thrones”) as Egyptian gods. Boseman was the only African-American actor in the movie, which further highlighted it’s whitewashing of the mythology of an African country. The actor welcomed the controversy as he felt it highlighted the problem Hollywood had with casting white actors in roles that could, and should, have gone to people of color.

The movie “Black Panther” is, easily, one of my favorite Marvel movies and it was refreshing to see a movie with a predominantly black cast and a handful of white actors instead of the other way around. It was also refreshing to see a movie that wasn’t centered on the United States, as so many superhero movies do. Boseman, however was more than the Black Panther.

He was Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall. In fact, Boseman got his first major role starring as Robinson in the movie “42.” Prior to his being made king of Wakanda, he portrayed Brown in the movie “Get On Up” and Thurgood Marshall in the movie “Marshall.” To say he had an effect on cinema and culture would be an understatement.

I think it’s safe to say that he was an example of why representation matters in popular culture.

Over the weekend, as news of Boseman’s passing spread across the internet, I watched my Twitter feed become filled with tributes to the late actor. In many cases, black parents had broken the news to their children that the Black Panther had passed away. The result? Children assembled their action figures around the fallen figure of T’Challa with the children performing the, now, well known salute of Wakanda; arms crossed over their chest.

Being a white person, I really don’t know what it’s like to not have representation. The majority of heroes seen on the big screen—from Captain American to Iron Man to Spider-Man to Superman to the Flash—are all white. For years, I had never even thought about the fact that I had far more representation in movies, comics, literature and television than anyone else. There was one man who did, though, and is another geek hero of mine.

Stan Lee.

Lee, who was born Stanley Martin Lieber, was the son of Romanian Jews who had immigrated to the United States. When he first entered the world of comics, superheroes were a far off thought. Instead, science fiction stories and other pulp fiction content filled the pages of the popular comics at the time.

Lee was instrumental in changing that. In fact, it was Lee who created Black Panther with the very conscious effort of introducing more African-American and African heroes into the Marvel Universe. Before the creation of Black Panther, there were very few black heroes in comics and none of them had super powers.

“I wasn’t thinking of civil rights,” said Lee in a 1998 interview. “I had a lot of friends who were black and we had artists who were black. So it occurred to me... why aren’t there any black heroes?”

While Lee may not have been thinking of civil rights at the time, he was vocal in the 1960s about his thoughts on racism. To this day, a quote from his column, Stan’s Soapbox, still makes the rounds on the internet. In it, he wrote “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villians, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”

I must admit that I have not watched “42” or “Marshall” or “Get On Up”, though they are now on my list. My only experience with Boseman was in his relation to Marvel movies but, even in those, he was dynamic to watch. My hope is that Disney and Marvel, who made a wise decision in casting Boseman as Black Panther, make a similarly wise decision in moving forward with the franchise.

It’s extremely important because representation does matter.

“Wakanda forever!”

~ T’Challa “Black Panther”


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