Why Black Panther is Important: An interview with Alicia Norman - Liberal Resistance

Why Black Panther is Important: An interview with Alicia Norman

Editor’s note: The movie Black Panther has been a major event in American filmmaking, both in commercial terms, and in the potential social impact of the production. To figure out why, we recently sat down with the African-American  filmmaker and animator (and occasional contributor to LiberalResistance.net), Alicia Norman to talk about the film’s meaning and import.

1) Okay, the way open question, why is Black Panther important to People Of Color? Wonder Woman didn’t have nearly the same impact on women as this movie seems to have on the African-American community. What’s different?

The movie somewhat indirectly highlights a fact most of us in the Black community are all too aware of: People of color still have to labor against the idea that we are inferior entities, friendship props or thugs, with no sense of self regard or self agency. Very few films offer a clear counter point to that narrative, yet many whites insist the film industry is run amok with political correctness. These guys bemoan the few positive portrayals that can be found in movies while, interestingly, having no issue with blacks being shown as thugs, criminals, rapists or thieves.

This particular warped mindset was put on display during an online debate in a YouTube comment section regarding a film with a “magical negro” character. As the trope goes, blacks are generally portrayed as uplifting, wise problem solvers, and folksy heroes or even, yes, magical. In tales where they are literally imbued with mystical powers, they tend to be voodoo priestesses, as if the only worlds of wonder for dark skinned folks ends and begins with superstitious sorcery.

It was Spike Lee who coined the phrase, and his main complaint was how the magical Negro was only in the story to help the white protagonist with his goal. The hero was always good-natured, willing to forgive and become a martyr for the bigger picture. To that end, I agree that the trope, in theory, sucks. The down side of this backlash however, is that these are generally the ONLY types of positive roles people of color often receive.

Because of this, there are also those who may not like the magical Negro trope because it is positive. As one combatant in aforementioned YT comment section wrote, “We all know that positive portrayal of blacks are done for PC reasons, negative portrayals, not so much.”

Say what now?

Yep, someone actually typed that out, hit post and thought they made a salient, non-racist point. That’s the problem.

It is for this reason that I have mixed feelings about the condemnation of the magical Negro as a concept overall, as the default is, what? A proliferation of negative stereotypes because hey, at least that’s non-PC?

This is perhaps why, for many in the African American community, the “Black Panther” resonates. Wakanda characters have self-agency while being alternatively smart and capable. They are not trying to facilitate anyone else’s cause or needs nor are they mere grist of the mill as a plot device. These are strong Black Individualists who are beautiful and proud in their ethnicity. There’s no bowing or scraping, just people being allowed to be human, good sides, down sides, bad sides and all between. For a comic book based tale, this aspect offers amazing depth and richness.

For the first time, a Black protagonist individualism was something many white people seemed to gravitate towards as well, and despite dissenting white supremacist voices, was also lauded. It underscores the fact that you don’t have to create self-effacing black characters for society to accept them on their terms. That is something to get excited about cinematically and socially.

For more info on the trope Magic Negro visit:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagicalNegro

2) Commentators have said that this is an important movie because it gives the African-American community a “Black Hero” as a role model. But, isn’t it just a run of the mill superhero film? What makes it more than just Spiderman with an extra dose of Melanin?

A sad statistic from the Innocence Project indicates that roughly 70 percent of the people exonerated using DNA evidence were black males, while blacks as a population make up only 13 percent of American society. This unfortunate fact indicates that data highlighting black criminality may be artificially inflated with innocent bodies. It also sends an awful signal to black youth, males in particular, who are the largest wrongly incarcerated group.

The message – even if you are not a criminal you are likely to be labeled as one falsely and sent right to jail. This exacerbates the feeling of exclusion, that this America is not for you—that you are unworthy of even being fairly treated. As small as it may seem, a film like “Black Panther” promotes ideas of acceptance and inclusion. We’ve come to a point in American Society where a black filmmaker can pen a black film with a largely black cast, that explores black themes AND IT WORKS!

It is a monumental step in the right direction when a people often relegated to criminals or sidekicks in media are simply seen as flawed yet likable people. It helps that community feel looked at as an equal and not a lesser—something the white supremacist types abhor of course, hence why Ben Shapiro had to suck all the air, and enjoyment, out of the room. Keep the darkies eyes down at all cost, amiright.

Is BLACK PANTHER just another superhero film? Technically, yes. Is it important? Wholeheartedly, yes.

Pride is no small thing, which is why slave owners tried so hard to strip it, inch by inch, from their captives. This is why a super hero film can, inch by inch, help bring that stolen pride back.

3)Ben Shapiro said that it was a good movie, but also one that was full of radical politics. Is he right? Is that a bad thing?

Gotta love how men like Shapiro always carp on and on about identity politics being wrong—when their entire platform is about how the white man is being done wrong by forcing diversity, i.e. essentially allowing other minorities to go to school, roam free and have jobs, is harming his ability to be a bigot.

What he doesn’t get and will never understand is that freeing a people is the first step of many in helping them feel accepted by a society that once alienated and shunned them.

A page from my own life: As a girl I drew. A lot. Over time my recognizable forms began to stand out a bit becoming more detailed. My hard to please dad was even impressed one day, as he watched me draw a Scooby Doo doggie to exacting detail. In grade school, I began to enter and win art contest   but I would be 13 years old before a fellow classmate would make this observation: You never draw Black People.

He was right.

I didn’t?

When I pondered why, it came to me. I never saw other black people in popular media to draw—I mean, there were a handful here and there, but these images were few and far between, drowned out by the over proliferation of white beauty and positive role models. This was so prevalent that I actually drew another person’s face instead of my own.

I don’t expect the already accepted Ben Shapiro’s of the world to understand what that is like.

Today, I draw and create stories from all perspectives. Still, I find it odd that my work is only considered PC or avante garde if the protagonists are ethnic.

Tides are surely turning with the introduction of one of the few, widely hailed African-American and Afro-centric epics. This is mega huge considering the fact that the industry’s power paradigm structure is roughly 94 percent white and male.

This fact in mind, some people point out that Stan Lee is the Story’s creator, ergo, it is still white influenced, but this is such a quibble.   Much has likely been said about this fact, but as a writer and creator, I have to defend the creative process. Saying Stan Lee cannot write black characters is a lot like saying I can’t write white ones. In order for a storyteller to tell an accurate human story the medium’s lens has to be diverse. That’s not being PC, that’s simply and accurately showcasing what the real world is comprised of. Diversity.

4)There is a larger issue here, of course, in that Black Panther is pop culture rather than high culture. Is it a good thing that our society in general, and African-American society in particular has gone so gaga over it? Is it healthy for the culture to be so infatuated with what is, after all, just a silly action flick?

Pop culture is a powerful tool that can shape our social perceptions. Heck, we even pattern how we dress, dance or sing based on what the gods of pop culture do and say.

I have met many people who have had even their ideas of romance shaped by pop culture. My own hubby, a moderate Irish conservative, once lamented being disillusioned by films that showed the good guy always walking away with the girl after being a hero. The fact that movies only mimic a more idealized reality didn’t stop that desire for this to be true. Popular culture plays to our dreams and wants, making it a mighty sword indeed.

This is why, on the flip side, it is often weapon zed to demonize groups. The Hitlers of the world did away with liberal art platforms and over took them as a means to spread propaganda. They did this because it works.

So, while BLACK PANTHER is just a fun, flashy film and not say, renaissance art, it’s more mainstream accessible with the ability to inform and mold opinions and social ideology. The faces we see being heroic can influence who we see as heroes and villains.

Indeed, it is not enough to free a people, you have to include them as well…

For those outside the black community who truly struggle to get what the hoopla is about, my fiend Tristan Vick may help. A fellow writer and kick ass philosopher, he decided to travel to Japan with his wife and kiddos. Being an American while male and minority in a strange land, he was able to, in his own words, to somewhat comprehend what it feel like to stand on the outside looking in. I haven’t asked him yet about his own response to “Black Panther” but more think likely he’ll get it—it’s about feeling like you belong, like you are included in a world that often paints you, or sees you, as an interloper.

When you feel that isolated, every move towards inclusion, no matter how small, helps foster a feeling of acceptance.

There are so many pieces to the puzzle of why a film like this strikes a cord within the Black community, suffice it to say I cannot hit on every aspect of why “Black Panther” matters, but it truly does.

Can this door to mainstream acceptance stay open? That remains to be seen, but at this juncture in time, an open door exists. We’ll enjoy that feeling of being a part of this world, for as long as it lasts and who knows, maybe this small crack with pave the way towards an ever widening entry way, which will make “Black Panther” a true emancipator.