By Hannah Robertson
February saw the release of the enormously anticipated Black Panther. Within days of its release, Black Panther began breaking countless Box Office records, becoming the third highest-grossing movie in US history and far surpassing its overseas sales projections, challenging an industry expectation that ‘black films don’t travel’. However, the disappointing reality that the film has not been shown at Durham’s Gala cinema suggests that this expectation is in fact still in place in geographic pockets of inequality and underrepresentation such as Durham.
On top of the blatant discriminatory undercurrents which the film’s absence and inaccessibility to Durham residents reflects, the lack of exposure to the local population based on the merits of the film alone saddens me almost as much. Never before have I been so entirely overwhelmed by a film and it is an experience everyone should have access to.
The film is not merely a celebration of black culture, intended only for black audiences. The role of women in this film makes a fantastic statement. Firstly, the Wakandan army is a remarkable ensemble of fierce and highly skilled women; the brains behind Wakanda’s technological prestige is owed to the shrewd-lipped Princess Shuri; while the erudite and resolutely independent spy Nakia provides endless wisdom. While Nakia is the love interest of King T’Challa, this is far from her sole role. Conversely, she talks with conviction of her passion for her work which she would not be prepared to abandon for marriage. The women in this film are not objectified, overtly sexualised prizes for the male to conquer. They are assertive and committed forces to be reckoned with, whose personalities and pursuits are not framed within the boundaries of male expectations but shine through and play significant parts in the prevalence of good in the film.
The challenge to gender roles does not stop here; stereotypical tropes of masculinity are contested as the protagonist King T’Challa wrestles his father’s looming legacy and balancing statesmanship and integrity. T’Challa is a new kind of hero, he is unlike the outspoken, testosterone-fuelled Tony Starks of the Marvel universe and despite his impressive physical prowess, we see a reserved world leader, conflicted and humanised.
While the film’s setting, Wakanda is a fictional place, Black Panther acts as a vehicle for positive African representation where Africa is depicted as vibrant and powerful, as opposed to the poverty-stricken land of oppression and mass violence which Hollywood and the mass media so readily portray it. We see an Africa defined by its strengths, not its weakness or by its troublesome past of colonialisation, an Africa which is empowered by its cultural traditions and led by role models which the world has too long been waiting for.
Until now, many films have habitually depicted black people as criminals, slaves, and outcasts. It is with great pride that everyone – regardless of ethnicity – should be able to watch this film and embrace the significance of the eventual arrival of black superheroes and the empowering effects this has on generations young and old.
The film has made history in Saudi Arabia as the first film to play in a movie theatre in 35 years, an enormous progressive step in a country with extremely repressive right-wing views. Yet Durham – a site of international research and heritage – appears to be stuck in an unacceptable moment in the past, behind Saudi Arabia, where intolerance and underrepresentation is the norm. Why has Durham not seen Black Panther and by whom was that decision made? Considering the racist demonstrations in Durham city late last year alongside the continually overlooked, subtle forms of discrimination experienced within the student community, perhaps it should be unsurprising that a film with such strong themes of black culture has been omitted from the Gala’s screens.
In this fast-changing world, Durham seems to have been left behind. Sadly, this missed opportunity rooted in inherent underrepresentation only serves to its detriment and the joys of this momentous film along with the potential for social progression have been lost on Durham.
Photograph: Hannaford via Flickr