Hopes are high that Black Panther marks a long overdue shift in Hollywood’s portrayal of black characters.
Here are some things that have happened in the last month. Donald Trump referred to African countries as “shitholes” and was protected by countless Republicans. Author Chimamanda Adichie was asked in all sincerity were there libraries in Nigeria, by a French journalist who decided to double-down and declare, “When we hear Nigeria we think about boko haram and violence and security. Tell us something different.” Sixteen black men in America have been shot and killed by police.
This month also sees the release of Black Panther, a film that is all about recognising and celebrating the black experience of both African people and African-Americans. It could not have arrived at a more opportune moment.
When it comes to representing Africa and its people onscreen, Hollywood has a homogenous narrative, one that does not represent a continent of 54 countries, numerous tribes and ethnicities. Films about Africa nearly always focus on war, famine and child soldiers (Zulu, The Battle Of Algiers, Blood Diamond, Beyond Borders), or else Africa is used as the exotic backdrop for white people’s romance, self-discovery and adventure (The African Queen, Out Of Africa, A Far Off Place).
When it comes to the portrayal of African-American people, slave narratives dominate – and even then, white people are often the main characters or play the role of the saviour, to whom black slaves owe their freedom. Or black people are relegated to secondary roles meant to soothe the lead characters and audience by assuring them that life as a black and/or enslaved person isn’t all bad; enter complacent Uncle Tom characters who are loyal and subservient to white people (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Django Unchained); heavyset housekeeper ‘Mammies’ who dispense matronly wisdom (Gone With The Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Help); and of course the friendly and selfless black character with mystical powers, whose sole purpose is to help white folks with charm and supernatural insight (The Defiant Ones, What Dreams May Come, The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance). Spike Lee called this character the ‘Magical Negro’.
Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, has spoken out about the impact of these stereotypes on mainstream audiences, and argues that these limited representations of black and African people perpetuate racism.
“One of the things we know about media is that the more we consume it, the more the images that are common in it start to normalise our view of the world and what we expect to see and the way we think about other people,” Hunt says. “This is one of the reasons why stereotypes are so damaging, because they can limit the ability to literally see the humanity in other people” – a point perfectly demonstrated by that French journalist’s belief that Africa is rife with illiterate terrorists.
Over the past three years alone, cinema has made great strides in its representation of black people onscreen, thanks in large part to the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Black excellence and humanity was recognised, celebrated and rewarded in Oscar-winning films like Hidden Figures, Fences, Get Out and Moonlight, with upcoming movies A Wrinkle In Time, The Nutcracker and Black Klansman all featuring black American characters.
With Black Panther now offering a diverse and celebratory portrait of African people and black Americans, will stereotypes of Africa now also begin to shift? If we’re serious about combating attitudes like Trump’s, we need them to.