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Representation in film matters

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The release of Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther” sparked cultural conversations everywhere. African Americans boasted of going to theaters proudly clad in Afrocentric clothing and supporting the movie wholeheartedly. Social media was flooded with photos of people and families posing in front of the movie poster with smiles from ear to ear and captions full of praise. But, of course, with all the hype came opposition. Some people wondered what the big deal was. Others thought some folks were going too far. This brought about the important discussion of representation.

Long story short, representation matters. According to research from the University of California, in 2017 only 13.6 percent of characters in major films were African American compared to 70.8 percent of white characters. Only 5.6 percent of directors were African American. Racial divides like this in Hollywood sparked things like the 2016 boycott of the Oscars led by stars like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee.

“Black Panther” breaks all of Hollywood’s traditions and stereotypes. It boasts a predominantly African American cast, featuring stars such as Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Daniel Kaluuya, as well as an African American director, Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”).

But more astonishing is its portrayal of African Americans. While lots of movies feature them in roles as thugs, funny best friends and the first ones to die, “Black Panther” takes us to the land of Wakanda, an African land rich with extraordinary resources and people. They are depicted as kings, queens, warriors, and scientists in the film. They rock their natural hair and indigenous clothes. And believe it or not, even with a villain, they are trying to help other black people out.

How many mainstream movies can you name that fit similar descriptions? Probably not many.

For a lot of African Americans, this is one of the first mainstream movies they can proudly show their children under the context of their race and heritage, and for many children, this is the first film of its kind they’ve witnessed at all.

Black and brown people of all ages need to see themselves in all the realms that are possible for them, and so far, they’ve mainly only seen themselves represented in limited and sometimes unsavory spaces. Art is a reflection of life and film is one of the wonderful avenues in which we are able to see ourselves and what we are capable of.

“Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation,” said researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross in a 1976 paper titled “Living with Television.” Let that sink in.

Ultimately, black lives matter, both in reality and media – even in the fictional world of superheroes and the supernatural. If you saw the pride on the faces of the African Americans lining the theaters to watch “Black Panther,” sometimes two and three times, you’d know the importance of representation. Just the fact that the film broke records reaching over 700 million by its second week shows the power of representation. Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” collected only 773 million over its entire five-month theater run.

Many people of color will not only imitate the greatness in “Black Panther” for Halloween this year, as is common amongst everyone when new popular films debut, but will emulate that same greatness in real life for years to come, simply because films like this show and remind them that they can.

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Representation in film matters