Why ‘Black Panther’ is My First Asian-American Superhero Movie
Editor’s Note: Colin Lieu is a New York-based freelance consultant and avid yogi. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely his own.
Lupita Nyong’o told Good Morning America that we can better see ourselves when we can see ourselves in others — but that she grew up only being able to see herself in white superheroes, and it’s high time the reverse is happening.
But as the pervasive Hollywood myth would have it, Black entertainment products don’t do well overseas. Can non-Black folks really see themselves in Black characters? In an association that’s over 70% Black, the NBA is a $1 billion franchise and its highest income geographies outside of the U.S come from… China and the Philippines! However it should be noted that the sexualization, objectification and hyper-masculinization of Black male bodies is evident in both sports and superhero films.
There are countless elements of “Black Panther” that should resonate with anyone beyond racial lines: father-son relationships, compassion versus individualism, tradition versus innovation, and a good ole fighting spirit. That’s why my friend and I raised over $5,000 to book out two movie theaters for kids in Harlem, New York, to see the film!
As an Australian (proudly) born to parents of Vietnamese, Chinese and Singaporean decent, this is how the film resonates with me.
Own Your Origins — Unapologetically
Maybe it’s because one of the opening scenes features a news report on the 1992 Rodney King riots playing in the background. Maybe it’s because Okoye annoyingly throws off her wig mid-fight when having to disguise herself in Korea. Maybe it’s because needs-an-Oscar costume designer, Ruth Carter, celebrates the diversity in African history and textiles in every fiber of the characters’ clothing. The message: love where you’re from.
If Congresswoman Maxine Waters was reclaiming her time, Ryan Coogler is reclaiming Blackness — and in turn — reclaims whatever-you-are-ness. Ryan Coogler explains to Hot 97 the tensions people of color face when their color prohibits a full sense of belonging in their current home country and their upbringing excludes them from a connection to their motherland. How many African-Americans haven’t been to Africa? How many Asian-Americans haven’t been to Asia? Does that make us less African or Asian? The moment one does reconnect with their motherland, be it through travel and seeing faces that almost all look like yours or through film, is celebrated — not shunned.
Danai Gurira tells ET that once Wakandans figure out how to do something, they automatically feel that, of course, that’s the only way it should be done. Dress the way your people dress. Speak the way your people speak. Eat the way your people eat. Through “Black Panther”, Ryan Coogler has taken the pressure off my back to feel the need to water down my Asian-ness in order to fit in or be understood. That time is over.
Wakanda might be a fake country, but the language used is very real. Wakandans speak in Xhosa — Nelson Mandela’s language, if you will. In one scene in which Okoye is skeptical about Agent Ross’ process, she speaks exclusively to T’Challa in Xhosa, leading the White agent to interrupt, “Does she speak English?” Not missing a beat, Okoye leans in with, “Only when she wants to.”
Almost anyone from a non-English speaking background, especially non-White folks, can relate to this “othering” of by the White man. Both in my own childhood and in what I can see in my students, young people have had to play translator for their parents, not always just because their parents couldn’t speak English, but because their parents were made to feel less than or unworthy of meaningfully being part of the conversation.
A common question or instruction throughout the film is, “Who are you?” and “Tell them who you are.” Each character is able to proudly exclaim their full name and family lineage. Even in 2018, many of my immigrant students feel forced to change their names to convenience the pronunciation of others. Being able to say your full name with confidence is not an easy feat for some and “Black Panther” gives gravity to this complexity. While it may be a two-second question, for many of us, it’s years of therapy, bullying, doubt and complex family ties.
The Boys Behind The Men
We’re introduced to the edgy denim-doning Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) at the British Museum as he strikes up conversation with a White woman who is the “expert” in West African artifacts. Already, that hits an empathetic nerve.
Sometimes the imperializing of ideas and the colonization of cuisine is so relentless, it’s hard to wake up when the nightmare of White folks taking over your cultural artifacts becomes your white noise.
Erik Killmonger and Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K Brown) also deserve some cheer cheer for the tear tear. The men in “Black Panther”, even the anti-heroes, are the ones in their feelings and working through their daddy issues. Both men shed a single tear in an emotional flashback in the ancestral plane. This could be a nod to Denzel Washington’s single tear in Glory and Daniel Kaluuya’s single tear in Get Out during the ‘sunken place’ scene — not unlike the ancestral plane. On the flip side, when Okoye is challenged to choose between romantic love and patriotic responsibilities, she has no qualms in deciding.
Whatever makes up your Blackness, Wakandan-ness, you-ness should be shouted from the metaphoric vibranium mountain tops that are so preciously you, and cannot be stolen — be it your political views, family, dress, or your name! There was no room for shame or half-assed anything in this film. “Black Panther” empowers us not to half-ass who we are.