Nearly one year later and we’re still feeling the aftershocks from Wakanda. The Black Panther was just one in a series of movies depicting Black people in a variety of roles not seen since the era of Blaxploitation. This time around the roles are better, as is the acting and the CGI.
From the very beginnings of the film industry Black people have been featured in some of the most popular movies, even if they were really White folks in blackface. The movie that has defined what a feature film should be was D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”  The roles that “Black people” played in that film were not just subservient, they were downright scandalous, as the charcoal faced actors portrayed Black congressmen who were shiftless, lazy and lecherous. They had a particular lust for White women, which was a major them of the movie.
Eventually, Black folks were able to play the roles of the Tarzan natives, etc., but never a leading role or the role of the primary protagonist. “Gone with the Wind,” basically a remake of “The Birth of a Nation,” featured Hattie McDaniel as a Black Mammy character, who actually won an Oscar for her role, but again it was strictly in a supporting role.
During the era of Paul Robeson, arguably the world’s greatest singer, he did play roles in a number of feature films, but in some cases the roles were so bad that he had to hide during the premiere of the film, from sheer embarrassment. From that point on he decided he had to have the last say on the final cut, in order to avoid future embarrassing situations. His best movie was “Jericho.”  That movie did not win him an Oscar, nor did he become famous for it. He was much more famous for his stage roles in “The Emperor Jones” and “Othello,” neither of which did much to dispel the myth of the lazy, ignorant Negroes portrayed in those early blockbusters, like “The Birth of a Nation.” During the time he was playing roles on the big screen, he was considered to be the first “successful” Black male actor. Unfortunately, he made his money playing the role of Stepin Fetchit, a lazy, shiftless, no account nigger.
After going to Europe to fight the Nazis and their fascist axis of evil, the attitudes of Colored people about their portrayal on the stage and screen changed, as well as their attitude towards the segregationist policies in place all over the South. This was the beginning of a series of ground breaking movies featuring Sidney Poitier. During his era, from all indications, an unwritten rule was in place, much like in sports, that there could only be 1 male Negro star at a time. Other Negroes whose careers began to flourish during that time included Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt.
By the time the 60’s rolled around Black folks were ready for something different, but the doors remained locked, unless you were ready to be a pimp, ho, mammy, maid, chauffeur, criminal or, even worse, a rapist. At the height of the 60’s, from 1968, on into the early 70’s, Blaxploitation was the rule. So, real Black people appeared on the screen, but typically as caricatures of themselves. Examples include “Superfly,” a movie about a pimp trying to get out of the game; Shaft, a Black detective, superhero type, etc. There were also a number of movies starring Black women, typically with names like Chocolate, Candy, Cleopatra Jones, etc., always strong, domineering, kickass women.
It wasn’t until Spike Lee came along and independently produced his movie “She’s Gotta Have It,” that realistic roles started to become the norm.  Before that the roles Black people played were comical, to say the least. We could be sounding boards for the White actors or comic relief, in most cases, but to play a fully developed character exhibiting all the exigencies of a typical human being, I don’t think so. Robert Townsend was right behind him with “The Hollywood Shuffle.”  Their films were not enough to change Hollywood on their own, but they were groundbreaking, in much the same way as “The Black Panther” is today.
Other African American filmmakers used their films as a template and began producing independent films, as well. John Singleton set the tone in the 90’s when he came out with “Boys in the Hood.”  With each success, limited as they were by finances and the ability to distribute their films the way major studios do, they had an impact on the major studios, who now have deals with a number of Black directors and actor/directors. Over the period of the last 30 years the pace has increased from 1 or 2/year to the point where you really need to break out a score card, just to keep up.
Films with Black stars are becoming commonplace to the point where it seems a Black star is a prerequisite to success. Comedy shows and rap concerts have become places for many Black actors to showcase their skills.
“The Black Panther” is paving a new path to success for films with all Black casts that are not necessarily stars. Two of the main stars in “The Black Panther” are veteran actors, but definitely do not have the drawing power of a Denzel, Ice Cube or even Terrence Blanchard. What they did have was a good story.
Historically accurate, it was not. Culturally varied, definitely. Impactful, very. I’ve been surprised at the effect it’s had on the youth. They’ve gone from denigrating Africa and Africans to revering them, to a certain extent. The question now, is how do we keep this going and capitalize on their initial excitement?