Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
For a few hours starting next weekend, black America will exhale, something it has not done since the Republican Party chose as its presidential nominee a man who rose to national political prominence on open bigotry and 58% of white voters made him President.
For a few hours, it will be a veritable black American holiday, a kind of revival in the middle of Black History Month and the second year of the Donald Trump era.
For a few hours, all shades of black people, African and African-American, will be able to see themselves become the center of the most influential image-making industry on the planet. Slavery and racism will be neither soft-pedaled nor portrayed as the totality of the black experience.
“Black Panther,” scheduled for wide release next Friday, could therefore not have been better timed. Had Marvel decided to launch this superhero franchise during the Obama era, it would have still resonated, but not like this.
The cast is full of all stars. The title character is played by Chadwick Boseman, who has portrayed the likes of Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall. Michael B. Jordan of “The Wire,” “Creed” and “Fantastic Four” stars as the movies primary antagonist. Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o, Academy Award nominees Angela Bassett and Daniel Kaluuya, and the Emmy award-winning star of NBC’s critically-acclaimed “This is Us”, Sterling K. Brown, are prominently featured in “Black Panther.”
The title character has had an interesting evolution. He’s already a cultural crossover success. He was introduced in 2016 in Marvel’s well-received “Avengers: Civil War” in 2016, where he appeared alongside other superheroes, such as “Iron Man,” “Spiderman” and “Captain America.” But Black Twitter, and beyond, had been champing at the bit for him to not only leave the comic book pages and reach the silver screen, but to become the central focus of a film. And it’s happening at the perfect time.
When Barack Obama was in office, black America, as proud as it was to see black excellence in the White House, was still processing just what it meant to have the first black president show up during our lifetimes – and we are in some ways still processing.
It was hard to balance the pride of his accomplishments – helping steer the country away from a potential depression; securing health reform (something no president before him could accomplish) getting Osama bin Laden; and saving the domestic auto industry – with bleaker realities that included a stubborn inequality, a controversial drone war that may have caused as much harm as it prevented, and racial imbalances that barely budged.
Barack Obama is rightly praised and scrutinized. He’s human and was charged with making the best of the bad choices every president is faced with. He represented the best of us on the biggest stage and succeeded against enormous odds and did it with honor and class. To have him replaced by Donald Trump, a man who spent five years arguing that the nation’s first black president wasn’t fully American, was nearly as deflating as Obama’s election was inspiring.
To watch white supremacists gleefully embrace the president who followed the nation’s first black president, get energized by him and feel supported by him, has been depressing. And all we can do is keep screaming about that 21st century horror and register to vote and write and create art and resist and educate and steel ourselves, knowing that every day we get up in the morning, Trump will still be president, and on some days, he will still be engaging in the kind of bigoted rhetoric that helped him win.
I’m not sure the rest of America understands the weight of that reality as experienced by black America. It feels like daily punishment for the sin of having felt overjoyed that black excellence was chosen in 2008, and again in 2012, to lead all Americans.
That’s where we are, and that’s why seeing black excellence unapologetically take center stage again – if only for two hours and 15 minutes – on the big screen means so much.
It’s a let-your-hair-down and scream-at-the-screen if you want to moment. It’s like going home, one in which the media can’t keep distorting who you are or ignore you or decide your brand of excellence isn’t quite good enough. “Black Panther” is being hailed an Oscar-quality blockbuster and has already broken presale records. It’s not sneaking up on and pleasantly surprising us like “Get Out.” Its reach makes it bigger than “The Color Purple.” Its early success all but guarantees there will be more like it.
That’s why for weeks, I’ve been getting calls from friends wanting to make sure we sell out entire theaters. I turned down an invitation to one such gathering planned for next Friday in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because I’m scheduled to be out of town – then learned others had already planned something similar where I would be, in Davidson, North Carolina.
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We all know it’s a fictional movie about fictional characters less familiar to many of us than Spiderman and Superman. We know that once the lights come on, the challenges we faced before the first scene will be there at the end of the credits. We know there will still be much work to do in real life.
For a few hours, though, we’ll have had a respite from the storm.