Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The box-office success of “Black Panther” gives me hope that one day my minority group, Arab Americans and Muslims, will see a superhero from our community on the big screen.
Maybe there will be a future superhero named “Muslim Man” or “Super Samira”? Or, just to scare the bigots, wouldn’t it be fun to see “Sharia Man,” whose power is flying around America taking pork bacon from people’s plates and replacing it with turkey bacon?
Regardless, the popularity of “Black Panther,” which took in $192 million in North American theaters its opening weekend, lets me – and people of other minority groups – dream of one day seeing our own superheroes. After all, Hollywood is a business. And when entertainment executives see that something works as stunningly as “Black Panther” has, some will likely start thinking about who the next minority superhero could be.
My excitement about “Black Panther” potentially helping other minority groups is not intended to take away from the significance this film holds for so many African Americans. As I learned in discussions with both racial-justice activists and listeners on my SiriusXM radio show, this film represents a milestone for their community.
More specifically, I could hear the emotion in the voices of African-American listeners who spoke of growing up and seeing black people almost always depicted as criminals and drug addicts in film. Now, finally they have a superhero they can look up to and identify with. It’s taken too long for Hollywood to get behind a major superhero movie which features black actors on screen and black creatives behind the screen.
Many of my listeners were also quick to point out the Black Panther, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, hails from an African nation that’s depicted as both wealthy and technologically advanced. To many, this was the perfect response to Donald Trump reportedly calling Africa a “shithole” (a comment he has since denied making).
I look forward to the day when my community can be this excited to see a movie that showcases one of us as a superhero. What a contrast it would be to how cruelly Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs in both TV and films for decades.
As the late scholar Jack Shaheen documented in his seminal book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” between the mid-1970s and 2001 there were more than 300 films that portrayed Arabs in a negative light.
In other words, we have been treated to film after film in which Arabs and Muslims are depicted as terrorists, evil villains, sinister billionaires and, of course, silenced women. Think about how such images would impact your sense of self-worth.
And, worse, think about how that makes your fellow Americans see you and your community.
Some white people, as I have heard firsthand, simply don’t get why positive minority representation in entertainment is vitally important to my community. That’s because they’ve grown up constantly seeing people who look like them – be it Superman or Wonder Woman or Batman – saving the day. We, as a society, are taught from a young age that the hero is white and the person of color is bad – or, at best, a victim to be saved by the hero.
Let me be brutally honest: If you are a minority, it’s challenging to not be angry with Hollywood for the irresponsibly negative ways it has depicted blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and other minority groups – all in the pursuit of making millions, if not billions, of dollars.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Hollywood is not a charity. Nor are executives of big media conglomerates motivated by making sure minorities are depicted in a positive light. Their job is to make movies and television shows that sell.
But that’s exactly why I’m hoping that “Black Panther” breaks box-office records. In turn, that means we will see black superheroes in countless movies and TV shows going forward. And here’s hoping “Black Panther’s” popularity translates into other minority groups getting a chance to see someone who looks like them save the world.