'Black Panther' through an Asian American lens

Will Asian Americans get their 'Black Panther' moment?

3 minute read
'Black Panther' offers the kind of "what if" scenario for African Americans that many Asian Americans wish to leave behind. (Photo courtesy of Disney/Marvel Studios.)
'Black Panther' offers the kind of "what if" scenario for African Americans that many Asian Americans wish to leave behind. (Photo courtesy of Disney/Marvel Studios.)

After just two weekends in theaters, Ryan Coogler’s superhero film Black Panther has already done more to advance African American media representation than any major Hollywood film in the past decade. That’s a remarkable achievement. But it’s also important to recognize and reconcile with the idea that in our own fight for representation, an Asian American victory will look very different.

As part of the Marvel comics franchise, the film isn’t a magic bullet that will finally overcome institutional racism; not even T’challa’s powers are that strong. But Black Panther serves as a much-needed rallying point for the African American community less than a year after white nationalists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in broad daylight. Given the film’s record-breaking first-weekend $427 million box-office take, it also makes a compelling financial argument for investing in stories featuring and helmed by people of color.

Colonization and reclamation

There has been some critique from within the African American community regarding stereotypes of the black American male as perpetuated by Michael B. Jordan’s character Killmonger. Still, consensus seems overwhelmingly positive. The portrayal of Wakanda as a utopian African nation spared the ravages of European imperialism especially resonates.

With the possible exception of Eddie Murphy’s fictional kingdom of Zamunda in the 1988 film Coming to America, this is the first time most American audiences have seen contemporary Africa in a positive cinematic light. The mere act of showing a powerful African nation independent of foreign aid is revolutionary, but even more so in a film written and directed by and starring African Americans. These are a people whose very existence in the United States is a legacy of the colonization that continues to impoverish much of Africa.

Regardless of how our Asian immigrant ancestors suffered because of U.S. militarism in the Pacific, none of us came over like the Africans did. And herein lies the difference between the depictions of Black and Asian bodies in American cinema.

Americans of Asian descent struggle to distance ourselves from our immigrant ancestors, while black Americans who descended from slaves endure a lasting erasure of their African identities. In other words, Asian Americans seek to escape exactly the empowerment many black Americans find within Black Panther’s reclamation of lost African lineage.

Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall as Zamunda royalty in the 1988 film 'Coming to America.' (Photo via
Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall as Zamunda royalty in the 1988 film 'Coming to America.' (Photo via

"Perpetual foreigners"

Often, mainstream representations of Asians depict us as perpetual foreigners. Even after five or six generations in the United States, we’re still seen as too different from majority (white) culture to ever fully assimilate.

It is dehumanizing to be told you do not belong in the place you call home. But by comparison, black and brown bodies (including Indigenous peoples) are part of a much longer continuum of representational racism in U.S. popular culture that predates large-scale Asian migration.

Historically, black and brown bodies are shown either in need of saving or as something to be despised. These portrayals reinforce the idea that both groups belong to an underclass within U.S. society. They also shroud the enslavement of African peoples and mass genocide of Indigenous peoples within our dominant historical narrative.

The descendants of Asian immigrants are also negatively impacted by institutional white supremacy, but our identities were never forcibly confiscated in this manner.

Asian Americans may never get the defining moment that Black Panther embodies for African Americans, but that might also be okay. As a community, we must support the efforts of African American filmmakers if we hope to see more diverse representation that will allow each of our stories to be told.

Until black folks and Indigenous peoples regain their humanity in the context of Hollywood cinema, equitable portrayals of Asian Americans cannot exist either. To paraphrase the words of the late Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama, it is only through black liberation that we will find our own equality.

What, When, Where

Black Panther. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Philadelphia area showtimes.

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