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Media Matters: Boseman, Black Panther and diversity

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Chadwick Boseman, an American actor perhaps best known for his roles as the Black Panther in the Marvel film Black Panther, and barrier-breaking baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the film 42, died August 28 due to colon cancer, at only 43 years old.

In the days since Boseman’s death, the public outpouring of grief has been massive. Comments have come not only from his Marvel co-stars, but from as far afield as former U.S. President Barack Obama and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team Robinson played for his entire career. Social media users from around the world have been sharing what he and his on-screen characters have meant to them and children have created tributes to his character through staging memorials using Black Panther action figures.

As a long-time Marvel fan, I was familiar with, and a fan of, the character of the Black Panther before Boseman made his in-character debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. There was an undeniable thrill in seeing the character brought to life in that film, and each subsequent appearance of the character going forward to 2019's Avengers: Endgame, particularly as Boseman gave him the gravitas, intelligence and compassion the character has been known for in the world of comics.

That most of his films have been good – and in the case of Black Panther, excellent – adds extra impact to the news of his untimely death. Boseman was an actor just beginning to hit his peak, and his dramatic chops in serious fare like Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods showcased an artist who would have continued to take the film world by storm. He would have been pursued by many filmmakers going forward, and one suspects that Boseman's Black Panther had been positioned to drive one of the main Marvel movie storylines following the departure of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and Chris Evans' Captain America.

Still, as much as the world mourns Boseman's death, not all of us can understand the significance of the impact he has had. Black Panther was a phenomenon of a movie, not just because Marvel's continuing successes have made superhero movies box-office busters for more than a decade, but because this was a movie that solidified why representation matters in media, not just film.

Black Panther made more than $1-billion at the box office, not in spite of a black director and mostly black cast, but because of it. While the power of the Marvel universe certainly contributed to that success, the representation of a black tradition and culture was undeniably a powerful draw. It is rich with unfamiliar (to white audiences) sounds, sights, culture and art, all in service to a tight, compelling action film. That identity drew audiences in record-shattering numbers, and it resonated with audiences of colour in a way few were anticipating.

In both comic books and now, film, Black Panther is a hero for children of colour in the same vein that white kids have had for decades. Superman, Batman and Spider-man (with one notable, recent exception) have always been a white face underneath the mask. Before Black Panther, leading black superhero movies were adult fares, featuring characters like Blade or Spawn who were more anti-heroes than outright good guys. Before Black Panther children of colour could still pretend to be Spider-man, but it matters what face is underneath the mask, and that those faces represent the variety we see in the world. It matters.

Comic books have always carried social commentary, and their movies are no different. The X-Men were created to reflect issues facing minority groups and LGBTQ+ people, and always have. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sarah Pichelli created Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teen who became the Ultimate Spider-man (and later the star of 2018's Oscar-winning Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse) to expand on the kind of people and skin colours who could be under the mask.

Black Panther proved that not only does representation matter, it is vital. Media is made richer by recognizing and telling stories that reflect real life, and it in turn enriches our lives. We should cheer for LGBTQ+ stories, for people of colour as superheroes, for all-women ensembles (I'm still waiting for that A-Force announcement, get at me Marvel) not as a checkmark on a list titled “diversity,” but because their stories and experiences matter as much as they do.

Boseman will be greatly missed, but the indelible marks left by his Black Panther on mainstream film serve as weighty memoriam for a life cut far too short.

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