First, I watched the trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther, just one of the 89 million people who saw it in its first 24 hours. The next day, I finally found the time to see DC’s Wonder Woman, which had already scored the most successful opening weekend for any film directed by a woman.
People who know me won’t be surprised to hear that two comic book-inspired movies got my heart racing. In addition to the 3,000 comic books in my attic, my organization, The Opportunity Agenda, has its own superhero, Helvetika Bold. But the level of emotion that I experienced watching these two pieces surprised even me.
As I began to share my reaction, though, I found that many others—especially, but not exclusively people of color and women—were experiencing the same emotions. More news about the Black Panther is bound to come out at the 2017 Comic-Con in San Diego this month, but even now, the reaction among Black folks to the Black Panther trailer alone has been viscerally joyous, including tears, and cheers, shock and awe.
The reaction to Wonder Woman has been just as strong. NPR’s media critic Linda Holmes said on her Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast that she found herself crying, in particular, during the fight scenes. And a USA Today article affirmed that her experience was widely shared, asking, “Why are women crying when they watch ‘Wonder Woman’ fight?”
So why all that crying?
My theory is that audiences are being moved by the overwhelming power of symbolism. We are not used to seeing people of color and women on the big screen who are powerful, triumphant, and heroes of their own story. The most emotionally powerful moments in each film are those that use the power of symbols to break away from social stereotypes.
As in the Black Panther comic book, the film’s characters are everything that a century of cinematic Black and African characters have not been. They are regal. They are brilliant. They are gorgeous. They are the future as well as the past.
Not only are those elements unheard of in a superhero blockbuster, but research by The Opportunity Agenda found that media representations of Black men and boys generally are distorted and overwhelmingly negative. Hollywood disproportionately portrays us as involved in crime, as takers rather than contributors, and as troublemakers rather than problem solvers. We are even underrepresented as users of technology.
A second report that we released in May found that TV depictions of immigrants are both overwhelmingly negative and racially skewed—with White immigrant characters more frequently depicted in positive, authoritative, and recurring roles than are immigrants of color.
In under two minutes, the Black Panther trailer turns all of that tired, painful imagery on its head. That’s what makes it not just cool, but emotionally moving.
For the same reason, it’s the fight scenes in Wonder Woman that are most often bringing people to tears. Seeing an unapologetic female warrior fighting on screen with skill and agency and even joy is liberating because it breaks so strongly from the tropes and stereotypes of thousands of cinematic stories.
That the Black Panther and Wonder Woman are helmed by African-American and female directors, respectively, is not just icing on the cake. It’s watershed for big budget, mass market movies like these.
A new study from the University of Southern California found that only 4% of all directors across the 1,000 top-grossing films during the past decade were female, and only three of the films were directed by Black women, three by Asian American women, and one by a Latina. During the same period, none of the 101 films distributed by Disney (which owns Marvel) had a Black director.
To be sure, these are just movies, not mass social movements, legislation, or amendments to our constitution. But if you think that culture doesn’t help to move politics and policy, ask someone over 65 about the role that Marian Anderson, or Muhammad Ali, or Jackie Robinson played in advancing racial justice. Or ask the feminist leaders of the 1970s about the influence that Wonder Woman comic books of the 1940s had on their political development.
At a time when people in colored tights occupy a huge proportion of public attention and entertainment revenue, imagery, representation and respect matter. Sometimes, they matter enough to make you cry.