When Black Panther arrived in US theatres at the weekend, there would have been tears.

As the long-awaited adaptation of the first Marvel comic to feature a black superhero, there would have been tears of relief that it was finally here. Some tears would have been of joy, that a beloved property had been adapted with verve, imagination and bold visual style.

Some tears would have been of pride, at the sight of a movie dominated by strong, smart, funny, beautiful characters and actors of African descent. Others would have been a spontaneous emotional response to Black Panther's story and subtext, which included moments of personal betrayal and loss, as well as reflections on a painful legacy of colonialism and dispossession.

But some tears might have been of grief. Because just as palpable as the celebratory joy and sheer artistry that define Black Panther, there lies an unspoken absence, the costs of which are no less real for being diffuse and virtually unfathomable.


The lush Afro-centric iconography on screen underlines just how constricted those images have been throughout most of American cinematic history, at enormous cost not just to African-American spectators, but white ones deprived of untold visual and narrative riches.

It's no overstatement to suggest American cinema was born on the backs of black bodies. The Birth of a Nation, that helped create cinematic grammar, featured white actors in blackface to enact the narrative's toxic images of formerly enslaved Africans running amok in South Carolina and raping white women, finally being vanquished by a heroic Ku Klux Klan.

From then on, if black characters were featured at all in an American film, they were either the butt of humiliating humour or demonised as criminals or sex-crazed savages.

Such breakout stars as Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier were exceptions to the rule. But even those positive portrayals were prescriptive, as if the only options available to black Americans were predator, paragon or some patronised subordinate or shaman figure in between.

Missing were depictions of quotidian life, love and work that, even at their most idealised and escapist, white audiences have long taken for granted as mirroring and reinforcing their own experience.

The black community has always produced such images, with the work of filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, as well as through commercial portrait photographers and amateur snapshots and movies. But these more accurate depictions were largely invisible to white folk steeped in villains and caricatures - or total erasure - in the dominant narrative medium of the modern era.

It wasn't just blackness that was being defined by the accretion of stereotypes and insults, it was whiteness.

As Ava DuVernay illustrated in her 2016 documentary 13th, about how popular culture informed contemporary attitudes toward crime and punishment, the cultural devaluing of black bodies reinforced institutionalised racism and reassured white audiences those structures were necessary to preserve their virtue and supremacy.

Enter Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, whose rich, rapturous depiction of black excellence happened to arrive the same weeks Barack and Michelle Obama's portraits were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. During the week, curator Dorothy Moss recalled watching Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama's portrait, telling a group of African-American girls, "I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall".

As Sherald observed, it's hugely important for young people to see icons and everyday figures who look like them, not only to affirm their own worth but to help manifest their highest ambitions and dreams.

But it's also crucial for the rest of us, for whom Black Panther promises to redefine hidebound notions of cinematic pleasure and beauty, while raising troubling questions: What if white children had been fed a steady diet of those bracing and positive images for the past 10 decades too? How much irrational fear, hatred and incomprehension has been stoked by ingesting a near-steady diet of distorted reflections of black friends, neighbours and co-workers? What psychic and social price have we paid for so radically limiting our notions of what's normative, healthy and aspirational?

For us, to watch Black Panther is to realise that we've been fed a vicious and deadly lie, all the time being told it was a banquet just for us.