Shenise RamirezFeb 21, 2018, 9:18 pmFeb 23, 2018, 12:34 pm

#BlackPantherChallenge helps Newark kids shape positive, collective self-identity

Hundreds of children from Boys and Girls Club get ready to see Marvel's groundbreaking superhero movie


NEWARK — By 11 years old, children already see what is missing in media representation, says the clubhouse manager at the Boys and Girls Club in Newark. Roselle Arenas says that activities that ask youth critical questions about self-identity and how that may contradict media representation or others’ perceptions are crucial for building self-empowerment and decision-making skills.

“For children, [people they see in media are the individuals] they aspire to be early on,” says Harlem philanthropist Frederick Joseph who created the #BlackPantherChallenge, a national crowdfunding movement that is helping hundreds of kids around the country see the new superhero film “Black Panther.”

To help, Arenas conducts programs that fill the kids’ busy after-school schedules at the Boys and Girls Club, and middle and high schoolers alike learn to build a positive sense of self.

“We asked, ‘Do you like who you are?’ And they had a dialogue; it took us a whole hour. One girl said, ‘I don't like my hair,’ and when we ask them why, they say, ‘It’s the media,’” Arenas said.

In another activity, Arenas said a girl created a poster that pronounced: “You choose who you want to be, not the media."

With Marvel’s highly-anticipated superhero film “Black Panther,” children will get to see a world that addresses racism and sexism while grinding away biases created by demeaning and stereotypical representations of people of color that are deeply imprinted within the cultural fabric of American media.

The Walt Disney Company, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has a history of early animation that stems back to beloved white-gloved cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse who were illustrated with vaudeville performers in mind. Those roles were heavily influenced by the minstrel shows of the 1800s where white actors entertained their audiences in blackface, performing comical skits that proliferated racial stereotypes that cast African-Americans as idiotic, lazy people who could only be happy working on a plantation. After the Civil War, black performers became a part of minstrel shows themselves since it was the only way they could gain recognition in the world of show business.

The height of minstrels has diminished in modern years due to the controversial caricatures — though they still exist in current entertainment — but films rich with complex storylines and fully fleshed black characters, like “Creed” and “Selma,” are stones left unturned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. In both 2015 and 2016, all 40 actors who were nominated in the lead and supporting acting categories at the Academy Awards were white. The lack of non-white nominations caused actress Jada Pinkett Smith and filmmaker Spike Lee to boycott the 2016 Oscar awards ceremony and made #OscarsSoWhite a trending topic on social media. It sparked a backlash that led many to question the absence of diversity within the film industry.

“The representation is lacking,” Rutgers University professor Chenjerai Kumanyika believes. The co-host of the history-based podcast “Uncivil” says, “I think, in terms of what we saw last year of the #OscarsSoWhite lets you know where we are. Huge numbers of black celebrities boycotted the Oscars.”

Kumanyika says his father raised him to be proud of his African descent, but outside of his household, he wasn’t getting that message. ”Not from the textbooks, not from television, not from the teachers,” he said.

Because media constructs what's normal, he explains, the representation of race and gender matters, especially for young minds.

The movie is Marvel’s first all-black-cast, superhero film that centers around the isolationist African nation of Wakanda and its new ruler, King T’Challa, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. The leader is protected by an all-female guard, led by general Okoye and played by Danai Gurira, as he fights to keep his country from falling into the hands of his warlike cousin, Erik Killmonger, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger thrives for a violent, black revolution, stemming from his personal connection to systematic oppression in the United States, aiming to take the natural resources of Wakanda so that his nation can use its advancements to further global equity.

Thousands of children around the country are heading to theaters to see themselves represented through the technologically-savvy heroes of Wakanda, including hundreds of low-income children from the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. As the organization inches towards its GoFundMe goal to raise $10,000 for 600 movie tickets, educators of the program got kids to focus on self-empowerment ahead of their viewing because, as Wakanda searches for its role in greater society, so do children. And #BlackPantherChallenge creator Joseph believes it's important for them to see themselves represented as heroes capable of positively impacting the world.

“When you don't think you're capable [of saving the world] because no one that looks like you does it, then what are you left with?” Joseph delivers, explaining that positive portrayals of black women and men are scarce. ”A lot of times for the media, the archetypes they place on people of color have been negative.”

Not only do the Wakandans escape the grasp of colonialism, they also go on to create a feminist nation with advanced technologies where innovations are created and protected by women of color, which Rutgers professor Kumanyika points out is an element of the movie that reminds us of the real-life successes of Africans.

“With ‘Black Panther,’ we are getting what would be considered a world that is super advanced, which really subverts the relationship between Africa and technology,” he says. “It's giving you a very different relationship with women to technology, and I would argue, a pretty progressive view of women."

"Africans throughout the diaspora have really dictated the world's popular culture, many innovations in technology,” he continues. “Being African means being independent, being involved with technology.”

“Black Panther” proves that racially diverse films are not only good for media representation — they also have the ability to make box office earnings soar. The film brought in an estimated $201.8 million for its 3-day debut in North America during its opening weekend, topping huge hits like "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Captain America: Civil War," and "Iron Man 3."

It’s a cultural watershed moment that Kuminyaka hopes will “help us to envision a film industry where there is actual empowerment,” where those who are both behind and in front of the camera properly represent the diversity of America, telling compelling stories that have multifaceted black experiences.

And providing access to positive black imagery in an educational setting can prompt discussions that go beyond the superhero realm of Wakanda.

“There is something truly special about seeing this [film] in a theater as a group with your peers and discussing this sense of pride amongst these people,” philanthropist Joseph beams. “There's power in community.”

What's On Now & Next



Jersey City, New Jersey
Broken Clouds