In short, there isn’t one.
I would love to let that statement stand alone, but given recent conversation about this topic, I feel the need to expand. The matter of “diversity” in Hollywood is something of a hot-button issue at the moment. Following the “Oscars so White” boycott/hashtag of 2015 and 2016, there seems to have been a concerted effort to increase diversity and representation in film, or at least give the illusion of it, with the nomination of more black actors in the 2017 Awards cycle. While many were appreciative of this step, others pointed out that the awards and industry were still not at inclusive as they could be, given the lack of non-black actors of color, and women in directing and production roles. This issue of partial inclusivity is the basis of questioning Black Panther’s diversity, something I will address in two parts, with the first being the issues of racial inclusivity.
In 2017, the Black Panther teaser trailer was released, breaking records and becoming one of the all-time most viewed teaser trailers within 24 hours. Following Marvel’s immense success with films such as Thor: Ragnarok and Spiderman: Homecoming, the word that we would finally get our “first black marvel superhero” spread like wildfire. Twitter went crazy with posts about people showing up to the premiere in full African dress and jollof rice hidden in Tupperware. This also created a bit of backlash about the movie being overblown in its perception as a beacon of hope for Africans and black Americans alike, rather than what it really is: a Marvel movie. All of this created a massive hype, arguably the biggest of any Marvel movie to date, and projected Black Panther to do incredible numbers. The inherent blackness of the film was heavily discussed in the promotion of the movie, from its celebration on social media to cast interviews, where the topic of a predominantly black cast and the effect of that in a blockbuster was constantly present. Not only is the cast of the movie predominantly black, everything from the costuming to worldbuilding borrows heavily from various African cultures. With the title “Black Panther,” it should come as a shock to nobody that the film is—in fact—very black.
However, as with everything, there is always a nit to be picked. Despite my doubt that anyone commenting on a racial inclusivity problem is in any way serious, I’ll address the issue anyway: Black Panther does not have a diversity issue. Black Panther is a film set in the fictional country of Wakanda and while it does not actually exist, it has been canonically stated to exist in Africa, a continent with a majority black population. Therefore, it is not a stretch of the imagination to expect that an African country with a predominantly black population would reflect that majority in the film.
The marginal gripe comes from people wondering why it is fine to have a predominantly black cast, and yet shows with an all-white cast are considered problematic. The reasoning is simple and lies in the history of global migration.
Hundreds of years of slavery, trade, and migration have ensured that the West has seen an influx of non-white individuals from all over the world. Conversely, the depletion of resources from other parts of the world, like Africa, and the end of colonization has not resulted in that same migration out of the West and into Africa. Moreover, Wakanda is proposed to be similar to Ethiopia in the sense that it was never colonized. Unlike Ethiopia, Wakanda is imagined to have existed outside of the Western-dominated global economy that existed post-colonization. The west is, therefore, less racially homogenous than African or Asian countries. While there is more ethnic diversity in Africa than the West, this is a result of the numerous tribes that exist in Africa, rather than the presence of other racial groups, which exist but pale in comparison to other melting-pots. It is therefore normal for me to watch a film about a movie set in Africa and see a predominantly black cast. In the same way, I do not expect to see non-white actors in a show like Downton Abbey: the history and geography simply make sense. The questions arise when looking at shows like Friends, set in 2000s New York but barely featuring any non-white characters. Being that New York is one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, in this case, the history and geography do not make sense.
There is also the questioning of Black Panther’s lack of sexual diversity, namely that Black Panther doesn’t feature any LGBTQ+ characters. Firstly, I feel the need to mention that inclusion and representation are incredibly valid and necessary and when done properly, can be very powerful. Do I feel like there was a way it could have been done well in Black Panther? Probably not. The final product of the film cut a scene that featured two canonically gay characters that could have been included to provide the necessary representation. However, given that the movie’s original runtime was about four hours long, it makes sense to me that a scene featuring side characters was cut from the movie. Moreso, given that the scene had nothing to do with the plot and did not move it along in any way. In my opinion, keeping the scene just to cover an LGBTQ representation quota comes off as pandering. If those two characters get a bigger role in the sequel and the movie desires to explore their romance better then, that’s absolutely fine. But to shoehorn in a scene that “suggests romantic involvement or at least an attraction” just for the sake of it seems pointless. In general, LGBTQ+ representation in movies that aren’t focused on romance can be hard to pull off. Especially with the “LGB” and “+” characters. Unlike a black or trans (sometimes, depending on the individual’s transition process) identity that is often visible, sexuality has to be talked about or shown, and those scenes can very easily go wrong and come across as pandering or queer-baing. If something is going to be done, it should be done well, and if it cannot then it should not. Black Panther is a movie about a black superhero, and if it does not manage to feature a queer love story, that’s okay. I can enjoy it in the same way that I loved Call Me By Your Name in the absence of any people of color.
So in conclusion, does Black Panther have a diversity problem? My answer hasn’t changed. Sometimes movies just don’t have the entire spectrum of representation we want to see, and sometimes, that’s perfectly okay.