Black History Month: Representation matters – why we need African American superheroes

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Superhero movies may well be fantasy escapism, with Norse gods and super soldiers running around together in a team with billionaires in flying suits and science experiments gone wrong, but they have a duty to represent the world fully and completely. There has been much conversation in the past about the lack of female representation in superhero films, and while this is a major issue, another prominent group in society is being ignored in terms of superhero filmic representations, and that is African American individuals.

Ask anyone on the street to name an African American superhero, and chances are after one or two names they will start having trouble. This is not an issue which exists only in superhero films – the wider film industry has a massive issue with the representation of African Americans, as demonstrated by the ethnicity of the nominees at last years Academy Awards, called the ‘Whitest’ awards since the 1990’s. But while the lack of African American representation in the wider film industry is appalling, I think that the lack of representation in superhero films is criminal; because of one of their audiences.

Children love superheroes, and therefore by extension they love superhero films. You only have to look in a children’s fancy dress section to see multiple superhero costumes, or in a toy store to see lego sets based on Marvel’s superheroes. While teenagers and adults may be the primary audience for superhero films, there is a reason that most of these films have a PG or 12A British Board of Film Classification – because studios make superhero films that they can market to all audiences, including children and soon to be teens who go to see these films with their parents. There have been multiple studies take which suggest that it is positive and beneficial for children to see reflections of themselves on the screen, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a child is going to connect more fully with someone who they thinks reflects them. Children should be able to dress up as a superhero for Halloweeen that they truly connect with because the superhero represents that they too could be a hero if they really wanted to. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence since the release of Falcon costumes (the character played by African American Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) which seems to indicate that this is true.

It is frankly shocking that in the industry where at least three superhero movies a year are released, not one of them has featured an African American lead character. We’ve seen films focusing on a man experimented on in World War Two and turned into a super soldier, featuring a man who can turn himself into the size of an ant, a man who turns into a giant green monster if he doesn’t control his emotions, and yet all of these characters are white. Marvel had the chance to cast a non-white actor in the role of Spider-man in the upcoming re-boot of the franchise, and yet they chose to cast a white young man. Superhero films are dominated by the presentation of white men, and this needs to stop.

The comic books which many superhero movies use as source materials are far more diverse and progressive than the films which have been released in the post 9-11 superhero movie boom. They present African American superheroes, both men and women, and celebrate them as individuals and representatives of wider society. Marvel recently announced that their newest superhero will be an African American girl called Lunella, with the comic Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur focusing on her adventures with her friend who just happens to be a T-Rex, while the latest issue of Batman takes a look at police racism, and the place of the billionaire Bruce Wayne and his plans for city gentrification in the racial struggle. Marvel also had Falcon take on the mantle of Captain America when the original Captain, Steve Rogers decided to retire. Comics are looking at the issues of representation and the problems which face African Americans in the world today, and there is no reason why the blockbuster films which look to them for inspiration cannot follow suit.

There have been some fantastic individual African American superheroes presented in supporting roles, or as part of an ensemble – Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-Men franchise, and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon are both great representations, and great characters in themselves. However, they are far outnumbered by the white characters which surround them in their respective films, and neither have been the sole focus of a film. In recent years there have been small moves to redress the complete imbalance of representation with the announcement of a solo film focusing on Marvel’s Black Panther, to be released in July 2018, and starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Black Panther’s alter ego.

While this project is exciting, until more African American individuals are cast in a variety of roles in superhero films, and until more African American characters take centre stage in superhero films, it simply won’t be enough. There needs to be greater representation now.

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Studying for my PhD focusing on Eighteenth Century Pirate Literature. Writer 2011-2013, Culture Editor 2013-2014, Editor 2014-2015, Culture Exec 2015-2016, Writer 2016-2017. Longest serving Edgeling ever is a title I intend to hold forever.

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