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The passing last weekend of Chadwick Boseman led to an outpouring of response reflecting not only the thoughts of those who knew him and an appreciation of his acting skills, but the groundbreaking significance of his roles, particularly that of the Black Panther.

That his death came in the midst of yet another round of protests motivated by police violence against Black people made discussions of his career all the more relevant. Though 43 when he succumbed to colon cancer, Boseman had only come to prominence in recent years following his 2013 portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42 and his take in James Brown in 2014’s Get on Up. But it was his arrival in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that really shot him to prominence.

Boseman first appeared as T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and his alter-ego Black Panther in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, reprising the role in two additional Avengers movies, Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019). The MCU 2018 film Black Panther was critically acclaimed (garnering six Oscar nods, winning three) and a box office smash, lauded for its predominantly Black cast and its portrayal of African characters.

The film was seen as a major breakthrough in the evolution of diversity, both in Hollywood and among moviegoers.

Certainly Hollywood and society in general have changed markedly since the Black Panther was first introduced by Marvel Comics in 1966. The character had a “guest” role in a Fantastic Four story before getting his own comic book series. From the outset, however, the character was portrayed as a scientist and engineer leading a technologically advanced country in Africa, which was far removed from stereotypes of the day (and even today, in fact).

Despite that, the character was somewhat problematic due to the times and being a creation of a pair white men – the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – but the Black Panther evolved over the years, suggests Clifford V. Johnson, a Black physics professor and author of The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe.

“As a black character created and initially written by nonblack authors, guest-starring in the pages of a book headlined by white characters, he had many of the classic attributes of what is now sometimes controversially known as the ‘magical negro’ in American cultural criticism,” Johnson wrote following the release of Black Panther in 2018.

“Black Panther eventually got to star in his own series of comics. He was turned into a nuanced and complex character, moving well away from the tropes of his beginnings. Writer Don McGregor’s work started this development as early as 1973, but Black Panther’s journey to the multilayered character you see on screen was greatly advanced by the efforts of several writers with diverse perspectives. Perhaps most notably, in the context of the film, these include Christopher Priest (late 1990s) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (starting in 2016), along with Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, writing in ‘World of Wakanda’ (2016). Coates and Gay, already best-selling literary writers before coming to the character, helped bring him to wider attention beyond normal comic book fandom, partly paving the way for the movie.”

The evolution of the character and the decidedly non-stereotypical traits of those around him – well educated, wealthy and technologically savvy, for instance – led to much acclaim for Boseman’s film, with many people seeing the characters as role models for Black people who hadn’t always been well represented by Hollywood.

That movies and television didn’t always do well by minorities and women wasn’t a secret. But there have been improvements, some of them significant, in recent years.

The Hollywood Diversity Report prepared by UCLA for the past seven years, for instance, tracks the changes, noting women and minorities still remain unrepresented in all aspects of the industry, from lead roles to the studio boardrooms.

The 2020 version of the report finds things have improved even over the previous year’s study.

“Since the previous report, people of color posted gains relative to their White counterparts in each of the five key Hollywood employment arenas examined in the film sector (i.e., among film leads, film directors, film writers, total actors, and studio heads). Despite these gains for the group — most notably in closing the gap for acting roles since the previous report — people of color remained underrepresented on every industry employment front in 2019,” the study says.

The shift to better representation in fact pays dividends. UCLA researchers found America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film content. In 2018, films with casts that were from 21 per cent to 30 per cent minority enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts, while films with casts that were from 41 per cent to 50 per cent minority enjoyed that distinction in 2019. By contrast, films with the least diverse casts were the poorest performers in both years.

That’s no small thing where money is concerned – and money is always a concern. In 2018, the global box office for theatrical films surpassed $41 billion, up just slightly from $40.6 billion a year earlier. Meanwhile, the U.S./Canada market reached a record $11.9 billion in 2018, after momentarily dropping from $11.4 billion in 2017 to $11.1 billion in 2018.

Of course, there’s more to better representation than making money – it’s about doing what’s right. But more than simply boosting the number of women and people of colour, the real impact of non-stereotypical characters is the impact on changing people’s perceptions of “others.” If Black actors are relegated to minor characters in roles such as janitors, maids, blue-collar workers and criminals – as was the case for years – that reinforces bigoted views. Likewise for other tropes such as scheming Jews, Muslim terrorists and subservient women.

There’s already enough misguided prejudicial opinions without such views being reinforced in the films and television shows we watch.

That’s why a Black superhero who’s a member of an educated, advanced African nation resonates beyond comic books and movies, taking on cultural importance in an increasingly polarized society. Chadwick Boseman was aware of that, as were many of those who this week mourned his passing.

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