By Niesha Davis for SixthTone.com
The film “Black Panther,” which premieres in Chinese cinemas today, has been hailed for its stylized and celebratory representations of Africans. While it isn’t the first major motion picture starring a black superhero, it is arguably the most earnest film in the genre to date. American movies like 1993’s “The Meteor Man,” starring Robert Townsend, and 1994’s Damon Wayans-led “Blankman,” were based in the inner-cities of the U.S. and hammed up the superhero shtick for comedy value.
But in channeling a fictional black superhero created in 1966 at the height of the American civil rights movement, the protagonist of “Black Panther” is truly unique: a person of African descent with the power, intellect, and moral compass to inspire admiration across racial divides; a person who stands as a unifying force in a fictional African country with no obvious history of colonization and blessed with abundant natural resources.
I hope that the release of “Black Panther” in China will heighten awareness of race among domestic audiences. Let me be clear: As a black American woman, I regularly experience systemic racial discrimination at home in the United States. But I often find the discrimination I encounter here in China cruder and more overt.
I moved to China in 2015 in the hope of earning good money as an English teacher and exploring more of Asia during my off-time. And it is true that my experience in Shanghai has been quite lucrative for my career since then. Yet to paraphrase the African-American poet Langston Hughes, life for most black people in China isn’t a crystal stair.
Chinese beauty standards put whiteness at a premium; some women regularly bleach their skin, for example. But these aesthetics run deeper than skin color: The popularity of plastic surgery proceduresdesigned to widen and brighten the eyes reflects a widespread acceptance of Caucasian, Eurocentric beauty standards. Often, I feel as if my very existence as a dark-skinned black woman is in opposition to what some Chinese people find aesthetically beautiful, a tension that has made me feel disrespected in certain social interactions.
Beauty standards have negatively impacted my employment prospects and income. Many job postings specify that only white or “native European” teachers may apply, or demand that candidates submit copies of their passport pages at the very start of the recruitment process in order to screen out people with dark skin.
It is regrettable that most Chinese lack exposure to black people. Interactions that many locals have with those of the African diaspora are therefore rife with negative stereotypes — particularly notions of cleanliness. Last year, the Chinese detergent brand Qiaobi was accused of open racism after releasing a television commercial in which a Chinese woman shoved a black man into a washing machine. He then emerged as a fair-skinned Chinese man, to the visible delight of the woman.
Qiaobi came under warranted criticism for perpetuating the bogus idea that dark-skinned people are dirtier than their lighter-skinned counterparts. But my own experiences indicate that this notion exists much more prominently in China than in the U.S. I have witnessed passengers blatantly cover their noses as I enter a subway carriage; once, while on holiday in Hong Kong, a department store clerk who was demonstrating a brand of soap on my hand even joked that my skin was dark because the poor air quality on the Chinese mainland had made it dirty.
And things are hardly better when it comes to the average Chinese person’s perceptions about Africa. Admittedly, both Chinese and Western media outlets perpetuate a negative narrative that casts the continent’s people as backward, poverty- and disease-stricken, and in need of economic and structural help from other nations.
A particularly harrowing recent depiction of Africa in the Chinese movie world is last year’s popular action thriller “Wolf Warrior 2.” By now, I am used to seeing the cinematic trope of the white savior, in which the Caucasian protagonist rescues “vulnerable” people of color from a dangerous plight. “Wolf Warrior 2” remixes this for a Chinese audience. Set in a nameless African country, Wu Jing stars as a Chinese soldier on a special assignment to protect both his countrymen and locals amid a violent rebellion, eventually winning the fawning admiration of the country’s black population. Despite the film’s almost comically ham-fisted plot, it nonetheless stands as the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time and is the country’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Fortunately, the Africa that Chinese audiences will see in “Black Panther” completely dispels the above stereotypes. Wakanda, the fictional country in which the film is set, exemplifies a futuristic, technologically advanced nation where black protagonists are masters of their own destinies, not victims in need of salvation.
University lecturer and Shanghai resident Marcel Daniels, who has seen the film while abroad, is optimistic that the film will have a positive influence in his adopted country. “I find that a lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity, so assumptions are made reflexively. Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.”
Kristen Stanley, the owner of Liaison Luxury Sport and Entertainment Agency in Shanghai, plans to host a “Black Panther”- themed screening on the night of the film’s China release. “The perception of black people around the world is changing and this movie will continue that trend,” she says, adding that three cinema viewings she organized have already sold out completely.
“Black Panther” is unapologetic in its celebration of blackness. Its costuming, hairstyles, and language, are replete with African cultural references and historical recognition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. African beauty standards stand front and center: While previous Hollywood productions have been criticized for casting fairer-skinned black people in leading roles, the likes of Lupita Nyong’o — who plays Nakia, Black Panther’s love interest — show a boundary-pushing commitment to darker-skinned stars. Female characters also shun Eurocentric ideals of straight hair by embracing bald heads, dreadlocks, kinky and curly styles, and Bantu knots.
Of course, it would be simplistic to say that one film will completely change attitudes toward black and African people in China. For all its laudably progressive traits, “Black Panther” primarily addresses comparatively subtle Western stereotypes of black people. When transposed onto the Chinese context — a society in which crude racial stereotypes pervade national television — some of the film’s celebration of African pluralism might be lost in translation.
But “Black Panther” can still be a start. Exposure to pop culture that encompasses diverse representations of black people can exert a powerful influence on how individuals conceive of them. “Black Panther” probably won’t completely eradicate the notion that Africa is a monocultural entity that needs fixing, but it might show Chinese audiences that our perceptions of superheroes can be complex and beauty standards are not easily divisible into black and white.