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ISU's ReggieCon Event Explores How 'Black Panther' Redefines Power, Representation

Sean Thorton works in marketing for Illinois State University, and is the artist who did all the design work for ReggieCon. Thorton said the goal of inclusion and promotion of diversity added to the enthusiasm of the artwork.

Black people too often have been associated with only crime and racial trauma in pop culture. But one film that defies the stereotypes and gives power to the Black community is “Black Panther,” which three years after its release continues to stimulate dialogue.

Illinois State University’s ReggieCon event series will host a free “Wakanda For All!” panel discussion about “Black Panther” at 7 p.m. Thursday, via Zoom. It’s the latest in a series of ReggieCon events, each with a panel of experts in comic and popular media who focus on issues of race and diversity.

One of the panelists will be clinical psychologist Vanessa Hintz, who primarily works with Black people and is a diversity and equity consultant. Hintz said, traditionally, pop culture stereotypes Black people.

“As gangsters, as criminals and as all of these things, and so that’s why I think for a lot of Black Americans ‘Black Panther’ the film was so powerful because for once on a large scale we were not cast in that light,” said Hintz.

 Another panelist will be award-winning comic writer Alex Simmons, who is very familiar with the history of the "Black Panther" character. He is a long-time friend of Don McGregor, who wrote the 13-issue story “Panther’s Rage” in 1972 that served as a major inspiration for the film “Black Panther."

Simmons said Black people almost never see themselves as hero figures on film. Often, they were portrayed as porters, butlers, slaves, entertainers, and that’s pretty much it. 

“Then in the ’60s you got the rebellion and the Civil Rights movement, OK, so now you see us as angry Black folk and struggling Black folk and occasionally ‘cool’ Black folk,” said Simmons. “There was still a limited range. I think what you’re finding is there is also a suppression of women and other lifestyles that were going on. Because it was white males rule. Period.”

Simmons said “Black Panther” has expanded roles for African Americans because the success of the movie shows there is an audience.

“There’s more than the Caucasian persuasion tale and there is more room for some new lens and viewpoints of our world,” said Simmons. “I think ‘Black Panther’ blew a hole in the wall for a lot of things to come through it, and drew a lot of attention. But I feel like other people are being heard and are making that, what I call, righteous noise.”

That noise can happen in other movies, like “12 Years A Slave” and “Green Book.”

Hintz said though these kinds of movies are better than a crime-filled stereotype, they perpetuate another stereotype of Black people as oppressed or experiencing racial trauma. She said this also misses much of the Black experience.

“And there’s this whole other side that is not I think explored as much because it goes against those larger ideals that are rooted in white supremacy,” said Hintz, adding “Black Panther” didn’t get that response because it is a Black power film.

“We all remember the backlash, ‘Why do we need Black Panther?’ Even though we had white superheroes. I think it’s because that challenges this dominant cultural narrative that permeates American society which is, ‘White is right and everything else is less than,’” said Hintz.

Cultural anthropologist Stanford Carpenter, another ReggieCon panelist, said the reason “Black Panther” is such a Black power film is Black people appropriated it.

Carpenter said appropriation is important because we have a seen the historical legacy of country that is completely infused with white power fantasies and lacking when it comes to fantasies for people of color and women.

“Every norm around power, every norm around the exercise and the deployment of power functions on white men being the people who control it and delegate it,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter said the film at least creates a space where Black people can imagine having power. 

“And if you can’t imagine someone having power and yet you can imagine yourself having power, that person can never be your equal. Never. What is fascinating about this and diversity within a genre like superheroes is the diversity of superheroes also represents a democratization of power,” said Carpenter.

Pop mythologist Daniel Jun Kim said audiences’ responses have to be rooted in asking the question: Where do implicit and explicit biases come from?

“It comes from pervasive media exposure everyone has. I mean the media is everywhere, it is reality in all kinds of ways,” said Kim. “As we saw recently with this ongoing, persistent belief in election fraud despite the complete lack of evidence. It’s just the perception of the media. Pop culture is extremely serious in that it creates in both good and bad ways our sense of reality.” 

The emergence of Black power in superhero films, Simmons said, disrupts traditional narratives for whites and makes them uncomfortable.

Chadwick Boseman, the star of “Black Panther,” died recently from colon cancer. But much like the film, hishttps://vimeo.com/455306822?1&ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR1_o5ZWjz9A5KysW7axnprHbS29xIFaMmZiJoKm54MUYZjckI1hxMc5N1w"> legacy of Black excellence is explored through the ReggieCon “Wakanda For All” webinar and in “Black Panther Psychology,” which is a book Simmons and Hintz both worked on.

What is ReggieCon? 

ReggieCon organizer and university professor Scott Jordansaid the panel discussions try to make tough conversations more digestible. Jordan brought the idea to the Office of Enrollment Management and Academic Services.

“The nice part about most of these panelists is that they’re kind of doing it out of the love of comic books, much like we are, so this is really, in terms of the type of impact we could potentially have on our students, a really small investment from the university,” said Jana Albrecht, ISU’s comic-loving associate vice president for enrollment management.

Albrecht said ReggieCon is an accessible way for students to talk about race and ethnicity.

“They’re hard conversations to have. They’re not easy conversations to have, but using the vehicle of comic books, movies, graphic novels gives that opening that is a little bit easier for someone who isn’t mentally ready for difficult conversations but then could lead them into those difficult conversations we all have to grapple with,” said Albrecht. 

Albrecht said ReggieCon being hosted on Zoom is acting as a springboard to potentially do an in-person version of the event.

“There is very little risk in terms of what we are doing with the panels and even if we touch a small number of students in the panel … we’ve touched a small number of students in that panel,” said Albrecht. “It is a good thing and it just gives us that foundation to build into something else.”

ReggieCon will host the panel “To Live as One Tribe: Wakanda for All!” from 7-8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, via Zoom. ReggieCon will host a new set of panelists for Women’s History Month in March, focused on Wonder Woman.


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