Last week saw the US premier of Black Panther, the latest in a string of highly anticipated movies that are part of what’s come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because the film featured a great deal of people of color both in front of and behind the camera, the Black community in particular was especially excited to see this. It’s a large full-scale bona fide blockbuster movie that has people of color represented up and down, start to finish. And with that representation came a great deal of understanding and appreciation of Black culture, both as it resides here in the States and many of its origins in various African countries. So it’s no real surprise that roughly 40% of the movie’s audience for opening weekend was Black.
In predominantly Black communities, the movie became the focal point of both planned and impromptu celebrations. It’s not at all difficult to find photos and videos on social media where the crowds were breaking out into dances in the theater lobbies, or simply cheering exuberantly. I even saw one photo where some of the audience brought African drums to play on as part of the celebrating. As part of those celebrations, too, many of the people who showed up wore dashikis, agbadas, and other African or African-inspired clothing.
Some bigots and racists took issue with these people’s pride being put on display, and tried ridiculing them on social media. (I haven’t heard of any in-person incidents, thankfully.) That’s hardly surprising these days, but what some ostensible allies did was to step in and say that it was no different than putting on a Stormtrooper costume to see a Star Wars movie or donning a team jersey to go to the football game. And while their intention may be in the right place, the people saying this are fundamentally wrong.
Cosplay, whether it’s as elaborate as a Stormtrooper uniform or as casual as a jersey, is about showing your enthusiasm and support for something through emulation. “I like this character, so I’m going to show this by dressing up as them.” “I like this player, so I’m going to wear the same jersey as them.”
While there certainly were people cosplaying as the watched Black Panther, appearing as Prince Akeem or one of the Dora Milaje or whomever, the people in those dashikis and agbadas were doing something else entirely. They were simply dressing up. They were doing the equivalent of putting on a nice suit to go to the opera; it’s just that within their cultural heritage, formal and semi-formal attire looks much different than their Euro-centric counterparts. There’s no “play” aspect to what they were wearing; they just wanted to look their best, drawing from their cultural norms.
It’s still absolutely wrong to try to ridicule someone for that, but it’s also wrong to compare wearing a dashiki suit with putting on a costume.