Reflections on 'Black Panther' from a member of the Black Panther fraternity

Reflections on 'Black Panther' from a member of the Black Panther fraternity

I have a secret that only a few die-hard animation fans have known until today –and here it is: 

I am the Black Panther.

Well, more specifically, I am a member of a very small fraternity of actors who have been trusted with the privilege of interpreting the iconic role of King T’Challa, AKA the Black Panther.

According to animation fan site Beyond The Voice Actors, there have only been 11 actors who have played the role in a Marvel animated series, video game, or film: Keith David, Jeffery Bowyer-Chapman, Taye Diggs, Djimo Hounsou, James C. Mathis III, Tim Russ, Phil LaMarr, John Eric Bentley, Chadwick Boseman, Mahito Ôba, and…

… Me. Omari Newton, Random Canadian Guy.

I’ve been blessed to voice the role on three separate occasions now, and while I can’t speak for the other actors, the Black Panther is by far the credit I am most proud of, on a resume that spans more than two decades. To understand why, I’m going to tell you the career origin story of that aforementioned Random Canadian Guy, and the cultural history that shaped his (well, my) career.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved getting lost in great stories, especially those that played out on television. But in the cartoons I grew up watching in the ’80’s and ’90’s, Black characters were mostly relegated to supporting roles where they served as comic relief or muscle for the overwhelmingly white, male stars of the show. 

GI Joe had Roadblock, whose distinguishing characteristic was that he looked and talked like a Blaxploitation character, often punctuating his sentences with rhymes like some kind of Shaft-LL Cool J hybrid. There was also his robotic counterpoint Jazz the Autobot from the show Transformers, who, despite being comprised of mostly white painted metal, spoke like a jive-talking Black guy.

Comic books of my youth only fared marginally better in terms of representation. We had Blade, a badass for sure, but he was mainly known for being a vampire. John Stewart – AKA The Green Lantern – existed over in DC, and he was cool, but read as more racially neutral. Cyborg of Teen Titans fame was alright, but his origin story (he was a great athlete until an accident compelled his dad to turn him into a man/machine hybrid) was clichéd. It wasn’t until I learned about Black Panther that I became really inspired by a Black character.

Everything about T’Challa was dope and original to a young Black kid raised by socially conscious parents who came into adulthood during the Civil Rights era and were emboldened with political beliefs to match.

The character was African, and his homeland wasn’t depicted how I was used to seeing African nations on TV: full of skinny African kids with distended stomachs, waiting for blonde-haired white saviours like Sally Struthers to deliver freedom from hunger, one donation at a time. 

No, T’Challa’s homeland of Wakanda was not Sally Struthers’ Africa. Wakanda was a utopia: wealthy, technologically advanced, and unsullied by the evils of colonialism that had ravaged the rest of the African continent.

The Black Panther was also a king! From a long line of highly intelligent, dignified, African royalty, steeped in tradition. This wasn’t a vigilante in the mould of Batman, a mercenary like Luke Cage, or a savage warrior like Wolverine. Here was a thinking man’s hero: an uber wealthy dignitary who used his superpowers for the good of his people – and he was Black!

When my love of great stories compelled me to get into acting, I searched for live-action performances that made me feel the same way this comic book character from Wakanda did. It didn’t take me long to become enamoured with my first acting hero, Denzel Washington.

Denzel was one of the first Black actors who stood out as consistently playing roles that inspired me. Like T’Challa, Denzel always seemed to play dignified men. People of high status, with integrity and authority.  Maybe one day I too could play great men such as Malcolm X, Steven Biko or Ruben “Hurricane” Carter! 

Omari Newton (far right) and fellow actors in Black Theatre Workshop's 1999-2000 production of My  Children! My Africa! 

Omari Newton (far right) and fellow actors in Black Theatre Workshop's 1999-2000 production of My Children! My Africa! 

Like Denzel, I started my career in the theatre. Thanks to a gem of a company called Black Theatre Workshop in my hometown of Montreal, my early roles on stage consisted mainly of complex Black characters of substance. My very first play was a South African piece called My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard. There I was, 19-years-old and launching into the world of theatre playing a young, highly intelligent revolutionary, fighting against the evils of apartheid. If this is what acting was, I was all in!

I dreamt of a career that mirrored that of my acting idol and soon decided to branch out to roles on screen: a sure-fire path to Academy awards, fame, fortune and a dignified, rich artistic life. Just like Denzel! What could go wrong!?

Needless to say, my screen debut as “Slave #2” was  a pretty sobering entry into screen work, and only a taste of what was to follow. 

The fact that I was cast to play a slave (and for my very first screen role, no less) should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of African Americans on screen. Even as far back as the earliest days of Old Hollywood – in which wildly popular white actors like Al Jolson performed in blackface – African Americans were depicted in a clownish, stereotypical manner meant to mock and dehumanize.

From Hattie McDaniel playing Mammy the house servant in Gone With the Wind, to Naomie Harris playing a drug addicted mother in Moonlight, there is a long history of Black actors being relegated to roles that cast us in a caricatured light. The situation hadn’t improved all that much when I started my professional screen career in the late 90’s, and began auditioning for thugs, inmates,  all manner of buffoons, and a long list of other derogatory versions of Blackness.

The sense of pride and exhilaration I once felt acting on stage was quickly replaced by uncertainty, shame, and yearning for something more. I was finally able to recapture a sense of pride in a role when I was first hired to play the Black Panther in a Marvel animated series in 2011.

I am not even a bit ashamed to say I shed a few joyful tears when I learned that I’d been cast in the role. I cried because I understood the full significance of this character on a deeply personal level. When I got the call from my agent, my mind went back to what the Black Panther had meant to me as a kid, and what he would mean to a whole new generation of little Black boys, searching for a Black character to play make-believe with pride. 

When comic book movies went mainstream in the early 2000s after the success of films like X-Men and Spider-Man, I was sure a Black Panther film would soon follow. Black culture had all but dominated the mainstream from my teenage years to present. Hip hop music and fashion had thoroughly infiltrated the mainstream. Michael Jordan was an international celebrity, pushing the NBA to untold heights. Being Black was cool, and clearly profitable. It was only a matter of time before the coolest Black superhero got his own franchise. So I waited.

We waited.

Black nerds have been forced to endure six incarnations of Batman, three incarnations of Spider-Man, movies about a motorcycle-riding demon with a flaming skull, a monosyllabic tree-being and a racoon before we finally heard the announcement that our hero would get his very own movie about two years ago.

When the announcement was made, we were not ready. Black folks just about lost our damn minds.

Thanks in large part to an awesome cameo in Captain America: Civil War and a slick marketing campaign that wisely aligned itself with some of the coolest rappers going (Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar), anticipation was at a fever pitch. Pre-sale records were made and broken. Fundraisers were held to send large groups of Black kids to opening weekend screenings, and people were picking out traditional African garb to wear to the  theatre (A somewhat problematic practice, given that most of us didn’t pay too much attention to which African cultures we were representing. But hey, Black people were excited; cut us some slack!). We were here for this movie. I was ready.

And then, suddenly, I was worried: What if they mess it up?

Major studios don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to representing Black characters on screen. What if they got it all wrong and turned our hero into African Shaft? Some jive-talking badass devoid of a rich history?

Then, the movie dropped, and it was all there: Wakanda as a rich, principled, technological marvel, a symbol for what the continent of Africa could have become were it not for the ravages of colonialism. The knowing, subversive winks at audience members, calling us out for our overly simplistic, monolithic ideas about Africa. The overt challenges to, if not complete rejection of, white supremacy, relegating white characters into smaller supporting roles in a Hollywood blockbuster. And strong, Black, female characters repeatedly putting a white American male CIA operator in his place, referring to him as “colonizer.”

And we need to talk about the incredible depiction of  Black women in this movie. The sight of strong, dark-skinned, full-lipped, full-bodied Black women as brave warriors brought tears to my eyes.

In an industry that has long reduced Black women to derogatory tropes – crack-head mom; prostitute; sassy best friend to the white lead – the very presence of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s badass special forces, was revolutionary in and of itself. That they were also revealed to be the highest ranking soldiers, trusted advisors to the king, and loyal to the very end was almost too much for me to handle.

The significance of these Black women having beautiful dark skin also can not be understated. Hollywood has long pushed the toxic myth that a Black woman can only be beautiful if she has incredibly light skin and straightened hair. The beautiful women of Wakanda boldly dispatch this despicable, racist trope.

Even the villains had nobility. Their motivations were complex, and their characterizations fully realized. The core conflict of the movie seeks to ask difficult questions about effective Black leadership. Isolation versus integration. Collaboration versus subjugation. 

Black Panther is a Black movie, by Black people (including the director, screenwriter, and majority of  the cast) about Black people, concerned with the plight of Black people.

It was a groundbreaking breath of fresh air.

It was everything a little Black nerd who somehow grew up to be a member of the Black Panther fraternity could have asked for.

It ‘s been a long time coming, but well worth the wait.


Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. –SF

Lead photo by Jens Kristian Balle

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