There’s a great story told by Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s original Lt. Uhura, early in her role. For those who don’t know, she was a musical theater actress and after the first season in space, she handed in her resignation, ready to go back to the stage. Gene Roddenberry asked her to think about it over the weekend and she ended up attending a fundraiser where she met a big fan who changed her trajectory. “This man says, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am that fan. I am your best, greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans. As a matter of fact, this is the only show that my wife, Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up late to watch because it’s past their bedtime.’”, the man was Martin Luther King, Jr. He admired Roddenberry for creating a dignified role for her. “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing and dance, yes, but who can go into space, who can be lawyers and teachers, who can be professors — who are in this day, yet you don’t see it on television until now,’” Nichols recalled in a later interview.
Nichols not only stayed on the show, she went on to help NASA recruit new astronaut candidates, many of whom were women and people of color. Perhaps one of those inspired candidates was Dr. Ellen Ochoa, an engineer, former astronaut and current director of the Johnson Space Station. She was the first Hispanic woman in space, one of 60 astronauts, cosmonauts and payload specialists who have flown into space since 1963. She recently visited an elementary school in Tulsa, OK named for her. How powerful it must have been to meet someone who looks like you doing things you’ve never thought anyone like you ever did.
The other night I attended Black Panther with a friend. The fact that she’s black and doesn’t go to superhero movies is significant. We were in the back of the theater, so I’m not sure how many black people were in the audience, but I know it was significantly more than I’ve seen when attending other Marvel and DC films. There are entire theater showings being bought out by black churches all over the country. As I mentioned, my companion isn’t a fan of these sort of movies, but she secured our tickets a month ago. She needed to be there the day before the ‘official’ release date. She squealed and I could feel the energy on the other side of the armrest throughout the movie. Would she have felt that way viewing Ironman or Batman? Perhaps…., but she didn’t feel drawn to buy a ticket to those films. She did see Wonder Woman while it was playing, but she made it a priority to see this movie.
The film industry shows the demographics of superhero movies as predominantly males 18–25 years old. For Wonder Women it was older with far more women. I would venture for Black Panther it will be heavily black, with a fairly equal mix of men and women because of the characters portrayed. In recent years there have been more studies conducted on the demographic make up of film audiences and productions. They have uncovered facts that have been apparent to many of us for a long time, white men are featured in greater number than any other demographic. It matches the number of white male executives in Hollywood. I don’t say this as an accusation, simply a mathematical fact. Whether you attribute blame and malice forethought, or just chalk it up to the birds of a feather notion, that’s the history of the film industry. As more ‘other’ people have gained prominence, they started telling the stories that featured people ‘like them’. As those stories are becoming more mainstream, more people who identify with the characters are coming to see what it’s all about.
As an Asian American woman, I was not drawn to Black Panther because the characters resembled me per se. I was empowered by the strong female characters who I felt akin to and mostly, I’m a sucker for action films. My friend though is usually quiet reserved and tends to frequent art-house and foreign flicks; that night though, her enthusiasm was contagious and at times I was enjoying her reaction as much as the film. Much in the same way you may be more enchanted watching your child, watch the Disney Parade. As a diversity, inclusion and belonging practitioner I am jubilant to see those who have not had the experience of looking up and admiring a figure who is larger than life that resembles them.
I’m not interested in leading a charge to topple a regime, I don’t particularly favor the view of us versus them, or the scarcity fallacy. Instead of a pinnacle that can only hold a small number of elite, I prefer the playing field that’s wide and varied. When individuals feel like they are part of the story, there is greater interest, enthusiasm and engagement. Maybe it’s not “Time’s Up” as much as ‘Move Over’, make room and let’s see what cool things we can do together. And for any Hollywood creative looking for a subject, Wikipedia has a great list of super heroes that look like ME (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Asian_superheroes). I’m ready to buy my ticket, so bring it!