Smith next to a camera in Pitt Studios
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Why movies like ‘Black Panther’ matter

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Ahead of the 95th Academy Awards, Pitt film and media studies professor Kevin Smith has been discussing the impact of cinematic triumphs like the $1.3 billion grossing Marvel film, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” with his students and colleagues.  

Despite increased representation of Black actors and artists, Smith notes that the status quo remains, especially on Hollywood's biggest awards night, where the electorate is 66% male and 81 % white. Angela Bassett, who was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her turn as Queen Ramonda in “Black Panther,” was one of just two Black actors who earned nods this year (Brian Tyree Henry is the other, for “Causeway”).

“Cinema and television present opportunities to teach about the Black experience and things excluded from the history books,” says Smith, who is known for projects like the film “Pride” starring Terrence Howard and teaches an introductory broadcasting course at Pitt Studios. “Cinema is finally showing Black representation as it should. But in our country, the crux of the problem is the marginalization of these of particular ethnicities and cultures — Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians and beyond. It’s been that way for our entire history.”

Films like “Black Panther,” the Emmy-nominated multihyphenate, says, are educational moments for all of America, not just because they offer roles to Black actors and directors, but because they enable audiences to see themselves, often for the first time, represented.

“The Black experience isn’t just for Black people,” says Golden Quill, Associated Press, National Headliners, Edward R. Murrow and Telly award-winning Smith — and the creator of the Marvel universe agrees with him.

While working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and producer on feature films and reality television, Smith met Stan Lee during Little League games in Manhattan Beach, where Smith’s son and Lee’s grandson competed. Smith recalls discussions in the stands about character inspiration and political statements made with fan favorites from the comics and megahits. 

“He told me every character was a political statement; he was proactive in civil rights,” Smith says.

Black Panther first appeared in 1966 before going on hiatus following Lee’s concern about the character being, as Smith recalls, “hijacked by white America to villainize the Black Panthers.”

Smith charges those who have not historically experienced marginalization to be bold like Lee.

“I’ve encountered young writers, especially white writers, afraid to go into the subject matter because they figure ‘I’m not allowed to write about the Black experience in America,’ and that’s unfortunate,” he says. “But it’s important for them to do so because they help educate others we otherwise won’t reach.”

He also charges those who have been marginalized to accept help and recognize that doing so doesn’t mean limiting Black talent on screen or behind the camera.

“We must avoid telling people, ‘You’re not allowed to do this.’ Right away, that’s going to dismiss and discourage.”

Smith offers a prime example of allyship with the film, “The Color Purple.”

“You have Oscar-winning Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover, all these incredible actors, and director, Steven Spielberg — possibly the greatest director of all time — a white Jewish director. He captured that story perfectly,” says Smith.

“That’s the point: You want all people to be able to tell the Black experience story. That means they must research and avoid the mistake too many filmmakers have where they’re appropriating our culture. But are they not allowed to tell these stories? No, it’s the opposite. Delve into our culture and find out the truth because this is where ending the myopic telling of American history through the eyes of the victor begins.”


— Kara Henderson, photography by Tom Altany