Black Panther in the Classroom

Approaching the movie as a cross-media literacy booster and a launching pad for conversations about race, gender, and colonialism

March 8, 2018
Black Panther character with mask off, against open sky

Black Panther is breaking box office records and setting social media ablaze. The story of King T’Challa and the fictional African nation of Wakanda was first introduced in July 1966, but it seems to have a special relevance today, as educators and parents are using the film to talk to children about our race, power, and history.

We wanted to explore the ways in which students can engage with Black Panther, so we asked Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty, staff, and students about its significance, popularity, and educational potential.

Why is it significant that Black Panther has been adapted into a film? 

Jabari Sellers, graduate student and expert in the use of comics to improve literary skills: Black Panther provides many different demographics the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen in a new way. While Black Panther is neither the first predominantly black film nor the first black superhero film, the full financial backing of the Disney Marvel cinematic universe allows for the portrayal of black life and black fantasy on a scale many have not seen before. The power of the film, in addition to its great storytelling, is the experience of identity validation. Much like Wonder Woman in 2017, Black Panther not only provides marginalized communities the chance to see people who look like them in a fantastic, bright, and energized comic universe — it also challenges notions of the value and possibility of non-white, non-male-focused storytelling.

How might educators use cross-media approaches to build literacy skills and engagement?

Randy Testa, associate director, preK–16 programs, Professional Education: I recently came across a poster that read, “In a society, it is the storytellers who have all the power.” If this true, then cross-media tactics can help students tell, retell, and create their own stories as a means of access to that power called “education.” Exploring what happens when a story moves from one media platform to another (thus, “cross-media”) affords educators the opportunity to promote deep comprehension and perspective-taking.

One way to guide a discussion is to think through the three E’s with students: education, ethics, and [a]esthetics (or entertainment).

  • Education: What is the overall merit of the use of story in school? How is it building comprehension and vocabulary?
  • Ethics: How can the story help students in their perspective-taking and examination of moral dilemmas?
  • [A]esthetics: What do students find to be the most compelling elements of the story? How can we analyze the artistic forms that a story takes in order to understand how those forms communicate meaning? How do we understand scenes differently through a book and through a film?
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Black Panther not only provides marginalized communities the chance to see people who look like them in a fantastic, bright, and energized comic universe — it also challenges notions of the value and possibility of non-white-, non-male-focused storytelling.

Pamela Mason, senior lecturer, director of the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab: Teachers can leverage the film and text version of Black Panther, or any cross-media work, to demonstrate to students that they can use their lived experiences to connect with storylines and contribute insights to a class discussion or written analysis. Accessible stories can help students develop the tools to engage with typical classroom texts, or so-called “canon” texts. Students are analyzing complex storylines, character development, and metaphors in their viewing of movies and in their reading of graphic novels.

Teachers often urge their students to “make movies in their minds” in order to support their comprehension of the words on the pages. Whereas books try to create pictures and emotions only through the use of the written word, movies and graphic novels provide these visual images for the reader/viewer, allowing them to focus on the dialogue. Movies and graphic novels are especially supportive to English learners, who can increase their comprehension and use of language through the visual representation, as oral vocabulary acquisition precedes and supports reading and writing vocabularies.

Sellars: There is a positive cycle in literacy education that begins with reading motivation. Tapping into students' interests and identities through stories such as Black Panther can encourage willingness to further engage with reading.

What educational topics emerge from Black Panther?

Domonic Rollins, senior diversity and inclusion officer: Some educators lament that it is hard to teach about racial inequity and inequality, since slavery, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights era seem like a distant memory to many young people. Black Panther creates the perfect entry point into lessons on racial discrimination, as these ideas are explicit throughout the film. Educators can draw out the actual themes from the movie and make the connections to our history. This is especially necessary for white students, for whom teaching about this history of racial inequality is more difficult at times because racial inequality is not interwoven into their lived experience.

Janine de Novais, lecturer on education: Black Panther, at heart, is a story about what would have happened if Africa (symbolized by “Wakanda”) had been allowed to retain its resources and develop on its own terms, free of slavery and colonialism. To me, the best way educators can use this powerful political fairy tale is to engage their students to think about how slavery, colonialism, and capitalism connect; how resources were taken from peoples, include Native Americans, and funneled to sustain industrialized economies. Students can consider the responsibility that wealthy nations have toward impoverished and disrupted nations and, specifically, toward migrants and refugees from those nations.

In Black Panther, there is a fictional super-metal called vibranium that supports the amazing technological prowess of Wakanda, and everyone wants to get it. Well, while vibranium is fake, tantalum, which is used in smartphones, is real. The horrific conditions around its extraction in Africa, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are a huge contemporary problem. The same can be said of all kinds of resources in Africa that have been continuously extracted through exploitative arrangements that, combined with disastrous geopolitics, support comfortable lifestyles in the industrialized nations and poverty and struggle in the developing world.

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Educators can use this powerful political fairy tale is to engage their students to think about how slavery, colonialism, and capitalism connect. Students can consider the responsibility that wealthy nations have toward impoverished and disrupted nations — and toward migrants and refugees from those nations.

Rollins: Educators can contextualize and compare this movie-going experience to others that students have. A question like, “What was it like to see a black girl in the role of a technical genius?” will aid educators in understanding the meaning and significance that their students are making of the movie, particularly regarding gender. Similarly, a question could be raised about the black women warriors. Entering this line of questioning for students can create an opening to teach about a number of black women who have contributed greatly to society and who often go unmentioned in our schools.

De Novais: Students should have discussions about the processes that make it so rare for them to see an all-black cast in film or television, or even a majority of people of color as protagonists. They should be invited to notice that if they do see people of color, the film is often about a historic atrocity like slavery or another struggle — it’s often “about racism.” While the age of students will determine the tenor of this discussion, I think it’s fairly easy to have even very young people reflect on how often they or do not feel represented in stories.

Teachers can also use students’ enthusiasm for the fictional Wakanda to support deeper study and appreciation of the real grandeur, complexity and depth of African and African diasporic cultures. The African diaspora is a collection of cultures that has and continues to offer the world so much that most students do not study enough.

Ultimately the film provides an opportunity to teach or remind students that origin stories from places “far, far away” are to be celebrated, multiculturalism and multilingualism are to be celebrated, and superheroes — and communities — don’t need to look alike in order to get along.

What should teachers keep in mind? Notes of caution when using Black Panther in the classroom

Mason: Students, especially those in middle and high school, might resist teachers’ attempts to “teach” texts steeped in popular culture, especially across the boundaries of race, class, language background, and privilege. However, teachers can acknowledge conversations about graphic novels and movies in the learning spaces to demonstrate the complex analytical reasoning that their students are voicing.

The students are demonstrating their social capital, which can then be turned into cultural capital. Teachers can privilege their students’ strengths in these areas and help them apply these analytical skills to the texts required in the curriculum and represented on high-stakes assessments. For example, teachers can make visible the connections that movies and graphic novels make to story structure and character development.

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Ultimately the film provides an opportunity to teach or remind students that origin stories from places “far, far away” are to be celebrated, multiculturalism and multilingualism are to be celebrated, and superheroes — and communities — don’t need to look alike in order to get along.

Testa: Students who have read the Black Panther comic books may dismiss the movie because of ways it differs from the original text, but students’ exploration of the film does not need to be limited to whether or not it is faithful to the original literature. While it is interesting to consider the differences and create alternate scenarios, these do not need to boil down the value of either form of media to better and worse.

Teachers can instead focus the discussion on:

  • How does the story transform as it moves between the comic book and the big screen?
  • What new elements are there to explore, debate, and consider?
  • How does this story help you to envision a better world?
  • If you were to re-write a scene from the movie, what would it be? Why?
  • Are there new characters that you would introduce?

Rollins: There will be disagreement, confusion, and differences of opinion regarding Black Panther. Educators must create room for the possibility that many black students didn’t like or agree with the movie for a variety of reasons. As exciting as it can be to finally feel like there is a superhero, plot, and cast of characters that you can relate to as a black kid, it can also be confusing, given your primary socializing experiences and exposure to the media. Some black kids may only have negative representations of black characters or people available to them from their lived experience. Black Panther could create dissonance. I think it can be valuable to use Black Panther for education, but it is also necessary to be mindful of where students actually are, as they demonstrate that to you, regarding their own take on the film and its impact.

Don’t essentialize Black Panther, but instead, view it as both a complex representation of Black people in film and as one contribution to broadening the film industry. In Hollywood, this movie will have a positive impact, but it won’t change anything overnight. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get representation, depiction, and diversity right in the film and media industry. I think Black Panther creates an opening for educators to deeply consider what other films can be used to teach, enabling educators to meet students where they are, as students consume and take in popular culture.

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Teaching Black Panther? Some Helpful Ideas
  • Use Black Panther to talk about racial inequity, inequality, and discrimination. Use it to think about how slavery, colonialism, and capitalism connect. 
  • Use students’ enthusiasm for the fictional Wakanda to support deeper study and appreciation of African culture and diaspora cultures.
  • Ask, “What was it like to see a black girl in the role of a technical genius?” to open a conversation about gender or representation in STEM fields. 
  • Talk about why it’s rare to see a cast of majority black actors, and compare this film with others that tell stories of black people.  
  • Some students who have read the comics may not like the way the movie differs. Use that as a chance to talk about the cross-media representations of a story. What changes? What is lost?
  • Some students may not like or agree with the movie. Be mindful and accepting of where students are, and don’t essentialize Black Panther

About the Author

Lucia Berliner
Lucia Berliner is a current master's student in the Human Development and Psychology Program at HGSE.
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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Language and Literacy