Heroic Skin: Black Skin as Costume in Black Panther
Costuming within Black Panther (2018), breaks several traditions within superhero costuming tropes. Oscar winning costume designer Ruth Carter ensures, that like other Superheroes before him, the genre expectation of wearing a costume so skin tight it could be described by as being costumed in a second skin is observed. It is the repetition of skin as metaphor and the interpretations of ‘costume [as] the most visible signifier’ (Brownie 2015) of the multiplicity between Superhero, his alter-ego and Bogle’s stereotypes that form the basis of this paper.
The breaking of superhero tropes, the use of the actor’s skin as an articulation of heroic masculinity is opened for debate around the contested terminology and interpretations of black skin as heroic costume. The negative stereotypes of ‘buck’ within Bogles Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Film (2016) is used to explore how King T’Challa and Black Panther negotiate a space for black heroism around the systematic denial and restricted audience access to positive representations of black masculinities. Wakanda’s unique performance space supports the unpacking of post-colonial conversations around the extraordinarily heroic body of Black Panther and his nemesis Killmonger.
The reading of black skin as heroic; underpins this whole interrogation. The juxtaposition of costume, skin, musculature and mise-en-scene and the history of how we read black skin is opened for deliberation. Jablonski states ‘We are united and divided, by our skin colour, perhaps no other feature of the human body has more meaning’ (2012:5) Skin can be used to unite or separate us when framed within post-colonial readings of the black body. Issues around systemic racism that provide a sanctified performance space for white heroic skin but reads black skin negatively is challenged within Black Panther.
Lorraine Henry King is a cultural studies lecturer, widening participation specialist, textiles designer, pattern cutter and PhD candidate at London College of Fashion specialising in the Costuming Black Heroes in Hollywood Action Films.
The practice-based research questions how costume design, textiles and multi-media installations can be used to reframe black skin, audience’s receptions and decolonise readings of shades of brown by creating a new dialogue away from the existing post-colonial framework.
With a background in TV and radio broadcasting and producing Lorraine’s research is a fusion of her passion for film, costume, textiles and the agency of costume.