Will Black Panther: Wakanda Forever help diversify science? – USC News | Episode Movies

The heroes in the blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are young, black, scientists. (Photo/Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Professor Stacey D. Finley of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering is delighted with the instant box office success of Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverin which two brilliant black women scientists take center stage and find innovative solutions to the problems they encounter.

“To see someone on the big screen in this big, mainstream film that reflects who I am is very powerful,” said Finley, holder of the Nichole A. and Thuan Q. Pham Professorship and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Quantitative and Computational Biology.

“For little black girls and black kids in general I think it can be very impactful and inspiring and change their perspective on what’s possible for them.”

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, the film is the 2018 sequel Black Panther, in which Chadwick Boseman played the title role. Directed by USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole.

Boseman died of colon cancer in 2020 and his role as T’Challa/Black Panther was not recast. Instead, T’Challa’s scientific sister – Shuri (Letitia Wright), who designs new technologies for the mythical land – plays a more prominent role in the sequel.

Also pivotal to the plot is an MIT student named Riri Williams (portrayed by Dominique Thorne), a genius inventor who will return in the Disney+ series heart of steel.

Alexia Mckenzie holds engineering book

Alexia Mckenzie owns a copy of a book created by USC’s Joint Educational Project that features real-life characters and scientists of color. (Photo/Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast)

“They shatter the stereotypes that scientists are generally nerdy white men who have trouble interacting with other people,” Finley said. “They’re also very powerful and engaging, connecting with the audience and other people in the film. This film is a pioneer in many ways.”

In the sequel, Wakanda comes under pressure to share his vibranium, a fictional metal that can absorb, store, and release large amounts of kinetic energy. The Black Panther wears a suit made from Vibranium, which was only mined in Wakanda.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was released on November 11 and has quickly become one of the biggest box-office hits of the year, with a record November opening of $181 million domestically – the second-biggest debut of the year. The sequel also grossed $150.3 million internationally for a worldwide opening weekend of $331.3 million.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever spread the science

If Clifford V. Johnson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, saw the trailer for Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverhe was deeply moved – almost moved to tears.

“There was just this feeling, ‘Oh, ok. Look, they did it,'” he said. “I think this one is so significant for many cultural reasons. It has big themes that aren’t really explored in other mainstream films. And you can see powerful black voices in the trailer that have perspective and things to say. That’s a great feeling.”

Johnson has worked as a science consultant on many film and television projects, including Marvel’s Avenger: endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok and Agent Carter. His role, and that of other consulting scientists, is to make the imaginary science appear believable in a film or television show.

While he has not personally advised on any of the Black Panther films, he said they achieve his goal of expanding the diversity of scientist characters whenever possible.

While Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (Hulk) are considered two of the brightest minds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Johnson said he’s spoken to many avenger Writers, producers and directors about trying to give other people more scientific roles.

There are people of color who do science at the highest level, so why not bring that to the screen and make it part of the storytelling?

Clifford JohnsonUSC Dornsife

“There are people of color who are doing science at the highest level, so why not put that on screen and make it a part of your storytelling?” he said.

“It just enriches so much of what you can do. It’s easy to argue that if you include things like that, you tell a better story and get more people to buy tickets.”

In 2018 avengers: Infinity War, Captain America requested Shuri to help fight the villain Thanos by using her technology to safely extract the Mind Stone (one of the powerful Infinity Stones) from the character Vision’s head.

“The temptation is, ‘Tony will find out, or Bruce will find out’ — the Science Bros thing,” Johnson said.

“One of the things I kept talking about when I got the chance was that science is collaborative and has discrete disciplines that people specialize in. I thought it would be more realistic and give you an opportunity to showcase other characters.”

Johnson considers the widespread success of the Black Panther franchise to be one of the most significant catalysts for scientific engagement in recent memory.

Logan Lightburn reads book

Fourth grader Logan Lightburn reads a data science book created by USC’s Joint Educational Project. (Photo/Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast)

“It has inspired a huge and diverse audience worldwide to appreciate more how crucial science can be and that all kinds of people can be scientists,” he said.

“They don’t just see superheroes as muscle. They do things on an intellectual level that are on par with everyone else in the film. And it is crucial.”

Be what you can see

Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, director of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational programs for USC’s joint education project, said the nature of representation through Black Panther through media and books is crucial for students of color because “you cannot be what you cannot see”.

“Wakanda itself represents a safe environment for a person of color to thrive in, and the sequel is much more focused on Princess Shuri being a STEM role model for young women,” said Kast, whose program provides opportunities for USC students to teach underserved children to communities near the university.

“She is this amazing black woman and the foremost innovator. Black students, especially women of color, need to see strong role models to feel inspired, motivated and to succeed in STEM subjects.”

JEP recently launched a series of 10 STEM career books featuring animated color characters and real scientists, including Finley, who wrote the data science book and attended a reading in October.

“It explains this type of STEM career in a way that elementary school kids can understand,” Finley said. “You can see a scientist who looks like you.”


Free digital copies of the books (in English and Spanish) are available online, as are lesson plans for each book and the corresponding interview videos with researchers.

More stories about: Kino, Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Race and Ethnicity, Research

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