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‘Black Panther,’ ‘Luke Cage’ and the Rise of Black Superheroes on Screen

When “Luke Cage” exec producer Cheo Hodari Coker declared at his show’s San Diego Comic-Con panel last year, “The world is ready for a bulletproof black man,” the crowd erupted in cheers. So did the internet.

“Right before I said it, I knew what I was feeling,” Coker later told Variety. “I had said variations of it during the day. It was coming from an emotional place, but I didn’t think it was going to reverberate the way that it did. But I’m glad that it did.”

The “Luke Cage” panel came in July on the heels of widespread protests sparked by the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. When the show premiered in September, it became the first live-action series about a black superhero since 1994’s “MANTIS.”

Now it’s getting some company. Next season the CW will premiere “Black Lightning,” based on the DC Comics superhero. And next year Marvel will debut “Black Panther,” the studio’s first feature with a black hero in the lead. Social, political and business trends have converged to put black superheroes at the centers of burgeoning television and film franchises after years of being relegated to supporting status.

Dan Evans, VP of creative affairs at DC Entertainment, cites the emergence of black superheroes on-screen as part of a larger trend in television and film.

“There’s so many examples now, from ‘24’ to ‘The Fast and the Furious’ to ‘Creed,’” says Evans, whose office door features an oversize image of Cyborg, the black teen hero who will play a key role in the upcoming “Justice League” movie. “We’ve seen again and again that if you tell a good story with these characters, people will come.”

In superhero comics, the first appeals to underserved minority audiences came with the debuts of Black Panther (1966), Luke Cage (1972), Black Lightning (1977) and others.

“These black superheroes emerge parallel to the changes in American race relations in the late 1960s with the emergence of the Black Power movement,” says Adilifu Nama, author of “Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes.” The movement’s push for equality and representation rippled through popular culture. “It wouldn’t be very sensible to think that these demands for diversity would only be in the realm of lunch counters and bus transportation.”

Those demands sometimes yielded awkward responses in comics, a field populated in the ’60s and ’70s almost exclusively by white men. Cage’s speech, informed by blaxploitation movies, was chock-full of nonsense expressions such as “Sweet Christmas!” Black Lightning was born after DC scrapped plans for a character named Black Bomber, a racist white man who transformed into a black superhero when stressed out. Black Panther co-creator Jack Kirby wanted to name the character Coal Tiger.

From awkward beginnings, black superheroes became modern and more authentic. MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, is writing “Black Panther” for Marvel Comics.

Now, a decade and a half after Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” black heroes are migrating to the screen.

“I think what we always have to put in context is that we’re just maybe one generation up out of Jim Crow,” says Salim Akil, exec producer of “Black Lightning.” “What you’re beginning to see is the growth of America, and part of that growth has always been and always will be the African-American experience. As we grow as a people, you’re going to see more and more stories about African-Americans.”

He adds, “If there’s any community that needs a superhero, it’s our community.”

Akil points to the box office success of director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” as an example of how an authentic approach to a character can resonate with and beyond an underserved audience. “There’s a difference between when a woman makes a superhero movie about a woman and a man makes a superhero movie about a woman,” he says.

At a time when “Empire” is the highest-rated show on broadcast TV in the 18-49 demo, it is easy to see why studios and networks would aspire to “Wonder Woman”-style success with black superheroes.

“We’re representing the audience now,” Evans says. “When you see the Latino audience is the biggest audience to come out on opening day for a movie, when you see networks launch shows with large black audiences, you see that things have changed. It’s not just white guys watching TV anymore. In order to bring those audiences, you have to give them something that they recognize.”

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