I took my nephews to see “Black Panther” last week. To them, he was simply another superhero.
While I was totally engrossed in the excitement over a film featuring the first black comic book superhero — a king with superhuman powers who rules over a technologically advanced African nation — the racial component went right over the heads of the 6-, 8- and 9-year-olds.
Black Panther was no more or no less impressive than Spider-Man, Ironman or Captain America.
In the minds of these young African-American boys, superheroes are colorless. They are judged solely by the coolness of their costumes, the ferocity of their superpowers and the intensity of the havoc they create while conquering the villain.
To rate five stars, all a superhero needs to do is keep them from falling asleep when the popcorn runs out. The 8- and 9-year-old cousins gave Black Panther a five. He rated only a three from the 6-year-old, who spent most of the two hours on his mom’s telephone watching “Boss Baby.”
In their world, race does not exist, at least not in the way we view it. They might occasionally mention that a friend’s skin is white or brown. But that’s where it ends. There is no particular point behind the comment. It’s merely an observation.
To be immersed in such childlike oblivion is wonderful — for as long as it lasts.
Our afternoon movie outing was to be a cultural experience my nephews would never forget. I bought tickets for an IMAX showing, where the screen is bigger and the sound is louder.
We were well-stocked with popcorn, hot dogs and leftover Valentine’s chocolates, bought at half price from a nearby drugstore.
Afterward, we would have lunch at a nearby restaurant and talk about the movie. I had prepared a list of factoids that were intriguing to me but didn’t stand a chance up against chicken fingers and french fries in the battle for the boys’ attention.
Still, I read them off:
• The Black Panther character was introduced in July 1966. The Black Panther Party was founded in October 1966. (None of the boys bothered to look up from their plates.)
• Black Panther is the first black superhero in “mainstream comics.” (This managed to get their attention for a moment, or so I thought. Turns out, the 8-year-old had pulled out his “Black Panther” poster and noticed that Angela Bassett, who plays the queen in the film, also stars in the television show, “9-1-1.”)
• Black Panther is faster than Wolverine and Captain America. He can run up to 50 mph. (Finally, I had them. So I decided to quit while I was ahead.)
Some might say this would have been a good opportunity to educate these young boys about why a black superhero should stand out from the others. But how could I without also talking about the racism in Hollywood that excludes African-Americans from leading roles because they are not thought to have far-reaching appeal?
I could have taken a moment to explain the significance of my favorite line in the film, when the young King T’Challa sees his dead father’s spirit and kneels at his feet. And the old man says to him, “Stand up, you’re a king.”
But I could not have done so without first telling them that as black men, they will have to learn to hold their heads up high, even as the world tries to tear them down.
I suppose I could have insisted that we talk about the importance of portraying an African nation as a country far more advanced than other nations, of seeing young blacks as scientists and inventors.
But I would also have had to break it to them that African-Americans aren’t always deemed as smart as people of other races, regardless of how accomplished we are.
No doubt, this would have come as a shock to them. Except for one year of their lives, they have lived in a country with an African-American president. They know the name, Barack Obama, and they understand what it means to be president.
At this point in their young lives, the playing field seems equal. A black president and even a black superhero are the norm. What makes me most hopeful, though, is that it also is the norm for white children of their age.
Someday, my nephews’ parents will have to have “the talk” with their sons. Their parents will have to explain that there are special rules for them that don’t apply to their white friends. They will make them understand that they will have to work harder for the same recognition. And that they must always tread carefully wherever they go.
But not now.
For at least a few more years, my nephews will get to judge a superhero by how brightly his suit shines in the dark, not by the color of the skin that’s underneath.