If you’ve been following the release of “Black Panther” on social media, you’ve noticed the amazing response at theaters: long lines of ecstatic people ready to see diverse characters, and the expression of that excitement through fashion. Just check the hashtag #WakandaCameToSlay. And since the trailer for the movie was released last year, people have been commenting on another aspect: the wonderful costumes, and the equally wonderful opportunity for cosplay.
Cosplay, or costume role-play, is the act of dressing as a character from some sort of media, often movies, TV shows, video games, or books. The costumes, makeup, hair, accessories, and other components are often hand-crafted, meticulous works of art paying homage to people’s favorite characters.
Black cosplayers have found a home within the community, but it’s not always easy. Others (both within the community and outside of it) sometimes expect that Black people will only want to (or should only) cosplay as Black characters. This is incredibly limiting, considering there just aren’t as many lead characters who are Black (and for sci-fi or superhero fans, not many large-scale superhero movies featuring Black characters to draw from). Black cosplayers, of course, still continue to rock costumes worn by all kinds of characters – but if you’re familiar with what happens in the anonymity of the internet, you can guess what happens. People are shitty!
Chaka Cumberbatch, a Black cosplayer, described the reaction she received online when she cosplayed as Sailor Venus (a character from the Sailor Moon series) in her article “I’m a Black Female Cosplayer And Some People Hate It,” which you should read in full.
“For a black cosplayer (not to be racist) she did an amazing job!”
She goes on: “What kills me is that in person, nobody has the balls to say a word about whether or not they think darker-skinned people should cosplay lighter skinned characters — but online is a completely different animal. Online, I was “Ni**er Venus,” [asterisks ours] and “Sailor Venus Williams” because I am black.
“My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a ‘face like a gorilla’ and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.”
Several Black cosplayers further explore the issues in this podcast, including people’s assumptions that they are “playing a Black version” of the character (instead of just the character) or having to explain to white cosplayers why wearing blackface when going as a Black character is unacceptable.
Fortunately, Chaka is also a badass who started #28DaysOfBlackCosplay, which celebrates all of the awesome Black cosplayers out there. Each day has a different theme (such as power, technique, love, resilience, or skill), and cosplayers of color all over share their costumes. You can find everything from Linda Belcher of Bob’s Burgers and Rey of Star Wars to Xena and Supergirl. There’s Wonder Woman and Hawk Girl, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. There’s Green Lantern and Hellboy, Elsa from Frozen and Batman. It’s inspiring. It’s wonderful. It’s really talented cosplay. You can find more examples at Cosplay of Color on Instagram, too.
Being able to see yourself in art and the wider world is essential. Muuka makes the point with a sad story in the article “The importance of black cosplay.” She writes about watching Thundercats with her young daughter, who loved it. When Muuka asked if she wanted to cosplay as She-Ra, her daughter responded: “But I have brown skin.” Muuka goes on: “When we go to comic con, of course the majority of people she sees are white, cosplaying white characters in her mind, so how can she conceive of anything else?”
Which brings us back to Wakanda. Black cosplayers can (and should, and do) play all sorts of characters. But they should also have more options to cosplay as Black characters if they choose.
Charles Pulliam-Moore sums it up in “Black Panther’s Costumes Are a Godsend to Black Cosplayers:” “When we talk about the importance of being able to see ourselves represented on screen, part of what we’re getting at is how the images that we see affect our ability to imagine ourselves in fantastical situations—a fundamental part of being able to enjoy comic books and the movies based on them. It’s obvious from the deafening buzz of excitement emanating from the internet that people are pumped as hell to see Black Panther. A lot of that has to do with the fact that for the first time in a long time, folks are going to be able to see people like themselves front and center stage saving the day.”