Wilkine Brutus didn’t look like the other teachers when he taught English in South Korea for four years. In fact, the Haitian-American writer with dreadlocks and tattoos didn’t look like almost anybody in the homogeneous Asian country. As you might expect, he often fielded questions from students that had little to do with the curriculum. Some students were fascinated with his hair. Another wanted to know about black superheroes — specifically, are there any?
The Miami native, who now lives in West Palm Beach, used this opportunity in 2014 to introduce the middle-school students to a then-lesser-known superhero by the name of Black Panther. Brutus dedicated two weeks to the subject, highlighting the importance of cultural representation on film, which was a subject the students could relate to, being that there were few Asian superheroes in Hollywood films. Little did Brutus know that Black Panther would one day become the talk of South Korea.
The feature film based on the groundbreaking Marvel comic spent two weeks in 2017 filming in Busan, the same South Korean port city where Brutus was asked if there were any black superheroes. Star Chadwick Boseman was affectionately nicknamed “Busan Panther” by the local media during the shoot and shared how much he enjoyed the moniker when he and his castmates returned to South Korea to kick off the film’s international press tour.
Anticipating the big-budget superhero flick's opening this Friday, Brutus decided to upload his Black Panther lesson in South Korea to YouTube and Facebook. He asked his students to create their own superheroes and give each an origin story in English. The video has become a hit, with more than 13,000 views on Facebook as of Thursday morning. Brutus believes it has gone viral because of its Black Panther connection and because many people can get behind the message of cultural inclusion.
“The students all drew Asian superheroes. Some drew their Korean role models, only with superhuman bodies,” says Brutus, adding that their renditions are starkly different from the characters they're used to seeing in Hollywood films. “They knew about the weak Asian stereotype in American cinema. It troubled them.”
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Brutus knows all about stereotypes. He often had to convince Koreans that he wasn’t from Africa because he didn’t fit their image of what an American looks like. And then there is South Korea’s “love-hate relationship,” as he puts it, with black culture. Brutus says conservative Koreans are concerned with its influence on youth (sound familiar?) and, like much of East Asia, tend to “prioritize whiteness.” But he believes things have been changing for the better thanks, in part, to YouTube and the popularity of hip-hop and R&B.
The fact that the Black Panther international press tour kicked off in South Korea is also a good sign. There’s long been an idea in Hollywood that black films don’t travel well, but Black Panther — a guaranteed box office hit with a predominantly black cast — could put that theory to rest.
“The seeds have been planted in Korean society,” Brutus says, “and Black Panther should take the mantle even further.”