We're living in a superhero boom, where comic book heroes are no longer considered part of a niche sector of pop culture but rather a mainstream attraction. Recent years have seen a huge rise in the quantity of these larger-than-life stories, which is slowly leading to increased representation of marginalized communities on-screen as Hollywood works toward becoming more inclusive.
Charismatic heroes like Black Panther's regal king T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain America's ultra-charming Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) are lighting up the big screen, while TV today is teeming with small-screen crusaders such as Titans' luminous heroine Starfire (Anna Diop) and DC's Legends of Tomorrow's quirky antihero Charlie (Maisie Richardson-Sellers).
In celebration of Black History Month, some of those elite black superheroes — including Mike Colter (Marvel's Luke Cage), Don Cheadle (MCU), David Ramsey (Arrow), Ja'Siah Young (Raising Dion), China Anne McClain (Black Lightning), Joivan Wade (Doom Patrol), and Wayne Brady (Black Lightning) — are reflecting on their iconic roles and the influence their characters have had.
When Marvel's Luke Cage arrived on Netflix in 2016, becoming the first Marvel series to feature a black superhero lead, the titular bulletproof character (Colter) offered an unapologetically black and wholly attainable ideal of what it means to be a superhero, changing the game for the way black heroes could be portrayed on-screen. "It was an opportunity to reinvent the idea of the superhero...because we were starting a reboot of everything," Mike Colter told TV Guide. "There was...a gap between the superheroes that I grew up watching and then the ones that we presented on the Netflix package. Just more human, more approachable, someone people could relate to, someone that people could see walking down the street, and I think that's what fans responded to. I think it set a standard of a different type of superhero, and hopefully one that's inspiring to young men, that adds a little bit of credibility and dignity."
And it's not just black superheroes who are finally getting the spotlight. Wayne Brady, who portrays the menacing villain Tyson "Gravedigger" Sykes in Black Lightning, explained why it's also essential to showcase the nefarious characters who aren't inherently good. "I think it's important to have both black superheroes and black supervillains because we need to normalize the fact that we exist on both ends of the spectrum," Brady said. "I think it's a disservice to just have black heroes because then, we're trying to set up this unrealistic paradigm of black people or black heroes appear godlike or super positive. That's not real life."
Meanwhile, David Ramsey spoke on the significance of having characters in the genre who are specifically written as black. "Someone asked me back in [Arrow] Season 2, 'Does it make a difference that John Diggle isn't just a black superhero but he was written as black superhero?' And I said, 'You're damn right,'" Ramsay recalled. "This guy was at all times, in all ways, a black superhero. And I think that's important for the culture of our business and it's important to our culture in this country, really, because it's been a long time coming."
Check out the video below to see more stars' thoughts on how far black superheroes have come and the important role their characters have played in their own lives, in pop culture, and in the culture at large.
For Black History Month, TV Guide is celebrating black superheroes in TV and film. As part of The Rise of Black Superheroes, we're honoring the legacies of pioneers like Luke Cage, War Machine, and actress Eartha Kitt; examining how blackness shapes the identities of characters like Iris West, Black Lightning, and John Diggle; exploring what today's black heroes mean to kids of color; and celebrating the greatest black superheroes of all time. You can check out more content from The Rise of Black Superheroes here.