The excitement that Marvel’s Black Panther has touched off in masses of Black people is undeniable.
It was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, sparking conversation around Black representation in blockbuster films — particularly the lucrative comic book movie – and the importance of having Black creatives behind the camera as well as in front of it. With a Black director, writer, costumier, hairstylist, etc. and a budget of $200 million (higher than Thor: Ragnarok, for comparison), in many ways, this movie was a first of its kind. The budget and production value of this film has never been seen before, and it appeared that Marvel, now owned by Disney, was clearly addressing criticisms of diversity by throwing their full weight behind the project. Main cast members Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and newcomer Letitia Wright led a marketing campaign that placed them front and center on magazines and billboards — occasionally dressed as actual Black Panthers and even as Jesus (side note: who else remembers when Kanye West covered Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns and the world lost its shit?).
Online users made plans to coordinate outfits and hairstyles for opening night. Images of youth dressed as the characters went viral. Black women in particular rejoiced at having darker skinned women leads, as racism often leads to the equation of lighter skin with beauty. Wright’s character, Shuri, the younger sister of T’Challa, is a prime example of the type of representation that just doesn’t come along often enough: in the same vein as Lunella Lafayette, currently the smartest character in the Marvel comics, she is a witty teenage genius and in charge of all the technological advancements of Wakanda. (Women in STEM everywhere certainly rejoiced whenever she or her fantastic inventions were onscreen!)
And perhaps, most importantly, this film also features a contemporary depiction of African royalty as well as Africa as a superpower, something we haven’t seen on a mainstream stage since Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America in 1988. It’s a depiction that seems all the more relevant given Trump’s “shithole countries” comments. In a brilliant switch, director Ryan Coogler also makes Wakanda the advanced country that has to question what type of aid it should provide to other nations. Is there a moral obligation there?
While Black Panther certainly isn’t the first Black superhero movie, it’s been awhile: the last Blade movie was out in 2004; Up, Up, and Away, about a family of Black superheroes directed by Robert Townsend, was released in 2000. Meteor Man, another Black superhero film written and directed by Townsend, came out in 1993; Blankman, written by and starring Damon Wayans as a Kick Ass-esque super genius who decides to fight back in his crime-riddled urban neighborhood, came out in 1994; Spawn, starring Michael Jai White, was out in 1997. Budget comparisons are laughable: the aforementioned films had a $65 million, $30 million, $7 million, and $40 million budgets, respectively.
Many previous Black superhero films also skewed dark (Spawn was rated R) or overly comedic to the point of parody. Rated PG-13 with solid, tightly paced writing, a fairly serious plot that still manages not to sacrifice it’s great sense of humor, and action sequences/visuals that are out of this world, Black Panther is certainly intended to be a film that the entire family can enjoy. The critical acclaim and record-breaking box office numbers show that the proof is in the pudding as far as the box office draw of a predominantly Black cast in a mainstream, big budget superhero flick. This also matters in the wake of sleeper hits like 2016’s Hidden Figures, and last years Girl’s Trip and Get Out. People are watching these movies, and in a capitalist society the money generated determines seeing more of these types of films being made in the future. Diversity and representation pays.
But I’m going to say it up front: I had trepidation walking into this film. There was a niggling voice in the back of my head that this wasn’t really for “me” as a Black American, and my expectations were both confirmed and denied. Without spoiling it, a core plot point revolves around the diasporic rift between Black Americans and Continental Africans: writer-director Ryan Coogler sets up Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger as an American foil to Boseman’s Wakandan T’Challa. The situation is tense, and indicative of real life dynamics wherein, on the one hand, Black Americans are seen as ‘lost’ children that should want to go ‘home’ to Africa; meanwhile, on the other hand, we are seen as cultureless and unwelcome outsiders on the continent. What do these implications rest on? How is the rift healed? And what about Black Americans that have no desire to ‘go home’ — rather, we feel that our quite literal building up of the United States of America makes this our home now, for better or for worse. Boseman, an African-American, has been quoted on his desire to ‘reconnect,’ and cultural critics have written extensively on the importance of a fully realized depiction of Africa for Black Americans. For Black Americans with that desire, it is certainly a watershed moment. But what about the rest of us?
There is no denying the cultural significance of this movie. The joy that it is causing is tangible, and undeniable, and I wouldn’t want to begrudge anyone their happiness at finally seeing themselves represented onscreen. However, it’s going to take a lot more than this movie to recognize and repair the relationship between Black Americans and Continental Africans, and the weaponizing of this movie as ammunition to be used against Black Americans as cultureless, antagonists, and outsiders can’t be ignored. Hopefully this serves as a starting point not only for seeing radical Black filmmaking and mainstream representation but also creating real dialogue on mending the bridge within the diaspora.
Featured Image courtesy of Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.