First things first, Black Panther is an excellent movie that every Marvel fan and especially any African/African-American/Black Marvel or comic book fan should experience once or even twice this weekend. Now with that out of the way, after seeing it on Thursday and having some time to reflect on the film and the hype building over the last few months, it is clear to me that it’s significance has far exceeded the usual nerd atmosphere.
With one of the largest single day openings at $81M overseas with largest superhero debut in the U.K. ever and projected to make $213M over the 4 days, an album produced by Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment topping the Billboard charts, Chadwick Boseman as the titular character on a TIME magazine cover, cast members on Essence magazine, fashion of the film inspires at Fashion Week, and more, Black Panther is kind of a big deal. This film depicts an entire cast of complex and dynamic Black characters that break the barriers of stereotypical token representations to provide a glimpse into Africa’s future/present if it had been untouched by colonization. It intersperses at every turn actual African culture in its music, in the language used, in the wardrobe, and in the ritualistic pomp and circumstance.
Not as obvious to the casual superhero filmgoer, Black Panther is not the first Black superhero to grace the silver screen, being preceded by Blankman, Meteorman, Spawn, Hancock, and most notably Blade. I think it is important to discuss that while these are Black characters representing heros or in some cases anti-heroes, none really have inspired the fervor that Black Panther has since the first trailer hit in June. A few reasons may explain this: 1) Black Panther is the first Black superhero in major comics debuting in 1966, giving him a level of longevity the others do not, 2) Black Panther is not a comedy, the way he receives his abilities is encased in an African ritual and ceremony that possesses a weighty quality that being born a vampire, finding a meteor in an alley, dying and going to hell (origins of Blade, Meteorman & Spawn respectively), do not, 3) Black Panther has a story that every Black person can get behind and provides representation in a more positive light and cultural significance than any of the other film preceding it. I’m sure there’s more but these set Black Panther apart from these other films while also maintaining their own historical place. I singled out the importance of Blade as it was Marvel’s first blockbuster film and its star Wesley Snipes can be credited with breathing a new life into franchising of Marvel characters but most folks don’t know that as it sat in a different genre and was not truly considered a superhero movie at the time.
This is a time like no other. When I was a little kid, I loved superheroes. I had comic books, action figures, videogames, and VHS tapes of any and all movies or cartoon tv shows from Richard Donner’s Superman to Pryde of the X-Men to G.I. Joe to Tim Burton’s Batman. I had a lot of excitement for the films because this was something that was widespread, there would be toys in my McDonald’s Happy Meal, there would be t-shirts I could wear, and best of all, I could go to the movies and see the books I read for fun, come to life. I didn’t think of it much in my early childhood but I didn’t have many shining examples of Blackness available in these spaces. Quite honestly, I would not say I wanted to be Spawn or Blade, these heroes were cursed. And the other options, Falcon, War Machine, Cyborg, even Black Lightning, (which I’m coming to like the TV representation a lot) they were pretty lame. I pretended I was other heroes of moral fortitude and power that commanded respect from their colleagues and instilled fear in their enemies but were usually White.
Black Panther was an inspiring and guiding light. An African King with powers in this realm and the next. Imbued with a sense of honor, duty, pride, Black Panther demands the respect of everyone in the Marvel Universe with the intellect, physical strength, and wealth to prove it. I wanted powers and abilities like Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, or Batman but I wanted to, and felt like I could, BE Black Panther. And would my life be at all different if the images on the screen matched my complexion? Would I have chosen a different profession? Would I have enjoyed high school a little more? Would it be different for my younger or my older sister if they could see a hero like Shuri, the technical genius or Okoye, the General? It was not cool to be a nerd, read comics or have spirited discussion about Afrofuturist possibilities of Wakanda but now the tide has changed.
This is the era of the Black Hero on screen.
The time we share now has the potential to change everything for the Black Nerd (or Blerd) as coined by Donald Faison as Turk on the TV show Scrubs, and I personally first heard used by Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. What a time to be alive as a Black Nerd. Characters with not just Black faces but stories that center around the troubling issues of racism, police brutality, cultural responsibility, and many more topics are coming to the fore and these stories being written by faces that match their characters. This spans both Marvel and DC and other publishers as well. Luke Cage is coming upon season 2 soon after a breakthrough debut on Jessica Jones and a solid first season with one of the best on-screen villains for Marvel to date with Cottonmouth. The Flash TV series and future film introduce a Black Iris West as love interest while also giving us a Black Wally West. Black Lightning has caught a lot of attention lately with not only the great performance of Cress Williams as the titular character but his whole cast, and that of the first Black Lesbian hero ever on TV in his daughter Nafessa Williams as Thunder. Our characters can be multifaceted and can reflect an internal diversity that is not often shown. Films starring the likes of Tiffany Haddish in DC’s mob drama, The Kitchen are garnering praise while a Cyborg film and John Stewart appearing in Green Lantern Corps are still in conversation. Even within the comics new books like Boom Studio’s Abbott, 70’s crime thriller, a Black female lead for the Image’s new Kick Ass series which centers on a Black single mother, and the historic return of Milestone Comics heroes Static, Icon, Hardware, and Rocket to DC with Earth M.
The Dialogue continues
The dialogue continued as DC had a panel called DC in DC over MLK weekend to discuss Black Lightning with the entire cast, plus the masterminds behind DC TV and comic book writers and artists like Jim Lee, Geoff Johns, and Julie Benson to name a few, all at the National Museum of American History and National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Even this Monday there will be a panel by Mark Benardin in Los Angeles with authors Latoya Morgan (Into the Badlands), Akela Cooper (Luke Cage), Deric A. Hughes (The Flash), and Evan Narcisse (Rise of Black Panther), you can find tickets here.
This film will not solve the ills of the world for Black folks. It wont resolve systemic oppression and white supremacy but it has the potential to change a generation and inspire them to have different images in their mind when they think of Black people or Africa and for Black children themselves imagine new possibilities with new types of role models. The film may inspire the next engineers, the next medical doctors, the next community leaders or next comic writers and producers to make more films like these. Particularly now with Black Panther, celebrities, and your average Joe across the nation are either sponsoring private or public screenings of the film or planning to go in droves so that more and more people get to see it, together. Let’s dispose of all the appropriation talk, the chastising of American Black folks for latching on to African culture now but not taking the time to learn about real African culture. This can be a start, an introduction to research the making of the film and get to the root of the various real African cultures that birthed everything in the movie, from Ghana to Nigeria to South Africa across many ethnic and cultural traditions across the continent. Watch the movie, be inspired and keep an eye out for more Black Excellence to come.