February 22, 2018 | Arts and Culture
utopian visions of blackness
black panther reimagines realities of race and power
(Pazia) When I bought the tickets to see Black Panther with my close friend, sister, niece, and nephew, I knew I was about to witness history. After the movie, we all shared our thoughts. My niece described many scenes as “powerful” and “spiritual,” and it was clear we all agreed. With all of us identifying as Afro-Latinx, we felt personally touched by the film’s recognition of Black Power.
The movie has been ranked as the largest opening for an African-American director, the largest Presidents Day opening, the largest three-day opening for February, and the largest Monday in box-office history. Its economic success is inevitably tied to its groundbreaking move toward dispelling racial stereotypes, increasing POC and female representation in Hollywood, and above all, changing the institutionalized idea that light is good and dark is evil.
But the social justice championed by Black Panther is not apparent in its original inception. The first superhero of African descent, the comic book character Black Panther originally appeared in the 1966 Fantastic Four No. 52 by Marvel creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In the same year, the United States witnessed the rise of the Black Panther Party, though Lee has said that the two names were unrelated. But what started as a mere coincidence now has become a compelling connection; the 2018 film’s main objective largely aligns with that of the revolutionary party: to imagine a Black utopia.
The film envisions an alternate reality through Wakanda, an uncolonized African country that appears underdeveloped to the rest of the world, but is actually extremely wealthy and technologically advanced as a result of vibranium, a locally found precious metal. Its society is predicated both on cutting-edge modernity and deep tradition.
One of the film’s early scenes involves a ceremony in which the Wakandan kingdom and its five tribes crown T’Challa, the son of the recently deceased king, as the next ruler of Wakanda, or the so-called Black Panther. What follows is a complicated series of events that pose a threat to the new king and to Wakanda, intertwining the country’s dark past with its uncertain future. References to contemporary popular culture appear throughout, especially ones that have origins in social media networks—“What are those?!” says Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister—a reference to a 2015 meme popularized by Black Vine, Twitter, and Instagram communities.
Black Panther’s temporal paradoxes represent a reckoning of Africans’ and African-Americans’ troubled present reality––one marked by racism, violence, and division––posing the possibility for change, specifically through the vehicle of Pan-Africanism, an ideology born from the Black Power Movement that envisions global unity for all people of African descent.
The African-American character of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) touches on the disparity between being African and being of the African diaspora. Although Killmonger did not choose to leave Wakanda, the Wakandan people still see him as an outsider, just as some people of the diaspora feel like outsiders in African countries although their ancestors were forced to leave the continent. “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships,” Killmonger says to T’Challa. “…cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
Aside from being one of the only mainstream films to feature a Black superhero and an almost entirely Black cast, Black Panther also makes a strong aesthetic statement; it is one of the only movies to feature a “good guy” whose costume is black. U.S. history (colonization, slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison-industrial complex) and current media and Hollywood contribute to the problematic notion that white equals good and black, evil. In the past, putting skin color aside, “good” characters appeared light and “bad” characters dark. A recent example of this can be seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the only movie in history that had a more successful four-day opening than Black Panther. Although the actors who play Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are both white, protagonist Rey wears all white and beige while antagonist Ren wears all black, even covering his face in a black helmet.
Also groundbreaking is the movie’s emphasis on Black-made technology, which demonstrates the prominence of African and Black intelligence and challenges the stereotypes of “primitivity” and “genetic inferiority” often used to describe folks of African descent. “Guns…so primitive!” scoffs General Okoye (Danai Gurira), the fiercest warrior in Wakanda, in one battle scene at the supposedly technologically advanced weapons of her white male enemies. She then attacks them with her vibranium-powered spear.
When the media does show Black as powerful, too often it is attributed to some “magic” that Black people are born with or possess inherently, while white protagonists have only their own merits to help them achieve a similar level of power. This further fetishizes Blackness, differentiates it from whiteness, and delegitimizes Black power and intelligence, especially since this magic is often depicted as evil (e.g. voodoo). Black Panther pushes away from this trope of the “Magical Negro,” a term coined by actor and director Spike Lee in 2001. Wakanda is a powerful and “advanced civilization” because of technological advancements, not special powers. When Shuri heals a wound on CIA Agent Ross (Martin Freeman), he remarks that the speed of his recovery could only be attributed to something like magic. “Not magic,” Shuri responds. “Science.”
Wakanda also challenges representations of women as physically weak and unintelligent; General Okoye is ranked as the strongest warrior in Wakanda and Shuri as one of the country’s most intelligent. However, it should be considered that non-Wakandan female characters in the movie, such as Killmonger’s girlfriend, are used as plot devices and easily killed off whenever a man so pleases. Moreover, Wakanda is still a heteronormative, patriarchal society in which only men are ever considered for the throne. With little regard to the reality of intersectionality, the film largely discards queer narratives and its feminist narratives could be seen as secondary to those of race.
The film’s conclusion offers a start to the reconciliation of various conflicting themes. T’Challa, with Killmonger and his wish to aid African Americans in mind, creates a community center in the heart of the Black community of Oakland. He states, “Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this Earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
As two people of color, one of us Black-identifying, we felt personally empowered by Black Panther, in that it offers solace, an alternate reality to the contemporary American experience blemished by expressions of white supremacy and hatred. As Black Panther shows, the world we live in is by no means post-racial. And although we still have a long way to go––both as communities of color and our representations on screen––this film represents progress by paving the way toward a better future.