The Black Panther revolution is here
To understand the cultural weight of Marvel's latest superhero saga, look at its place in Hollywood's history of representation
By ANDRAY DOMISE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 17, 2018 Print Edition, Page R1
In October, 2014, Marvel Studios's surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, was wrapping up its theatrical run with more than US$700-million in worldwide box-office receipts. On the heels of that blockbuster summer, a slate of new films was announced for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tucked in with the addition of Captain Marvel and Captain America: Civil War was possibly the most unlikely comic-book-to-film adaptation to make the cut: Black Panther.
To truly understand the impact of that announcement, it's necessary to remember where we were at the time as a culture.
Black community activism (catalyzed in part by the Black Lives Matter movement) was experiencing a renaissance and bringing with it the potential for global transformation.
Along with it, the conversations on "race" began to swell outside of the borders drawn by a mass media whose body politic, mostly white and male, had years ago announced we were living in a postracial period.
The conversation on reparations to black Americans, for white America's centuries of subjugation and plunder, surged once again into popular dialogue with The Atlantic's publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay The Case for Reparations.
The conversation on police profiling, which barely registered mention in nightly news, became a semi-permanent fixture in the news cycle with waves of protest marches that accompanied the killing of unarmed black people.
And then there was the conversation about representation. In mainstream film, even as years of published studies showed a direct correlation between box-office returns and diversity on both sides of the camera, black representation in Hollywood remained abysmal. Outside of biopics and slavery films (as well as the occasional big-budget film starring Will Smith or Samuel L. Jackson), it seemed there was neither a place for black characters that didn't involve subordination to white leads nor for black creatives to be trusted with studio tent poles.
There was, of course, the exception in 1998, when Wesley Snipes cut a gory swath across theatres as Blade. Although Snipes's fierce charisma and martial-arts prowess made an icon of a once-obscure relic from Marvel Comics' 1970s foray into the occult, the Blade franchise ultimately guttered out with 2004's Blade: Trinity. From that point through the announcement of Black Panther, only one superhero film starring a black lead made it to theatres: 2008's Hancock, a deeply flawed film that even Will Smith couldn't save.
All of this is to say, I was deeply skeptical back in 2014, when Black Panther was announced. And I couldn't have been more wrong.
Black Panther is, taken at face value, everything that's been absent from the superhero genre.
An all-too-human hero, capable of ripping the wheels off a moving vehicle with little effort, but struggling with the responsibility of ruling the secretive yet technologically advanced kingdom of Wakanda. A tragic villain who, behind the scars covering his body and psyche, carries motives deeper and more virtuous than simple dominion. And, of course, black women. Beautiful, powerful and self-actualized black women. Dark of skin, kinky of hair, capable of kicking ass in heels, yet fully existing outside the needs and failures of the film's male leads.
Speaking with some of Black Panther's biggest boosters in the social-media spheres, the opinion is unanimous. This is the Star Wars of our generation.
"The fact that it's actually happening now is amazing," says Jamie Broadnax, founder of the BlackGirlNerds blog and podcast.
In the lead-up to the film's release this weekend, the BlackGirlNerds team created the #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe social-media hashtag, which became a globally trending conversation.
Broadnax says that a favourite pastime of hers, along with other black comic-book fans on Twitter, had been to imagine a dream casting for a hypothetical Black Panther film. Attending the film's L.A. premiere in January, Broadnax says, was earth-shattering.
"Seeing this vast array of the African diaspora represented in just this one film is a great place for other studios to follow Marvel's lead," Broadnax says. "I hope that this will create a space for more stories to be told." The diaspora Broadnax refers to is more than the broad array of fully fleshed-out black characters featured in the film. Black Panther's cultural subtext, hidden in the folds of Wakanda's Afrofuturistic aesthetic, is where the film truly flourishes. Through a fictional hidden country, technologically ahead of the rest of the world by light years, director Ryan Coogler manages to subvert and mock just about every Hollywood trope about Africa.
For example, in the film, Chief M'Baku (known in the comics as Man-Ape, a problematic and generally reviled character) threatens to mutilate and eat a white foreigner. After a tense beat, he quips, "Just kidding, we're vegetarians." In that moment, his character exudes a humanity that flings Hollywood's trope of the warlord African in the rubbish bin. Another Wakandan's clothing, a simple patterned cloak often worn by herders and nomads, later transforms into a panel within the impenetrable shield wall of a phalanx in formation. During the most spectacular car chase since The Matrix Reloaded, Wakandan General Okoye (played by The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira) scoffs at the "primitive" guns firing on her vibranium-laced and, therefore, bulletproof vehicle. Moments later, she annihilates a truckload of goons by chucking a spear.
But Black Panther is a film that does more than break away from Hollywood's shallow conception of black culture, black people and Africa itself. Through Coogler's vision, supported by co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story), cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Selma, Marshall) and a diverse production team never before seen on a film of this size, Black Panther expands the popular conception of African cultures with wideeyed wonder.
The aesthetic alone stole the breath from DJ BenHaMeen, cohost of the popular FanBros podcast and organizer for Crown Wakanda, a Black Panther community screening for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn.
"People are buying up more clothing and multiple outfits, just to wear when they see this movie over and over again," BenHaMeen says. "For our event, everyone's coming dressed up in Afrofuturistic clothing. When they actually see people wearing the same clothing in this film, in full pride, that's going to influence young designers to incorporate these fabrics and these designs.
They're going to keep pushing that aesthetic."
"I truly believe that Black Panther is a watershed moment for film," says April Reign, senior director of U.S. arts consulting group Fractured Atlas, and the black woman whose #OscarsSoWhite hashtag spurred the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make fundamental changes in its leadership and nomination processes. "This is a moment when black people, especially African-Americans, are going to be able to celebrate their culture in a way Hollywood hasn't seen before. It shows we are not a monolith."
That message - that black people are as diverse in our cultures, politics and traditions within our communities as the world outside, yet exist within the white imagination as a resource to be mined or a threat to be put down - is one that Black Panther effortlessly communicates with subtext that resonates across the diaspora.
King T'Challa, the film's lead (played by Chadwick Boseman), and would-be usurper Killmonger (played by the ever-incandescent Michael B. Jordan) both wrestle with the historical weight of what it means for a futuristic country like Wakanda to have stood aside for centuries while other African nations fell to the predation of European colonizers and slavers. One of the film's villains, white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), refers to Wakandans as "savages" even as he covets their treasures and weaponizes the technology they created. There are even multiple times when characters in the film deceive each other (and the audience) with "code-switching" - adopting accents, vocal tone and even body posture of the dominant culture to hide the true nature of their own.
There are entire book volumes that could be written about the film's purposeful strides in lighting black skin, showcasing black hair and unapologetically capturing the depth of African languages and traditions. Where black power and authority have been dignified in film through suits, ties and affected Midwestern accents, Ruth E. Carter casts aside these vestiges of Western colonialism, choosing instead to outfit the cast in regal attire influenced by cultures from the Masai of South Sudan to the Zulus of South Africa. In one pivotal scene, King T'Challa addresses the United Nations wearing a natty black suit and, rather than a tie, his outfit is adorned with a decorative sash.
As a black man about to become a father to two black girls, I'm almost envious of my babies. They're going to grow up in a world where films such as Black Panther and Ava DuVernay's forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time have already opened the door to genres of black storytelling that, to date, have largely been absent from the mainstream. This is Black Panther's greatest triumph - if a blockbuster film can turn a hardened cynic like me into a true believer, I can hardly wait to see what a world full of unsung black creatives comes up with next.
Wakanda Forever, indeed.
Andray Domise is a Toronto journalist and communications co-chair of the Black Business and Professionals Association. The BBPA will, with community partners, be hosting more than 300 black youth at a free screening of Black Panther this month.
Marvel's Black Panther follows a hero who is capable of ripping the wheels off a moving vehicle, but struggles with the responsibility of ruling his home country.
Danai Gurira also stars in the film, in which black women are shown as beautiful, powerful and self-actualized - fully existing outside the needs and failures of the male leads.