Home / Politics / 'Black Panther' touches on black identity and the fantasy of a people unburdened

'Black Panther' touches on black identity and the fantasy of a people unburdened

Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the first appearance of Black Panther was in Fantastic Four Vol. 1 # 52, July 1966

From Carvell Wallace in The New York Times:

Marvel Comics’s Black Panther was originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish New Yorkers, as a bid to offer black readers a character to identify with … This is the subject of Ryan Coogler’s third feature film — after “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” (2015) — and when glimpses of the work first appeared last June, the response was frenzied. The trailer teaser — not even the full trailer — racked up 89 million views in 24 hours. On Jan. 10, 2018, after tickets were made available for presale, Fandango’s managing editor, Erik Davis, tweeted that the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding. Twitter reported that “Black Panther” was one of the most tweeted-about films of 2017, despite not even opening that year. There were plans for viewing parties, a fund-raiser to arrange a private screening for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and #WelcomeToWakanda.

The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. “Black Panther” cannot help being part of this. “Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says the director Ava DuVernay, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” She and Coogler have spent the past few months working across the hall from each other in the same editing facility, with him tending to “Black Panther” and her to her much-anticipated film of Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” At the heart of Wakanda, she suggests, lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?” she asked me. “And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?

As depicted in Captain America: Civil War, the basic backstory of Black Panther mostly follows its comic origins. T’Challa is the son of the African King of Wakanda, who is thrust into the position of leader and Black Panther after his father’s murder. Wakanda has a strong isolationist policy, which has hid the depths of its advancement from the rest of the world, leaving a white character to believe it’s “a third world country—textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” 

T’Challa now has to lead his country as new threats arise, the world begins to understand what Wakanda really is, and the larger Marvel “Infinity War” story begins to envelop his Kingdom. Producers of the film have described it as “James Bond meets The Godfather,” and the film does hop from Wakanda to South Korea (where a nighttime car chase is one of the movie’s big action pieces), while definitely dealing with the machinations of power as Killmonger schemes for the throne and outsiders attempt to get Wakanda’s most precious resource. And Jordan’s Killmonger is complicated. His plans may cause the slaughter of billions, but Killmonger’s motivation is grounded in something where one understands why the character chose this path. 

What makes the film a little different than the usual Marvel movie is how it builds world by creating a fictional nation that has remnants of the cultures we know and an afro-futurism with hovering crafts and skyscrapers. Director Ryan Coogler has stated he wanted to explore: what does it mean to be African and by extension African-American? If we could somehow strip away all the consequences and aftermaths of colonialism and the biases built up by centuries of stereotypes of Africa, what would the resulting image be? There’s tribalism and ideas about ancestral lineage of kingdoms which take place next to warriors decked out in futuristic armor that might put Tony Stark’s best work to shame. It’s an advanced ancient acropolis with feuding family tribes and energy weapons. 

Danai Gurira (probably best known for her role as Michonne in ‘The Walking Dead’) as General Okoye, head of the Dora Milaje and Wakanda‘s armed forces and intelligence service
  • A Trump-ian fever dream?: As alluded to above, conservative groups reportedly were attempting to artificially manipulate the film’s Rotten Tomatoes’ score. However, others on the right are trying a different approach, arguing the nature of Wakanda actually embodies core elements of Trump’s proposals. Wakanda is a nation which has been walled off from the world and embodies aspects that accentuate Wakanda for Wakandans.

From Ellie Bufkin at The Federalist:

Wanting their true identity to remain secret, Wakandans spent generations stitching themselves in, concealing their substantial economic and technological advancements. They are behind a wall, unseen and inaccessible. Wakandans don’t live abroad, and foreigners are not granted access to their country. Decisions made and actions taken in Wakanda are for the achievements and advancements of their countrymen, not the rest of the world.

This country is ethnically homogenous—the only people in Wakanda are Wakandans. There are a few different cults, and a few different dialects, but they all speak the same language. If you forget that Wakanda is supposed to be in East Africa, it starts to sound an awful lot like a Trumpian fantasy land. Here is an example, albeit fictional, where a walled-in nation is thriving, self-reliant, and completely unaccommodating of outsiders.

  • Kendrick Lamar provides the soundtrack: Lamar, who’s coming off the critical success of Damn, provides a 14 track mixtape in support of the movie, which in itself is getting rave reviews, featuring SZA, Schoolboy Q, and others. 
  • The Lost City of Gold: It’s revealed the myth of El Dorado in the MCU actually referred to Wakanda. Instead of a city of gold, the myth originated to describe Wakanda’s vibranium mound.
  • A relationship that could have been: In the more recent runs of the Black Panther featuring the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey, the Dora Milaje characters of Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Gurira) are lovers. However, a scene showing flirtation between the two was cut from the movie, leading to some criticism of Marvel Studios for missing an opportunity for LBGTQ representation in the MCU.
  • Speaking of Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates, probably best known for his political and social commentary, wrote for Black Panther back in 2016 with his A Nation Under Our Feet. The work examined unrest within Wakanda and questioned whether the monarchy system within the country and T’Challa’s role in perpetuating it was actually the best for his people.

“Black people have not really had avatars out there like that they can identify with, and Panther is the biggest one right now,” Coates said. “I think what Ryan is going to do in terms of how this is going to look is going to blow people away … It feels like thematically a natural tie.”

“We saw the first Avengers movie together and had wondered if we’d ever get to a be in a movie like that — such a big budget, crazy vehicle with special effects and tons of funny, cool people that you admire,” Duke recalls. “And we were just like ‘Yeah, I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.’ And then for this to be my first movie, her first Marvel film, we were like ‘Can you believe that happened? Do you remember Avengers in New Haven, Connecticut?’”

Originally thinking he was passed over for the part he auditioned for — the Wakandan villain M’Baku — Duke told People Magazine it was quite the emotional experience finding out he got the role. “My agents love pranking me,” Duke recalled. “So they called and were like, ‘You really need to sit down for this. We’ve got some bad news.’”

No bad news was to be had, however. Duke was told he got the part and he’d be a member of one of the most impressive casts Marvel Studios has ever put together. “I went quiet, just dead quiet on the phone,” he said. “And I started sobbing because it meant so much.”

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