Power of Black Panther
Marvel’s new movie marks a major milestone
By JAMIL SMITH
The first movie I remember seeing in a theater had a black hero. Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, didn’t have any superpowers, but he ran his own city. That movie, the 1980 Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, introduced Calrissian as a complicated human being who still did the right thing. That’s one reason I grew up knowing I could be the same.
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If you are reading this and you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often. Every day, the culture reflects not only you but nearly infinite versions of you—executives, poets, garbage collectors, soldiers, nurses and so on. The world shows you that your possibilities are boundless. Now, after a brief respite, you again have a President.
Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted. Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it.
This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant. What seems like just another entry in an endless parade of superhero movies is actually something much bigger. It hasn’t even hit theaters yet and its cultural footprint is already enormous. It’s a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world. Rather than dodge complicated themes about race and identity, the film grapples head-on with the issues affecting modern-day black life. It is also incredibly entertaining, filled with timely comedy, sharply choreographed action and gorgeously lit people of all colors. “You have superhero films that are gritty dramas or action comedies,” director Ryan Coogler tells TIME. But this movie, he says, tackles another important genre: “Superhero films that deal with issues of being of African descent.”
Black Panther is the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that has made $13.5 billion at the global box office over the past 10 years. (Marvel is owned by Disney.) It may be the first megabudget movie—not just about superheroes, but about anyone—to have an African-American director and a predominantly black cast. Hollywood has never produced a blockbuster this splendidly black.
The movie, out Feb. 16, comes as the entertainment industry is wrestling with its toxic treatment of women and persons of color. This rapidly expanding reckoning—one that reflects the importance of representation in our culture—is long overdue. Black Panther is poised to prove to Hollywood that African-American narratives have the power to generate profits from all audiences. And, more important, that making movies about black lives is part of showing that they matter.
The invitation to the Black Panther premiere read “Royal attire requested.” Yet no one showed up to the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on Jan. 29 looking like an extra from a British costume drama. On display instead were crowns of a different sort—ascending head wraps made of various African fabrics. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o wore her natural hair tightly wrapped above a resplendent bejeweled purple gown. Men, including star Chadwick Boseman and Coogler, wore Afrocentric patterns and clothing, dashikis and boubous. Co-star Daniel Kaluuya, an Oscar nominee for his star turn in Get Out, arrived wearing a kanzu, the formal tunic of his Ugandan ancestry.
After the Obama era, perhaps none of this should feel groundbreaking. But it does. In the midst of a regressive cultural and political moment fueled in part by the white-nativist movement, the very existence of Black Panther feels like resistance. Its themes challenge institutional bias, its characters take unsubtle digs at oppressors, and its narrative includes prismatic perspectives on black life and tradition. The fact that Black Panther is excellent only helps.
Back when the film was announced, in 2014, nobody knew that it would be released into the fraught climate of President Trump’s America—where a thriving black future seems more difficult to see. Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville chaos last summer equated those protesting racism with violent neo-Nazis defending a statue honoring a Confederate general. Immigrants from Mexico, Central America and predominantly Muslim countries are some of the President’s most frequent scapegoats. So what does it mean to see this film, a vision of unmitigated black excellence, in a moment when the Commander in Chief reportedly, in a recent meeting, dismissed the 54 nations of Africa as “sh-thole countries”?
As is typical of the climate we’re in, Black Panther is already running into its share of trolls—including a Facebook group that sought, unsuccessfully, to flood the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with negative ratings of the film. That Black Panther signifies a threat to some is unsurprising. A fictional African King with the technological war power to destroy you—or, worse, the wealth to buy your land—may not please someone who just wants to consume the latest Marvel chapter without deeper political consideration. Black Panther is emblematic of the most productive responses to bigotry: rather than going for hearts and minds of racists, it celebrates what those who choose to prohibit equal representation and rights are ignoring, willfully or not. They are missing out on the full possibility of the world and the very America they seek to make “great.” They cannot stop this representation of it. When considering the folks who preemptively hate Black Panther and seek to stop it from influencing American culture, I echo the response that the movie’s hero T’Challa is known to give when warned of those who seek to invade his home country: Let them try.
The history of black power and the movement that bore its name can be traced back to the summer of 1966. The activist Stokely Carmichael was searching for something more than mere liberty. To him, integration in a white-dominated America meant assimilation by default. About one year after the assassination of Malcolm X and the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Carmichael took over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from John Lewis. Carmichael decided to move the organization away from a philosophy of pacifism and escalate the group’s militancy to emphasize armed self-defense, black business ownership and community control.
In June of that year, James Meredith, an activist who four years earlier had become the first black person admitted to Ole Miss, started the March Against Fear, a long walk of protest from Memphis to Mississippi, alone. On the second day of the march, he was wounded by a gunman. Carmichael and tens of thousands of others continued in Meredith’s absence. Carmichael, who was arrested halfway through the march, was incensed upon his release. “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over,” he declared before a passionate crowd on June 16. “We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!”
Black Panther was born in the civil rights era, and he reflected the politics of that time. The month after Carmichael’s Black Power declaration, the character debuted in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four No. 52. Supernatural strength and agility were his main features, but a genius intellect was his best attribute. “Black Panther” wasn’t an alter ego; it was the formal title for T’Challa, King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation that, thanks to its exclusive hold on the sound-absorbent metal vibranium, had become the most technologically advanced nation in the world.
It was a vision of black grandeur and, indeed, power in a trying time, when more than 41% of African Americans were at or below the poverty line and comprised nearly a third of the nation’s poor. Much like the iconic Lieutenant Uhura character, played by Nichelle Nichols, that debuted in Star Trek in September 1966, Black Panther was an expression of Afrofuturism—an ethos that fuses African mythologies, technology and science fiction and serves to rebuke conventional depictions of (or, worse, efforts to bring about) a future bereft of black people. His white creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, did not consciously conjure a fantasy-world response to Carmichael’s call, but the image still held power. T’Challa was not only strong and educated; he was also royalty. He didn’t have to take over. He was already in charge.
“You might say that this African nation is fantasy,” says Boseman, who portrays T’Challa in the movie. “But to have the opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places and real African concepts, and put it inside of this idea of Wakanda—that’s a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you’re disconnected from it.”
The character emerged at a time when the civil rights movement rightfully began to increase its demands of an America that had promised so much and delivered so little to its black population. Fifty-two years after the introduction of T’Challa, those demands have yet to be fully answered. According to the Federal Reserve, the typical African-American family had a median net worth of $17,600 in 2016. In contrast, white households had a median net worth of $171,000. The revolutionary thing about Black Panther is that it envisions a world not devoid of racism but one in which black people have the wealth, technology and military might to level the playing field—a scenario applicable not only to the predominantly white landscape of Hollywood but, more important, to the world at large.
The Black Panther Party, the revolutionary organization founded in Oakland, Calif., a few months after T’Challa’s debut, was depicted in the media as a threatening and radical group with goals that differed dramatically from the more pacifist vision of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Lewis. Marvel even briefly changed the character’s name to Black Leopard because of the inevitable association with the Panthers, but soon reverted. For some viewers, “Black Panther” may have undeservedly sinister connotations, but the 2018 film reclaims the symbol to be celebrated by all as an avatar for change.
The urgency for change is partly what Carmichael was trying to express in the summer of ’66, and the powers that be needed to listen. It’s still true in 2018.
Moviegoers first encountered Boseman’s T’Challa in Marvel’s 2016 ensemble hit Captain America: Civil War, and he instantly cut a striking figure in his sleek vibranium suit. As Black Panther opens, with T’Challa grieving the death of his father and coming to grips with his sudden ascension to the Wakandan throne, it’s clear that our hero’s royal upbringing has kept him sheltered from the realities of how systemic racism has touched just about every black life across the globe.
The comic, especially in its most recent incarnations as rendered by the writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, has worked to expunge Eurocentric misconceptions of Africa—and the film’s imagery and thematic material follow suit. “People often ask, ‘What is Black Panther? What is his power?’ And they have a misconception that he only has power through his suit,” says Boseman. “The character is existing with power inside power.”
Coogler says that Black Panther, like his previous films—including the police-brutality drama Fruitvale Station and his innovative Rocky sequel Creed—explores issues of identity. “That’s something I’ve always struggled with as a person,” says the director. “Like the first time that I found out I was black.” He’s talking less about an epidermal self-awareness than about learning how white society views his black skin. “Not just identity, but names. ‘Who are you?’ is a question that comes up a lot in this film. T’Challa knows exactly who he is. The antagonist in this film has many names.”
That villain comes in the form of Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a former black-ops soldier with Wakandan ties who seeks to both outwit and beat down T’Challa for the crown. As played by a scene-stealing Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger’s motivations illuminate thorny questions about how black people worldwide should best use their power.
In the movie, Killmonger is, like Coogler, a native of Oakland. By exploring the disparate experiences of Africans and African Americans, Coogler shines a bright light on the psychic scars of slavery’s legacy and how black Americans endure the real-life consequences of it in the present day. Killmonger’s perspective is rendered in full; his rage over how he and other black people across the world have been disenfranchised and disempowered is justifiable.
Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, also includes another important antagonist from the comics: the dastardly and bigoted Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). “What I love about this experience is that it could have been the idea of black exploitation: he’s gonna fight Klaue, he’s gonna go after the white man and that’s it—that’s the enemy,” Boseman says. He recognizes that some fans will take issue with a black male villain fighting black protagonists. Killmonger fights not only T’Challa, but also warrior women like the spy Nakia (Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and the rest of the Dora Milaje, T’Challa’s all-female royal guards. Killmonger and Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s quippy tech-genius sister, also face off.
T’Challa and Killmonger are mirror images, separated only by the accident of where they were born. “What they don’t realize,” Boseman says, “is that the greatest conflict you will ever face will be the conflict with yourself.”
Both T’Challa and Killmonger had to be compelling in order for the movie to succeed. “Obviously, the superhero is who puts you in the seat,” Coogler says.
“That’s who you want to see come out on top. But I’ll be damned if the villains ain’t cool too. They have to be able to stand up to the hero, and have you saying, ‘Man, I don’t know if the hero’s going to make it out of this.’”
“If you don’t have that,” Boseman says, “you don’t have a movie.”
This is not just a movie about a black superhero; it’s very much a black movie. It carries a weight that neither Thor nor Captain America could lift: serving a black audience that has long gone underrepresented. For so long, films that depict a reality where whiteness isn’t the default have been ghettoized, marketed largely to audiences of color as niche entertainment, instead of as part of the mainstream. Think of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, Malcolm D. Lee’s surprise 1999 hit The Best Man or the Barbershop franchise that launched in 2002. But over the past year, the success of films including Get Out and Girls Trip have done even bigger business at the box office, led to commercial acclaim and minted new stars like Kaluuya and Tiffany Haddish. Those two hits have only bolstered an argument that has persisted since well before Spike Lee made his debut: black films with black themes and black stars can and should be marketed like any other. No one talks about Woody Allen and Wes Anderson movies as “white movies” to be marketed only to that audience.
Black Panther marks the biggest move yet in this wave: it’s both a black film and the newest entrant in the most bankable movie franchise in history. For a wary and risk-averse film business, led largely by white film executives who have been historically predisposed to greenlight projects featuring characters who look like them, Black Panther will offer proof that a depiction of a reality of something other than whiteness can make a ton of money.
The film’s positive reception—as of Feb. 6, the day initial reviews surfaced, it had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—bodes well for its commercial prospects. Variety predicted that it could threaten the Presidents’ Day weekend record of $152 million, set in 2016 by Deadpool.
Some of the film’s early success can be credited to Nate Moore, an African-American executive producer in Marvel’s film division who has been vocal about the importance of including black characters in the Marvel universe. But beyond Wakanda, the questions of power and responsibility, it seems, are not only applicable to the characters in Black Panther. Once this film blows the doors off, as expected, Hollywood must do more to reckon with that issue than merely greenlight more black stories. It also needs more Nate Moores.
“I know people [in the entertainment industry] are going to see this and aspire to it,” Boseman says. “But this is also having people inside spaces—gatekeeper positions, people who can open doors and take that idea. How can this be done? How can we be represented in a way that is aspirational?”
Because Black Panther marks such an unprecedented moment that excitement for the film feels almost kinetic. Black Panther parties are being organized, pre- and post-film soirées for fans new and old. A video of young Atlanta students dancing in their classroom once they learned they were going to see the film together went viral in early February. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer announced on her Instagram account that she’ll be in Mississippi when Black Panther opens and that she plans to buy out a theater “in an underserved community there to ensure that all our brown children can see themselves as a superhero.”
Many civil rights pioneers and other trailblazing forebears have received lavish cinematic treatments, in films including Malcolm X, Selma and Hidden Figures. Jackie Robinson even portrayed himself onscreen. Fictional celluloid champions have included Virgil Tibbs, John Shaft and Foxy Brown. Lando, too. But Black Panther matters more, because he is our best chance for people of every color to see a black hero. That is its own kind of power.
Jamil Smith is a journalist born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Los Angeles.