How Black Panther Is Changing Blackness
Something important happened when the Black Panther poster and subsequent trailer dropped (an unorthodox 8 months before the movie release date). The film was already greatly anticipated by comic book movie fans since the character's introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but the trailer for the 2018 solo film propelled it to new heights
I have felt from the moment Marvel's character Black Panther appeared in Civil War, that this was going to be something different, something special. Every now and then, a piece of art in the form of cinema changes movies, and even culture itself, forever.
I'm not saying Black Panther's solo movie will do that, but there are some aspects that it has already begun to affect in various degrees:
1. People call him the "First" Black Superhero
|Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther|
Now, many will dispute this and bring up Blade as the truly first black superhero. While he was iconic in his own right, the Daywalker cannot compare to the likes of, say, Superman. Blade had his day and it ended, while Superman is recreated countless times with no end in sight. Furthermore, even Blade, an iconic black superhero, was surrounded by white characters without much explanation as to why (adopted? cut off from every other black person he's ever known?), except perhaps to avoid alienating a white audience. This has become pretty normal over the years with not much hope that anything was going to change...
Until Black Panther. A black character in his own environment in Africa, surrounded by tons of other black men and women of different levels of good and evil, with no room for stereotypes. A black man who is a warrior and a king of the most technologically advanced nation. Who is respected by the other established heroes, and who is treated with respect by the filmmakers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by giving him his own independent storyline (he is not by any means, anyone's sidekick). Black Panther represents true inclusion and diversity. Not just race-bending an existing previously white character, but creating him black from the start and making his blackness an integral part of his character. A celebrated part.
2. Visibility for Africa
African culture has for a long time been at most a backdrop for dramas, thrillers, and musicals (eg Lion King). However, it is a rare occasion when Africans are in the forefront - and when they are it is usually a harrowing story of suffering and oppression, a la Blood Diamond (even then, a white character takes the main role to serve as the audience's viewpoint character). While these depressing tales are important stories to tell, they cannot be our only stories. There have to be uplifting stories, inspirational stories, just downright cool stories, both to reflect to the world and to ourselves. To know we can build empires in our own ways, to value our traditions and cultures highly, in a world that often mocks or looks down on them. To hold our heads high as we "step into the spotlight."
3. The Natural Hair Movement
|Natural hair in a Hollywood glamour shot. Last seen: never|
As a black woman who went natural myself years ago, I've faced the prejudice which comes from both fellow black people and other races of people. Sometimes in the form of outright offensive comments to more subtle ways such as an absence of compliments unless I have extensions in my hair.
Popular media doesn't help either. Black women in Hollywood are usually the last pick for main character or romantic interest in a blockbuster film. Dark skinned black women, hardly ever. Dark skinned black women with afro hair? Never. Black Panther is going to be the first blockbuster movie where a dark skinned black woman who looks unambiguously African will be framed as the main love interest. I am talking of course about Lupita Nyong'o. This won't be the role that "made her", as she is already a Hollywood A-Lister in her own right, another status which is rare for a young natural-haired dark skinned woman to hold. But it will be a breakthrough for women of her phenotype to see a reflection of them in a role where they are respected, uplifted and desired by a powerful lead character. No more sassy black best friend, or the butt of a joke, or a hyper-masculine portrayal.
If this hilarious Twitter comment on a Black Panther comment stream is anything to go by, the film might inspire many more black women to embrace and love their natural hair!
Perhaps soon we can see the day when wearing our hair exactly how it comes out of our heads will no longer be seen as some kind of radical statement.
4. Top Notch Black Actors Being Black Together
|Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright|
Black Panther could have very easily been a low to medium budget venture, made by black filmmakers for black people, with actors who were good but not that great. It would have been celebrated as a black culture movie, which most other groups of people probably wouldn't have heard of. It would find its place amongst other "black" movies, which for all intents and purposes are made for black people, and are usually identified by their 90% black cast. These are important films to make, not everything is meant for everybody, and often if they were universalised, they would have a lot of the culture watered down to be more palatable to general audiences. However, there was a gap in the market. Big movies that are predominantly white rarely get categorised as "white movies". For most members of the audience, race isn't even considered, unless there is a token non-white person in a minor role. However, when the reverse is true, you have "black movies" which non-black people for the most part have no inclination to go and see. "It's for you guys" seems to be the general consensus.
|Micheal B Jordan and Daniel Kaluuya|
Black Panther has already achieved a never-before-seen phenomenon. A hyped up blockbuster, which has predominantly black people, but has universal appeal. Having watched a number of reaction videos to the trailer, I can see people of every race dropping their jaws in wonder at the few visuals already being shown. A huge part of the excitement is that there are big stars linked to the project who have achieved recognition in their own movies, where they were often one of the few black characters, before becoming a part of Black Panther.
They got the formula right, and for those who say "about time" for a film like this to come out, I wonder if it would have hit as many bonus points any sooner. The MCU has a huge role in this, they created a formula of interconnected seemingly never ending films which are each good movies in their own right. At the peak of Marvel-can't-seem-to-fail, they have brought in Black Panther, and it has undeniably benefited from the existing material - as opposed to potentially having to stand on its own where it might not have reached such heights and such a broad audience - or might have done so at a slower pace.
The film gained a stellar level of popularity with the help of a wide variety of new and veteran quality black actors, all of whom have their own bragging rights to put butts in seats. The two white characters in the trailer also draw in star power (many have noticed they have been in a scene together before, as Bilbo Baggins and Gollum).The whole project is a beautiful symphony of every element working to enhance the others. People of all races are going to see this movie with great enthusiasm.
|Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis|
There are questions I would love to see answered as this film permeates through pop culture.
Will African Americans visit Africa more?African-American men and women on YouTube have been breaking up in tears at the sheer sight of such concentrated blackness on screen that they have never seen in their lives before. For some, it isn't just an exciting film, it is an acknowledgment of their visibility, culture lost generations ago by the horrors of slavery, and ultimate validation in the eyes of not just their own communities but on a global stage. Some got used to the idea that they might never see such a thing. Perhaps we will start seeing more African Americans choosing African destinations to vacation in, so they can see the real cultures that Wakanda is based on. Perhaps the tensions which often exist between Africans and African Americans can be set aside to appreciate the film that boldly celebrates all people of African descent.
What will it do for Afrofuturism?Afrofuturism has been around for some time, always on the fringes, but vibrant, imaginative, and full of mythos, much like Wakanda's. Black Panther's time in the spotlight is an opportunity to open up the market - or it can be a flash that dims as soon as the hype has been replaced by the next big thing. Time will tell, but it's best for my fellow afrofuturists and I to get ready for big changes... there's work to do.
No, I did not get the outfit just for the movie, my Malawian culture
has been wearing this cloth for my whole life.
Wakanda is real y'all
Watch the Black Panther trailer below: