It was one of my favourite social-media moments of 2018.
Black Panther was days away from its official release, and students of Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy were ecstatic when the entire school was given surprise tickets to the film. A class filled with beautiful brown faces broke out into dance, and the joy was cemented for all eternity in GIF form.
It was just one example of the explosion of excitement online and IRL as Black Panther descended on the world last February. It was a pivotal event for Hollywood (Black Panther would go on to be the highest grossing film in the U.S. that year) and for a huge number of Black folk around the globe. In the moment, it was immediately apparent that this film was groundbreaking because it positioned Black people as superheroes and highlighted our self-reliance instead of our suffering, and honoured our natural beauty and being. But now looking back, it’s clear that Black Panther gave us so much more than just an endless thirst for Michael B. Jordan. It gave the world a new cultural touchpoint with which to celebrate the richness of Blackness.
“A lot of the historical tropes and stereotypes that Hollywood has had about Black people and about the African continent, I think this movie shatters, mocks, and leaves behind,” said writer Andray Domise on Breakfast Television shortly after the film’s premiere. Aspects like production design, costume design, and hair design (all led by Black women) elevated elements of Blackness to new heights and demolished or subverted those tropes and stereotypes.
Personally, I can’t say that Black Panther necessarily made me proud to be Black, because I already was. I love how fluffy my hair is and how brown my skin gets in the summer, and I love the symphony of my Jamaican family laughing loudly over a meal that sustained our ancestors for generations. Whether on an individual or collective basis, I—like most other Black folk—can find beauty in my Blackness. In a society shaped heavily by racism and colonialism, though, grasping at that beauty can feel like reaching through a pit of mud and rocks to find a jewel. Even worse is when it seems like we have voices surrounding us that tell us there’s no jewel there—but we know it exists, so we keep searching. Racist stereotypes, misinformation about Africa, and ideas that Black people should be grateful for any benevolence tossed our way are all part of the mud and rocks that keep us from grabbing one of those precious stones as easily as we’d like—but when Black Panther came along, it was like discovering a hidden treasure trove amid the muck.
Through their aim for authenticity, director Ryan Coogler and his crew showed the world how valuable the diaspora is. Hannah Beachler and Ruth E. Carter, the film’s Oscar-nominated production designer and costume designer, ensured that everything from Warrior Falls to the Dora Milaje’s garments was rooted in real characteristics from tribes and locations across the African continent. Doing so highlighted the oft-overlooked fact that Africa is a continent made up of multiple countries, tribes, languages and customs. Even in the best of intentions to celebrate Afrocentricity across the diaspora, we can sometimes fall into the trap of myopia, only seeing Africa as the land of Swahili words and kente cloth. Black Panther illuminated the diversity across the continent, and that attention to detail and inclusion was well-received at advance screenings in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.
“Tears stream down my face as I write this,” shared a Facebook user who goes by LadyRock Maranatha after seeing the film in Addis Ababa, according to AP. “I cried for my people and felt immense pride in being Ethiopian and most importantly AFRICAN. We are truly resilient and beautiful.”
That pride was felt the world over, and the movie encouraged many to look into personal and family ancestry in attempts to reconnect the threads that were broken during the Transatlantic slave trade. Though those connections were frayed, Black people around the world have gone on to create beautiful cultures and contributions to society, and Black Panther allowed us to both celebrate and critique the ways in which we identify our differences and similarities across the diaspora. We don’t all identify as African or African-American or African-Canadian, but we were able to see reflections of our various experiences in Black Panther. Killmonger’s origin story and the subsequent reuniting with his Wakandan family opened up a lot of discussion about connections between Black communities and allowed us to find ways to unite over this film.
Something that was particularly poignant to me was Wakanda being made up of not just the monarchy, but warriors, farmers, artists, merchants, miners and more. Often, we fight against anti-Black stereotypes by retorting that while we may have been enslaved, we were also once kings and queens. And while this is true, I firmly believe that we don’t need to fight one extreme existence with another. I understand and buy into the desire to constantly embody “Black excellence,” but living under the confines of the “You have to be twice as good” rule means that I sometimes wish I could feel the freedom of trying and being mediocre. I often wonder what it would be like to try and fail, still content in knowing I had a second, third or fourth chance available to me. Black folk have held the most exceptional and most commonplace identities, and all of our ancestors—from royalty to regular people—deserve our respect, because they all contributed to who each of us is today.
“To be young, gifted, and Black,” Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman told the audience at this year’s SAG Awards, where the film won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. “We know what it’s like to be told, to say there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on. We know what it’s like to be the tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above.”
Boseman’s speech was reminiscent of the final line of the film, where a speaker from the UN asks, “What can a nation of farmers have to offer the rest of the world?” Being discriminated against, systematically oppressed, and severely underestimated have been parts of the Black diasporic experience, yet we always have jewels within our possession to illuminate the beauty and genius of Blackness. As we mark the one-year anniversary of Black Panther’s release and wait with bated breath to see how it fares with its seven Oscar nominations, I remain thankful that this film has become one of those gems for us to reach to—making the past, present, and future that much brighter.