The Black Panther excitement is unreal.
Anticipation has been bubbling since the Black Panther movie was first announced three years ago. While this wouldn’t be the first movie to feature a Black superhero lead (Wesley Snipes played Blade in the Blade trilogy of movies between 1998-2004), it would be the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. In a conversation about what this level of representation means for today’s audiences, Snipes himself said it went beyond excitement. “Excited is definitely not the word. Overcome, overjoyed, clutch the pearls, I am ecstatic about it. I know what it’s going to do, the impact it’s going to have, not only on the minds of the community, but on the industry and the minds of those who are now the new gatekeepers.” Since then, the unveiling of the primarily Black cast and crew (Lupita Nyong’o! Michael B. Jordan! Ryan Coogler! Hannah Beachler!), meeting Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa (Black Panther’s alter ego, heir to the throne of Wakanda) in Captain America: Civil War and the recent furor of trailers, early screenings and purple carpet premieres have all culminated into one common thought: that this singular movie is the key to a new level of Black liberation. If one statement could be true and false at the same time, this would be it.
A few weeks ago, I settled into my reclining theatre seat as the lights dimmed and the excited voices around me hushed to silence. The Black Panther advance screening was about to begin, and I was ready to be whisked away to Wakanda. After the credits rolled a couple of hours later (hint: stay for all of them), I continued to sit silently—now, because I was stunned.
I wasn’t prepared for one movie to pack so much in and leave me with so much to process. Aside from two short scenes with supervillain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and government agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), Black people were always on screen—and framed in a way that showed lighting darker skin tones is a privilege, not a problem to be solved. As someone with a vested interest in the portrayals of Black women in film, it was exhilarating to see the depth and range offered to the lifeblood of this movie—Danai Gurira’s formidable Okoye, Lupita Nyong’o’s impassioned Nakia, Letitia Wright’s brilliant Shuri and Angela Bassett’s poised Queen Ramonda. While the movie hinges on the Black Panther, viewers will quickly see that he would be nothing without the women in the film. Take Okoye for example: as the general of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces unit of Wakanda, she is written and played as Black Panther’s partner, not his sidekick. She respects the throne, but is equally and unequivocally respected for her knowledge and skill. This respect is replicated in the portrayals of the other women in the film and made me want to know more about them all—especially the hilarious Shuri, the smartest person in the world (yes, even smarter than Iron Man/Tony Stark).
Certain points in the film gave me a pang of longing—a mourning for lost personal histories combined with a renewed motivation to learn more about my own ancestry. Though Wakanda is a fictional country, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and his team ensured that many elements were rooted in reality. Famed costume designer Ruth Carter tied in aesthetics from tribes like the Masai and the Suri; and Hannah Beachler, the first female production designer on a Marvel film, was inspired by research that included a trip to South Africa. These visions came together especially beautifully in one scene that I won’t soon forget, T’Challa’s crowning ceremony.
Black Panther offers the kind of representation I wish I had as a child—a feeling that’s all the more poignant when you see the ebullient #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlJoy exhibited by kids who can’t wait to see the movie. As an adult, I’m ecstatic that the beauty and complexity of Blackness has found a new frame of reference in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This kind of levity is freeing, and I can’t wait until the masses get to feel it, too.
But, expectations about what representation can accomplish need to be tempered. Black Panther isn’t going to end anti-Blackness worldwide. It isn’t going to right all the wrongs of the past. It isn’t going to single-handedly usher us into a bright, equitable future. It isn’t going to be responsible for grand scale Black liberation. It’s a movie, albeit a fabulous and transformative one.
Black Panther’s true superpower is how it offers a finely-crafted moment of escapism, along with important messaging. Yes, the movie explores weighty topics like diasporic connection and colonialism, but it makes its points without heavy-handed finger wags or displays of blindingly painful trauma. There’s often an expressed or implied duty of films that tell Black stories to incorporate at least one of the two, but the real liberation in Black Panther is how it refuses to take on that responsibility. As we look towards a future with not only more diverse casts but diverse stories, it’s spectacular to have this vision of Afrofuturistic fantasy as a leader of the new school. Black Panther gives us space to escape, enjoy, imagine and be entertained, in a manner that is revolutionary in and of itself.
Eventually, I broke out of my post-movie stupor, gathered my things and made my way out of the theatre—and noticed something interesting. In the past, when I’ve left a movie that detailed, say, the horrors of slavery, I‘d be met by looks of pity from non-Black viewers. When I’ve left a movie that highlighted some Black triumph in the face of intense struggle, they’d offer encouraging smiles. But this time? The looks were something that almost resembled… awe. Black Panther won’t save the world, but I’ll forever appreciate the ways it has shifted mine.
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