What is it about Black Panther that’s got everyone, especially black people, talking about it, seemingly everywhere, and seemingly all the time? What’s the deal with this movie that makes it different from Ironman or Thor or Captain America or any of the other Marvel blockbusters that came before it?
Is Black Panther some anomaly in the or some inflection point of cultural zeitgeist that’s somehow some phenomena that, while already big, is made larger by something unseen? The simple answer is, yes. Black Panther is, indeed, a cultural moment and it isn’t slowing down anytime soon, so let’s break down what it is and why it is that people just can’t stop talking about Black Panther.
Imagination + Representation + Recognition
If you’re an adult of a certain age, at some point in your childhood, you and your friends probably ran around a playground pretending to be Superman or Batman or Spiderman, or even Wonder Woman. As children, fantastic characters imbued with super powers were fodder for our imaginations and assuming the identity of one of these characters said something about your own personality. But, if you grew up black, in order to enter this world of fantasy, there was an implicit suspension of disbelief and an abandonment of a defining feature of one’s identity (see: race), to achieve the greatness of these aspirational characters. Or, more simply stated, you were pretending to be Superman but you could never really be Superman because, well, Superman is white.
But, with Black Panther, we get to show our kids a superhero who is just as fantastic as the rest in the cannon who they can lay claim to and own in their imaginations without having to forfeit who or what they are. And for little black girls who get to see strong female characters like Nakia and Okoye, or the smarts and confidence of Shuri, it’s a 180-degree departure from the past.
In fact, there’s also something to be noted about the female/male relationships in this film as they’re a departure from the usual conflict-based interactions we usually see with black movies. Black Panther uses the superhero film motif that always reinforces teamwork to show that the success of black people is dependent upon black women and men working together as equals.
It makes Africa a destination
African Americans have had a fraught and complicated relationship with the continent of Africa. From Tarzan to famines to coverage of conflicts, Africa has historically been presented as an “other” type of place that’s either dangerous, unsophisticated, or just plain inhospitable often, derisively, referred to as the “Third World.” Who could possibly want to go to Africa and why? This is especially difficult to come to terms with as a black person in America because, while Africa is literally in our DNA, its presence isn’t always welcome in our culture.
Then, there’s Wakanda.
Wakanda serves as both the fictional home of King T’Challa, but for black people, it’s something bigger. It represents an Africa that could have been had it been able to grow and thrive untouched by colonization with a population that was able to flourish and develop without the human capital costs of slavery. While entirely imaginary, its draw is that, for African Americans who have been historically divorced from their connections to the continent, it can serve as an aspirational homeland. Its break from the traditional narratives of Africa make it, and by extension the continent, someplace that black people would want to proudly claim as their own and call home.
Ryan Coogler is an amazing director
Go watch Creed and Fruitvale Station, then come back and read this point and furiously nod in agreement. We’ll wait.
The details are e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g
One of the most striking aspects of Black Panther that might go unnoticed to the eye that isn’t looking is its embrace of a black cultural aesthetic. Not to get too big with the words here, but the standards of style and beauty were centered in Africa with all of the women in the movie styled with natural hair and traditional African presentations like lip plates, neck rings, and scarification modernized and elevated.
Much like Black Panther’s Wakanda is an aspirational and approachable Africa, the details connected black people in America to the people of Africa by intentionally weaving together previously misunderstood or mocked cultural traditions with modern style and fashion making what once felt primitive, elegant.
All that deep stuff aside, there’s nothing like going to the movies and spending a couple of hours laughing, cheering, anxious, sad, and then cheering again to help shake off the everyday blahs of life. But we all watch movies because we want someone to tell us a story. Sometimes Hollywood forgets that black people are dynamic and diverse. All too often, they only want to tell us stories about the past or stories based on stereotypes. They didn’t realize that black people want to escape in a story just like everyone else.
With Black Panther, black people are finally getting their Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. There’s finally a great big film that’s telling an epic tale of a black hero in a black place with black themes that, at its core, is just a great big ol’ popcorn movie. Yeah, there are some serious themes woven in and yeah, there are a lot of intellectual debates that can be had, but for the first time in a lot of our lives, there’s a blockbuster made by us, made for us, and we’re just enjoying the moment.
I’m personally looking forward to handing out candy to all the Black Panther trick-or-treaters next Halloween.