Here's why Marvel's Black Panther has been so important for black culture
Marvel's latest superhero movie Black Panther is already breaking all kinds of box office records, managing to win over critics and already being lauded by reviewers as one of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ryan Coogler's third feature has performed so well that it is already the highest pre-selling superhero movie ever, and has ended up making over $200 million in its first three days. In the US, it managed to blow past the entire box office takings of the DCU's Justice League in a mere four days.
Pretty impressive. But if you're not a major comic book fan, or not really a fan of tights and capes on the big screen in general, then it can be hard to understand exactly what the big deal is. From the outside, the racial aspect of the movie seems to be fairly inconsequential, especially to those who feel slightly exasperated by the dominance of the superhero genre. "Who cares whether he's black?" detractors bemoan. "It's still just a movie about a guy in a dumb costume who beats up bad guys. Whatever."
Furthermore, it's not as though Black Panther is the first superhero movie to feature a black protagonist, or even the first Marvel movie to do so. That distinction (for better or worse) belongs to the vampire-hunting flick Blade starring Wesley Snipes, which was released in 1998, and based on the 1973 Marv Wolfman character. Black Panther isn't even the first black superhero in the MCU - you've already got The Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury - and elsewhere we've got characters like Storm from X-Men, Luke Cage, Cyborg, and even Halle Berry's Catwoman if you want to quibble over details.
Plus, it's not like Black Panther is even a new character: he's over 50 years old. He first appeared way back in Fantastic Four issue 52, in July 1966 (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby). Black Panther is older than the Star Wars franchise and this movie isn't exactly his debut, considering that he already had a pretty major role in Captain America: Civil War. But this perspective misses the point about why this film is of such importance, particularly to black people. It's no exaggeration to say that people are insanely excited about it and have been deeply moved by its themes and presentation. Social media has been inundated with comments from moviegoers who have fallen in love with it, and the hashtag "#BlackPantherSoLit" seems to sum up the feelings of audiences worldwide.
It has caused such a stir that even former First Lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter to heap praise on the movie, stating: "Congrats to the entire
#blackpantherteam! Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories."
Jamie Broadnax, Editor-in-Chief and creator of the website Black Girl Nerds, claims that Black Panther will "bring in a lot of people [of colour] who don't even really go to comic-book movies... [since] they're going to see themselves reflected in a huge way that they just haven't been able to see before." Writing for The New York Times, critic Manohla Dargis stated that "in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully."
For these commenters it seems, it's the issue of fair and legitimate representation which makes the film a big deal. The movie's box office takings shove a big middle finger up to the naysayers who thought that a superhero movie with an almost exclusively black cast wouldn't sell tickets. On the contrary, the aversion that the movie has to tokenism, and its commitment to telling a uniquely Afrocentric story, has meant that it has exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic Disney executives.
Indeed, the concept of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and the afrofuturist society it presents, could prove to be the most influential aspect of the Marvel franchise so far. Wakanda is a utopian nation - easily the most technologically and socially advanced country on the planet in the MCU; a far cry from the stereotypical portrayal of central Africa as a region stricken by disease, poverty and lack of infrastructure. Thanks to the abundance of the miracle metal Vibranium (the same substance Captain America's shield is made out of) and the country's staunch isolationism, Wakanda has remained uncorrupted by the scourge of white European colonialism.
The slavery and subjugation of people of colour - one of the biggest issues that has divided the United States, and one which has left it blighted by political and social inequality - has never intruded on Wakandan history. In fact, Wakanda is a modern black economic and scientific superpower. Again, afrofuturism has existed in speculative fiction since arguably the 19th century, but Black Panther looks set to bring it into the mainstream.
Writing for Medium, the journalist Shaun King described the experience of watching a film which celebrated black culture so intensely and idealistically as almost akin to a religious experience, stating that it showed him "A black way of life free of white supremacy and bigotry. Black Panther, I think, is the first blockbuster film centered in the ethos of Afro-Futurism, where the writers, and directors, and makeup and wardrobe team all imagined a beautiful, thriving Black Africa without colonialism."
He added: "Wakanda showed us our families in one piece. No war on drugs. No mass incarceration. No KKK. No lynching. No racial profiling. No police brutality. In this world, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin get to grow up. Sandra Bland and Erica Garner are still alive. It’s an alternate parallel universe where we win and we rule. Our traditions and culture have not been destroyed. We have beautiful rituals and rites of passage." Sure, it's easy for some to accuse Black Panther of laying it on a bit thick, of romanticising African culture the same way that any Hollywood film will in order to make money. But King's enthusiasm, and his profound emotional reaction, is simply infectious.
And isn't that what superheroes are supposed to do? To give us something to aspire to? Prince T'Challa, the Black Panther, is a black übermensch in that regard. A costumed vigilante who isn't any kind of sidekick. Who stands totally equal to the other Avengers and is unburdened by the prejudice and cultural and historical baggage that so many people of colour feel that they have been saddled with. Maybe, as time goes on and Afrocentrism becomes more mainstream, the novelty of Black Panther will wear off, and subsequent generations will forget what has made it so revolutionary. For now though, we should appreciate what it has managed to achieve, and maybe hope that we'll see more representation in the future.