The Sunday after I watched Black Panther, I texted Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane of the Avery Research Institute and asked her if the Avery Research Center would be interested in co-hosting a full out panel discussion surrounding the themes presented in this film. I asked because, since Black Panther‘s worldwide release on February 15, I’ve seen a host of theories and conspiracies posted on various Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Or as I declared to Dr. Williams Lessane: Black Panther makes people want to pontificate.
From Charlamagne Tha God’s benign, “Black people are going to have to pick a place to live: Zamunda or Wakanda” to more intense statements like, “Killmonger was right” … From my half-joking declaration that I was forgoing the forced label of “African American” in favor of using the term “Wakandan American” to describe myself to the serious question of whether Black Panther missed out on an opportunity to explore Black Queer representation via the Dora Milaje, this film compels conversation.
How many movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nay, in the entire canon of superhero-themed movies have moved Black folks of all shapes, sizes, economic backgrounds, and educational experiences, to explore their collective consciousness? I’m going to go out on a limb and say none. And because of that, I’m confident that Black Panther will be added to the pantheon of classic black films. Right alongside iconic works like Coming to America, Boyz In The Hood, Do The Right Thing, and Roots.
And other than the think pieces this film has inspired and the opportunities for non-anime fans to get in on the cosplay fun, one of Black Panther‘s overarching achievements is that it has been able to deliver a message of empowerment without slavery or struggle operating as the film’s modus operandi. It felt great to be able to leave a movie theater both feeling good about the art I witnessed and proud of being black without also having to temper an internal desire to punch a white person in the face. Which, unfortunately, is often the case when the terms “Hollywood Blockbuster” and “black people” come together.
For example, in 1997 Steven Spielberg blessed the world with the film Amistad, a film about the true-life story of the Africans who successfully overtook a ship that planned on sending them into a lifetime of enslavement. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, grossed over $40 million and, subsequently made black people want to punch a white person in the face.
2013 brought us 12 Years a Slave, a film that made over $180 million dollars at the box office and told the true story of Solomon Northup, a freed black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and forced to work on a Louisiana plantation before re-earning the freedom he already had. It won three Academy Awards, introduced us to the beauty of Lupita Nyong’o, and also made black people want to punch a white person in the face.
Black Panther alleviates the emotional exhaustion and cultural frustration that usually accompany “black films” because it chose not to follow Hollywood’s “black person struggle” playbook (see: The Help). Like Moonlight, Black Panther allows black people to restructure what it means to portray blackness on film without the tired tropes that usually accompany films that feature us but are made by someone else. And while I applaud this film and its makers, it is still sad to think it took the fictional world of Wakanda to showcase the strength of Black people outside the mawkish narrative of overcoming mistreatment. Hopefully, by the time we are blessed with Black Panther 2, that will no longer be the norm.
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