Black Panther – the Experience by Amatullah S. King

I was browsing through graphic novels in Forbidden Planet, a well-known comic book store in New York’s Union Square, when I come upon two black teens discussing the powers of one of the characters in a book they were reading. Suddenly, one boy shoved the comic book back on the shelf and, after staring at it for a minute, said: “I wish I were white so I could be a superhero.” His friend concurred. Both dejection and the weight of knowing that no one would ever see them in an elevated light in real life or fiction bowed their shoulders. This was the late 1990s. A decade before President Barack Obama’s ascendancy, and two decades before Ryan Coogler’s just-released film, Black Panther, burst onto the superhero scene. What would those boys think now?

What did I think when I went to see the film in Chapel Hill, North Carolina last Friday? What I thought was partly shaped by what I saw and experienced. I saw Black parents and mixed families heading towards a Chapel Hill movie theater like families who go to church. There was expectancy, and joy in the air. One young Black couple dressed in urban inflected African print took pictures of each other in the theatre. Black people who are normally strangers greeted each other as if they were members at a family reunion. Trading the smiles and knowing looks that Black people do that conveys whole chapters. “You going to see Black Panther aren’t you?”

Watching the film was also revelation. For one thing, it dwells on issues of racial identity, racial loss and obligation to the “cousins”, that is the Black Americans of African descent divided from each other by the horrors and happenstance of historical oppression. It is the wish fulfillment of most Black Americans of not just a glorious African past, but also an African present that should have and will come and deliver us from the demeaning oppression. Most of the movie turns on this question – so much so that the West and the requisite bad guys (like the white male character, Klaue) seem only ancillary to the plot. Or, they function to question if primitivism resides in an African or a Western context. There are plenty of visual dog whistles that have been turned on their head in clever and humorous ways to make these points. In fact, there are many times where Africans (known as Wakandans) literally assume Black American identities when undercover – where the viewer and even the character is literally tricked until the reveal. It begs the question: “Who are we (as in Black Americans)?” Are we Africans or are we American? In this film it seems to say, if you can’t tell the difference visually, does it matter?

As a Black woman (watching the movie with a group of Black women), I had a raucous good time watching dark-skinned, bald and naturally coifed, statuesque Black women kick ass while looking beautiful doing it; being the love interest of the King – I mean blatantly and affectionately in awe of his love interest that it becomes a source of teasing in the movie; and being the sources of highly complex technology as embodied in the King’s younger sister. He is the King, but he defers to and listens to the judgement calls of a slew of women who surround him. His very life depends on their protection. For those of us (in the Western context) so used to seeing Black women demeaned for our dark skin, lips, and hair, this was revelation and healing.

But despite the portrayal of stunning Black femaleness, if I were to have one criticism of the movie, it is the depiction of Black Americans as lost sheep. Embodied in the character Killmonger, African Americans are shown one-dimensionally as bound in the projects with scant resources (symbolized no less by a makeshift basketball hoop) and waiting for an African savior. The implication is that not knowing your full African heritage turns you into a raging killing machine, a Killmonger. I get that it’s just a movie, whose first fulfillment is to the Marvel canon. I get that the film cannot address nor rectify every twist and turn of the tortured African American past. However, I think it is important not to fantasize the idea that Black Americans have little to offer in the reconciliation to our current African cousins.

In fact, the embrace of an African diaspora was right there in the theatre. At the end of the film, every one clapped. Not a few –including me– wiped away a tear. Without giving away any spoilers, the tear comes from an impactful moment and salient point that will leave both African and Black American to ponder, what obligation and future should and can be forged after such a long rupture and disconnection.

Most importantly, if I were to end this like a movie – I’d like to see into the eyes of those two young Black boys, now men, to see dejection morphed into pride. For those who say, but it’s just a movie, I’d counter: then why was it so important to have an endless unvaried line of heroes who all looked one way? Representation is important. “Wakanda Forever.”








Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration is Hosted By