The time has finally come. After waiting 20-odd years (read: my entire life), we are finally on the eve of Black Panther’s arrival. And by “eve,” I mean that finally, Black Panther will be the very next Marvel film to grace our eyeballs.
Indeed. Come Feb. 16, 2018, black people across the African Diaspora will pack the theaters with our ceiling-touching geles, our brightly colored dashikis, and our sharpest black-and-white attire, and lose our collective black minds.
All for the purpose of celebrating the blackity blackness that will be the premiere of Black Panther.
To be clear, this hype is incredibly warranted for a variety of reasons. Not only is a Black Panther film wildly overdue, but the titular character has social, historical and cultural significance that I can honestly talk about all day.
But since I don’t have all day, I’m gonna start with this:
1. Black Panther remains socially and culturally relevant because it imagines a world where black people continually triumph over the influences of capitalism, Western imperialism and white supremacy.
Part of the reason I’m so hype for Black Panther is that it’s bound to explore the existence of black people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond America (and the small group of them in Asgard) and in a way that isn’t colorblind.
I say this because Ulysses Klaw’s introduction in The Avengers: Age of Ultron and his return to Black Panther makes it clear that themes like capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy will be explored.
For context, remember that part in the teaser trailer when Klaw is talking to Everett Ross and they are both (but mostly him) obsessing over Wakanda and the fact that these group of black people they have stumbled upon are far more advanced than anything they ever imagined? Remember how shook Ross was and how giddy Klaw looked?
Well, Klaw’s giddiness has significance when you think about how it might be used against a place like Wakanda. To explain, Wakanda, as a wealthy and technologically advanced African nation, houses Earth’s only known source of the precious metal known as vibranium (i.e., the kind of stuff Captain America’s shield is forged from). And as a result, T’Challa and his people have often been the targets of colonial exploration and economic exploitation at the hands of his most bitter enemy—Ulysses Klaw.
In fact, it was Klaw (not Baron Zemo) who killed T’Challa’s father (T’Chaka) for the explicit purpose of getting his hands on the vibranium. And his brand of villainy here should be noted, because unlike a sizable portion of T’Challa’s other villains (Man-Ape, Erik Killmonger, etc.), who stem from homegrown conflicts and power struggles, Klaw’s existence puts a face on Western imperialism and the lengths to which it will go to further exploit Africa via capitalistic methods. This fight of his shouldn’t be overlooked, especially since this exploitation (and pursuit of liberation) is something that the continent is still battling in actual real time.
This has huge, alternative and historical implications for us as black people, and is why Black Panther remains relevant. Not only does his fight against Klaw expand the conversation of “struggle” to include those of us outside the American context and across the Diaspora, but it also provides a glimpse of an alternative future where we can triumph over these forces that have plagued us for so long (Afrofuturism for the win!).
And the right to imagine alternative, utopic visions of black existence is something I don’t take lightly.
Which brings me to my next point:
2. Black Panther Puts black women at the center of this black utopia. As it should.
You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to notice that black women are sorely lacking in Marvel’s movie-verse. You also don’t have to be an astrophysicist to note that when it comes to black liberation, black women (and queer and transgender people) are the focal points of black resistance.
So what happens when you notice these two things and decide to address them both in one fell swoop?
Well, you essentially get Ryan Coogler’s reimagining of Black Panther.
Humor aside, literally the only black women we’ve seen in an expanded role on the film side of the Marvel CU is Valkyrie/Scrapper 142, and the irony doesn’t escape me that it took another person of color as director (shoutout to Taika Watiti) to accomplish that.
So, it’s a big deal that in Black Panther, black women not only make up a majority of the cast but are also taking up a fairly pivotal role (e.g., the Dora Milaje) in fighting off what looks like the outside influences of people like Klaw, as well as quelling the internal discord that Killmonger and such are seeking to drum up.
This is worth noting because black women are oh so familiar with studios and network executives assuming that the representation of just cisgender, straight black men should be enough for all black people (despite the fact that black people aren’t a goddamn monolith). It is also worth noting because black women are going to get to see ourselves in multiple capacities—in front of and behind the camera.
Don’t believe me? Well, you better believe that Ruth E. Carter, a black woman, is responsible for the larger-than-life costumes we’ve seen in the previews thus far. And if you still don’t believe that, check out the fact that we have superstars (most of them notably dark-skinned, which is a significance I will tackle another day) like Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Florence Kasumba and Danai Gurira playing queens, elite bodyguards, princesses and romantic interests.
It’s almost as if director Coogler understands our influence and our value and realizes how much we, too, deserve some shine.
And speaking of shine:
3. Black Panther will have black superheroes ditching the sidekick or wise-mentor role for the first time since Blade.
Not that I’m trying to be over-dramatic or anything, but Black Panther will pretty much be the first time in 20 fucking years since Blade that black heroes get to ditch the sidekick or “black BFF” trope for a solo flick.
Well ... I’ll walk that back, since it’s a baby lie.
There have been not so valiant attempts (Catwoman) and semivaliant attempts (Hancock) to depart from our existence as ethnic accessories to otherwise Wonder Bread protagonists, but most of them have fallen short. This is especially the case for the beloved MCU (particularly its movies), which is by far the worst offender regarding the black-BFF trope.
Some of the most egregious examples of this lie in characters like Sam Wilson (Falcon) and James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine). Rhodey is Tony Stark/Iron Man’s best friend, confidant and supposedly his equal. Sam is supposed to be Steve Rogers/Captain America’s friend and compatriot, but he is reduced to being an eager “fanboy” and “sidekick” of Captain America’s in his cinematic debut.
Conversely, Rhodey does not make an appearance in any of the Iron Man films without Tony, and such is the case for Falcon (sans that one scene in Ant-Man). Calling them equals when they are mere extensions of both Tony and Steve is generous.
And I won’t even get started on Rhodey being the worst case of this, with that infamous switcheroo before Iron Man 2 and the fact that he was the premier character and narrative sacrifice in Captain America: Civil War—which is doubly ironic since that’s the first time we see T’Challa.
That we’ve gone nearly 20 full years without seeing a black superhero in a solo capacity or seeing the kind of self-determination and eternal cool that T’Challa represents is annoying but not unheard of, seeing as how the cultural impact of black superheroes tends to be downplayed or even suppressed ... which is something that the aforementioned Blade (1998) continues to battle.
Even if I don’t want to parse the kind of cultural impact or topics it dealt with (I maintain to this day that Blade as a character and a film dealt a lot with the politics of being multiracial and black in a way I hadn’t seen tackled yet).
Blade has the distinction of being the film that gave Marvel a much needed spark after it filed for bankruptcy in 1996 (and auctioned off fan favorites like The X-Men and Spider-Man) and before the MCU was even a workable idea. It also gave superhero movies during that time a much needed kick in the ass, because prior to that?
Well, we had just had that unfortunate run-in with bat nipples.
Blade is an underrated example of our influence being particularly strong and of our cultural impact (we move the culture, y’all!) being undeniable, despite being downplayed. And I’m hoping that Black Panther is able to build on its spiritual predecessor’s work come February.
And even then, I have no doubts that Marvel will congratulate itself on doing the bare minimum to appear more inclusive, even though its demonstrated resistance to changing the status quo and implementing what it thought was an “appropriate” amount of black and female representation in overly white and male films took this damn long to change.
But that’s not really what I’m concerned with. I’m more concerned with the fact that an entire generation of black children, teens and tweens will be exposed to this huge icon known as Black Panther and will be validated. They’ll get to see themselves represented and accounted for, rather than relegated to the background. They’ll get to see someone who is as cool and brilliant as Iron Man and as righteous as Captain America defending people who look just like them.
And, you know, I get it.
Representation like this isn’t everything and isn’t going to solve all of our struggles, but damn if it ain’t a good place to start.