The new movie Black Panther is breaking records at the box office, and generating lots of commentary online. The article that has most resonated with me is “Why ‘Black Panther’ is a Defining Moment for Black America.” Author Carvell Wallace begins with “the Grand Lake Theater — the kind of old-time movie house with cavernous ceilings and ornate crown moldings — is one place I take my kids to remind us that we belong to Oakland, Calif. Whenever there is a film or community event that has meaning for this town, the Grand Lake is where you go to see it.” My wife, mother-in-law, and I saw the movie at the Grand Lake Theater the day after it was released. The jam-packed multicultural crowd roared when the opening scene was identified as being set in Oakland, and many other scenes generated thunderous applause. I experienced the movie again the next day at a special screening for SJSU students. I’ll probably go view the movie a third time soon!
Carvell begins the analysis of the movie by contrasting it with earlier films with Black superheroes, which were either comedies or action films with the hero’s blackness being incidental.
Black Panther, by contrast, is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture site focused on sci-fi and comic-book fandoms. These characters, she notes, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty” — the usual topics of acclaimed movies about the black experience.
“Black Panther is a Hollywood movie,” Carvell continues, “and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations.” The movie sits squarely in the Afrofuturism artistic movement:
Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home. Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. Black Panther cannot help being part of this.
Carvell closes with “we hold one another as a family because we must be a family in order to survive. Our individual successes and failures belong, in a perfectly real sense, to all of us. That can be for good or ill. But when it is good, it is very good. It is sunlight and gold on vast African mountains, it is the shining splendor of the Wakandan warriors poised and ready to fight, it is a collective soul as timeless and indestructible as vibranium. And with this love we seek to make the future ours, by making the present ours. We seek to make a place where we belong.” Indeed!