Coogler channels African history into Marvel's Black Panther
The temporary rumblings of cultural revolution were visible during Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl. However, the subtle cultural renaissance that took place during the premiere of Marvel’s blockbuster film Black Panther introduced a transformation of the mind that will continue to linger on.
The writer Julius Lester stated in an Ebony magazine article, “The idea of a black nation seems so far-fetched as to be ludicrous, but if you entertain it for a minute, even as an impossible dream, it should give you a feeling of wholeness and belonging you’ve never had and can never have as long as blacks have to live in a country where they are despised.”
The film’s regal depiction of African culture is not Disney’s enchanting and animalistic The Lion King or the satirical, but iconic Coming to America. Black Panther, co-written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by Coogler, gives its audience a realistic manifestation of the African diaspora. The film takes viewers on an adventure that stays imprinted within their psyches.
The artistry used to create the mythical country of Wakanda is as breathtaking as the inspiration behind it: the continent of Africa. The setting of the film is heavily influenced by the design of many present-day African metropolitan cities. The continent also could have served as the visualization of Derrick Bell’s science fiction short story, “The Afrolantica Awakening” — in which Africa meets Atlantis.
Wakanda’s realistically rustic look recalls the colorful paintings of Harlem Renaissance artists Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence. The costume design of Black Panther introduces nuances in African couture and displays elevated African style from head-to-toe, where the influential stylings of the Zulu and Maasai people can be seen. From hairstyles to jewelry, the costumes are just as innovative and vibrant as the film itself.
From its conception, the storyline of Black Panther’s creation has been unique. In their encyclopedia of comic culture, The Superhero Book, Gina Misiroglu and David A. Roach give a clear picture of how this legend was born: “Superhero comic books have mirrored societal trends since their inception, and when the medium originated in the late 1930s, African-Americans cast no reflection: Segregation made blacks invisible to most whites.” Misiroglu and Roach reference the way black characters were portrayed in early comics, writing how “they were abhorrently stereotyped with wide eyes and exaggerated pink lips, portrayed as easily frightened to elicit a chuckle from the white reader, and characterized as utterly dependent upon their Caucasian benefactors.” One such instance is in the cover of “The Spirit #1,” released in 1944, promising “action, thrills, and laughs,” and offering the latter with black sidekick Ebony White, nervously sticking to the side of the white Spirit. Other than being sidekicks or servants, black characters were not generally integrated during what is known as the “Golden Age” of comic books, from 1938 to 1954.
Marvel introduced the character of Black Panther in 1966 with its “Fantastic Four #52.” Misiroglu and Roach note that it is unclear whether or not Stan Lee, the writer, meant to name the character after the militant civil rights group the Black Panthers. The authors note, “The Panther — actually Prince T’Challa of the affluent, industrialized African nation of Wakanda — was highly educated, extremely noble, and amazingly lithe. … The Black Panther broke the color barrier for African Americans in the world of superheroes and was portrayed as an admirable role model for readers of any race.” It is important to credit Marvel for its creation of such a character — the first black superhero — in 1966.
The film Black Panther is especially relevant for its internal realism. Its imaginary world is incredibly relevant to the modern world community, especially the African-American community. Universal themes and social issues are expertly laced within the plot and characters of this film. Jonathan Blenman, comic book fan and connoisseur, says that Black Panther is, “A Marvel movie ... that didn’t feel like a Marvel movie. It had its own identity and breathed life into a universe that is successful, but follows a status quo.” Blenman emphasizes the presence of “strong female leads” within the film. His commentary continues, explaining that Black Panther “builds on that with real consequences and strong character development. It's an unconventional introductory story that gives ample time to its lead and supporting characters.”
The oral traditions of folklore and fairy tales have always been used to teach morality. Comics have become urban folklore and fairy tales of their own. They carry the oral tradition of history, and they reflect the society of the reader. Most folklore includes warnings — do not go into the forest alone or do not talk to strangers, among other things. For example, the “X-Men” comic series was a metaphor for the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Similar to Aesop’s Fables, Black Panther is used as a medium to teach the viewer several lessons and to open a window to the African and African-American experience. This film acts as a vehicle to bring understanding and to shed light on the internal struggles of black people.
Black Panther displays the dynamics of the black family via the matrilineal depiction of Wakanda. The country is protected mostly by women — which the African-American community has often shamed itself for — while trying to assimilate into a very patriarchal American society.
Women in Wakanda are in positions of influence but they do not threaten the positions of power that the men hold. They work as a team in government affairs. Wakanda is a limited monarchy, with democratic characteristics. The elders of the African community have always been their senate, protectors of traditional law, spiritual guides and council of wisdom.
Because of the heavy use of the special effects of technology, Black Panther has the feel of Marvel’s Iron Man, but the sacredness of a Jedi’s journey. The characters have depth and face difficult choices. T’Challa — the king and titular hero played by Chadwick Boseman — and his peers are charismatic and humorous, as they poke fun at their inferiors. However, this does not come across as arrogance, but rather pride.
The characters of Wakanda are relatable and incredibly beautiful, to the point of evoking tears during the film’s final confrontation, where Wakanda goes from being a harmonious and rapidly advancing African nation to one of coveting jealousy, hatred, disunity and unforgiveness. Even when there are earlier allusions to conflict, reason prevails when T’Challa tells M’Baku, leader of one of Wakanda’s tribes, “Your people need you.” Wakanda begins with a sense of order and community even when there is disagreement.
The overarching theme of Black Panther’s plot is that nothing comes from a family fighting among itself. Revenge does not heal. Audiences can empathize with the main villain, Erik Killmonger. Killmonger symbolizes the state of the African-American male or female in the world who has no sense of belonging. His violent nature seems to come from a place of abandonment and rejection. He was “left behind,” and felt no real connection to the cultural heritage of Wakanda. Wakanda is not willing to accept him either; he is considered an outsider and unrecognizable. But that is the heart of the matter: Killmonger did not accept himself because he did not know where he belonged. His actions are, therefore, the frustrating results of being rejected by both African and American society. It leaves a somber tone during the finale when T’Challa says to the fatally wounded Killmonger, “Maybe we could heal you,” and Killmonger bitterly responds by saying death is better than the bondage of being locked up. This is a character who could have been saved, misguided as he was, and Black Panther asks viewers to consider how.
Killmonger’s character was born out of rage, despair and fear. He alludes to many of the social justice issues currently debated in the United States. This movie’s call for change and social justice is not a violent one. The revolution Black Panther calls for is one of perspective and healing. African culture and its diaspora should no longer be seen a threat or as inferior to other cultures. The first step of social, cultural and racial healing is to love oneself and then to love, help and appreciate others.
Black power and pride does not or should not promote the hatred of other races, groups or ethnicities. It celebrates the uniqueness and resilience of its people. It is real and tangible. The black nation is carried within its people. Then there are days when something like Black Panther comes along, with a promise of survival and better days. It calls out for people to defend what is true, fighting back against traders whose self-hatred gives way to selfishness. The people of this nation should not fight against one another.
There is no brick-for-brick Wakanda in the modern world, but that does not mean that this nation cannot exist. Some parents posted online about their experiences of telling their children that Wakanda does not exist. It has no physical place, but it is carried within its people. This is the innovative African culture that creates, grows and helps wherever it is planted. The technology of Wakanda is the same technology that invented gospel, jazz, hip-hop and other such innovations. It has a beating and living heart, as tangible as the African drum.
With the release of Black Panther, the celebration of black history does not have to be limited to a single month. Black Panther is a movie that not only celebrates the optics of the African diaspora, but the resilience and creativity of its people. There is such a thing as a mental slavery, and the film offers a perspective of what could have been without its physical manifestation. Black Panther calls for a reclamation and unification for the culture, heritage and birthright it celebrates.
In the allusion to the Black Panther movement, there is a sense of protection, community, education and self-help. The members of the movement especially fought against self-harm and promoted health and wellness.
The artistic and moralistic beauty of this movie will not only be heralded during Black History Month, but during every month of the year, and for all time.
There is no need for African-Americans to migrate to Haiti or Liberia or other parts of Africa, as previously suggested. Wakanda resides inside its people. Just as Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s bronze sculpture “Ethiopia Awakening,” Black Panther calls for black viewers to wake up.
The singer Solange Knowles, in her “Interlude: Tina Taught Me,” speaks toward the importance of celebrating black culture, as music plays in the background. She says, “It really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being Black. And that if you do then it’s considered ‘Anti-White.’ No. You are just ‘Pro-Black.’ And that’s okay.” Her argument holds that the only purpose of the “reverse racism” claim is in the suppression of pride. Just like Solange, Black Panther calls for black pride in its costumes, characters, humor and heroes. And it expresses a kingdom that lives within the people who are given a chance to celebrate themselves.