BLACK PANTHER has become more than just a movie. While the story of T’Challa is one of a superhero defending his fictitious homeland, his struggles breach the screen.  For a film that achieved such depth and reliability, we have to look closely and break down every facet of its creation and presentation.

I’ll be explaining the incredible cultural significance of BLACK PANTHER, especially in how it relates to the black community. In a time where representation is finally a consideration in media, understanding the importance of having people of color in a non-stereotypical spotlight is the only way representation stays a consideration in media.

Passion Through Afro-futurism

There’s a motif throughout all of BLACK PANTHER. Some young black kids play basketball in a worn down court, enjoying an afternoon. They hastily run up and down one side of the court, passing the ball for an open shot. Finally, someone sees a path, and one team drives the ball for an easy layup into a wooden basket.

The worn down court lacks a net. All of a sudden, they drop the ball and stare upward at a futuristic-looking flying vehicle as is shoots off away from them. While these scenes have plot importance that I won’t get into, this imagery is why movies like BLACK PANTHER ignite feelings of inspiration. Seeing something you previously thought non-existent instantly shatters your conception of the world.

Marvel Entertainment, 2018.

Suddenly, it is no longer a question of if something exists, it is only a matter of how. This is the backbone of Afro-futurism in films. We’re able to visualize a sliver of reality wherein colonization did not ravage the world. Wakanda is a futuristic society that retains a culture usually stolen by imperialism and European exceptionalism.

Such a society is smart enough to not only be technologically advanced but knows to conceal itself. Minorities of any kind will understand this double consciousness. Some have to be aware of not only how they act, but also how those around them will perceive that action.

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This discussion of BLACK PANTHER has no spoilers. What I want to do is highlight the experience of the film. Beyond that, I think it is essential to understand that BLACK PANTHER is more than just a film to a large percentage of the millions turning out in droves to see it.

The Importance of Support and Marketing

One reason this received massive attention compared to something like, say, LUKE CAGE, has to do with its released. Marketing pushes accompany Marvel Cinematic releases. These usually come in the form of commercials or sneak peaks, but BLACK PANTHER was different.

Having Kendrick Lamar release an album inspired by the movie was another way BLACK PANTHER linked with the black community. Kendrick is the perfect rapper to spit bar after bar of black excellence on nearly every track. Rather than advertise in usual ways and only snag existing fans, BLACK PANTHER attracted new watchers.

This also extends to the actors in the film and how they appear. As most people probably know, nearly every major character in the film is black. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION) was a perfect addition to a black cast. I can only recall two white characters that were at all relevant. Because of this, the promotional material showed the black presence of Wakanda rather than one superhero.

The cast of BLACK PANTHER on a promotional poster.
This promotional image includes eight black characters, something hardly ever seen in superhero films | Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Following that poster’s appearance in theaters, hundreds posted it online. For people not used to seeing representation outside of stereotypical roles, this was huge. I can hardly begin to describe the immense elation I felt seeing people that looked like me promoted that way.

While other major black films exist, the world of superheroes brings with it a sense of, no pun intended, marvel. This marketing that let me pose for pictures in front of BLACK PANTHER posters while blasting a BLACK PANTHER hip-hop album was terrific. The monetary and market support was unprecedented, and that was the objective difference between this and advertising for other films with many black actors.

Collective Responses

Apart from the movie itself, the collective response made seeing BLACK PANTHER an entire experience. Thousands of special screenings, brunches, and events were planned. Communities rallied around each other to quickly organize via social media. In some cases, celebrities, community organizations, and even just groups of people bought out whole theaters.

Even those who couldn’t spare money for movie tickets had the chance to watch BLACK PANTHER. This fostered a tremendous sense of racial cohesion even stronger than what the film created. Just looking at the screen and seeing all black faces felt empowering. Being able to then look around a theater and see more black faces as happy as I was made that feeling even stronger.

Black families donned African clothing, some relatively tribal, and some from BLACK PANTHER. For many African Americans, there is no clear line to one particular country of origin. Surprise surprise, but slave traders didn’t bother to keep track of heritage as they embarked on horrific voyages across the Atlantic with captured Africans.

Due to this, a lot of black Americans struggle to link to African heritage of any particular kind and opt for a generalist approach. Wakanda helps this by being a fictitious place. Black individuals could don clothing of almost any sort. Some wore elaborate furs, some dashiki’s, and others costumes emblematic of the Black Panther Party.

Author Blair Imani poses with others in African inspired and Black Panther Party costumes
Author Blair Imani poses with others in African inspired and Black Panther Party costumes | Image from Twitter user @Blair Imani

Certain parts of the humor in BLACK PANTHER is entirely tacit, and a lot of jokes are received differently if you’re also black. So, when nearly every seat had someone black in it, there was incredible cohesion in the experience. Subsidized tickets and buyouts made filling theaters easy.

Political Connections

For movies like this, the inherent political connections further inundated the theater. Usually, movies with major black heroes usually set them against all white villains. In BLACK PANTHER, the struggles of the film are mostly internal. This is especially significant for two reasons. One, it privileges the agency and autonomy of black individuals rather than framing their actions around their white counterparts. And two, it creates immediate connections to the mindset of even villains that makes it possible to relate to any character on a racial level.

Blackness is and always will be an ontological register. It makes itself known on the surface before anything else can reveal itself. Because of that, people of color watching BLACK PANTHER can immediately frame the conflicting ideologies of the film around themselves, not white oppressors. In fact, no one in BLACK PANTHER wants to harm white people directly; they just want to help oppressed communities of color.

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Without getting into spoilers, BLACK PANTHER contrasts isolationist black nationalism with radical Afro-pessimism. The former wants to protect Wakanda from external risk while the latter wants to reject the outside world and replace it with the good from Wakanda. These are not always totally at odds and are both understandable and important in present contexts.

Movements like Black Lives Matter constantly have to weigh things like this. Sometimes, actions that are beneficial for one community are harmful to the movement, and vice versa. Themes of equality, access, and sharing wealth link BLACK PANTHER to the real world. While most people watching probably haven’t studied politics, the link is super intuitive. For an Afro-futurist society, maintaining this connection makes the movie enjoyable even beyond how entertaining it is.

Why Representation In These Contexts Matter

Recall the motif. The mental awakening from seeing something done that you never thought possible is powerful. When a country is able to use incredible resources and remain hidden for centuries, the impetus of that success can only be one thing. Blackness and African culture. Most people struggle even to conceptualize this, so having it crafted and made into film is enormous.

Most people know that a nation as technologically advanced as Wakanda will likely never exist. However, knowing that BLACK PANTHER and real African nations share a cultural history is significant. After all, a stunted tree that would usually grow to hundreds of feet tall will be higher than regular trees. This same mindset inspired civil rights leaders in the 20th century as they saw African nations slowly loosen the grip of colonialism.

Marvel Entertainment, 2018.

For black Americans and all minorities really, victory can involve a lot of resistance. By creating broad themes of succeeding in a world where the cards are stacked against you, BLACK PANTHER harkens to the same feeling that lets black people strive for a better world every day. Truly, films like this extol the idea that we shall overcome, and that we shall overcome by any means necessary.

The voices that shout in opposition to hundreds of years of institutional racism are often shouted rather than whispered. BLACK PANTHER is like a megaphone. By bringing these ideas to the forefront of people’s minds in the form of entertainment, it makes them easy to digest. There is an internal dialogue on the proper path to equality, and this movie informs it quite well.

Wishing for More Films like BLACK PANTHER

At the time of this publication, BLACK PANTHER had successfully achieved the best opening weekend of any Marvel solo movie. People who barely step foot in movie theaters gladly braved the cold to come out. Internet trolls tried their best to spread racist articles and lower the films ratings, all to no avail. Like Black Panther himself, the black community struck back against every impediment to this movie’s success and made cinematic opening history in the process. This is an example of the infinite potential of people of color today.

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It’s high time we stop separating the political from entertainment. When someone recognized primarily as a tabloid figure and tv celebrity sits in the White House, we can’t keep lying to ourselves. The world is intersecting more and more in increasingly critical ways. Otherizing blackness denies movements the power they need. Telling the world that personal struggles can’t be discussed in often white controlled industries is uniquely harmful.

Afrofuturism on the rise with well-known musicians like Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, and Beyonce weaving it into songs. These are essential concepts that deserve discussion. I strongly encourage everyone who can to visit a theater and catch sight of their very own Spaceship Bugatti.

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