‘Black Panther’ and the New Expectation of Black Excellence

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‘Black Panther’ and the New Expectation of Black Excellence

Angélique Roché

With the film's release, Black people are once again seeing a future that inspires us at a time when we need it most.

Since the announcement that the Black Panther was going to get a movie three years ago, after the character’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War, I have seen the momentum for the project build from a quiet curiosity of what a movie starring a Black superhero would look like to an overpowering roar of excitement from people all around the world.

If someone asked me a few years ago who my favorite science fiction character was—particularly if the question was prefaced with the qualifier, “of color”—my mind, like many women of my generation and my mother’s generation, would go directly to Lt. Nyota Uhura (“Uhura” meaning “freedom” in Swahili) of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Not just because the incomparable Nichelle Nichols played the most recognized voice in space, but because she was THE representation of Black excellence as it existed on television, and later on movie screens. It is not an exaggeration to say that people of color, whether characters or actors in sci-fi television or film, are still lacking within the mainstream narrative. And if they are present, many are slapped into the story as one-dimensional afterthoughts based on stereotypes, failing to portray the complexities of people of color.

Beyond being an amazing presence—not a janitor or mechanic, but a Starfleet officer—who made decisions that affected the lives of everyone on the ship, Lt. Uhura made a profound impact in real life, first appearing in 1966, two years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That impact included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who specifically allowed his children to stay up late to watch the show, to “see themselves” depicted in a peaceful future; and Mae Jemison, who was inspired to become an astronaut and the first Black woman to go into space. To quote Nichols’ recollection of her conversation with Dr. King, “You have the first important non-traditional, non-stereotypical role for a Black woman on television.” Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura was more than just a science-fiction character; she represented possibility in the middle of our country’s fight over integration and civil rights, at a time when the possibilities for many people of color were limited or non-existent.

Since Lt. Uhura, there arguably haven’t been characters that have made a real-world impact as deep as hers—until now. With the release of Black Panther, Black people are once again seeing a future that inspires us at a time when we need it most. From Marvel’s decision to hire Oakland native Ryan Coogler—who wrote and directed Fruitvale Station and Creed—to the subsequent hiring of one of the most beautiful Black casts and crews in superhero movie history, Black Panther has gone from the small introduction of a supporting character in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966 by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to what can only be likened to our generation’s cinematic Barack Obama.

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The film was released during Black History Month, in the second year of Trump. It comes in the aftermath of white nationalist actions like the deadly Charlottesville protest; as police who have brutally murdered people of color continue to be acquitted; and as the country’s president continuously devalues women, promotes xenophobia and racism, degrades African Americans, and calls countries in the African diaspora “shitholes.” Given all that, it isn’t a stretch to say we, people of color—in particular Black folks—need to see the possibility of a future that inspires us filled with strong positive images that look like us.

Black people, many without even knowing a thing about Black Panther or its comic book origins, have galvanized around this movie in a way the world hasn’t seen before.  Months before the premiere, Black Panther was already breaking records for the highest number of pre-sale tickets for a Marvel feature and inspiring communities to take the #BlackPantherChallenge, selling out theaters around the country.

Even teachers in my hometown of Port Allen, Louisiana, made donations to ensure that their students could afford the school’s trip to see the movie on opening day. They wanted their students to be able to see themselves in the faces of not just T’Challa the king, but his sister Shuri the scientist, Okoye the fierce and feminine general, Nakia the social justice-driven spy, Killmonger the militant MIT graduate, and M’Baku the humorous and proud warrior. I could not be more excited that we have come together to support a movie that depicts Black people in a light like no other mainstream movie ever has. More importantly, we have rallied behind a movie that showcases brilliant, independent thinking and physically strong Black women characters living in an egalitarian society of unconquered Black folks who proudly hold their heads high. They are literally living the dream.

In a recent interview with NPR, the playwright and actress Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye—the leader of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s all-woman personal guard—said, “I’ve always felt blessed to be a part of this because I could understand the response, in the sense that this is imagery and narrative that many of us have yearned for.”

“I know, being a black woman who’s from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I’ve yearned for this type of imagery,” said Gurira.

While some folks have argued that Black Panther is “just a movie,” I challenge those people to think back to the characters and stories that inspired them as a child. They should then ask themselves when, where, how, and if people of color were represented and how that impacted them. Now, contrast that to the powerful imagery of women warriors in red, the multi-dimensional character development of two kings with vastly different ideals battling for the same cause, and a well-crafted narrative that includes joy, love, and loss. All these things bring to life the world of Wakanda, a place where Black people are in all of the leadership positions, living in an uncolonized and technologically advanced ecosystem of their own design. Much like the image of Nichelle Nichols on the Enterprise, there is a power in that unapologetically Black representation, in seeing ourselves in roles that make decisions, as leaders and protectors, as creators and inventors.

It is also clear that the creation of this movie was done with profound love, respect, and desire for cultural authenticity. In fact, Wakanda already has its own 500-page history, created by set designer Hannah Beachler, whose previous work includes Lemonade and Moonlight. From the costumes and the set, to the soundtrack and the immense attention paid to honoring African accents and symbolism, the cast and crew of Black Panther have created a world that exudes Black pride outside of the typical western cultural hegemony.

So, as thousands of people continue to see Black Panther—whether for the first, second, or third time—I am hopeful that this movie will show people, young and old, that we too can build a world that honors our past and allows us to lead our communities into a positive future. Where Black women can be strong, and brilliant Black people can harness the power of science to heal others and strengthen Black communities around the world. That, like Nichelle Nichols inspiring astronauts and peacemakers, the next generation of leaders will speak of how this movie inspired them to reach for the stars.

Topics and Tags:

Black Panther, Movies, Politics, Race