Black Panther,’ starring Chadwick Boseman, movie is a revolutionary step forward for black superheroes – and superhero movies overall.
Literally from the jump, director Ryan Coogler and Co. make it clear that we will be watching a black superhero fully in control and completely occupying the center-stage spotlight. Watch Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War, and you’ll see a charismatic character who fills a void in the conflicted do-gooder group. Watch the new trailer, however – the one that dropped months ago for his stand-alone film – and you’ll see someone with the arrogance of Shaft, the coolness of Obama and the hot-headed impulsiveness of Kanye West. This T’Challa is accessible, awe-inspiring and perhaps most importantly, human. “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does truly mean to be African?'” the filmmaker recently told Rolling Stone. “The MCU has set itself in the real world as much as possible – so what does it mean for T’Challa to move around as this black man in a movie reality that tries to be a real world?”
All of which means that, after decades of trying to nail the modern black superhero, we may finally be getting what we’ve asked for – and getting it right. This journey hasn’t been without effort. The Blaxploitation films in the 1970s gave black audiences their own heroes: Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Coffy, Slaughter, Foxy Brown. They were inner-city vigilantes, detectives, nurses and ex-cons that waged anti-establishment wars against authority, drugs, gangs and corruption – one-man (or woman) hit-squads operating against the real-world political backdrop of Nixon’s “law and order” campaign. Occasionally, movies like Shaft Goes to Africa, where Richard Roundtree wears an African dashiki and is equipped with a large unassuming staff that’s a piece of advanced tech, and Dolemite (that broad hat, that flashy suit pimp-style outfit) had their protagonists don something like costumes and adopt something close to alter-egos to mete out justice.
These black men and women didn’t cower in the face of danger, white power or guns; their combination of sex appeal and swagger made many audiences fall in love with them. To say that mileage may vary among these portraits of sticking it to the Man would be putting it mildly. But in hindsight, you can see how the Blaxploitation movies influenced a generation of black musicians and artists by selling a profoundly Afrocentric image, as well as spawning a legacy that can be seen in everything from hip-hop to stand-up comedy. And though the Black Panther first appeared during the Civil Rights era, the main wave of black superheroes that followed – think Luke Cage, Black Lightning, the Falcon, Storm of the X-Men – were children of the Blaxploitation age. They just weren’t getting screen time. At all.
Even Blade’s success wasn’t enough to get more top-tier black superheroes films on the big screen. Audiences had to be content with Halle Berry’s African-born mutant superhero Storm, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon – strong performances that still had the whiff of consolation prizes. Hollywood grapevine chatter pondered if Will Smith could play Captain America and Donald Glover campaigned to be cast as Spider-Man; cue widespread backlash from a largely white mainstream fan-base. The less said about poor Michael B. Jordan in that ill-conceived Fantastic Four reboot, the better.
Yet Black Panther already feels different from all of this. Coogler has set out to do something with the modern black superhero that all previous iterations have fallen short of doing: making it respectable, imaginative and powerful. The Afro-punk and Afrofuturism aesthetics, the unapologetic black swagger, the miniscule appearances from non-black characters – it’s an important resetting of a standard of what’s possible around creating a mythology for a black superhero. The trailers point to a new direction for depicting not only black superheroes, but also how we imagine our heroes. He’s not being played for laughs. He’s not a sidekick or born out of dire circumstances. His story, one of an ingrained birthright, legacy and royalty is a stark difference for how we tend to treat most black superheroes – and black superhero movies.
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about “the danger of a single story” – about Africa, about black brilliance, our humanity and the black experience for too long. There would never be a time when this movie’s creation wouldn’t mean something to black people in particular, and the inevitable backlash that this movie will receive for its celebration, existence and confidence in blackness will be a reminder that there are no new conversations, merely new opportunities to remind us of who we collectively are. Yet that won’t matter because the people this movie will speak most deeply to – a rainbow-coalition cross-section of black comic book readers, African-American movie audiences, Boseman/Jordan/Bassett/N’yongo fans, black-culture connoisseurs and pop-culture nerds – will see something of themselves in this movie. They will also likely be both familiar and resistant to the disdain it will receive for merely existing. Like anything black in America, Black Panther will be politicized for being black, which is to say for being and for announcing itself as a having a right to be here and to be heard.