“Black Panther” is more than a film. It carries the hopes of the global African diaspora

Coming soon.
Coming soon.
Image: Marvel Studios
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The buzz around Black Panther, Marvel’s first black superhero film, is palpable.  Weeks before it arrives in theaters, the film has already morphed into the joyous reprieve that black America—in fact, all of America—needs right now. Celebrities are buying out entire theaters in underserved communities so young black children can look up and finally see themselves as superheroes. But the hype doesn’t end at America’s border. Book clubs, comic fans, and movie lovers across the globe are coming together to host special screenings to watch the star-studded (and all black) cast.

The excitement has translated into impressive ticket pre-sales. The film, which will be released on Feb. 16, has already outpaced other superhero movies in advance ticket sales for Fandango’s online tickets service. The early reviews suggest the film is not only a “game-changing movie” for Marvel, but also well on its way to becoming a “defining cinematic moment” for on-screen racial and gender representation. But as hype for the film reaches a crescendo, so does a glaringly obvious question: can the film live up to expectations?

Black Panther has always carried a heavy burden—the only black person at the table (fictional or not) usually does. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first added Black Panther to the Marvel universe in 1966, not long before the Black Panther Party was founded in the US. T’Challa immediately felt the political pressure and in a Fantastic Four strip in the same year, tried to change his name to Black Leopard. Black Panther endured and in 2018, the film version of T’Challa is finally embracing his role as a black superhero.

The film is set in Wakanda, a fictional technologically advanced country in East Africa, which was never colonized (in fact, it was largely hidden from the rest of the world). For people of African descent, the kingdom of Wakanda finally brings a searing question—what if the colonists hadn’t arrived and Africa had been allowed to develop unencumbered by international influence?—to the big screen.

The character T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is the country’s leader whose powers come from his intelligence, his ancestral knowledge, access to advanced technologies, and, of course, wealth—which all turn him into the Black Panther superhero. Then there’s Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, the film’s main antagonist. And the film’s impressive roster of female characters: Dora Milaje, the all-female personal guards of the Black Panther and lead scientist and T’Challa’s sister Shuri (the smartest person within the Marvel universe), played by Letitia Wright; all shatter expectations of a black women’s role in a superhero film. The movie is, as one Guardian columnist succinctly puts it, a “both a celebration of blackness and perfectly timed political commentary.”

Early reviews of the film emphasize the importance of representation—the simple joy of looking up and seeing yourself on-screen. The film’s costar Sterling K. Brown spoke not only of his excitement that his sons will get to see a black superhero on-screen, but that white children also have black heroes that they want to emulate.

More importantly, the black characters aren’t merely token. The film has been lauded for its gripping, yet complex exploration of identity, pain, and power.

The burden of hope

“What do you know about Wakanda?” Andy Serkis’ villainous Klaw asks. “It’s a third world country—textiles, shepherds, cool outfits,” responds a clueless Everett Ross, played by Martin Freeman.

This type of cinematic stereotype has endured in films about Africa for generations—and made African audiences groan, knowing that Hollywood producers never considered that their films may be seen by actual Africans. Black Panther is a radical break from that, as it not only acknowledges contemporary African neo-colonial politics—the film’s villains want to pillage Wakanda’s natural resources—but this actually drives the plot of the film.

The producers of the film made sure to include many elements of contemporary Africa to make it feel like the fantasy kingdom could almost be real. Trailers show the cast dressed in traditional African clothing (even if it is a mix of very different cultures) and audiences in South Africa are waiting to hear the moment when T’Challa and his father speak isiXhosa to each other, a South African language known for its complex, almost melodic clicks. This, along with the several African actors in the cast, has pulled African audiences into the hype, so much so that Nigerians, Kenyans and others are planning to wear their best traditional gear to the premiere.

The film’s worldwide appeal among black audiences may end up becoming its undoing. Long devoid of representation, people of African descent are looking to Black Panther and hoping to see glimpses of themselves. But with black lives and experiences differing significantly from Europe, the US, and Africa, Black Panther finds itself in an impossible conundrum of trying to live up to everyone’s vision of what a black superhero should be.

There are already murmurings of whether a film produced in Hollywood is appropriating African cultural elements for commercial gain and cool costumes. Then there is the trepidation about Boseman’s African accent since American actors have a history of butchering African accents into a generic, unrecognizable mish-mash. When a South African journalist criticized the fact the movie was largely filmed in Atlanta, US (see Tweet below), he was branded ridiculous and roundly dismissed by some Americans. The debate around filming locations highlights the differing expectations between fans across the world.

Black Panther brings new audiences to Marvel’s cinematic universe, but the film also has to please the traditional superhero geeks who have made franchises like The Avengers instant commercial successes. Thor and Tony Stark didn’t have the burden of being a social commentary in the Trump era. Wonder Woman may know something about that, but even she didn’t have to fit an identity that is at once universally recognizable and hyper-local as black characters do.