I made a rare appearance at the theater last night, and rarer still, I purchased my favorite salty-sweet combination — popcorn and Sprite — my craving setting me back nearly fifteen bucks. (Such a purchase generally requires something along the lines of a leap of faith, i.e., that I step up to the concession and order without first checking to see what it will cost.) It was all to see Black Panther, in Columbus, Ohio, with my sister and brother-in-law.
I was truly spellbound by the film, riveted by the cool inversion of the generally accepted norm that white Western capitalist culture is the superior standard and the rightful model for modernity and beyond. There’s something innovative and new here, with this film, something that is refreshing. As director Ryan Cooglar put it, “The concept of an African story, with actors of African descent at the forefront, combined with the scale of modern franchise filmmaking, is something that hasn’t really been seen before. You feel like you’re getting the opportunity of seeing something fresh, being a part of something new, which I think all audiences want to experience regardless of whether they are of African descent or not.”
“Black Panther is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness.“
It’s only a film, so this is a temporary suspension of the dominant narrative of white supremacy. The film is a fictional story created within a fictional world, but of course this makes it no less real. Black Panther is a story and all stories hold within them the capacity to transform our perception of our world and of our place in the world. Carvell Wallace captures a bit about what this means to him and to other African-Americans and why “the black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding,” as news of the Black Panther film began to circulate in 2017:
“We know that there is no end to the reminders that our lives, our hearts, our personhoods are expendable. Yes, many nonblack people will say differently; they will declare their love for us, they will post Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela quotes one or two days a year. But the actions of our country and its collective society, and our experiences within it, speak unquestionably to the opposite. Love for black people isn’t just saying Oscar Grant should not be dead. Love for black people is Oscar Grant not being dead in the first place...”
The film suspends reality, as great fiction does, and opens a portal to a different way of being.
“Black Panther,” by contrast, is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture site focused on sci-fi and comic-book fandoms. These characters, she notes, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty” — the usual topics of acclaimed movies about the black experience.
The expectations around “Black Panther” remind me of the way I heard the elders in my family talking about the mini-series “Roots,” which aired on ABC in 1977. A multigenerational drama based on the best-selling book in which Alex Haley traced his own family history, “Roots” told the story of an African slave kidnapped and brought to America, and traced his progeny through over 100 years of American history. It was an attempt to claim for us a home, because to be black in America is to be both with and without one: You are told that you must honor this land, that to refuse this is tantamount to hatred — but you are also told that you do not belong here, that you are a burden, an animal, a slave. Haley, through research and narrative and a fair bit of invention, was..imagining our blackness as a thing with meaning and with lineage, with value and place…