The Cultural Importance of Marvel’s Black Panther

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Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

My preparation for the release of Black Panther, really the preparation of all of my close friends and family, likely many of yours as well, has less to do with anticipation of what we will see on screen, and nearly everything to do with the very real fact that the film exists.

This preparation in what to wear, who to go with, how many times to see the film, who to commiserate with on social media…all stem from the very important space occupied by a film about a fictional African king and hero, from a fictional African nation, in a fictional grand comic book universe.

Black Panther, above all else, represents an opportunity for a community to experience itself as being fully realized in public. On screen. A self-contained world where the ruler, the hero, the loves, the society, the ways…all look and believe and know like they do. It is rather unique, and thus exciting, to know that Black men, women and children, will be the focus of the tale. Not sidekicks, or adjuncts. Central. Fully meaningful. Opportunities such as these are few for Black people. Anywhere in the diaspora.

Black Panther is important for the meditative space it will provide. There will be a time where many will lapse into feelings of self-love. Feelings that aren’t typically promoted in media. As a Black person, you are allowed to see all of the most flawed versions of your family, but rarely can you see a broad version of your best.

This film, once you begin to peel at its layers, is pressing Afrofuturism. A vision of a future that has a Black face, body and mind, that is felt and known in all three dimensions of much of Black life. The Dora Milaje are nurturers, warriors, partners and friends. That is precisely how much of the Black community experiences our mothers, sisters, lovers and neighbors. It houses a young man learning his way in the world, fighting outside influence…these are all stories out of the journal of Black life, anywhere. Made real. With an adventure as a backdrop.

The importance of Black Panther, its excitement, its allure, is in its most critical meaning. That it can be shared with our neighbors of all backgrounds, but it is ultimately about us. Not just one of us, being a superpowered hero somewhere in Africa, but one of us. A person. Black, and strong. Supported. Experiencing all that every other human person can.

And do understand, that is an important distinction, as our lives are often portrayed in marginalized and limited ways. While an Marvel entity, the social experience around the movement toward this film’s release feels like it is a community property. It is ours.

There will be those who will suggest, from their view, that it is simply a film. They would be having only part of the conversation. There is a history and a psychology to consider. Rarely are there opportunities for the overall Black community to see itself represented fully, unashamedly, in full view of our nation family. This will be a real live party. Two hours worth of enjoying our skin, where we typically have to survive being in it.

This film is a powerful tool as a seed. Seeing the enthusiasm, the wide eyed joy, that many are experiencing as it draws near, suggests that there will be more opportunities on grand stages for art with central Black characters and stories. Like this one, they can be told and crafted by Black creators and crafts people. It represents a simple chance to suggest to the necessary powers and thinkers that our community can be painted across all media with as wide a storytelling arc as possible. On screen, on page, wherever we are, we can be represented in all human pursuits.

Some of my neighbors in other communities will be uncomfortable with this level of celebration and pageantry. They will look to pick the film apart critically. They will opine that all of this noise for a film that won’t change anything “in the grand scheme” is unwarranted. I would respond that none of those concerns is a relevant one. Not in this moment. What matters most now is what is coming. A film about us, that we have made for us, that all of them, all of you, get to share with us. Because, do know that we have made it ours. It is a community feast, and all are invited. It is best to leave any misgivings at home.

The world outside of Wakanda will be in the backdrop, just as we all know that we will return to real life in over two hours after the film starts. Just as we know that all of the racial and supremacist, and oppressive ills of the world will be waiting, so will T’Challa and his people be ready for them. It is not so much fiction, as it is considered a music video for the kind of efforts Black people feel we must often make to face the world each day.

And there is where the connection is. The central human one. Where comics, and heroes represent a projection of us. An idealized version of us. In those pages, and on those screens are moments to escape our doubt and fear, to see someone we attach ourselves to, face the issues and falter, as we do, and name those fears, and strike at them, with it all on the line. For the human psyche, that is a kind of therapy. We all, all of us, everywhere, want for that to be us.

But in this moment, just here, with Black Panther, this is for us. It is the time for a Black man who is now king, and Black women who are powerful, and Black children to have a land of their own to name, to know that this will be us on screen. And that has so much hopeful and personal meaning. A soil we are not often allowed to plant our beliefs in. Here, we can escape to it.

And you all get to venture off with us. You are most welcome. Wipe your feet before entering and having a seat. Appreciate what you are seeing. Let us go.

Written by: Napoleon Wells

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